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August 13, 2019

Razzia sur la Chnouf

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Henri Decoin - 1955
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

The title translates as "Raid on the Dope". It's the second of two films starring Jean Gabin using French slang in the title, the other being Touchez pas au grisbi ("Don't touch the loot'). Also on hand is Lino Ventura, who would be seen again with Gabin in other crime films. More importantly for Gabin, this is one of the films that helped return the actor to commercial viability mostly in roles as a top gangster or maverick cop.

Gabin appears as Henri, a former associate of an Italian named gangster, returning from the U.S. to France in order to re-organize the languishing heroin trade. He first meets up with his French boss, Liski, who provides the names on the various employees. Henri's job is not only to make sure sales quotas are met but also employ two thugs who act as enforcers for those proving less than reliable. Henri's cover is a fashionable piano bar. Of interest to cineastes is that Liski is played by Marcel Dalio, Gabin's co-star in Jean Renoir's Rules of the Game, from seventeen years earlier.

According to director and film historian Bertrand Tavernier, Henri Decoin was unfairly dismissed with other French directors of his generation primarily due to the inconsistency of his work, some of which was clearly simply for hire. Tavernier also points out how Decoin was able to take what he learned directly from Hollywood directors onto his own work. This is most obvious in some of the more violent scenes, such as the use of a shot that is almost subliminal when the thugs' victim is beat up. The image of a getaway car's windshield cracked by a bullet anticipates as similar image in Bonnie and Clyde. A shot that first appears to be tilted is revealed to be of a mirror when the camera pulls back. Tavernier compares Decoin to Raoul Walsh in how he films action, not an inapt comparison.

What really struck me was Decoin's depiction of drug addiction and a multicultural Paris, unusual for a French film made in 1955, and unthinkable for Hollywood at that time. Lea, a drug dealer looking older than her years, snorts heroin off her hand in a well-lit bar. A group of men presumably from North Africa gather in their own little bar, smoking marijuana. Lea, who's attempts to bed Henri are rebuffed, seeks solace with a shirtless African, seen performing a solo dance, the camera framing the movement of his hips. One of the other dealers is Chinese, with his own opium den. There is also some dialogue indicating that one of the drug dealers is in a relationship with his male companion. Another unusual feature is the jazzy film score by Marc Lanjean, with arrangements by twenty-three year old Michel Legrand - his first film credit.

In his commentary track, Nick Pinkerton gives Decoin short shrift, relying primarily on an overview of Decoin's career from the French film criticism magazine Positif. In terms of evaluating Decoin, at this time Razzia is the only film available for accessible viewing for English language viewers. One of the problems with discussing some older French films and filmmakers is that the dismissals made by the Cahiers du Cinema critics have been taken at face value, with a handful of those directors only more recently getting fairer reassessments. Where the commentary is more helpful is pointing out some of the actors, especially the less familiar supporting players. Pinkerton also discusses the connection between some of the French films of the 1930s with those of the 1950s, especially in connection with the novels by Georges Simenon. In the case of Razzia, the author of the source novel, Auguste Le Breton also appears as a small time hood named Auguste Le Breton. There is also a connection to The French Connection with a brief appearance by Marcel Bozzuffi. The print source appears to have been in pristine condition with beautifully rendered images. Most of the film takes place at night with a sky that is pitch black. This is French film noir at its blackest.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:56 AM

August 06, 2019

The Girl in the Fog

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La ragazza nella nebbia
Donato Carrisi - 2017
Icarus Films Home Video R1 DVD

The Italian mystery writer, Donato Carrisi, has made his filmmaking debut, adapting one of his own novels into film. Carrisi's efforts were considered good enough that he was awarded the 2017 David di Donatello award, Italy's version of the Oscars, for Best New Director. I've not read the source novel so I am unable to comment on any changes. Carrisi does demonstrate visual flair, with the only weak spot being the final would-be twist at the end which should only surprise viewers not paying attention to several verbal and visual clues.

The story takes place in a small village in the Italian Alps where the residents all seem to know each other, and what tourist industry existed has virtually evaporated. A high school age girl, Anna Lou, has disappeared just prior to Christmas. Celebrity detective Vogel has taken on the case, bringing with him a small army of journalists and investigators. Vogel has become something of a reality television star. He is dogged by possibly misidentifying a serial bomber who was eventually found innocent. Vogel is intent on solving the mystery of Anna Lou, even at the cost of his reputation.

The first image is of Anna's house in the fog. The haze, the flatness, and limited nighttime colors initial make the image look like an illustration. Some of the other exterior shots give the impression of cardboard houses on an artificial studio set. The fog even carries over to the interior sets. There are also images within the shots, often of televisions set to the news, but also computer screens, and a VHS tape. These images within the image bring up the questions regarding the trustworthiness of what is supposedly documented. Carrisi also divides some of the sequences with overhead shots of a model version of the village, akin to something created from a fairy tale wooden toy shop. The village is pointedly remote, with the residents deliberately keeping themselves at a distance from aspects associated with life in the major cities. There are moments when Vogel appears to be visiting an alien landscape.

Carrisi uses a good number of overhead shots, as well as slow dolly shots, with the camera moving in or away from his characters. Most of the narrative is a series of flashbacks of Vogel's initial investigation from his point of view, as well as a sub-plot of Vogel's suspect. The actual mystery, or perhaps I should say mysteries, are subordinate to the themes of how public images are manipulated, and how an anonymous crowd response to those images.

Toni Servillo stars here as Vogel. Best known for his award winning performance in The Great Beauty, Servillo brings from that film the continued sense of someone world weary, who has seen and done everything, for whom nothing is new. Jean Reno appears as a psychiatrist with whom Vogel discusses the case, as part of an unofficial return to the scene of the crime. A virtually unrecognizable Greta Scacchi has a small role as a journalist whose decades long investigation suggest new clues.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:43 AM

August 01, 2019

Ladyworld

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Amanda Kramer - 2018
Cleopatra Entertainment

Amanda Kramer has mentioned The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and Repulsion as two films that were key influences on her own feature debut. Ladyworld is about eight women attending a birthday celebration, trapped after an earthquake encloses the house of the hostess. The influence of Fassbinder is the more obvious with the all female cast.

Food and water are limited. There is no electricity, nor cell phone service. The hostess, Olivia, attempts to have some sense of organization, with meetings held, and speaking determined by whomever is holding the designated piece of crystal. One of the eight girls mysteriously disappears. There is also concern about an unseen man who is supposedly stalking the young women. Four of the women for their own clique, with heavy eye brows, smeared kohl around the eyes, excessive lipstick, and splotches of white powder on the cheeks. There are territorial disputes and personal grudges. The breakdowns and schisms become more extreme, yet there is a point where you wonder if the young women actually want to escape.

What I did find most interesting in Ladyworld was the soundtrack. Rather than a traditional use of music, there are what sounds like the mewing of cats, squawking of birds, and electronic and industrial sounds. Between the abstract sounds and the ambiguous ending is the sense that what transpires should perhaps not be taken totally at face value. The use of sound recalls Luis Bunuel's use of cat's mewing in Belle de Jour. Here, instead of indicating what may or may not be a dream, the sounds are more suggestive of the tensions between the characters. That the film can be interpreted on different levels is to the credit of Ms. Kramer. One thing is certain, when push comes to shove, literally, these young women are hardly ladies.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:49 AM