Sunday, June 29, 2008
This week I managed to catch a couple of the Jeanne Moreau films currently being screened at the National Film Theatre. Moreau is one of my favourite French actresses, and she also happens to star in three of my favourite films of all time, Louis Malle's L'Ascenseur pour L'Echafaud (1958) and François Truffaut's Jules et Jim (1962) and Luis Buñuel's Diary of a Chambermaid (1964)
The two films I saw this week are lesser-known: Malle's Le Feu Follet (1963) and Joseph Losey's Eva (1962). Le Feu Follet captures a similar sense of malaise and discontent that permeates his earlier film, but the two contrast in style. Whilst L'Ascenseur seduces the audience with its slick cinematography, heightened film noir feel, and stunning Miles Davis sountrack, Le Feu Follet is more subtle, more overtly troubling. Also, whilst Malle's earlier work is overtly cinematic, almost a pastiche of the film noir genre and the femme fatale figure (played exquisitely by Jeanne Moreau), Le Feu Follet is a moving portrayal of a troubled male protagonist, Alain. The film covers the period of time in which Alain copes with entering the real world after recovering from an alcohol addiction, from his dismissal from a private clinic to his tragic suicide. Compared to Malle's earlier feature, where she has centre-stage (encapsulated by the famous scene where her character walks the dark, rainy streets of Paris in desperate search of her doomed lover), Moreau has a very minor part in this film. But of course when she does appear on-screen as one of the protagonist's former lovers, her presence is captivating.
Eva, on the other hand, is rather a clumsy hotch-potch of a film - or at least at first appearances. Moving in places, yet verging on melodrama in others, most of all it is far too long. It tells the story of a Welshman (Stanley Baker), a writer and social climber from a working class background, who is ruined by his relationship with a cruel yet beautiful femme fatale (Jeanne Moreau, of course). Because of its length - at various instances I was convinced the dénouement was around the corner, but then another scene followed, and then another - it made for rather difficult viewing. Aside from some beautiful location shots of Venice, its foggy alleyways and the heady decadence of its bars, hotels and gambling joints, and almost a ciné-vérité feel at times (Peggy Guggenheim even makes a bespectacled appearance), it is Moreau's expressive, sensitive interpretation of the role saves the film from descending into melodrama. There is something about her face that is bewitching, with its capacity to light up with a flirtatious smile and suddenly switch to a piercing, malevolent glare, that allows her to bring complexity and mystery to every role she plays. Even in one scene, when she walks among some large, marble busts of historic figures with Baker in the early hours, talking to the statues in a wistful tone and moving her hands over the contours of their faces, Moreau retains her intriguing aura and keeps the viewer's interest. If a less-able actress had acted in this scene, it would have been painfully clichéd. So in the end, the film is more complex than its plot may have us believe. Like his Italian contemporaries, Antonioni, Risi, et al, Losey manages to convey a sense of emptiness, cruelty and deadly ambition beneath the veneer of glamour and elegance in high-society.
(images: Jeanne Moreau in Le Feu Follet, Jules et Jim and L'Ascenseur pour L'Echafaud)
Thursday, June 19, 2008
You may have noticed that my blog has gone back in time a bit. There are two reasons for this: firstly, I was too busy having a good time to write all of my NY experiences up as they were happening; secondly, I am being forced into taking it easy for once, as I've been unwell for the past week. The one plus-side of being ill is that you have more of a chance to sit back and reflect. And I definitely have a lot to be nostalgic about after nine frenetic New York months.
These are some drawings I did of my friend Milenna in a diner in Hell's Kitchen. Intending to visit the famous Hell's Kitchen market, we met at 14th street and bravely marched along 11th avenue to reach it, despite the savage wind blowing from the Hudson and our lack of umbrellas. Faced with the disappointingly meagre array of goods on offer at the market, we didn't stay long, and stallholders had already begun to close up due to the leaden sky. So instead, we huddleed up at a formica table in the diner across the street and ordered true diner fare, oatmeal and banana for myself and eggs benedict for Milenna. We ate, talked, made room for Milenna's friend Kobai and her visitors from Berlin when they arrived post-Ellis island, and sketched. Milenna, now used to me scribbling at any given social occasion, asked for a sheet from my pad and some crayons and joined in this time, to my delight. Despite the slightly dingy feel of a place that probably hasn't changed decor for at least fifteen years, the diner was brightened up by (real) flowers on the low windowsills and the late afternoon light streaming through the large windows. After a nice long break we set off downtown, via the huge H&M on 34th Street where we both wandered round collecting piles of garments, and surprised ourselves in the changing rooms to find we'd both picked out the same things.
Here are some paintings I did on a couple of sunny days in late New York springtime. It's amazing how the weather changes from biting cold to dazzling sunshine in a matter of days over there. The Greenwich paintings (the first two) were painted on the same afternoon, just up the road from the downtown Guggenheim offices where I used to work. I painted the Washington Square Park scene later, in early May, when all the students were fervently revising despite the gorgeous weather. It's a shame that the park is now under construction, but I found a nice, unspoiled corner with a good view of the red-brick NYU cottages and some lovely trees.
(Gardens of St.Luke in the Field with Cherry Blossom; Hudson Diner; Washington Square Park)
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
Last year it was Antonioni, this year it's Dino Risi - yet another great filmmaker from the heyday of Italian cinema passed away on Saturday. He died aged 91.
Risi may not be as well known internationally as Antonioni, whose beautifully slow, troubling films capture the malaise beneath the veneer of a new, booming Italy. Instead, Risi made a name for himself as the master of Commedia all'Italiana - a genre that includes sizzling titles such as Divorza all'Italiana (Divorce, Italian Style, 1961) by Pietro Germi, and his own Profumo di Donna (Scent of a Woman, 1974). However, Risi's critical masterpiece and now cult-classic is more in line with Antonioni's disqueting yet seductive take on modern Italy. It's called Il Sorpasso (The Easy Life, 1962), and tells the tragic story of a wealthy layabout (played beautifully by Vittorio Gassman) who encourages a hard-working young boy to abandon his books in favour of a day of fast cars and pretty women. I won't reveal the ending, but it comes as a sudden and nasty shock - the surface gloss gives way to deep cracks, and the viewer is left to wander the meaning of it all. Fellini's La Dolce Vita, made just two years before Gassman's film, carries a similar message, despite the glossy, über-cinematic quality of its mise-en-scène, with its stunning costumes, palazzos and swish nightclubs which shout 'Hollywood' and 'economic miracle' simultaneously. Along with Antonioni's L'Avventura (1960), set on the breathtaking Italian riviera, and Visconti's stunning period feature set in the fading aristocracy of Sicily, Il Gattopardo (The Leopard, 1963), these films capture the best of Italian cinema at the time. All four directors communicate a sense of the hidden loss that goes hand in hand with youth, beauty and modernisation.
Writing about all these wonderful films has given me the appetite to watch them all again - it's been too long.
(image: Il Sorpasso)
Monday, June 9, 2008
Ok, I admit it, these pics are actually from 3 weeks ago, when the stunning Kenwood rhodendrums were in full bloom. Now, sadly, the petals are already drying up and falling. But look at how they were then! I feel very lucky to live so near to Hampstead Heath, at least temporarily.