Funeral Parade of Roses [Bara no Sōretsu]

(Japan 1969)

Funeral Parade of Roses [薔薇の葬列] is an intriguing film for a few reasons. Clearly influenced by the French New Wave, writer and director Toshio Matsumoto comes up with something simultaneously ordinary yet avant-garde, very much a product of its time yet years ahead. It’s extraordinarily cool.

Structured as a movie within a movie, Funeral Parade of Roses follows Tokyo “gay boy” Eddie (Pîtâ a.k.a. Peter) through his many exploits as a young transvestite immersed in the underground club scene. He might even be a hooker. Meanwhile, he’s carrying on a secret affair with Jimi (Yoshimi Jô), the boyfriend of club elder statesperson and fellow gay boy Leda (Osamu Ogasawara). Leda is onto them. Oh, the drama it creates!

While all this is going on, a camera crew records Eddie as though this were The Real World or Truth or Dare.

As Eddie ponders who he is — and looks to alcohol, group sex, drugs, and lots of attention from others for answers — Matsumoto explores “queer identity” through him. He intersperses interviews, flashbacks, episodes with Eddie’s mother (Emiko Azuma), and even a musical diversion or two to offer clues. A crazy subplot develops, and it references Oedipus in a tacky and sad but clever way.

Clumsy in its exploration of “gay life” and downright disturbing at points, Funeral Parade of Roses is nonetheless fun to watch. Shot in gorgeous black and white, it has an otherworldly feel. When it’s not nihilistic, it’s kitschy and entertaining — almost in a nascent John Waters way, just not quite as rough. The clothes are mod. The music is heavy on classical. The ending, sudden and bloody, is really messed up.

I’m not sure what exactly Matsumoto is saying here — a lot is open to interpretation — or that I agree with him. Either way, I enjoyed the journey.

With Yoshio Tsuchiya, Toyosaburo Uchiyama, Don Madrid, Koichi Nakamura, Chieko Kobayashi, Shōtarō Akiyama, Kiyoshi Awazu, Flamenco Umeji, Saako Oota, Tarô Manji, Mikio Shibayama, Wataru Hikonagi, Fuchisumi Gomi, Yô Satô, Keiichi Takenaga, Hôsei Komatsu

Production: Art Theatre Guild, Matsumoto Production Company

Distribution: Art Theatre Guild, Image Forum (Japan), Cinelicious Pics (USA)

105 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B+

The 400 Blows [Les Quatre-cents coups]

(France 1959)

Childhood is fertile ground for storytelling. Usually, the stories that sell are heavily nostalgic and sweet, but the more interesting ones tend to come from a darker past. French New Wave pioneer François Truffaut’s autobiographical film The 400 Blows is the latter.

Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is a prepubescent boy experiencing an existential crisis. At home, something is bubbling between his parents, mother Gilberte (Claire Maurier) and stepfather Julien (Albert Rémy). At school, a contemptible teacher known as “Sourpuss” (Guy Decomble) has him pegged as a troublemaker.

Antoine cuts class one day with his friend René (Patrick Auffay). They walk around, catch a movie, and enjoy a carnival ride—the Rotor, a cylindrical room that spins and the floor drops out, causing the riders to “stick” to the walls due to centrifugal force. While they’re running around, Antoine sees his mother kissing some man on the street. She sees Antoine, but it’s too late.

The next day, Antoine makes up an excuse for his absence: he says his mother died. It doesn’t work. After a few incidents involving Balzac, a fire, running away from home, and a stolen typewriter, Antoine winds up at a reform school.

Some New Wave films are hard to follow or quite simply just boring to watch. Not so with The 400 Blows, and this is because of quite a few factors.

The narrative is definitely loose. Like all New Wave films, what happens isn’t as important as what the director is showing us. Here, though, the plot is straightforward and sticks to a more traditional structure even if it doesn’t have a true “climax” or a single moment of reckoning. Truffaut gives us some really great scenes in this movie, not the least of which is this one:

400 Blows paddywagon.jpg

The 400 Blows is realistic and personal; it unfolds like something literally happening right before us. The acting, which doesn’t come off as scripted at all, is probably the biggest boon for this; the acting style is totally naturalistic. That said, Henri Decaë’s camerawork is a major contribution as well. He shoots on the streets of Paris using hand-held equipment, which allows him to get right up in front of the action. That’s likely a product of an independent low-budget film, but intentional or not The 400 Blows is so much better as a result; this film would not work the same way without Decaë.

Truffaut makes us empathize with Antoine. He’s not a bad kid; his behavior is no worse than his classmates or the adults around him. He’s made out to be one, though. The sad part is that he believes it. He clearly sees that there’s more to life than the little spot he occupies, but he’s not better off after he tries to be. At the end of the film, I want to be on the beach with him to tell him he’ll be okay.

As for the nonsensical title, I didn’t realize that it’s a literal English translation of the French idiom “faire les quatre cents coups”, which means “to raise hell.” Now that I know that, the title totally makes sense.

Nominated for an Oscar for its screenplay by Truffaut and Marcel Moussy (https://www.oscars.org/oscars/ceremonies/1960), The 400 Blows is a movie that consistently ends up on many “must see” lists. There’s a reason it’s considered a landmark film. It’s hard to believe this is Truffaut’s first film.

With Georges Flamant, Pierre Repp, Daniel Couturier, Luc Andrieux, Robert Beauvais, Yvonne Claudie, Marius Laurey, Claude Mansard, Jacques Monod, Henri Virlojeux, Jeanne Moreau, Jean-Claude Brialy, François Nocher, Richard Kanayan, Renaud Fontanarosa, Michel Girard, Henry Moati, Bernard Abbou, Jean-François Bergouignan, Jacques Demy, François Truffaut, Philippe De Broca, Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Michel Lesignor

Production: Les Films du Carrosse

Distribution: Cocinor, MK2 Films, Janus Films (USA), Criterion (USA)

93 minutes
Not rated

(iTunes rental) A-

Breathless [Á bout de souffle]

(France 1960)

“After all, I’m an asshole.”

—Michel Poiccard

The third time is a charm: after seeing Jean Luc-Godard’s first full length feature film, Breathless, I now understand the love-meh relationship I have with his work.

On one hand, he’s got a remarkable grasp of human behavior and what motivates it. He’s got a snarky sense of humor. He’s stylish. His technique is gutsy for a lot of reasons. His characters are flawed. His subject matter is cool. He knows how to make a film look pretty, and most of them might as well be deemed official historical documents of the places where they were shot. Seeing a Godard film is like traveling back in time, an incidental bonus he probably never considered. I love all of this.

For all his strengths, on the other hand, a Godard film can be so damned…boring. Merde!

Fortunately, that’s not quite the case with Breathless, which I actually enjoyed. Godard and François Truffaut developed the story—I won’t call it a script or a screenplay because they made up much of it as they went along. Plot is always a loose construct with Godard, but there’s enough of one here to follow along fairly easily. Ugly cute guy (or is he a cute ugly guy?) Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a drifter car thief who fancies himself a French Humphrey Bogart, steals a car and drives it through the countryside. He shots and kills a policeman who pursues him.

With nowhere else to go, he heads straight to his American girl, Patricia (Jean Seberg), an expat student who sells a newspaper, the now defunct New York Herald Tribune, on the Champs-Élysées—that’s kind of weird—and writes articles here and there. She brings Michel to her apartment, where he hides out. He doesn’t mention anything to her about what happened. They get it on, or at least it’s implied that they do. She’s tells him she’s pregnant. One extended scene involves them lying around, talking.

Michel becomes a marked man, which he discovers soon enough after he leaves the apartment with Patricia and sees a newspaper with a headline about him. I won’t ruin the ending, but it doesn’t bode well for him—especially after Godard himself sees Michel.

Breathless is a psuedo noir thriller that’s low on action but loaded with morally vacant characters who lack any redeeming qualities. There’s a nihilistic sexiness to it. The narrative moves along in a jazzy free-form way, and the imagery here is every bit a part of the story as the characters. The ending is not a happy one. If nothing else, Breathless is a visual stunner—black and white cinematic candy. The restored digital version I saw literally glowed.

I can handle more films like this one.

With Daniel Boulanger, Henri-Jacques Huet, Roger Hanin, Van Doude, Liliane David, Michel Fabre, Jean-Pierre Melville, Claude Mansard, Jean-Luc Godard, Richard Balducci, Jacques Rivette

Production: Les Films Impéria, Les Productions Georges de Beauregard, Société Nouvelle de Cinématographie (SNC)

Distribution: Films Georges de Beauregard, Les Films Impéria, Société Nouvelle de Cinématographie (SNC), Euro International Film (EIA) (Italy), Pallas Filmverleih (West Germany), British Lion Film Corporation (UK), Cinematográfica Azteca (Mexico), Ciné Vog Films (Belgium), Wivefilm (Sweden), Films Around the World (USA), Rialto Pictures (USA), Criterion Collection (USA)

90 minutes
Not rated

(iTunes rental) B

http://www.jean-lucgodard.com/films.html

https://www.criterion.com/films/268-breathless

Bakushū [Early Summer]

(Japan 1951)

After a presentation of shorts, the George Eastman Museum kicked off its third annual Nitrate Picture Show with a Japanese drama, Yasujirō Ozu’s quiet and gracefully understated Bakushū [麦秋]. In the context of midcentury Japan, Ozu explores the generational clash between tradition and progress, and both the possibilities and the casualties brought on by the latter. Opening with something that deals with changing values was an interesting choice on multiple levels.

Noriko (Setsuko Hara) lives in postwar Tokyo with her parents, Shūkichi (Ichirō Sugai) and Shige (Chieko Higashiyama); her older brother, physician Kōichi (Chishū Ryū); his wife, Fumiko (Kuniko Miyake); and their two unruly young sons, Minoru (Zen Murase) and Isamu (Isao Shirosawa). Noriko earns her own living as a secretary and contributes to the household, maintaining her own active social life. She seems happy, or at least content. Still, her more conventional family is concerned because she’s 28 years old and still isn’t married.

Noriko is a good sport about her family members’ not-so-subtle reminders, but the heat intensifies when an elderly uncle (Kokuten Kōdō) stays for a visit. Her chauvinistic boss (Shūji Sano) plays matchmaker, introducing her to Mr. Matanabe, a business associate in his 40s (all of his interactions occur off camera, so we never see him). He proposes. Naturally, Noriko’s family pushes her to accept his offer, which she considers even though the prospect doesn’t excite her.

Enter childhood friend, Kenkichi (Hiroshi Nihon’yanagi), who returns to the neighborhood with his daughter. He’s a widow in between job assignments. Noriko suddenly develops her own idea about which path she wants to take, much to the dismay of her family.

Bakushū is not a kinetic film—it’s slow, and the action centers on mundane routine activities like preparing meals, eating, conversing, working, and getting ready for bed. Some of the plot’s significant events aren’t even shown. Ozu favors low angles and wide, distant shots. He keeps the camera pretty still. He doesn’t use a lot of sets. On top of that, it takes some effort to keep track of the many characters.

Admittedly, I found myself zoning out at the beginning. Once I settled into Ozu’s rhythm, though, I got more interested in Bakushū. Some of the plot elements make the story seem slightly ahead of its time, but the core themes are universal. This is a family drama; the family unit ultimately falls apart, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. The family portrait at the end closes things on a bittersweet note. I sensed more than a nod to the burgeoning westernization of Japanese society.

Bakushū fits nicely into the midcentury films I’ve developed a taste for. I never heard of it or Ozu, but I’ve already looked him up. I’m interested in seeing more of his work. As for this print, it was in all likelihood the very first feature film I’ve ever seen on nitrate (we’re not counting the shorts). The picture was crisp, but I must confess: its quality didn’t wow me like some others I saw after this.

With Chikage Awashima, Kuniko Igawa, Haruko Sugimura, Seiji Miyaguchi

Production: Takeshi Yamamoto

Distribution: Shochiku Company Limited, The Voyager Company (USA), Janus Films (USA)

124 minutes
Not rated

(Dryden Theatre) B-

Nitrate Picture Show

We Won’t Grow Old Together [Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble]

(France 1972)

Maurice Pialat’s semiautobiographical second film, We Won’t Grow Old Together, is a dark love story marked by contempt and emotional cruelty. Jean (Jean Yanne) is an established middle-aged filmmaker carrying on an extramarital liaison with his much younger mistress, Catherine (Marlène Jobert). It isn’t clear how they met, how much time they spend with each other, or why they’re together. What’s clear is that their relationship is quickly coming to an end. Oh, but it’s sad when a love affair dies.

The relationship—an entanglement, really—is dysfunctional, to say the least. The two always seem to meet on the go (even though Jean’s wife and Catherine’s parents know about the affair). Their affection surfaces here and there, like when they go to the beach or take a dip in the Mediterranean. It never lasts long; whatever good time they have soon sours. Jean is arrogant, condescending, and mean. He tells Catherine she’s ugly, he shoves her away from him and publicly berates her for not holding a mic correctly while he’s filming a street scene, and he literally throws (OK, pushes) her and her things out of their motel room. He makes no attempt to hide the fact that Catherine’s visiting parents are an inconvenience. He’s a prick. The following is my favorite quote from the film, and it shows how mean Jean is to Catherine:

“You’ve never succeeded at anything and you never will. And do you know why? Because you are vulgar; irremediably vulgar. And not only are you vulgar, you are ordinary.”

Catherine is absolutely beautiful with a fabulous early ’70’s flair. However, she’s unambitious, ambivalent, and kind of crazy. She’s flighty. Jean seems to be the only thing she can see through to the end. Their personalities—indeed, their very identities—bring out the worst in each other.

Even though it was a hit in France during its original run, We Won’t Grow Old Together is not a film I imagine many people appreciating. It’s probably too blunt and ugly for mainstream tastes, especially today. Neither character has any redeeming qualities. In the French New Wave tradition, there isn’t much of a narrative here; the “story” is told through a collection scenes strung together that build a sense of doom. The action is repetitive: Catherine arrives, Jean eventually gets pissed and flies off the handle, they sort of reconcile, and Catherine takes off. Pialat is more interested in getting at a feeling or an experience than telling a story. He succeeds at cutting to the emotional core of an ugly breakup; his depiction is vivid and realistic even if it is extreme, and you feel Jean’s ultimate devastation. The final shot of Jean’s idealized memory of Catherine—beautiful, happy, and peacefully frolicking in the water—is a nice touch.

We Won’t Grow Old Together is hard to watch because it’s frankly brutal; but it’s precisely Pialat’s frank brutality that makes it brilliant.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) A-

A Married Woman [Une femme mariee]

(France 1964)

The original show about nothing, A Married Woman walks us through fragments of a day in the life of Charlotte (Macha Méril), a young wife torn between two lovers: her practical husband (Philippe Leroy) and her passionate, intellectual paramour (Bernard Noël). Apparently not in a hurry to choose one over the other, she’s thrown into a pickle when her doctor informs her she’s pregnant and she realizes that she doesn’t know which one is the father.

Heavy on closeups and dialogue, A Married Woman is thoroughly Modernist: more a treatise than a story, it delves into subjects like relationships, love, sex, morality, and the differences bewteen men and women through conversations that are practically interviews. Jean-Luc Godard stated that this film “attacks a certain mode of life; that of air conditioning, of the prefabricated, of advertising.” His sentiment is evident in all three yuppiesque main characters: they seem detached and adrift, oblivious to the impact their actions have on those around them. A Married Woman is sensual but not sexy, intimate but not warm, critical but not exactly moralistic, and clever but not always interesting.

It’s not all dour, though. Rita Maiden as the couple’s chatty housekeeper adds a priceless air of levity. A scene revealing Charlotte’s thoughts as she eavesdrops on two girls discussing sex at a cafe is hilarious if kinda mean. Gorgeous shots of midcentury Paris play like moving postcards. The little stuff here kept me engaged. I appreciate what Godard was getting at, but I found his execution ultimately underwhelming.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) C+

http://en.unifrance.org/movie/5416/a-married-woman