Buddies

(USA 1985)

Initially, nothing about Buddies jumps out as remarkable. I never heard of the film, screenwriter/director Arthur J. Bressan Jr., or anyone involved. It feels like it was thrown together and pumped out in a matter of days, like a porn. At best, it’s as if Ed Wood were aiming for Jean-Luc Godard; at worst, early John Waters doing an Afterschool Special.

Technically, it’s messy. The camerawork is choppy, darting crudely from character to character. The script is amateur, preachy, and at times emotionally manipulative. Except for a few scenes, the acting is stiff and overdone, like a Fifties B-movie or a soap opera.

All that said, well … I’ll borrow a term from a different and much later movement: it gets better. This film really got to me. For all its low budget shortcomings, Buddies packs an emotional whollop. Truth and heartfelt sincerity shine through, and they go a long way in making the sum here much greater than its parts.

The film follows David Bennett (David Schachter), a Manhattan guppy in what appears to be a happy but bland and maybe safe monogamous relationship, who volunteers to be a “buddy” for another gay man, Robert Willow (Geoff Edholm). Robert is dying in an AIDS ward. As a buddy, David is there to offer a helping hand or an open ear with the hope of ensuring that Robert doesn’t feel forgotten (https://www.villagevoice.com/2018/06/18/buddies-remains-an-urgently-moving-study-of-life-and-death-in-the-aids-era/).

At first, their interactions are uncomfortable and perfunctory; this is usually how it goes when trying to connect with a total stranger. The two don’t have all that much in common: David is quiet, cautious, and reserved; Robert is out, spirited, and definitely someone who has been around the block. Tinged with an outlying jealousy and perhaps a scintilla of superiority, David finds Robert to be too much: all his talk about sex and politics (not to mention his rage) turns him off. David isn’t invested in this relationship, forced as it is.

The ice breaks when Robert tells David about the love of his life. Touched and maybe finally able to relate, David opens up and starts listening to what Robert tells him.

I didn’t quite care for where Bressan ultimately took David. Still, he (Bressan, not David) is an astute observer of human nature. He touches on attitudes that tend to prevail when one person in a relationship is, shall we say, in a better position than the other, and he demonstrates how judgment can rear its ugly head. I like that Robert is unapologetic, which redeems him in the end.

Buddies is a film that takes on significance once you consider its historical perspective. It was the first American feature film to address the burgeoning AIDS crisis, back when it was called a “gay disease” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_J._Bressan_Jr.). It deals with AIDS head on, and it did so during Reagan’s first term. If it feels slapped together, there’s a reason for it — Bressan, a fairly prominent porn director, was dying when he made it. His sense of urgency is palpable.

This screening, a brand new digital restoration, was the first one we attended at Reeling. It is a fitting choice because Buddies was the same festival’s opener the year it was released (http://reelingfilmfestival.org/2018/films/buddies/).

With Damon Hairston, Joyce Korn, Billy Lux, David Rose, Libby Saines, Susan Schneider, Tracy Vivat

Production: Film and Video Workshop

Distribution: New Line Cinema, Vinegar Syndrome

81 minutes
Not rated

(Landmark Century) B-

Reeling International Film Festival

La Chinoise

(France 1967)

“Okay, it’s fiction. But it brings me closer to reality.”

— Véronique

Set in the context of the New Left movement in late 1960s France, Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise is not really about the political ideas it raises — many of which seem relevant today. No, at its core is Godard satirizing the idealism of youth.

Structured as a mockumentary in what undoubtedly is an intentionally scrappy art school style, La Chinoise is a series of “interviews” of five middle class college students about their Maoist terrorist organization. Headquartered in a loft apartment in a suburb of Paris, they named their organization “Aden Arabie” after a novel by French communist Paul Nizan.

The apartment, all done up in primary colors like a Piet Mondrian painting, is owned by one of the members’ parents.

Véronique (Anne Wiazemsky, who sadly died exactly a week before the screening I attended) (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/05/obituaries/anne-wiazemsky-french-film-star-and-novelist-dies-at-70.html) is the bossy leader, a philosophy student from a family of bankers. She’s involved with Guillaume (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a “theatrical actor.” Yvonne (Juliet Berto) grew up on a farm and works as a housekeeper and occasional hooker. She’s involved with Henri (Michel Semeniako), a writer who protests and publishes essays. Serge Kirilov (Lex de Bruijin) is a Russian nihilist who is single and suicidal.

La Chinoise is dense with ramblings about social and economic philosophy, politics, and literature. However, Godard uses all of it to make his point: these are kids who are still naïve and don’t fully grasp what they say they stand for. He shows them running around with toy weapons, playing school, and acting out scenes from books in the apartment, often cutting to pictures of comic book and cartoon characters. The joke is pretty funny when you consider the bourgeois backgrounds of the kids.

A conversation between Véronique and French philosopher Francis Jeanson on a train best illustrates Godard’s point: he asks a series of questions challenging her proposal to blow up the university in an effort to expose the flaws in her plan — and maybe get her to question her motives and the depth of her conviction. It goes over her head. So much for carrying pictures of Chairman Mao.

Side note: Claude Channes’s song “Mao-Mao” features prominently here. It’s a nifty little earworm.

With Omar Blondin Diop

Production: Anouchka Films, Les Productions de la Guéville, Athos Films, Parc Film, Simar Films

Distribution: Athos Films (France), Pennebaker Films (United States), Kino Lorber

96 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) C+

https://www.kinolorber.com/film/view/id/1111

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

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

Band of Outsiders [Bande à part]

(France 1964)

Jean-Luc Godard’s adaptation of Fool’s Gold, a 1958 novel by American author Dolores Hitchens. Two bad boys, Franz (Sami Frey) and Arthur (Claude Brasseur) convince Odile (Anna Karina), a pretty but simple classmate  in their ESL course, to aid and abet their robbery of her sponsor (Georges Staquet). Beautiful black and white shots of mid-Sixties Paris, old cars and clothes, and an iconic dance scene (not to mention a nine-minute long run-through tour of the Louvre) are big pluses. However, the overall pace was too slow and the plot uninteresting for my post-Modern sensibilities. Godard himself called it his least favorite film of his, so it’s not just me. Whew.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) C-

https://www.criterion.com/films/291-band-of-outsiders