Alain Delon on FilmStruck

July 19, 2017

FilmStruck is currently running a feature on Alain Delon, so I thought it would be fun to make a little guide to their lineup. I decided to divide my recommendations into two separate lists. The first is the Fangirl Kate list, the second is the Serious About Cinema list.

If you're interested in watching his films because you want to gawk at his icy blue eyes and unreal bone structure (have you seen those cheekbones?) then the Fangirl Kate list is the one for you. If you're more set on checking out his impressive filmography, seeing his perfect performances in films by the likes of Antonioni, Visconti, and Melville, then you'll want to scroll down to my Serious About Cinema list. And if you're interested in both (*raises hand*) then you can just watch them all! I should note that neither of my lists include the film Swann in Love (1984) since it's one of the few remaining Alain films that I have yet to see. I should also note that these recommendations are only based on the films FilmStruck is currently offering, not Alain's full filmography.

Before I begin, here is the list of films currently streaming as part of FilmStruck's Alain Delon feature: Le Samourai, Rocco and His Brothers, Purple Noon, Spirits of the Dead, Christine, L'Eclisse, Farewell Friend, Le Cercle Rouge, Un Flic, Deux hommes dans la ville, Swann in Love. Of these films, only Le Samourai, L'Eclisse, Purple Noon, Spirits of the Dead, and Swann in Love are part of the permanent Criterion Collection. The rest will expire when the feature ends so if you're interested in those, watch them quickly! If rarity is a factor, try to check out Christine and Rocco and his Brothers while you can because they can be hard to find.

1. Purple Noon (1961) The original film version of The Talented Mr. Ripley with Alain in the role of Tom. He slides so effortlessly between playing a meek tagalong and a brooding pillar of confidence, it's terrifying and wonderful at the same time. If I had to pick one movie in which this beautiful actor looked his MOST beautiful, it would probably be Purple Noon. Like, if you've seen photos of him on twitter or tumblr and thought "man, that guy is HOT, I should check out his movies sometime based on this one factor" this is your movie, and it WILL get you hooked for life. Everybody has their own preferences and favorites but personally I cannot think of any movie I've ever seen where a man looked better than Alain does in Purple Noon.

I was torn between including this in my "fangirl" section or my "serious" section since it's really an A+ movie, one of my favorite foreign films, and a super taut thriller, but one look at this face and there's really not even any question. I mean...

2. L'Eclisse (1962) I once read a review of this film that said something like "If two people as beautiful as Alain Delon and Monica Vitti have trouble finding love, there's no hope for the rest of us." L'Eclisse follows their doomed love affair from its slow awkward start to its sudden fizzle, while we absorb all of the sad beauty from the comfort of our own average lives. This could easily fit into my "serious about cinema" category as well. But even if you're not really into Antonioni movies and all the symbols and existential emptiness that come with them, it's worth it for this face.

3. Christine (1958) baby Alain Delon and baby Romy Schneider in their first film together! *aww* This is a tragic love triangle (actually more like love polygon!) period drama, and Alain is so beautiful here it's really hard to believe he's actually the same species as the rest of us. This isn't one of my favorite Alain films, but it's fun to watch since it's the film where Alain and Romy met and fell in love. And I have to recommend it if only because I spent two years trying to find a copy of the film with English subtitles. And now it's streaming on FilmStruck, so you can easily watch it! Don't pass up that opportunity!

4. Farewell, Friend (1968) This is, strangely, one of my favorite Alain Delon movies. The film starts off kind of weird (There's a bunch of rich men pretending a prostitute is a pull-string doll? It's... uncomfortable) but it's not long before Alain and Charles Bronson are stuck in a room together after Alain's reverse heist (that's when you plan an elaborate break-in to return something, not to steal something!) goes awry. I love a good heist movie, whether that involves stealing something or, in this case, not, and I love it even more when you pare down the cast and have two actors carry the whole movie. Finally, the reason this one got sorted into the Fangirl Kate section:

1. Le Samourai (1967) This movie is in my top 4 films of all time. Alain's first teaming with frequent director Jean-Pierre Melville, this is often considered (and rightly so) the best movie either of them ever made. This is a very quiet movie (literally no dialogue for the first ~20 minutes!) about a lone assassin and a hit job gone wrong. Every single move -- of the actors, of the camera -- is meticulous. It's just such a perfectly constructed movie, reminiscent of film noir but with a decidedly 60's French touch. Not only is this a great introduction to Alain Delon's filmography, I think it's a great introduction to French cinema as a whole.

2. Deux hommes dans la ville (1973) Alain plays a reformed criminal who wants to go straight, but keeps getting harassed by the guy who locked him up a decade earlier. It's clearly inspired by Les Miserables, but set in a modern-day France that was still, horrifyingly, using the guillotine. I've written about this one on my blog before, and you can read the post here. I mention this in the other post but it bears repeating -- Alain Delon's eye acting here is just The Tops. Towards the end there's a whole scene that relies on him and Jean Gabin exchanging looks, no words, and it pierces your heart.

3. Le Cercle Rouge (1970) One of the best heist sequences in the history of film. I personally think it outdoes Rififi, it's that good. This was Alain's second collaboration with director Jean-Pierre Melville after Le Samourai, and it's just as taut, with painstaking attention to details and a plot that comes full... circle. Alain is a tour de force of calm and cool, and Yves Montand turns in a meaty performance as a former cop with a case of DTs, who has to get clean to help with the heist.

4. Rocco and his Brothers (1960) Here Alain plays the most pure, sweet thing that's ever lived, who falls for his brother's former flame. It's got boxing, heartbreak, and everything in between. I've revisited almost every Alain Delon film that I've watched so far, but I have yet to revisit this one. It's a good movie, I recommend it, and it's quality with a capital Q. But it's so brutal. You guys know I'm not a happy ending girl, I love movies that are sad and depressing, but this one is like the cinematic equivalent of a gut-punch. I'd suggest watching it if you've never seen it before, if only to see Alain Delon and Annie Girardot give exquisite performances, but man. It's been almost two years since I saw this for the first time and I still get sad thinking about it.

Lastly, a few notes about the other films in the feature:

Spirits of the Dead (1968) This is an anthology film based on stories by Edgar Allan Poe, where each vignette was directed by a different director. Louis Malle helms the Alain Delon/Brigitte Bardot story, and it's very good (plus you get Alain Delon x2!) It just made me wish that Malle and Delon had teamed up for a full-length feature! But I am scarred for life by the Roger Vadim segment which pairs Jane Fonda and Peter Fonda as lovers. I can't unsee it.

Un Flic (1972) A heist film where Richard Crenna is a nightclub owner/robber, and Alain Delon plays the friend/cop who has to catch him. It's very good and Catherine Denueve is the third part of the love triangle in the film. (ps. Another great Delon/Denueve pairing is Le Choc, which I wrote about here.) This was Alain's third teaming with Jean-Pierre Melville, and Melville's last film. I personally think it's the lesser of the three, but it has another fantastic heist sequence and even Melville's lesser films are greater than most directors' best films.

And that wraps up my recommendations! I hope if you haven't dabbled in Delon before that this post will spark some interest, or at least help you decide where to start. In the future I'll try to do a similar post with his films that are available on DVD for anyone who misses out on this FilmStruck feature.

The Pied Piper (1972)

July 05, 2017

Warning - there are pictures and gifs of rats in this post. Just a heads up in case that unsettles you! 

My favorite historical time period is the Middle Ages, particularly the time of the Black Death. I honestly can't explain why, but it's fascinated me ever since I was in high school. So you can understand how excited I was when I stumbled upon The Pied Piper -- a 1972 film directed by Jacques Demy, starring Donovan. Yes, you read that right, a movie about the Black Death directed by the Frenchman who brought us Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Donkey Skin, starring the Scottish folk singer Donovan. It almost sounded too good to be true.

The Pied Piper is a British release, shot in England and on location in Germany. It recounts the story -- albeit with a few modern twists -- of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. The legend varies, but pretty much every version begins with a rat infestation in the town of Hamelin, Germany. The townspeople ask a piper to rid the town of the rats in exchange for money, but once he succeeds in doing so they refuse to pay him. Seeking retribution, he comes back to the town and lures the children away from their parents.

Nowadays when we think about plague we tend to associate it entirely with the 14th century pandemic. While that outbreak was certainly the worst, plague was actually a consistent problem throughout the last millennia -- in fact it still is, in certain parts of the world. And although the exact link between rats and sickness wasn't discovered until the last century (spoiler alert - it's the fleas!) people recognized that there was a connection early on. When the town of Hamelin was overrun with rats, they knew that the pestilence couldn't be far behind, which is why they enlisted the help of that infamous piper.

Over time, most stories about The Pied Piper of Hamelin have morphed into a Black-Death-era tale, even though the legend pre-dated The Black Death by about six decades. This film also sets the tale during that most notorious scourge, which definitely works for this particular recounting of the story. (Although I'm going to be super nerdy and point out that "the year of the black death" is slightly inaccurate since it started in January 1348 and lasted through at least 1351.) For our characters, living in 1349 Hamelin instead of the more accurate 1284, plague is everywhere. The world seems to be ending, every town in the vicinity has become infested, and the mere sight of a rat strikes panic into the heart of the villagers. Each scene is imbued with a sense of frenetic urgency, since plague looms in the distance, ready to strike at any minute.

Overall the film lacks the visual punch that Demy has become known for -- this is no Young Girls of Rochefort -- but while the overall color palette may be less saturated, there are still plenty of visuals that have Demy-esque flair. I think one of the things that set Demy apart is his eye for poetic compositions and offbeat fairy-tale-like details. Seeing him put those talents to use in a film about one of the most depressing eras in human history is incredibly amusing.

When the movie begins, we are introduced to a troupe of traveling actors who traverse the countryside in a wagon with a biblical painted backdrop attached to the side. This scene of the medieval mural rolling through the forest was definitely evocative of Demy's normal style. The actors are looking to decamp in a new town, and they make a disturbing discovery in the first village they come upon...

They quickly hightail it out of there, and head for Hamelin. Along the way they pick up Donovan, the titular character in our medieval tale.

It was uncanny how well Donovan fit into the 14th century setting. I'm not a music scholar by any means, but it's my understanding that a lot of folk songs can trace their roots back to medieval music. One of my favorite Marianne Faithfull songs, Scarborough Fair, is thought to originate from the time of the Black Death, and uses a scale called the Dorian Mode. I found this youtube video on the Dorian Mode very informative, even for a layperson like myself. To my untrained ears, Donovan's songs fit right in with this style and seemed to be perfectly suited to the era of the Pied Piper.

I especially loved his song "What a Waste of Time to be Unhappy" (you can listen to it on youtube here) and his groovy painted guitar. One of the fun things about this grey color palette is that when bright color is introduced it really stands out and adds a lot of visual interest to the film.

When they arrive, Hamelin is under quarantine. Lisa, the daughter of the Burgermeister, is sick. The Jewish apothecary reassures the Burgermeister that it's just a fever, but the priests are positive it's plague (despite no symptoms of plague... eye roll) and insist upon giving her her last rites. Then Donovan's music wafts into her room and, like magic, her health improves. The Burgermeister invites the piper into the town so that he can visit his daughter and cure her in time for her impending marriage to Franz, the son of the Baron, played by John Hurt.

Cathryn Harrison was only 13 when she played 32-year-old Hurt's betrothed, which is totally normal if you're going for feudal accuracy. Luckily their onscreen relationship is incredibly chaste -- I don't think they even touch at any point, let alone kiss. It still feels very icky to see this part of the story unfold, but Demy handles it well. The wedding itself is a condemnation of the church-assigned role of women in Catholic history, Hurt is consistently portrayed as a Thing from which we want her to escape, and (spoiler) the ending of the film reminds us that Lisa was still a child, and she deserved an innocent, blithe childhood free from marriage, pestilence, and the influence of the greedy immoral adults in her village.

Although the wedding scene is decidedly depressing and unpleasant, it does give us one of the most Demy-like settings in the movie. Set against a backdrop of flowers and greenery, Lisa and Franz stand upon a blue and white polka dotted altar while three priests dressed in head-to-toe red preside over the ceremony. It would appear that the wealthier wedding guests broke out their most colorful duds for the occasion, ranging from priestly reds to intense purples. In 14th century Germany purple dye would have been a rare commodity, so it speaks to the wealth of the wearer and the importance of the occasion that multiple guests were wearing the rich hue.

My favorite part of the film was the wedding party sequence. First they bring out a whole swan for the feast. If you love swans, like I do, it's definitely heartbreaking to think about people feasting on one, but there's no denying that the imagery of this beautiful bird being served on a flower-adorned tray is something out of a fairy tale.

The composition here is lovely. It perfectly captures the calm before the storm, for any minute now, the wedding cake will be carried into the dining hall. An edible pint-sized replica of the cathedral that Franz's father is paying to build to ensure that he stays on God's good side, the cake is a symbol of the trust that construction of the church will save the town from the plague. It represents Hamelin's belief that a combination of wealth and piety can protect them from God's wrath.

But the cake is filled with rats. Hundreds of rats. Before long they're on the tables, eating the wedding banquet and chasing the guests from the room. All that remains is the child bride, watching the rodent display unfold around her before she quietly gets up and exits the room alone.

What follows is an interesting spin on the legend of the Pied Piper. Here he is not portrayed as a vindictive child-murderer, but a savior figure who rescues the children from all of the troubles that befall medieval youth, like child marriage or a lethal bite from a tainted flea. As he leads them away from the plague-infested village, they slowly fade into the sunrise -- turning this classic legend into a mythical fable.

I also want to note that this film deals very directly with antisemitism. Michael Hordern plays the Jewish apothecary who correctly diagnosed Lisa near the start of the film. He is the smartest man in town, probably the most honest, and definitely their safest bet at actually preventing plague. I'm not usually a fan of period films foreshadowing history, but I had to chuckle when he lamented that he knew rats were harbingers of plague but *shakes fist at the ceiling* if only we knew WHY!

When the apothecary is unable to find a cure or prevent the plague in a timely manner (it would be another 500 years before the first plague vaccine was developed by Alexandre Yersin in 1896, but yeah, give the guy two days to come up with something) they accuse him of bringing rats into the city and spreading disease. He's convicted of witchcraft and burned at the stake.

His death is intercut with images of Donovan leading the children out of the town, thereby implying that the children weren't only being saved from the impending pestilence, but also from religious extremism. This kind of backwards thinking was rampant during the time of the Black Death. Jews were often accused of poisoning well water and spreading plague. Because they bathed more often and washed corpses before burial, their communities were often less affected by plague than Christian communities that didn't have the same strict hygiene laws. Excessive antisemitism combined with an ignorance about germs and bacteria festered into anti-Jewish violence throughout Europe. Over 500 Jewish communities were destroyed during this period, and I was very impressed that The Pied Piper included this aspect of medieval history in the film, since it is often overlooked.

I'm incredibly pleased that I discovered this film. It exceeded my expectations and proved to be a very entertaining, visually interesting movie, grounded in humanism and a benevolent message that, for a movie taking place in 1349, is still incredibly relevant to this day.

Celluloid and Canvas - Gina Lollobrigida - Part I

July 04, 2017

Gina painting in high school in 1947

Today is Gina Lollobrigida's 90th birthday, so I thought I would pay tribute by devoting a Celluloid and Canvas post to Gina's offscreen talents. Originally I was going to include her sculpture and photography in one single post but there's just so much to cover that I decided to break it up into two parts. This post is dedicated to her sculpture, and I'll have a second post up soon with her photos.

Although she has been working on her artwork since she was still active in film -- one of the earliest sculptures pictured on her website is a bust of her son that was created in 1957 -- for last three decades, Gina Lollobrigida has devoted herself full time to sculpting. According to her website, she undertakes every step in the process herself, "from the initial idea to the preparation, from the clay modeling and wax finishing touches to the final bronze casting. She has personally worked on the finishing of the most delicate parts, handling milling cutters and emery papers like a skilled worker, up to the gilding in 24-carat gold."

Her work is traditional in style, but it has a 20th century twist, as it is often inspired by her work in movies. The piece that she is working on in the photo below was inspired by her role as Sheba in the 1959 biblical epic Solomon and Sheba. Not only is she a multi-talented artist, but she found a way to merge her various talents into singular pieces of art.

Gina's sculpture of Marilyn Monroe

Below you can see the progression of Gina's Esmerelda piece. First she created a three foot tall piece, then a five foot tall piece (not pictured) before scaling up to create the massive 17 foot tall sculpture you see in the last two photos. I would love to see this one in person!