Continuing my Godard viewing I come to his second film Le Petit Soldat (1960 but not released until 1963) starring Michel Subor and Anna Karina. The reason for the three-year delay between the making and release of the film was due to the fact that the French Government banned it because of its sensitive political content. Subor plays a secret agent working for a shadowy group, funded by a prominent Vichy Minister, which is engaged in a war of terror against the Algerians (here called Arabs). The plot, which is a mere clothes-horse of little importance, has Subor’s character, Bruno Forestier, given orders to murder a Swiss professor with pro-Algerian views; he refuses, meets and falls in love with Karina’s character, Veronica (who we later learn is working for the Algerians); he is kidnapped and tortured by the Algerians; he escapes, Veronica is kidnapped and tortured by the French; Bruno is then blackmailed into killing the professor on the promise that Veronica will then be released, but he is betrayed and she is killed. It is important to emphasise again that any summary of this film (and probably of any Godard movie) which over-emphasises plot is hopelessly misleading ; even in purely temporal turns the climactic events occupy just a couple of minutes and many of them occur off-screen – Veronica’s torture and murder for instance – we are just informed of this by Bruno’s voice-over which is a constant. The film has a hypnotic power both visual and intellectual. I actually watched it twice, as immediately after the first viewing I fell ill and was not in a position to write it up. I am now convinced that while there clearly is a political angle to the movie, of much greater importance is the influence of Existentialism, a mode of thought which Godard was clearly heavily in debt to at the time. The key questions, constantly re-iterated, by Bruno are about liberty and choice and the connection of those things to his existence as an individual. How much liberty does he have? This is tested again and again and obviously his liberty is repeatedly denied – as when he is captured and tortured, or when he is repeatedly blackmailed by his French paymasters and superiors. Very near the start of the film, in a wonderful sequence set on a train, Bruno explains to us (the viewers) that up to that point in his life he has had no ideals. Perhaps on Kierkegaard’s terms he has been living a purely aesthetic existence? Perhaps in Sartre’s he has not really been making choices and has therefore not fully existed? The film could therefore be seen as his coming to life. All this is dramatised in lengthy conversations both interior (via the voice-over) and, probably most importantly, in two long conversations with Veronica, reminiscent of those in Breathless. Karina, who is of course to become so important as Godard’s muse and the ‘face of the New Wave’, makes her amazing debut here. She is one of those of whom it can truly be said the camera loves her. Godard emphasises this point by having the first long conversation scene take place as Bruno photographs her in her apartment. Godard and Karina married shortly after the film was completed. Geneva is far from the pleasant Paris of Breathless – it is often shadowy and oppressive, though this is relieved by several excursions into the country-side. In terms of the film’s politics it is clearly against the French involvement in Algeria – because as Veronica explains this is being done without ideals – but on the other hand, the fact that the Algerians only appear as torturers mean the film’s sympathies are hardly clear-cut; certainly a long way from Godard’s later political positions. The film is a very considerable development from Breathless in terms of the weight of content but we have certainly not reached Godard’s best. The fascination lies in the marriage of the continuously inventive visual style, the hand-held cameras for instance, and the constant intellectualising.
An essay at http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/cteq/01/19/soldat.html (which contains at least two errors – one a glaring one – the essay claims that the person Bruno is ordered to assassinate is ‘an extremist leader of the leftist Arab underground’ when it is made perfectly clear that he is just a sympathiser with no active role; the other error is more minor – it is to Haydn that Karina dances, Mozart having being specifically rejected) suggests that the film is ‘bleakly pessimistic’. I am very far being convinced about this. At the very end of the film Bruno tells us in voice-over that he has learned not to be bitter and that life lies ahead. In my reading of the film as to some extent existentialist parable, this indicates he has shaken off the chains of the past and is now a living human being in the sense that he has an awareness of choices and is thereby free (I do not mean to argue that I accept this existentialist view!). Whatever the case, it is my view that with this second film Godard really arrives as a major director because his visual invention and flair is married to content of some intellectual weight and fascination.
The Class (Entre les Murs) (2009) is a French movie directed by Laurent Cantet, but in which the more important creative force is Francois Begaudeau who wrote the book on which it is based and takes the leading role as a teacher at what in Britain would be called an ‘inner-city’ school. The film won the Golden Palm at Cannes, but this was certainly not for any brilliance in the direction although this is adequate and does all that is asked of it in the faux documentary style in which it is shot. Which is not to deny the film’s real power and quality. Indeed in this realist mode, of which I am not as a rule an enormous fan, it is a very considerable achievement. In many ways it is a pity that the French title was not more exactly translated because much of the power and achievement is based on the fact that every single minute of the action takes place within the school walls; the majority in Begaudeau’s classroom, but also in the staff room, various offices, the principal’s room and the schoolyard. The film gathers a great deal of its atmosphere from this somewhat claustrophobic, almost prison-like (and thus the prison movie sub-genre) feel. However, it is important to stress that for all the apparent naturalism the film is carefully structured and at a hectic pace; incident piles upon incident and the viewer becomes completely involved with every character and story. This is very much artistic realism however much it may strive to present the opposite appearance. There is, of course, absolutely nothing wrong with this approach. The film’s fascination is in the insight it gives into the French educational system from a sociological and cultural (and therefore political) viewpoint. One would have to say that from this viewpoint it is an extremely positive view of that system and especially the teachers. All of them, to greater or lesser degrees, are committed, dedicated, socially aware individuals doing their best in difficult circumstances. The system itself is, to an English eye, quite extraordinarily progressive with democratic processes for many decision-taking meetings. Indeed at the meeting at which pupil’s grades and merits are discussed the students themselves (and we are talking of a class of 13 and 14 year olds) have a couple of representatives. It is very hard not to see this extensive democracy (which would only appear in England at far left field private schools) as a result of the way in which French society has been informed and built upon repeated social and political upheavals and Revolutions from 1789 onwards. The entire film left the English viewer feeling that we live in an extremely backward society! Now the extent to which this is in fact ‘true’ it is impossible for me to judge, but one would say that repeated racial and social riots in France in recent years demonstrate that perhaps things are not quite as harmonious as suggested (or of course that the revolutionary impulses remain alive and well!). Not that the film suggests any sort of Elysium. This is clearly a class system in which the pupils lives are limited by poverty both social and financial (and in some cases perhaps cultural). Quite a few of the individual stories are tragic and the movie ends not with the uplifting story of the rebellious girl who considers school books ‘shit’ but has, in fact been reading Plato, but with the girl who says, despairingly, that she has learnt nothing. Nor is the film in the least hagiographic as far as Begaudeau’s character is concerned; he loses his temper, insults his pupils and thereby precipitates the incident in which a pupil is expelled (not only from the school but from France itself if his father has his way according to the film’s narrative). Nonetheless it can be argued that the film presents the teachers in an extremely flattering light – this may be wholly justified; I can only say that I doubt I would last half an hour! Most importantly of all this is not a film which suggests that education, however well-directed and well-intentioned, can in the end alter that much. This is the absolutely crucial difference from most Anglo-American films in the ‘inspirational teacher’ sub-genre. Of course this film is realistic in a way they are not, but more importantly its unspoken subtext is that nothing which happens within the walls is going to alter the huge disadvantages which these children will face outside the walls. Ultimately The Class for all its optimism about what can be done within the walls quite rightly offers nothing to suggest this will have a decisive effect outside them. These themes are developed within a film which is, as I have suggested, quite extraordinarily involving, and while its lack of cinematic brilliance prevents it from attaining the highest class is certainly very well-worth watching.
I took myself off to The Electric Cinema to see the restored print of The Godfather (1972). A word first on The Electric Cinema. According to its website this is the oldest working cinema in the UK having opened in 1909. It has however had a very chequered history since that time and has not operated continuously as a cinema – from 1931 to 1937 it was an amusement arcade. In my youth (the 1970’s) it was known as The Jacey and chiefly showed (very soft) porn as far as I can recall; certainly this was its fate when it became The Tivoli in 1984 according to the website. It was in 1993 that it was reconverted to the two screen Electric now showing, if not art house, then certainly movies which are less likely to appear at the multiplexes. I am sure I have been since then but cannot recall any visit. I have certainly not been since a further conversion took place in which one may book sofas (all named after great stars of yesteryear – a nice touch) and order food and drinks by text! The problem remains that in comparison with the multiplexes it is small and parking is both difficult and expensive – I paid more to park than for my ticket. Still it was an enormous treat to re-watch this masterpiece in its proper home; nothing can ever replace the cinematic experience, even if the screen was far from enormous. Can I find anything original or interesting to say about this work? Probably not. I would have loved to have watched it in conjunction with The Godfather 2 to properly appreciate the breadth and depth of Coppola’s extraordinary vision. What particularly struck me this time around? The retained power to shock – one knows exactly what is coming in the famous horse’s head scene, but it still makes the heart leap and almost forces one to turn away, for instance. The brilliance of the use of music, particularly that haunting main theme. The extent to which this is a dynastic family story – there is something classical, archetypal about it, which I suppose is one of the strengths that it draws it on. The power of the ending – not just the climactic christening/massacre montage (is this the greatest piece of montage since Battleship Potemkin?) but also the very end where Pacino lies to Keaton and she then looks back as the door closes and Clemenza kisses his hand – the hand of Don Corleone – referring back to the start of the movie and giving us both circularity and completion.
I suppose what impresses most is that throughout one is utterly gripped; there is never a moment when one’s eyes leave the scene and there is always something of interest, power or beauty to be seen or heard. The Godfather may not be as high in my personal pantheon of greats as for some, but it is still an overwhelming masterpiece and I was very grateful for the opportunity to catch this beautifully restored print and see it as it should be seen.
Gran Torino (2008) is very much a Clint Eastwood project as he both directs and stars. This is the source of both its very considerable strengths and yet also of its failure to achieve the very highest levels. As a director Eastwood is tremendous at telling a story, at letting his characters develop, at varying the mood and at creating emotional resonance; what he lacks is that unique visual power, that cinematic brilliance, which is the mark of the great. Gran Torino tells the story of a thoroughly unpleasant old man, Walt Kowalski, and his gradual discovery of his humanity. The film opens at the funeral of Walt’s wife and the wake afterwards. Walt is utterly alienated from his sons and grandchildren, the latter of whom, quite understandably, treat him as a figure to be either derided or avoided. He is rude, taciturn and self-centred (in some ways of course this works as a delightful parody of many Eastwood incarnations – he brings his tremendous screen history to the role and the viewer’s perceptions). When an Asian family moves in next door he shows himself to also be thoroughly racist and xenophobic. The Asian family consists of a grandmother (as rude as Eastwood in a nice comic touch), a mother, a sparky daughter and a withdrawn son; they are all Hmong people (a people who fought on the Americans side in Vietnam and subsequently fled to the US in large numbers when the Communists won). The son, Thao, is under pressure from a Hmong gang to join them; as an initiation test he is set the task of stealing Walt’s prized possession, a 1972 Gran Torino car. Walt catches up in the act and he flees. But the gang return and are hassling the daughter Sue; they infringe on Eastwood’s lawn and he comes out, shotgun in hand, and forces them to leave. This makes him a hero to the neighbouring Hmong (Eastwood is the last white American living there) who arrive bearing gifts of flowers and food – much to Walt’s amazement. From this point the story really proceeds on two tracks. One a semi-comic one as Walt, largely due to the intervention of Sue (whom he also saves from an African-American gang), becomes friendly with his neighbours and slowly develops a relationship with Thao. The other track is darker as it becomes obvious that the gang is not going away and their violence escalates. It also becomes obvious that Walt, periodically spitting blood, is seriously ill. To give away the final plot resolution would be very wrong as it is (well to me anyway) highly unexpected; again it plays with audience expectations of what Eastwood is likely to do, but this time to confound them. One can however say that the ending manages to be both sad and upbeat; certainly highly touching – it succeeded in bringing a tear to my eye which was, no doubt, its intent. It is important to emphasise however that this film mingles the witty and serious; a lot of the wit is around our preconceptions of the Eastwood persona and also discussions and observations of gender (Walt sets himself an agenda of teaching Thao ‘man talk’ – this is very funny). The other important thing to emphasise is the extent to which Walt is unlikable. He himself admits that he was a bad father, and his sons and grandchildren are in fact remarkably tolerant of him in my view. The only area in which the film goes over the top is in the religious sub-plot (there is a Catholic priest who makes Walt his ‘mission’, which had been the dying request of Walt’s wife) and perhaps it might be objected that the ending plays too much on this. Gran Torino like The Changeling is ‘Oscar-Hollywood’ product (see https://movingtoyshop.wordpress.com/2009/07/13/some-july-movies/ ) – it has high production values, serious intent and moral/political force. It is superior to The Changeling for a couple of reasons: first the fact that it so successfully alters its moods, which not only increases its watchability, but ultimately also adds to the emotional force. Secondly there is Eastwood himself; not only yet another magnificent performance, but the space which the use of his presence, of his every gesture and grunt, as playing with and on his iconic image gives and brings. This is something which only those who have had long and truly great screen lives can bring to a movie; it is something near intangible yet incredibly effective. In summary Gran Torino is about as good as movies which do not have great Directors, or some great cultural or artistic or social presence, behind them get; of course such movies can only be at best very good, never great – but Gran Torino is very good.