Tuesday, September 16, 2014

L’Atalante (France 1934): The romance of cinema

Jean Vigo when he made one of cinema’s poetic masterpieces was consumptive and likely had a keen awareness of the slender hold he had on life. L’Atalante was to be his last film and his enduring cinematic legacy. A simple romantic story told with a shimmering love for those that history ignores, for unaffected lives which have a glory beyond greatness, bound up in the simple verities. The early tentative days of a just-married couple have a romance and visual poetry tinged with the melancholy of the river’s flow, itself a metaphor for the ineluctable passing of time, and the ebbs and flows of life. A tale told without artifice and with a boundless optimism. A timeless story of young love, the tribulations of matrimony, the joys of friendship, the rewards of loyalty, and the delight from the comic mishaps that life thankfully can bring; along with the conflict, the suffering, and the heartache.

L’Atalante opens in a riverside village with the marriage of barge captain Jean and Juliette his bride, by following the wedding procession from the church to the river. These disjointed scenes have a droll rhythm that immediately have you engaged.  The barge’s first mate, a gruff crotchety older man ‘Le père Jules’, and a callow cabin boy get an advance on the wedding march, but not before Jules hurriedly backtracks to the church font to quickly make the sign of the cross. The bridal couple troop in total seriousness, and in silence, followed languidly by a far more relaxed wedding party. The mother of the bride is comforted by the father, while the rest straggle and find plenty to gossip about. A man at the tail end of the procession gives his partner a more than gentle giddy-up by patting her on the behind. We learn from the gossip that there will be no honeymoon. Juliette is to start married life on the barge in the cramped quarters below deck with Jean and his crew – and Jules’ harem of shipboard cats.

Jules and the cabin boy have raced ahead so that they can welcome the new “lady-boss” on board with a bunch of flowers. As they frantically prepare aboard for her impending arrival, we are regaled with a delightful slapstick around the flowers, the bucketful of water to keep them fresh, the river, and a kitten clinging to the shoulders of Jules’ coat as he lumbers about on deck.

After getting the bride safely on board, L’Atalante steams towards Paris with its cargo and crew.  Along with the ripples of the barge’s flow we see the young newlyweds running hot and cold; Juliette setting up house and disturbing the bachelor habits of the males, while dreaming of Paris and being fascinated with the strange collection of Jules’ souvenirs from a lifetime of seafaring; and, to Juliette’s consternation, the cats invading the bridal bed!

It is not long before Jean has an outbreak of jealousy, when Juliette discovers the weird and wonderful train wreck that is Jules’ cabin. In a scene that is infused with a playful eroticism, Jules’ naked and tattooed upper torso jostles dangerously with Juliette’s playful fascination as they squeeze past one another over, under, and around the assorted bric-a-brac. Jules’ pinups of nude women a winking counterpoint to these less than innocent antics. Jean on coming upon the scene in his anger goes to smashing whatever of the detritus comes to hand.

When they reach the environs of Paris, Jules, in a sulk after the run-in with Jean, storms off in search of ‘doctoring’ by a lady of the night. With Jules AWOL, Jean must stay with the barge, so the couple are not able to explore Paris until evening, when Jules returns.  With Jules back on board, Jean and Juliette visit a cabaret near the wharf. There, an itinerant magician on a bicycle flirts brazenly with Juliette.  Jean’s jealousy is reignited and he peevishly decides to leave Paris that night. Juliette has other ideas and sneaks onto a tram headed for the centre of Paris.

A rift and extended separation follows, after Juliette is left stranded in Paris when Jean in another fit of peevishness he will regret, has the barge leave Paris without her. But true love eventually prevails with the two lovers reunited at the end in an emotional reunion and embrace. The reunion comes after Jules locates Juliette and returns her to the barge in an outrageous search and rescue operation.

The story is reverently portrayed through elegiac scenes of the working barge in mist, under clouds, in the early morning, and at night. Below deck the camaraderie and tensions arising from confinement are filmed in close-up and from overhead. There is a true intimacy as all four inhabitants – with all the ups and downs of barge life – settle down to a modus-vivendi sealed with affection and regard, but as with all lively souls, not without an inclination to melodramatic outbursts of jealousy and fickleness. A spice that none of them could live without, and which makes our journey as voyeurs so much richer and compelling.  We fall in love with these souls. They draw out our own longings and regrets, and we invest these lives with a veracity so bright that we don’t want the journey to end.

It is Vigo’s film, but his ownership is mortgaged to the stellar cast, the richness of Boris Kaufman’s cinematography, and the playful melodies of Maurice Jaubert’s cheeky score, resting as it does on the zestful wheezing of the piano accordian, that distinctly egalitarian instrument so loved by the French.

Vigo filmed during winter, so on location shooting was hostage to the weather, and on days of heavy fog some scenes were shot on a studio replica of the barge. The seamless photography and the editing never betray the artifice.  The location scenes have a cinema-verité, almost documentary, quality, which in deep focus records the barge’s journey to Paris.  A particular sequence when Jean and his crew manoeuvre the boat through a lock, is stunningly beautiful.

In this naturalistic tableau the charms of the principal players engage your emotions so completely that when there is a conflict or separation, you are more than anxious for a reconciliation, so they can continue the romance of their lives together.

Michel Simon as Jules is a joy with his comic antics having not only charm but a deep humanity.  Jean is played by Jean Dasté, the lead from Vigo’s earlier Zero de conduit, who perfectly portrays the conflicted young lover often stumbling while learning to balance the love for his new bride, his work, and the affection and regard of his crew. Dita Parlo as Juliette captures your heart.  Charming, cute as a button, and totally unaffected, she is the girl next door in all her innocence, decency, starry-eyed giggles, and petulant obstinacy. Vigo selected the inexperienced Louis Lefebvre to play the cabin boy for the very beguiling awkwardness that the young novice portrays. Gille Margaritis as the surreal magician during his scenes literally demolishes the scenery – even boldly ad-libbing satirical lyrics to a popular romantic song of the period about barge life.

The romance of Vigo’s L’Atalante in all its votive and lyrical charm takes you to a place you never want to leave. A romance of love and of life, a cinematic refuge from the dark absurdity of existence.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Orson Welles' Too Much Johnson (1938)

Orson Welles' first foray into cinema was a silent romantic farce envisaged as a multi-media backdrop to a theatrical revival of the 19th-century William Gillette play Too Much Johnson by Welles' Mercury Theatre Company.  The project was never realised.

A work print of the scenes filmed by Welles on location in New York restored from reels found in Italy has been released by the National Film Preservation Foundation.

The restored film is a bit too much of everything, yet there is a wry humour and the naïve exuberance of the neophyte discovering what he can do with a camera and a surrealist approach to editing. Scene cuts and unedited repetitions are dada-like, especially chaotic chase scenes where a woman's lover is pursuing a rival on the streets and over the rooftops of  Manhattan. Sequences in the Meatpacking District of New York featuring fruit boxes and hats are truly inspired. Joseph Cotton as the pursued paramour is a comic delight, and his rooftop antics really impress. Two "broads" the subject of amorous fancy are gorgeous and cheeky. An early bedroom scene between lovers is a lot of fun and has a rare post-Code sauciness . The final reel set in "Cuba" - fake palms stuck in the sand of a riverbed - is repetitious and lacks focus, though I imagine if Welles had finished the editing, it would have been a lot tighter. The added piano score by Michael D. Mortilla is brilliant.

The film can be viewed or downloaded on the National Film Preservation Foundation web site.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Now Voyager (1942): The art of melodrama

“THE untold want, by life and land ne’er granted,
 Now, Voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find.”

-Walt Whitman, The Untold Want, Leaves of Grass (1900)

Novelist Olive Higgins Prouty chose the title for her popular novel ‘Now, Voyager’ from two lines of poetry by Walt Whitman. These words in the book and in the film are offered to a repressed spinster, Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis), the youngest daughter of a wealthy Boston matriarch (Gladys Cooper), by her psychiatrist Dr Jaquith (Claude Rains) as the key to freedom, to her making her own way in the world.  Away from the oppressive hold her tyrannical mother has over her.

Now, Voyager while absolutely a ‘woman’s picture’, significantly and importantly transcends melodrama. Yes, ugly duckling Charlotte finds love and purpose in two romantic hours of movie magic from Hollywood’s golden years. There is more than romance though. There is romantic love and passion, but also compassion. A compassion that sublimates romantic love to a familial love that from nurture finds fulfilment and a kind of freedom.

After spending time in a sanatorium Charlotte does embark on a voyage. A long cruise to South America where she meets Jerry a gentle older man (Paul Henreid) who not only loves her, but in their falling into love, gives her the agency to overcome her inhibitions.  He reaches for the person she wants to be. She responds a flower blossoming in the warmth of his regard. But he is married with children and the affair must end, and they reconcile to life without each other.

Charlotte’s renaissance is almost complete. She is to be tested again when she returns to her cloistered home in Boston. Charlotte discovers she is not afraid – she will and does defy her mother’s tyranny.  She builds a new life and settles on the prospect of marriage with a man she may grow to love. The mother’s sudden death after arguing with Charlotte, when Charlotte breaks off with her suitor after a chance encounter with Jerry, throws her into a panic of guilt. She seeks refuge by returning to the sanatorium. There she meets a troubled young girl, and sees herself as she used to be. That the child is the daughter of Jerry is a convenient but eminently forgivable irony that comes with the genre territory. Charlotte finds meaning again when she befriends the child and makes it her mission to help her.  This innocent will bind the lovers, yet also constrain them. Their happiness will come from the care of  ‘their’ child, and their union must take second place. They don’t have the moon, but they have the stars.

But Now, Voyager is so much more. Above all else, we have the sublime Bette Davis as Charlotte, whose transfiguration has you captivated. It is all there, the vulnerability, the frustration, and the anger against the selfish and domineering mother who has held her emotionally captive and mentally shackled. Then the journey of self-discovery and emancipation. The psychological underpinnings are rudimentary and overplayed, but are not any less compelling for that. It is the sincerity of the portrayal that counts. There are no histrionics but felt emotion. You enter into Charlotte’s life. Through voice-over and flashback you are less a voyeur than a sympathetic friend.

There is the subtlety of Prouty’s story, the brilliance of the script and the literate dialog from the pen of Casey Robinson; the strength of the supporting cast; the elegance of the direction and of the editing; and there is the lush romantic grandeur of Max Steiner’s score. But it is Davis that commands your attention, your complicity, your admiration, and your love.

Paul Henreid as Jerry and Claude Rains as the psychiatrist Dr Jaquith deepen the sincerity. These two decent men who though they have different roles to play in Charlotte’s life, are motivated by compassion, the same desire to release Charlotte from her isolation, from her loneliness, and from her self-doubt. That same compassion Charlotte in turn bestows to her troubled lover, who laments to her the unfairness to her of him not being free. She tells him that she fell in love with her eyes wide open, and makes no judgment nor demands. The same compassion she will show to Jerry’s daughter. This final solicitude has a true pathos, and I am not ashamed to admit that it always brings tears to my eyes.

For catharsis is the dramatic essence of Now, Voyager. Our emotional involvement is not limited to a suspension of disbelief, but involves us binding to the life we are privileged to share.  While the lives portrayed have no existence beyond the celluloid passing through the projector, our own lives will be enriched by the memory. As Jerry tells Charlotte, after she tells him when they first have to part that she hates goodbyes, there is always the memory.

Director Irving Rapper in his first major directorial assignment has the camera fluid and mobile, framing scenes and shots with a seamless élan, with the protagonists always front and centre. He uses close-ups sparingly and only for dramatic effect, including cinematic flourishes that give visual cues to emotions and motivation. He uses recurrent motifs to convey changes of mood and intimacy, and particularly character development. When Charlotte first appears we see only her legs below the knee as she hesitantly walks down the stairs of her mother’s mansion in the sensible stridently unfeminine shoes her mother insists she wear. We do not see her fully until the next scene in another room as a dowdy woman past the first blush of youth. Later a similar shot has Charlotte stepping down the gangplank of her cruise liner to join an excursion ashore. This time she is wearing stylish shoes, and the camera does not stop there. It moves up and reveals a new women – elegant and a little mysterious. Charlotte is still hesitant in her new incarnation though, and while she wears a chic hat, a soft wide brim hides her timid eyes.  Later at the end of  the cruise when she disembarks in New York she is even more elegant, vibrant and assured, walking down to the wharf accompanied by gentlemen admirers, and in a stiff-brimmed hat revealing sparkling confident eyes.

Of course there are the famous cigarette scenes between the lovers, which are consciously phallic, and suggest there has been a consummation of their love. In an earlier scene in a mountain hut after a mishap on an onshore excursion has them spend a night alone. As they lay together the camera pans away from the lovers to a bright log fire, which by morning in the next scene is reduced to glowing embers. In the movie’s final scene, when Charlotte takes the cigarette lit by Jerry holding it in his lips with his own, the metaphor is re-imagined as a sublimation of their sexual union. An incomplete reconciling, and perhaps a cutting loose. The late British critic Andrew Britton in an essay on the film writes of the “erasure of the phallus”, and goes as far as to say that Charlotte does not need Jerry, or any man, any more. Charlotte has achieved fulfilment outside the bourgeois expectation that a woman may find it only in the love of a man consummated by marriage and domesticity. While plausible, this radical interpretation is perhaps to a degree imposed. While Charlotte can and will find a kind of fulfilment outside marriage, this does not necessarily mean she prefers to be alone.

I have only scratched the surface of this gem of a film.  There is an intelligence and richness that deserves greater recognition. It is a romance and more. It is also a feminist polemic that only an actress of  Bette Davis’ stature could innately comprehend and express. We all want and need love, but as Charlotte says to Jerry, in the taking we also give.