Friday, June 12, 2009
"Les quatre cent coupe" (The 400 Blows, Francois Truffaut, 1959), La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher, Michael Haneke, 2001)
Classical and neoclassical French cinema
Francois Truffaut's first feature film Les quatre cent coups (The 400 Blows, 1959) was mainly a reaction to what Truffaut witheringly called the "tradition of quality." Where "quality" films emphasized production value, Truffaut used everyday Parisian locations; where "quality" films used smooth-gliding camerawork and flawless lighting Truffaut used handheld equipment and available light; where "quality" films were mainly literary adaptations of known classics Truffaut drew from his own life and improvised dialogue on the set.
The result was anything but traditional. One gets the impression of a sketchbook filled with doodles by turns funny, tragic, provocative, sad. One gets the impression of quickly filled spaces, of scenes thought up on the spot, of setups executed on the sly and as quickly dismantled (because the director just thought it up, and possibly didn't have the proper permits ready).
It was what was called camera-stylo, or "camera-pen," where every element directly reflects the director's personality and statement. Funding for these films is often scarce, dictating artistic choices almost as often as the director's philosophy does; concerns of the moment (the images, the sounds in the film) upend one's longstanding set of priorities (familiar characters, a logical plot, a profound theme commenting on the condition of general humanity).
But more than its significance to film history, to the French New Wave, to Truffaut himself who was in effect writing his childhood autobiography, the film is a valentine to the Paris of the late '50s-early '60s. Truffaut's alter-ego Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) runs across a park and pigeons take flight in an explosion of feathers; the early-morning milkman delivers a crate to the doorsteps and Doinel snatches a bottle--we watch Doinel daintily tear off the seal, then chug the milk down (you feel the chill richness flowing down your throat). He plays hooky to ride a giant centrifuge, his flattened body (photographed head-on) become a gravity-defying effect--become, in other words, Truffaut himself, defying the world by means of a simple visual effect.
Beyond the energy and exuberance of a longtime critic turned rebel filmmaker, beyond the delinquent shenanigans so shocking then, so harmless now (for all his crimes Doinel does not do drugs, does not commit arson, does not sexually assault anyone) there is the bitter loneliness of an unwanted child. I've met and talked to youths who have done worse, but the force of Doinel's hurt when rejected by his mother then taken via police van to a placement, that pain retains its sting. Looking out the van windows Doinel sees the glittering lights of Paris, perhaps for the last time; the swaying vehicle, the tinkling music, the enchanting lights--all the more enchanting because they're glimpsed through barred windows--give the moment a sharp, almost unbearable poignancy.
There's a different kind of edge to Michael Haneke's La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher, 2001). Haneke sketches the portraits of a pair of monsters: Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert), frigid bitch saint of a piano teacher who spends the day informing her students of their abundant lack of talent, and the teacher's mother (Annie Girardot), who inflicts similar psychological torments on her when she comes home.
Erika becomes obsessed with a young man; her icy facade cracks. Beneath the facade is a seething brew of sadomasochistic impulses so repulsive they almost drive the young man away--almost. He returns to confront her, and she in turn is forced to confront the implications and consequences of her impulses.
Haneke's strategy is to shock the audience using the least amount of effort and fuss; he foregoes the handheld camera in favor of largely static setups--an unflinching gaze, in effect, to allow us a clearer view of the horrors he intends to inflict (then there is Huppert's performance, every bit as ferocious as Haneke's gaze, daring us to look away). Perhaps not a great film, certainly not as great as Truffaut's Les quatre cent coups, but easily one of the most memorable to come out of French cinema in many a year.
The films are showing as part of the 14th French Film Festival in Manila, June 5 to 14, at the Shanri-La Plaza.
First published in Businessworld 6.5.09