Thursday, June 11, 2015

La Jalousie (Philippe Garrel, 2013); La Belle et La Bete (Jean Cocteau, 1946)

C'est Magnifique!

From June 3 to 9 at Greenbelt 3 and Bonifacio High Street cinemas, the 20th French Film Festivals

Some thoughts on two of the films screening: 

Call Philippe Garrel France's best-kept filmmaking secret. The man has been directing since 1964, did his first feature in 1968; yet few of his films have enjoyed American distribution, his name largely unknown in that particular market.

Happy to have the French Embassy present his next-to-latest work in Manila: La Jalousie (Jealousy, 2013). First-time viewers should know--not essential, but it adds dimensions to one's appreciation--that the filmmaker inserts biographical details to his films, and casts accordingly. Louis, who we first see in the film's quietly devastating opening scene preparing to leave his wife, is played by Garrel's son, also named Louis; the film's Louis in some ways resembles the director, some ways resembles the director's own father Maurice Garrel (who often appeared in Philippe's films till his death in 2011); Louis' infidelity alludes to an incident committed by Maurice during Philippe's adolescence. The whole web of cross-references and Garrels both pere and fils, involved onscreen and off, crowd the small black-and-white screen like so many ghostly presences--the film may look spare but feel full, stuffed with submerged memories and hidden connections and unspoken meanings.

Garrel himself is something of an oddity, a filmmaker who started at the tail end of the Nouvelle Vague, borrowed some of its techniques (the intimate tone, the off-the-cuff filmmaking) but wasn't really part of it--wasn't part of anything (Romanticism, perhaps?) being content to be his unswervingly unique self. La Jalousie is of a piece with his work of the past three decades: intimate little portraits of troubled relationships where the business of everyday living--Louis with his daughter Charlotte (Olga Milshtein) and new girlfriend Claudia (Anna Mouglalis) walking through a park (and their issue with a filched lollipop); Charlotte with her mother Clothilde (Rebecca Covenant, playing Louis' abandoned wife) breaking bread a scene later--are dwelt upon with a casual yet attentive eye.

Garrel doesn't emphasize such moments--doesn't employ clever dialogue or memorable incidents (a walk in the park and an evening meal being par for the course) or even play background music--and yet effortlessly has your attention in a vise. The film has its narrative arc and ostensible theme--Louis turns his life upside-down at film's beginning to accommodate the new love in his life, only to find that new (and for him ideal) relationship even more difficult to maintain--but you can't help but think that, while the arc is the film's spine, these less tumultuous moments are the film's meat and sinew, the stuff that holds it together and makes up its true essence

In an interview Garrel has discussed the struggle in his work between naturalism and realism (favoring the latter), his insistence on the difference between autobiography and fiction (the real Louis--his son--against the fictional Louis carefully sketched onscreen). The film reflects this tension, shows the difficult balancing act Garrel has achieved after years--decades--of personal filmmaking. Not perhaps for everyone, but for the few that (can, might possibly) respond essential, essential viewing. 

As for the other film--Jean Cocteau's La Belle et la Bete has often been mislabeled a 'fairy tale,' if by 'fairy' we mean a story involving some delicate ethereal creature conjured out of moonlight and pixie dust. Yes Cocteau's film evokes the images of sleep-induced reveries but more in the nature of nightmares than dreams--the stuff not of Disney fantasies aimed at kids but adult horrors like Todd Browning's Freaks, James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein, Jacques Tourneur's I Walked With a Zombie.  

Cocteau doesn't so much cover his camera lens with gauze (to keep the film looking, y'know, dreamy) as he does keep the lenses steady and clear, the better to capture the fantastical. The effects themselves are rarely process shots--oh, perhaps a brief vanishing or quick transformation or magic mirror image here and there--but actual on-camera contrivances, inspired by stage magic (burning wreath switched for pearl necklace, rolling platform on which stands 'floating' girl), traditional theater (stone faces with glaring eyes, disembodied arms clutching lit candelabras), and classic silents (footage run backwards so a fallen man can rise magically to his feet, silent candles flare suddenly into life). Again the direct method, with as little as possible standing in the way of the actual effect and our wide-open eyes (by way of comparison think how digital effects look nowadays--the virtual equivalent of the quick-erase, weightless and easy to wipe off with the swipe of a cursor).

Jean Marais' Bete is a triumph of costume design and styling, his body decked out in luxurious fabrics that drip crystals and mirror shards, his head framed by a great and glorious platter of delicate lace. From the ears hang a chandelier of curls; from the forehead a row of tiger stripes converge at the brow; beneath the brow lurk the saddest most liquid pair of eyes imaginable (if this were in color--and in many ways be thankful it's not, despite Cocteau's original intentions--then those eyes must be a warm Spaniel brown). One detail quarrels with those eyes for your attention: his fangs, two shar  incisors poking up from the lower lips.

Cocteau's film inspires not just wonder and delight--standard emotions expected from children's tales--but pity, arousal, hatred, terror. That's the secret of the film's enduring power, why it lingers in the mind while images of singing teapots and warbling candles fade from memory: Cocteau deals not in fairy tales but in the fantastic, not as a whole other world but as an extension of this one, where amazing things happening at arm's reach, and magic is as real as the fingers on your left hand.  

First published in Businessworld, 6.4.15

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