Wednesday, December 13, 2017

French yuletide noir at San Francisco Roxie

By Moira Sullivan

Henry Baur as Père Noel
In Italy, December 13 is the day St. Lucia is celebrated who was murdered in 304 AD for refusing to be married. Her death on the Julian calendar was closer to the Winter Solstice on the darkest day of the year, but the Nordic countries kept the date when the Gregorian calendar was later adopted and solstice fell on the 20th of December. Lucia has long been celebrated in Sweden with a tradition of selecting a woman with candles in her hair to lead a procession of maidens, star boys and gingerbread children who bring forth the light.

In San Francisco, a French noir Yuletide double feature is being shown at the Roxie Theatre on December 13– L’ASSASSINAT DU PÈRE NOEL (Who Killed Santa Claus - 1941) by Christian-Jaque and LE MONTE-CHARGE by Marcel Bluwal (1962). Both films could hardly be claimed to be light entertainment and as crime fiction are associated with noir. The films do not evoke warm fuzzy feelings for Christmas but are dark and brooding plots involving intrigue, deception and murder. There are children in these films and Santa Claus but little joy for the them or the adults that try to make the best of the holiday.
L’ASSASSINAT DU PÈRE NOEL (Who Killed Santa Claus - 1941) has none of the stylistic of noir in terms of lighting. Most of the dark heavy gothic scenes without light are filmed indoors or are shot in the super bright snow on sunny days in the French Alps. The setting is a village near Grenoble where the town pharmacist Ricomet (Jean Brochard) goes to order medicine for the village, one of the many threads of the plot. 

Gaspard Cornusse dons his Father Christmas costume every year for the children played by Henry Baur, a rotund, jovial character with heavy drawn eyebrows in his early 60s. Gaspard makes toys such as world globes that light up. His acting style is steeped in a classical theatrical tradition. At times Gaspard's makeup seems like he will peel it off and another person will emerge. In the corner of his living room is a shrunken head of an Asian man, and as it is hanging he tells the village children the story of the bandit Fu-Xiyu who robbed for his daughter Princess Aurora. 

Henry Baur and René Faure
Meanwhile upstairs his daughter Catherine (Renée Faure) lives in a world of fantasy, raised on her father’s stories waiting for a romantic hero to carry her off on a white horse. Elsewhere in the film is a poor woman referred to as Mother Michel  (Marie-Hélène Dasté) who searches the village looking for her cat and was formerly married to Ricomet. Both of these female characters are not noir femme fatales but evocative women who are deeply disturbed because of the influence of the men in their life. Women serve the men of the village who wear large black berets and spend time drinking or gambling.  True to fairy tales, Catherine falls for a man she believes to be a prince with a hand covered by a black glove he claims has been deformed by leprosy, Baron Roland de la Faille (Raymond Rouleau). She is being courted by an annoying village teacher who threatens to punish wayward students by having them write about their grievances over and over. After meeting the Baron Catherine only has eyes for him. 

The film includes a Tiny Tim character, a young boy, who lies sickly in bed waiting for the gift he ordered from Santa Claus. There is also a thief in town who has taken St Nicolas’ ring from the village church and Santa Claus is found shot in the head in the Alps. Getting to the bottom of the mysteries in play involves calling in the territorial police and the townspeople and officials. 

Director Jaque brings out staid acting performances which border on overacting –children and adults alike, following the fiddle of Henry Baur, Father Christmas. During the time the film was made, France was under German occupation and the film was produced by the Nazi film company Continental Film. Director Christian- Jaque and screenwriter Charles Spaak were able to create a subtext to the film with subversive themes with allegories to the political realities. In real life Baur’s wife who was Jewish was taken away by the Gestapo and he was tortured and arrested the year after the film was made. After being released from prison he died in mysterious circumstances. 

LE MONTE-CHARGE by Marcel Bluwal (1962) starring Robert Hossein and Lea Massari has a noir stylistic with trains emitting billowy white smoke as they charge up a dark railway. It is set in a seedy looking Paris suburb - Courbevoie with notable signs pointing to and from Argenteuil on the other side of the Seine. Films featuring Hossein are often populated by districts of Paris, fictitious or real. On Christmas Eve, Robert Herbin (Hossein) has just gotten out of prison after seven years for murdering his boss’s wife. On his first night out, he takes notice of Marthe and her little daughter Nicole (Pascale Brouillard in a restaurant. Nearby is a movie theater and Robert follows Marthe and Nicole inside. During the screening Marthe allows him to put his hand on her shoulder and later to follow her home and come in for a drink. The apartment is big and spacious on top of her husband’s factory, nicely furnished with a sparsely decorated Christmas tree. In a series of attempts at passion followed by rejection, Marthe has the upper hand of Robert. She leaves with him to go to his apartment leaving Nicole alone, and then changes her mind and returns to her apartment again only to discover her husband dead. Robert must leave because he can’t be found anywhere near Courbevoie but is obsessed with Marthe. He follows her to Midnight mass where she faints, and then takes her home again assisted by another man who sells American cars.

Lea Massari, Pascale Brouillard and Robert Hossein
Christmas eve is robustly celebrated with last minute Christmas shopping, family get togethers in restaurants, fights in bars and a packed church of worshippers. Le Monte is a somber thriller involving murder, deception and a little girl dressed in a white fur parka whose step father hates her. Marthe’s attempt to leave a loveless marriage is well-planned where she uses men to help free her from her entrapment. Everything about the set design conveys this feeling of confinement from dark, shabby apartment houses to desolate streets of loneliness. Robert and Marthe cling to each other to free themselves from their circumstances yet wind up creating a complicated relationship that frightens them both.

Robert Hossein
© 2017 - Moira Sullivan- Air Date: 12/13/17
Movie Magazine International
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Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Romance in the Cold War, against insurmountable odds - The Shape of Water

By Moira Sullivan

Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is not one of his best films but it is a story that includes many of his themes. Tyranny over nature , inventions and technology that represent the future of man, and mutants that defy these standards. The Shape of Water is a time capsule from the American/Russian Cold War set in a US government laboratory much like the setting of Hellboy (2004) and Hellboy:The Golden Army (2008). The sadistic, predatory, misogynist and racist head of operations at the facility, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), has control of a mutant that he captured in South America, resembling The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). He is called “Amphibian Man” (Doug Jones) and is not able to speak nor is as benevolent as Abe Sapien in both 'Hellboys' (played also by Doug Jones) and attacks in self-defense. The Russian scientist Dimitri is the only official at the plant looking out for Amphibian man. Later one of the cleaning ladies at the lab takes an interest.

Del Toro has written and directed several magical films besides the two 'Hellboys' including Pan Labyrinth (2006) and the bizarre television production The Strain. The largesse of the budget for The Shape of Water went to set design, which consists of a laboratory and an apartment over a movie theater and parts of the town that surround the government complex.

Sally Hawkins plays Elisa Esposito, a mute cleaning woman and the victim of an unknown criminal assault that left her scarred. She works together with Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spenser) at the government lab. Elisa lives alone and has an interesting gay neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) who is a commercial artist out of regular work. In their adjoining apartments, she looks out for him while Zelda looks out for her. Zelda’s commitment to Elisa is stronger than to her lazy ungrateful husband.

'Amphibian Man' is kept in one of the laboratory tanks and Elisa entices him out with eggs and music. The interiors of the lab are exceptionally created as well as Elisa and Giles’ apartments, a diner with a homophobic and racist owner, and Richard’s home with his dutiful high-heeled hairsprayed wife. All environments are filled with artefacts from the 1960’s – finned Cadillacs, trinkets and bric a brac, and clothing and vintage furniture. Television programs and film excerpts are displayed on TV consoles: a variety of Hollywood musicals, newsreel footage of police brutality against blacks, Henry Koster’s The Story of Ruth, Shirley Temple, Mr Ed - the talking horse and speeches by JFK. At Venice, the film received the Golden Lion for best film, and its visual effects, mise en scène and stunning cinematography have been praised ever since.

'Amphibian Man' is worshipped in the Amazons just as The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). Both humanoids are of interest to science and more importantly form an attachment to a woman. In The Shape of Water, the romance accompanied to French love songs eventually consumes the narrative. Elisa is crazy about Amphibian man who does not see her imperfection, whereas the perfect Julie Adams as Kay Lawrence in The Creature from the Black Lagoon was horrified at the prospect of the match.

Richard Strickland is antagonistic and cruel towards the creature who is in the care of the military. The employees of the lab are harassed with racist, misogynist and xenophobic comments. Strickland knows how to badger Eliza and her past as a survivor and makes references to 'Samson and Delilah' to humiliate Zelda.

The weakness and strength of The Shape of Water is its narrative evolution through the magic of discovery of this new environment, this time period, and the characters that live during this time. "The Creature"and Elisa and their passion ultimately guide the film towards its end . Romance and dance numbers from Golden age Hollywood movies eclipse the misogyny, homosexuality, racial discrimination , the brutality of the military industrial complex, the space race, class differences, and the vapid consumerism. Brushing this all aside for romance is not unique to film, since there is nothing new about 'Amphibian Man' since "The Creature in the Black Lagoon" other than a woman who is willing to follow him. However, in such a dark period of history, romantic love is a potent force, and as intoxicating as the dreams of Hollywood.

© 2017 - Moira Sullivan - Air Date: 12/05/17
Movie Magazine International