Category Archives: cinema

Review of “Le Corbeau”: Why Shock Value Isn’t Enough

A film whose central character is a philandering abortionist would seem to be too hot a commodity for mainstream cinema to attempt, even today. Yet Henri-Georges Clozot did so in his controversial 1943 work “Le Corbeau” (“The Raven”), which I screened over the weekend. While the film shows there really is nothing new under the sun, insofar as shocking audiences is concerned, I must confess that it left me rather underwhelmed: it is all crime and no punishment.

“Le Corbeau” is set in a small town in France, where all of the local residents have closely-guarded secrets. From the start, we are made very much aware that this is not a happy, peaceful town: long-standing hatreds are commonplace, and people are often very much less than kind to one another. The “hero” of the story, if we are to call him that, Dr. Rémy Germain (Pierre Fresnay) works as a surgeon at the local hospital, and practices illegal abortions on the side. He is carrying on an affair with Laura (Micheline Francey), the wife of one of his colleagues, and in the course of the film succumbs to the amorous advances of his landlady Denise (Ginette Leclerc).

As the story develops, a series of poison-pen letters signed by someone who calls himself “Le Corbeau” begin to circulate, accusing Dr. Germain and others of committing various crimes. The supposed mystery of the writer’s identity, as matters become more heated and turn to acts of violence, is what occupies us as the film gets going. Unfortunately for this reviewer, I realized who the author of the letters was almost immediately, and so the foregone conclusion turned the experience into something of a waiting game.

“Le Corbeau” is a film which is usually on the must-see list for those of us interested in the development of French cinema, and it is not hard to understand why. It is a something like a combination of Edgar Allen Poe and Alfred Hitchcock – in the French taste, natch. Parts of it are superbly well-shot, particularly in using empty space/silence and unexpected camera angles to create a threatening atmosphere. And there are a number of good performances from the cast, though throughout the movie I kept thinking that the character of Denise would have been played more convincingly by the great Jeanne Moreau, a generation later. Most view it today as a kind of veiled criticism of the atmosphere of distrust brought about as a result of the Nazi occupation, when neighbors would turn in their neighbors to the Gestapo.

However the real notoriety of the picture stems from its scandalous public history. It was produced by a German-owned company, and seemed to offend almost everyone across the moral and political spectrum – from the Church to the French Resistance to the Vichy Regime. The film was banned for a time, and Clozot himself was barred from working in French cinema for two years after the war. As we all know, anytime something like a book or a movie is formally banned, it is going to attract an audience keen on examining it for themselves, and this is one reason why “Le Corbeau” continues to be studied today.

This did not have to become the only reason to see the film, however, even though that is now the case, at least in the opinion of this reviewer. The poison-pen letter used as a plot device by Clozot can be a useful tool for ripping open the painted scenery and showing us what lies just behind. He could have allowed the possibilities open to him through the implementation of this device to lead him to create a script and accompanying film which captures our universal desire to see crime being punished. He would not have been the first Frenchman so to be fascinated, or successful, in considering the subject through the use of this plot device.

Perhaps the most famous French example is the 18th century novel “Les Liaisons dangereuses” by Choderlos de Laclos, which has been treated by cinema many times on both sides of the pond. Two examples with which my American readers may be familiar are the now-classic Glenn Close/John Malkovich “Dangerous Liaisons” from 1988, and the Reese Whitherspoon/Ryan Philippe reinterpretation “Cruel Intentions” from a decade later. In these films, crime has consequences that not only result in death, but in actual punishment.

The spectacular performance by Glenn Close in the earlier film as her world crumbles around her is made particularly satisfying because her own methods are being turned against her. We enjoy her punishment because it is part of our fallen nature to enjoy revenge, but more importantly because we realize, as she does, that she will go on experiencing a living hell on earth. She has ruined the lives and reputations of others, and now her life and reputation are ruined: the punishment fits the crime.

By contrast, in “Le Corbeau” the writer of the letters is punished, vigilante-style, but we are left unsatisfied by the outcome, thinking, “That’s it?” The doer of the deed comes almost out of nowhere; the story has become so convoluted by this point that we have forgotten about them almost entirely. And despite some last-minute “what ifs?” by Clozot there is never any doubt as to the writer’s identity or fate.

Clozot leaves us with important, unanswered questions. Are the townspeople just going to go back to being mean to one another? Is Dr. Germain still going to be committing infanticide and fooling around? Is Denise still going to be playing Potiphar’s wife to all of her husband’s lodgers? In other words: has anyone actually learned anything? “Le Corbeau” fades out on a beautiful shot, but the story faded long before we got to this point – and this is ultimately its greatest problem.

Making something shocking is one sure-fire way to gain notoriety, or at the very least some attention. Yet the real power of a well-written play or novel that also happens to shock its audience at the time of its initial appearance is its staying power to continue to shock audiences a decade (or a century) or more later. Certainly, there is much to like about “Le Corbeau”, if you are interested in the history of cinema. Yet those interested in really getting into the meat of man’s inhumanity to man, in ways that can be just as shocking to us today as they were at the time their works appeared, would be better served by reading Balzac or Camus.

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Why the Devil Wears Prada

In the brilliant Ernst Lubitsch film “Ninotchka” (1938) the title character – wonderfully played by Greta Garbo in perhaps the finest part of her legendary career – is a dyed-in-the-wool Communist sent from Moscow to Paris, to help negotiate a deal on behalf of the Soviet Union. She is initially stunned and appalled by the bourgeois world around her, though by the film’s end she has embraced it. In a very memorable scene when she first arrives at the grand hotel where she will be staying, she passes a window display for the hotel’s boutique, and pauses before an outlandishly shaped, sculptural-looking object. Ninotchka is informed that the object is in fact a lady’s hat. Shaking her head in disgust, she remarks, “How can such a civilization survive which permits their women to put things like that on their heads? It won’t be long now comrades.”

In a somewhat different vein, on Monday evening I dropped into a recently-opened shop in Georgetown on my way up the hill to the home of a fellow blogger (where we spent a convivial evening on the back porch with some non-blogging friends discussing various and sundry matters.) The shopgirl whom I was chatting with as I examined the selection on offer grabbed my arm and said, “I have a Prada suit that would look *great* on you.” Giving a sly smile, I remarked, “I’m sure it would. But I don’t wear designers who sponsor communism.”

Admittedly the comment as regards myself borders on the immodest, but that regarding my rejection of a particular label is based on a long-time awareness of the machinations of said label’s head designer. Miuccia Prada is well-known among the cognoscenti in the design world as a communist and an active promoter of left-wing social and political policies, a fact which may be lost on many Americans who purchase her wares. Given my distaste for communism, I have never owned anything designed by her, nor would I accept anything designed by her as a gift, such is the extent of my admitted and fully-embraced prejudice. This aside from the fact that her menswear consists of utterly putrid, predominantly androgynous garments, which are really just clothes for genetic males who look like unattractive women with a penchant for copying “From Russia with Love” villain Rosa Klebb’s style.

Britain’s The Independent not long ago described Sig.ra Prada’s output as being full of “irony and sheer brains”, as she employs thread and needle to make fun of the bourgeoisie:

At the root of her work, like the theme of a symphony to which it constantly returns, is the conservatism and restraint that are so typical of bourgeois Milan and so at odds with the world’s image of Italy, and which she absorbed with her mother’s minestrone. But this conservatism is constantly punctured and subverted, rudely shoved aside and cruelly mocked, by a whole mad world of motley influences and by an almost childish compulsion to do what everybody says you mustn’t and what nobody expects.

Those familiar with Whit Stillman’s film “Metropolitan” may recall the scene in which the character of Charlie Black (Taylor Nichols) talks about his disappointment with Spanish director Luis Buñuel’s 1972 film “Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie” (“The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”). Charlie, a member of a group which he has christened the “UHB” or “Urban Haute-Bourgeoisie”, describes how excited he was on hearing of the film’s title, and his subsequent disappointment upon actually seeing the movie. “I thought, ‘Finally! someone’s going to tell the truth about the bourgeoisie!’ But it’s hard to imagine a less fair or accurate portrait.”

Of course Charlie is not aware that, as is typical of many Leftists with the leisure to pursue such ends, Buñuel himself was no proletarian: he came from a decidedly wealthy background, and heartily enjoyed being around wealthy people. And for someone who is supposedly so ironic, so biting in her criticism of the bourgeois, in mocking the bourgeoisie Sig.ra Prada is also, even more ironically mocking herself. She is nothing if not a woman of comfortably middle-class origin supported by a decidedly upper-class income. Like other dowdy, aging baby boomers who criticize traditional ideals, she fails to perceive her own hypocrisy in supporting Marxist ideology on the one hand, while simultaneously flogging her goods with the other – at ridiculously inflated prices, natch – in order to increase her own wealth. Indeed, Sig.ra Prada has now appeared on Forbes’ list of the world’s richest people for many years.

The response from the Left, of course, is that Sig.ra Prada, Buñuel and others like them very much recognize their own hypocrisy, but they are more than happy to take the resources of those whom they perceive as perpetrators of the evils of mankind, and use those resources to promote their supposedly more moral or liberating projects, causes and beliefs. In so doing however, they prove themselves to be no different from the people whose views and methods they claim to despise. They may not believe in the God of the Bible, but they worship themselves through self-promotion; they may pay their workers a living wage, but they would never eschew staying in grand hotels, let alone live in a shared, modest apartment with any of them. (Where would they keep the Château Margaux they laid down two summers ago?)

As Leon Trotsky writes in his 1938 screed, “Their Morals and Ours”, not long after founding the Fourth Communist International and his falling out with what for lack of a better term we can call mainstream communism:

Among the liberals and radicals there are not a few individuals who have assimilated the methods of the materialist interpretation of events and who consider themselves Marxists. This does not hinder them, however, from remaining bourgeois journalists, professors or politicians. A Bolshevik is inconceivable, of course, without the materialist method, in the sphere of morality too. But this method serves him not solely for the interpretation of events but rather for the creation of a revolutionary party of the proletariat. It is impossible to accomplish this task without complete independence from the bourgeoisie and their morality. Yet bourgeois public opinion actually now reigns in full sway over the official workers’ movement.

So much, Trotsky seems to be saying, for the champagne socialist.

I do not mean to suggest that we should always avoid, by our purchases, supporting the work of those whose views differ from our own. That would not only be ridiculously impractical, but decidedly narrow-minded. My personal rejection of the work of Sig.ra Prada is merely a personal affectation, based on my deep antipathy toward both her views and how her aesthetic is informed by them. What I do – most emphatically – mean to suggest, however, is that the educated courtier engage in some very practical exercise of their own powers of discernment. Said discerning gentleman or lady ought to consider exactly what it is that they are buying into, with their purchase of clothing, media, and the like, irrespective of its popularity.

Charles Baudelaire – a man who as a result of his own tumultuous personal life knew whereof he spoke – famously remarked that the greatest trick Satan ever pulled was to convince the world that he does not exist. With greater discernment, we can perceive an infernal hand in many places in our world today – in the way we treat one another, yes, but also and perhaps more subtlety in our entertainments and the way in which we live and even dress. The Devil is very much among us – and I definitely believe he wears Prada.

Ninotchka (Greta Garbo) considers a very curious hat.

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>The Affected Conservative: It’s All About Eve

>Last evening I had the very enjoyable experience of taking a visiting friend from Barcelona and a few colleagues around the village to do some shopping, followed by a good dinner at Leopold’s, where we ran into some other friends of mine. Georgetown is, of course, part of Washington D.C. proper these days, but geographically and stylistically it continues to have a sense of “otherness”, which is very noticeable, particularly if all you have seen for several days has been the inside of a hotel ballroom in Crystal City. For me the benefit of the experience was not only catching up with an old friend and meeting new ones, but also having an experience the antithesis of yesterday’s cautionary post about Twitter – which seems to have struck a nerve with a number of people – about using social media to build real connections.

When I arrived back at the manse, I proved this last point by engaging in an email conversation with a conservative friend I met some time ago via Twitter – the proof being, we do not merely tweet to each other but communicate outside of it on several platforms. We talked briefly about a number of subjects, including personal style, and it was pointed out that I come off as a strong-willed person. Less kind persons might have said “stubborn”, but it is a fair assessment.

Second-hand, I have heard myself referred to as “intimidating”, which certainly ought not to be the case at all. Someone’s being opinionated should not intimidate others, if they have their own developed sense of self, though I have occasionally had to step back and apologize when I fear that I am being too forceful. I suspect that the combination of being rather tall, a trial lawyer, and a conservative would do it, if my personal habit of sometimes affecting what I like to call “biker preppy” style does not do it alone. Exterior appearances may easily deceive the untrained eye, particularly where conservatives are concerned.

To those on the outside looking in (and perhaps even to the majority of those within), there is often an apparent “sameness” of appearance among people marked as conservatives. Yet among genuine conservatives there are people who espouse certain affectations which may seem incongruous or surprising. Part of this surprise has to do with a false assumption that everyone who believes in conservative principles ought to look a certain way. Yet part also has to do with the inherent human desire to name and categorize, which is inescapable. Let us consider each of these in turn.

Whatever the liberal press may tell you, a conservative can have just as much style, if not more so, than your average Hollywood bleeding-heart liberal fashion plate. Of course, the fact that Hollywood is dominated by the latter type does not mean that the film industry fails to show us examples of idiosyncratic style among people who have decidedly conservative views. When they do appear, it is not only their point of view but their style which surprises us, when we pay attention to detail.

This evening for example, I am going to a dinner party where we will be watching one of my favorite films, “All About Eve”. Director and screenwriter Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who was as bleeding-heart as they come, probably intended the witty, urbane, but somewhat shady character of Addison De Witt (George Sanders) to be the lone Republican in the ensemble, given some of the searingly vicious lines which he has Addison say. Yet also, I think notably, Addison is distinguishable by what he wears, as much as by what he says in conversation, or what he writes in his newspaper column.

Unlike the other men in the cast, Addison is shown on multiple occasions to enjoy wearing hats. He also likes to wear what looks to be a very expensive overcoat lined with fur – probably vicuna – and often smokes using a long, ebony cigarette holder. Addison not only has a hugely expert eye with respect to the theatre world, but in his personal style he stands out from the others. This is not just because he is considerably taller than the rest of the men in the room, but also because he has a clear appreciation for style and attention to detail. He pulls off looking different from the men of his day because although he dresses appropriately for the occasion, he also knows what he likes, and does not care whether others also like his choices or not.

Addison is, interestingly enough, quite the ladies’ man despite his seemingly aloof, foppish and snobbish personality. We learn that he picked up the stunning and considerably younger Miss Caswell (Marilyn Monroe) dancing at the Copacabana nightclub; later Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) discovers that she “belongs” to him after he bends her to his will. In the scene where Eve comes to understand this, he is very much aware of the importance of appearances: when Eve throws open the door to her hotel room and tells him to get out, Addison scoffs, “You’re too short for that gesture.”

As the scene continues, we get a glimpse of Addison’s respect not only for the political change of heart after Pearl Harbor which gave America a new role in the world, but also his appreciation for human decency. When Addison catches Eve in a lie about her supposed fiancee, killed during World War II, the realization that she has been found out sends her into a paroxysm of rage. “That was not only a lie,” he chides her, “but an insult to dead heroes and to the women who loved them.”

That line of Addison’s always reminds me of the character of Lieutenant Fred Boynton, another crypto-conservative, in Whit Stillman’s brilliant film “Barcelona”. Fred Boynton (Chris Eigeman) is a naval officer being shown around the Catalan capital by his cousin Ted (Taylor Nichols). A rather trashy-looking group of Catalan youths pass them and sneer at Fred’s naval uniform, calling him a fascist. Ted tries to calm his cousin down by explaining that it is not his uniform which is the problem; if you comb your hair and put on a tie, those types of Barcelona youths will call you a fascist. Fred then goes off into a diatribe where he points out that men wearing the same uniform died ridding Europe of fascism. He is, in effect, showing the ignorance of the liberal in mocking his style of dress.

While Fred may have been ill-advised to wear a naval uniform when not on duty – we later learn that he has brought no civilian clothes with him, and needs to borrow from Ted’s closet – one suspects that he is secretly glad to be wearing it, as a stylistic indicator of how he sees himself. Its unexpectedness in the setting is what makes it – and him – stand out. We find it hard to believe that Fred has really forgotten his civies, and instead realize that this affectation comes about because he knows he looks good in a uniform, and because he likes how the uniform sets him apart.

Similarly, in Whit Stillman’s earlier film “Metropolitan” the character Nick Smith – ironically enough also played by Chris Eigeman – has a conversation with another character, Tom Townsend, in which he explains his own personal affectation, that of wearing dress shirts with detachable collars:

Nick: “You haven’t seen this? Detachable collar, not many people wear them anymore, they look much better. So many things which were better in the past have been abandoned for supposed convenience.”

Tom: “I had no idea anyone wore those anymore.”

Nick: “It’s a small thing, but symbolically important. Our parents’ generation was never interested in keeping up standards, they wanted to be happy. But of course, the last way to be happy is to make it your objective in life.”

Tom: “I wonder if our generation is any better than our parents.”

Nick: “Oh, it’s far worse. Our generation’s probably the worst since…the Protestant Reformation, it’s barbaric. But a barbarism even worse than the old-fashioned, straightforward kind. Now barbarism is cloaked with all sorts of self-righteousness and moral superiority.”

Tom: “You’re obviously talking about a lot more than detachable collars…“

Nick: “Yeah, I am.“

When we leave the world of moving pictures for the real world, things become a little less clear. If Georgetown, in its best sections, has a sense of otherness, much of white-collar Washington has a sense of “sameness”. However, not everyone in Washington who wears a blue blazer and khakis to work is a conservative, as the first-time visitor often mistakenly believes. That is simply the local mufti, worn irrespective of party politics. In its blandness perhaps it tells us more about the general population of the capital area, rather than anything about those persons who adopt it, as individuals or party members.

By trying to class people through their style we are of course naming and categorizing, and by naming and categorizing we are engaging in something which we as a species have done from the very beginning. In the Bible we are told how God created the universe, from sun, moon and stars, right down to the animals and human beings. But the observant reader will note that while God Himself names certain elements and principles of His creation – “day”, “night”, “earth”, “sea”, and so on – and He also names Adam, it is Adam himself who names the animals.

Certainly God could have named the “things which creep upon the earth”, but He chose not to do so, leaving that job up to Adam. It is interesting to note, by the way, that in the Koran it is God rather than Adam who names the animals. Not to put too fine a point on it, but there are some important considerations we could take from this difference between Judaism/Christianity and Islam, but that we shall perhaps leave for a future post.

As creation unfolds, God wants to see whether Adam is going to become particularly attached to any of the animals, so that they will be his companion in creation:

So the LORD God formed out of the ground various wild animals and various birds of the air, and he brought them to the man to see what he would call them; whatever the man called each of them would be its name.

Genesis 2:19

As it turns out, none of the animals prove to be fully satisfying to Adam, which brings about the creation of Eve. Thus, the human female is the very last element of the universe which God created. Women should recognize that fact with some understandable pleasure, and men should be aware of its significance, for God was clearly aware of the fact than men are usually not so good at taking care of His creation all by themselves.

When God brings His final creation to Adam in Genesis 2:23, Adam does not at first give her an individual name, as God did to him. Instead he calls her “woman”, recognizing that she seems to be part of his nature as a human being, having been formed from part of Adam himself, but at the same time not seeming to fully understand exactly what she is. One could make the observation therefore that man’s inability to completely “get” women is of primeval origin. After they have sinned by eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, but before they are cast out of the Garden of Eden, Adam recognizes the woman as an individual who fully shares his nature, and his fate, and gives the woman the individual name of Eve, Genesis 3:20.

When they are finally thrown out of the Garden of Eden, God does not give Adam and Eve seeds, or ploughs, or even teach them how to make fire. The only thing He does do, is to make them clothing out of leather, to replace the leaves that they themselves had unsuccessfully tried putting together to cover themselves. God Himself becomes the first true couturier. [N.B. Just imagine having the label "Hand Made by Almighty God in the Kingdom of Heaven" on the back inside lining of your biker jacket.]

Ultimately, the conservative recognizes that it really is all about Eve. Sin, death, salvation and redemption are all woven around a single decision she made, long ago, to exercise her free will, and to convince Adam to do the same. That recognition of the supreme importance, spiritually and philosophically, of the concept of free will, is foundational to the Western conservative, operating in the Judeo-Christian understanding of humanity and of himself.

When a conservative fellow stands out a bit from the crowd then yes, he is probably hoping in part that an attractive eye will bat his way – that is all about Eve, too. But outside of that fact, he is also engaged in exercising his free will in order to say something about himself: what he enjoys, what he supports, what he appreciates. The more stylish he is, the more unique or subtle the exercise.

Centuries ago the choice of a particular color, pattern, symbol, etc. in a man’s dress or accoutrement would have been endowed with a great deal of symbolic significance not only by the wearer but also by those who saw him. Today, as Nick Smith points out, many do not take the time to think of such things. Among those who do, it is with men of a conservative persuasion that the exercise of free will often proves particularly interesting.

George Sanders and Anne Baxter begin to form
their unholy alliance in “All About Eve” (1950)

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Review of "Mongol": Poking About in Mongolia

I understand that the film “Mongol” is the first part of a planned trilogy on the life of Genghis Khan. Let us hope that the subsequent offerings will do better justice to this great tough guy of history. There is much to admire in this first installment, but its often slow-poke pacing and head-scratching plot holes will have you checking the display menu to see how many more hours are remaining before you even reach the halfway point.

Russian director Sergei Bodrov begins his semi-historical film in flashback. Temujin Khan – played, oddly enough, by a Japanese rather than a Mongolian actor – is leader of one of the Mongol tribes, and a sideshow captive in a Chinese provincial capital. Temujin is the son of a Mongol clan chief, who is killed when Temujin is a young boy. Being the rightful heir, he is hunted by those who have turned against him and his widowed mother, and like many a hero in one of the Greek tragedies, he must make allies when and where he can. Also like one of those heroes, his memory is long, and his desire for revenge will eventually cause his enemies to pay for what they have done to him, his family, and his clan.

Departing from the prison sequence and returning to Temujin’s youth at the age of 9, Bodrov moves the story along with what at first is a forgiveably plodding pace. For those of us not hugely familiar with the history and culture of Mongolia – and I number myself among such persons – Bodrov makes sure we understand both the similarities and the significant differences to our Western society in this corner of the globe, and in doing so wants us to understand that grasping some small part of it requires our patience and our time. It is we, not Temujin, who are fish out of water here: he knows not only the land but the ways of its people, animals, and gods, and is a man cut from the whole cloth of that world.

Once the film has caught us up to where we began, we return to the now-enslaved Temujin, housed in a cell perched between two tower bastions, with a plank and rope bridge strung across the chasm so that the curious may come and look at him. Below the large grated window into his cell hangs a sign mocking him as the man who dared to say he could destroy the Tangut Kingdom. One is immediately struck by the parallel to Christ on the Cross, complete with titulus.

Yet as it turns out, how Temujin ended up in this position is not entirely clear. For despite giving the viewer information and symbolism which would, in a better film, be neatly tied up, Bodrov fails to connect the dots in the story in many instances. In the particular instance of the imprisonment, unlike Christ’s admission of his Divinity to Caiphas which led to his inevitable execution, Temujin never declares that he will bring down the Tangut; he is made an example of, but there is no statement, boast, or action on his part, as the picture unfolds, which would have warranted the governor of the capital to put him in this position. It is but one example of a script rich with Greek tragedy, Biblical parallels, and Eastern symbolism which falters on Bodrov’s over-attention to appearances at the expense of plot.

In another scene the young Temujin, on the run from assassins, falls through the ice into a frozen lake, and the camera shows him disappearing into the murky depths. Yet with no visual or vocal explanation, in the next scene we see Temujin out on the ground, perfectly dry, where he is discovered and saved by Jamukha, another young Mongol boy. This sense of disjointedness or bad editing, which occurs at many points throughout the film, is only heightened by cuts from one scene to the next in which the camera fades and the next scene begins at a pace which is far too quick. Neither the eye nor the brain are allowed a moment to pause and absorb before the next sequence begins, but this quick transitioning is not accompanied by a comparable sense of speed in the movie.

It is perhaps understandable that this would be the case for “Mongol” is, in visual terms, as sweeping a film as the stunning, untouched scenery of Mongolia itself. Apart from the town in which Temujin is imprisoned, there are no urban settlements whatsoever: only the occasional cottage or yurt encampment. It brings to mind not only the great American Westerns of directors like John Ford, but also the examination of native culture at once at home in but simultaneously dominated by its landscape in “A Man Called Horse”.

Like the latter film, “Mongol” has battle sequences and chase scenes a-plenty, enough to satisfy anyone with a lust for blood and rippling horseflesh. Men get impaled or maimed enough times that one is astounded there were enough people left to fight the final war between Temujin and his former blood brother Jamukha, which is the film’s climax and what will cement Temujin’s transformation into Genghis Khan. There is perhaps too much of a reliance on the effect of hitting an artery at full pump, with the expelling blood glittering away from the victim like a spray of rubies in sunshine, but then again no one ever accused the Mongols of being hemophobic.

Unfortunately, Bodrov in several instances seems to be copying and pasting certain shots and ideas almost directly out of Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. This is of course interesting for film fans, as it demonstrates what a powerful influence Jackson’s work has had on an international audience of filmmakers trying to make epic films. Yet the mind seems to withdraw from the film at hand when these instances arise, and reflect back on the same scene in the “Rings” cycle. One sequence in particular is so reminiscent of one of King Theoden in the Golden Hall of Medusel that I laughed aloud when the camera zoomed in on the character of Temujin as he turns to the camera.

“Mongol” has many of the necessary ingredients that go into the best of epic filmmaking: a titanic historical figure, exotic cultures, royal intrigue, vast landscapes, a passionate love story, and lots of warriors shooting things. Getting that mixture right, however, requires more than just stirring all the ingredients together and letting them coagulate in a pot. If the filmmaker is not careful, the entire stew can come off as heavy and soporific, or the balance of flavors can be thrown off by some undercooked portion, and this is what has happened here. It is not a terrible dish, but it could have been much better with a bit more overall care.

Genghis Khan (Tadanobu Asano) gets poked

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Review: Coco avant Chanel

Rarely have I seen a movie more apologetically but accessibly deferential to the intelligence of its viewers than director Anne Fontaine’s beautifully thought-out 2009 film “Coco avant Chanel” (“Coco Before Chanel”) starring Audrey Tautou. Based on the early life of Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (1883-1971), the film chronicles Chanel’s rise from obscurity to become one of the most innovative and celebrated fashion designers of the 20th century. If it were simply a bio-pic there would be plenty to chew over, for Chanel was a complex and unconventional woman whose past she intentionally kept somewhat obscured during her own lifetime. Yet this stunning production also assumes that the viewer will be able to pick up on the influences which shaped Chanel’s work, taking the piece outside of what might otherwise seem a made-for-tv costume drama and creating something extraordinary.

The film begins with the young Gabrielle Chanel arriving at a provincial Catholic orphanage with her sister, where the two are being left by the father, who is either unwilling or unable to take care of them; the film never makes this clear, and Chanel herself does not help. In fact, from this point on the viewer should be aware that during her lifetime, Chanel changed her biography numerous times, depending on whom she was speaking to and what she wanted them to believe. Throughout the film, as she moves from working in a dressmaker’s shop and singing in a bar (where she obtains the nickname “Coco”) to auditioning for the dance hall and becoming a live-in mistress, we see Chanel lie about some aspect of her upbringing, background, connections, experiences, and so on.

In doing so Chanel is creating the persona she feels is necessary in order for her to scramble up out of the gutter. To her surprise, she comes to understand that it will be in fashion, rather than in the bedroom or on the stage, where she will make her name. But make no mistake: Coco wants the good life and is going for it, conventions be damned. When she and her sister are observing from a distance some of the wealthy assembled together, her sister comments how bored they all look. Chanel replies, presciently, “Soon they will be willing to kill just to dine with us.”

It is perhaps difficult for us today, when an item such as a Chanel tweed suit (or a knock-off of one) is considered de rigeur among successful women, to realize what a shock Chanel’s style was to the women of her time. The film takes pains to point out to us how exceedingly uncomfortable it was to be considered well-dressed at the turn of the previous century, wearing yards and yards of fabrics, heavy make-up and jewelry, with giant hats pinned into long ropes of hair. At one point Chanel meets her sister at the races; the latter is wearing a long, fitted white lace gown, and explains that it is the latest fashion from Paris. Chanel snorts at its impracticality and remarks, “I’m sure that train picks up a lot of mud.”

In another, beautifully shot scene, Chanel walks down the boardwalk at Deauville toward the sea, wearing a simple plaid dress and straw hat of her own design. Despite the sun and the heat the women on either side of her are cinched into enormous, heavy dresses that cover every part of their bodies, which of course are dripping in jewels. On top of their heads are hats piled with accordion folds of material that then tie beneath their chins. The modern movie-goer, watching these women try to keep from moving about too much, can only imagine how stiflingly hot and uncomfortable it was.

As she walks past them with the love of her life Arthur “Boy” Capel, Chanel makes catty, but well-observed comments about these supposedly fashionable women. About one, wearing a huge necklace which spreads like a peacock’s tail across her chest, Chanel says, “She’s wearing the family silver.” About a group of others in enormous, uncomfortable hats she sneers, “Looks like a bunch of meringues.” When Capel offers to take her dancing that evening, she explains that she does not have any evening clothes. He counters that she should make a simple evening dress, like the one that she has on.

This is the impetus for Coco to create the famous “little black dress”, Chanel’s lifelong mantra which has become a staple of women’s attire down to the present day: a simple, comfortable, but elegant black cocktail dress that every woman should have in their closet and which can be worn to any dressy occasion. Chanel and the tailor whom she visits that afternoon have quite a discussion about how the dress is to be constructed; Chanel knows what she wants, but needs encouragement from Boy to keep the dress from looking too conventional. When Chanel and Capel waltz around the hotel ballroom later than evening, she stands out in a sea of more enormous white dresses, feathers, and frippery with her simple dress and hairstyle. It is a look which, despite the passage of nearly 100 years, would be completely at home at an evening event today.

It is in these moments of observation, and there are many, in which the filmmakers excel, by giving us a taste of materials, experiences, and the like which came to have an influence on Chanel as an artist. I use the term “artist” intentionally for, as a friend pointed out last night in discussion of the film, one cannot separate Chanel’s radical departure from the fashion of her own day without considering what was going on artistically at the same time. Picasso, Stravinsky, and Gropius were doing in painting, music, and architecture what Chanel was doing in fashion: learning the conventional and then rejecting it to create something new.

The filmmakers take full advantage of the environment that surrounds Chanel to not only provide hints and suggestions of what she will do later in life, but also to create beautiful works of art themselves. Many of the scenes have an autumnal palette to them, like the leaves falling at the House of Elrond, for the Gilded Age does not know that war is on the horizon and that the world they know is coming to an end. Indeed, the often-found-riding Chanel is, from their perspective, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, if they would but recognize it.

When Gabrielle Chanel makes the final transition to become Coco Chanel, the lighting changes: the golden glow disappears and black and white come to dominate the camera’s eye. There is one scene in which she is shown, working alone at night at her sewing machine not long after Boy’s death in an automobile accident, where the only source of light is a sort of gooseneck lamp. Virtually everything in the scene is jet black but for the bright scarlet fabric she is working on, and Chanel stops her work to reflect on and mourn her lost love. It is a short sequence but a brilliant composition, with its vivid slash of red cutting through the darkness reminding us of the work of Eduard Manet or Edward Hopper.

Audrey Tautou is, as ever, an actress who is not only capable of wonderful subtlety in her expressions, but also develops her character through such things as movement, posture, and manner of speaking. Because my French is practically non-existent, in fact I did not pick up on a further subtlety in the performance which was pointed out by a colleague. During the course of the film, just as she visually becomes more and more polished, as she moves up the ladder Chanel’s French also becomes more and more polished. By the final montage when Gabrielle, in the fully-realized persona of Coco Chanel, is seated at the top of her famous staircase watching the models parade past her, the transformation is complete: Tautou is like a Horst photograph of Chanel come to life.

It is interesting to consider the fact that, from a practical perspective, Chanel has had a far greater influence on people’s day-to-day lives than any of the aforementioned artistic giants of the early 20th century. Yet her contributions may not be recognized by the general public for the enormous significance they carry in this regard, in part because she made clothes, and in part because she was a woman. If you are at all aware of the rag trade, or at least have a curiosity about anthropology and sociological development in the 20th century, you will find much to muse over in this film. Even if you do not fit into these categories however, you will enjoy the stunning cinematography of this film in its re-creation of a now-departed age, as seen through the eyes of one of the figures responsible for ushering it out.

Alessandro Nivola and Audrey Tautou in “Coco avant Chanel”

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