THE BLUE ROOM (Mathieu Amalric, France, 2014, 5)
For the nation that revered and recognized Hitchcock as a great artist before either of his own countries did, the French seem to have remarkable difficulty actually enacting his own lessons on how to make great thrillers. THE BLUE ROOM also has the pedigree of being adapted from a novel by France’s own great thriller-writer Georges Simenon. And the thundering brass score by echoes Waxman, Herrmann and others who did some of their best work for The Master. The squarish academy-ratio frame and the moody lighting raises confidence in director-star Mathieu Amalric. But, like many of Claude Chabrol’s films IMHO, THE BLUE ROOM just lacks juice and drive, ending up being the kind of film Hitchcock said he detested … the whodunit.
Amalric starts off with the right elements, an instantly recognizable star (himself) in danger with the police and priggish authorities, as he claims an innocence they don’t believe. But there’s really no suspense in the film’s because so many of the Hitchcock elements are missing — the chase / protagonist in danger (Amalric is varyingly in jail, prison and trial court as legal proceedings go on); the villain (oh there is one eventually, but only after we learn the whole story … which means it’s a waste); the Maguffin (instead the film strip-teases plot points that happened before the film starts and which the characters generally know but get deliberately withheld from us).
And that last hints at something else fundamental wrong with THE BLUE ROOM. It’s something even more problematic than a whodunit … a dunwhat in this case too … the film’s unpeeling of the narrative onion even teases us with ambiguous clues about what the crime was and exactly the charge. Hitch also said, in his Truffaut interview, that whenever possible, the audience should know everything, and certainly at least as much as the characters do. BLUE ROOM though is just an exercise in keeping us in the dark trying to figure out what the hades is the story here (I was convinced for a time it was child sex-abuse charges during a bitter divorce).
Hitchcock is an absurdly high standard for direction of course, but Amalric’s realisation doesn’t match the material enough here. It’s functional but merely that — and also a bit hide-bound and frankly rather stagy as much of the film takes place in enclosed rooms. There have been two very good recent French thrillers made from Simenon novels — MONSIEUR HIRE and the Cedric Kahn RED LIGHTS. And in both cases, you had free protagonists, in danger, doing something about it to dig themselves in deeper, temptation to do wrong, and some really stylish directorial chops. In other words … the exact elements missing here.
THE WONDERS (Alice Rohrwacher, Italy, 2014, 4)
THE WONDERS is one of those film so muted that it scarcely exists. Reviewing it at all and trying to have any sort of emotional reaction to it feels almost impolite, like someone stomping on the eggshells everyone else is politely tiptoeing around, from fear of waking each other up. This strategy won a second prize from the Cannes Film Festival jury.
THE WONDERS is autobiographical, set on an Italian bee farm depicting a family resembling the auteur’s own and with the matriarch played by the director’s sister. But it’s so terribly absorbed in the details of the world it depicts, it forgets to make them compelling or dramatic to an outsider. No protagonist really stands out … a reform-school guy enters foster care with the family (largely for economic reasons) but he shakes up little. He’s supposedly German but looks as German as Manute Bol which is possible but it makes his saying nothing in German or anything else suspicious. Some things happen — two accidents, one involving a hand, the other a spill but, with one exception, nothing builds. There’s a trick involving one of the girls spilling bees out of her mouth onto her face that makes a great party gag.
The closest THE WONDERS comes to a throughline (and the source of its title) is a family effort pushed by the daughters to get on a cheesy Italian-TV reality show about the most-authentic rustic least-corporate farm. Monica Bellucci as the vulgarly gussied up hostess commits to the cheese but director Rohrwacher won’t, unlike Garrone in REALITY or Fellini in GINGER AND FRED. It’s as if she believes pleasure and drive are themselves suspect. Oh … and did I say there’s a two-humped camel in there somewhere? It’s as forgotten as anything else in this uninflected slice of life that believes in that adjective a little too devoutly. Uninflection is fine in the details; but not as the main course.
THE TALES OF HOFFMANN (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Britain, 1951, 9)
THE TALES OF HOFFMANN is not a perfect film — like most classic operas, its story (or here “stories”) is dramatically thin and contrived, and some little part of me will always rebel against opera in English (and only somewhat from snobbish purism; opera singing isn’t intended for clarity but in a foreign-language opera you’ll at least get subtitles). And I’m not unsympathetic to Pauline Kael’s criticism that the film is an attempt at “muchness” (my word) or an overload of craft credits that just “spread out the buffet” (hers). But what a buffet the Archers put on!? How many buffets have you gone to that are this rich, this appetizing and this varied? Even if you feel a bit gorged at the end, aren’t sure everything on the table worked for you, and are sure you’d rather have a perfectly planned three-course meal like LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP, HOFFMANN is still a spread you won’t forget.
Like COLOR OF POMEGRANATES (as I type they’re my two favorite films of the festival), TALES OF HOFFMANN is not only like nothing you’ve ever seen (and the two films have the same amount of naturally-spoken diegetic dialog — zero), but it’s also a film that proceeds as if Griffith had never invented the dominant narrative cinema. As POMEGRANATES attempts to reproduce the aesthetics of medieval painting on film, HOFFMANN tries to achieve Wagner’s insane ambition of the total art work (I’m not pretentious enough to look up the German term) — fusing poetry, song, painting and dance into one unified whole.
HOFFMANN’s three stories are all tragic romances involving the titular character and his loves; most of the sweet tragedy falling on her (“well whaddidja expect at an opera … a HAPPY ending?”). When you consider that and Powell’s later solo film PEEPING TOM, the ending of the Olympia Tale becomes curiouser and curiouser in its total perversity, a bald description of which would make it sound like a disgusting 2014 slasher film. And yet, because (and *unlike* PEEPING TOM) the act is so hyper-aestheticized, it actually becomes kind of funny. It’s not an actual woman like Moira Shearer being dismembered and torn apart on camera but a puppet. And the moment is fairly set up because throughout HOFFMANN, the characters act like puppets and are treated as such, both when they are and when they aren’t. There’s a Looney Tunes quality to the whole exercise, a film in which viewers’ necks will stretch into impossible shapes and the decorations on the side of beer steins will jump off the mugs and do a dance that takes over the film for a couple minutes for no dramatically relevant or important reason at all.
To partially agree with another common criticism, HOFFMANN is a rather chilly film, compared to RED SHOES, but there was some unexpected heart here in a recurring androgynous “boy” figure, played by Pamela Brown, in a bit of a Girl Friday role. She gets the rare privilege of becoming the center of a love duet (in the third Tale, Antonia) without singing a note. The Archers film the scene in long shot with proscenium framing but she stubbornly stays in the background for the whole thing, rather than exuenting backstage, as convention requires. And gets a closeup at the end. She’s the eternal longing audience, looking at the spectacle like an unrequited lover. And have I mentioned the color and decor and singing here? Guilty, your worship, of the capital offense of burying the lead. The sheer dazzling inventiveness of the color is by itself worth the price of admission, a New York Film Festival non-member admission even. Gotta love a film that anticipates Lebron James pregame chalk routine by about 60 years. And also gotta love the rare chance to see an opera film that uses properly trained opera singers (some merely dubbing, some acting onscreen as well), even if that means you can sometimes see rather poor, sometimes nonexistent but inconsistently so, attempts at lip-synching. As I said it’s not a perfect film, but as Kael herself put it … it’s like worrying about whether KING LEAR being well-constructed. It doesn’t matter; it’s an unforgettable experience regardless.