Words on Screen by Michel Chion (edited and translated by Claudia Gorbman) Published by Columbia University Press (March, 2017)

Note: I would like to thank Columbia University Press for sending me a copy of Words on Screen to review.

“I do not read so many fictions. But rather books on the theory of cinema. My favorite author is Michel Chion: as soon as one of his books is translated, I buy it. He does not write from an abstract point of view like most critics, who speak more of aesthetics than of the act of seeing a film. Chion is interested in all the ways of perceiving a film. He wrote a book about the history of the early years of sound in cinema. He takes tiny subjects and he really talks about it from the perspective of someone watching a movie and the effect it does. That’s what I like about him: it’s very smart and it’s never abstract.” Jim O’Rourke on Michel Chion (interview with Les Inrocks, 29th November 2001)

I think that Jim O’Rourke’s statement about Michel Chion sums him up perfectly as a critic and theoretician of cinema, ‘it’s very smart and it’s never abstract’. Mr. Chion began writing and teaching about film sound in 1978, a subject of which little attention was being paid at the time. From 1981-1988 he wrote for Cahiers du Cinema, during that time he wrote his first book on cinema, The Voice in Cinema (1982), an exploration on screenwriting Writing a Scenario (1985, revised and updated 2007) and a monograph on Jacques Tati (1987). Cahiers continued to publish some of his books after he left the magazine including monographs on Lynch (1992) Kubrick (2005) and Tarkovski (2008). Mr. Chion has written for Cahiers left wing rival Positif since 1996. His most famous book is Audio Vision (1990) about the relationship between image and sound. Mr. Chion’s latest book is Words on Screen (2017) expertly edited and translated by his friend and fellow film scholar Claudia Gorbman from the French original text L’Ècrit au Cinema (2013). Gorbman describes Chion as ‘a poet in theoretician’s clothes’. Mr. Chion’s writing invites the reader to access areas of cinema such as image, sound, speech and text which I for one knew very little about before reading.

Where to begin with Words on Screen? Chion illustrates many uses of text on screen through ten chapters featuring use of opening credits in many creative forms such as a hand on the screen writing out the credits in the Astaire-Rogers musical Carefree (Sandrich, 1938)  and Barbarella’s (Vadim, 1968)  use of jumbling text around Jane Fonda’s body. Also the act of hearing a foreign language and reading subtitles, the visuals of letters, books and signs on screen. Chion examines the psychological effects of these visuals for the films and their audiences. As often Chion invites you to take the journey of the book with him with his clear and concise prose. The best moments in the book are Chion’s fascination with newspapers (Eyes Wide Shut) signs (The Postman Always Rings Twice (Garnett, 1946)) computers (The Thing, Stand by Me) and how Casablanca (Curtiz, 1942) is written on screen in the credits as “Casablanca” a word to be spoken over and over again throughout the film rather than simply read.

Chion got a research grant to write the book from The Internationales Kolleg fur Kultur-technikforschung und Medienphilosophie (IKKM) in Weimar, Germany. Chion states that he watched over 900 films in preparation and uses 256 stills to illustrate examples of text in cinema. Chion insists that the cinema continues to re-invent itself in modern times and sees a positive side to 3-D for Avatar (Cameron, 2009) and Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Herzog, 2010). The book is useful for film scholars looking to learn about this unique subject, Chion’s devoted readers will continue to feel the warm invitation of his writing.


At look back at Alfie (Gilbert, 1966)

alfieI have always been fascinated how director Lewis Gilbert and writer Bill Naughton develop London Casanova Alfie Elkins‘(Michael Caine) relationships with women into segments. Like Naughton’s The Family Way (Boulting, 1966) where time is taken to criticise the protagonist’s sex life, criticisms of Alfie are fleeting up until a point, when the women leave him. Gilbert uses many locations around London, Sonny Rollins jazzy score and the slow motion effect give the film the fleeting blink of the eye moments of happiness for Alfie. Siddie (Millicent Martin, known for her role as Gertrude Moon in Frasier) is looking for time away from her husband; a Chelsea FC supporter with a keen interest in gardening, Alfie fills her void of boredom. Another woman Gilda (Julia Foster) is looking for a future with Alfie, they have a child together, Alfie’s self-centredness and unsurprising lack of commitment breaks their relationship. The pregnancy of his friend’s wife Lily (Vivien Merchant) is devastating; Jane Asher’s Annie is looking for a lover in Alfie after an unknown sad past about a lover named Tony. Shelley Winter’s Ruby is all flash, her rejection of Alfie has him pondering on Waterloo Bridge, ‘what it’s all about?’ in an ending so open, anything is possible, but knowing Alfie it’ll be more of the same.


Alfie’s breaking of the fourth wall wasn’t a common technique in 1966 (viewers of my generation found the technique used in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to be groundbreaking at the time, at least I thought so.) Rollins’ theme tune with its optimistic sax invites the protagonist to take chances; cheat and live life to what he believes to be the full. One wonders what kind of trouble Alfie was in before the film starts; it surely wasn’t all fun and games. I have not seen the 2004 remake with Jude Law, but I do believe that an Alfie-type can exist today in 2017, such a narcissistic personality with never die out it seems.  The interiors from Alfie’s cramped flat, the local pub, the garage where Alfie works at the beginning all suggest a working class which Alfie would rather not focus on as he sits in his chair suggesting that Gilda should rob the till of the cafe where she works just the people make money. Caine said in later interviews that Alfie’s fast talking speech rhythm with his big hand gestures were done so that the other characters would pay attention to a working class cockney. In Get Carter (Hodges, 1971) it’s the opposite as Caine’s gangster speaks slower because he knows he can be heard. It seems Ruby is only woman Alfie considers a future with; ironically she dumps him for a younger man just because he is younger. Alfie’s real loss is his son Malcolm who he had by Gilda, Alfie speaks poignantly about the child and the montage of Malcolm and Alfie in the park are Alfie at his most fulfilled, it’s his lost moment. The agony of what might been with the women is briefly pondered by Alfie as he reflects on being cheated on just he had done so many times. All he can do is walk away and ponder his lack of peace of mind.


60 Seconds from a De Palma Film


Brian De Palma is famous and rightly so for his set piece sequences, from the bucket of blood sequence in Carrie (De Palma, 1976) to the Grand Central Station chase in Carlito’s Way (De Palma, 1993) to the rope through the vault sequence in Mission: Impossible (De Palma, 1996). I would argue that whilst his scripts are often Hitchcockian, his film style is unique to him. I don’t recall Hitchcock using slow motion often if at all apart maybe in the shower scene from Psycho. The sequence I have chosen is the elevator scene from Dressed to Kill (De Palma, 1980). In his book Mise en Scene and Film Style: From Classical Hollywood to New Media Art Adrian Martin (2014) focuses on how De Palma pumps up Pino Donaggio’s score on the first part of the scene in which Angie Dickinson is brutally murdered. I have chosen 60 seconds in which Nancy Allen discovers Dickinson dying and slowly but surely she notices the murderer through a mirror. De Palma (2015) has stated that the set up and details of these sequences ‘go on forever’. De Palma takes 6 minutes to tell the sequence. These crucial 60 seconds I speak of are spellbinding on repeated views and definitely sum up De Palma’s style.


The sequence is done in slow motion in roughly 40 shots. Michel Chion has written that a film’s sound cannot studied without its image and film’s image cannot be studied without its sound. I believe it is a certain ambient sound like a helicopter on the soundtrack at the climax of the 60 seconds; this is what still stuns me after so many viewings. This sound bridged with De Palma’s rhythmic and artful images deliver a film style that pulls absolutely no punches. To begin with the first shot Allen sees Dickinson as she lies bleeding in the lift, Donaggio’s strings rise to the occasion of her shock. Dickinson starts to reach out her arm but before she can De Palma cuts to Allen in distress as the camera zooms in a manner that might have impressed Rainer Werner Fassbinder. De Palma is interested in the quick flash of detail as Allen’s forehead disappears from the frame to focus on her hands clenched to her face. I cannot but help be reminded of the way Nic Roeg films the eyes of the witches in his Roald Dahl adaptation from 1990 from the way De Palma sets up a reaction of a slow zoom into Dickinson’s blood pouring eyes. Donaggio’s score builds as the murderess in reaction gestures her hand forward moving the razor blade up, the audience holds its breath. Allen’s hands shake in reaction, Dickinson’s raised hand towards her murderer (who of course Allen cannot see) is almost biblical. Donaggio’s score and De Palma’s cuts align with the closing of the elevator door before Allen stops it, De Palma crucial cuts as Allen’s hand of goodwill gestures out to hold the door. De Palma then settles on Dickinson’s bracelet and the blade each reflecting light in turn. This is when De Palma really uses slow motion to full effect as the film almost stops for Allen to gesture her eyes and faces up towards the elevator mirror above, this is when De Palma’s stunning use of ambient sound kicks in and the sequence begins to unwind with rhythmic precision. Allen’s stunning facial numbness in the moment holds the scene in all of its crystal glory as one of greatest moments in cinema history.


Xavier Dolan: Beyond His Years

Dedicated to Matt Wager


Xavier Dolan was born eight months before me in 1989, his talent knows no bounds. A child actor by profession from Montreal, Quebec, Canada, he turned to writing and directing in 2009 with his astonishing debut I Killed My Mother (Dolan, 2009) This was followed by Heartbeats (Dolan, 2010), Laurence Anyways (Dolan, 2012), Tom at the Farm (Dolan, 2013) and Mommy (Dolan, 2014). This year It’s Only the End of the World (Dolan, 2016) won the Grand Prix at Cannes. His next film The Death and Life of John F. Donovan (Dolan, 2018) will be his first both in English and set outside of Quebec; it will be shot mostly in New York and is said to be released in 2018.


What struck me about Mommy (which shared the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes with Goodbye to Language (Godard, 2014) was Dolan’s profound interest in the mother and son arguing and how far the actors take it with incredible intensity. Of course the same can be said of I Killed My Mother which now brings to mind arguments in the films of Fassbinder, Almodovar and Cassavetes. I Killed My Mother stars the nervy and insecure Hubert played Dolan himself, a teenager at odds with his mother (Anne Dorval). Dolan mostly films interior scenes; a family home, a local school, a teacher’s home, a hamburger bar, the crammed apartment of Hubert’s friend, Hubert’s father home, a video store and a boarding school. Dolan’s exterior scenes have a visual and/or emotional charge, think of Hubert’s mother and her friend discussing Hubert’s homosexuality or Hubert alone in a Quebec street surrounded only by street lights.


I went to a packed screening of It’s Only the End of the World in Dublin, with his prizes at Cannes Dolan seems to be taking the film world by storm. The film concerns a family of five, a mother Martine (Nathalie Baye) her sons Louis (Gaspard Ulliel) and Antoine (Vincent Cassel), her daughter Suzanne (Lèa Seydoux) and Antoine’s wife Catherine (Marion Cotillard). Louis has AIDS; the film is a 90 minute struggle to reveal this to his family in a story of rage and turmoil. Cassel’s tall psyche and brash face embody the emotionally violent Antoine, a kind of older version of Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) from Mommy. Spending five minutes with either Antoine or Steve in reality would be nearly impossible yet they are incredibly captivating to watch on screen. The arguments in It’s Only the End of the World have Dolan’s melodramatic stamp, most of the audience I saw it with responded to it as a black comedy of manners. The film is based on a semi-autobiographical 1990 play by Jean-Luc Lagarce, Dolan’s second adaptation after Tom at the Farm. The Quebec neighbourhood in the film is bright and green, a glimmer of hope if it can exist in a world of such bleak characters. There is a stunning close-up of Cotillard early on in the film which I read in the moment to be a glaze of infatuation for Louis. Dolan’s hear for the music of his generation is clear (Blink 182) and surprising (Moby) and is a reminder of the rarity of a working director who is under 30.


Heartbeats concerns a love triangle between Nicolas (Niels Schneider), Marie (Monia Chokri) and Francis (Xavier Dolan) set in a Montreal of twenty-somethings’ (Generation Y) obsessive ramblings about their love lives or lack of them. I found this film to be a similar viewing experience to My Golden Days (Desplechin, 2015), both films contain performances and individual moments that I admire but the film overall lacks something more needed at the core, an engaging narrative. With Dolan this comes with more expectation as I have not seen any other of Arnaud Desplechin’s films. As my friend Matt informed me; other Dolan films such as I Killed My Mother, Laurence Anyways and Mommy take something on, something of substance or more accurately something of essence. The three central performances in Heartbeats are strong, Schneider for his pretentiousness, Chokri for her desperation and Dolan for his obsession which finally reaches a breaking point. Dolan’s choice of music such as Dalida’s ‘Bang, Bang’ as the film’s theme song, House of Pain’s catchy ‘Jump Around’ and Johann Sebastian Bach’s ‘Cello suite No. 1 Prelude in C and G Major respectively give the film some emotion weight at times. Dolan’s use of camera placement and slow-motion technique absorb in some fine moments such as Nicolas’ birthday party sequence, Francis going to the store to buy marshmallows and eating one slowly as he fantasises about Nicolas and a walk in rain between Marie and Francis. Writing about this now I’m remembering the use of slow motion in Every Man for Himself (Godard, 1980) and In the Mood for Love (Wong, 2000). With Heartbeats Dolan draws a canvas, sets his stylistic tendency without a strong enough narrative motor, which sometimes relies on narcissistic discussion between strangers when more focus is needed for his protagonists.


Laurence Anyways features incredible performances from Melvil Poupaud as Laurence Alia, a Montreal a high school English teacher who is a transsexual and Suzanne Clement as Fred, his girlfriend who sticks by him, they love each other deeply. Dolan experiments more with slow motion techniques, he is deeply fascinated by profiles from front and back. Quebec as always in Dolan’s films is filled with colour from its characters, costumes (designed by Dolan himself) and set design. Dolan’s soundtrack sets the tone with some songs familiar, some all the better for being discovered in the context of his and his music supervisors’ selections. Strong scenes feature Dolan’s trademark, arguments; from a confrontation between Fred and an elderly waitress with no respect and Poupaud and Clement’s dynamic scenes together. It features strange sequences of water flowing through a ceiling on Fred and another of clothes falling from the sky as Laurence and Fred roam free through the mystical Isle of Black. The film simply floats.


Tom at the Farm has the feel of L’argent (Bresson, 1983), of a character being taken in by a farm woman with hardly any questions asked initially. It also has a strange echo of a one man version of The Big Chill (Kasdan, 1983), a man visiting a remote house for the funeral of a loved one. The film is based on a 2011 play by Michel-Marc Bouchard who co-wrote the screenplay with Dolan. Tom (Dolan) has come to pay his respects to the family of his deceased boyfriend Guillaume. Guillaume’s psychotic brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal) is on par with Steve in Mommy and Antoine in It’s Only the End of the World. Guillaume’s mother Agathe (Lise Roy) is oblivious to Guillaume’s homosexuality and Francis’ sadistic nature. Tom becomes Francis’ victim for his sick and violent games which including beatings and bursting Tom’s tires leaving him trapped in a remote Quebec farm outback. Tom and Guillaume’s colleague Sarah (Evelyne Brochu) is believed by Agathe to have been Guillaume’s lover; Sarah’s appearance in the film’s narrative is a breath of fresh air. The film’s feeling of isolation is superbly photographed in stark colours of the Quebec night but I felt there was something missing at the film’s centre. Tom’s vague characterisation is intriguing however.


It’s nearly two years ago since I discovered Dolan’s films with Mommy which I consider to be his masterpiece. Diane (Anne Dorval) one of Dolan’s most regular collaborators is a single mother taking care of her fifteen year old son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) who has ADHD and psychotic tendencies. Enter Kyla, an outsider to their relationship, who is a nervous stuttering teacher on sabbatical played by the brilliant Suzanne Clement (completely different each time she works with Dolan from I Killed My Mother, Laurence Anyways to Mommy). The Quebec neighbourhood is as bright as ever with autumn leaves and sunshine coming through the street of such family tragedy like in All That Heaven Allows (Sirk, 1955) and Far from Heaven (Haynes, 2002). The character Steve plays his deceased father’s  mix-tape which includes White Flag by Dido, Blue (Da Ba Dee) by Eiffel 65 and Wonderwall by Oasis. White Flag sets the tone of the family life in the Quebec suburb for Kyla with her emotionally absent husband Patrick (Alexandre Goyette) and their daughter (Isabelle Nèlisse). Blue (Da Ba Dee) sets boundaries between Steve and Kyla, Pilon has an incredibly natural ability to embody his character through stark body language and shocking intensity. What can be said for Wonderwall, perhaps the most overused pop song of the 1990s? It is given new and eternal life in this film in an astonishing sequence of Steve breaking the fourth wall (changing the screen’s aspect ratio from 1:1 to 1.85:1) it has to seen to believed and a lesser film would have made this into a gimmick but this film’s heart and intensity earns such a bold and breathtaking move. Dorval’s Diane loves her son, her facial gestures are perfect, almost devilish at times. Clement’s Kyla’s hand gestures speak volumes of nerves and repression which she lets out unexpectedly in one scene. Maybe Pilon is the Jean-Pierre Leaud of now! The film climaxes with the heavenly sound of Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die, the visual settling is white, a white of endless entrapment which is about to be set free.


Dolan’s films are noted highly for their performances and their stylistic tendencies of montage and slow motion. His camera tracks sometimes feel like they are a character’s POV or a POV of a vehicle in which they are traveling in but sometimes the camera is just tracking the characters like road scenes in Laurence Anyways and Tom at the Farm. Dolan sometimes likes to build up a scene slowly by showing us two characters at a table when they are in fact three and the third person vibrates the scene with inappropriate comments, we can call this trait Dolanesque. His sound turns down when you do not expect it, like when Blue (Da Ba Dee) fades out and back in for dramatic effect at a crucial moment in Mommy. Then again all moments in Dolan’s cinema are in a sense crucial, its Quebec setting of brightness and possibly hopefulness intrigues the viewer. Diane’s fantasy of Steve’s future in Mommy is like an advert, a montage between the style of the Six Feet Under (Ball, 2001-2005) finale and Boyhood (Linklater, 2014). It is like all of the fantasy sequences in Dolan’s films, soon the Quebecoise melodramatic vision of reality sets in.


A Prowler Named Joseph Losey


Joseph Losey was blacklisted by Hollywood in the 1950s after making some films there. He resumed his career in Britain, making some films in Italy and France as well. He was born in La Crosse, Wisconsin, USA in 1909; he went to high school with Nicholas Ray. He studied at Dartmouth College and Harvard University before studying in Moscow where he met Sergei Eisenstein and Bertolt Brecht. Losey was a major figure in the New York political theatre movement in the 1930s. He worked with Brecht for preparation on Brecht’s Life of Galileo Los Angeles production in 1946 and 1947. One year later Losey’s debut feature film The Boy with Green Hair (Losey, 1948) was released starring 11 year old Dean Stockwell in his first film.


The Boy with Green Hair was seen a political allegory about a war orphan who wakes up one morning to find he has green hair. The green symbolising his difference in society as a war orphan. Some may find this ‘message’ film too preachy. Stockwell and his guardian played by Pat O’Brien have excellent chemistry and the film is an important social document of Truman’s America of 1947. The scene of Peter (Stockwell) being confronted outside of school over his differences reminded of a scene directed by Losey’s classmate Nick Ray in which James Dean is halted back after crossing the school crest in Rebel Without a Cause (Ray, 1955). Such abuse from the cushy insiders is too much for loner outsiders like Stockwell and Dean, Stockwell expresses his feelings through a speech about war orphans and Dean expresses himself by raging at his parents.


Losey made Stranger on the Prowl (Losey, 1952) in Italy before settling in Britain in 1953 where he made The Sleeping Tiger (Losey, 1954) starring arguably his favourite actor Dirk Bogarde with whom he worked with on five films. Bogarde plays a criminal taken into care by Alexander Knox, a psychiatrist. Alexis Smith plays the psychiatrist’s wife who develops feelings for Bogarde. The film is an excellent three hander by the actors about characters who can never be sure what they want. Raymond Durgnat (1966) rightly points out that the film could have made in the 1930s by Warner Bros. Starring Humphrey Bogart (James Mason would have been perfect), Bette Davis and Claude Rains. With Losey blacklisted the film was credited to its producer Victor Hanbury. Losey and cinematographer Harry Waxman use dark shadows to convey deep trauma and secrets. The house in The Sleeping Tiger marks for me Losey’s fascination with confined spaces; the houses in The Servant, Accident, Secret Ceremony, The Go-Between and The Romantic Englishwoman. The apartment in Blind Date, the cave in The Damned, the prison in The Criminal and the trenches in King and Country.


The Intimate Stranger (Losey, 1956) was once again credited to its producer, this time Alec C. Snowden. Losey does what he can with what feels like a BBC Play for the Day, but with less visual imagination than say one directed by Ken Loach or Mike Leigh or those scripted by Dennis Potter. The story concerns an American film producer who resides in England after a near scandal in Hollywood. He begins receiving love letters from a woman he does not remember. The actors Richard Basehart, Mary Murphy and the wonderful Roger Livesey are all on fine form. Perhaps the most visually striking element of the film is the use of film sound stage lights being repeatedly shone on a guilty culprit.


Blind Date (Losey, 1959) concerns a Dutch artist Jan (Hardy Kruger) who goes to the flat a French woman Jacqueline (Micheline Presle), he hears a knock on the door, police led by Inspector Morgan (Stanley Baker) enter and discover Jacqueline’s body. With this film and The Criminal Losey highlights the multicultural change which started in Britain around the 1950s. Jan as an outsider to England struggles at first to understand the police’s methods. The film also struggles in its flashbacks of Jan and Jacqueline but I suppose that’s the point. One was reminded of the domestic arguments in Contempt (Godard, 1963). Durgnat (1966) interestingly refers to the ending as having an air of ‘Godardian freedom’ in which Jan hasn’t learned much from the experience maybe this makes a second viewing more interesting.


In The Criminal (Losey, 1960) the prisoners are stick figures for labour. Johnny Bannion’s (Stanley Baker) release from prison is short lived he almost cannot bare to leave those stone walls. The film’s ending echoes Shoot the Piano Player (Truffaut, 1960). His woman Suzanne’s (Margit Saad) presence is like that of an angel, ‘a gift from the Gods’ as Durgnat (1966) argues. Freedom is too far away from any of these characters, they are always imprisoned in some way.


The Damned (Losey, 1963) opens with a rock ballad from the film’s composer James Bernard, entitled ‘Black Leather Rock’. It reaches its climax when a gang led by King (Oliver Reed) start whistling it, I marvel at this moment. The Damned starts out as a runaway story involving Joan (Shirley Anne Field) and Simon (Macdonald Carey) and turns into them stumbling upon a group of radioactive children whom Joan, Simon and King decide to rescue against the odds. The scenario and relationship between the head scientist Bernard (Alexander Knox) and his mistress Freya (Viveca Lindfors) echoes Doctor Génessier and his mistress Louise in Eyes Without a Face (Franju, 1960). The Damned is among the most ambitious produced by Hammer Films. Such subtleties are added to the texture of the film like the incestuous overtone in the relationship between Joan and King who are brother and sister. The film pulls no punches, it portrays an England spiralling over the edge with gang beatings, illegal scientific experiences, an England where freedom is once again denied.


It is so difficult to write about The Servant (Losey, 1963) which I consider to be Losey’s masterpiece along with The Go-Between. Losey’s direction in The Servant is heavily emphasised by noir shadows and sharp camera movement. Pinter’s dialogue is among his best. The Servant from its opening street image is very much a London film accompanied by Johnny Dankworth’s jazzy score. A figure, Barrett (Dirk Bogarde) immerges from the wilderness in this opening sequence, he has applied for a job as aristocrat Tony’s (James Fox) servant. Tony hires Barrett which begins a spinning wheel of dishonesty, cruelty and power shifting between the men and the women, Susan (Wendy Craig) and Vera (Sarah Miles). That is not to say that The Servant is about a battle of the sexes, it is more of a battle of the classes. The final shot and abrupt end credits stunned me.


King and Country (Losey, 1964) concerns wet and depressing trenches in the Battle of Passchendaele in World War One, 1917. When Private Hamp (Tom Courtenay) is accused of desertion Captain Hargreaves (Dirk Bogarde) steps in to defend him. Losey shot the film cheaply, using a set at Shepperton Studios for the trenches and an almost deserted London street and home of Private Hamp to remind us of his life left behind. Bogarde is at his best as a no-nonsense humanitarian trapped in a bureaucratic authoritarian cesspool where the questions in the feeble heads of the chief officers are; ‘what’s best for England?’, ‘what’s the best example to the soldiers?’ etc. Keeping in mind that these questions are still relevant 100 years later is severely depressing. As Hamp lies drunk on the ground towards the end of the film, all that is still relevant in 2016 hits home (you’ll see what I mean). And Bogarde stepping up in the final scene in a reveal similar to a scene in Visconti’s The Damned (1969) is a testament to his incredible integrity as an actor in moments that are amoral and his characters know they are and bear them through emotional guilt.


Accident (Losey, 1967) is the weakest of Losey’s films that I’ve seen; I say this as a huge admirer of his work. I saw the film about five years ago on VHS and struggled with its narrative and characters, it was my first viewing of a Losey film. Revisiting it now knowing Losey’s films a lot better and that it was one of his three collaborations with Harold Pinter I still find myself more puzzled with the film, especially as Pinter also scripted The Servant and The Go-Between both of which I believe to be Losey’s best films. I get that Losey and Pinter are interested in the bland and empty lives of these people but it not enough to sustain its narrative. It is a vagueness that works well in films of that period like Charlie Bubbles (Finney, 1967). Accident needs at least one scene to grasp onto to make it accessible in someway, I did not find one but will gladly revisit the film in another few years.


Secret Ceremony (Losey, 1968) portrays an almost empty London like the London of The Satanic Rites of Dracula (Gibson, 1973). The huge Debenham House in Holland Park, West London is the main setting for this unsettling psychological drama which bares the tagline ‘no one admitted the last 12 minutes’. Mia Farrow lives all alone in the huge house which bares the past secret of likely incessant with her now dead family. The film at first intriguing strains its own narrative relying on slightly repetitive scenes involving Farrow. Elizabeth Taylor and Robert Mitchum give mildly interesting performances. Their encounter on the beach is the film’s best scene it breathes on its own and adds to the mystery of the incest theme. The house reminds me of Jeanne Dielman’s apartment you just cannot wait to leave.

le messager

The Go-Between (Losey, 1971) has a score by Michel Legrand that is absolutely mesmerising, up there with Michael Nyman’s great work for Peter Greenaway’s films. From the opening shot of raindrops on the window, I was captivated by the love of life that climaxes Legrand’s main theme. The story is; Alan Bates and Julie Christie use young Dominic Guard to act as a ‘go-between’ for their correspondence of love letters. The film won Losey the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1971, his highest career honour. Gerry Fisher’s (a regular collaborator of Losey’s) stunning cinematography captures the beautiful English nature and the large country house filled with what I remember to be natural light leaving its mark of emotional intensity like Legrand’s music does particularly when Fisher’s zooms to a dramatic close-up.      


The Romantic Englishwoman (Losey, 1975) is an interesting film about power once again set mostly in the surroundings of an English house. Glenda Jackson and Michael Caine are perfectly cast as a married couple with Helmut Berger as their ‘go-between’ for business and pleasure. Losey and his screenwriters Tom Stoppard and Thomas Wiseman have made a comedy of manners, for example in one hilarious scene Caine and Jackson are ‘down and dirty’ in their front garden before an unannounced guest pulls up in their driveway. Dirk Bogarde who collaborated with Losey five times reportedly turned down Caine’s role. Caine’s rants are among his best, like in A Shock to the System (Egleson, 1990).


Mr. Klein (Losey, 1976) stars Alain Delon in a performance of subtle intensity which is maybe the best acting of any Losey film. It’s difficult to say more, Delon has encounter after encounter which builds towards an intimate experience about identity and bad timing, with an ironic final image. Losey worked until the end of his life in 1984, aged just 75. I cannot quite tell if Losey’s American identity merged with a English one after he had lived in London for 30 years.



Philippe Garrel’s L’enfant secret (1979)


I first heard about Philippe Garrel through Adrian Martin’s introduction of L’enfant secret (Garrel, 1979) for Sight and Sound’s Greatest Films of All Time 2012 poll. The film was made in 1979 but not shown until 1982, as Garrel needed the time to prepare it in the lab I think. I would guess that Garrel and the Cinematheque Francaise hold the only prints of this film. Martin, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Fergus Daly and nine others attended a screening of it in the IFI Cinema, Dublin (my local) in June 2001 as part of a Garrel conference, entitled Garrel Eternal (which according to Rosenbaum maybe the only Garrel conference in existence), the screenings were curated by Fergus Daly. To my knowledge one of the few other cinemas to show L’enfant secret is the Melbourne Cinematheque, Garrel holds the screening rights. Martin said of the film “I dreamed it in my mind of what it would be… It turned out to infinitely greater than anything I had dreamed’. I am lucky enough to have seen this film which has only a Japanese DVD release.


It concerns a man and a woman in their early thirties, he is a filmmaker, Garrel’s alter-ego. She is an actress, Nico’s (of The Velvet Underground) alter-ego, (Garrel and Nico had a long and intense relationship around 1969 to 1979). The semi-autobiographical details concern the man, Jean-Baptiste (Henri de Maublanc) who goes thorough severe depression leading to electric shock treatments. The woman Elie (Anne Wiazemsky) has a child named Swann (Xuan Lindenmeyer) by another man. The film is a structure of vignettes conveying the many feelings expressed by the characters.


Characters often say goodbye to each other in Garrel’s films, as Martin (2012) notes ‘this is one of the absolutely central human moments for him’, such moments are portrayed with such intimacy through the actors and mise-en-scene. After the IFI screening in 2001, Adrian Martin walked to the back of cinema to find Fergus Daly trembling, Daly asked ‘have we just seen the greatest film ever made?! Martin replied ‘yes, we did’. A nearly tearful Martin in 2012 adds ‘and I still believe this’.


My main critical sources of Garrel include Martin’s aformentioned 2012 introduction and his three texts, Garden of Stone: Philippe Garrel’s L’enfant secret from Senses of Cinema (2001) (now available through a 2011 revised version from Transit), A Cinema of Intimate Spectacle: The Poetics of Philippe Garrel from Cineaste (2009) and Jealousy: Terms of Endearment from Transit (2014). Also of great passion and interest are Kent Jones’ 1997 essay from Film Comment entitled Sad and Proud of It: The Films of Philippe Garrel, Review: A Burning Hot Summer (Film Comment July/August 2012) and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s 2006 review for Sight and Sound, Voluptuous Defeat: Philippe Garrel and Les amants réguliers. I have previously seen three Garrel films; Regular Lovers (Garrel, 2005), Frontier of Dawn (Garrel, 2008) and Jealousy (Garrel, 2013) all are in black and white (like L’enfant secret) and star Philippe Garrel’s son Louis as his father’s alter-ego prowling the streets of Paris as a poet, a photographer and an actor respectively. Louis Garrel’s emotional turmoil of love and loss are at the centre of these films. Two of them end in suicide, one in a failed suicide attempt, L’enfant secret is almost optimistic by comparison, one character considers suicide or self harm but knows better. Kent Jones (2012) notes Garrel’s ‘intensive focus on a limited set of preoccupations and obsessions—suicide, drug addiction, the tension between individual freedom and responsibility, the memory of May ’68 [the violent demonstrations of workers, intellectuals, and students in Paris], and above all the ghost of his relationship with Nico.’ Jones continues: ‘the passage from romantic love to domesticity and its ongoing negotiations and niggling adjustments’


Until last night L’enfant secret was my ‘holy grail’ of films to track down, I could not believe my eyes when it was in front of me. Even though it was not the best quality it still communicated all of its feelings, silences and incredible beauty. Jones (1997) states that these moments ‘have the tough beauty of poetic fragments in a quietly devastating film of almost unbearable alternations between tenderness and the harshest truths’. I could not be but taken by the silences in L’enfant secret, silences with such immense power from the actors and mise-en-scene. I wondered what I had missed in other ‘slow films’ like Jeanne Dielman (Akerman, 1975) and Tropical Malady (Apichatpong, 2004). This subtle emotional intensity is heightened by the incredibly poetic music by Faton Cahen with Didier Lockwood (only 22 at the time) playing a mournful and haunting violin accompaniment. Wiazemsky and de Maublanc give absolutely stunning performances based on their characters’ strong emotions which we feel but can never truly know. Each vignette, each close-up bears witness to a film which as Martin (2012) notes ‘nearly didn’t exist’ like Philippe Garrel, a survivor who got through his depression to make this film. Garrel uses 16mm, 35mm and a moviola to make you feel as Martin notes ‘as if the film is going to disintegrate before your very eyes’, this is the power of the film. It is a truly unique experience which bears the signature of Garrel, ‘Garrel eternal’ in the hearts and minds of every cinephile who shared a similar revelatory experience to those people who saw it unveiled on the screen in the IFI Cinema 2 on that day in Dublin in June 2001.