Band of Outsiders (1964)

band of outsiders criterion

Jean Luc Godard was one of the pioneers of the French New Wave. His films have been hailed as some of the greatest movies of all time, but he also has a reputation for being difficult, for making challenging, even obtuse films. So, I’m always surprised when I watch one of his movies and find them to be utterly delightful. Band of Outsiders is one of my favorites of his films (at least from what I’ve seen) and Criterion released an excellent Blu-ray of it awhile back. I wrote a review and you can read it here.

With a Friend Like Harry… (2000)

with a friend like harry

My wife is a francophile. She speaks French fluently. Studied it in college. Has a masters in French linguistics. Lived in Montreal for a while, and we spent some time in Strasbourg. She reads French books and we sometimes watch French movies.

We watched this one in the theater when it first came out. We had no idea what it was about. It is a good one. I bought it on DVD. It is a freaky thriller with lots of good twists. You can read my full review here.

31 Days of Horror: Fascination (1979)

fascination movie poster

French director Jean Rollin is somebody whose name I’ve known for years, but whose films I had never sat down and watched until today. He made a lot of movies in his career but is probably best known for a series of erotic vampire films he made in the 1970s. Fascination is probably his best-known movie.

It is about a man who flees from his fellow villainous compatriots with a bag full of stolen gold. He winds up in a creaky, old, castle where he plans to hide out until the cover of darkness. There he meets two beautiful women clad in flowing white gowns.

Though he has a gun and speaks as if he’s willing to use it the women do not seem afraid. They taunt him and speak elliptically about further friends coming that evening and something sinister happening at midnight. The man doesn’t understand but is attracted to them and so he stays.

More women in flowing gowns arrive and they too play games with the man. I’ve already noted that Rollin is known for his erotic vampire films so you can probably guess where this film is going, though it may actually surprise you.

The film uses the castle, and those flowing gowns, to great effects. This is more a mood piece than a particularly violent horror film. It takes its time getting to where it’s going but it is mesmerizing just the same. Well worth a watch if you enjoy gothic horror and beautiful vampires.

Rififi in Paris (1966)

rififi in paris poster

We now have a library card for the Strasbourg city library. In France, you have to pay an annual fee for a library card. There are actually two different prices, one if you wish to only check out books, and another higher priced card that allows you two check out multi-media items such as DVDs. Hearing that they had a selection of over 900 DVDs Amy and I decided we would shell out the expense of getting that type of card. We calculated that even if we only checked out one movie per week for the remaining time we are here, we would still come out cheaper than if we rented the same amount of films. The funny thing about their movies is that they almost never have any. Out of the 900 owned, there are usually only 6 or 7 of them available for check out at any time. We have been lucky that we’ve been able to find films that we would like to see. Both Rope and The Man Who Knew Too Much both came from the library.

This week I picked up Rififi in Paris thinking it was an old bank robber movie that I have heard good things about. Unfortunately, that film is entitled just Rififi. I am unsure if this is supposed to be a sequel or if it is just a coincidence in the title. There is limited information on The Internet Movie DataBase, and it wasn’t good enough to really look further than that.

The basic story of this film is that an American agent, Charles Binnagio (George Raft), is working undercover in Paris to stop a French group of gangsters. He uses his contact with a high-class hooker to start working for the gangsters by smuggling Gold to Tokyo. After saving the second-in-command mobster, Paulo Berger’s (Jean Gabin) life, Binnaggio is promoted to Berger’s bodyguard. Excitement ensues.

Due to complications involving the regional coding of the DVD I could only watch this film in an English dubbed version. I am universally opposed to dubbed movies, and try my best to only watch films in their original languages with subtitles if necessary. Watching this in the dubbed format was like slow torture. The plot was rather complicated to follow and I am not sure how much to blame on the language problem. What I was able to follow was resolutely bad.

There is no explanation why an American CIA agent would be infiltrating a group of French gangsters. There is a small subplot involving the weapons trade with Cuba, but it is not followed enough to make this the cause of the CIA’s involvement. To move the plot somewhere, a group of New York mobsters begins making threats to Berger and his cohorts to back off of several law-breaking activities. Violence ensues.

Binnaggio is so bad as an undercover agent that it is sheer movie magic that keeps him from being found out and killed. He visits the American consulate at will, talks with other agents as he pleases, and even snoops around the big boss’s house. It is surprising to see the French gang doing so well since they seem to have no ability to pay attention to their own members. The movie tries to build tension by having Binnaggio nearly found out or caught on a couple of occasions, but then the action moves forward and the enemy seems to forget. What little tension is built, always dies rather fast.

There is an odd quirk with the filming of this picture. More times than I could count there is a mirror located somewhere in the shots. Often we see one or more of the reflections of the character in the mirror, but many times we see only part of the stage. Once we even see a character’s reflection in a well-polished wall. I’m sure the filmmakers were attempting something meaningful out of all these reflections, but what that could be is beyond me. I was too busy being appalled by the sheer stupidity of the film to be bothered with such trivialities.

Amelie (2001)

amelie poster

There are some films that are pure joy to watch. These are films to be watched, cherished, and loved over and over again. There are certainly films that I may not herald as perfect cinematic achievements, but bring a smile to my face, and warmth to my heart. Amelie is such a film.

Jean Piere Jeunet made a series of dark, depressing films before Amelie. They seem to come from some strange crossing of Brazil-era Terry Gilliam and HR Giger-inspired Alien landscapes. In fact, Pierre directed the 4th installment of the Alien franchise, Alien Resurrection. Prior to Amelie‘s huge success, he was only known in the US for this picture. This is a shame, because her previous two films (Delicatessen and City of Lost Children) are real gems.

In Amelie, Jeunet has lost his Orwellian vision and has come up top of the world into the clear, blue sky. Amelie is alive with color and beauty. It is as if his first three films were harrowing graphic novels, and this one is a bright, technicolor Saturday morning cartoon. It is even a change of story for the director. Where his previous films concerned such meaty subjects as cannibalism, child murder, and those bloody awful Aliens, here is a simple story about making people happy. I’m not sure what caused these changes in the director, but it is a treasure to behold.

The story revolves around Amelie (Audrey Tautou), a shy, quiet, and lonely young woman living in the Montmartre section of Paris. Through a random series of events, she decides to make people happy. The means by which she manages this, and the heart of the movie, is through devising an extraordinary, and quirky, series of stratagems. For example, in order to bring some excitement into her saddened father’s life, she kidnaps his garden gnome and sends it across the globe with an airline stewardess. Her father sees the gnomes through a series of photographs taken with it standing near national monuments. The entire film is played out with child-like innocence and beauty. Jeunet uses his camera to create images that are light and joyous. Audrey Tautou plays Amelie like a pixie who is bursting inside to tell the world’s funniest joke.

Having visited Paris before watching this film again I found an additional joy by noticing the little details unknown to me in previous viewings. I have walked the steps of the Sacre Couer, seen the photograph kiosks in the train station, and seen the top of Notre Dame. These actions did not bring any further realizations into the film but brought a little more joy to my viewing. It is like when a film is set in an area you once lived in. It may not have anything to do with you, but there is a pleasant joy in knowing where the events take place.

The film does not look or feel like the Paris that I visited last Christmas. It is almost a fairy tale version of the city. A city that, as an American, I conjured up with such names as “City of Light, City of Love.” The reality is a much darker, dirtier sort of place. But in this film everything is lighted beautifully, there is no garbage piling up on the streets, and the metro stations look lovely. Even the people if not always cheerful, are quirky and cute in their unhappiness.

There are other films that achieve more in their 2 odd hours of screen time, than Amelie. Though I could site more serious, and relevant films, it would be difficult to find one so full of innocent joy.