Jonathan’s Paris diary

Jonathan is a world traveller, one of the most knowledgeable cinephiles I know, and a great screening buddy on those rare occasions when he can drag himself up to L.A. from San Diego. Here are his fascinating journal entries from his recent trip to Paris. -Doug

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By Jonathan Takagi

Zatoichi (Takeshi Kitano)
UGC Les Halles

If youíre ever watching movies in Paris, the big chains like UGC offer a great deal if you go to the early show. Zatoichi started at 9:45 a.m. and was only 4.50 euros. There were quite a few people there, and many appeared to be Japanese. Itís kind of strange to go to a multiplex thatís showing Matrix Revolutions and films by Rivette and Kitano, but I take it as simply a more healthy relationship between commercial and ìartî films (for lack of a better term). One drawback is that the big chains like UGC and PathÈ show even more commercials than the smaller, independent theatres, up to around 20 minutes worth.

Most people seem to be receiving Zatoichi as a return to form for Kitano, since it goes back to the familiar territory of Japanese organized crime after the highly stylized melodrama of Dolls and the American setting of Brother. However, as a commissioned period piece making forays into the world of music video, it stands out from many of his previous projects.

Whatís initially striking about Zatoichi is its linear narrative, complete with copious flashbacks to fill out the exposition. Not much time is spent giving background on the character of Zatoichi, who is already very familiar to the Japanese audience. Kitano takes quite a few liberties with the character (a key requirement for his acceptance of the project), most obviously in the color of his hair and sword/cane. But just as radical is Kitanoís portrayal of Zatoichi as a total outsider who never really connects with or even defends the inhabitants of the village. The outcome of the film is known from the beginning, though Zatoichi remains detached and relatively isolated, embroiled in a personal, not collective, conflict.

Kitanoís quiet demeanor and residual facial tics suit the character and his blindness, a role typical of each of his films in which he stars. As usual, the violence is punctuated with moments of quiet reflection as well as frequent comic interludes. However, some of the formal elements are quite striking in their difference. The camera is much more mobile than usual, frequently gliding amongst the characters (according to Kitano, much of this is to hide the poor quality of the wigs). Also, the music plays a much more integral role. Whereas Joe Hisaishiís previous music is often highly melodramatic and intrusive, there is a great deal of joy in watching the seamless integration of the movements of a group of workers in step with the rhythm of this score, provided by Keiichi Suzuki.

The action is extremely violent, with tons of blood, most of which appears to be CGI. The movement of the swords is very rapid and the battles are over very quickly. The showdown with the rogue ronin challenges traditional expectations of a drawn out duel, starting and ending so quickly itís hard to figure out what happened.

But at heart the film is very playful, and itís all topped-off by the much-discussed celebratory closing scene. The choreography and music is exhilarating, giving the film one of the happiest endings Iíve ever seen.

Peau dí‚ne (Donkey Skin) (Jacques Demy, 1970)
MK2 Parnasse

Unfortunately, due to poor planning, I had to miss Mathieu Amalricís film La Chose publique. Arriving at the theatre, I was surprised to see so many children standing in line. I was actually the only adult at the theatre that did not bring any children along. Some were in line to see the Studio Ghibli film The Cat Returns, but most were there for the Demy film.

The theatre was just as boisterous as one would expect. I smiled as I heard a little voice ask his mother, ìIs this Peau dí‚ne?î during the F¸r Elise-scored trailer for Elephant. But it quickly quieted down as the film started, and most of the children seemed very interested the whole time.

Iím not sure if the “Donkey Skinî tale is a familiar fairy tale in France, but I had never heard of it before. It takes place in an enchanted kingdom where all the servants have blue skin and a donkey excretes jewels and precious metals. After the beloved queen dies, the only princess beautiful enough to satisfy the king happens to be his own daughter (Catherine Deneuve). With the help of Delphine Seyrig, she tries to evade the impending wedding by making extraordinary demands to test the resolve of her father, finally asking for the skin of the wealth-providing donkey. The king remains determined to marry his daughter, and she flees, doomed to wear the donkey skin in public as a change in identity. A Cinderella-like tale then follows in a nearby kingdom.

There are fewer songs in Peau dí‚ne than in Demyís other well-known collaborations with Michel Legrand, and unfortunately they all seemed much less charming to me. The jazz-inflected delight of Les Demoiselles de Rochefort is here replaced by a type of ’70s pop ballad. The colors remain vibrant and as carefully selected as in his other musicals.

The general absurdity of the storyline (which comes to a summit with the triumphant return of Seyrigís character at the end), which certainly borders on perverse, may not be too wild for a childís imagination, but unfortunately took a lot of personal enjoyment out of the experience.

Les EgarÈs (Strayed) (AndrÈ TÈchinÈ)
Espace Saint-Michel

At this point (and definitely during Dogville) I began to regret having read so much about all the films that screened during Cannes this year. Knowing the basic plot and the general critical consensus is too heavy an influence on a mind thatís still trying to develop a critical approach to cinema.

The story is quite simple. Emanuelle BÈart, recently widowed during World War II, is fleeing Paris with her two children. On the way a German bomb destroys their car and scares them out of following the migrating masses. They meet a mysterious teenager who helps them find shelter, but they retain their suspicions as certain details about his past and his character start to become more apparent.

The flow of the story is measured and exact, and the most enjoyable moments come from observing the gestures, details and movements of each character as they try to regain a sense of normalcy in an irreconcilably alienating position. The tension between the young man and BÈartís character is recognizable very early, but by the time it was all over I wondered just what the point of the whole experience was. Itís not that I always expect resolution to a conflict, but the narrative structure of the film created certain expectations with little payoff. The resulting mystery is not involving enough to be an end in itself.

Dogville (Lars von Trier)
EpÈe de Bois

It seemed like I knew everything about this film before having seen it. I felt like the last person in the world to have seen this movie, even though it hasnít yet opened in the US. There have been so many opinions, from the laudatory to the overly defensive. Yes, the theatricality of the set is intriguing and a bit risky I guess. But I ended up being a little bored. This is undoubtedly due to having read so much about the movie, preventing any surprise. Upon leaving the theatre, several people were commenting on how ugly the movie was. I donít think the allegory is necessarily unfair. One could envision either the town of Dogville (the most common perception) or Grace (holding others to an unrealistic standard that she is unwilling to keep herself) as the United States. But I got the feeling that von Trier had nothing new to offer. In short, it seemed pretty boring to me.

Saltimbank (Jean-Claude Biette)

I like this theatre. The set up is a little strange, the bottom floor being too low, sloping up, and the balcony being too high. But I have fond memories of watching Ulyssesí Gaze here a while back. Theyíre showing everything from The Jungle Book 2 to Straub/Huillet. It makes me wonder how the French distribution system works. The cost of renting prints must be much less. By looking at their screening schedule, you would think they have multiple theatres. But there is in fact only one theatre, and they still find the time to show 24 different movies and two programs of shorts. So why does my local theatre have 18 theatres, but only 10 different movies (and all uninteresting)?

Back in í99, I lucked out and watched Bietteís previous film, Trois ponts sur la riviËre, being familiar with its actors, mainly through Desplechinís Comment je me suis disputÈ. I was a little familiar with Bietteís writing for Trafic, but had never seen any of his films. I was disappointed that one of his earlier films, Le Champignon des Carpathes, recently revived after Bietteís unfortunate and unexpected death last summer, had dropped off Parisian screens just one week before I arrived. Although I didnít enjoy Saltimbank as much as his previous film, it makes me even more eager to see more of Bietteís work, being completely unable to characterize his approach to cinema.

Trois pontsÖ was a sometimes painfully observant, though frequently humorous, tale of a second chance spoiled by selfishness. The same humor is evident here, but the plot is more expansive, involving a much larger group of characters that are only marginally connected. The top-billed Jeanne Balibar character doesnít even appear until almost a third of the way through the movie. Part of my difficulty with the film was due to fatigue (a note: donít try going to a three-hour movie at 9 p.m. on the first day of a trip with a nine-hour time shift again). There are so many different strands and carefully placed clues, and by the time I started piecing things together, the movie abruptly ended.

The tenuous relationship between the worlds of art and finance is on display here, from art theft to the shaky future of a theatre. The two groups that occupy the theatre rehearse Racine and Chekhov, one trying to fill a vacant role with an actress who seems to now prefer being behind the scenes, while they risk being replaced unknowingly by a clown act. There are very few links between the different groups of characters, some at a bank, some at a cafÈ and two groups at the theatre, and indeed, a sense of solitude permeates each one. I hope to see this movie again, to tie up loose ends and to delve further into the mystery of Jean-Claude Biette.

The Mystery of the Yellow Room (Bruno PodalydËs)

The CinÈma du PanthÈon is a great theatre, with a large screen and plenty of seating. I also discovered that they were going to host the ìCinÈ-Clubî of the Cahiers du CinÈma magazine, screening Rivetteís Duelle!

I absolutely loved Dieu seul me voit (Versailles-Chantiers), which I found both hilarious and touching. Its predecessor, Versailles-Rive Gauche, was also enjoyable. I was disappointed, however, by LibertÈ-OlÈron, PodalydËsí previous film. Its dark middle section was incongruous and ugly, especially in the evil unleashed by the main character, Denis PodalydËs, Brunoís brother, who stars in all of his films.

The Mystery of the Yellow Room is another departure from the earlier films, being an adaptation and a period piece. Itís probably a risky move, since the source material, written by Gaston Leroux (of Phantom of the Opera fame) is well known and has previously been adapted to the screen. It is a classic ìlocked roomî mystery in which the investigators must figure out how a woman was attacked if there was no way in or out of her room at the time of the incident.

The principal charm of the two Versailles movies lies in the performance of the main character, interpreted by Denis, and in his close friendships. Here, as the detective Rouletabille (Iím not sure about the literal interpretation of his name as punctuation in the movie), he has his sidekick, the Podalydesí habitual actor Jean-NoÎl BroutÈ, but is more solitary as he tries to solve the mystery. He is surrounded by other fine actors: Michael Lonsdale and Resnais regulars Sabine AzÈma and Pierre Arditi. What results is a fairly standard mystery movie, engaging and enigmatic, but ultimately very ordinary. The photography is very attractive and I bet this film could have a broad appeal even though it lacks the personal touch that I expected.

Un Film parlÈ (A Talking Picture) (Manoel de Oliveira)
EpÈe de Bois

Again, another movie that unfolded exactly as I expected. The bulk of the film is a travelogue of the great historical sites of the Mediterranean, as told by habitual muse Leonor Silveira to her daughter while on a cruise to meet Silveiraís husband. The second chunk is a long multilingual (English/French/Greek/Italian) conversation between three celebrity guests and the shipís captain. The last segment depicts an unexpected (and almost comical at times) terrorist threat.

Many spectators are certain to be bored by the successive lessons given by Silveira, here playing a university professor. As the title suggests, the words never stop flowing. Some have been offended by the ìold-fashionedî topics of the long history lectures given in simple language to the young girl (such as the explanation of the genesis of the Arabs or the perceived ignorance of Muslim culture) but the audacity of the unending talking ends up being very entertaining. The film seems to be simply a description of the origins of Western culture, including a pre-Tower of Babel conversation in which all European languages are understood, underlining a strong parallel between past and present troubles.

Ce vieux rÍve qui bouge (The Old Dream That Moves) (Alain Guiradie, 2001)
MK2 Beaubourg

I expected the kind of anything-goes nonsense of Pas de repos pour les braves, but I guess I just didnít get it. A simple tale of the effects caused by the arrival of a young gay worker at a factory just about to close down. Again, it was probably my sleepiness that hindered my comprehension. Very funny, but I donít know if I really understood everything.

LíEveillÈ du Pont de líAlma (Raoul Ruiz, 1985)
Forum des Images

If I thought that I didnít understand Ce vieux rÍve qui bouge, I was not at all prepared for this film. The first in a series of Ruiz films to be projected that day, it fit in well with other of his films from that era (like City of Pirates), with its cheap special effects, unexpected camera angles and completely wacky narrative logic. The story is quite twisted, involving a rape at the bridge in the title by a pair of insomniacs and the chaos that ensues with the resulting fetus and its family. I need to watch this again.

Versailles rive gauche (Bruno PodalydËs)
Forum des Images

This was the film that first attracted attention to the PodalydËs brothers, starring Denis PodalydËs, Michel Vuillermoz and Jean-NoÎl BroutÈ, who are all also featured in the follow-up film Dieu seul me voit. Both of these are set in Versailles, where the PodalydËs brothers grew up. Both films take their titles (the second is subtitled Versailles-Chantiers) from the railroad stations in Versailles.

This film is under an hour and quite simple in structure. A young man has managed to set up a dinner date in his miniscule apartment, and his plans are unexpectedly diverted by a constant stream of interruptions by his brothers and other friends. The main character is very likable, similar to his counterpart in Dieu seul me voit, well-intentioned and amiable, but not highly skilled in executing his designs. Most of the gags have been seen before in television sitcoms, involving how to hide an embarrassment, requiring further layers of cover until it becomes almost unmanageable. But it still all comes off as fresh, mainly because this film was the only major work that I had still not seen by the duo.

Eclipse (Chris Marker, 1999)
Forum des Images

Basically just shots of lots of people using special glasses to watch a solar eclipse, without any commentary, just the computer-based music so often used by Marker.

On síest tous dÈfilÈ (Jean-Luc Godard, 1988)
Forum des Images

A video short that I had never seen, Godard films a MarithÈ & FranÁois Girbaud fashion show, using many of the video-based tricks that he would later perfect for his Histoire(s) du CinÈma. It must have been commissioned by them, since I know that he had also made commercials for their jeans around the time of filming King Lear. I wonder if it was rejected, as so many of the other commissioned films have been, since, as should be expected, it was about anything other than the clothes on display.

Le Coup du berger (Fool’s Mate) (Jacques Rivette, 1956)
Forum des Images

I was surprised to see that the co-writing credits went to Charles Bitsch and Claude Chabrol, as the situation seems like a Rohmer film. A double-crossing wife is in turn one-upped by her husband. Very fun, and unlike any other Rivette film Iíve seen. For an added piece of trivia, Straub helped with the camera.

Duelle (Women Duelling) (Jacques Rivette, 1976)

I had only seen this once before, and even Rivette said that he hadnít seen it since its initial release back in the ’70s. I was excited to see this, knowing that Rivette would be in attendance. I ended up sitting in the same row as Christine Laurent, which ended up being a nice surprise, since Bulle Ogier then sat next to her (and me). I never even thought about how many of Rivetteís films Ogier has been in until that moment, and I was in awe. Cahiers du CinÈma was hosting a screening of this film as a companion to the opening of Histoire de Marie et Julien, one of the lost films of the ScËnes de la vie parallËle tetralogy. The series was designed to cover several genres. Duelle was the fantasy, NoroÓt was the adventure film and there was to be a musical comedy starring Anna Karina. The recently released Histoire de Marie et Julien was originally slated to be the love story

The film wasnít in the best shape, being a lot redder with age. But it was just as engrossing as I remember it. Based on some Celtic myths summarized by Claude Gaignebet and Jean Markale that had fascinated Rivette, the story centers on a battle between two goddesses (sun and moon) that have a forty-day period during which they come to earth to find a stone that will allow the winner and her kind to extend their stay.

While it may seem so, the story was not improvised, though the music of Jean Wiener (who is often seen on screen, just as in NoroÓt) was improvised based on Rivetteís directions, and accurately captures the mood of each scene. The main reason it may seem improvised is that the action is so free and seemingly disjointed that it appears as if there was no prewritten plan. Indeed, an audience member tried to compare this film to Irma Vep (and kept pushing Rivette to comment on it, though it was obvious that he was very reluctant to say anything bad about the film) and Rivette ended up saying that the main difference is that Assayas knew everything that would be in his film ahead of time, and he didnít.

Rivetteís biggest reproach regarding his own film is the lack of suspense, which definitely makes sense. However, the film maintains a certain playfulness that results from the high degree of liberty of the filming, in which almost anything can happen and fit into the story. The otherness of a mythical story that is set in standard Parisian locations of the era is fascinating.

Interestingly, Rivette agreed on a sort of parallel between Viva (the sun goddess)/Leni (the moon goddess) and Hollywood/Fassbinder, though he felt that his main inspirations for this project were Cocteau and Franju.

As always, the movement of the actorsí bodies is extremely important and is observed in detail. Jean BabilÈe, coming from the world of dance, has his own grace and reportedly drew inspiration from Bruce Lee. Rivette said that no one was really familiar with kung fu films at the time, but when they later saw them (especially the films of King Hu) he noticed a kinship between them and this film.

Pas de repos pour les braves (No Rest for the Brave) (Alain Guiradie)
MK2 Beaubourg

This film fit my expectations of Guiradieís work much more than the previous film I had seen. Frequently hilarious and completely crazy, it sometimes reminded me of Bertrand Blier. The story is almost impossible to summarize, involving a forced insomniac (because he saw the figure Faftao-Laoupo in a dream) who may have decimated an entire village, helping someone who was previously trying to track him down to escape a bumbling mob of wannabe gangsters. Iím sure a lot of the references went over my head, but it was a fun viewing. Not exactly profound, but constantly entertaining.

Histoire de Marie et Julien (History of Marie and Julien) (Jacques Rivette)
MK2 BibliothËque

This theatre is relatively new, a huge complex near the BibliothËque Mitterand. It contains a nice bookstore with a good selection of movie books, a music store, a cafÈ and a DVD store with all the MK2 discs as well as many others. There are screens that show you how much time is left before your theatre is ready, thus avoiding the need for the theatre workers whose main function is to tell you when you can enter the theatre. Based on the theatre I was in, the screens are very large and the seats are comfortable. It just seems a lot more similar to American multiplexes, just with a better selection of movies.

This film has a long history. Originally started with Leslie Caron and Albert Finney, Rivette abandoned the set after two days and disappeared for a couple years, probably from the pressure of filming four films back to back (though this was only the third). He tried to resurrect it several times, first with Michel Piccoli, then with the intriguing idea of casting Maurice Pialat in the role of Julien. He even considered playing it himself once. Itís obvious that this is a dear project to him, even if he had forgotten many of the details of the skeletal script (recently pieced together and published together with the more substantial scripts for PhÈnix and LíAn II), such as the ìforbidden gestureî (from a cryptic note in the original plans, ìdonít forget the forbidden gestureî). Still, on reviewing the script, itís astonishing how most of the film is present in the short summary. It even contains the idea of a shifting perspective, though in the finished film, there are four (rather than three) acts: Julien, Julien et Marie, Marie et Julien and finally Marie.

As usual, much of the story is mysterious and obscure. Marie and Julien had previously known each other, but both were in relationships that had recently ended poorly, leaving both of them in states of disorientation. Julien fixes clocks, and blackmails an anonymous woman (ìMadame Xî) on the side. When Marie comes back in his life, she fills a void, but also creates some worrying problems. Why does she keep disappearing? Why does she sometimes seem ìelsewhereî? Most of this is elucidated later, though the shifting perspective leaves one wondering what is actually true.

Since the number of characters and locations are so few, a great deal of time is spent on their relationship, and it is very convincing and touching. The moods range for troubling and disturbing to lighthearted, especially in Julienís interaction with his cat, Nevermore. Originally the cat was to have a speaking part. Some have reproached the film for the scenes in which the cat obviously makes some ìmistakesî such as watching the boom microphone or scrambling back from the approaching camera. I guess that itís true that those scenes stand out more than they would have if the film had originally been made in the ’70s, since the feeling is much more ìmatureî than films like Duelle. By ìmatureî, I guess I mean that the narrative is much more linear, even complete with a happy ending. But Rivette is right in claiming that it would have been much too easy to finish with crushing disappointment. Heís clearly in a different phase than when he made ScËnes de la vie parallËle, and the result is still extremely satisfying.