Tuesday, April 17, 2007

French vs German cinema, 2nd leg

A few weeks ago (March 25), my 1st leg of French vs German cinema featured 3 German films and 2 French ones. So it was appropriate that the return leg would have 3 French films and 2 German titles. Only one director was common over the two legs -- Werner Herzog. And like last time around, his movie was another volatile combination with Klaus Kinski.

Cobra Verde (1987, Director Werner Herzog): Rating 10/10

I knew nothing about Klaus Kinski and Herzog's collaborations until I saw the wonderful Aguirre. On the DVD commentary for that film, Herzog indicated the difficulty & challenges he had directing Kinski. The setting for that 1972 film was the Amazon and it was interesting to watch Kinski turn into a savage. So when I heard that Herzog put Kinski in the middle of Africa, well that sounded too good to pass up. And as it turns out, I got a bonus treat -- in Cobra Verde before Kinski lands up on the Western African coast, he starts out in hot and exotic Brazil.

No other person could have played the role of the bandit Cobra Verde as Kinski does. I am not sure that Kinski is playing the role -- he might be acting out his inner demons. The raw anger and emotions that he displays really make this film a riveting watch. Even though this is not a perfect film, it is a visual treat. The film starts out in Brazil when the slave trade was in full swing. Kinski plays a bandit who is feared by the locals. In fact, he may be the only white man that makes the locals stop in their tracks. Tired of his wild behaviour, the men in power hatch a plan to eliminate him -- they decide to send him to Africa to get some slaves. The rich business men have heard a rumour that no white man has survived the Benin king's wrath. So they decide to send Verde to his doom. But as expected, not only does Verde survive, he gains the king's trust and is elevated to power after the king is disposed in a bloodless coup.

There is a lot of sadness and muted anger simmering beneath the surface of Verde and this film. Both emotions are also evoked in the audience by the objective display of the slave trade. Only at the end of the movie do we see Verde give his opinion on human slavery. But until that point, we get to see the cruelty humans inflicted on others. Like in Aguirre, there are plenty of improvised scenes. The Benin and Ghanian locals acted out their customs and rituals while Herzog and his camera-man Viktor Ruzicka captured them. Even though the film is not strong on narrative, its real strength lies with its visual images of Brazil, Africa and Kinski. The last scene where Verde is trying with all his power to pull the boat out to sea is another one of those magical moments that Herzog seems to capture -- Verde is powerless and his inability to move the boat even one inch puts his life and situation in perspective.

I really wish that a movie could have been made which had featured Cobra Verde face to face with Brando's Kurtz!

Betty Blue (1986, Director Jean-Jacques Beineix): Rating 8.5/10

Sometimes we cross the same streets everyday and brush past the same people. Yet, we don't stop to give a second thought to some of those people. Movies can suffer the same fate sometimes. I walked by the DVD of Betty Blue on numerous occasions but never thought of picking it up. A recent recommendation made me give this film a go and I am fortunate for that. I truly relished being lost in the world of Betty and Zorg for almost 3 hours.

The film starts out with a raw sex scene but the scenes after that are very un-French -- cowboy hat, pick-up truck, beach-houses and brightly lit surroundings. In fact, the bright lighting threw me off the most. Most French films are often shot in Parisian suburbs where the bright light is often blocked. But not in this one this one. Even after the film moves to Paris (around the 40th minute mark), the couple settle in a detached house as opposed to an apartment. Another un-French like move. In fact, the film can be described as having shades of Verhoeven's Turkish Delight with an American cinematic beating heart at its core.

Betty wants to be a free soul and is frustrated with the restrictions around her. She is on the verge of giving up on Zorg when she stumbles onto his diaries. She reads through all of them and is convinced that Zorg is a great writer. She makes it her goal to get him published. But when that does not happen, she is crushed. After that, any happiness that comes Betty's way gets taken away. Or so she thinks. She is a restless person and lives on the edge of misery and ecstacy. Zorg is very patient with her and tries his best to take care of her needs. It is clear that the film is heading towards a sad ending and we are given some clues to Betty's irrational behaviour. At 3 hours, the movie is about 40 minutes too long but I still found it a rewarding watch.

My life to Live (1962, Director Jean-Luc Godard): Rating 9/10

In 12 chapters, we see Nana's life dreams slowly dissolve. She came to Paris to become an actresses but eventually finds herself earning money as a prostitute. The strongest aspect of this film is its cinematography. Godard knows exactly what he wants to show and where the camera should be. Examples:
-- When we first meet Nana in a cafe, we don't see her face. Instead, the camera shows the back of her head. Eventually, the mirror at the left hand side of the cafe shows us her face. We can see both her face and the back of her head, along with the dangling cigarette in her hand. Simple yet effective shot.
-- The scenes where Nana becomes a prostitute are shot uniquely. We don't see any sex shots but instead we see the mechanics of the business. The camera focuses on the money changing hands, a man's hand placed on Nana's bare shoulder and the cold emotionless embraces that Nana has to make.
-- The best segment in the film has to be when Nana is dancing in the pool hall. As she dances around the bar, the camera freely follows her. We see a happy side of Nana but also, we can see how she is trying to entice a man. The camera work here is pure pleasure.
Quite a film!!!

The Disenchanted (1990, Director Benoît Jacquot): Rating 7.5/10

This film makes a perfect double with the above Godard movie. Like My Life to Live, we see a female life in flux. This time however, it is a 17 year old girl, Beth. Beth wants to be free (a la Betty Blue) but she is pulled in different directions by the people in her life -- boys and men want her; Beth's mom wants her daughter to follow in her footsteps and become a prostitute. Beth's mom is ill and can't satisfy her sugar daddy. So Beth has to take her mom's place to ensure the family continues to get a pay cheque. But unlike in Betty Blue and Nana in My Life to Live, Beth does run away to freedom. At 75 minutes running time, this is a concise work.

Destiny (1921, Director Fritz Lang): Rating 7.5/10

Even though this film was shot and made in 1921, it is still an entertaining watch. We can see how experimentation with lighting and editing produce some fascinating effects such as showing ghosts, people walking through walls, a flying carpet and some other magical feats. The story features how a woman who wants to rescue her fiancee from the clutches of Death. Death is shown to be a compassionate understanding man who makes gives the woman four chances to save her love. In the first three chances, she has to save the life of one person from three different parts of the world -- Turkey, Austria and China. Each story has its pros and cons (and stereotypes, it is 1921 after all). Quite entertaining for the most part. It is amazing that moving images with some title cards can still make for absorbing cinema whereas special effects and plenty of dialogue make for annoying noise!

1 comment:

Heidi B said...

I am so glad you liked Betty Blue. Her bizarre & extreme behavior made for a very unique ending. Don't you think?