Film critic Roger Ebert‘s book “The Great Movies” collects his essays on one hundred movies. As Ebert says “they are not “the” 100 greatest films of all time, because all lists of great movies are a foolish attempt to codify works which must stand alone. But it’s fair to say: If you want to make a tour of the landmarks of the first century of cinema, start here.”In addition to the book which collects a selection of one hundred essays, the complete and on-going series of essays can be found online at Ebert’s website (direct link).
Though this site is called “The Cinephile” I must admit I have yet to catch up with a number of these great movies. I plan to correct this and will regularly schedule a viewings of the movies until I have seen (or re-seen in some cases) all one hundred movies. I plan to view them in alphabetical order, as they are presented in the book, however there will be exceptions.
The 400 Blows
Francois Truffaut was a film critic before becoming a film maker. I have previously been aware of him through his role in Steven Spielbergs Close Encounters of the Third Kind (where he plays a French scientist investigating UFO related incidents) and his views on anti-war films (he is reported to have said there can be no such thing as an anti-war film).
Truffauts first feature length film is a semi-autobiograpical look at an adolescent growing up in Paris named Antoine Doinel as he struggles with authority and his place in society.
What struck me about this film were it’s long takes, it’s striking imagery which mixes styles artfully (a particularly terrific tracking shot closes the film), and it’s careful structure that draws the viewer in. At times the film feels naturalistic but it is also has all the precision and style of a hollywood studio film.
These aspects of the film deserve a great deal of praise and I enjoyed it however I would not say I was engaged by the film to a degree that would see it become one of my personal favorites. Reading Ebert’s essay I do not feel it particularly illuminates for me why this film should be considered one of the true greats.
Ebert states it is “one of the most intensely touching stories ever made about a young adolescent”. I felt the film does present realistic adolescent characters and the story is quite tragic however I was not moved to the extent that Ebert appears to have been.
Ebert goes on to discuss the joyous moments of the film and mentions a sequence in which Antoine and his family go to the movies. It is the one time the family unit appear to be happy together. Knowing Franciois Truffaut was a film critic prior to moving into writing and directing his own films one can see this sequence demonstrates his love of film and it’s power.
Certainly, a film well worth seeing and with much to reccomend it but not one that will enter my personal list of favorites.
Interestingly the character of Antoine Doinel is revisited a number of times by Truffaut, I am curious to continue his story and see how the later films develop the character further.
Last Year At Marienbad
July 2011 saw the British Film Institute present a retrospective of the work of director Alain Resnais which included Last Year At Marienbad. It makes for an interesting companion piece to The 400 Blows. Both directors were working in a time of experimentation with the French “New Wave” movement underway (though Resnais did not consider himself a part of this movement).
This is a film that could stand in for many peoples definition of “art film” or even “pretentious French cinema”. It pursues a very deliberate style with dream like imagery and narrative. Scenes, dialogue, and locations recur often. Piecing together a straightforward plot is difficult with a number of elements coming in and out of focus and situations repeating in new ways.
I struggled to decide whether I actually liked this film. At times the style was too much and danced dangerously close to silliness. It felt like a parody of a pretentious art film. At other times however I found the imagery to be stunning and the narrative quite thought provoking. I devised a number of pontential themes and plots which I felt may be playing out though these would often be discarded as a subsequent scene would take another tangent.
Ebert says of the story, “one would not want to know the answer to this mystery. Storybooks with happy endings are for children. Adults know that stories keep on unfolding, repeating, turning back on themselves, on and on until that end that no story can evade.” It is not a happy ending that I require, other films which appear to lack coherency (for example Mulholland Drive) often succeed by drawing the viewer into the atmosphere and working so well on an individual scene basis that the whole seems less important than it’s parts but I not convinved that Last Year at Marienbad does this.
What story there is is summarised as: “In.. [a] chateau are many guests–elegant, expensively dressed, impassive. We are concerned with three of them: “A” (Delphine Seyrig), a beautiful woman. “X” (Giorgio Albertazzi), with movie-idol good looks, who insists they met last year and arranged to meet again this year. And “M” (Sascha Pitoeff), who may be A’s husband or lover, but certainly exercises authority over her.” And so we follow the interaction of these three characters, predominantly X and A.
As I have said, the imagery can be striking and many scenes are a pleasure to watch. At times I was drawn in to the film but too often I was left looking for something of interest in the story. I believe The 400 Blows is the more successful of the two films as I found it more engaging from a story perspective while also offering visual interest and thematic concerns which provoke thoughtful reflection.