Criterion Collection

Diabolique [Les Diaboliques]

Diabolique, Henri-Georges Clouzot (1955) 114 minutes

This is my entry in the The Best Hitchcock Movies (That Hitchcock Never Made) Blogathon. Please click on the link and check out the entries by my fellow bloggers! I would like to also thank Dorian Tenore-Bartilucci [Tales of the Easily Distracted] and Rebecca Barnes [ClassicBecky’s Brain Food] for putting this all together and letting me be a part of it 🙂

Alfred Hitchcock is the undisputed master of the thriller. He did it better, more often and more consistently than anyone else. Others have made excellent thrillers, but they are always compared back to the master. Hell, these films are even called “Hitchcockian Thrillers.”  This genre is the focus of this lovely, little blogathon. They are basically thrillers that are so freaking good, that could have been made by Hitchcock, himself. Clouzot’s Diabolique holds an interesting place amongst these films. Hitchcock almost made this film. Diabolique is based off a novel by Boileau and Narcejac. Hitchcock was actually looking for the rights to this, but Clouzot beat him to it! There were no hard feelings from Hitchcock, however. He later adapted another Boileau and Narcejac novel with Vertigo (which is one of my favorites). Also, he reportedly showed Diabolique to those who helped him make Vertigo and Pyscho as a great example of a thriller.

Diabolique is about a wealthy, kindly woman, Christina Delassale (Vera Clouzot (the director’s wife)) who is tormented and abused by her gold-digging husband, Michel Delassale (Paul Meurisse). They run a boarding school for little boys. Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret) is a teacher at the school and also Michel’s not-so-secret mistress. Michel is quickly characterized as the villain in the film. He is horrible to his wife and mistress both. He buys rotten food for the children of the school and hands out outrageous punishments for the slightest offenses. Nicole, surprisingly, is Christina’s friend. They have struck up an odd partnership and are out to get rid of Michel. While Nicole pushes for action to be taken against this horrible man, Christina is much more hesitant. These two women are set up as diametric opposites. Nicole is a taller, more masculine blonde. She is anything but passive. Christina is much more sensitive and hesitant to act. Her appearance is much more fragile and feminine than Nicole. She is also  a foreigner and a devout Catholic with heart issues (apparently she’s sickly and doesn’t deal with stress well). There are also a number of smaller characters who serve to add some humor to this dark film.

I’m not going to get into much more of the plot or characterization. If you have never seen Diabolique, you really should avoid spoilers like the plague. It is jam-packed with shocks, twists and turns. If you are watching it for the second, third or tenth time, you will see many little hints and clues scattered throughout the film. Also, the cinematography and lighting for this film are absolutely stellar. There is a lot of play with shadows, especially in the most “important” moments in the movie. This film can hold its own with any Hitchcock movie and is considered one of the greatest French thriller of all time.

Creepy Credits:. The words are projected on a filthy pool of water, which is constantly rippling. The music starts off as a standard, pretty creepy score. Then the voices of young boys are introduced into the music. After that an organ starts to play the theme (this is were I was getting pretty weirded out). Finally the original theme comes into this mix even louder with the organ and the choir continuing to play/sing (unmistakably the score to a very scary movie!).

How to Watch: Do yourself a favor and watch this at night in a dark room. I’ve watched in the middle of the afternoon and its not just not the same.

Who to Watch This With: Probably not the best for young children. I don’t want to say much more (for fear of getting into spoilers), but there are some rather disturbing images, which may lead to nightmares… and not only for the little ones!

Final Verdict: Diabolique is a wonderful example of a suspenseful, intelligent and nuanced thriller. It is beautifully shot and the plot is masterfully crafted.  Whether it’s the setting or the characters, this movie is unmistakably French. And to give credit where credit is due: Clouzot, himself, is a wonderful director, who shines in this film. Its totally like Hitchcock, but not really… Maybe thats a bit of a cop-out from me, but I don’t mean it to be. Just give it a shot and you’ll see what I mean.

Now, watch it and let me know what you think! :D

The Rules of the Game [La Règle du Jeu]

The Rules of the Game, Jean Renoir (1939) [110 minutes]

Renoir’s The Rules of the Game is the prototypical example of the critical darling. This film has a tumultuous history. It went from being hated (and when I say hated, I’m not kidding), to being seen as one of the greatest films ever made. Whenever such a big change in public opinion occurs, it always leaves me curious. Why did all those people hate it? Why did people then love it? And most importantly: Will I/my lovely readers enjoy it?

The Rules of the Game is a tragic comedy-of-manners set in France. There is a large ensemble of characters, which on a first viewing are difficult to keep track of. The plot revolves around a series of romantic entanglements that come to light while this group is on a hunting trip to the French countryside. There are several plots involving the upstairs crowd (the wealthy couples) and the downstairs one (the servants and groundsmen). If you’re a fan of those kinds of dual, complementary tales (à la Downton Abbey), this movie is definitely worth a shot.

For me the key to understanding this film was to really pay attention. I know that sounds pretty basic, but believe me it’s trickier than it sounds. Renoir has so much stuff happening in a single shot, the audience really has to know where to look (and sometimes it’s at like 3 places at once!). He uses deep depth of field, or deep focus, to show different characters/objects in the foreground and background simultaneously. You will have two men arguing over a woman in the foreground; while in the background, she is sneaking off into an empty bedroom with another.

The mis-en-scene is also very “cluttered.” I use quotes here because I don’t mean to use that term pejoratively. The rooms are filled to the brim with antiques and opulence,  it serves to further highlight the outrageous lifestyle of the characters. The movie is a farce, rather than a true-to-life depiction of 1930’s France. This satire underscores the fact that their world is barely being held together by a set of rules. These rules must be followed, by both the wealthy and their servants, to avoid chaos. Of course, once the rules are ignored we are left to watch the delicious disaster that ensues.

Man of Many Hats: Jean Renoir is the director, writer, producer and actor in this film. He plays a the role of the bumbling jester for this elite crowd. He is in the picture at the top of the post, holding onto Christine (the only woman in the still).

Firey Reception: So, you remember how earlier I said that people really hated this film when it was released? I meant it. At the premiere, which Renoir attended, people were extremely angry. There was yelling and throwing things at the screen. The worst offender was this one man who was sitting in the theater with a newspaper. At some point he calmly unfolded his paper, stood up, took out some matches, set the paper on fire and attempted to burn the theater to the ground! That’s a pretty extreme reaction… watching it today it’s hard to see what in the film would warrant such desperation, but if you put it in context it is a little easier (not really, but we can try :P). This was released right before WWII broke out, so tensions were very high. Also, this film is a pointed critique of the stupidity and vanity of french society’s rules, of all social/financial levels, so maybe it felt a bit to truthful for them to handle.

General Tip about French Films: These kinds of movies start off REALLY slow. It feels like nothing at all is happening. They tend to pickup the pace at about the 30 minute mark, and then all the crazy, intense stuff happens. Most people who say “all French movies are so friggin’ boring,” in my opinion, don’t make it past those first 30 minutes. Which is really their loss!

How to Watch: Just pay attention. On a first viewing, you won’t get every nuance and detail, but it’s still very funny and a good time. This film is perfect for repeat viewings, every time you watch The Rules of the Game it just gets better and better.

Who to Watch This With: This film isn’t for kids. It’s very dialogue heavy and there are many confusing love triangles, hexagons, and so on. Also, there is a rather intense hunting scene. It is a very famous scene, one of the most famous in cinema history, but it is hard to watch. 

Final Verdict: The Rules of the Game is a very intimidating film to watch. It is so heavily praised, loved and revered, but remember it’s just a comedy. It’s okay to laugh! Sometimes I feel that when we watch a fancy-sounding, famous, french film, we forget that these films are supposed to be fun.  This film is silly. There is slap-stick and silly jokes, as well as drama and wit. This was made for the general public, like you and me, not an elite group of academics. So, have fun while you watch. Just because it’s old and french doesn’t mean it’s going to put you to sleep! So, sit back with some popcorn (or maybe a baguette or a nice pain au chocolat?) and enjoy.

Now, watch it and let me know what you think! 😀

Throne of Blood [蜘蛛巣城-Kumonosu-jô]

Throne of Blood, Akira Kurosawa (1957) [110 minutes]

I adore watching adaptations. Some are truly awful, taking the original work and tearing it to proverbial shreds. On the other hand, some are brilliant. These take a familiar story to a new, fascinating place. I love seeing how different cultures, generations, or mediums interpret the tale. In Throne of Blood, Akira Kurosawa takes Shakespeare’s Macbeth (If you need a summary/refresher on the Scottish Play click on that link) and transports the play  to Feudal Japan. Macbeth is probably my favorite of the Shakespearean dramas. Watching one of my favorite directors, Kurosawa, make it a film, is a true delight.

Kurosawa takes many liberties with the plot of Macbeth. He crosses this masterwork of British drama with his native Japan’s Noh theater. Noh is a medieval form of extremely stylized, high theater. The basic story of Macbeth remains in the film, as well as the themes that drive through it, but the visuals are unlike anything we would see on Shakespeare’s stage. The acting illustrates this beautifully. While watching the film the facial expressions seem a little exaggerated. The performances may appear over the top to American eyes, our theater tends to be more naturalistic. In Noh the actors wore masks to represent different characters and emotions. In Throne of Blood, he doesn’t go that far, but he told his actors to mimic those masks with their expression and they wore makeup to further highlight that. You will see our Macbeth, called Taketoki Washizu (Toshiro Mifune), and his Lady (Izuzu Yamada) use this hyper expressiveness a lot throughout the film. Until I found out about the Noh and the masks, I found it all enjoyable but still rather confusing. This is one of those cases that the more you know, the more you can enjoy the film. You don’t need to know much! Just a little bit about Noh and a little more about Macbeth and you’re good to go!

The narrative is structured in a circular format. That’s not necessarily a big deal, many movies start and end in the same place. The way that Kurosawa weaves this tale is different from most of what I’ve seen. It’s not just the final scene that is “repeated”, but many scenes throughout the film. In the beginning, there is a scene in deep fog, a conversation with the demon (who replaces the three witches from Macbeth) and a montage of the characters riding through the forest. You will see those scenes again at the end, but with a completely tone and context.

This storytelling technique, along with the Noh influence make you hyper-aware of the narrative structure. Nothing in the film is realistic, and there is no attempt to make it seem so. Personally, I find this kind of refreshing. Throne of Blood fully embraces that fantastical, poetic tone, which makes the film such a delight. The problem I have with many Shakespeare adaptations is that they really suck all the fun out of it. They’re so worried about the dialogue and how faithful they are to the play. It becomes a bunch of people showing off how great they are at acting and British accents. You watch them in high school just so you don’t have to struggle through the written play. With Kurosawa’s version you may not get an A on that English paper on Macbeth, but hey, that’s what sparknotes is for!

Nerdy Linguistics Moment: The Japanese title literally means “Castle of Spider’s Web/Spider’s Web Castle.” I can see why they changed the English one, though. Throne of Blood sounds more enticing.

Famous Fans: According to this article T. S. Eliot said that this was his favorite movie! If you don’t buy my recommendation, you’ve got to believe him 😛

Commentary Critique: The commentary for this film is among the best I’ve ever heard. It was so informative and entertaining. A little tip: I generally watch commentaries while doing some menial task (like laundry); that way you are getting something done and learning something in the meantime!

How to watch: The dialogue isn’t too important in the film. Sometimes I noticed that I hadn’t been reading the subtitles for the last few minutes… oops! This film is so visual, though, that you really don’t miss a beat. You learn much more by what you can see, rather than what you hear.

Who to watch with: Again, this film won’t help you with your English test on Shakespeare, but I found that I learned more about what the play is truly about by watching this. So watch this with Shakespeare fans and non-Shakespeare fans (hopefully this will convert them!).

Final Verdict: You will have a good time watching this. Especially if you keep that Noh theater stuff in mind; the film will make much more sense. And even if you still don’t “get it,” just enjoy it. I still don’t understand why most of the stuff that happens goes on, but it didn’t take anything away from the experience. If anything, the mystery made it more entertaining.

Now, watch it and let me know what you think! 🙂

Harakiri [切腹- Seppuku]

– After all, this thing we call samurai honor is ultimately nothing but a facade.

Harakiri, Masaki Kobayashi (1962) [133 minutes]

After seeing Harakiri, I really need to reevaluate my list of favorite Japanese movies. And coming from me, that is a pretty big compliment (I have a tendency to like all things samurai). It is so beautiful, horrifying, poignant and brash. It shows the hypocrisy and corruption of the ancient Japanese samurai honor code. Kobayashi shows us that this code is just as empty as the suit of armor pictured above.

The story itself is nonlinear, and told through a set of flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks. As a viewer you will switch sides many times throughout the film; it keeps you on your toes, never knowing what to believe. It begins with a samurai (played by Hanshiro Tsugumo) entering a large manor. His purpose is to ask if he can use their courtyard to commit harakiri. He has lost everything, he has no master and has been living in poverty. This is no way for a samurai to live; so, he says that in committing harakiri he would at least die with honor. Now, the lords and their retainers are not too sure that this man’s intention is honorable. At the time, many masterless samurai, called ronin, would go to homes claiming that they wished to commit harakiri. No one wants a person to disembowel themselves in what is the equivalent of their front lawn, so they would usually offer the samurai a job or give them some money. This household believes this man is also out for some cash. They proceed to tell him a tale, it feels like a parable, of a young ronin who tried to fool them. After hearing the tale, the samurai responds with a story of his own.

I must warn you, however. This film is not for the faint of heart. I mean, it is called Harakiri after the ritualistic suicide performed by samurai. There is less violence than one would expect, but when it appears it is very graphic and unsettling. I’m not bothered by too much blood and such, but even I was a little freaked. Unless you’re super sensitive, don’t let it stop you from watching. If you are a bit nervous about it, maybe you can get someone to cover your eyes and ears during those scenes! They give you plenty of warning.

This film is super stylish. Now, by stylish I don’t mean that it has great fashion or interior design skills (even though the costumes and sets are very nicely done). When you watch it you will see what I’m talking about. Every shot is composed perfectly.  It really is a beauty to watch. The trailer bellow will show you what I mean better than any words can:

Nerdy Linguistics Moment: Harakiri and Seppuku mean the exact same thing. Harakiri is just a more vulgar way of saying Seppuku. For more info about what it is click here.

How to watch: Of course, you must watch in Japanese with subtitles. I also must recommend that if you can you should watch this on a nice, big TV. This movie is very visually engaging, so it benefits from a dark room and a large TV.

Who to watch with: This movie is not for children. Teenagers and up are fine, but younger kids will not understand the majority of what is going on and will be pretty freaked out. Other than that most people would enjoy this. As I mentioned before, if you really don’t like violence this will be tough. It is very graphic.

Final Verdict: This is one of the greatest samurai movies I have ever seen. It does a wonderful job of painting a complex narrative full of twists and turns. The visuals and soundtrack are among the best I’ve seen/heard. You will be thinking about this movie long after it ends. It will be the topic of many a conversation with your fellow viewers. So, watch this movie. It may be difficult to get through at times, but it is most definitely worth it.

Now, watch it and let me know what you think! 🙂

The 400 Blows [Les Quatre Cents Coups]

The 400 Blows, François Truffaut (1959) [99 minutes]

Before working as a director, François Truffaut was a rebellious, brilliant film critic (I can’t help but love him a little for that :P). He and some other critics, all working for Cahiers du Cinéma, were fed up with the stuffy academicism that had taken over French film. They wanted to make movies that people could connect to; so the audience could feel that the film spoke to their problems and sensibilities. They decided to make these movies themselves. These films are fun, yet poignant; they are made by movie lovers, for movie lovers.

Their movement, titled the French New Wave, was thrust into the spotlight by this little film, The 400 Blows. This film centers around a young boy, Antoine Doinel, played fantastically by Jean-Pierre Léaud. Attending a strict all-boys school in Paris, he doesn’t fit the mold of a well-behaved young man. He is too creative, too curious, and much too mischievous. His father is largely ineffectual. His mother is absent and doesn’t care about him care unless it suits her interests. Throughout the film, he continually gets into trouble and he has no one to turn to. 

The 400 Blows is filmed in a documentary style on the streets of Paris. The film is actually a semi-autobiographical account of Truffaut’s childhood (poor guy!), and it feels very true to life. The actors performances are impressive, even more so if you consider that they were not given a script to memorize. This is one of the reasons that the movie feels so believable.  The actors had to react as they would in life to the situations they were placed in. Truffaut used this to his advantage, while most directors previously had shied away from giving their performers that much freedom.

Now, as you have probably already inferred, I really liked this movie. It’s funny in parts, but it is truly tragic throughout the narrative. Do not watch this if you are looking for a carefree, happy-go-lucky time. This poor boy goes through a lot, but at no point does it feel exploitative, like one of those movies that the only purpose they serve is to leave you in tears by the ending. It just feels honest. Little boys like this were all over Paris, Truffaut himself was one of them. These melancholic moments are interspersed with silly gags and clever pranks played by Antoine and his friends, and this is what really helps make the movie more than just a melodrama. This film does not preach to you, which I really love (I despise preachy films). I feel like it escapes from that after-school special/PSA feel that most movies about troubled youth take. The children in the movie feel like real kids, not vague sterotypes designed to teach us a lesson.

Extras: I watched the Criterion Blu-Ray release of the film. They did a great job with it. The menu is beautiful and easy navigable. It comes with some nice extras. There are some good interviews with Truffaut and Léaud and they are worth a look. These include Léaud’s adorable audition tape!

How to watch: In the original French with subtitles. The Criterion DVD/Blu-ray doesn’t even have the option for English dub, which is one of the reasons I’m a bit obsessed with Criterion.

Who to watch with: Kids could definitely watch this movie. There is nothing inappropriate. Honestly, you could watch this with anyone. Male, female, whatever I don’t think anyone could resist this.

Final Verdict: Please watch! Believe me you will have a great time. Certain moments (I won’t spoil them for you :P) will stick with you long after the credits roll. If anything just watch it to see Léaud. He is too good and too adorable.