Tuesday, March 10, 2015

A Real Mess of Things

Would there be a French New Wave without Joseph H. Lewis? Film noir was such a heavy influence in the early stages of that movement, and one crime subgenre, the one that deals with doomed criminal lovers on the road, in particular that it's difficult to imagine things spooling out quite the same without Gun Crazy, Lewis's indispensable noir from 1950. It features John Dall and Peggy Cummins as a man and a woman who had to meet each other so that, essentially, they could die and go to Hell. Before Gun Crazy there was of course Detour, Edgar Ulmer's ode to rotten luck which is the stumbling, drunken haymaker version of the same idea, but before Detour was "Gun Crazy," the 1940 short story by Mackinlay Kantor on which Lewis's Gun Crazy was based. So would there be a French New Wave without Mackinklay Kantor? Chew on that one for a while, why don't you.

Of course, a big difference between Detour and Gun Crazy is the moral question. It's certainly there in Detour, but Tom Neal's Al is almost beaten by the gods into making his terrible choices, whereas Annie and Bart in Gun Crazy face a clearly marked fork in the road, and they take the one they take. Of course, it was then in the best interest of the French filmmakers -- who, let's be honest, appreciated this sort of thing more than the Americans of the day did -- to take all this and turn it inside out. Godard's take on this subgenre, Breathless from 1960, therefore, pretty much dispenses with the moral question entirely, at least in any way that is immediately recognizable as morality. The idea there is more to distill the genre to its essence. Breathless is playfully grim. Grimly playful, on the other hand, is Francois Truffaut's second film Shoot the Piano Player, also from 1960 (Truffaut also wrote the original treatment for Breathless with Claude Chabrol), ending as it does in pure American noir form, yet also including the much-referenced moment when one untrustworthy character swears on his mother's life, and Truffaut cuts to a quick shot of said mother keeling over dead.

Eventually, things settled down with the French and the crime genre. This might in part have to do with the influence Jean-Pierre Melville had on the New Wave, and in my experience, which is not complete but also not insignificant, Melville had a Hitchcockian fascination with the people and the technique, or the fact that Chabrol himself, my favorite New Wave director, became so married to his version of the crime film, a version that could encompass something as stripped down and unironic as Le Boucher as well the utter sleazy madness of La Rupture, that the need to forever be knowing about it became boring. Truffaut would again take genre and wink at it uncontrollably, with 1972'a Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me, and to my mind that's his worst film (it should be noted that there's a handful I still haven't seen). But otherwise, or rather, not even "otherwise," because of this, as well as the fact that his spreading out of the crime films among a variety of other, often more gentle works, Truffaut is to me the most interesting crime filmmaker of the French New Wave. Not my favorite, that's Chabrol, but the most interesting, and in his leaving of and then return to it, which happened more than once, perhaps the most haunted by it.

Look at Jules and Jim. Not a crime film, certainly, but it sure as hell ends like one -- specifically Angel Face. A new viewer could not watch the first half of Jules and Jim and then be able to predict the last half hour; the tonal madness of that film is the kind of experimentation that invigorates me, more so than the kind on display in Breathless. Anyhow, you might notice how that ending lays the groundwork for Truffaut's post-Shoot the Piano Player crime films. This is of course "crime film" in the "not necessarily about bank robbers and such" variety at which Chabrol excelled, the James M. Cain/Cornell Woolrich sort, and he began immediately after Jules and Jim, in 1964 with The Soft Skin, which has just been released on Blu-ray and DVD by Criterion. Ah, so, the point.

Of course, and please bear with me here, I'm getting to it, I promise, what Gun Crazy is, is Kantor's "Gun Crazy" and Detour merged into one thing. I'd like to say that Cornell Woolrich's 1947 novel Waltz into Darkness was an evolutionary step along that path, but I simply haven't read it yet, but Mississippi Mermaid, Truffaut's 1969 adaptation of that novel, certainly suggests it might well be, depending on how faithful Truffaut was (somebody out there reading this can probably fill in this gap for me, but my gut tells me that if anyone is going to rival Kantor and/or Joseph H. Lewis in my exaggerating-to-make-a-point about the French New Wave from earlier, it's Woolrich), the thumbnail of Mississippi Mermaid being, roughly, Breathless played straight. The upshot of all of this is that if you're a man and you find yourself in this kind of story, that is, a crime story, than you tend to be one of two things: gun crazy or girl crazy (or occasionally both, obviously). In Mississippi Mermaid, Jean-Paul Belmondo's rich factory owner is so girl crazy that eventually he picks up a gun. Meanwhile, circling back, in The Soft Skin Pierre (Jean Desailly), as a famous, married literary critic and expert on Balzac, becomes so girl crazy that, well...

There are some -- perhaps, I suppose, many -- who would balk at the notion that The Soft Skin is a crime film. I, however, am of the opinion that genre definitions should be expanded, and anyway I don't think such an expansion would have to be very extreme to cover this film. This is because the way the morality is dealt with, and the stark way it's presentation, is the same as it would be in a film noir. While travelling to give a lecture on Balzac, Pierre, a married man, meets and falls in love with a stewardess. One of the many brilliant things about this film is how Truffaut and his co-writer Jean-Louis Richard, don't tell us if Pierre was routinely unfaithful to his wife, or had ever been even once. All we know is that when he meets Nicole (Francoise Dorleac), he's not conflicted by the affair he immediately pursues with her. Neither is Nicole, for that matter. Much of the film consists of the two of them arranging meetings, orchestrated around his lecture tour, but it's not simply mercenary sex between them. Pierre, maybe shockingly, actually loves Nicole. At one point, believing he's missed her at the airport, he writes a note in which he confesses this love, but then when Nicole shows up he hides it from her, embarrassed to reveal his feelings in person. Though he's betraying his wife Franca (Nelly Benedetti), not to mention his young daughter, Pierre at least doesn't appear to be a sleaze.

But pretty clearly, The Soft Skin is never going to be a romance that challenges society's views on love and romance, which even Jules and Jim, as chilling as that film eventually becomes, by and large is (but it's too interesting and smart to be just that, of course). Both shot in black and white by Raoul Coutard, Jules and Jim looks soft, feels warm, whereas The Soft Skin looks sharp, and feels cold. And as the film progresses, Pierre is revealed to be more thoughtless, selfish, even cruel. A key sequence involves a botched getaway to Reims, where, again, Pierre is giving a lecture. But his poor planning leaves Nicole stuck in the hotel, or outside watching him socializing with his lecture hosts, where she's approached as though she was a prostitute. By the end of all this, Pierre thinks he's taken care of the problem by stringing along his host (Daniel Ceccaldi) with the promise to give him a ride back to Paris before cruelly abandoning him.

So, by now, Pierre's true self has been revealed to us, if not to him. And ultimately he's punished -- rather alarmingly -- for his sins. In this way, The Soft Skin is a classic crime story, even including the Hays Code rule about not getting away with it. Early on, as I've said, the New Wave took noir and twisted it, turned it upside down, hurled it against a wall. Eventually, Truffaut, at least, returned to the genre's, and his, roots, although it's perhaps inevitable that his adopting of those earlier, less radical techniques, as well as his use of the more artificial elements of melodrama from time to time (though definitely not in The Soft Skin) take on, perhaps deliberately, a bit of a self-conscious air, so that finally you can't really escape the New Wave's idea that the point of cinema is cinema. But in The Soft Skin Truffaut is as stripped down as he ever would be, and his particular view of Romance -- that's the big "R" one, not merely the "two souls in love" sidecar of it -- which is a despairing one (it occurred to me today that in this way, whatever you think of his Fahrenheit 451, Truffaut and Ray Bradbury were a natural pairing) enfolds, of course, movies, and so Film is a despairing romance, and a despairing romance is what noir is. All you need is a girl and a gun, I'm pretty sure someone once said.

The kind of crime film that The Soft Skin is would later be perfected by Truffaut with his penultimate film, 1981's The Woman Next Door. That film feels to me like his masterpiece. It's the ultimate expression of the merciless streak that appears often enough in Truffaut's career to make his work still feel dangerous, and, for all his formal elegance, very viscerally unsettling. Jules and Jim is such a pillar of the canon that I feel like people forget, or take for granted, how terrifyingly bonkers it is relative to most other films. The Soft Skin isn't bonkers. In fact, it makes perfect sense. How we arrive at the ending of the film, as with anything that is fated to happen, can be traced easily back through a very logical set of events that could start in only one place and end in only one place. Pierre was doomed the day he was born.

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