Some Things Old, Some Things New
A Truffaut long on charm, a Polanski short on wit, a Losey for TV, and a domestic assortment of three winners.
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WELL, WE’RE BACK ON THE hard stuff. For two months we were on what Robert Downey aptly described as methadone: saw no contemporary movies, wallowed in Casablanca and The Women in our own living room and caught Tiger Bay and For Me and My Gal on one city-bound television-set-on-hand-evening. Some slight tremors set in by the seventh week; by the eighth we were a mass of twitches. Vacation’s end brought reality and its temptations (let alone its deadlines) and, with nine movies in three days we’re back to mainlining.
But for the respite, much thanks. Withdrawal, we’ve found, breeds contempt and sharpens the sense of outrage; familiarity, let alone regular fixes for ten months of the year, blurs the intelligence and hardens the sensibilities. A handful of the 34 films that opened during our absence were still around among them the five we’d seen before departing: Dillinger with its pointless wallow in bang-bang bloodiness; Jeremy with its sappiness alleviated by its first-film academic status and the charming truth of its teen-age protagonist; Jesus Christ Superstar, reeking in its raucous over-inflation of its essential muddleheaded alertness, elevated to being “controversial,” denounced by the American Jewish Committee (but praised by the Israelies whose country is used as a Jewison version of Monument Valley) and by blacks because Judas is portrayed by a black (and how many blacks have denounced the stardom brilliant Ben Vereen justly won from his black Judas on Broadway?); the silly end of a-series-fizzle of Battle for the Planet of the Apes and—most happily, Bang the Drum Slowly, a beautifully performed warm and engrossing story about men and baseball, its humans made memorable, its sport poetic and sentiment satisfying by gifted actors and filmmakers.
So much, so far, for retrospect. And a first taste is almost enough to make you go cold turkey. But now the cinema season is officially upon us—its officiality is earned in a decade—what with the opening of the 11th New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center. And a sweeter opener you’d be hard pressed to find.
François Truffaut’s Day for Night, is a billet-doux to movies, movie-making, and movie-personnae—to movie-movies made in and around studios with lots of extras, sets, props, and prima donnas of all ages and sexes, the like of which, alas we may not see again. It is the “in” movie (the very title, both in English and in the original French, La Nuit Americaine, is a film term for shooting a night scene in daylight with special filters) but it is a Truffaut movie and therefore universal in its sheer humanism, its exuberance, its tragic-comic view of people and events, and completely irresistible in its sheer love of the life it leads.
Its story is of the making of a movie, that, in essence, is not dissimilar to Truffaut’s 1964 domestic melodrama, The Soft Skin, one of his few failures: “Meet Pamela” is the tragedy of a man and his daughter in-law who fall in love; he is shot by his son and she is killed in an auto accident. On hand for the making, on the Riviera, is Truffaut, as the director, a quiet and tolerant man, haunted by a dream of a childhood foray into the night to steal stills from a theater showing Citizen Kane, who feels that making a film is much like a stagecoach journey in the Old West: first one hopes for a good journey, then one hopes only to reach his destination. His stars are Jacqueline Bisset, the American ingenue whose Hollywood childhood led to emotional disaster and an understanding middle-aged doctor-husband; Valentina Cortest, an aging but still glamorous firebrand whose champagne tippling covers the agony of a dying son; Jean-Pierre Aumont, last of the matinee idols who wants to adopt a handsome tennis bum to protect his posterity; and Jean-Pierre Leaud, Truffaut’s cinematic alter ego in his autobiographical films portraying in in-joke fashion a spoiled-brat juvenile whose infantile romanticisms precipitate a major crisis. And to round out the company, there’s the juvenile’s tootsie looking for her main chance; the philosophical producer with deadlines; the bit player whose pregnancy is so well timed that she’ll probably wind up with close-ups; the makeup girl who’s everybody’s confidante and the dedicated script girl who’s all business even in dealing with the prop man’s lechery, and there’s the production manager whose wife is the Mme. Defarge of the proceedings.
The company gathers, works spasmodically, with improvisation, patience, crises, and frenetics the order of the disorderly shooting. If the group is a family, Aumont notes that so are the characters in a Greek tragedy; but here it is the ego, the dream, the single-minded calm and the kindness of the director of the “family” that brings off the job to be done. On both sides of the camera, Truffaut generates a warmth that makes you respond in kind to the film and the film within it. The niceness of the lovely Ms. Bissett, the brilliant glittering wit of Ms. Cortese’s portrait of a lady actress, the charm of Aumont’s portrayal of the pro, and the adolescent obnoxiousness that Leaud generates are supplemented by marvelous bits, pieces, and personalities of moviemaking that beat any course on the campus books at the moment. Truffaut, his co-authors Suzanne Schiffman and Jean-Louis Richard and everyone involved have, in fact, provided us with a festival of a film in one sitting.
This year’s festival is different from all others in that there is no Jean-Luc Godard movie (primarily, we suspect, because he hasn’t made one since last year’s, but how his Lincoln Center worshippers resisted a retrospect we cannot guess). You will, however, get a “second” chance to see James Frawley’s less-than-mediocre Kid Blue (its New York opening was cancelled in June after its disastrous out-of-town openings), with its local run prompted by its showing at the New York Film Festival, but you’ll get no chance to see Joseph Losey’s film of A Doll’s House in a theater, not unless you caught it in Cannes or were among the 2192 people who saw it at its sold out Festival performances. But you may get to see it on TV one of these days. This excellent cinematic version of the lbsen work, filmed in Norway, with a fine cast and a commendably literate screenplay by David Mercer, has been sold to ABC, for telecasting at some point in this season.
lbsenites and cinema students, let alone movie-goers and women’s libbers, can find fascinating contrasts between the Losey film, starring Jane Fonda as Nora, and the film of Hillard Elkins’ production of A Doll’s House, released earlier last May, with Claire Bloom as the heroine whose slam of a door reverberated around the social order for 94 years.
Where the earlier work was a filmed stage play and could be credited primarily as a record of a performance by first-rank players, Losey and Mercer have opted for cinema, with a linear script detailing the past, with a remarkable cast clarifying the present, and with location shooting enriching the ambiance—indoors and out—and underlining the universality of the theme. The outstanding asset is Jane Fonda’s interpretation of Nora, whom she plays with an intelligence behind the traditional immaturity, so that for the first time I found her seemingly overnight emancipation totally credible.
Never before have I been made so aware of Nora’s awakening—as opposed to instant-conversion—through Miss Fonda’s making her childishness a conscious role playing. Further, Kristine emerges as an independent force rather than catalyst, through a lean intense performance by Delphine Seyrig; Torvald loses much of his stage-stuffiness in David Warner’s brisk interpretation of the husband; Edward Fox is heartbreaking as the self-doubting Krogstad; and Trevor Howard, eschewing the sentimentality that so many actors indulge in as the dying Dr. Rank, gives one of his subtlest, most disciplined, and therefore most impressive performances of his recent years.
And Losey, losing his penchant for the touch of rococo has never been in cooler control. It is a beautiful film, visually and intellectually. A pity if it has to be viewed with interruptions as well as within the confines of the small screen. May ABC do right by a work that certainly merits theatrical display.
In What? Roman Polanski, now pushing forty, displays his self-indulgent negation of his proven talents and promised growth. Under the impression that he is Lewis Carroll (and he is not) or maybe Voltaire (and he is not), Polanski got a gang of his friends together in an exquisitely lovely and pop-kooky Mediterranean villa and fashioned a sort of Alice in Wonderland-cum-Candide tale of an innocent girl who wanders in one night on her way from a near-gang-bang. The girl is an American abroad and, as she loses more and more of her clothing in the course of exploring the villa where, looking-glass fashion, there are mad parties, people, and moral expositions.
It’s all very beautiful to look at (particularly when the girl, Sydne Rome, is in focus) and sporadically interesting to attend (when Marcello Mastroianni is explaining his past or building Miss Rome up to a bit of S & M with costumes, or Hugh Griffith, proprietor of the villa, seeks that droit de seigneur of senility, a glimpse of Miss Rome from below). But we can be taken to the brink of expecting the jest, if not the cream thereof, just so many times before we realize how heavy is the hand and smug the mind that brought us there. The symbols of lust, greed, gluttony, and sexual variety clunk around; the rose-petals thud (and destroy a charming moment of a Mozart duet) and the sunsets and moonrises get a raunchy glow. Polanski and his pals may have had a fine time cavorting around the villa but it’s not catching on a 112 minutes of film.
The script was provided by Polanski and Gerard Brach who collaborated on Repulsion and The Fearless Vampire Killers. The disaster of the latter and of What? makes one wonder what ever became of the delicious wit Polanski showed in his mid-twenties with his debut with such shorts as The Fat and the Lean, and Two Men and a Wardrobe We suspect that in his case, as in Scorsese’s, the brevity that was the soul thereof has gone with the wind of inflated movie-making, derived from miniscule ideas.