"DodO iS noT dEAd"

A punk Naturalist

Sunday, 31 January 2010

18th century in films /3: Dangerous Liaisons, by Stephen Frears (1988)

Ou, Les Adaptations Dangereuses.

In pre-revolutionary France, two bored aristocrats, former lovers, embark on sophisticated games of seduction with destructive results. The Marquise de Merteuil wants to exact revenge on Gercourt, who humiliated her, by challenging the Vicomte de Valmont to seduce Gercourt’s future wife, a innocent convent girl. The Vicomte, deeming the task to easy, has in view the seemingly impossible conquest a beautiful and faithful married woman, Mme de Tourvel.

Stephen Frears set himself quite a challenge when he adapted Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses – a novel entirely made of letters. The multiplicity of voices and reconstructed chronology that makes the epistolary genre so unique was bound to get lost on the way. Not to mention the fact that this masterpiece of the French language was to be shot… in English.

Yet Frears manages the difficult translation of book into film, thanks a fine understanding of the work and a very clever direction. The opening scene, showing, in parallel tableaux, Mme de Merteuil and Valmont being dressed “to kill”, like two knights equal in worth putting on their armours, is masterful. The other theme introduced from the beginning is that of the mask. Valmont and Merteuil, who show to the world a face of respectability while acting as ruthless libertine, are filmed as two actors putting the finishing touches to their costumes. The scene is echoed at the end, when Mertheuil’s inner blackness has been revealed by the circulation of her private letters. In an intelligent departure from the book, the marquise, booed when she appears at the theatre, retires, and, in close-up, is seen removing her make up, before the screen turns to black.

The film is helped by the three exceptional performances of Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer, deeply moving as a virtuous woman fighting a hopeless fight against a love that will ultimately destroy her. Uma Thurman makes a convincing ingénue, soon won over by Valmont’s very particular lessons; Keanu Reeves as naïve Sir Danceny is his usual bland self – which fits the character rather well.

Dangerous Liaisons (US, 1988). A film by Stephen Frears. Starring Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer, Keanu Reeves and Uma Thurman.

Monday, 18 January 2010

18th century in films /2: Ridicule, by Patrice Leconte (1996)

Survival of the wittiest.

"In this country, vices are without consequence, but ridicule can kill."

The country is France, in the years immediately preceding the Revolution. Grégoire Ponceludon de Malavoy, a enlightened but impoverished country nobleman from the Dombes, can only watch powerlessly as the local people succumb to swamp fevers. He goes to Court in hope of getting a grant for a draining project that would eradicate the disease. The atmosphere at the court, however, turns out to be just as noxious as the swamps. At first Ponceludon tries to appeal to reason and humanity to defend his cause, but to no avail; he soon understands that to get heard, he will have to speak the language of the court - irony and wit.

‘Marie-Antoinette’ vs ‘Ridicule’: A similar subject - the excesses of the French court under Louis XVI -, and two very different films. Marie-Antoinette is the sensuous reinterpretation of a period, with extravagant costumes and accessories; ‘Ridicule’ is more of a moral and intellectual portrait, equally interesting and devilishly clever.

Ridicule: one word, which sums up the ultimate disgrace that can fall upon a courtier, a word synonymous with social death, if not actual death… Outshine your rival before he humiliates you is the one rule of conduct; polite malice the dominant value. Among the most spectacular show of cruelty, the scene where fashionable Abbot Vilecourt burns the shoe of a sleeping nobleman just before his meeting with the King, that he had been waiting for months. The graphic opening scene, where a courtier avenges himself for a past humiliation on a former wit, now a mute invalid, is also most shocking.

Even the most adept eventually fall prey to ridicule, as Vilecourt – what a fitting name – discovers at his own cost. At the height of his glory and popularity, the abbot ‘proves’ the existence of God in front of an admiring court ; but, intoxicated by his success, he concludes by a boast out of place in front of a king by “divine right”: “This evening I proved the existence of God. But...I can prove the opposite if it pleases Your Majesty!” As soon as he utters this the whole court, including Vilecourt’s mistress, leave the room. It is the end of him.

The film sketches the damning portrait of a society where obscene luxury and extreme poverty lie side by side; where the destiny of a region depends on a few “bon mots” and on timely flatteries. Ponceludon himself is progressively contaminated by court manners, so that paradoxically, his final failure comes as a relief. His defeat is only temporary: the Revolution is not far, and with it, at last, the beginning of his engineering works in the Dombes.

The 18th century is also a period of fantastic scientific and intellectual progress, and the film amply shows it too. The Marquis de Bellegarde, a retired courtier who becomes Ponceludon’s mentor, is the very image of the “enlightened” nobleman. A lover of the “bel esprit”, he collects witticisms with the scientific passion of a botanist – he is one too -, classifying them into repartees, quips, wordplays, retorts, epigrams or paradoxes. A convinced anglophile, like many of his contemporaries, he is fascinated by this elusive way of speaking that “causes laughter, but is not quite wit”, “humour” – a word first introduced in the French language by the famous wit and philosopher Voltaire (1). His daughter is a well educated, fiercely independent young woman, who relishes in daring scientific experiments. Ponceludon’s romance with her, in an idyllic nature, certainly has Rousseau-esque undertones.

Especially interesting is the inclusion of enlightened abbot Charles Michel de l’Épée, a pioneer in the education of deaf people, through the story of Paul, the Bellegardes’ deaf and dumb servant sent to his newly created institution. The abbot brings his young pupils to the Court to demonstrate their progress in front of a disbelieving audience. Deprived of speech in a society where the word rules as king, the dumb are thought to be half-wits, little better than animals, yet the audience ends up expressing their admiration by sustained applause, as the young pupils conclude their witty exchange by a play… on signs.

Although far from revolutionary in its form, Ridicule boasts superior dialogue and very good acting, and perfectly captures the 18th century zeitgeist.

(1) Voltaire, Letter to the Abbott d'Olivet, 21 April 1762.

Ridicule, a film by Patrice Leconte (France, 1996).
Starring Fanny Ardant, Charles Berling, Bernard Giraudeau, Judith Godrèche and Jean Rochefort.

Friday, 8 January 2010

18th century in films /1: Marie Antoinette, by Sophia Coppola (2006)

Let them eat meringues.

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” A panorama of the 18th century in films - with a strong bias towards French history.

A fourteen-year old Austrian girl - aka Marie-Antoinette… - is stripped – quite literally - of her pas life to be plunged into the frivolous world of the French court, following after her marriage with the dauphin de France.

Who said that only classical music becomes costume films? Not Sofia Coppola for sure: her film, a portrait of the ill-fated queen of France from her arrival at Versailles to her departure from it, features music by Air or the Cure as well as Jean-Philippe Rameau. She delights in calculated anachronisms – ah! the infamous pair of Converse trainers nonchalantly lying among period shoes… Historically, there is a clear-cut bias: all is seen through the eyes of Marie-Antoinette, who appears like a victim - a flawed victim, unable to resist to temptation of a fickle life, but a victim nonetheless. The film has been criticised for hardly touching any political or topical issues, leaving aside, for example, the famous affair of the necklace, which was so damaging to the Queen’s reputation. The whole point, I would argue, is that in Versailles, nothing seems to transpire from the outside world. Marie-Antoinette never leaves her bubble, not even, of course, when she tries to leave the pressure of court life by retiring into the Petit Trianon. Despite all the liberties taken with the historical genre, Marie Antoinette is the successful, if sometimes irritating, reinterpretation of an era.

The politician and professional turncoat Talleyrand famously said that those who had not lived in the years before the Revolution have never known “la douceur de vivre" (the sweetness of life). “Love, Poetry; Music, Drama, Painting, Architecture; the court, salons, parks and gardens; gastronomy, literature, the Fine arts and sciences; everything concurred to fulfil the physical, intellectual and even moral appetites”, he said, so that the eighteenth century could properly be called “the century of indigestion.” As if on cue Sofia Coppola films piles upon piles of rosy cupcakes and rare delicacies, pink game pawns that look like sweets and gorgeous pastel costumes that could be blancmange, conveying an overwhelming impression of sensuousness, bordering on nausea. Shots after shots of food, alternating with shots of shoes, clothes and trinckets. Life at Versailles, so it seems, is a seemingly endless, and slightly distressing banquet.

The party, of course, comes to an end eventually, as an angry mob armed with torches breaks into the park of Versailles at night. The tableau is brilliantly absurd: the queen and the king are sitting on each side of a table covered with rich delicate food; the lackey is knocking his staff to announce the beginning of the meal; but all you hear is the howls of the mob outside demanding bread. No music ; only the howling. The scene which follows, when the queen goes out on her balcony, sent shivers up and down my spine. (All this proves, if it was needed, that Marie-Antoinette is a film to be seen on a cinema screen and not on television…)

The abrupt end is quite potent: Marie Antoinette and her husband, in a carriage, look at the park of Versailles for the last time. The last shot shows one of the magnificent halls of Versailles now empty, with its windows shattered. Nothing can be heard, except the fluttering of wings in a nearby room…

Marie Antoinette. A film by Sophia Coppola (2006). Starring Kirsten Dunst and Jason Schwartzmann.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Doctor Who: The End of Time

Time to go ?

Russell T. Davies’s The End of Time was not as atrocious as I feared from snatches accidentally read here and there, but still not the story one could expect to celebrate David Tennant’s ultimate appearance as the Doctor.

My reservations fit in two words: TOO MUCH. Too many elements added nothing to the story whatsoever, or were just plain laughable. Now I am aware that criticising an episode of Doctor Who for being silly is a tad absurd. Let’s face it, we are talking of a 906 year-old alien travelling in time and space in an outdated blue box, who saves Earth from alien invasions every year from the 1960s on, fights murderous pepperpots, plastic manikins or potato-headed dwarves, and gets a shiny new life (and a facelift) whenever he dies. But if even you accept these basic principles – if you don’t, you’re shouldn’t be reading this! - , the End of Time fails to convince. To list but the major hitches: (SPOILERS AHEAD)
  • Completely pointless characters, like the two scientists/aliens in disguise – their only interest is the ship they own, that the Doctor conveniently borrows. Even more useless, the billionaire who wants immortality … not for him, but for his daughter ?!? Who cares – the two are seen a grand total of five minutes onscreen.
  • The Master’s new super-powers. Was it really necessary to have him flying around laughing maniacally and devouring the odd person to complement his chips and burger? John Simm’s performance is over the top, but a good fifty metres over I would say. It is sad because he proved his talent enough in other series, such Life on Mars and State of Play.
  • Last but not least - the Master’s plan of turning every human into himself (maybe as a result of watching Being John Malkovich too often). Daft does not even start to describe it. Unfortunately, it is also one of the central plot ideas.
On the other hand I liked several aspects of the two-parter. Most importantly, the basic concept. Of course the Time Lords would have tried to survive the Time War, and they are a clever lot. Bringing them back (at least temporarily) was a great idea. The explanation for the sound of drums that torments the Master was a clever twist, although it does not account for the fact that he did not seem to be affected in the classic episodes. I also really enjoyed the interaction between the Doctor and Wilf, a truly moving character. The Doctor’s very human fear of dying was something new, and another interesting facet. But indisputably the best bit was what caused the doctor’s death. That was genuinely unexpected, and I would say, quintessential Doctor Who. On the other hand I was not so keen on his extended goodbye at the end. The Doctor received a massive, lethal level of radiation poisoning, but he still has time to pay a visit to all his acquaintances in turn, albeit with a grave face. Hum.

I liked David Tennant’s slightly manic doctor, but felt like the Ood that maybe he had dallied a little too long. A new doctor is most welcome, as is a new executive producer – Steven Moffat, the writer of the fantastic Girl in the Fireplace (Season 2) or Blink (Season 3) is taking over from Russell T. Davies. It is, of course, difficult to judge Matt Smith’s acting ability from the thirty second he was seen on screen. As the Doctor would say: Time will tell.

The End of Time. Doctor Who 2009 Specials.
Part 1 : Initially broadcasted on 25 December 2009.
Part 2 : 1 January 2010.
Starring David Tennant, Bernard Cribbins, John Simm, Timothy Dalton and Matt Smith.