Belle De Jour – A Catholic Film?

Belle De Jour – A Catholic Film?

Now, by the below description, one would not think about this movie primarily as a Catholic film, but perhaps it is worth talking about it a bit further. Referred to as Bruñuel’s most accessible film, we see the story of Severine (Deneuve) exploring herself through a serious of increasingly disturbing sexual experiences, much to the eventual chagrin of her husband (Sorel). There are spoilers ahead, of course.

While contentedly married to a doctor, Severine cannot bring herself to commit sexually. Instead, she indulges in wild erotic fantasies, leading her, unbeknownst to her husband, to become a prostitute in the afternoons.
In my research, it has been said that Bruñuel, born a Catholic, was highly critical of the Church while being unable to shake his ingrained convictions much in the same way that Ingmar Bergman was unable to shake his Protestant ones. Indeed in Bruñuel’s early films (Un Chien Andalou, and especially in L’Age D’Or) the church is criticised particularly as being an aged institution which gets in the way of one having perfectly natural and fun pre-marital sex. Belle De Jour seems, on first viewing, to be confirming the view he has espoused previously but ends up, in my view, supporting the Church’s position without perhaps the director being aware of it.

The principles and advantages of chastity are perhaps beyond the scope of this post (I try to keep them to 300 words but often fail!), however, it is clear that the director understands them. From the first, we see Severine distracted by dream sequences in which she explores her fantasies. There is an extraordinary opening scene where she is riding in a horse and carriage with haunting bells attached to the horses followed by a scene where Severine is tied to a tree and whipped by the carriage drivers. She then wakes up from this dream when her husband asks her what she was thinking about, she replies “I was thinking about us”. This is the first in a series of increasingly shocking dream sequences. Severine is aware that her thoughts are not helping her marriage and increasing the distance between her and her husband, but continues to have them throughout the film.

Severine being shown how to be a good employee

The main thrust of my argument was germinated in my mind when Severine is about to start working at the brothel. I say brothel but it more of a maison than an underground seedy club that one might more typically associate with the word. She looks down the stairs and has a flash back to being in church as a child, presumably during her first communion. She refuses the body of Christ to a much puzzled priest. Then she enters the brothel and things deteriorate from there for her. As she increases in proficiency at her work in the afternoons at the brothel, her dream sequences become increasingly more degrading. On one stage she is tied to a post and has mud flung at her by her husband and friend Piccoli (Henri Husson) while murmuring she loves her husband. This points to her deteriorating mental state, in my view on account of her employ. The multitudes of men, some in and one outside of the brothel, the degrading acts, colourful in their variety but never explicit, and the increasing distance that indulging in these fantasies puts between her and her husband puts Severine in a state of mental anguish.

The last half an hour of the film sees Severine meet her final lover, Marcel (Pierre Clémenti), whose casual encounter develops into an obsession on both sides. Severine’s husband confronts her while they are on a beach holiday. She keeps asking to go back to Paris and her husband begins to suspect that something is keeping her there. Though he does not make the obvious leap in logic until it is too late for him. The film culminates in the conclusion of Marcel’s obsession. Severine is confronted by Piccoli in the brothel and decides to quit forever, without telling Marcel. Marcel, an intuitive cocaine merchant and career criminal, has her followed home. He makes it into her apartment and threatens to wait for Severine’s husband and tell all. When Severine finally convinces him to leave, he picks up a picture of Severine’s husband and pronounces “voila l’obstacle”. He then goes down the stairs, shoots the husband, crippling him for life, and is subsequently killed himself by a Police officer who gives chase.

Severine looking after her husband

Why is this a Catholic tale? For me, on my second viewing of the film, Belle de Jour seems to warn against indulging one’s fantasies. It seems to showcase, at times dramatically, the possible outcomes of living an illicit life or by not investing the energy of sexual fantasies into one’s marriage. Indeed it seems to make the case for chastity, both in terms of self indulgence and taking multiple partners. Belle de Jour is stating in the clearest reading that indulging your fantasies will lead to the death of your marriage. While this is a comedic film, I don’t think even viewers without their red Catholic hat on can conclude that Belle did not come out better for her indulgences in the end. While Bruñuel seems to be criticising the Catholic church, he ends up quite supporting one of its core tenets, the call to be chaste, both inside and outside the marriage. The call to put the core of one’s sexual life in the other, in the proper context, not based in the self, as Severine’s is. The perilous outcomes are self evident from this film.

 

The French Dispatch – Latest Wes

The French Dispatch – Latest Wes

Is the French Dispatch Wes Anderson’s best film? I don’t think so. I enjoyed an evening at the Prince Charles Cinema in London which covered all of Wes’ films and advertisements up to and including The Grand Budapest. It was a delightful evening and helped me appreciate the full panoply of Wes’ genius. I feel at this stage that Wes has achieved everything he wants to cinematographically and is at the stage where he is having fun. The film is split into three distinctive chapters, none of which are really linked. It felt to me like a concise The Meaning of Life – itself a string of collected sketches with a vague almost superfluous backing direction.

Bill Murray as Arthur Howitzer Jr., the editor in chief of The French Dispatch

Tilda Swinton as writer J. K. L. Berensen

Owen Wilson as writer Herbsaint Sazerac

Adrien Brody as art dealer Julian Cadazio

Benicio Del Toro as Moses Rosenthaler, an imprisoned artist

Léa Seydoux as Rosenthaler’s prison guard and muse

Frances McDormand as journalist Lucinda Krementz

Timothée Chalamet as Zeffirelli, a student revolutionary

Lyna Khoudri as Juliette, a fellow student rebel

Jeffrey Wright as food journalist Roebuck Wright

The main premise of the film is that the editor of the French Dispatch, a newspaper, has died. His will contained a stipulation that the paper would be disbanded. Therefore the film shows how three journalists from the film put together articles for the final issue. The first ‘bit’ of this colourful triumvirate showed an enigmatic Owen Wilson, playing Herbsaint Sazerac, cycling around Ennui-sur-Blasé, a fictitious French town. He sets the scene for the film beautifully.

The movie takes the form of the magazine’s final issue, which features Howitzer’s obituary; a brief travelogue by a writer named Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson), which shows, in a thumbnail sketch, how the publication’s tone and substance has evolved; and three long feature articles. The features, each running about a half hour, catch the grand preoccupations and varied subjects of the magazine’s writers, and the combination of style and substance that marks their literary work—and Anderson’s cinema. New Yorker

The first element of the film is strong, telling the tale of an artist in a mental asylum making sensational art with his muse, one of the prison officers. Tilda Swinton narrates this part in admirable fashion, bringing her full weirdness. The performance reminded me of the sterling job she did as Mancunian train warden in Snowpiercer. She and Wes are indeed uniquely suited for one another.

The first section, a portrait of a criminally insane artist (Benicio del Toro), is a sly pleasure, not least because it’s narrated by Tilda Swinton as arts correspondent JKL Berensen, a fabulously glamorous creature with buck teeth, a tangerine evening dress and the tantalising hint of a scandalous past. Guardian

The third element was a little contrived for me, telling the story of a chess loving, cheroot smoking student activist and his journey for some left wing ideal of other. In the process we get to see Timothée Chalamet in bed with Frances McDormand and other disturbing sights. There is a resplendent moment when he is on a motorbike with Lyna Khoudri, riding away, the lighting and slow motion of this film captures the beauty of juvenile freedom, likely based in ignorance, and the fresh untainted sheen of young love. A stirring moment which probably ranks as one of the high points of the film.

“The French Dispatch” contains an overwhelming and sumptuous profusion of details. This is true of its décor and costumes, its variety of narrative forms and techniques (live action, animation, split screens, flashbacks, and leaps ahead, among many others), its playful breaking of the dramatic frame with reflexive gestures and conspicuous stagecraft, its aphoristic and whiz-bang dialogue, and the range of its performances, which veer in a heartbeat from the outlandishly facetious to the painfully candid. New Yorker.

Finally, the third segment comprises “a food review turned heist thriller narrated by and starring Jeffrey Wright at his most mellifluous and charming (Guardian)”. This was the best part of the film, and I am not saying that only because I run a food ish blog. This was an exciting segment with rich sumptuous shots, with a mixture of live action and animation. The script was fantastic, the tension done perfectly, and the culinary direction was quite spectacular. This was all the more personal for the discussions of difficulties of being homosexual and black at the time the film was set, as well as the harrowing prospect of living in exile in Ennui, something Wright and the head chef Nescaffier (Steve Park) discuss towards the end of the segment.

Wright tells his story from the stage of a TV talk show (the host is played by Liev Schreiber, with a brilliant deadpan reserve), where he proves his “typographic memory” by reciting his article verbatim. It then gets dramatized onscreen, with Wright talking to the camera as the events unfold. New Yorker.

Overall, while I was dazzled by the visual artistry and delivery of this film, I can’t say it was my favourite Wes film. My favourite is, of course, the Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. There were visual delights and monstrously strong elements in this film but it lacked a certain soul and direction. It was, as I have written, a pastiche of Wes-isms and an insightful journey into what an artist can achieve post-success.

Fargo – Politest Kidnapping Ever Attempted – 1996

Fargo – Politest Kidnapping Ever Attempted – 1996

The brothers Coen have succeeded in putting together a thrilling kidnap mystery. Set in snowy rural Minnesota, Fargo tells the story of a botched kidnapping plot hatched by an incompetent used car salesman, Jerry Lundegaard (Macy), which is painstakingly and politely unravelled by ace trooper Marge Gunderson (Mc Dormand). Lundegaard hires two incompetent criminals (Buscemi, Stomrmare) to kidnap his wife and exact a ransom from her rich father. Minnesota is renown for being a particularly politely peopled place, and this film heaps niceties on you like spades, which is perhaps my favourite part of it.

William H. Macy … Jerry Lundegaard

Frances McDormand … Marge Gunderson

John Carroll Lynch … Norm Gunderson

Steve Buscemi … Carl Showalter

Peter Stormare … Gaear Grimsrud

Kristin Rudrüd … Jean Lundegaard

Harve Presnell … Wade Gustafson

Tony Denman … Scotty Lundegaard

The Coens are still a million miles from Hollywood staple, but with Fargo’s comic felicity, gun-packing coolness and ability to come up with the totally unexpected, they maintain their place among America’s most important filmmakers. Excellent. Empire
Gunderson’s investigation into the murder of a state trouper, killed during the botched kidnapping, is at times monotone but methodical and relentless. She breaks her politeness once saying to Lundergaard “you have no call to get snippy with me”, which in itself is sensational. See the snippy snippet below. I won’t share the whole scene as it does contain some spoilers. Why do I like this? Likely because it is one of the consistent comedic moments which are scattered throughout the film. We also have Showalter’s (Buscemi) constant and increasingly gory fumbles as he is trying to obtain payment for his illicit activities, which add a layer of levity to an otherwise quite serious topic.

 

The dark and cold weigh down everything, and in the middle, in their warm cocoon, are Chief Marge and her hubby, Norm, the painter of ducks. Without them, “Fargo” might have been “In Cold Blood” laced with unseemly humor. The Coens sometimes seem to scorn their characters, but their love for Marge redeems “Fargo.” Marge is the catalyst, and her speech at the end is Shakespearean in the way it heals wounds and restores order…Roger Ebert

Fargo is a dense film of tremendous merit. The dogged pursuit of the truth and exposing of the pathetic criminals trying to dupe Gunderson was destined to end poorly. There are so many memorable scenes and tropes: the coldness of the third rate kidnappers as contrasted with the coldness of Lundergaard’s father in law (Presnell), the disappointment of Mr Gunderson’s performance in a duck painting competition and the constant unending nightmarish pressure on Lundegaard himself make this a special film. I recommend it very highly indeed.

The Conjuring III – The Devil Made Me Do It – Exquisite New Horror

The Conjuring III – The Devil Made Me Do It – Exquisite New Horror

Avid readers of this blog will know that I am a devotee of the horror fiction genre in cinema. I am not entirely sure why, perhaps for the thrill of being moved (even if towards nightmares), perhaps because the acting muscles needed to succeed in horror are so vastly different from more common genres, or perhaps it is something to do with the power of God triumphing over evil. Indeed at one point in this excellent film, the target of the insidious force is “Purity, faith and love, God’s greatest triumphs”. The plot of the film explores the origin of the possession of Johnson and the Warren’s attempts at halting it before a sinister force wreaks unspeakable evil.

Patrick Wilson – Ed Warren

Vera Farmiga – Lorraine Warren

Ruairi O’Connor – Arne Cheyenne Johnson

Sarah Catherine Hook – Debbie Glatzel

Julian Hilliard – David Glatzel

John Noble – Kastner

Eugenie Bondurant – The Occultist

With my legal mind whirring constantly, I could but notice that this film is indeed all about a trial. This was the trial of Arne Cheyenne Johnson, who murdered his landlord Alan Bolo in 1981. The Defence attorney in this case sought to prove her client’s innocence by way of demonic possession, birthing in the Conjuring III the (hopefully) immortal line: “your honour, my client pleads not guilty by reason of demonic possession”.

Arne Cheyenne Johnson being led to Court in 1981

The film itself was directed by Michael Chavez with a story by James Wan. It has Wan’s finger prints all over it, which was great for me as I am a big fan of his work. The film features stellar performances by Vera Farminga and a rather ailing Patrick Wilson (having suffered a demon-induced heart attack in the opening scene). There were innumerable chilling scenes, seeming to follow a 1-2-1 pattern of chilling, quiet, chilling again, presumably so as to not overwhelm the viewer. There were also an abundance of jump scares but not too many as is Insidious 3, where they really overdid it. And I found myself reflecting that hands played a recurring theme: hands slowly disappearing over shower curtain rails, hands disappearing around a sinister tree trunk and even a less than alive hand, which I will leave you to discover in your own time.

For me, the real surprise was seeing John Noble (Denethor II in Lord of the Rings) putting on a stellar performance as a retired priest with an obsession with the Occult. His unassuming but wildly threatening aura made the film that little bit more special for me. Perhaps my favourite scene was when a recently possessed David Glatzel (about 8 years old) is speaking to newly possessed Johnson in prison, in the presence of Johnson’s girlfriend Debbie Glatzel (now wife, as it happens). This minuscule child talks to his soon to be brother in law in quite quiet tones about the vicissitudes of being possessed, how it feels and what he should expect. I thought this was extraordinary, and not a little chilling.

Overall, as with everything James Wan touches it seems, this is a horror film of tremendous merit. At times all over the place and unintentionally comical (think obese, possessed, wet, nude, bloated corpse running around a house chasing Ed Warren), but superbly filmed and with an unlimited budget. There are some real wow moments to look out for, especially at the film’s peak some 90 minutes in. It is out in cinemas now, do go and see it if feasible.

 

The Righteous Gemstones – Ecclesiastical Comedy

The Righteous Gemstones – Ecclesiastical Comedy

 

Once again I must thank my father for introducing me to this superlative comedy a few weeks ago. Written by Danny McBride (top, centre in the picture below), this 2019 series follows the story of the Gemstone family, a collection of remarkably egotistical evangelicals as they face a variety of challenges opening a mega church in a new town.

The show is written by Danny McBride (Vice Principals), who also stars as Jesse Gemstone, the corrupt eldest son of a patriarchal religious dynasty led by preacher Dr Eli Gemstone (John Goodman). Standard

I watched True Stories, David Byrne’s film recently, which also starred John Goodman and felt the need to review The Righteous Gemstones as a result of this. The two could not be more different from one another but I want to put True Stories (1986) on your radar, do look into it if you so desire.

The family have become ludicrously rich through the success of Eli and the late Aimee Lee Gemstone’s enterprise at garnering a country wide following and setting up a number of mega churches. They have an enormous complex where each of the family have an individual house each, all of which are lavish. They have a fleet of private jets named the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They also have a fantastic sign at the front of their property which I shall include below. This show did remind me of an excellent track on Stevie Wonder’s best album, to me, Jesus Children of America.

 

Tell me, holy (tell me)
Holy roller
Are you standing (I’m standin’)
Like a soldier? (Like a soldier)
Are you standing for everything you talk about?
(Holy roller)

By way of a nice segue, the above track does hint at the beginnings of the Gemstones’ issues which are explored in early episodes. Jesse Gemstone receives some video footage showing him participating in a very Christian drug fuelled orgy, they threaten him and attempt to extort $1M from him by the end of the week. The series’ struggles unravel from there. Of course as can be expected the blackmail does not entirely go to plan. But I shall leave you to find out how and why!

Why do I like this series? This is a topic and environment which is ripe for comedy; the idea of churches profiting from their ministry rather than sowing this back into the community has rankled me for some time, and the wealth of fascinating characters which make it engaging and consistent. Also, it is really very very funny.

Baby Billy is one of the most brilliant characters, jaded at Eli Gemstone taking his sister Aimee Lee away from him and profiting from her magic while leaving Billy in the dust. This long term feud fuels Billy’s desire to throw spanners in the works of the Gemstones’ activities.

Finally I’d like to mention Keefe Chambers, played by Tony Cavalero. He is the close friend and confidante of Kelvin Gemstone (Adam Devine), and is a former Satanist who has been reformed and is now following a life in Christ. His gigantic 666 tattoo is almost too funny, as is the underlying sexual tension between him and Kelvin. the consistent discomfort between the two as a result of this is a deep well of comedy.

The Righteous Gemstones is an exquisitely rendered comedy which makes the most of a rich seam of comedy. I cannot recommend it enough. I hope it will be available on more widely available platforms in the near future.

 

Bedknobs and Broomsticks – Magical Cinematic Experience

Bedknobs and Broomsticks – Magical Cinematic Experience

Unsurprisingly this film was made by the same team as made Mary Poppins 7 years prior. Disney, to their great credit, have managed to create a film with enduring magic. What surprised me when watching again was how much of it I remembered from my childhood and the aspects which struck me then still striking me now. Why did I happen upon this film? Well, I showed Nick the avocado Matthew is growing, in a pot of water initially, and I made the remark that it was bobbing along. Nick, who had regrettably not yet seen the film, did not get the reference. I showed him the infamous video. The rest is history.

Angela Lansbury, one of those actors who arrived fully middle-aged, takes over from Julie Andrews as the kooky, genial pseudo-mother figure — here a proto-witch on a magical correspondence course rather than a flying nanny — and does a fair job with the necessary blend of the ethereal and stoical English pragmatism. Empire

 

Ain’t it lovely how we get along, swimmingly? Some choice rhyming aside, this did inspire many hours of laughter between Nick and I, a testament to the consistent quality of the film.

My favourite scene must be the Naboombu football game under the sea, with the most bizarre rules known to man or cartoon. I remember being amazed by this as a child, and perhaps it sourced by distaste for the sport. 1971 animation here folks, that’s the really astonishing part. 50 years have passed and the animation is still as fresh as day 1 and can perhaps compete with some more modern cartooning.

For the Naboombu soccer sequence, the sodium vapor process was used, which was developed by Petro Vlahos in the 1960s. Animator and director Ward Kimball served as the animation director over the sequence. Directing animator Milt Kahl had designed the characters, but he was angered over the inconsistencies in the character animation. This prompted Kimball to send a memo dated on September 17, 1970 to adhere to animation cohesiveness to the animation staff. Because of the heavy special effects, the entire film had to be storyboarded in advance, shot for shot, in which Lansbury noted her acting was “very by the numbers”. Wikipedia

Overall, while I could not get away from the knowledge that this was a children’s film, although perhaps the stock uninteresting children in Ms Lansbury’s care were only put there as ciphers for children watching, this film was squarely aimed at a wider audience. The plot is relatively dense, the comedy is consistent and the animation is fantastic. An enduring, magical special piece of cinema.