I was twice in Film Museum this weekend. Once for the rather poor Out 1: Spectre. I amused myself to read the German subtitles and check them against the spoken French and try to learn a few new words.
Juliet Berto as Frederique, Jacques Doniol Valcroze at Etienne:
Life is just a giant chess game but for keeps
The problem with the film Out 1: Spectre is that it is all on the spot improvisation. If you’ve ever done much improvisation, you know that even when it goes well it usually takes some time longer to develop. There is a lot of going in circles to get the plane off the ground. Spectre One documents those circles. For the twenty five minutes of successful drama you are forced to sit through four and a half hours of film, three hours of which are actors warming up to their subject and another half hour just extraneous long shots.
Perhaps most interesting as a social document if we trust the director to accurately document avant garde theatre practice and mœurs of the time. Some contemporary French critics did praise the sociological side at the time, so let’s presume that the clothing and behaviour is correct. In that case, it is astonishing how much people smoked and drank in that time. They didn’t take it easy on the coffee either.
Out 1: Spectre ostensibly treats Balzac’s Thirteen: thirteen who consider themselves above society and who are willing to cooperate to break any laws to get what they want.
The Fat Director (Michel Lonsdale as Thomas) is one of the most irritating personalities to ever grace the silver screen. He has a huge head, a great big rump, tiny shoulders, persistently dirty hair. Throughout the film, he pontificates with his mouth full of nuts or sandwiches or booze or cigarettes. He manages to put his oily hands on every attractive woman crossing the screen. Partcularly incredible is when he sits on the bed stroking his ex-mistress Sarah, while his current mistress sits on the floor, even bringing water to Sarah at his request.
Very amusing is the scene where he shares an apartment by the seaside with the most beautiful actress of his troupe and a bearded youth. The relationship isn’t sorted out clearly but it looks like this Dionysian young acolytes are sharing the same bed with old Satyr. What Michel Lonsdale is doing to merit this very special treatment is difficult to fathom. His carnal facility must rival the gourmandise of his eating – a hideous image but at least one level on which one can engage with Spectre One – distaste for a personnage so strong that you can taste it. He seems to have built a cult of personality within the group.
The most engaging actor is Juliet Berto in her role as seductress/thief/blackmailer. The different tricks she plays to part foolish men and their money are entrancing for a man. Have you ever been a dupe to a broad on the make? Watch her performance and you know you have been. Her most formidable adversary is Etienne (Jacques Doniol-Valcroze) who is one of the conspiratorial ringleaders. His gravelly voice and polite strength were incredibly impressive. Apart from a single scene at the end where he and Michel Lonsdaleare talking around the conspiracy, Doniol-Valcroze’s improvisation is the most fluent and convincing. You know that he’s dealt with any number of duplicitous women and is not phased by them in the least.
Jean Loud seems to be lost here. He is the glue binding all the different parts of the film together with this investigation of the thirteen.
My favorite director Eric Rohmer appears briefly in a cameo as a university professor discussing Balzac. Not a particularly convincing performance but an amusing enough inside joke. It’s amazing how old Rohmer was even back in 1972. Astonishing that he is still making movies. Eric Rohmer gave up on automobiles in his thirties and since then cycles everywhere (I am not sure that is presently true granted his age). Rohmer made the decision to abandon automobiles for environmental reasons. Hopefully, cycling/car abandonment has a very positive effect on my own long term vitality and productivity.
But in the end Out 1: Spectre disappoints. So much time for so little.
The image is also hideous. I don’t know what the original print looked like but what’s left in the can is a washed out pink and orange mess. You can hardly see the colours. The visual inadequacy of the material in this case is a substantial problem. Out 1: Spectre is most successful as a social document. In a social document, one wants to be able to clearly see the clothing and design, to taste and feel the surroundings.
So somebody saved some money with inadequate development facilities. No wonder they were worried about cost issues with dozens of hours of footage to tie together.
Curiously enough, the full Out 1 times in at twelve hours and forty minutes. It was supposed to be a miniseries for French television. TF1 refused to air it. Jacques Rivette didn’t want to see his work thrown away so he edited it down to the 225 minute version we saw. Apparently, the longer version makes more sense. I don’t have twelve more hours of my life to find out.
Timing in at 246 minutes and even longer, La Maman et la Putaine is otherwise the inverse of Out 1: Spectre. There are only three core characters. The action takes place in a minimum of settings (Café aux Deux Magots, a street by the Pantheon, a dormitory room and a filthy apartment).
All the three characters do is talk and drink. But the relationship lives its own life. Every moment is absorbing as you sink further and further into their psychosis and realise that despite their connection, a trainwreck is up ahead.
Most people are familiar with Jean-Pierre Léaud flippant work in Truffaut’s film as his own alter ego Antoin Doinel. Later in life Léaud slummed with half hearted efforts at acting. But here in La Maman et la Putaine, he is entirely persuasive as the café wastrel pocket philosopher. The line between life and cinema seems to disappear entirely.
While the text seems absolutely natural, it is in fact tightly scripted. None of the improvisational excesses of Spectre One. The difference in quality between these two similarly dialogue driven films from the same epoch with many of the same concerns should be a case study in the dangers of improvisation in the feature film format. A tight script makes all the difference between inspired and boring.
Both Bernadette Lafont and Françoise Lebrun are brilliant as Léaud’s companions in their ménage à trois.
Jean Eustache made few feature films in his relatively short life (43 years), committing suicide.
The one trait the two films have in common are the prodigous quantities of alcohol, coffee and cigarettes consumed.
No wonder most Parisians in their forties look a damn wreck.
It can be hard to find good information about Out 1: Spectre so here are some references to help.
Draft originally written in April 2009