Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity

Re-seeing three modern classics

     Yet again, TCM shows more good-to-great movies than any other channel.  The colors of the French flag represent liberty, equality, and fraternity.  Krysztok Kieslowski directed a trio of movies in the ‘90s that explored these ideals.  One of those will appear as ‘fraternity.’  

     François Truffaut’s The Four Hundred Blows (1959) still holds up decades after the French New Wave because of pre-teen character Antoine Doinel’s mercurial complexity.  When I saw this movie in college, I felt great empathy with that character and his situation.  However, in re-viewing it, Antoine more than assists in creating his situation.  His parents are strapped for cash, which is part of the reason for their random complacency, cheerfulness, and desertion.  He’s desperate to be free, whether from their boxed in lives or the
pigheadedness of his school or the charming boisterousness of Paris and he’ll lie or steal to survive. His best friend René sticks with him as long as he can, but his dysfunctional parents have more money and he knows how to play the game.  Jean-Pierre Léaud, who became a major star, and Patrick Auffay are natural, insouciant, and tough as the boys.

Patrick Auffay and Jean-Pierre Léaud
     The conventional wisdom surrounding the famous last freeze frame shot sums it up as heartbreaking and wonders what will happen next to this boy.  However, he found what he wanted to see, namely, the sea.  I think this final rush to freedom shows that he won’t be broken, regardless of how authoritarian society treats him.  One note about the scores of Truffaut’s Doinel series of movies:  they always sound sweetest when the protagonist faces the bitterest incidents.

     Could Hal Ashby’s The Landlord (1970) be made today?  Some of Spike Lee’s movies have dealt with similar subject matter, but not any from the past decade.  Beau Bridges plays a wealthy, feckless young man who decides to buy a Brooklyn Heights brownstone as a showcase, but first he has to deal with the current tenants, played by Pearl Bailey, Louis Gosset Jr. and Diana Sands, and Mel Stewart.  They’re not about to move out conveniently and give him a few lessons in the real ways of the world for the poor.  

Pearl Bailey and Lee Grant
     Mixing a political comedy of manners with satire, romance, and a bildüngsroman, The Landlord ambitiously tackles U.S. race relations and, even more subversively, class relations with a simultaneous sense of glee and a laid-back attitude.  Bridges plays an East Coast variation on Benjamin Braddock (Was he even considered for that role?  Every other actor under thirty in New York and Hollywood was) and, like him, he finds love and adulthood, but at a far greater price than the hero of The Graduate (1967).  Lee Grant is a hoot as his ‘Lady who Lunches’ mother, especially in a scene with the Earth Mother Pearl Bailey where she almost locates the last shred of her unconscious humanity.  

     Equality in this sense reveals characters being laid low.  Gossett astonishes in one scene where he has been naïvely betrayed by Sands’ and Bridges’ characters and goes mad.  He frightens on a profound level, more than any horror or science fiction incarnation.  He’s sensational.  It’s a tremendous disappointment that a performer as intriguing as Marki Bey was never used as centrally in commercial movies again.  (Of course, one could say the same about Lonette McKee, Irene Cara, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Cynda Williams, Meagan Good, as the years have passed by).

     Kieslowski’s Red (1994) focuses on the relationship between a compassionate, intelligent young woman and an alienated, disconnected older man.  These characters, played by Irène Jacob and Jean-Louis Trintignant, meet because she accidentally hits, but luckily doesn’t kill, his dog.  The fragile thread of life and its omnipresent possibility of being cut also encompass love, friendship, ambition, and ideals.  All of this hovers around the deceptively simple story of this movie and it reaches an epiphany in its penultimate scene.

Irene Jacob and Jean-Louis Trintignant
     The young woman, who’s a model, has invited the older man, a retired judge, to her latest runway show.  Afterwards, they converse in the opera house setting that seems to stand in for historic Europe.  She has earlier demonstrated her love for him by pushing him to find who he had wanted to be and not to give up on that persona.  He returns the favor in their conversation by showing her what she already wants to love in a partner.  He cannot be that person because he is not of her generation and because he is her mentor and therefore cannot be her physical lover.

    There’s a secondary character that has been dealing with a romantic challenge and it hit me that he is the judge, but thirty years younger.  How will he meet the model because they should be together?  Kieslowski reveals this in the final moments that pull together the three movies in his trilogy.  I’ve seen White, a dark tragicomic satire, but not Blue.  After seeing Red, I’m looking forward to it.

No comments: