Armchair Cinephile


City of lights-camera-action

Much of the talk around Chez DeFore lately has been about long-overdue international travel. So I'm going to take it as a sign that so many recent DVD releases offer visions of Paris:

The most whimsical view is Love Me Tonight (Kino), a goofy, corny, and wholly charming 1932 musical starring that most caricatured Frenchman, Maurice Chevalier. In this version, Paris itself is a kind of music, and Rodgers & Hart's songs (e.g. "Isn't It Romantic?") bleed into whatever's going on around them. Chevalier plays a dandified tailor who winds up wooing a princess, and the story's ridiculousness is helped by a sprightly pace and memorable supporting characters. (Director Rouben Mamoulian's Applause, a less lighthearted musical, is also fresh out from Kino.)

Even sillier is Robert Altman's shot-in-Paris Beyond Therapy (Anchor Bay), a romantic comedy in which every character, psychologists included, is seriously deranged. (Airplane!'s Julie Hagerty is the leading lady, if that's any indication.) The film's peculiar wackiness is definitely not for everyone, but those who click with it will laugh often.

Therapy obsesses over "Someone to Watch Over Me," as crooned stereotypically by Yves Montand, but I would rather remember the actor/singer as he appears in Le Cercle Rouge (Criterion), a caper film by Jean-Pierre Melville (Bob Le Flambeur) that lives up to the filmmaker's self-chosen last name. Like Moby Dick, Cercle features scenes that don't advance the action; at nearly two-and-a-half hours, it moves with a deliberation rarely seen in crime movies, and its pace is matched by star Alain Delon's stoic performance. It's less fun and more serious than Bob, but its gravity is a refreshing balance to, say, The Italian Job. (A less epic Parisian crime film, Henri-Georges Clouzot's Quai Des Orfèvres, is another recent Criterion offering.)

You can't talk about Paris and cinema without mentioning Jean-Luc Godard, whose recent In Praise of Love (New Yorker) was hailed by many critics as a return to form. While it is less alienating than much of Godard's late work, it's still a handful. Plot and character are irrelevant here compared to a few ideas JLG has kicking around his head, and the movie is assembled so disjointedly that very few viewers who aren't already Godardophiles will stick with it for half an hour. Far more accessible is his 1962 triumph My Life to Live (Fox Lorber), centered on the iconic Anna Karina as a mother who falls into prostitution; this is the kind of thing that put Jean-Luc on the map.

Love Me Tonight, Applause (Kino)

Beyond Therapy (Anchor Bay)

Le Cercle Rouge, Quai Des Orfèvres (Criterion)

In Praise of Love (New Yorker)

My Life to Live (Fox Lorber)

Lola, Bay of Angels, The World of Jacques Demy, Friday Night, Comedy of Innocence, The Game Is Over (Wellspring)

Jet Lag (Miramax)

Late August, Early September (Zeitgeist)

The Bathers (TLA Releasing)

I'm Going Home (Milestone)
In his early years, Godard lifted liberally from Jacques Demy's debut Lola and contributed to the film's high critical reputation. Lola and its follow-up Bay of Angels weren't set in Paris, but Demy himself became tightly associated with the city, specifically with its "Left Bank" neighborhood, home to heavy-hitters like Alain Renais and Chris Marker. Lola, Bay of Angels, and Agnès Varda's doc The World of Jacques Demy were all released by Wellspring last month.

More contemporary offerings include Friday Night (Wellspring), Claire Denis' understated tale of a life-altering one-night stand; as usual for Denis, this one made quite a few Top 10 lists. No such luck for Jet Lag (Miramax), a terminally lightweight romance between Juliette Binoche and Jean Reno, a man who looks pretty strange with hair. A more mixed bag is Comedy of Innocence (Wellspring), which, despite its name, is a head-trip in the spooky mode of The Sixth Sense.

While we're waiting for Olivier Assayas' much-hyped Demonlover to find its way to the video store, his Late August, Early September (Zeitgeist) serves as a friendlier introduction; a Gallic cousin of The Big Chill, August is less ambitious than most of the director's work, but it's nice to see Assayas focused on characters here instead of abstractions.

The Bathers (TLA Releasing) is also focused on characters, but even more so on their nipples and buttocks. A plotless but hardly uneventful day-in-the-life of a group of erotic dancers, it's a mess of a movie but should be a hit with voyeurs. I'm Going Home (Milestone) couldn't be less similar, but it too spends an inordinate amount of time showing its protagonist performing for others: Michel Piccoli plays an aging actor whose wife just died; Piccoli is perfect in the role and 92-year-old director Manoel de Oliveira displays understandably dead-on insight, even if there's not much to the film beyond a remarkable character study. (For a look at Piccoli in his younger days, see him with Jane Fonda in Roger Vadim's The Game Is Over, from Wellspring.)

What's that, about 30 hours of Gay Paree? I'm cinematically sated but seriously in need of a trip outside - fortunately, February round-trips to France are a real bargain. •

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