Breathless

This film hasn’t aged at all.  The Paris exteriors, the cafés along the Boulevard Saint-Germain:  you feel as if you’re right there, having a drink at the next table.  Or driving fast in a stolen cadillac, the young Jean-Paul Belmondo at the wheel.  He’s doing that sexy thing where he runs a thumb over his lips, not looking at you or the road, looking at himself in the rearview mirror.  Talking to himself, posturing like Humphrey Bogart, pointing a gun out the window and pretending to shoot.

How did Godard get that intimate feel, and sustain it over an entire picture?  You’re in Jean Seberg’s rather cramped hotel room, in bed with Belmondo.  It’s Saturday afternoon and you’re just hanging around, bored.  One minute you’re watching him boxing in his underwear, the next he’s telling you his all-or-nothing philosophy of life, which is only half-cooked, or half-true—you don’t know which half—like everything he tells you.

But you keep watching anyhow, not because he’s Belmondo…  Okay, you keep watching because he’s Belmondo, but also because you’ve been let in on his character’s private thoughts.  You and the rest of the audience, but it’s as if you alone are witnessing the day unfold as naturally as a day in your own life.  That’s what makes “Breathless” so great.  It feels fresh, original, even fifty years on, and after repeated viewings.

You’re watching Belmondo run from the cops.  He’s been shot in the back and he’s zig-zagging down the street, clutching his wound.  He falls just as he reaches the crosswalk.  Jean Seberg’s trailing behind and she’s there in time to hear his last words:  “C’est vraiment dégueulasse.”

She didn’t catch them, or she doesn’t understand what he meant.  Isn’t life like that?

(8 January 2011)

Two Women

The pairing of Sophia Loren and Jean-Paul Belmondo doesn’t work; their scenes together don’t simmer the way you want them to, and the fault is Belmondo’s.  His character, a coddled only son with vaguely left-wing politics (Belmondo wearing glasses and pretending to be an intellectual?  Talk about playing against type!), falls in love with Loren’s character.  She’s aware of his feelings, but she’s too full of life for him, too earthy.  A true woman of the people, although much more beautiful than most people.

“Two Women” is set in the countryside around Rome in the last months of World War II. Loren’s character, Cesira, escaped the impoverished village in Ciociaria, the region of central Italy where she was born, by marrying an older man.  Now widowed, she owns a grocery in Rome and is raising her teenage daughter alone.  With the city under bombardment by the Allies, mother and daughter flee the city and return to Ciociaria, where they encounter Belmondo’s character, Michele.  He mouths Communist slogans, rhapsodizes about “the peasants,” how the future belongs to them, and complains about privilege—this despite the fact that his family members are Fascists who hoard food and consort with the German occupiers.

Morally speaking, nobody comes off well in this picture.  But that’s what makes it so powerful.  Cesira’s human weakness is apparent from the very beginning.  War destroys the vulnerable, while pointing up the hollowness of ideals such as Michele’s.  Death is random and undeserved; violence and brutality triumph, and who has sympathy to spare for his neighbor?  Only grief unites those who have survived atrocities, and even so, the comfort of shared suffering is fleeting.

Loren conveys all of this in a way that is so genuine!  Credit also goes to Alberto Moravia, the famous Italian writer whose novels spawned many fine films.  His own experiences living near Ciociaria in Central Italy after he and his wife fled the bombing in Rome inspired the book, which Vittorio de Sica faithfully adapted for the screen.  All around, a tour de force that doesn’t glamorize an ugly time.

(31 March 2011)

Banana Peel

You never know who’s double-crossing whom in this picture, and that’s what makes a great caper movie.  I won’t even attempt to summarize the plot.  Suffice it to say that the fat cat villain gets his due, the thugs are beautifully outsmarted, and Jeanne Moreau (who has never been lovelier) gets Belmondo.

Remember the bad guy in “Goldfinger”?  He’s the villain in this picture too, a swindler named Lacrosse, and he plays the part with far more finesse.  Here he is, smitten by Moreau’s character, Cathy, doing a little bossa nova in the hotel corridor after an evening out.

Such style!  And the double entendres, mon dieu!  When Lacrosse invites Cathy to go for a spin in his BMW, he entices her by describing the car’s, shall we say, horsepower.  “It doesn’t just keep to the road.  It grabs you like a ribbon between your legs.”  Later, Cathy checks back with her admirer.  “Your suspension’s holding up?” she wants to know.

Marcel Ophüls proved himself to be a worthy successor to his father Max with this film.  Those who know him chiefly for his scorching documentary, “The Sorrow and the Pity,” may be surprised to see his lighter side. Ten years later, George Roy Hill would direct “The Sting,” a similar story, also involving fixed races and much double-crossing.  Paul Newman and Robert Redford give fine performances, but without the zing of the pairing of Belmondo and Moreau, the movie feels flat, a bit plodding, even with the Scott Joplin soundtrack.

From the acting to the delightful musical score, not to mention the fantastic shots of Paris and the French Riviera, “Banana Peel” will have you smiling from start to finish.

(12 June 2011)