"Les Cousins" - Claude Chabrol (1959)

Claude Chabrol was one of the original members of the French New Wave (Nouvelle Vague), a youthful group of film critics writing for Cahiers du Cinema magazine (they included Jacques Rivette, Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and Eric Rohmer) who began putting their theories into practice by making their own films at the end of the 1950s. Although the New Wave filmmakers had a variety of styles, they generally shared a belief in the “auteur theory” originally put forward by François Truffaut: that despite the fact that movies necessarily involve contributions from many creative sources, the authorship of the film, its vision, comes from the director.

Of course each of the Nouvelle Vague directors had his own vision that he wanted to express in film. Each wanted to be an auteur. Truffaut’s early films were personally lyrical, Rohmer’s were cerebral contemplations, and Godard’s films offered social and political commentary. But Chabrol’s early films were not so obviously personal expressions. His film technique looked more “professional”, and his narratives were more conventional than those of his New Wave comrades. In addition his lengthy and somewhat uneven film career of more than fifty features has been relatively mainstream and has included a number of rather ordinary efforts that are sometimes dismissed as hack jobs. Nevertheless, I hold that Chabrol really is an “auteur”, in that original sense, and that he has his own unique cinematic vision and style. Insight into that vision can be gained by examining his second feature, Les Cousins, which he directed in 1959 at the age of twenty-nine. It still stands as one of his best films and can be ranked along side his great run a decade later that included Les Biches (1968), La Femme Infidèle (1969), Que la Bête Meure (1969), Le Boucher (1970), and his masterpiece, La Rupture (1970).

Chabrol’s style is ultimately expressionistic, but he achieves this expressionism not by lighting and moody exteriors, but more by the social dynamics of his intense character interactions. This has led him sometimes to be labeled satirical, cynical, or even aloof, as if he were sneering at his own characters. But I do not feel that he completely dismisses his characters; instead he sees them from a sympathetic, but ironic perspective.

The story of Les Cousins revolves around two young men who are cousins and are university students in Paris. Charles is from a small French town and has been sent by his mother to live with his cousin, Paul, who has an apartment in the big city. Although the two of them immediately get on together, they couldn’t be more different. Charles is direct, sincere, guileless, and rather naive. Paul is a sophisticated poseur, unwilling to accept any responsibility and ready to adopt whatever role might amuse him for the moment. In short, Charles is a country boy, and Paul is a cosmopolitan playboy. When it comes to studying, Charles is earnest and dedicated, while Paul is a lackadaisical hedonist. This dichotomy is emphasized every step of the way through the film, and that may sound too simple-minded and static. But there is a inner movement in the mind of the protagonist, Charles, as his innocent world view molded from traditional values is challenged by the face of corruption.

In some ways Les Cousins can be viewed as a descent into Hell, and there are cues throughout the film that reinforce that metaphor. As presented, the plot of the film can be broken down into roughly four sections, each one centered around a social gathering.

1. The Students Club. (28 minutes)
Charles (played by Gérard Blain) arrives in Paris from the countryside and goes to Paul’s luxurious apartment, where he introduces himself to Paul (played by Jean-Claude Brialy) and his boorish companion, Clovis. Paul, with his circle beard (goatee with connected mustache) has a Mephistophelean look about him. On the walls of the apartment are mounted guns and hunting paraphernalia belonging to his wealthy and always-away father. As part of his posing and role-playing, Paul has the habit of taking an unloaded revolver from the wall and playfully aiming it at people. I was once warned, by the way, that if you ever see a gun mounted on the wall in the first act, it will be fired before the last act is over.

Paul, Charles, and Clovis are soon visited by a former girlfriend of Paul’s, Genevieve, who is distressed because she has just learned that she is pregnant by Paul. Paul and Clovis both flippantly tell her to “get rid of it”, and Paul offers her some money to have it taken care of. This gives the viewer a quick early picture of the depths of feeling Charles and Clovis have for the concerns of other people. Later Paul takes Charles out on the town, and they visit a social club, where fellow students are drinking heavily, smooching, and playing cards in various rooms. As Paul shows him around, he says to him, “Look, . . . into the bowels of Hell”. Charles, the innocent rube in the big city, is fascinated. He meets some of the other students, including Philippe, who is heartbroken over having been dumped by Françoise (played by Stéphane Audran, who would be later become Chabrol’s wife and long-time leading actress). He also is introduced to Florence, a modest and beautiful girl, to whom he is immediately attracted. When he follows her out onto the street, she is already engaged with others, so he wanders into a nearby bookstore and talks to the proprietor. The bookseller, who will serve as a reminder of the values by which he was raised, favorably compares the earnest provincial student to the superficial slackers that live in the city.

2. The 1st Party. (25 minutes)
The next day Paul throws a wild, drunken party, to which Clovis has invited a wealthy Italian businessman, Count Arcangelo Minerva. From the scenes here, we can see that the obnoxious Clovis is, among other things, a pimp and a racist. The party rolls on with lots of drunken, raucous role-playing, with Paul in the thick of things. He puts loud Wagnerian operas on the hi-fi and parades around the room making overblown, histrionic gestures. Meanwhile Charles meets Florence again. Charles’s awkward sincerity, which contrasts so markedly with the rude and lewd behaviour of the other youths, charms Florence, and soon they are sweetly embracing. He invites her out for an evening drive, but before he can depart with her, the partygoers all decide to go outside for a drive, and their intimate moments are over.
3. The Seduction of Florence. (31 minutes)
Charles arranges to meet Florence the next day, but a miscommunication leads to her showing up at their apartment two hours early, while Charles is away in class. This is the one scene in the film where the focalization seems to move away from Charles. But to a certain extent it could be said that Charles is still the center of focalization here, even though he is absent for most of the scene. Only Charles and Clovis are there at the apartment to meet Florence, and together, they scold her for her sentimental feelings towards Charles. In the key sequence in the film, lasting nine minutes, Clovis, now revealing his genuinely satanic self, sets out to convince Florence that she is too weak to live up to the standards of true love. He manipulatively breaks down her resistance until she succumbs and falls into the arms of Paul, who then takes her to the bedroom. See the separate article, "The Seduction of Florence in Chabrol’s Les Cousins", for a detailed shot breakdown of this scene.

When Charles finally returns to the apartment, looking for Florence, he is shocked to learn that Florence is now Paul’s woman and that she has moved in with him. Later Charles runs into the bookseller again, who consoles him and tells him about women and to concentrate on his studies. Charles then devotes himself earnestly to his studies, despite the annoying distractions of Florence and Paul parading around the apartment at all hours.
4. The 2nd Party. (21 minutes)
As examinations loom, Charles devotes himself even more assiduously to his studies, while Paul spends all his time partying. Paul’s exams (they are apparently oral examinations) are one day prior to Charles’s, and though unprepared, he somehow manages to pass them. To celebrate, he immediately throws another wild party, although this interferes with Charles’s exam preparations. Florence, still has a flicker of sentiment for Charles and goes to his study room, but her half-hearted gestures are rejected and she is turned away.

The next day Charles takes his exams, and, as we might expect, he doesn’t pass. He seeks solace at a church, but it is closed; then he goes to the bookseller, but only hears the empty-sounding encouragement to try harder next time. Walking the streets for hours in agony over his failure, he returns to the apartment while Paul is asleep. He dismounts a revolver from the wall and loads a single bullet, before spinning the chamber in preparation for a game of Russian Roulette. At Paul’s bedside Charles aims the gun at Paul’s head and a click is heard, but no shot is fired. Since Chabrol cuts the camera away from the gun at critical instant, it is not clear whether Charles actually pulled the trigger or he thought better of it and stopped short. Then Charles goes downstairs to the sitting room and broods. Later Paul awakens and comes downstairs. Learning that Charles has failed his exams, he launches into his customary extravagant gestures, trying to encourage him. He picks up the gun in his usual cheeky, histrionic manner and takes aim.
In the progressively more surreal and expressionistic world of Les Cousins, everything works out well for Paul, but not for Charles. Despite his superficial, conceited air and devilish appearance, all the girls seem charmed by Paul and his confidence. And yet Paul bears noone any malice. He just lives for day-to-day pleasure and couldn’t care less about anyone else’s inconvenience or troubles. Throughout the film, Charles keeps reminding himself that his way – living according to the traditional values of civilization, good manners, and responsible actions – must be the right way in the long run. But his confidence and convictions are continually eroded by perpetual defeat. In the end he seems to be asking himself, “could the world be so constructed that I am bound to fail, no matter what? . . . Could the deck of cards of life be so stacked against me that I will be guaranteed to lose the game of Russian Roulette?” If so, then everything he had been taught would be worthless, and life would hold no hope.

Such is Charles’s nightmare, but Chabrol is being ironic here. Charles, the innocent, is surrounded by ironically-named demons in this tale. There is the Mephistophelian Paul. The corrupt rogue Count Minerva’s name, “Arcangelo”, means “archangel” in Italian. The name “Clovis” has multiple symbolic references. It could refer to the ancient king who brought Christianity to the Franks. And of course a “cloven-footed” is a synonym for “satanic”. Also “cloven” is the past-participle of “cleave”, and certainly Clovis cleaves to Paul like a leech. Amid all the debauchery of these demons, the only angelic one is Charles. Florence senses this, even at the end, but Charles has lost his confidence.

One person full of confidence, though, was Claude Chabrol, himself. Though his aggressive mise-en-scène, he has presented the dystopic inverse of Charles’s idealistic world. Working with brilliant cameraman, Henri Decae, who was also the preferred cinematographer of Jean-Pierre Melville, Chabrol’s camera uninhibitedly moves about the room, promiscuously tracking everyone, and figuratively insinuating itself up close in order to get the best angle at every moment. For a more detailed examination of this style, see The Seduction of Florence in Chabrol’s Les Cousins. Filmmakers sometimes seek an opportunity to include in their films a 360 degree camera pan, a showy effect that in the days when significant lighting stands were required, was difficult to pull off smoothly. In Les Cousins, Chabrol brashly executes this effect three times (in each of the three group get-togethers): once in Act 1, once in Act 2, and once in Act 4, the last one of which appears to be a double circle. These kinds of things are perhaps a bit overly conspicuous, but they reflect Chabrol’s emotionally expressive mise-en-scène

Les Cousins was Chabrol’s early landmark and the first financial success for the New Wave. He would reach his peak a decade later with La Rupture.
★★★½ 

Claude Chabrol

About Claude Chabrol:
Films of Claude Chabrol:

The Seduction of Florence in Chabrol’s ""Les Cousins"

“. . . And also by Gégauff are one or two little things such as the scene where they talk about the erotic quality of their skin. The whole story depends on this, he would say: it’s a story about skin texture.”
– Claude Chabrol
“Chabrol has been able to pass with masterly skill from the theoretical beauty of a script by Paul Gégauff to its practical beauty – in other words, its mise en scene.”
– Jean-Luc Godard

The scene in Les Cousins (1959) referred to in the above quote by Claude Chabrol is the subject of the present analysis. This is the critical, disturbing scene that elevates the film to a nightmare and remains in the viewer’s memory. It begins innocently enough. The morning after a wild, orgiastic party, Paul’s cousin, Charles, arranges for a date with Florence, whom he had met the night before, to take place after his afternoon class is over. Florence mistakenly arrives at the apartment of Paul and Charles two hours too early, and the ensuing seduction of Florence is the essential event of this scene in the apartment.

In terms of film language, the scene is shot in a provocative fashion. It is nine-and-one-half minutes of continuous action – primarily a rhetorical conversation between Florence and first Paul and then Clovis, which takes place in a single room. Despite these elements which suggest stasis, the scene is propelled by Chabrol’s prowling camera which seems to trap the characters in fatalistic courses of action. It is as if the characters can walk anywhere but are condemned to confinement within the invisible cage of Chabrol’s fluid framing. The scene that follows takes place immediately after the telephone conversation between Florence and Charles.

Introductory Note:
The fourteen schematic floor plans included in this analysis provide a means to follow the character movements within the scene. The camera positions are denoted by encircled numbers with arrows, e.g.and give the direction of the camera angle at the beginning of the shot. Any tracks, pans, or tilts that take place subsequently are not shown on the diagrams but are described in the text. The camera position is given only to suggest the direction in which the particular shot was taken, not to show the exact physical location of the camera during shooting.

The individual characters are indicated by the capital letters of their first names. Thus “C” stands for Clovis. Character movements within the shot are denoted by solid lines, and movement that takes place off camera is indicated by dashed lines. Where several shots are shown on the same diagram (for example, floorplan 8), the mark,
is used to consign the movements to the separate shots.

Shot 1 (698 frames)
Paul is seen from profile in closeup, on the inside of his opened apartment door.
PAUL: “But he’s gone to class, Flo.”
The camera pulls back and pans to the left to form a two shot of Florence and Paul at the door. Florence is at the left side of the frame
FLORENCE: “He said we’d go together at three.”

PAUL” “You’re in a fog. He said five. Come have a drink.”
Florence shakes her head to decline the offer.
PAUL: “Come on. You’ve two hours to kill.”
Florence looks up at Paul and then moves screen right, passing in front of Paul and through the doorway into the apartment. With her movement the camera pans slightly to the right until Paul is in the center of the frame in medium closeup. After she exits the frame on the right, Paul is seen following her with his eyes, establishing a separation.

Shot 2 (94 frames)
Florence is seen in medium long shot moving to sit down in a rocking chair inside the apartment. She looks forward and to the left of the frame, returning Paul’s glance from shot 1.

Shot 3
(142 frames)
Paul is seen from the same position as he was at the end of shot 1, still looking at Florence. He then exits in the direction of his gaze (screen right). This return to Paul in shot 3 reinforces the initial separation and sets the tone for the rest of the scene.

Shot 4 (704 frames)
Florence is in her chair, viewed from the same angle as in shot 2. Florence’s eyes are following Paul, and the separation is resolved as Paul enters the frame from screen left, passes in front of Florence and goes to a table to the right of her chair where he picks up a drink. As Paul passes in front of Florence, the camera begins to pan rightward, following his movement, and tilts upward in order to frame Paul in medium shot. When Paul reaches the table, Florence is no longer visible in the frame, and a new separation is formed.
PAUL: “Tell me, kitten, what’s with you and Charles?”
Paul moves to the left and leans down to hand Florence (who is not seen) a mixed drink.
PAUL: “Playing a new game?”

FLORENCE: “Just playing.”
Paul walks away from her to another table in front of the wall where the guns are mounted. The camera has followed this movement, which is forward and to the right. Paul begins to prepare another drink and turns back toward Florence.
PAUL: “Such refreshing frankness. And what do you get out of it?”
The camera pans leftward back to Florence in her chair.
FLORENCE: “ A strange pleasure.”
She then looks forward and to the right, offscreen, at Paul.

Shot 5 (1636 frames)
Paul is seen in medium closeup, returning towards Florence.
PAUL: “With Charles? Impossible.”
He kneels down and the camera pans and tilts downward to form a two-shot with Florence. Florence is in the chair, and Paul is to the right of her in a squatting position. This resolves the separation begun in the middle of shot 2.
PAUL: “A great guy – honest – I’m mad about him. But . . . . well, you know what he’s like."
He looks at her and then continues.
PAUL: “I’m not getting through. And you look so bright. I can see you two at art exhibits – but once in bet. . . “

FLORENCE: “You’re not bright. With him I don’t think about that.”

PAUL: “What else is there?”

FLORENCE: “There are other things.”
The camera now begins moving forward, closing up the frame.
FLORENCE: “I want to be in love with him.”

PAUL: “Okay – let’s start with that. How old are you?”
Paul stand up and exits to the right of the frame. As he does so, the camera pans leftward to center the frame on Florence.
FLORENCE: “Twenty.”
Shot 6 (3636 frames)
Paul is in closeup, looking down and to the left (towards the still-seated Florence, who is offscreen.
PAUL: “So you’re in love with him.”
He turns to his left and begins walking away from Florence. The camera follows his movement (to the right), keeping him in closeup.
PAUL: “And, of course, he adores you. So what happens? You play house.”
Paul turns back to look at Florence.
PAUL: “He works like a dog. He’s that type.”
Paul now begins to walk back towards Florence (to the left), and the camera follows.
PAUL: “For two weeks you tidy up the place. Or someone else does the work, while you lie in bed and read books. . . “
Paul turns three-quarters of the way around and points at Florence as he continues with his argument.
PAUL: “ . . . . that he picks.”
Paul begins to walk away from Florence again.
PAUL: “Saturday night – movies. Sunday – I visit – invite you both for a drink.”
Paul again turns back toward Florence.
PAUL: “He’s too busy, and you won’t leave him. But I know you.”
Paul beings walking back towards Florence’s chair.
PAUL: “You’ll act like a sainted martyr. And I’ll die laughing.”
As he approaches Florence, the camera continues its motion until it reaches Florence in the chair. When Florence is centered in the frame, the camera moves in.
PAUL [offscreen]: “Wait. I forgot Mama. What’ll she say?”
Paul leans down and into the frame to form a two-shot. The camera pulls back at this point, and the composition is maintained by Paul’s straightening up and stepping slightly forward (so that the two characters continue to fill the frame).
PAUL: “He won’t dare write her, because he can’t lie.”
Paul again walks away from Florence’s chair.
PAUL: “What’ve we got? A good boy.”
The camera pans and zooms in so that P:aul is in medium closeup when he turns toward Florence.
PAUL: “Now let’s be practical, Florence.”
Paul begins walking back to her again.
PAUL: “He’s good looking. He’s not a simpleton. He’s quite smart.”
Paul kneels down beside her chair again to from another two-shot – Florence left and Paul right. That is, the camera follows Paul as he kneels down until Florence appears in the frame on the left.
PAUL: “He has a noble character. But you each speak a different language.”
The camera zooms in as Paul stand up and exits the frame. Florence is now seen in closeup
PAUL [offscreen]: “You’d both be miserable.”
Paul’s hand now appears in the frame and rips Florence’s head.
PAUL [offscreen]: “And you’d cheat.”
A doorbell is heard offscreen, and there is a continuity cut to shot 7.

Shot 6, which is over two-and-a-half minutes long, contains what amount to hidden cuts which break up the action. First Paul is seen in closeup, which begins a separation. He walks away from Florence until he is standing so that the apartment door can be seen in the background. When he walks back to Florence, the camera follows but not quite as closely, and Paul eventually is seen in medium shot. Then the camera pans to Florence (hidden cut) and then pulls back to form the first two-shot (another hidden cut). This sequence is more or less duplicated as Paul walks away again, comes back, and then approaches the chair to from the two-shot followed by the closeup of Florence. Thus there are six “quasi-shots” within shot 6.

Shot 7 (391 frames)
The doorbells is ringing, and Paul and Florence are seen from the position of the apartment entrance in long shot and looking toward the camera. Paul walks forward and exits screen left. Florence gets up and takes off her dress coat. She lays it across the couch.
CLOVIS: “I’m staved.”
Clovis and Paul enter the frame in medium closeup, Clovis from the left and Paul from the right, their backs to the camera as they walk toward Florence. Clovis is wearing a hat. He puts his arm around Paul just after he enters the frame.
CLOVIS: “Ah, best of pals. . . . “
As they walk towards Florence, she sits down, and the camera pans slightly to the left so that Florence is still visible on the right, and the two men are on the left of the frame.

Shot 8 (679 frames)
Action cut to Clovis and Paul seen approaching Florence from the front. Florence is closer up and to the right, seated in her rocking chair.
PAUL [looking at Florence but speaking to Clovis]: “She came up to see Charles.”

CLOVIS [drinking out of Paul’s drink]: “Whatever for?”
(Clovis had already known of the meeting with Charles, since he had seen Florence when she had made the appointment by telephone.)
PAUL [still approaching]: “She’s in love with him.”
CLOVIS: “Impossible! It can’t be true.”
Clovis removes his hat and approaches Florence’s chair. Paul turns and walks away, along the path he had taken for shot 6. Clovis and Paul are now separated and the orientation of the characters begin to get complicated at this point. Up until now, the scene has only involved two units – Florence, usually seated, and either Paul or Clovis-and-Paul (as a single unit) walking about her. From here on Chabrol must keep track of the three separate characters.
CLOVIS: “You can’t be serious. You two?! You’d be bored to death. In three days . . . [he spreads his arms out.]
Paul comes ack up to Clovis and grabs his arm.
PAUL: “I told her.” [he comes forward].
Florence, in medium closeup on the right side of the frame, has been learning forward in her seat. By leaning backward, she now exits the frame on the right just as Paul moves forward. Thus the three-shot transposes itself to a two-shot, with Paul on the right and Clovis on the left.

Shot 9 (43 frames)
A medium closeup of Florence looking forward and to the left of the frame. The separation is between Florence and the two men.
FLORENCE: “You don’t unders- . . . “
Shot 10 (174 frames)
A medium closeup shot of Clovis and Paul. Clovis on the left is leaning down and looking in profile to the right at Florence (who is offscreen to the right). Paul, who is standing straight up and is slightly behind Clovis, is on the right of the frame and is visible on between the neck and the waits.
PAUL: “There we go!”
Paul turns and walks out of the frame to the left.
CLOVIS [leaning towards Florence]: “The stupidity of it sickens me.”
Clovis walks to the right of the frame. Then he turns a round and looks down and to the left, indicating that he has passed in front of Florence. Florence is not seen in this shot at all, because the camera passes above her.

Shot 11 (78 frames)
Florence is seen in closeup, looking left in profile. This angle is from Clovis’s point of view.
CLOVIS [offscreen]: “The Can’t-Say-No Girl wants Choir-boy . . “
Shot 12 (56 frames)
The same view as in shot 10.
CLOVIS” “. . . . Presto! – she’s a virgin.”
Clovis begins to move left again. Notice the fact that since the entrance of Clovis, the length of each shot is much shorter. This reflects the change in mood that Clovis’s entrance has created, as well as the altered situation of having to establish the positions of three people in the room instead of two.

Shot 13 (145 frames)
The camera maintains a closeup of Florence while its angle changes. The camera is physically moving from right to left, and, since Florence’s eyes move with the camera so that they are always looking into the camera, we assume that this shot represents the point of view of Clovis (as did shot 11). This implied movement of Clovis enables Chabrol to execute a reverse shot in shot 14, since a new action axis can be established after shot 13.
CLOVIS [offscreen]: “Even I find that immoral.”
Shot 14 (200 frames)
Clovis is now seen in a medium shot looking down and to the right. He leans in the direction of his look and the camera pans and tilts in that direction, until Florence is brought into the frame to form a two-shot.
CLOVIS: “Don’t fool the boy. You can’t change. Sleep with him or drop him.”
Clovis stands up again, and the camera pans down to from a medium shot of just Florence.
FLORENCE: “Filthy swine!”
Florence is looking at Clovis, who is apparently walking away. This shot begins with Clovis in separation, moves into a two-shot, and finally ends with Florence in separation.

Shot 15 (826 frames)
A medium closeup of Clovis on the left and Paul in the background on the right. This reestablishment of Paul’s position indicates that he had walks only a little way after shot 10. Clovis sets his drink down on a table and turns back to Florence.
CLOVIS: “We adore you, . . . our own dear little Florence . . “
Clovis walks toward her (to the right), and the camera pans with him until Paul is no longer visible.
CLOVIS: “We’re only thinking of you.”
When Clovis utters this line, he turns and looks back in the direction of Paul. Then he turns back to Florence and kneels down next to her (Clovis is facing screen right).
CLOVIS: “Enjoy a few nights with him.”
The camera pans over to the right to form a two-shot of Clovis and Florence
CLOVIS: “Don’t confuse things by marrying him first.”

FLORENCE: “I might like that.”

CLOVIS: “And that would be very bad.”
Clovis’s simple movements in shots 14 and 15 maintain a dynamism to the visuals of the scene as well as create separations and resolutions thereof in an inconspicuous fashion.

Shot 16 (479 frames)
An action cut to a closeup (might tighter than shot 15) of Florence straight on.
CLOVIS [offscreen]: “Can you make him happy?”
The camera pulls back to take in Clovis, who is still at screen left. The camera also pans slightly to the left.
CLOVIS: “Touch your flesh. I’m an expert on flesh. Believe me. I’m an expert with a perfect score."
The camera pans down to her right arm.
CLOVIS: “Yours is so warm and alive.”
Clovis touches her arm.

Shot 17 (301 frames)
An action cut as Florence moves her arm away. The two are seen in medium shot.
CLOVIS: “Feel how it trembles. It reveals what you are, kitten.”
The camera itself moves to the right while maintaining the two-shot, so that the shot begins over Clovis’s shoulder and ends over Florence’s shoulder.
CLOVIS: “You were born to be fondled – not kept under glass.”
The camera is now looking more directly into Clovis’s face. The camera pans leftward now as Clovis turns and looks back in the direction of Paul.

Shot 18 (74 frames)
Paul is seen in medium shot. He is seen not to have moved from his position that he held in shot 15.
PAUL: “He makes good sense.”
Paul is looking forward and to the right of the frame. It is interesting to notice that the separation between Florence and Paul has only been linked by Clovis since his entrance.

Shot 19 (293 frames)
The same angle as at the end of shot 17.
CLOVIS: ‘She’ll listen to me. You will, won’t you, Florence?”
Florence turns away from him, towards the camera, but her look is downward.
FLORENCE: ‘Two hours . . . .”

CLOVIS: “Plenty of time . . . for what I want to prove.”
Shot 20 (835 frames)
Action cut to a reverse of the previous shot. This reversed position lasts only for a moment, for Clovis stand and walks in front of the seated Florence. Clovis quickly passes o ut of the frame on the right, revealing the seated girl, whose eyes follow the offscreen movement of Clovis until he reappears again on the right of the screen, but not at Florence’s left side (he had previously been on Florence’s right side). Clovis again leans down next to Florence.
CLOVIS: “Admit that, when you touch Charles, something terrific should happen. Be honest. What do you feel when you touch Charles?”
Florence looks at him but doesn’t answer.
CLOVIS: “Now you know how wrong you’ve been about this.”
Clovis looks down at her arms.
CLOVIS: “Here . . . touch me.”
Florence turns away.
CLOVIS: “No? . . . Then, Paul.”
Clovis looks up at Paul (forward and to the left of the frame.)

Shot 21 (70 frames)
A medium closeup of Paul looking at the two of them with a trouble expression.

Shot 22 (1258 frames)
A medium long shot of Clovis (right) and Florence (left), viewed from approximately the position of Paul. Clovis stands up and comes toward Paul (not yet seen), i.e. comes toward the camera. The camera follows his movement by panning right a bit.
CLOVIS: “What are you afraid of? Let her touch you, Paul.”
Paul enters on the left side of the frame in medium closeup and walks, or rather is led by Clovis, up to in front of Florence’s chair. Clovis bids Florence to stand up and holds her left hand. She removes her hand from his grasp, but he reaches for her right hand and places it on Paul’s neck. Paul and Florence are now standing in front of each other and staring into each other’s eyes. The camera begins to zoom in on them. Clovis is visible behind them and is now in closeup.
CLOVIS: “Well, how do you like it? The feel of such hidden strength . . . of flesh calling to flesh.”
Paul and Florence lean forward and kiss. Clovis turns and walks away from them (directly away from the camera). This shot finally resolves this scene’s separation between Florence and Paul, which had existed since the entrance of Clovis.

Shot 23 (186 frames)
A medium shot of Clovis still waking away from camera. He turns around and faces the camera. This shot is taken from the point of view of the couple, although they are presumably engaged with each other and not looking at Clovis
CLOVIS: “Yes, Florence, it will be Paul who’ll save you from Charles!”
Clovis takes a step forward, and his eyes shift slightly to the left and right, denoting the respective positions of the unseen lovers. This is the final and most striking use of facial glances to identify offscreen character position in the scene.

Shot 24 (300 frames)
A reverse closeup of Paul and Florence kissing ardently. This shot is taken more or less from Clovis’s position.

Shot 25
(272 frames)
Clovis is seen from the rear in medium shot. Behind him (that is, in the background of the shot) Paul and Florence exist screen left, walking arm in arm. Clovis watches them and walks forward and to the right to pick up a drink on a table. The camera pans slightly to follow him. Although the cut from shot 24 to shot 25 is presumed to be of continuous action, there is actually a break in the continuity between these two shots. Florence is now to the left of Paul at the beginning of this shot (she was on the right in shot 24), and the two of them have moved toward the door. Since, at the beginning of this shot, Paul and Florence are partially obscured behind Clovis, this break in continuity is not particularly noticeable.

This ends the scene.

"La Bête Humaine" - Jean Renoir (1938)

In the late 1930s Jean Renoir was at the peak of his directorial career, turning out a string of film destined to be classics, including Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (The Crime of Monsieur Lange, 1936), La Grande Illusion (Grand Illusion, 1937), La Bête Humaine (The Human Beast, 1938), and La Règle du Jeu, (The Rules of the Game, 1939). La Bête Humaine, based on Émile Zola’s well-known 1890 novel, offered a mixture of styles that combined his characteristic humanism with a more fatalistic vision of people unable to overcome the dark forces controlling not only their destinies, but their very own actions, as well.

Zola’s La Bête Humaine was part of his Les Rougon-Macquart cycle of interlinked novels tracing the fortunes of several families over a number of generations. These “naturalistic” stories focused on the deleterious effects of overweening greed that he felt dominated the late 19th century industrial age. In addition he also seemed to have had questionable theories concerning the hereditary influence that ravenous appetites, such as indulgence in alcoholism and violence, had on the offspring of such greedy parents. Presumably out of respect for Zola’s original work, Renoir’s film does refer to this unsound theory when he has Lantier say that he felt he was “paying for all those grandfathers and fathers who drank – all those generations of drunkards who poisoned my blood”. But Renoir’s focus in his own version of La Bête Humaine was more personal and existential than Zola’s broader, and supposedly more “objective”, social commentary, and this was definitely a felicitous path to follow.

The story revolves around the activities of the following principal characters:
  • Jacques Lantier (played by Jean Gabin), a railroad engineer on the Paris to Le Havre run.
  • Pecqueux, Lantier’s close workmate and the stoker (French: “chauffeur”) on that train run.
  • Monsieur Roubaud, the local station master at Le Havre.
  • Séverine (played by Simone Simon), Roubaud’s wife
Renoir presented the story of Zola’s lengthy and involved novel of more than four hundred pages by organizing it into essentially four sections or “acts”.

1. Introduction of the Principal Characters (23 minutes).
The film opens, memorably, with a justly famous sequence of the steam engine speeding on the rails towards Le Havre. For about seven minutes the film shows the train from the perspective of the two operators, Lantier and Pecqueux, as they communicate by hand signals due to the noise of the roaring engine. This was an amazing feat of cinematography for the time, because it included some tracking shots inside the engine cab carried out while it was moving at speed. Renoir also had a cameraman sitting on the cowcatcher of the train in order to shoot head-on point-of-view shots as the train moved across railroad bridges and through tunnels, all a high speed. The impression one gets from this scene is that of the overwhelming power and speed of the train, and, by implication, the pace of “modern” life, which is beyond the means of the people who are trying to maintain it properly on its course.

When the train enters and stops in the Le Havre train station, Lantier discovers that the engine needs repairs, and he and Pecqueux are told to cool their heels in the area for two days. We are also introduced to Roubaud, the local station master, who dotes on his pretty and much younger wife, Séverine. After an argument with a wealthy and prickly passenger, Roubaud presses his wife to come with him to Paris and get Grandmorin, her godfather and a director of the railroad company, to protect his job.

Meanwhile with some time on his hands, Lantier goes to the nearby village of Breaute-Beuzeville to visit his aunt. Her daughter, his cousin Flore, he finds has grown up to be an attractive woman.  But while in the act of embracing her in a local field, he has a fit and almost strangles her, before a passing train snaps him out of his manic trance. Afterwards he confesses to her that this temporary madness is his permanent medical condition that he does not know how to overcome.

These opening scenes provide the basic character development of the principal roles. Roubaud is a proud individual, concerned with how others see him. His pretty wife, Séverine, is gentle, but a bit of a coquette. Lantier and Pecqueux are good, solid, working-class, individuals, but Lantier suffers from a mysterious temporary form of madness.
2. Roubaud and Séverine (31 minutes).
Roubaud and Séverine visit Paris, where Séverine visits Grandmorin and accomplishes her mission. However the emotionally insecure Roubaud becomes jealous about Grandmorin, and when he abusively questions his wife, he learns that she was once Grandmorin’s mistress. Furious, he forces Séverine to join him in a plot to kill Grandmorin on the train back to Le Havre. They accomplish the murder, but they are observed by Lantier, who was also on the train, returning from Breaute-Beuzeville.. When the police investigate the murder and interview all the passengers, however, Lantier withholds testifying against Roubaud and Séverine. The police magistrate falsely accuses someone else, the lower-class poacher Cabuche (played by Jean Renoir, himself). Nevertheless Séverine is suspicious that he might spill the beans, and she resolves to make friends with him. At the same time she informs her husband that the murder has made him repulsive to her and that she doesn’t want him to touch her any more.
3. The Affair with Séverine (22 minutes).
Lantier grows amorous towards Séverine, but she tells him that she only wants to be his friend, not his lover. Meanwhile, Roubaud, ignored by his wife, has become gloomy and aimless, and he spends more and more of his time gambling and losing money. One rainy night, while Roubaud is out gambling, Lantier arranges to see Séverine, and their mutual passion finally flares up and is unleashed. They make love in an empty rail-yard toolshed. Then they make plans to ambush Roubaud in the dark and kill him, but in the event at the critical moment, Lantier loses his nerve. At this point Roubaud, who had been a pole of focalization up to this point, pretty much vanishes from the story, and his murder of Grandmorin is never resolved by the police.
4. Meeting at the Dance Hall (25 minutes).
Now Séverine keeps her distance from Lantier. He makes another train run to Paris and back, and he sees her at a dance hall, now carousing with another man. When he confronts her, she tells him that it’s all over between them, because he cannot do what must be done to make her happy. He goes back to her place and promises that this time he will not lose his nerve and will carry out the murder of Roubaud for sure. She is finally convinced and agrees to run away with him if he does it. But when they mistakenly hear a noise that Roubaud might be approaching, Lantier has another one of his seizures and brutally kills Séverine, instead. In a stupor he returns to the railroad yard and gets on the train out of Le Havre. While the train is rolling at high speed, he blankly confesses to Pecqueux that he has just committed murder. Then he seems to have another seizure, attacks Pecqueux, and then jumps from the speeding train to his death.
With a plot structure like that, one can only marvel at how Renoir made an interesting film out of it. Many of the actions in the story, at least as presented on film, lack convincing motivation. Not only is Lantier’s violence mindless, but Roubaud’s jealous psyche is bizarre: he first obsessively murders Grandmorin and then later seems unaccountably indifferent to Séverine’s infidelity with Lantier. All three principal characters, Lantier, Séverine, and Roubaud, are driven by some unexplained inner compulsions to do things that can only make themselves and others around them miserable. Lantier, of course, is the most obvious case, since his fits of madness are directed at targets most precious to him: Flore, Séverine, and finally, his own life. Roubaud is also self-destructive, although on a smaller scale. And Séverine, who despite always seeming to have a smile on her face, actually sees herself as a miserable, tormented woman who must find a way to free herself. One might be tempted to view these three characters as simply odd, disturbed individuals – outliers who don’t deserve our sympathy. And yet Renoir manages to evoke out compassion for all three of them. Even Roubaud seems, for the most part, to be a pathetic individual. By humanizing them, there is an implicit suggestion that all of us have a “beast” lurking inside of ourselves, just as much as we may also have an inner “Buddha”, as well.

A word must be said in this respect about the acting of Jean Gabin, as Lantier, and Simone Simon as Séverine. At this time Gabin was at the height of his career and was the star of a string of movies by Marcel Carné, Julian Duvivier, and Renoir during these years. In all cases he embodied the ideal image that Frenchmen had of the common man – that of a sturdy, honest man of natural integrity. This was the French period of the National Front, with its liberal ideals of uniting all classes under a common banner. Gabin had the straightforward style that appealed to both women and men during this period. Simone Simon, who would later go to the United States and appear in Cat People (1942) and The Curse of the Cat People (1944), was not quite such a stellar figure at the box office, but she is absolutely magnetic here in La Bête Humaine. She manifests the innate qualities of a truly seductive femme fatale: she projects the innocence of a person that is so natural and compelling, probably even to herself, that one fails to see the underlying destructive selfishness.

Renoir captures the mood and feelings of the relationship between Lantier and Séverine, especially during their tryst on the rainy night, with artful studio lighting that emphasizes the almost secret emotional sanctuary that their relationship confers on them. Such scenes contrast with the raw, brute nature of the railroad trains that symbolize the uncontrollable forces that dominate their lives. Renoir bridges this contrast by his unique mise-en-scène, which shifts smoothly between intimate closeups and camera shots from a distance. Some critics site Renoir’s penchant for “framing” his shots through door and window frames, but I think this is more a matter of maintaining the camera at a certain distance, perforce physically locating it outside the room. This both distances the viewer somewhat from the scene and also situates the characters in the environment or landscape. Thus he often shows individuals in extreme long shot, dwarfed by their natural surroundings. The resulting effect is to ground the destinies of his players in the greater context that is largely outside their control.

The period of the late 1930s was one of growing pessimism in Europe, when Spain was falling apart and Nazi Germany’s bellicosity was increasingly ominous. An air of fatalism was starting to take hold on the European mind. The gloomy atmosphere in Europe has led social commentators to identify La Bête Humaine with Carné’s “Poetic Realism” films, Le Quai des Brumes (1938) and Le Jour se Léve (1939), although there are some stylistic differences between Renoir and Carné. Renoir’s focus covers a broader spectrum of characters who are grounded in a particular situation and circumstances. Carné, on the other hand, tends to focus more closely on a single characters, whose environmental situation is more distant and abstract.

Renoir and Carné have also both been identified with a narrative style that was later to be called film noir. To be sure, it is hard to find a more seductive femme fatale, a signal feature of film noir, than Séverine in La Bête Humaine. But since Lantier’s violent actions are so unmotivated and contradictory to his own desires, La Bête Humaine has a kind of philosophical despair to it that puts it on a different level from the romantic/existential despair of Le Jour se Léve. This is both a strength and a weakness. On the negative side, we have to admit that Lantier’s sporadic insanity has a distancing effect on the viewer, because his violence is so thoroughly unmotivated. On the positive side, though, this distancing supports Renoir’s stepping back and surrounding Lantier in the larger context and more uplifting milieu of working-class camaraderie and solidarity, embodied by the loyalty of his friend, Pecqueux (played to perfection by Julien Carette). At the end of the film, Renoir altered Zola’s catastrophic ending (in which an on-train fistfight between Lantier and Pecqueux led to them falling to their deaths, thereby dooming the train full of passengers) and closed with Pecqueux and the other train workers returning to work.
★★★½ 

"Shanghai Express" - Josef von Sternberg (1932)

Shanghai Express was the fourth, and one of the best, of the seven outstanding films that Josef von Sternberg made with Marlene Dietrich in the 1930s. Unlike their preceding film, Dishonored (1931), which had more of a historical/adventure spin to it, Shanghai Express was a return to the moody and deeply romantic style that characterized Morocco (1930). The story follows the fate of a group of mostly European travellers who take the train from Peking (which had recently been renamed, “Beiping”) to Shanghai. This was the “Warlord Period” of 20th century Chinese history, and the Nationalist Government at that time only had tenuous control over various warlords and rebel groups that were operating about the country.

Von Sternberg was always a master of cinematography, but this film was perhaps his masterpiece in chiaroscuro and atmospheric lighting. Working in the studio, he again managed to evoke an exotic realm that fires our imagination, even if it may not have perfectly matched the physical reality. Like Wong Kar Wai who came much later, von Sternberg effectively used physical confinement and cramped quarters, often setting his characters behind partially obscuring architectural artifacts in the foreground, to create the crowded, but often lonely, atmosphere of modern urban society. This cinematic style, combined with his stories which featured characters more obsessed about their pasts than their futures, set the parameters that came to make up film noir. Adding to these effects is the fact that this film takes place almost entirely at night and in the middle of a confusing Chinese civil war in which it is difficult to determine who can be trusted.

In fact the question of trust and faith turns out to be the principal theme of the film. The story begins with passengers boarding the first-class compartments of the Shanghai Express in Beiping. We are quickly introduced to a diverse set of these passengers, as they begin to make each others’ acquaintances. Many of them turn out to be misrepresenting themselves to varying degrees. They are
  • “Shanghai Lilly” (played by Marlene Dietrich), whose name is really Magdalen. She is a “coaster” – a courtesan who travels up and down the east coast of China “living by her wits”, as they say.
  • Captain Donald Harvey (Clive Brook), a medical doctor serving in the British military.
  • Henry Chang, an enigmatic half-Chinese traveller.
  • Hui Fei, another young “coaster”, but of Chinese ethnicity.
  • Sam Salt, a loud, no-nonsense American.
  • Reverend Carmichael, a highly moralistic Christian pastor from England.
  • Mrs. Haggerty, an elderly American lady who runs a boarding house in Shanghai
  • Eric Baum, an elderly German businessman.
  • Major Lenard (played by Emile Chautard, a long-time French writer, director, and actor) an elderly French military officer.
As the train sets out, Harvey recognizes fellow passenger Shanghai Lilly as his former lover, Magdalen, whom he has not seen since he jealously broke off their relationship five years earlier. It is clear that they still have strong, though suppressed, feelings for each other. The issue is Magdalen’s status. Five years earlier she had played the game of trying to make the clearly not-very-demonstrative Harvey jealous, but this ploy had backfired when he had angrily walked out. Disconsolate afterwards and without any purpose to her life, she had taken on many other lovers and had become a “fallen woman”. Now, though she admits her foolish mistake, Harvey doesn’t believe her. Reflecting on what she may have been doing during their time apart, he says, “I wish you could tell me there had been no other men.”, and she responds by saying, “I wish I could, Doc, but five years is a long time.” This is the abiding character of Marlene Dietrich in all her films: utter unashamed authenticity about who she is. You must take her on her terms.

Reverend Carmichael certainly doesn’t take her on any terms. He sternly warns the other passengers in the carriage about the “rotten souls” of the two prostitutes on the train. Harvey, the surgeon and man of science, scoffs at Carmichael’s absurd claims, scornfully questioning how Carmichael could ever have acquired the medical knowledge first to identify the location the soul in the human body and then to ascertain its state of rottenness.

The train is soon stopped by government soldiers, and all passengers are forced to leave their carriages and show their documents. One of the Chinese passengers is singled out and arrested. In the commotion Henry Chang goes to a nearby telegraph office and sends a coded message to someone indicating that (a) a top rebel agent has been arrested, (b) that the train must be stopped by rebel forces at an upcoming station, and, by his signed codeword, that (c) he, himself, is the “Number 1" in the rebel warlord organization.

In due course, the Shanghai Express is stopped by attacking rebel soldiers, as Chang had ordered, and after many Chinese government soldiers are killed, all the passengers are again ordered to disembark from the train. Chang now reveals himself as the rebel commander that he is, and he begins examining the passengers in order to identify a suitable hostage that he can use to swap with the government in exchange for his own highly valued assistant now in government custody. When he discovers that Harvey is travelling to Shanghai in order to perform critical brain surgery on the governor general there, Chang knows that he has found his man. Another telegram is sent, and the English persuade the Chinese government to agree to make the trade.

Meanwhile Magdalen, agitated with worry about what might happen to Harvey, urges Reverend Carmichael to do something. He tells her that the only thing she can do is to pray to God, and when she doubts that God would listen to such a sinner as herself, he assures her that God remains on speaking terms with everybody. So she sneaks off to a darkened train compartment and kneels down in fervent prayer.

Later during the waiting for the returned rebel agent, Chang, who has had his eye on both Shanghai Lilly (Magdalen) and Hui Fei, threateningly propositions Lilly, and Harvey intercedes forcefully by punching him. Furious about this loss of face, the ruthless Chang has Harvey bound to a chair and swears to Lilly that he will have Harvey’s eyes gouged out prior to returning him to the government. Distraught upon hearing this, Lilly resolutely decides to sacrifice herself for her love and offers to become Chang’s mistress if he will spare Harvey. Chang accepts the deal and releases Harvey, but Hui Fei, who had earlier been forced to submit to Chang’s sexual demands, stabs and kills the monster when he is not looking. Before the rebels can react, everybody scrambles to get back on to the train, and it pulls out of the station on the way to Shanghai.

Now Magdalen and Harvey are safe, but Harvey knows nothing of Magdalen’s willingness to sacrifice herself for his safety. In his eyes, Magdalen was simply willing to sell herself to another man. And Magdalen never tells him – she never tries to apologise for her past deeds. She offers her love unconditionally and demands the same in return. This is always von Sternberg’s characterisation of true love. Finally, at the Shanghai train station when they appear to be about to separate for the last time, Harvey breaks down and comes over to Magdalen. Confessing his total and unconditional love for her, they finally embrace.

The theme of love and faith overcoming all obstacles has rarely been so exquisitely evoked as in Shanghai Express. Von Sternberg has created in the film a dark, Expressionistic journey down into the depths of Hell and back, with love the only saving grace. Everyone you meet may have some secrets, and sometimes you must simply have blind faith in them. In fact several of the passengers on the train turn out to be not what they seem. Chang, of course, turns out not to be a businessman, but a rebel warlord. Major Lenard turns out not really to be a major; he was discharged from the military, but wishes to conceal that fact from his family. Eric Baum turns out not to be a respectable businessman, but a dealer in illegal opium. Hui Fei appears to be submissive, but she is capable of murdering her assailant. Even kindly Mrs. Haggerty tries to sneak her pet dog past the authorities and into her compartment on the train. And Reverend Carmichael finally recognizes and confesses that the women with the supposedly “rotten soul” is actually worth much more than all the others.

The acting in the film is generally good, but Eugene Palette’s performance as the American Sam Salt is a bit overbearing. Warner Oland, who convincingly played the loathsome Henry Chang, was actually of Swedish descent, but he made a career out of playing Chinese – he was famous for his role as Charlie Chan during the 1930s. The role of Hui Fei was played by Anna May Wong, who was the first Chinese star in American movies. Gustav von Seyffertitz, who had a major role in Dishonored, here played the role of Eric Baum in his usual emphatic fashion. Clive Brooks, though, is excessively wooden and stiff as Captain Harvey. The British stiff upper-lip tradition is taken to such lengths in his case that one wonders if there is any capacity at all for romantic passion beneath that uniform. Von Sternberg had a much more effective British actor in his next film, Blonde Venus, with Herbert Marshall, who had the right combination of reserve and emotion.

Marlene Dietrich, though, makes up for any shortcomings on the parts of the other performances. Dietrich characteristically had the magical persona, as projected by Josef von Sternberg, of always being both direct and demure. She suggests delicacy, but is nevertheless capable of forcefulness. She is authentic, yet she is invariably ironic: she is always composed and resigned to her fate – and there is always a suggestion that there is more to the story than she cares to tell. There are affinities between Dietrich and Chinese actress Gong Li (as directed by Zhang Yimou). Both are physically robust, yet graceful and sensitive. And with both of them, there is the suggestion of strong passion that lurks just below the surface.

What makes the film an outstanding experience, though, is not so much the ironies of the characterizations, but the masterful visual expression of the story. It is a characteristic of von Sternberg’s films to portray the action events in elaborately shot, but brief and fast-paced impressionistic sequences, while the “relationship” scenes are lingering, more fully rounded explorations of human interaction. Von Sternberg switches back and forth in this fashion between (a) the exotic and ominous details of the journey, (b) the colorful and distracting prattle of the expatriate wayfarers, and (c) the anguish felt by the former lovers. This is all punctuated by the visual and aural motif of the steam-driven train relentlessly chugging towards the dark destiny that awaits them all (an effect that Von Sternberg similarly achieved in Morocco, with the legionnaires’ drumbeat incessantly signalling the dark forces pulling Legionnaire Brown away from Amy Jolly). In Shanghai Express it all comes together – a dark, romantic, expressionistic dream.
★★★★

“The Kite Runner” - Marc Forster (2007)

The Kite Runner (2007), directed by Marc Foster, is based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Khaled Hosseini. It tells the story of an Afghan boy, Amir, who escapes the violent destruction of his homeland after the fall of the monarchy and comes to live with his father in the United States. But years later he must return to Afghanistan to come to terms with the ghosts that haunt his past. Although Forster is a German-Swiss director working mostly in the United States, the film has an international cast, with mostly Afghan and Iranian performers, and the dialogue is in Dari, the dialect of Persian that is the principal language of Afghanistan.

The story takes place over three separate time periods in 1978, 1988, and 2000, with the two earlier periods presented as extended flashbacks. At the beginning of the film, Amir is a young, just-published novelist, living in California who receives a phone call from an old family friend, Rahim Khan. Rahim urges him to come to see him in Pakistan, telling him “there is a way to be good again”, and as the story progresses, those words will resonate with the major theme of the story.

Then the film shifts to an extended flashback of Amir, as a 13-year-old boy in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1978. He is the son of a wealthy and well-educated financier, “Baba” (i.e. "Father"), who lost his wife in Amir’s childbirth. In those days, Afghanistan, like Iran, had a lively and relatively open society (traditionally, the two societies were similar), with women far more free to dress (hijab was not enforced), socialize, and live, than exists today in either society. Baba is an outspoken, leonine character who is disdainful of his gentle and nonconfrontational son. Amir is best friends with Hassan, the illiterate son of the family servant, and the two of them love to engage in kite-flying competitions, the goal of which is to use one’s own kite’s glass-powder-treated string to cut the string of a competitor kite so that it falls to the ground. A kite-flying team has two members, one of whom guides kite by pulling the string, while the other holds the spool and is also the “kite runner” – the person who runs after a captured kite and fetches it for the winner. Hassan almost worships the sensitive and bookish Amir and loyally stands up for and protects him whenever his friend is threatened by other boys. When they are flying kites, Hassan is the kite runner.

Although both Amir and Hassan are native Afghanis, Amir belongs to the majority Pashtun ethnic community, while Hassan belongs to the minority Hazara, which for complex reasons is subject to racist prejudice. On one occasion after Amir and Hassan have spectacularly won a citywide kite-flying competition, some older Pashtun bullies corner the kite-runner, Hassan, in an alley and rape him. Amir arrives to witness the brutality, but shamefully hides in the background, too fearful to interfere with the attack. This is the seminal event in the film, and it marks both boys. Afterwards Amir is unable to face his own cowardice, and he turns against Hassan, even falsely accusing him of stealing, which in a Moslem society is a very serious misdeed. His ultimate self-humiliation occurs when he succumbs to social custom at a party and silently shakes hands with Assef, the older boy who had raped Hassan. To resist the gesture would have been to acknowledge that he was privy to what had happened to Hassan and had merely watched.

After the Russians invade in late 1979, Amir and his father escape from Afghanistan and go to live in California. The scene shifts to another flashback period, this time in 1988, at which time Amir's father is now making a meager living by working at a gas station. Amir has just been graduated from a community college, and he meets an Afghani expatriate girl and falls in love. This part covers their courtship, which though it takes place in the new world, is still guided by very traditional Afghan customs. It may be interesting to compare these events with the courtship of another Asian immigrant young couple in The Namesake.

Finally, after more than an hour of these two flashbacks, the action returns to the “present”, in the year 2000. At this time Afghanistan is still in turmoil and in even worse circumstances, with the Taliban’s cruel and oppressive stranglehold fully established. Amir decides to accede to family-friend Rahim Khan’s request and come and see him in Pakistan. Upon arrival, Amir learns from Rahim two shocking pieces of news about his childhood friend, Hassan. First Hassan was actually his half-brother, and second Hassan and his wife have been killed by the Taliban. Hassan’s young son, Sohrab, has been removed to an orphanage. The last and only thing that Amir can do for his old friend now is to return to Afghanistan and rescue Sohrab from that oppressive society and take him back to America. Amir sets out on the journey, wearing a fake beard when he arrives in order to conform to the Taliban’s suffocating restrictions. This last part of the film is more of an action thriller, with Amir trying to dodge the Taliban thuggery and bring Sohrab out to safety. During the course of events, he witnesses another disturbingly brutal scene: the stoning of a young woman who has been accused of adultery. He even runs into Assef again, who is now a figure of some standing within the Taliban group. In the end he improbably manages to find Sohrab (who proves to have inherited his father’s mettle) and escape back to the US. In the final scenes he is shown with his new adopted, but still shell-shocked, son, Sohrab, teaching him about kite-flying. This time he is the loyal kite runner, trying to live up to the high standards set by Hassan.

The film is a good production, with a succession of high-impact, emotional scenes and fine acting throughout. The child actors are excellent, particularly Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada, as Hassan, whose stubborn fidelity and good humor leave a lasting impression. Also praiseworthy are Zekeria Ebrahimi (Amir), Homayoun Ershadi (Baba), and Ali Danish Bakhtyari, in the small but important role of Sohrab. Because of the rape scene, however, the filmmakers have been criticized for underpaying the young Afghani actors and leaving them exposed to potentially violent recriminations in Afghanistan. Indeed, some of them have had to be removed from Afghanistan, after receiving threats, and Zekeria Ebrahimi has said that he now regrets ever having appeared in the film.

One of the difficulties with the narrative, which is not entirely overcome by the filmmakers upon bringing it to the screen, is the many themes that must be covered. The film has (at least) the following story themes to it:
  • Buddy story (Amir and Hassan)
  • Romance (Hassan and Soraya)
  • Political thriller
  • Father-son (Baba/Amir and Amir/Sohrab)
  • Rescue and escape thriller
  • Coming-of-age (Amir)
  • Guilt and Redemption (Amir/Hassan)
It is difficult to do justice to all of these in a two-hour film. It is the last of them, concerning guilt and redemption on the part of Amir, which is the most important. But this thread is dropped for awhile midway through the film, when the story covers Amir’s romance and marriage, and the momentum lags over this period. When it is resumed upon Amir’s return to Afghanistan, it is difficult to get a sense of Amir’s real feelings about those earlier times.

Another difficulty is the artificiality of some of the narrative events. When you see Baba start to wince slightly, you just know that he is going to die of an illness soon. Some of the side characters are just a little bit too predictable. And Assef’s reappearance is particularly artificial.

The cinematography is very skillfully done, but its Hollywood-style dynamics are ostentatious and melodramatic. The same criticism could be leveled at Slumdog Millionaire, but it seems even more evident in this case. It is not helped by an overly intrusive score, which rather than employing purely Afghani-oriented instrumentation, wrong-headedly uses traditional Western orchestration. The kite-flying scenes, which mostly employ computer graphics, seem amazing when you watch them. But I think it is no fault of the filmmakers that it is probably just too difficult to convey the real feeling of flying a kite. As it is, we just see someone pulling a string, and then cut to two kites swirling near each other up in the sky. To me, it doesn’t work.

On the whole, I recommend the film. It is that first section with the two young boys back in old Afghanistan, though, that rings truest. Hassan’s doggedly loyal friendship is irredeemable and unforgettable.
★★★

“Raise the Red Lantern” - Zhang Yimou (1991)

Raise the Red Lantern (Dà Hóng Dēnglóng Gāogāo Guà, 1991) was director Zhang Yimou’s fourth feature film, coming right after his outstanding breakthrough feature, Ju Dou (1990) and again starring Gong Li. The story of the film, which depicts the travails of a concubine who has just joined the household of a rich family in northern China during the 1920s, is based on the 1990 novel Wives and Concubines by Su Tong. Naturally, much of the critical comment about the film has concerned the status of women in traditional Chinese society and the degree to which the circumstances shown in the film reflect larger social and political issues. But what makes the film peculiarly attractive, almost hypnotically so, seems to lie elsewhere – not on the social plane, but on another, deeper, level.

This additional dimension arises from Zhang Yimou’s uniquely expressionistic visual style, which of course emphasizes color, but actually makes use of all aspects of the cinematic medium. In this connection the filmmaker I would most closely compare to Zhang Yimou is Michelangelo Antonioni. Both Zhang and Antonioni emphasize the emotive influence that the physical (i.e. visually observable) environment has on the characters and the story, and they are both known first to choose the physical settings for their films and then build their stories around them. Although Antonioni characteristically employed more camera movement than Zhang does to accentuate this effect, they both achieve an existential mood that permeates the events on display. As a result, although the films of both of them may touch on the social sphere somewhat, they ultimately reach a more profound level that suggests the universal struggles of the individual soul in a heartless and uncaring cosmos.

There is a further key aspect associated with Zhang Yimou’s style of this period, almost an essential aspect of it, that must be mentioned – the magnetic performances of his lead actress, Gong Li. I will discuss her connection with Zhang Yimou’s style, and the degree to which her presence is crucial, further on in this review. In the matter of Zhang’s cinematic style, Raise the Red Lantern is particularly interesting, because its purely visual stylistic virtues manage to overcome its weaknesses in other areas.

At the beginning of the story, the father of 19-year-old Songlian (Gong Li) has just died, and the loss of his income has left the family in such financial straits that her stepmother insists that she drop out of college and accept an arranged marriage. Presumably it must have been a considerable achievement for a woman from a non-wealthy family to have been studying at a college, and Songlian is obviously disconsolate at being forced to abandon everything for an arranged marriage. Expressing passive resignation to her materialistic stepmother’s wishes, she says a rich man might as well be selected. When she is warned that a wealthy husband would come at the price of her being only a concubine, she sighs, “isn’t that a woman’s fate?” And so her fate is sealed, and she is married into the wealthy Chen family.

The rest of the film takes place entirely inside the vast compound of the Chen family, where Songlian arrives to serve as the fourth mistress of the “Master”. All of Songlian’s material needs are met in this household; she lives in her own quarters and she has her own personal servant assigned to her. But she is essentially just a prisoner, a colorful bird in a gilded birdcage. The Chen household lives according to strictly enforced family rules and traditions which everyone must follow, servants and mistresses alike. Each mistress lives in her own little courtyard, and every evening the master has red lanterns raised round the courtyard of the mistress with whom he has chosen to spend the night. In preparation for the evening’s enjoyment, the chosen concubine is then given a luxurious foot massage by the senior servant. Being the youngest and freshest mistress, Songlian is immediately the master’s favorite, and the red lanterns are raised around her courtyard. But she soon learns that she will have to deal with an array of enemies within the household:
  • Meishan, the pretty third mistress, is a former Peking opera singer and jealous of just having been supplanted as the master’s favorite. She is a spoiled, self-centered schemer who engages in all sorts of stratagems to both annoy Songlian and lure the master back to spending the nights with her.
  • Yan’er, Songlian’s teenage servant, is also jealous of the new fourth mistress. Master Chen had earlier had sexual relations with her, and consequently she had hopeful delusions of being named the fourth mistress, herself. Now she proceeds to take out her resentment on the new fourth mistress. When she is not off in her dreamworld imagining the red lanterns being raised just for her own fanciful nights with the master, she acts spitefully and hurtfully towards Songlian in every way that she can.
  • Zhuoyun, the second mistress, is warm and unassuming. She offers her friendship to Songlian and expresses her sympathies in connection with the scheming Meishan. But when Meishan later makes a peace with Songlian, she warns Songlian that Zhuoyun is deceptive and frankly even worse than she, herself, is: “she has a Buddha’s face, but a scorpion’s heart.” And indeed Songlian comes to discover the painful truth in Meishan’s warning.
  • Yuru, the first wife, is much older and has a grown-up son. Although she has some ritual authority, she has long since been forgotten by the master, and it has been a long time since the red lanterns have been raised for her.
In this artificial and cloistered world Songlian finds herself playing the only game available: competing for the master’s selection. There is no love on the part of any of the parties, only the gratification that comes from winning the game. And there’s more to it than just winning that master’s attentions. It becomes clear to Songlian quickly enough that the servants only show real respect to the master’s current favorite mistress, the one for whom the red lanterns are being raised every night. The lower-ranking mistresses are essentially ignored. as a consequence In this microcosm, Master Chen is not only the law, but also the source of all values. Everything revolves around his whims. Songlian even hears that if a mistress ever proves to be unfaithful to the master, she is secretly hanged in a garret on the roof. And that horrifying prospect turns out to be more than just a rumor, as later events transpire to demonstrate.

Despite the master’s central importance to the governance and operation of the Chen household, though, he is rarely seen in the film, and when he appears, it is only in the background or in the distance. But the shadow he casts is perhaps more forceful than the real figure’s presence. Zhang Yimou’s claustrophobic visual focus is entirely on the machinations involving the women: the mistresses and the servants, and how they behave towards each other.

As the story progresses and the fourth-mistress Songlian struggles to hold her ground with respect to the other mistresses, she becomes increasingly frustrated – not only with how she is treated, but with the pointlessness of the whole enterprise. Her only options, it seems, are to serve as nothing more than either a utilized or a discarded garment for the master. Eventually the inevitable tragedies ensue. Songlian turns out to be unwittingly the cause of successive catastrophes which shatter others and ultimately take the ultimate toll on her own mind. She ends not only totally without hope, but deranged, as well.

Overall, the narrative of Raise the Red Lantern presents a relentlessly grim destruction of the human soul. From a cinematic and narrative perspective, the focalization is almost entirely with Songlian, but not exclusively so. Many of the shot perspectives are not strictly from the point of view of Songlia, but from the point of view of an some unseen, nosey viewer who is a privileged witness to her destruction. But in spite of the continuing grim picture presented in the film, it is nevertheless also continuously fascinating, as the viewer follows the superficially courteous, but insidious, ways in which the various women treat each other. In this respect it’s interesting to compare and contrast the attention to the women's circle in this film with Antonioni’s similarly women-focused story, Le Amiche. Both films concern a circle of upperclass women and the ways they use and abuse each other in seemingly civilized fashion. But the women are cast in vastly different circumstances -- Antonioni’s women in Le Amiche are situated in greatly different circumstances than are Zhang Yimou’s in Raise the Red Lantern. For instance Le Amiche is set in postwar Italy, where new opportunities were appearing, and the women were almost reveling in, and at the same time struggling to come to terms with, the new freedoms available to them. In Raise the Red Lantern, on the other hand, the lives of the women are completely circumscribed by oppressive, time-worn rules and Confucian traditions. Instead of exploring new freedoms, these women are struggling to find space for even the smallest bits of autonomy that is available to them.

In this context (of women and their relationships) we come back to the subject of Gong Li and the significant role she plays in all this. To me she is something of an enigma. While many Western viewers regard her as very beautiful, I find it interesting that none of my Chinese friends and acquaintances have ever identified her as alluring or good-looking. She is, at best, "OK" to them, but not particularly special. Of course what is beautiful is a matter of individual tastes, but the contrast along ethnocultural lines is striking. It seems that her appearance and manner resonate with some groups and not at all with others. First of all we might observe that she is not at all delicate like a flower, and she is not pretty like a picture. Instead, her face and demeanor suggest action, along with latent passions. And that, I suppose is the secret behind the magnetism that she brings to the screen for some people. It is this smoldering passion, seemingly ready to erupt at any time (though it never really does), that energizes Zhang Yimou’s visual spectacles. Her talent, then, is not simply a matter of playing a role and making it believable. In fact, when I revisit her films, I am not even confidant that she her general acting is particularly skilled or convincing. Her displays of petulance in Raise the Red Lantern seem forced and artificial, and her reactions to Zhuoyun and Yan’er do not seem as spontaneous as they should be. When I compare her with Zhang Yimou’s more recent leading lady, Zhang Ziyi, it is the latter actress who may have more subtlety of expression and feeling. But somehow the hypnotic charm of Gong Li’s emotive glances overcomes any other limitations and permeates the scene. In this sense she reminds me of Claudia Cardinale. Her face and gestures are enough on their own to connote some mysterious longings for something unspoken, an emotion that frequently lies below the surface in Zhang Yimou’s films.

In Raise the Red Lantern that very expressive yearning for something more in life, something beyond the present circumstances, is what dominates the visual expression. The plot is not exceptional, and even the acting is somewhat uneven. But the entire cinematic experience is a visceral representation and demonstration of the metaphor of the "fly in the fly bottle". And the final images of the film display that fly trapped inside a red lantern. For whatever weaknesses it may have, Raise the Red Lantern, graced by Gong Li’s vivacious presence, is everlastingly memorable for making us linger on and wonder at that metaphorical image.
★★★★