|Photo by E. Caro|
“Why does no one take movies seriously?” Jean-Louis Trintignant’s race-car driver asks Anouk Aimée’s script supervisor in a scene from Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman. To which she replies, “Because we go when everything’s okay.” Cynics, of course, would suggest as the more appropriate response: “Because of filmmakers like Claude Lelouch,” the French writer-director-cinematographer-producer whose romantic 1966 feature introduced more English-speaking audiences to foreign-language cinema than any other of its era. That the movie’s signature style — hazy telephoto compositions on a random mix of black-and-white and color stocks, all set to the beat of Francis Lai’s la-la-la-lalalalala-lalalalala score — had been largely accidental, dictated by budgetary restraints, hardly mattered; it would inform all of Lelouch’s subsequent works (to say nothing of the world of commercial advertising), while earning its creator the reputation of transforming le cinéma into something more resembling une parfumerie.
Arriving on the international film scene just a few years after the movie-drunk Godard, Lelouch seemed intent upon evoking in his work the very kind of basic emotions from which Godard was seeking to distance both himself and his audience. These were not so much “feel-good” movies in the contemporary (read: treacly) sense, as they were movies tapped into the epic possibilities of human feelings. In Lelouch, everything is writ large, not — as so many have judged — as a fetishization of the superficial, but as a way of visualizing how our emotions can take hold of us and seem so much larger than life.
Which is why the title of Lelouch’s latest, And Now Ladies & Gentlemen, is perhaps the most fitting in his filmography. It carries with it the carnival-barker’s promise of grand spectacle, beckoning us once again into Lelouch’s hothouse of human desire. And if it’s doubtful that the movie will come to define movie romance for this generation the way that A Man and a Woman did for its parents’, it’s not for lack of trying — the majestic Michel Legrand score is every bit as gooily delectable as Lai’s, the tactile Moroccan vistas arguably the most ravishing Lelouch has ever turned his camera upon, and the characters his most absurdly, unattainably chic creations yet. This is Lelouch, after all, trying to out-Lelouch himself, and so Jeremy Irons’ Valentin Valentin must be not only a competitive boat racer, but a master-of-disguise jewel thief as well, while Patricia Kaas’ Jane Lester — a globe-trotting jazz chanteuse (like Kaas herself) whose life might be perfect were it not for the mysterious blackouts from which she occasionally suffers — is glamorous enough to make Aimée’s script girl seem positively provincial. Of course, this being the work of a man who once titled a film Chances or Coincidences, it should come as no surprise that Valentin suffers from his own unexplained memory lapses, that his boat bears the same name as one of Jane’s songs and that it’s only a matter of time before our hero and heroine cross paths, in Fez, where an ancient healing spirit beckons. And, of course, they will fall madly in love.
Already you may be thinking what hogwash this is, how even the contrivances of the average Hugh Grant–Sandra Bullock pairing sound, well, less contrived. True enough. Except that for those of us who find Lelouch an unbreakable habit — the guiltiest of guilty pleasures — watching And Now Ladies & Gentlemen comes close to sheer moviegoing bliss. When it’s over, we’re left hoping for an encore.
Lelouch — who has never denied his preference for improvisational methods over pre-formed scripts, and whose movies have sometimes been undone by this predilection — has said he was inspired to make And Now Ladies & Gentlemen after listening to Kaas’ acclaimed standards album, Piano Bar. Seeing her perform some of these songs onscreen (as well as a few originals, courtesy of Legrand and lyricists Boris Bergman and Paul Ives), you immediately understand why. Though Kaas has never acted before, she possesses a distant, beguiling beauty that calls to the camera (plus a voice that’s to die for), and the scenes featuring her are a reminder that Lelouch’s films have always been deeply informed by music, and that it’s probably our loss that he’s never attempted a full-on, pull-out-all-the-stops musical film.
And yet, such moments musicaux are but one of And Now Ladies & Gentlemen’s potently seductive pleasures. There’s also Irons, a roguish delight as the gentleman bandit (think Indiana Jones with more libido) who dreams of repaying his every victim, and the wonderful French matinee idol Thierry Lhermitte, playing his own age with an air of lachrymose resignation as the skipper to whom Valentin entrusts his wife before setting off for Morocco. And there is the master cinematographer (Day for Night, Coup de Torchon) Pierre-William Glenn’s wide-screen imagery, so vivid that you may want to run up and touch the screen. Finally, there is the rapturous folly of the movie’s overarching, amnesiac logic — the idea that we might be able to abandon our memories, cut loose from our pasts and begin anew. Lelouch, who loves to open his films with literary quotes scrawled on the screen, this time picks one from 19th-century poet and playwright Alfred de Musset that might have been written with Lelouch’s movies in mind: “Life is a deep sleep of which love is the dream.”
The Magdalene Sisters
The Magdalene Sisters, the grim, grueling and triumphantly powerful second film (the first being 1997’s Orphans) directed by the barrel-chested Scottish actor Peter Mullan, begins by introducing us to three carefree young women about to end up as captives in one of the Magdalene Asylums, the hushed-up, forced-labor dormitories for “fallen women” operated throughout Europe by the Catholic Church from the 1800s until as recently as 1996. It’s not until some time later that we meet a toothy, mop-haired girl named Crispina, who first appears, nondescript, in the background of a crowded group scene. There’s something not quite right about Crispina — she has a childlike inability to see the complexities of a given situation and often speaks out of turn. The sort of girl who at one time (like the Ireland of 1964, where the movie is set) would have been called “slow,” she quite likely doesn’t realize how or why she’s ended up where she has. (In truth, it’s because she’s given birth to an illegitimate son, who her sister occasionally brings to the asylum gates for a glimpse of his mother.) Played brilliantly by Eileen Walsh, Crispina is the soul of this movie — the Magdalenes’ most helpless victim — and her story, told though it is in starkly unsentimental terms, will break the heart of anyone who has one.
Though the Catholic Church hasn’t been all that keen on admitting it, the Magdalene Laundries, as they were also called, really existed and were, by many accounts, even worse than the dungeonlike sweatshop depicted in Mullan’s film. Given that, and given the current vogue of combing through all things Catholic with the finest of fine-tooth combs, it would have surprised no one had The Magdalene Sisters been a scandalmongering anti-Catholic tract — the rabble-rousing, Oliver Stone version of controversial events (which some will think it is anyway). But Mullan’s directorial choices are vastly more inspired than that; his tone is one of low-key rancor, like a bull carefully surveying his landscape before charging. Working with the cameraman Nigel Willoughby, Mullan gives us calm, meticulous compositions that suggest how places as evidently horrible as the Magdalene Asylums could come to seem, to the victims of their institutionalizing effects, both a refuge and a comfort. And rather than simply wagging his finger at the Church, Mullan (who is, like both the heroines and the villainesses of his film, Catholic) canvasses a broader terrain, faulting not any one particular system of organized belief, but the blind submission by any group of people to any such system. He is as ashamed as he is outraged, not at Catholicism itself, but at its exploitation by those entrusted to uphold its principles and by those who would knowingly lock up their daughters to wash away the sins of an entire nation.
AND NOW LADIES & GENTLEMEN | Directed by CLAUDE LELOUCH | Written by LELOUCH, PIERRE LEROUX and PIERRE UYTTERHOEVEN | Produced by LELOUCH | Released by Paramount Classics | At the Westside Pavilion
THE MAGDALENE SISTERS | Written and directed by PETER MULLAN | Produced by FRANCES HIGSON | Released by Miramax Films | At Laemmle’s Royal and the Grove