Breathless (1983)

The most impressive thing about the 1993 genre spoof Fatal Instinct is that it riffs on two genres at once.  1980s & 90s erotic thrillers were already such a direct photocopy of 1940s & 50s noir that it’s difficult to tell where one genre’s tropes end and the other’s begin in that Carl Reiner goofaround.  It turns out that Fatal Instinct had already been outdone by the 1983 remake of Breathless, though, which adds a whole other layer of post-modern cultural ouroboros to the noir nostalgia cycle.  Whereas Fatal Instinct is a disposable novelty that clowns about at the intersection of erotic thrillers & classic noir, Breathless makes an extra pit stop at Jean-Luc Godard’s doorstep to translate that genre overlap into high art – the very pinnacle of the artform, even.  If anything, the entire Hollywood noir experiment was only worthwhile so that it could be filtered through French New Wave art snobbery and then later perfected in this 80s pop art orgasm.  I’m only partially kidding.

I was surprised to swoon so hard for the 80s Breathless update, since the 1960 original didn’t exactly wow me when I saw it at the New Orleans French Film Fest in 2018.  I did appreciate the ways its flippant story of a womanizing car thief was blatantly influenced by American gangster pictures, filtered through a more casual, hands-on French New Wave aesthetic, then later filtered again through New Hollywood crime pictures like Bonnie & Clyde back in America, and the cycle goes on. I struggled at times with the poisonous machismo of the film’s chain-smoking antihero, though, even though he admits up front to being an asshole and most of the humor positions him as the butt of the joke. Even with all that self-deprecation, the movie thinks he’s a lot cooler than he is.  The original Breathless has a handheld, exciting immediacy to it that makes its place in the Important Movies canon immediately apparent, but it could easily be remade as a (hyperviolent) Pepé Le Pew cartoon, which was a huge turnoff for me at the time.

The remake doesn’t really do anything to soften or rehabilitate its party boy hedonist antihero other than casting a young, hot-to-trot Richard Gere in the role.  Somehow, that’s more than enough.  Gere’s performance as the heartbreaking, carjacking Jesse Lujack is just as much of a slimy little shit as Jean-Paul Belmondo was in the original, but he’s a thousand times cooler while smoking a thousand fewer cigarettes.  And maybe that’s just a result of my ignorant biases as an uncultured American.  This is the one American remake of a foreign art film I can name that out-performs its source material specifically because it is American.  Gere plays around with Silver Surfer comics, Jerry Lee Lewis cassette tapes, and loaded revolvers as American fetish objects, packaging his brash boyishness as a rock n’ roll cowboy routine – a young, dangerous, beautifully idiotic nation personified.  He makes total sense as a lethal object of desire, luring a French college student (Valérie Kaprisky) to ruin through his roadside-diner sex appeal.  Well, that and his muscular, naked body.

The Breathless remake is a post-modern pop art melt down.  You don’t need to hear the third-act Link Wray needle drop to know Tarantino drooled all over this in his formative years as a pop-culture obsessed video store clerk.  It dresses up 1950s jukebox rock in the sneers & plaids of 1980s punk.  Before Gere starts fiddling with his library of cassettes in a stolen Cadillac, it’s not even clear what decade we’re in.  Is the Argento crosslighting of the dive-bar neons supposed to feel modern & fresh, or is it a throwback to the rock n’ roll diners of old?  Is this more of an erotic 80s update to the Godard original, or a colorized echo of the noir films that inspired it?  You can’t mistake the country it’s set in for any other place in the world, though.  As much as the 1960s Breathless was in love with American crime pictures as the pinnacle of the artform, its 1980s remake was the real deal – truly American in all the best & worst ways, and truly the height of cinema.

Full disclosure: I had already written and scheduled this review before it was announced that Jean-Luc Godard had died at 91-years-old. I’m noting that timeline just to make it clear that I did not post this as some kind of gotcha putdown of a great artist who recently passed. If anything, it speaks to Godard’s influence on the medium of filmmaking that his work was already on the tip of some amateur, genre-nerd blogger’s tongue before his name was in the daily headlines.

-Brandon Ledet

Touki Bouki (The Journey of the Hyena, 1973)

Although it’s been an annual occurrence on the local calendar for the last fifteen years, 2019 was the first year I attended PATOIS: The New Orleans International Human Rights Film Festival. I only caught four screenings over two days at the fest, but it was a rewarding, energizing mix of political activism, queer community organizing, and avant-garde art that’s left a major impact on how I’ve been thinking about the purpose & boundaries of cinema in the weeks since. A lot of that political stimulation & intellectual contextualization stemmed from the activists tabling in the lobby, the panelists who hosted post-screening Q&As, and the organizers’ own pre-screening acknowledgements to the Indigenous Peoples whose land the festival, and by extension modern New Orleans, occupies. Of course, it was also largely due to the proper cinematic experience afforded to the often-underserved figures represented in the films themselves – funk pioneer Betty Davis, trans activist Marsha P. Washington, the anonymous women of Zambian labor camps, etc. Of the few films I saw at this year’s festival, none benefited from the big-screen theatrical treatment quite as much as the 1970s Senegalese road trip movie Touki Bouki (The Journey of the Hyena in English). While not as much of an overt, explicit call-to-arms in its politics as other activist selections at the fest, Touki Bouki was the screening that most benefited from the sensory immersion of the theatrical experience. If I had seen Toki Bouki at home, I would have assumed that I missed something that explained the disoriented, illogical patterns of its storytelling in a moment when my attention wandered. Seeing it undistracted at PATOIS, I was still super confused & disoriented by its disinterest in A-B logic, but pleasantly so.

To call Touki Bouki a “road trip movie” is more a nod to the listless, episodic nature of its storytelling than it is reflective of its characters’ trajectory. Mory, an ox-herder, and Anta, a politically active college student, scheme throughout the film on how to grift enough money to fund an escape to Paris. It’s a mission that requires them to travel all over Senegal to attack their lack of funds from multiple angles (mainly petty theft). Josephine Baker’s romantic chorus of “Paris, Paris, Paris” serves as a rallying cry in this escapist mission, just one of the many notes of repetition that defines the cyclical rut the characters are stuck in. The most confounding of these cycles is the repeated fracturing of its timelines. Cross-cut with absolutely horrific footage of oxen being led to slaughter in a real-life abattoir, we repeatedly see Mory meet a deadly end before he can manufacture his Parisian escape. The nature of his fated death varies as the film sprawls into both documentarian observation & total detached fantasy: motorcycle crash, suicide, murder, etc. Its fractured, sensory-driven narrative has a clear surrealist bent to its sensibilities, but its editing room tinkering is almost outright Cubist: dissecting the same events repeatedly from multiple angles to establish a scattered, but more accurate truth. This is the story of a romantic dreamer who is not nearly as slick as he believes himself to be and is doomed to a violent death no matter how grand or wistful his ambitions of Parisian escape become. It’s a road trip movie where the trip itself is an impossibility – not only because no roads lead from Senegal to France, but because the only ultimate destination for flames that burn this brightly is a young death. Yet, it stubbornly carries on like a carefree road trip movie anyway, having fun sightseeing, posing fashionably, and meeting outlandish characters on the journey to its grim, cyclical destination.

There’s a kind of kinship between Touki Bouki and the 1966 Senegalese labor drama Black Girl; both films adopt filmmaking sensibilities from the French New Wave only to weaponize them against their own audience. The clearest this parallel shines through is in Touki Bouki’s third act, when white French colonialists on a ship in port complain about the loyalty & dignity of Senegalese servants, entirely unaware of how abhorrent they sound. The difference is that Black Girl overtly pursues this anti-French-Intellectuals perversion of French New Wave aesthetics for its entire runtime, whereas Touki Bouki is much looser in its narrative & messaging. In that way, Black Girl would almost be the more obvious choice for PATOIS programming (and for all I know, it has been included in the festival’s past). Touki Bouki is less overtly interested in politically subverting the French New Wave and often instead borrows the psychedelic Cool of that movement’s intense cinematography & sound design to create something unique, something distinctly Senegalese. Its fractured, psychedelic road trip creates a visual language & narrative pattern entirely of its own, which has made the film itself substantial standout outside any context of a cinematic movement. Its expansive palette allows for emotional peaks as varied as passionate sex, shit jokes, elaborate fantasies of wealth, graphic documentation of animal slaughter, and broad slapstick humor. Its own iconography has persisted so conspicuously that the cowskull-adorned motorcycle that facilitates Mory & Anta’s journey was even referenced in the promotional materials for Beyoncé & Jay-Z’s recent “On the Run” tour. Maybe that’s where its political activism lies: establishing a new cinematic aesthetic that’s distinctly black, African, and cerebral. Regardless, I’m very much appreciative that it landed on the PATOIS lineup so I could see it blown up loud and in the dark, fully immersed in its Cubist fantasy realm.

-Brandon Ledet

The Nun (1966)

Usually when an older film resurfaces in digital restoration, it means brighter colors, shaper lines, a renewed vibrancy. Such joys are sparse, if at all existent, in the new digital scan of the 1966 French New Wave political screed La Religieuse (The Nun). That’s not to say the restoration itself is lacking in any technical achievement or attention to detail; The Nun is given a new, bellowing potency in its restored form – both in the refreshed patina of its imagery and in the thunderous effect of its sound design. The lack of vibrant color and lush imagery in the restoration is more a result of the material it’s servicing. This is a grim prison sentence of a motion picture, a harsh reminder of the punishment that awaits anyone born a woman under the “wrong” circumstances. Although it’s never as overtly, sexually blasphemous as later arthouse nunsploitation pieces like the Ken Russell classic The Devils or the recent sex comedy The Little Hours, it’s not difficult to see why the Catholic Church pushed to have The Nun banned upon its initial release. Any brief flashes of joy, light, color, or relief detectable in the film are quickly stamped out by exploitation, guilt, and misogyny, all in the name of serving God and the Church. I watched the new restoration of The Nun in a crowded theater at this year’s New Orleans French Film Fest, but it felt as if I were locked in solitary confinement for all 140 grueling minutes of it, which may as well have lasted 140 years.

Director Jacques Rivette is generally understood to be one of the more cerebral, surreal artists of The French New Wave, but that reputation doesn’t come into play too frequently in this instance. His most experimental, challenging impulses surface in The Nun as a dissociative approach to sound design. Story-wise, Rivette remains relatively faithful to Denis Diderot’s 18th Century novel of the same name. Roaring winds, deafening church bells, disorienting thwaps of arrhythmic jazz: the soundtrack of The Nun is pure auditory madness. It places the audience in the overwhelmed, dissociative mind of its protagonist in the exact same way modern auteurs like Josephine Decker still establish first-person POV in the 2010s. As the titular nun is starved, isolated, forced to kneel in repentance for vaguely-defined “sins,” and sold by her parents into a life of perpetual boredom, the audience is miserably in sync with her. Sometimes, a harsh edit will mimic her disoriented sense of time as she loses track of the clock & calendar while also losing sense of her autonomy & self. Mostly, we’re left to rot within the grim, grey walls of her cell as a Kafkaesque battle for her freedom unfolds in locked rooms far offscreen, away from her control and our observation. As overwhelming & figurative as the sound design can be, Rivette holds back substantially in the potential mental escapes offered by verbal or narrative experimentation. It’s an artistic restraint that emphasizes the constraint in freedom suffered by its protagonist – locking us all away to die alone in misery right along with her.

French cinema legend Ana Karina stars as the titular, tragic nun. Her story is meant to be reflective of many unmarried, unwanted young women of her era: locked away in a convent for her family’s convenience. Born out of wedlock to parents with at best moderate wealth, she’s treated as a burden that weighs her family down; she can’t make a life on her own without a husband, and the circumstances of her birth render her unmarriable in “decent” society. Her trips to the altar to take vows as God’s bride, under protest, read as funeral marches. She pleas to her parents not to sacrifice her to God from behind prison bars, causing great public scandal. Her birth mother coldly requests, “Do not poison my life any further” and gradually breaks down her resistance to taking vows as a nun, an act she cannot remember once it is done. From her birth mother’s cold indifference to her mothers superior’s varying modes of tyranny, she’s never allowed an inner life or independence. Across two convents and countless authority figures’ rule, she’s tortured, coddled, groomed for rape, consoled, pitied, shamed, and silenced – all while prisoner to a religious cause she was forced to assume under duress. And everyone around her has a nerve to contextualize her path as God’s sacred plan.

For all the shame, confinement, physical abuse, and sexual grooming that awaits Ana Karina’s reluctant nun, the greatest tragedy of the film is the way The Church extinguishes her inner life before it gets to fully develop. She’s allowed no feeling, no emotion, no dreams, no desire. When asked how she’s getting along in the convents, she replies only “I obey my fate” and “Time passes.” There’s a soul-crushing emptiness to her perpetual boredom that weighs heavily on the tone of the picture. Any brief promises of relief from a seemingly kind priest, lawyer, or mother superior who might break her free from her vows or allow her to explore her own inner life are quickly stamped out as those authority figures reveal their true selfish, lustful desires for her – purposes that offer no personal ambition or autonomy. In The Nun, being born a woman under the “wrong” circumstances is a life-long prison sentence – a mandatory sacrifice of self to others’ piety, lust, and vanity. It may not be an especially pleasant sit and it’s understandable why The Church might bristle at its political implications, but it’s a true account of a very gendered, widespread form of human misery experienced by countless women across history – one the film replicates almost too vividly.

-Brandon Ledet

Masques (1987)

Acclaimed French director Claude Chabrol is one of the founding directors of La Nouvelle Vague (French New Wave movement), which is one of the most pivotal turning points in French cinema. Chabrol is best known for his Hitchcokian thrillers, and as I have recently found myself delving into the world of French thrillers, it’s been quite difficult to avoid any of his films. His 1987 film, Masques, is a perfect example of his unique cinematic style.

Roland Wolf (Robin Renucci) is a young, eager journalist hired to ghostwrite a memoir for famous game show host Christian Legagneur (Philippe Noiret). The game show that Christian hosts involves elderly couples singing and dancing on a stage decorated with props comparable to decorations found in a kindergarten classroom, so I was obviously in love with it. Christian invites Roland to spend a couple of days with him at his mansion out in the countryside so he can gather information for the memoir. Once the film shifts to the mansion, it becomes a bit of a guessing game as the inhabitants of the mansion all seems to hold their own sinister secrets. At times, I felt like I was watching the French version of 1985’s Clue. There’s even a character that reminded me of Ms. Scarlett! She doesn’t have a name, but she’s referred to as the masseuse. Not only does she give great massages, but she reads tarot as well. In my eyes, she was the star of the show.

Masques has received a lot of negative criticism (for a Chabrol film, at least) for being a little on the boring side, but I didn’t find it to be boring at all. It’s a simple film that follows the old-fashioned “good overcomes evil” plot structure, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, what I love so much about Masques is that it has plenty of suspense and dark humor without being too over-the-top. Chabrol is smart enough to know that too much of a good thing ends up spoiling the party.

-Britnee Lombas

Le Bonheur (1965)

My earliest exposure to Agnès Varda’s work was as an intently unfussy documentarian. Her recent films Faces Places and (my personal favorite) The Gleaners & I are heavy on ideas and light on meticulous craft. Varda has a punk, D.I.Y. sensibility to her recent docs that embrace the affordability & portability of digital camcorders, freeing her from the struggles with financing that have cramped her entire career. It was jarring, then, to see a film from Varda’s past that deliberately recalls the overproduced artifice of Douglas Sirk’s Technicolor “women’s pictures.” The 2014 digital restoration of Varda’s 1965 melodrama Le Bonheur (supervised by the director herself) is a gorgeous, over-saturated indulgence in Spring & Summertime textures. The film is so rich with color that the screen is often filled with a single, opaque hue: red, green, blue, white, purple. Its idyllic Eden setting is a true immersion in Natural delights, a far cry from the sickly digital realms of Varda’s recent D.I.Y. docs. However, the political subversion & playfully abstract humor of her documentary work is still strongly represented just under that flower-carpeted surface. Le Bonheur is much closer to the Sirk-riffing bitterness of punk works like John Waters’s Polyester or Russ Meyer’s Good Morning . . . and Goodbye! than it is like Sirk’s studio lot work itself. She just happened to get there a decade before Meyer or Waters, delivering her own caustic subversion of the All That Heaven Allows era before that inspiration even had time to cool.

One of the most striking things about Le Bonheur is what it pretends to be: a judgement-free, matter-of-fact portrait of polyamory & extramarital romance. For most of the runtime, the film follows a chipper family man with the ideal wife-and-kids home life and just enough contract work as a carpenter to keep their world afloat. Without any malice or harm intended to a wife he dearly loves, he thoughtlessly slips into a sexual affair with a nearby postal worker whose childless, youthful life in the city excites him. As he describes it to his mistress, “My wife is like a hearty plant. You are like an animal set free. I love Nature.” For a while, Le Bonheur appears to agree with his naïve assertion that he can love both women equally to neither’s detriment. It initially presents itself as an idyllic French New Wave advertisement for the virtues of polyamory & the dissolution of traditional monogamous bonds of marriage. All that proto-Sexual Revolution moralizing is deliberately undone in the final fifteen-minute stretch. Seasons change. Lives are destroyed. The desire to maintain simultaneous relationships with a wife and a mistress under the blatant power imbalance of men’s freedom to skirt domestic responsibilities is exposed as an impulse of selfishness & entitlement. Is the wandering husband really so full of love that he can maintain simultaneous relationships with multiple lovers or is he merely a selfish, privileged lush who treats women as disposable, replaceable household appliances? Le Bonheur doesn’t decisively answer that question, but does allow it to hang bitterly in the air.

Although the surface details of Le Bonheur recall 1950s studio-made melodramas/”woman’s pictures,” Varda subverts that perception with experimental film editing techniques of the avant-garde. The washes of opaque color appear to mark subtle changes in relationship dynamics & mood over time, but with no concrete correlation that could be expressed in words. The pastel voids of interior domestic spaces recall the intense wall paper realms of the candy-coated musicals The Umbrellas of Cherbourg & Young Girls of Rochefort (both directed by Varda’s husband, Jacques Demy). Speaking of extratextual, real life romances, the married leads of Le Bonheur (Jean-Claude & Claire Drouot) were a real life couple as well, a kind of reality vs artifice tension that informs weirdo passion projects like A Woman Under the Influence or, more recently, mother!. Varda’s flair for expressionistic, art house filmmaking is most readily felt in her experiments in abrupt jump cuts. The film opens with an upsetting alternation between a symmetrical & an asymmetrical sunflower. A romantic tryst is depicted through quick shots of tangled, exposed flesh, confusing which details belong to which body. A dizzying dance scene is disoriented by partners swapped during a wedding celebration and telegraphsthe anxiety over the interchangeability of sex partners that later upends the plot. In its early honeymoon period, Le Bonheur resembles a Springtime Polaroid, a rigidly framed document of idyllic, Natural growth. Varda subtly disrupts, subverts, and rots that first impression as the film’s shifting romantic dynamics settle into a consistent groove, prepping her audience for the last-minute rug-pull that distorts any perceived advocacy for undisclosed polyamory.

Agnès Varda herself describes Le Bonheur as a “beautiful summer fruit with a worm inside.” That kind of social & political subversion lurking under the surface of what first appears to be a breezy delight seems to be consistent with the documentary work she’s buried herself in recent decades, which are way more fun to watch than their themes & subjects might suggest. What distinguishes Le Bonheur is how extreme of a delight its surface appears to be. The floral, color-soaked Eden where she stages her adultery-suspicious morality play is a Douglas Sirk-level indulgence miraculously achieved on a French New Wave scale & budget. Her protopunk subversion of that Sirk melodrama mindset is a little subtler than what you’ll find from Waters, Meyer, or Rainer Werner Fassbinder, so much so that it’s plausible to miss its criticism of men taking women for granted as domestic & emotional laborers entirely if you let your mind wander before the final minutes. The subtlety of that subversion is just as potent as the film’s flair for the avant-garde, though, an apple-gnawing worm that’s all the more effective for catching you off-guard in a sun-drenched Eden.

-Brandon Ledet

Black Girl (1966)

Ousmane Sembène’s 1966 feature Black Girl is mostly known for its historical context as the first film from a black filmmaker from Sub-Saharan Africa to achieve wide critical acclaim. Sembène adopted the black & white, handheld “immediacy” of the French New Wave to boost the likelihood of French audiences & critics taking note of his breakthrough/debut feature, a gamble that paid off immensely and solidified his legacy as an artist. What that legacy might not immediately convey until you actually engage with the film as an isolated work is just how deeply, unapologetically angry Sembène was as an artist & a political mind. Black Girl may be most remembered for its historical significance, but what makes it an exceptional work is how it uses its French cinema aesthetic & international attention to punch Sembène’s newfound audience in the gut with an angry political screed about modern colonialism & racial subjugation. Black Girl is important not only for the previously unseen wide reach it was able to achieve for African cinema on the world stage, but also for the fiery political message it delivers on that scale.

Diouana, a young Senegalese woman, is recruited by white, French tourists to nanny their children while on vacation. This short-term gig evolves into a full-time career as the woman emigrates to France to live permanently as the family’s employee. Her drive from the international steamship that dumps her into a sea of white faces is the last she’ll see of seaside France’s beautiful buildings, beaches, and leisure culture. Expected to confine herself to the few rooms of the family’s condo for a 24/7 work schedule with essentially no pay, Diouana finds herself to be less of an employee and more of a prisoner or a slave. The French family she serves are “cultured” yuppie colonizers who collect African people the same way they collect African art & travel stories. They cut Diouana off from the outside world with a promised fantasy of what life in France could be like, then gradually strip her of her identity & self-worth until all she has in the world is her uncompensated duty to serve and the often-repeated question, “Why am I here?” They talk about her like she’s not in the room, declaring her “useless” & “lazy” for not immediately obliging every whim. Their guests forcibly kiss her cheeks and vocally estimate her to be “like an animal.” Instead of giving in to this subjugation, Diouana protests with the only means that are available to her: allowing her body & soul to tragically break down so that she is no longer useful to her modern day slave owners.

I greatly respect Sembène’s choice to adopt the cinematic aesthetic of French intellectuals in his political screed railing against the colonialism of French intellectuals. However, Black Girl‘s seething anger steers its take on the French New Wave away from an imitation of the genre to something much more fiercely unique for its time. The dangerous-feeling voyeurism of French New Wave technique would later be adapted to the cheaply produced, often exploitative horrors of 1970s American grindhouse pictures; Black Girl is just rough enough around the edges to feel prescient of that cultural shift. It’s wobbly enough in its shocking jabs of sex & violence and overall political anger to feel predictive of the onslaught of violent horrors that would emerge from New York City just a few years later (which was likely more of a mutation of the erotica subgenre “roughies” than anything, admittedly). Black Girl is saturated in voice-over narration (almost to the point of functioning as a diary) that provides it a sense of well-behaved structure, but there’s an overriding D.I.Y. punk sensibility in its political anger that makes it feel more like an intrusion & an act of rebellion than a simple French New Wave devotee. At just an hour in length and entirely unconcerned with playing nice once it gets a foot in the door, Black Girl is much more in line with the political anger of a punk messaging piece like Born in Flames than it is with the artsy fartsy ennuii of a Jules and Jim or The 400 Blows. It’s a historically significant work both for its achievements in breaking through cultural/critical barriers and for setting political fires once those barriers were breached.

-Brandon Ledet

The Death of Louis XIV (2017)

Actor Jean-Pierre Léaud has worked with a long line of Important Auteurs in his near life-long career: Cocteau, Godard, Varda, Assayas. Only one has defined him as a cultural icon, though: François Truffaut. After casting the actor as the pint-sized star of his seminal work The 400 Blows, Truffaut fashioned Léaud as a human talisman of the French New Wave by continuing the story of his same character from that film, Antoine Doinel, in several other features. Cinephiles have watched Doinel, and by extension Leaud, grow up on celluloid, a journey that’s now been effectively completed in the recent period piece The Death of Louis XIV. Where as Léaud entered the scene a young, poor schoolboy in 400 Blows, he’s leaving it a dying, old king in The Death of Louis XIV. He explained in an interview, “The line has been crossed. I went all the way. I am not acting in that film. I am someone who is waiting for the meeting [with death].” The sadness of that statement and the cultural significance of Léaud’s effective departure from cinema are both undeniable. What is up for debate, however, is if the film itself is at all worthwhile when stripped of its context.

At the start of The Death of Louis XIV, Léaud’s historical monarch is already bedridden by an injury to his leg. He indulges in small joys like playing with his beautifully groomed hounds or putting on a show of tipping his hat to the women who visit his chamber, but mostly he is immobile and in pain. Doctors are confident they can treat the king without amputating his leg to stave off encroaching gangrene. Consultants as wide ranging as university professors and common snake oil salesmen are summoned to treat the king in a variety of highly questionable methods, all while his leg continually worsens, turns black, and, as both the title and Wikipedia promise, takes his life. There’s a (very) dry sense of humor in the way these royal doctors hold onto old world superstitions & remedies. They humorously excite with any sign that the king’s condition is improving, even openly applauding when he manages to swallow a single bite of food. Even the king’s eventual death doesn’t stop them from examining his condition with an unending dedication to optimism. In a concluding autopsy, they examine his exhumed organs for signs of inflammation and abnormality. That scene somehow sticks to the same exact tone that dominated the two hours that preceded it. Even in death, nothing changes.

If there’s some kind of metaphorical correlation between the ways the dying king & Léaud ‘s career were doted on, yet left to rot, I was either too dense to understand it or too bored to fully care. The Death of Louis XIV is above all else a highfalutin bore, recommendable only to the most dedicated of French New Wave academics who have a completionist’s compulsion to watch their once-youthful mascot die. The film perfectly captures the stillness & exhaustion of waiting for death and occasionally searches for the humor of clashing the indignity of that condition with an ineffective excess of wealth. There’s a perverse joke in seeing Léaud’s upsetting little egg-shaped body slowly fail & give up while dressed in expensive fabrics & oversized wigs. The film also has a visually striking dedication to natural lighting, affording it the painting-in-motion look of something like The Witch or The Libertine. That sense of visual craft and the quiet meta humor of Léaud bowing out in such a compromised sense if indignity vs. royal reverence could’ve been captured in a series of photographs or even a short film, however. The Death of Louis XIV does very little to justify its medium as a feature film outside some occasional humor in the dialogue of unqualified medical men who watch idly as their King dies in what feels like real time. Mostly, the audience watches along with them, listening to the sound of a ticking clock. As an academic exercise, that might have some significance in helping contextualize Léaud’s​ career as an artist. As a cinematic experience, however, it feels like waiting for death, which is not an activity I’d readily recommend.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 27: Galia (1966)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Galia (1966) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 156 of the first edition hardback, Ebert recalls his early days as a professional film critic. He writes, “The first film I reviewed for the Sun-Times was Galia, from France. I watched it from a center seat in the Old World Playhouse, bursting with the awareness that I was reviewing it, and then I went back to the office and wrote that it was one more last gasp of the French New Wave, rolling ashore. That made me sound more insightful than I was.”

What Ebert had to say in his review: “Georges Lautner’s Galia opens and closes with arty shots of the ocean, mother of us all, but in between it’s pretty clear that what is washing ashore is the French New Wave. Ever since the memorable Breathless (1960) and Jules and Jim, and the less memorable La Verite, we have been treated to a parade of young French girls running gaily toward the camera in slow motion, their hair waving in the wind in just such a way that we know immediately they are liberated, carefree, jolly and doomed. Poor Galia is another.” -from his 1966 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

When teenage girls gaze into the Eiffel Tower posters that adorn their bedroom walls, I imagine the ideal Parisian life they long for is the one depicted in Galia. The titular protagonist of this mildly sexed-up French drama is a small town 20-something who moved to Paris to make do as a carefree shop girl. She lives alone in a studio apartment, frequently indulges in casual sex, smokes like a chimney outside and inside her favorite cafés, sketches strangers in her notepad, and just generally enjoys a young adult’s freedom without any significant responsibilities. Over the course of the film Galia is shaken out of her carefree reverie into a more recognizable adult existence, but a large part of the movie’s charm is that initial fantasy of an artistic Parisian life. I suppose that was the intent of director Georges Lautner in the first place. Lautner often verbally criticized the hoity-toity inventiveness of his contemporaries in the French New Wave and instead poised himself as something of a populist, crafting critically ignored works that were popularly broadcast on French television. Galia‘s lighthearted whimsy plays right into that sense of entertainment-for-its-own-sake populism, even when it deviates from that Parisian fantasy into topics as hefty as adultery, betrayal, and suicide.

Galia has her first taste of responsibility-hindered adult life when she saves a woman from drowning in a river and offers her a place to stay. When she discovers that the woman attempted suicide over a dispute with her husband, she finds the reasoning ridiculous. To Galia, there are way too many hot, young bachelors in Paris to focus on just one, therefore “men aren’t worth killing yourself over.” To help break this woman out of her marital rut, Galia convinces her to continue to play dead, as if the suicide were successful. She then spies on the husband as a proxy to gauge his reaction to his recent loss, turning the crisis into a frivolous game of espionage whimsy. It’s not a very well thought-out​ plan. Galia inevitably falls head over heels for the cheating, suicide-inspiring husband despite the wife’s protests, even following him on a romantic weekend getaway in Venice. If you’re going to track her arc as a character throughout the film, I suppose the lesson she learns by accidentally falling in love with this obvious lout is that romance can inspire you to do drastic things, like jump off a bridge or contemplate a murder, no matter how many hot, available men are walking the streets of Paris. The love triangle between the carefree shop girl, the nearly-drowned woman, and her emotionally abusive husband can only drive towards an inevitably tragic end, which is a shame, because Galia works best when it functions like a lighthearted, whimsical comedy.

Because Georges Lautner seems to have an anti-intellectual air to his directorial style, Galia‘s worst moments are when it strays from presenting a comedic fantasy about a sex-positive shop girl into echoing more traditional French New Wave territory. Exchanges like, “Life is not much,” “Death is nothing at all,” and occasional “artsy” choices like scrolling the opening credits over negative footage of beach waves or indulging in an unconvincingly abstract nightmare sequence are embarrassingly flat in their half-hearted stabs at pretension, almost to the point of New Wave parody. Just about the only times this mild attempt at artfulness feels genuine or worthwhile is when Lautner aims to depict sexuality. Close-ups of drinking straws & cigarettes touching women’s tongues or young bodies twirling in wet bathing suits make for the rare artfully crafted image where Lautner doesn’t feel as if he’s asleep at the wheel. There’s also a brief detour to a weird, drunken orgy hosted by the cheating husband and a business associate that straddles both sides of the line, the engaged and the inept, as if it were plucked directly from a Doris Wishman picture. These questionably artistic deviations are few & far between, though. Mostly, Galia plays like a harmless, sexed-up melodrama and a teen girl’s fantasy of a liberated life in gay Paree.

In the long run, the most significant aspect of Galia might be that it was the subject of Roger Ebert’s first film review for the Chicago Sun-Times, the publication that defined the critic’s career as a writer. In that review, he lightly criticizes the film for being a poor, late-in-the-game example of The French New Wave. That point feels a little disingenuous, given how much the film feels largely uninterested in art film pretension, choosing to instead chase a mildly sexy, highly melodramatic form of crowd-pleasing populism. I will concede that its most artsy, New Wavy aspects were its biggest stumbling blocks, though. Galia is recommendable as a taste of whimsical Parisian fantasy and a cheap shot melodrama, but anyone looking for the attention to visual craft and philosophical dilemmas typically associated with modern French Cinema is certain to walk away disappointed, as it sounds like Roger did.

Roger’s Rating (2.5/4, 63%)

Brandon’s Rating (3/5, 60%)

Next Lesson: Casablanca (1942)

-Brandon Ledet