Parisian Love (1925)

If you ignore the Hollywood Babylon-type tabloid coverage of her life, the most outstanding thing about Old Hollywood starlet Clara Bow is the sheer volume of work she managed to produce in the 20s & 30s. Starring in nearly 60 pictures total, as one of the few performers who successfully transitioned from the Silent Era to talkies, Bow was often locked in a Roger Corman-type schedule of filming several projects at once. As such, it’s a little difficult to determine which titles are worth your time. In 1925 alone, Clara Bow starred in 14 feature films, making nondescript titles like Parisian Love seem like they’re worth slightly less than a dime-a-dozen. Her career-making performance in 1927’s It inspired the term “it girl;” her early-career fashion choices in films like Poisoned Paradise & Daughters of Pleasure helped inspire the character design for Betty Boop (along with singer Helen Kane). By comparison, Parisian Love is just another face in the crowd; it wasn’t even the most significant film of that year for Bow, not in when compared to commercial hits like The Plastic Age. Still, as an hour-long taste of the boundary-testing, plucky sexuality that made Bow such a magnet for public fascination, it feels like a significantly risqué, defiant work.

Clara Bow stars as a street-tough “Apache” – an early 20th Century hooligan running wild in the streets of Belle Époque France. Working small-level con jobs, dressing in male drag, staging bar fights, and openly mocking police & social elites, she’s a Turn of the Century punk – one who only cares about her fellow Apache lover. Most of Parisian Love concerns a revenge mission to win this lover back when a member of the wealthy Parisian elite effectively “steals her man” by making him into a proper gentleman. After a botched burglary of the house of an upstanding science professor, their intended mark takes a liking to her injured lover and takes him under his wing, much to Bow’s jealousy. The queer implications of this love triangle are not subtle. The professor is obviously in love with his Apache ward – using the sexual surrogate of wealthy women worthier of his class to make-out with the injured thief while he looks on intently. Bow’s lovesick scamp also witnesses these commissioned kisses and enacts her revenge by seducing & marrying the professor to effectively rob him blind while rousing the jealousy of their shared rags-to-riches lover. It’s a story that would traditionally end in tragedy, but instead plays out here in straightforward romantic melodrama.

The queer implications of its love triangle feel slightly risqué for its time and the story is refreshingly reluctant to punish its criminal Parisian street punks for their transgressions the way it would have under the soon-to-come Hays Code, but that’s not what makes the movie a joy to watch. Parisian Love is mostly enjoyable for allowing Bow to play a lying, stealing, punch-throwing, crossdressing badass on a mission. She kicks wealthy old men who sexually corner “the help” at parties. Her tendency to dress in drag on her heist jobs gives the appearance of two “men” kissing onscreen. Her confidence in rallying other Apache toughies to aid in her revenge mission (with promises to share the professor’s stolen wealth, of course) is refreshingly non-“ladylike” for an Old Hollywood sex symbol. I watched Parisian Love the same day that the racetrack near my house opened for its first race of the season. It’s a Thanksgiving tradition, where young New Orleans punks & weirdos dress up like the social elite in a kind of wealth-drag for early afternoon cocktails before dispersing for family meals. I got the same sense from Clara Bow in Parisian Love – a snotty punk gone undercover among socialites, dressed in their garb but not in their values. I can’t pretend to have seen enough Clara Bow pictures to know how that image fits into her massive catalog, but it did feel incredibly, defiantly punk in a 1920s context – making it clear to me why people fell in love with her so thoroughly in her heyday.

-Brandon Ledet

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Episode #72 of The Swampflix Podcast: Romantic Escapes from Occupied France & Trouble Every Day (2001)

Welcome to Episode #72 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our seventy-second episode, Brandon and CC close out the year with a discussion of fancy-schmancy French cinema. They discuss four escapist romances directed by Claude Autant-Lara during Germany’s WWII occupation of France. Also, CC makes Brandon watch Claire Denis’s New French Extremity horror Trouble Every Day (2001). Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– CC Chapman & Brandon Ledet

Jules of Light and Dark (2018)

Robert Longstreet isn’t an especially flashy actor, neither in celebrity nor in performance. He has the appearance & demeanor of a kindhearted, broken-down Russell Crowe, playing most of his roles as a lovable but emotionally volatile galoot. As quietly sad & reflective as his screen presence can be, I find myself getting excited whenever I see his name among a project’s credits. Between Mohawk, Septien, Take Shelter, The Haunting of Hill House, Sorry to Bother You, and I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore, Longstreet has demonstrated that his choice in projects is at the very least consistently interesting; he may not always steal the show, but the show itself will never be a bore. I’m used to seeing him as a minor (even if often eccentric) character in these works, so it was a wonderful surprise to watch him co-lead an indie drama in Jules of Light and Dark. A dual trauma & recovery narrative, Jules of Light and Dark splits its POV between two unlikely protagonists: a listless partygoing college student (Snowy Bing Bongs’s Tallie Medel) & a hopeless-drunk oil field worker played by Longstreet. It’s a small-scale drama that could easily sink into indie film fest tedium, but Longstreet’s presence effectively vouches for the young cast around him, as well as for first-time director Daniel Laabs.

The college student drama of Jules of Light and Dark follows a young lesbian at the center of a romantic triangle, as her longtime girlfriend Jules pushes her to reluctantly experiment with bringing a third, masculine partner (a sweet, but clueless DJ) into the bedroom. The local rave scene they’re involved in—staged in empty, isolated Texan fields—clouds their ability to negotiate this sexual discomfort soberly (in multiple meanings of the word), and the movie is densely packed with college-age sexual mishaps. The oil worker drama half is also clouded by substance abuse and sexual discomfort, as Longstreet’s co-protagonist struggles to out himself as queer and instead hides his true colors beneath untold gallons of alcohol. These dual coming of age stories— one for a smart kid in their early 20s and one for an overgrown man-child in their early 50s— are allowed to remain largely separate throughout Jules of Light and Dark, but they converge early when a car accident after “the last rave of the year” leaves several characters in need of intensive post-trauma physical therapy. Estranged from their families because of their sexuality, our two disparate protagonists find unlikely kinship & emotional support in each other; their parallel tales of recovery are both quietly transformative, although never grand nor overachieving.

Laabs strikes an interesting balance here, both searching for small moments of intimate drama between his well-defined characters and chasing the aesthetic pleasures of rural rave culture – especially in the way glitter & nightclub lighting clash with the campfire-warmed barnyard setting of a horse ranch. Medel holds her own as a wide-eyed, wholesome queer punk in the middle of a college-age identity crisis she was reluctantly pushed into by a restless girlfriend. Her character’s attempts to hold onto failed or fading relationships at any cost are wonderfully paralleled by the oil worker’s own desperation to re-forge meaningful connections he already drank into oblivion long before the movie started. It was Longstreet’s performance as that drunken, broken down galoot that really won me over. For all the film’s glitter & molly excess and frustrated moments of sexual exploration, the best sequence throughout simply follows Longstreet as he decides whether to adopt a kitten or a puppy from the local animal shelter in his desperate, misguided attempts to establish emotional connections with another living being. Watching that sappy drunk play with a kitten from the opposite end of a kennel makes him pitiful enough to fall in love with, which only makes him more dangerous. Longstreet nails that quietly, lovably pathetic tone perfectly, as he already has many times before, largely unnoticed.

-Brandon Ledet

Cane River (1982)

There are plenty of examples of long-out-of-print cinematic artifacts getting the 4k digital restoration treatment in recent years, but few restorations can match Cane River’s storied path to 2010s rehabilitation & reassessment. “Unseen for 36 years,” Cane River premiered to a New Orleans audience in 1982 before being considered lost in distribution limbo ever since, largely due to the untimely death of its wirer-director-producer Horace B. Jenkins. While in town filming The Toy, Richard Pryor happened to attend the film’s 80s premiere and offered to help the director land proper national distribution, but Jenkins died before anything came of it. A recovered print of the film surfaced in 2013 and (thanks to financial support from Chaz Ebert & a couple lengthy write-ups from The New York Times promoting its legacy) has been meticulously restored over the last few years as funding has allowed. Even the restored version of the film that marked its second official screening in 36 years was announced to be a work-in-progress, with several glaring sound-mixing issues needing to be addressed before the film is ready for physical media distribution. Still, Cane River’s recent screening at the 29th annual New Orleans Film Festival felt like a righted wrong, a momentous correction to a historic cinematic tragedy.

A large part of Cane River’s historical significance is that it was filmed with a black cast & crew and funded independently by black arts-patrons at a time when that feat would have been incredibly rare (as if it wouldn’t also be rare today). The film also carries hefty cultural cachet in the specificity of its setting: the real-life Cane River region near Natchitoches, Louisiana – one of the country’s first “free communities of color.” Where the film excels is in seeking accessible entertainment value to soften those more academic, cultural accomplishments. Effectively a Romeo & Juliet love story without all that pesky tragedy & bloodshed getting it the way of its humor & romantic melodrama, Cane River is just as much of an escapist fantasy as it is a political screed & a historical document. The small-stakes love story at its center is so playfully sweet that it’s easy to frequently forget that it’s all in service of illustrating a culture clash within a geographically specific black community – one with implications of class & skin-tone discrimination with much larger cultural significance. Cane River takes the Mary Poppins edict “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” to heart, burying the audience under so much sugar that it easy gets away with clearly stating its political messaging in the dialogue without detracting from the romance that sweetens it.

A local football hero returns from big-city college life with the intent to live out the rest of his days in his Cane River community as a farmer & a poet, leaving a professional athlete career he found to be distastefully exploitative behind. He immediately falls for a young woman the small community of busybodies believes to be below his class (and below the cultural prestige of his lighter skin-tone). This class politics divide, socially policed on the basis of centuries-old resentments, simmers loudly in the background but the two young lovers’ conflict is mostly defined by their respective desires to remain in or flee Cane River. One intends to live a quaint, poetic life of rural calm after being disenchanted by the world outside. The other can’t wait to leave the community’s various confines and make something of herself on her own terms as a New Orleans college student, refusing to settle for a life as a local farmer-poet’s housewife. The Romeo & Juliet influence on this dynamic dictates that these conflicts build to a tragic end, but Cane River smartly allows its stakes to remain intimate & contained. The class, feminist, and racial politics that arise in its community-defying romance are just as delicately handled as the consequences of the controversy the two lovers stir. Their story is frustrating & politically complex, but also endearingly sweet and a really smart anchor for the film’s more emotionally detached, academic concerns.

Nothing about Cane River is subtle – neither in its romance nor in its politics. The history of Cane River’s significance as an early free community of color is so clearly stated in the dialogue that the characters recommend specific reading material to the audience on the topic: a book titled The Forgotten People. Its romantic melodrama is relentlessly scored by a soundtrack of original songs by local soul singer Phillip Manuel, whose singing is so pervasive & repetitive that his in-the-flesh appearance behind a microphone at a mid-film house party feels like a surprise celebrity cameo. Our lead is established as a poet by riding around horseback and tenderly writing into his trusty notebook while making eyes at his steed, like a precursor to Mariah Carey’s “Butterfly” video. When a character over-indulges in drinks after work, an accompanying novelty song jokes “Chug-a-lug, have a slug, drink your blues away” before the implications of that alcoholism spoils the mood.

Cane River is, at heart, regional cinema – like a John Waters film, a Matt Farley joint, or a romantic melodrama parallel to The Pit. As a result, the mood is generally light, the talent of the cast varies wildly, and a large part of its inherent fascination is in documenting a very specific community that isn’t often represented onscreen (along with more frequently-seen French Quarter tourism by natural extension). The further we get away from its initial release the more useful & interesting that documentation inevitably becomes to people outside that community. The brilliance of Horace B. Jenkins’s work on the film is that he reinforced it with enough wide-appeal entertainment value & substantive political messaging that its fascination as a regional cinema curio and an act of ethnographic documentation aren’t the limit of its cultural cachet. Like other underseen black cinema artifacts recently given new life in restoration – Daughters of the Dust, Born in Flames, The Watermelon WomanCane River is too politically significant & creatively appealing to have been allowed to slip into obscurity for so many decades. Its politics may be a little less radical and more sugar-coated than those other examples, but the level of obscurity it’s been allowed to slip into without official distribution is unmatched in that subset.

Every year I see amazing, potent titles at New Orleans Film Fest that never land proper theatrical distribution, so I doubt Cane River is the only “lost” film of its kind that deserves the restoration treatment; but I’m joyed to see that the one that got through is so endearingly romantic & thoughtfully political.

-Brandon Ledet

The Phantom of the Opera (1943)

There have been countless adaptations of Gaston Leroux’s Turn of the Century novel Le Fantome de l’Opera on stage and screen, but it’s hard to argue that any have been as influential as the 1920s silent film starring Lon Chaney. Along with Chaney’s turn in the silent horror adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the 1925 Phantom of the Opera was a massive hit for Universal Pictures, launching a decades-long moneymaker in the studio’s Famous Monster’s brand. Before Lugosi & Karloff would come to define the Universal Monsters look, Chaney was the (hideously disfigured) face of the production company’s horror division. The ripple effect of the silent Phantom of the Opera’s success achieved a far-ranging influence (from Lugosi & Karloff to, disastrously, Dario Argento), not even matched by the name-recognition commanding stage musical from Andrew Lloyd Weber. Not to shatter any illusions to the contrary, but shameless remakes & reissues of lucrative intellectual properties are far from new to Hollywood, so the Lon Chaney Phantom’s success meant it would be a well Universal returned to often – first in a 1933 reissue of the original film with a (since lost) soundtrack that mutated into a talkie, then as this 1943 Technicolor remake. Graduating to sound & color wasn’t the only cinematic adjustments Fantame de l’Opera had to make in those first couple of decades either. As much as the 1940s remake is obviously indebted to the Lon Chaney original, its aesthetic is so current to its time that it rarely shows its silent horror roots – or even resembles horror at all.

The basic plot of a standard Phantom of the Opera adaptation remains intact in this Technicolor remake, with Claude Rains taking over from Chaney as the titular Phantom. Here, the distantly admiring, disfigured creep who haunts the Paris Opera house and promotes the career of his favorite singer under threat of violence to those who might block her way to success starts the film as a violinist in the orchestra before being burned with acid & retreating to the shadows. Most of his subsequent kills in the periphery are lightly handled: off-screen stranglings, attempted poisonings, a recreation of the falling chandelier stunt from the previous version, etc. Even the reveal of the Phantom’s purplish acid burn scars feels delicately handled in comparison to Long Chaney’s genuinely horrific makeup in the original film. Some of the stark silent era horror influences of the original echo in this remake, especially evident in shots where the Phantom appears only as a menacing shadow on the wall. For the most part, however, this remake plays much more like a dramatic “women’s picture” of its era, focusing more on the opera singer’s choice between pursuing operatic career opportunities or a “normal” life as a housewife. It’s like The Red Shoes by way of Douglas Sirk’s Technicolor melodramas in that way, with the Phantom’s role being relegated to a side character in the female lead’s A-plot. This is more of a comedic drama about a woman at a professional crossroads than it is a shock-a-minute monster movie about a crazed, disfigured violinist.

In a 2010s update to this version of the Phantom tale, it’s likely the opera singer herself who would have been driven mad to the point of monstrous transformation, but actor Susanna Foster is never afforded her own proper freak-out in the style of a Red Shoes or a Black Swan or a Perfect Blue (so many colors!). That’s not to say that Claude Rains’s secret, murderous admirer of her work is entirely detached from the themes of her professional/romantic dilemma either. His menacing, pushy presence just out of eyesight in the opera singer’s professional life is in some ways a pitch-perfect representation of how all the men around her apply too plentiful & too intense romantic pressure she doesn’t ask for or need in the early days of her professional career. The Phantom is only one of three men in the singer’s life, joining the ranks of a police officer & a fellow musical performer, both of whom wish to court her into marriage. Just as the Phantom pressures the singer into making bold leaps in her still-early career at the opera house by threatening & murdering higher-ups on her behalf, the two suitors pressure her to choose romance over fame & art, giving up the stage for “a normal life.” The general mood of the film is light & flavored with comedy, especially as the suitors trip over each other in dual proclamations of love, but there’s also an underlying tragedy throughout in this poor woman being pressured to make choices between art & romance instead of being allowed to live as she pleases. It’s a very Sirkian conflict, one that’s handled with appropriate visual beauty & emotional melodrama.

Like with Sirk or The Red Shoes to follow, the Technicolor Phantom remake is at the very least worth seeing for its staging, especially for the intense use of rich, bold color in its costuming & lighting. Even if the trading in of silent era horrors for love triangle humor & one woman’s professional indecision is not what you’re looking for in a Phantom of the Opera adaptation, the film is still worthwhile for the visual pleasures & emotional payoffs therein. Even though it chooses to conclude on a comedic note, its adaption of the Phantom’s lingering, unwanted threats & pressures to its central narrative of a woman stuck between competing men’s designs on her life’s plan is also a new angle on the material that justifies the impulse for a remake in the first place, no matter how light on horror. There would be plenty of pointless Phantom of the Opera remakes to come in the decades following this big studio Technicolor melodrama as filmmakers grappled with the original film’s influence on horror at large. It’s doubtful there are many that are this purposeful in their modernity-minded updates to the source material, however. 1943’s Phantom of the Opera seamlessly incorporates the basic elements & structure of the original silent work into a genuine participation in the “women’s pictures” of its own day, to great artistic & thematic payoff. A brief glance at the disparity in terror between Lon Chaney & Claude Rains’s makeup as the unmasked Phantom is alone enough to indicate the differences in those film’s basic intent, but what the Rains version loses in horror it more than makes up for in another, unexpected genre.

-Brandon Ledet

Douce (1943)

As we’ve been working our way through Claude Autant-Lara’s set of romantic dramas produced during WWII in German-occupied France, the films have been understandably light in tone & effect. Autant-Lara seemed to be intentionally staging escapist fantasies during this era, providing an entertainment release valve for people who could use relief from the grim world outside. Although they’re both handsomely crafted, The Marriage of Chiffon is at heart a whimsical romcom about a teenage prankster and Lettres d’Amour functions as a political farce that climaxes with a You Got Served-style dance battle. Odette Joyeux is an adorable joy to watch in both instances, playing half her age as a merry teenager who disrupts social order in her anarchic pursuance of young romance. That’s why the third film in the series, Douce, is such a punch in the gut. There are certainly touches of escapist romance & mood-lightening comedy present in the film, but overall it operates more as a tragic, grim drama that deploys Joyeux’s apparent youthful innocence for a much more devastating effect.

Joyeux stars as a wealthy Parisian brat in Belle Époque France who risks the lives of her home’s working-class employees out of teenage boredom & romantic longing. Her governess is torn between the romantic intentions of her father & the man who works the stables, as Joyeux looks on in jealousy. The governess is at risk with either beau she chooses to entertain. The stable worker has a secretive extramarital past with her that precedes their employment in the house, which he threatens to expose at her refusal of his affections. The father, in turn, is asking her to marry outside her class at a time when those divisions were aggressively policed, both socially & legally. The real danger, however, is presented by Joyeux as the titular Douce, whose secret crush on the stableman & protective touchiness over her widower father puts the governess at great risk of losing her job & home, despite being pursued by these men through no fault of her own. Douce’s girlish romantic fantasies & petty jealousies turn an already precarious situation into an inevitable tragedy. She’s still as adorably youthful as always, but here in a context where that naivety is deadly dangerous.

That’s not to say there’s no escapist entertainment to be found in Douce. The film is set during the sentimentality-prone season of Christmastime, even opening with a snow-covered miniature of Paris to set the mood (including a mid-construction model of the Eiffel Tower in the foreground), as if the entire drama unfolds in a snow globe. There’s also consistent comedy to be found with Douce’s eternally grumpy grandmother, who polices the house’s class divisions with the incredulous self-bemusement of Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey. For the most part, however, the film’s love triangle conflict is played for emotional devastation rather than socially anarchic laughs or romantic fantasy. That more dramatic intent is best evidenced by the film’s conclusion at a ballet performance that erupts into lethal, fiery chaos in a massive set piece counterbalance to the opening’s miniature. It’s a far cry from the hilarity of Lettres d’Amour’s climactic dance battle, one that is made all the more devastating when considered in contrast with the lighter fare Autant-Lara had established a pattern of delivering in the era. When considered as a part of a set, it’s a total tonal sucker punch.

Of course, comedy & romance aren’t the only modes of escapist entertainment; they’re just the most easily effective. Whenever I’m in a grim mood myself, I tend to seek out art that reflects & deepens that emotional state, so I can see how some audiences at the time could find escapist pleasure in sinking into someone else’s tragedy for the length of a film to distract from the grim realities of German wartime occupation outside the theater. The widower father suffers from an amputated leg as a result of a past war’s wound, but most of the film dwells in the sentimentality of Christmas and the high emotional stakes of unrequited love in a way that feels entirely divorced from the concerns of war. If all the films in this set are meant to be understood as escapist entertainment, Douce is one meant to satisfy the most morbid of Parisians, ones who’d prefer a weepie over a farce. It’s just as handsomely staged & playful as Autant-Lara’s other German-occupation romances, but its overall effect is exceptionally grim for that context.

-Brandon Ledet

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

Crazy Rich Asians is just about the phoniest movie you’ll see all summer, but that’s by no means an unintentional effect. The movie opens with the giant hotel lobby setting, swanky music, and block lettering text of an Old Hollywood comedy – promising all the laughs, romance, and lavish imagery you’d expect from that traditionalist fare. The main update to the formalist Hollywood spectacle offered in Crazy Rich Asians is the one indicated by its title. This is a type of film usually populated by and targeted at white people reclaimed for a more historically underserved demographic. While the romantic comedy and wealth porn pleasures offered by the film are generic to the point of pastiche, its Asian & Asian-American cultural context anchor them to a specificity & a social politics POV that distinguish it from the phony Hollywood fare we’re most used to seeing on its scale. It’s damning to the reputation of mainstream filmmaking to consider that this well-behaved, phony romance spectacle is a subversive work merely for casting non-white leads, but that’s how representation-starved most POC audiences are on the pop culture landscape. Crazy Rich Asians is both a cookie-cutter Hollywood romance fantasy we’ve seen plenty times before, and paradoxically a political breakthrough for a cultural dinosaur that’s stubborn to change with the times.

The romcom A-plot pretty much writes itself. An NYU economics professor falls for a hunky bachelor who describes his family as “comfortable,” but is secretly one of the wealthiest lines of unofficial royalty on Earth. The “What if you accidentally married a prince?” fantasy offered in the film only takes on a specificity & a subversion when adapted to its cultural setting. Here, an Asian-American academic with a poor immigrant mother is dropped into a fish-out-of-water fantasy where she meets her secretly-wealthy beau’s absurdly monied family in the most extravagant corners of Singapore. Her culture clash of being an Asian-American woman in an alienating Asian environment is best exemplified in her icy relationship with her boyfriend’s mother, who subscribes to traditionalist divisions of class & culture that make her an unworthy candidate to marry into the family. The wedding preparation drama, makeover montages, and social power struggles that result from that conflict are all genre-faithful romcom material, but the specificity of their circumstances are consistently distinct & defiantly foreign. It’s no surprise, then, that Crazy Rich Asians’s best strengths lurk in the details outside its main romance plot.

Since Crazy Rich Asians is largely faithful to the familiar payoffs of Old Hollywood spectacle & the romcom genre, its more distinguishing details are hiding in the periphery. The wealth porn on display in Singapore’s more extravagant settings play almost like a travel ad, but that same luscious photography being applied to street food & homemade dumplings is a more rarified, gorgeous wonder. The central conflict established in the main romance is familiar to the genre, but the comedic sensibilities of weirdo side characters played by Awkwafina, Ken Jeong, Jimmy O. Yang, and Nico Santos are an anarchic presence that transform that genre formula into a new, exciting beast. You just have to be all-in on the typical payoffs of romcom & wealth porn indulgences to fully appreciate those deviances; this is a fun, beautiful film, but it’s one that’s aimed directly at wide, mainstream audiences. Culture-clash drama between Asian & Asian-American people can be found in select small-budget indie films like Better Luck Tomorrow, Saving Face, and Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle; what’s significant about Crazy Rich Asians is that it balloons that perspective to a massive, big budget, Old Hollywood scale. If you’re more likely to watch an escapist fairy tale that’s unashamed of reliving Old Hollywood phoniness than a small-scale indie drama aimed at artsy fartsy types, the cultural specificity of Crazy Rich Asians is a revelation. Old Hollywood romantic spectacle has been a traditionally all-white affair, so it’s wonderful to see that hegemony broken up by something so unashamedly fun & beautiful, even if narratively generic.

-Brandon Ledet

Cold Water (1994)

With both of his recent critical darlings, Personal Shopper & Clouds of Sils Maria, I’ve found myself mildly frustrated with the cinema of Olivier Assayas. Both of those films were hinged on incredible performances (especially from Kristen Stewart) and intriguing narrative conceits, but both also felt just short of greatness as completed works. In particular, I remember leaving Personal Shopper last year thinking that Assayas would one day deliver a movie I would totally fall in love with, but that he wasn’t quite there yet. What I didn’t know to consider at the time is that I shouldn’t be looking to Assayas’s future, but rather to his already rich past. While I assumed Sils Maria & Personal Shopper were the films of a young artist still honing their craft, it turns out Assayas has been directing feature films since the 1980s; they’ve just been outside my genre trash-loving radar. A recent local screening of his 1994 indie romance Cold Water has, in one picture, convinced me I’ve had Assayas all wrong. I now see his current crop of near-great films as a transitional adjustment period, the first stage of an evolution in the craft he already honed decades ago. I can’t say with certainty that Assayas’s best work is ahead of or behind him, because there is a much larger catalog of films than I was aware of to indicate that trajectory. However, I can report that he has made at least one great film before, one that relies on the same tactics & tones as the two titles that recently left me wanting.

Cold Water is a kind of 1970s rock n’ roll spin on a classic Romeo & Juliet teen tragedy. Forever understated, Assayas delivers the least commercial version of that premise imaginable, telling a slow, stubbornly quiet tale of pointless teenage rebellion & aimless romance the exact way you’d expect a 1990s French indie to. Two teenage reprobates on the outskirts of Paris seek excitement in petty vandalism & minor shoplifting, staging small-scale rebellions against their increasingly frustrated caretakers at home & school. At the threat of being quarantined in boarding school & mental institutions, they make a foolish pack to run away together to a mythical artist’s colony in the frostbitten provinces, risking their lives for a utopia that may or may not exist. Before they begin this fool’s journey, however, they pause to enjoy an out of control teenage rager where kids form their school & community party to rock records, smoke hash, and destroy everything in sight with an ever-growing fire. It’s in that chaotic centerpiece that Assayas pulls back in scope to explain that these two lovelorn teenage runaways are not at all atypical. The just happen to be their social circle’s scapegoats, the two who always get caught while everyone in their vicinity indulges in the exact same teenage depravity, undetected. Cold Water is an intimate love story between two naïve, self-destructive fools, but it’s also a larger portrait of an entire generation of aimless, frustrated rebel children itching to break free of the societal doldrums of the early 1970s.

Maybe in part because I’m used to these types of stories being told in American & British contexts, I was a little perplexed by Cold Water’s temporal setting not being six to ten years later than its early 70s hippiedom. Watching these kids smash & burn their surroundings in bratty, frustrated rebellion to a soundtrack defined by the likes of Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and Creedence Clearwater Revival is a little disorienting, especially when they start pogoing & slam-dancing at the climactic bonfire party. Cold Water is so obviously a punk story to me; it just happens to be set to the sounds of pre-punk hippies. Regardless of what’s spinning on the turntable, however, Assayas achieves a blissful hedonism in that party’s nihilistic teenage chaos. It plays like a sprawling, hazy predecessor to the rager that opens Lynne Ramsay’s similarly quiet, nihilistic Morvern Callar. The majority of Cold Water is guided by hushed, conversational gloom as neither teens, their teachers, nor their guardians know what to do with their frustrated, rebellions energy. There’s no proper score to the film outside its diegetic needle drops & rock radio tune-ins, so that everything outside its loud, vibrant, destructive party sequence feels dead & hollow by comparison. Even the central romance doesn’t feel especially impassioned or life-changing to the two protagonists outside their need to feel something in the cultural, emotional void of their surroundings. Chasing the high of that emotional rush is an ultimately tragic impulse, so maybe the worn-out hippie melancholy of Woodstock-era classic rock is exactly what this film needs. In the transition from Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” to Joplin’s “Me & Bobby McGee,” you can somewhat feel the tone Assayas was reaching for; it’s just difficult to shake the feeling that these kids are punks who had not yet heard the sounds that would later define them.

Something I’m coming to admire in Olivier Assayas is that every film I see from him feels like a young artist actively trying to figure themselves & their craft out on the screen. Just like how I assumed Personal Shopper & The Clouds of Sils Maria were the works of a fresh-faced filmmaker chipping away at future greatness, I could just as easily see Cold Water as being a debut feature from someone young & hungry to make Important Art. It’s not the shoplifting, vandalism, or teenage-runaway romance that makes me feel that way either. It’s more that Assayas appears open to messiness, haunting quiet, and unresolved emotional crises in his movies, having made no apparent effort to tidy up these impulses into more controlled work in the past two decades. There is a kind of coldness to that restraint in his more recent works, however. Assayas’s aimless wanderings feel much more appropriate to the pointless, frustrated teenage rebellions of Cold Water than they do to the adult ennui of his more recent work; or at least they feel more effective in that context. Heighted teenage rebellion lends itself well to his oddly youthful, consistent sense of messy, open, vulnerable gloom. As I further dig around in his decades of back-catalog features, I might make a point to seek out any titles I can find with teenage, lovelorn protagonists; it’s thematic territory that feels at home with his style. It also helps that Cold Water allows those teens a slash & burn catharsis in the bonfire party centerpiece, an emotional release he hasn’t afforded his more recent, adult protagonists.

-Brandon Ledet

Fireworks (2018)

It’s always interesting what international media does or does not culturally translate in its voyage to America. The animated supernatural romance Your Name., for instance, seems like it should have been a massive crossover hit in the US, but it barely made a splash. The top-selling anime film of all time, Your Name. expertly plucked lovelorn teens’ heartstrings to a gorgeous visual palette and emo mall punk soundtrack, inspiring so many repeat visits to the theater in its target demographic that it became an instant cultural phenomenon. That phenomenon translated to a mere faint whimper in its US release, however, where the movie quickly died in near-empty theaters (despite being one of last year’s best domestic releases in my estimation). Meanwhile, in Japan, Your Name. was so successful that it’s already inspired a wave of pale imitators. Advertised as being “from the producers of Your Name.,” Fireworks (full title: Fireworks – Should We See It from the Side or the Bottom?) is another animated teen romance that filters low stakes emotional crises through a high stakes supernatural plot. With a reliance on cheap commuter animation to fill in its gaps and a ludicrous story that barely holds itself together in any intelligible way, it’s clear that Fireworks was rushed to market to capitalize on Your Name.’s (Japanese market) success as quickly as possible, quality be damned. It can’t help but open itself up to direct comparison because of that lineage, a side-by-side that is unforgiving to Fireworks’s lack of emotional depth, intelligent construction, and genuine beauty. Even so, the film is mildly enjoyable as a novelty, a quirky footnote to Your Name.’s instantaneous legacy (outside the USA).

Two teen boys long for the love of the same troubled classmate, who has just learned that she’ll be moving away to a different town at the end of the school year. Unbeknownst to the boys who carry a torch for her, she plans to escape her fate by running away on the next train to Tokyo with one of her would-be suitors in tow for company. She decides the lucky victor based on a swimming pool race, which is treated in-film as the single most significant athletic event of all time. After the two teens pair off for a date at the town’s celebratory fireworks display, the left-behind, heartbroken third makes a wish on a magical orb that the swimming match had gone differently. If this is all sounds absurdly melodramatic, it’s because it very much is. There might be something to how teenage crushes are treated in Fireworks the way they feel in real life: like the biggest deal in the world, a monumental flood of lust & embarrassment. For the most part, though, the characters’ heightened earnestness over minor social exchanges feels entirely inhuman & absurd. It’s a good thing, then, that most of the runtime distracts itself with the supernatural machinations of the wish-granting orb, which the teens use to keep resetting their young-love predicament until the right couple can successfully escape fate & run away to happiness. The more they reset the loop of their fateful swimming race & fireworks date, however, the further their version of reality slips away from the physical world we know, allowing the animators to play around with surreal, computer-smoothed fantasy-scapes overloaded with underwater distortions, golden adornments, and abstracted fireworks.

There is one thing Fireworks gets exactly right about human behavior: teenagers are grotesque, horned-up idiots (I can confirm this because I used to be one myself). As much as the kids of Fireworks might feel like over-the-top caricatures in moments when they’re frozen motionless by the slightest confrontation with social anxiety, they feel entirely real in the stretches of juvenile dialogue when they’re cracking poop jokes, drooling over teachers’ breasts, and having relentless, inane arguments about whether fireworks appear round or flat when they explode (a topic that repeats so often it’s included in the film’s long-title). Besides its bastardization of Your Name.’s basic formula, most of Fireworks’s novelty lies in the juxtaposition of its beautifully cheesy, heavenly screensaver imagery and its central subject of grotesque teenage horniness disguising itself as romance. Your Name. generated a deep well of empathy, curiosity, and genuine beauty that convinced audiences its central romance was powerful enough to supernaturally break through the barriers of space & time. When the shit & tits-obsessed knuckleheads of Fireworks attempt the same romantic transcendence (with the help of a fireworks display and a magical orb) the sentiment plays like a bizarre joke. It’s charming in its own way, though, if not only for its very existence as a mockbuster version of a much better film that, at best, barely has earned a cult status in the U.S. If Your Name. failed to translate to American audiences in all its transcendent beauty, it’s difficult to imagine this rushed-to-market frivolity faring much better. Even more dedicated anime nerds will likely struggle with finding much value in its mediocre charms as an occasionally beautiful, relentlessly cheesy, oddly grotesque teen melodrama. I (mostly) got a kick out of it, though, as it helped further illustrate what makes its more substantial predecessor so goddamn great.

-Brandon Ledet

Le Mariage de Chiffon (1943)

Typically, when we discuss French Cinema as a hegemony, we’re talking about creatively adventurous arthouse pictures that follow in the tradition of the French New Wave movement that arrived in the rebellious days of the 1960s. France’s more frivolous screwball comedies & trashy genre pictures tend to land far outside our radar, whereas the USA globally exports so much of its pop culture glut you’d be forgiven for assuming our own cinematic landscape was comprised entirely of Transformers sequels & Paul Blart Mall Cops. What I’m even more unclear on, besides what purely commercial modern French cinema looks like, is what, exactly The French New Wave was bucking against in the 60s. With the cutesy frivolity Galia, I got a glimpse of what it looked like when an old-guard French director attempted to appear as hip & With-It as his New Wave dissenters, a disguise few people bought. Stately, well-behaved French cinema before the New Wave’s arrival is more of a mystery to me. Like with modern commercial comedies & trashy crime pictures (think All That Divides Us) that don’t make it to American shores with any significant impact, France’s stately, pre-New Wave cinematic past is an export lacking any kind of an immediate hook to draw in contemporary American audiences. Le Mariage de Chiffon is a major exception to that generalization, but not for any concerns of content or craft. The first of four escapist-entertainment features directed by Claude Autant-Lara during the German occupation of France in WWII, Le Mariage de Chiffon has enough extratextual, cultural value to earn a prestigious spot in the Criterion Collection canon, something that’s usually reserved for the rebellious New Wave brats who sought to challenge Autant-Lara’s traditionalist approach to filmmaking. It’s also a frivolous romcom, charmingly so.

Odette Joyeux, who would go on to appear in all four of Autant-Lara’s German Occupation comedies, plays half her age as the 16y.o. aristocratic brat Chiffon. While running wild in the darkness of nighttime Parisian streets, she innocently flirts with a noble military man who immediately takes a liking to her prankish charms. He also mischievously pockets her left shoe as a keepsake, hoping to stage a Cinderella-inspired investigation of who, exactly, stole his heart in the dark. The answer is ultimately unsatisfying, as Chiffon is obviously & obliviously in love with her own uncle (by marriage, but still), a disgraced innovator in the early discoveries of aviation who is widely understood to be a dandy & a kook. Set in the pre-War past of the aristocratic 1910s, Le Mariage de Chiffon chipperly offers pop entertainment escapism though romance & humor, a much-needed distraction for German-occupied France. The hotel settings, mistaken identities, and absurd misunderstandings of the classic comedy structure are prominent throughout, but in a distinctly charming way. This is a genuinely, enduringly funny picture, thanks largely to Joyeux’s hijinks as Chiffon. A total brat who squabbles with her uptight mother for sport, refuses to corset her body, and documents her teenage mischief in a journal she titles The Boring Diary, Chiffon is an adorable element of chaos that breaks down the rigid social rituals of high society elites. It’s the exact social anarchist function you’d want in any comedic lead, from Harpo Marx to Divine to Tom Green and beyond. The picture that contains her just happens to be more well-behaved than she is. The most Autant-Lara deviates from traditional comedy & romance beats is in a couple quieter moments of dramatic fallout, where the camera lingers on the downer imagery of a dilapidated house foolishly purchased as a love offering or aviation equipment being seized in a bankruptcy proceeding. It’s difficult to know if there’s any subversive intent behind these tangents, though, since most of the film is concerned with the follies of a deliberately frivolous girl who is in love with her own uncle (by marriage).

If there’s anything illuminating about how Le Mariage de Chiffon stacks up to its American contemporaries, it’s how more honest traditionalist filmmaking could be without Hays Code censorship breathing down its neck. The moral center & gender politics of the film seem to belong to a Conservative past, where it’s romantic that older men, even strangers, feel entitled to carry Chiffon around in public or lead her by the small of her back in private. The way she openly discusses adultery & sexual desire (specifically that she’s afraid to marry anyone because she knows she’ll be tempted to cheat) is far too honest for the heavily-censored American films of the period to echo. The soft-incest implied by her desire for her uncle (by marriage!!!) also feels morally risky for the time, especially in scenes where they “innocently” help each other undress, practically panting throughout the process. As traditionalist as the film can feel on a formal level, too, we always understand Chiffon’s troublemaking as the admirable alternative to high society stuffiness, especially when she’s being admonished in statements like “A woman is more womanly in a corset” and “Your behavior shames us all.” Chiffon may be a brat, but she’s our brat. When her elitist nemesis is perplexed by something as simple as a misplaced shoe, they shout with incensed incredulity, “It’s a prank to ruin me!” Chiffon, as aggressively frivolous as she can be, is portrayed to be the sensible one by comparison. I’m not sure that a bratty harbinger of chaos would have been allowed that moral upper-ground in a contemporary American film (without being pushed to change their ways). I do know for damn sure she would not have been allowed to be so honest about her sexual desires & the blatant hypocrisy of how adulterous impulses are reconciled in the social institution of marriage. That’s not something I’m used to seeing in 1940s comedies, stately or otherwise.

Claude Autant-Lara is not one of the artistic & political rebels we usually associate with French Cinema. In fact, in the 1980s he disgracefully booted from his position in the European Parliament after exposing himself as a hard-right Holocaust denier, which is more than enough to justify labeling him as The Enemy. Still, there is a kind of defiance to making escapist entertainment in the face of military occupation, or at least there is a value to the comfort it could provide. Either way, the truth is that you would never assume that wartime context watching Le Mariage de Chiffon if you weren’t told to look for it. The real draw of the picture is Odette Joyeux’s endlessly lovable performance in the titular role, a mischievous character who’s bigger than the rigidly formalistic picture that (barely) contains her. Le Mariage de Chiffon is a handsomely staged, genuinely funny comedy, even if it is nested in an overly well-behaved French Filmmaking past. The most its wartime context benefits it is in affording the film an imperative for contemporary audiences to revisit it as a cultural object, though all we might find is a glimpse at the status quo the French New Wave later subverted.

-Brandon Ledet