Troy Beyera seven-year veteran of Sesame Street who went on to play the female lead in Robert Wise’s Rooftops and script B.A.P.S.wrote, directed, and appears in this low-budget independent feature. She plays a Miami advice columnist trying to launch a TV talk show in which young women talk about sex; Paget Brewster and Randi Ingerman play her two best friends, who help her shoot her pilot and talk a lot about their own sex lives. The sound bites of real interviews that punctuate this romantic comedy-drama give it some flavor and raunchy directness, but the movie turns phony every time a big emotional scene is called for and fatuous elevator music (its volume turned way up) chimes in. With Joseph C. Phillips, Michaline Babich, and Tina Nguyen. (JR)
The seventh Halloween film is being described as the last, and that may actually turn out to be the case because there’s an earnest and successful attempt to give the series a satisfying closure. Jamie Lee Curtis–who made her reputation on the first Halloween but hasn’t been part of the series since the second–is now, 20 years later, teaching at an exclusive private school in northern California, raising a son as a single mother, and once again trying to fend off her murderously insane brother, who won’t stay dead. If you can accept the flouting of logic and credibility that usually goes with this kind of horror picture, this scary and suspenseful genre exercise, chock-full of false alarms and brutal shocks, really delivers, and Curtis approaches the assignment without a trace of condescension. Directed by Steve Miner from a script by Robert Zappia and others; with Michelle Williams, Josh Hartnett, LL Cool J, and Adam Arkin, and an amusing cameo by Curtis’s mother, Janet Leigh. Bel-Air Drive-In, Bricktown Square, Chatham 14, Ford City, Golf Glen, Lawndale, North Riverside, Plaza, 62nd & Western, Village North, Webster Place. –Jonathan Rosenbaum
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.
Like Jane Campion’s The Piano, this first feature by writer-director Sandra Goldbacher is less a story about the 19th century than a fantasy about the 19th century, and as such even more erotic. The singular Minnie Driver (Circle of Friends, Good Will Hunting) plays a stagestruck Sephardic Jew in London in the 1840s. After her father is murdered she has to support her surviving family and, concealing her Jewish identity, secures a job as a governess on a remote Scottish island. The man of the house (Tom Wilkinson) is an inventor experimenting with photography, and after serving as his lab assistant she becomes romantically involved with him, though she’s also pursued by his troubled adolescent son (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). Goldbacher’s story is not always convincing as history, but it’s absorbing as a sort of gothic romance and sensually quite potent, and Driver carries it all with grace and authority. With Florence Hoath, Harriet Walter, and Bruce Myers. Evanston, Pipers Alley. –Jonathan Rosenbaum
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.
This appeared in the August 21, 1998 issue of the Chicago Reader. –J.R.
Nights of Cabiria
Rating **** Masterpiece
Directed by Federico Fellini
Written by Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, and Pier Paolo Pasolini
With Giulietta Masina, Franca Marzi, Francois Perier, Amedeo Nazzari, Dorian Gray, and Aldo Silvana.
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
Reporting on the response to Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria at Cannes in 1957, François Truffaut wrote, “Let us deplore the fad that seems to be shared equally by the audience, producers, distributors, technicians, actors, and critics who fancy that they can contribute to the ‘creation’ of the films being shown by deciding how they should have been edited and cut. After each showing, I’d hear things like ‘Not bad, but they could have cut a half-hour,’ or ‘I could have saved that film with a pair of scissors.’” As festival responses to more recent masterpieces like Taste of Cherry and The Apostle have shown, this fad is still very much with us. Another, more recent fad is to release longer versions of films that were butchered on their release. Too often these so-called director’s cuts — such as Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and the forthcoming Touch of Evil — can’t qualify as restorations, however, because the directors were never accorded final cut in the first place.
A better candidate for a “director’s cut” is the longer version of Nights of Cabiria playing at the Music Box this week. A single short sequence cut after the film’s Cannes premiere — reportedly due to pressure from the Catholic church, commercial considerations, and perhaps the comments cited by Truffaut — has recently been restored thanks to Bruce Goldstein, a programmer at New York’s Film Forum. But this brief episode alone has led me to reevaluate the film and as a consequence make some discoveries about Fellini’s work as a whole. And ultimately the sequence resonates with some previously questionable portions, creating a much richer and stranger film. It strikes me as both astonishing and characteristic that we’ve waited 41 years for this to become evident.
I should confess that most of Fellini’s work (he died in 1993) has posed a problem for me. It’s not that I contest his talent but that it’s difficult to separate his invention from his shameless pandering to the audience, which involves cornball rhetoric, demagoguery, and other excesses at the expense of artistic judgment; Steven Spielberg is a similar but even more flamboyant showman. It becomes difficult to praise the invention without endorsing the regressive baggage as well. And, as with Spielberg, that baggage is often tied to innocence — the audience’s as well as the filmmaker’s. “Fellini is essentially a small-town boy who’s never really come to Rome” was Orson Welles’s apt way of putting it. “He’s still dreaming about it. And we should all be grateful for those dreams.” Indeed we should. But when a filmmaker’s boyish dreams are praised as the hard-won, disillusioning discoveries of an adult — as they have been praised in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan as well as Nights of Cabiria – the audience’s innocence cries out for correction.
Part of the innocence at issue in Nights of Cabiria is the result of the Chaplinesque mugging by Fellini’s wife, muse, and medium Giulietta Masina — a dated, aggressive form of pantomime that was a point of critical contention even back in the 50s, recalling as it does a performance style of the 20s. For all the undeniable pathos and animation of Masina’s doll-like features, Fellini often uses them in La strada and Cabiria as blunt emotional instruments intended to beat the viewer into submission — and without the nuance that Chaplin brought to comparable tasks. Even if one recognizes and applauds Fellini’s corresponding impulse to return to the elemental purity of silent film, the related narrative simplifications have an overall coarsening effect, falsely implying that silent cinema was also invariably crude in this manner.
Fortunately, Nights of Cabiria improves on La strada in one respect: alternating with Masina’s waiflike credulity is the brittle skepticism of her character, a prostitute who goes by the street name of Cabiria. Pier Paolo Pasolini was enlisted to supply her and her fellow prostitutes with Roman street slang, and as a result the film oscillates between authentic grittiness and dreamy flights of fancy — rather as Cabiria herself does.
There were several points in Fellini’s career when nonnarrative drift overtook narrative flow and story gave way to spectacle. But a major part of this transition occurred about halfway through his oeuvre, as the protean personal allegory of the 1963 8 1/2, a masterpiece, was transformed into a mere catalyst for various visual effects in the 1965 Juliet of the Spirits, a sort of congealed circus in which Masina plays the allegory’s protagonist. This was followed by various works of episodic drift and spectacle like Fellini-Satyricon, Fellini’s Roma, Amarcord, Fellini’s Casanova, City of Women, And the Ship Sails On, and The Voice of the Moon, the sort of films that dominated the remainder of his career. One could just as firmly describe the seven Fellini features preceding 8 1/2 (Variety Lights, codirected by Alberto Lattuada; The White Sheik; I vitelloni; La strada; Il bidone; Nights of Cabiria; and La dolce vita) as mainly driven by their stories.
Juliet of the Spirits was the third of Fellini’s features that gave top billing to Masina, but one could argue that it was the first that starred Fellini himself rather than his wife. The filmmaker’s subjective take on his wife’s subjectivity revealed the limitations of his vision, and that’s what made the film overall so problematic: the putative subject ended up drowning in Fellini’s style. The incorporation of his name into the titles of some subsequent features was only the next logical step. Most of the rest of his films tended to have subjects rather than stories — not a bad thing in itself, though it renders any decisions about when to start the film and when to end it relatively arbitrary. In Juliet of the Spirits, this tendency reduced Masina’s mannered style to its worst aspects; as Manny Farber noted at the time, “Her sexless acting is a parlay of Bambi’s stiff motion, Harry Langdon’s large ball-bearing eyes, and Spring Byington’s ability to exude goodness, patience, and domestic cleanliness with a raspberry valentine smile.”
Sometimes the transition between story and spectacle in Fellini’s work takes place less on-screen than in the mind of the beholder. For me there’s a clarifying moment of this kind in Nights of Cabiria, when such a sea change takes on unusual force, transforming everything leading up to it as well as everything following it. And oddly enough, without the restored sequence — which figures somewhat earlier — this moment doesn’t have quite the same impact.
One off-putting aspect of the movie is that it’s driven less by plot than by five extended episodes in which Cabiria moves from hope to disillusionment. You might even say that formally this pattern reflects a repetition compulsion, though it has thematic ramifications. The restored sequence, which is shorter and seemingly less consequential than the others, breaks with this pattern by moving from disillusionment to hope, as does the film’s even shorter final sequence.
In the first episode, Cabiria is pushed into a river by a boyfriend who steals her purse; in the second, she’s picked up by a movie star who’s had a fight with his girlfriend, then gets shunted off as soon as the girlfriend returns. The restored interlude occurs just after this point — Cabiria encounters a man with a sack in a wasteland delivering clothes and food to homeless people, who live in holes in the ground; one of them is a former prostitute, now an old woman, whom Cabiria recognizes. Cabiria is clearly moved by the man’s selfless mission, and after he gives her a lift back to Rome, she reveals her real name — Maria Ceccarelli — for the first and only time in the film, leaving him with the words, “Thank you, thank you for everything.”
It’s been conjectured that this interlude was cut in 1957 because the Catholic church didn’t approve of representing this kind of charity outside its own auspices. Indeed, the third of the original episodes at least implies a further criticism of the Church when it shows Cabiria traveling with other hookers, a drug-dealing pimp, and his crippled uncle to a shrine of the Madonna of Divine Love, hoping for a spiritual release she doesn’t find.
The transformative moment takes place in the fourth of the original sequences, when Cabiria attends a magic show in a suburban movie theater where she’s coerced into joining the act — hypnotized by the magician into believing that she’s being courted as a young girl by a suitor named Oscar. Partly because of the theatrical setting and partly because Cabiria is a highly skeptical spectator both before and after she falls into her trance, the scene becomes an emblematic representation of moviegoing itself — what it typically promises and just as typically fails to deliver. (Of course prostitutes, who must pander to the fantasies of their clients, perform a function similar to that fulfilled by movies.)
This representation is strengthened in the fifth episode, when Cabiria meets another spectator after the show, Oscar, who proceeds to court her, taking her to a movie on one of their outings. Oscar is the center of this, the film’s final extended episode, which is even more melodramatic and contrived than the others. But thanks to the preceding sea change, it seems less story than spectacle. If the first three long episodes in Cabiria use spectacle in order to tell a story, the last two use story in order to create spectacle. The difference is metaphysical rather than merely a matter of semantics: stories imply progression, but spectacles imply unchanging states. In this case the character who started out as a picaresque heroine winds up as a kind of essence, an essence that can survive and even prevail over disillusioning stories. In this way Cabiria is a metaphor for the childlike gullibility or faith that makes Fellini’s dreamlike cinema possible, even when a film’s narrative underpinnings come loose.
The restored sequence of the man with the sack is crucial because it’s the first indication in the film of an essence comparable to Cabiria’s. It also makes sense that this is the only point when Cabiria reveals her real name; the man’s essence brings her own to the surface, allowing us to catch a fleeting glimpse of it. The great French critic André Bazin — who wrote more perceptively about the film than anyone else, stressing the central importance of this sequence and protesting its deletion after the 1957 premiere — described it this way: “When one stops and reflects, one realizes that there is nothing in the film, before the meeting with the benefactor of the tramps…which is not proved subsequently to be necessary to trick Cabiria into making an act of ill-placed faith; for if such men do exist, then every miracle is possible and we, too, will be without mistrust when [Oscar] appears.”
It was Bazin, too, who defended the short, sublime, hopeful end of the movie as the source of the viewer’s liberation. He describes a moment when “Masina turns toward the camera and her glance crosses ours ….The finishing touch to this stroke of directorial genius is this, that Cabiria’s glance falls several times on the camera without ever quite coming to rest there….Here she is now inviting us, too, with her glance to follow her on the road to which she is about to return. The invitation is chaste, discreet, and indefinite enough that we can pretend to think that she means to be looking at somebody else. At the same time, though, it is definite and direct enough, too, to remove us quite finally from our role of spectator.” The gift of Cabiria’s essence, freed from the determinism of stories, is to return us to our own.
From the August 14, 1998 Chicago Reader. I can happily report that this film is still available on DVD. — J.R.
The Son of Gascogne
Rating *** A must see
Directed by Pascal Aubier
Written by Patrick Modiano and Aubier
With Grégoire Colin, Dinara Droukarova, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Laszlo Szabo, Pascal Bonitzer, Otar Iosseliani, Alexandra Stewart, and Jean-Claude Brialy.
It’s been a full quarter of a century, but I still harbor fond memories of a low-budget French comedy called Valparaiso Valparaiso, a first feature starring Alain Cuny and Bernadette Lafont that I saw at Cannes in 1973. A lighthearted satire about the myopia of romantic French revolutionaries, it details an elaborate hoax perpetrated on a befuddled leftist — a character so absorbed in the glory of departing for Chile to fight the good fight as a special agent that he doesn’t even notice the political struggle going on around him on the French docks when he leaves.
The film was so marginal that two years passed between its completion and its modest premiere at the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes, and you won’t find it mentioned in any of the standard reference books. No, I take that back: Jean-Michel Frodon gives it a third of a sentence in his over-900-page L’Age moderne du Cinéma Français de la Nouvelle Vague à nos jours (1995), linking it with two other films of the early 70s inspired by the French Communist Party and critical of leftists. Valparaiso Valparaiso had the sort of heart and lyricism, however, that lingered in a few post-New Wave movies of that period, and even though the filmmaker promptly dropped out of sight, I still remembered his name 22 years later when I went to see his feature The Son of Gascogne at the Berlin film festival in 1995.
In the question-and-answer session after the screening, I discovered that Pascal Aubier had directed only one other feature between Valparaiso Valparaiso and Le fils de Gascogne – Le chant du départ in 1975 — but had meanwhile made 38 short films for French television. Even more striking to me was the profound continuity I felt between the two features I’d seen. The new film had as much heart and lyricism as its predecessor and also involved an elaborate hoax, one that testified no less eloquently to some cherished nostalgic fantasies of its own period.
Three months later, The Son of Gascogne premiered in France on TV during the Cannes festival. It’s hard to say whether this made it more marginal than Valparaiso Valparaiso or less: even though The Son of Gascogne was probably seen by many more people, it had no critical profile. Aubier’s film did get selected by the New York film festival, however, thanks in part to my enthusiasm for it as a selection committee member; during Aubier’s visit to New York for the showing, he landed a teaching job at New York University and has been based in this country ever since.
The usual lag time for foreign pictures not distributed by large companies has now elapsed, and The Son of Gascogne arrives in Chicago this week, playing eight times at the Film Center. The story concerns a fatherless 18-year-old boy named Harvey (Grégoire Colin) from Le Havre whose mother works as a tour guide for Russians. To help her out, he goes to Paris to host a group of Georgian folksingers arriving by train to give a concert, and winds up courting a Russian-Georgian girl named Dinara (Dinara Droukarova) who’s come along to help them with their French. Shortly after the Georgians’ arrival, a Paris-based Hungarian actor and director (Laszlo Szabo, playing himself) declares that Harvey is a dead ringer for (fictional) French New Wave director Alexandre Gascogne, said to have died in the mid-70s; Szabo is convinced that Harvey is his son.
Harvey, who doesn’t know anything about his father’s identity, has never heard of Gascogne and is pretty skeptical about the whole idea. But when the group’s chauffeur — a small-time con artist named Marco (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) — decides he can parlay this fancy into a moneymaking scheme and starts to introduce Harvey to Gascogne’s former friends and colleagues, Harvey is drawn into the hoax and even begins to entertain the possibility it might be true. The scheme involves a legendary “lost” film by Gascogne called Chaleurs (”Heat”), allegedly shot shortly before his death but hidden away ever since in some lab due to unpaid bills.
Over the course of a few days Harvey, Dinara, and Marco encounter a host of New Wave veterans and associates, playing themselves: actors including Yves Alfonso, Anémone, Stéphane Audran, Jean-Claude Brialy, Bernadette Lafont, Macha Méril, Bulle Ogier, Marie-France Pisier, Alexandra Stewart, and Marina Vlady; directors including Claude Chabrol, Michel Deville, Otar Iosseliani, Richard Leacock, and Jean Rouch; and other figures from the French film world, including producer Pierre Cottrell and historian Bernard Eisenschitz. (One of the few fictional roles is played by Pascal Bonitzer — a critic, a screenwriter for Raul Ruiz and Jacques Rivette, and, based on his own recent first feature, Encore, an able director.) The Son of Gascogne also employs a fair number of clips from New Wave films like Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and Agnes Varda’s Cleo From 5 to 7 (both reenacted by Harvey and Dinara as they walk around Paris) as well as Chabrol’s Les bonnes femmes, and it makes many references to other New Wave figures like Anna Karina, Eric Rohmer, and Jean Eustache.
So the film is pungent with nostalgia, but Aubier is after something meatier as well: he’s more concerned with the meaning of these memories in the present than he is with the memories themselves. And one way of differentiating The Son of Gascogne from Valparaiso Valparaiso is that his allegory about the myth of the New Wave and the meaning of postmodern pastiche is a good deal more tender and forgiving about innocence than its predecessor: Aubier asks us to sympathize not only with the romanticism of an older generation but with the frustrations of a younger one reduced to bluff and imitation in trying to live up to that heritage.
The film offers a highly personal take on the myth of the New Wave: the two glimpses we have of “Gascogne,” in photographs from the 60s, are of Aubier himself. In one, he’s standing alongside Stewart, Iosseliani, Méril, and Karina in Moscow; in another, he’s leading a street demonstration in May 1968. In fact, Aubier published a full-length book a couple of years ago, Les mémoires de Gascogne – a personal scrapbook of photographs and documents combined with an extended dialogue between Aubier and Eisenschitz detailing the complex interface between this movie and Aubier’s various activities in film and politics over three decades.
If this makes the movie sound specialized and self-indulgent, the foregrounded and highly touching story of Harvey and Dinara mitigates that tendency and testifies to the filmmaker’s generosity rather than his self-absorption. He’s interested above all in the current residue and significance of these past events: his encounter between two 18-year-olds from Georgia and France has more in common with Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise than it does with François Truffaut’s Day for Night because ultimately Aubier is more concerned with love in the 90s than he is with cinema in the 60s.
At its best, the movie draws on both at once for its resonance: Dinara’s earnest struggle to master French harks back to Jean Seberg in Breathless, and Harvey’s heartfelt defense of the hoax for the excitement it’s brought to his life recalls the passion of Jean-Pierre Léaud in Truffaut’s early films. Certainly the spontaneous interactions between these two actors — Droukarova is perhaps best known here for her part in Freeze — Die — Come to Life, while Colin may be remembered for his lead part in Olivier Olivier – evoke the New Wave as much as anything else here does.
I can’t guarantee that everyone will be as charmed by The Son of Gascogne as I am because an undeniable part of its appeal is generational. Like Say Anything…, Pump Up the Volume, The Thing Called Love, and Telling Lies in America, it looks at teenage love from the vantage point of someone much older; teenage spectators may feel as removed from Aubier’s fantasies as his teenage couple feel from the New Wave. Yet it’s hard to believe that its emotional surges won’t be shared to some degree by viewers of all ages, because of the film’s tenderness for youth. The Son of Gascogne makes being young seem a lot tougher than being middle-aged — especially if you’re faced, as so many teenagers are nowadays, with the accusation of having been born too late.