PRINT November 1968


The New York Film Festival, Lola Montes, Beyond the Law, Mouchette, The Immortal Story, and Capricious Summer

There is nothing so funny in the recent New York Film Festival as the Romany-esque overland coach in Lola Montes, a blood-colored Pullman on wheels that belongs to Franz Liszt, and serves as a major trysting nest for the scandalous heroine. A love affair on wheels is a nice idea but this over-decorated vehicle is the hub for eight minor events which are nothing but crazy makeup, improbability, and an ordeal of graceless acting. Martine Carol, an hourglass made out of stale golden cupcakes, is a mock George Sand, locked on a chaise longue; her boyfriend has a goofy smile, silken curls, and stumbles about putting the finishing touches to “The Farewell Waltz.” The real nuttiness is the feeling of hometown operetta around them. Lola’s getaway wagon, which follows behind, is operated by a husband-wife servant team who run out from behind the wheels, carrying bird cages and carpetbags, shouting “spaghetti.” Some other fake elements: a painted backdrop of the Italian countryside and one of those villas which once housed Ricardo Cortez, a domineering mother, and a raging river, the wildest in 1920s melodrama.

This ooze-like structure about a Garbo-ish woman of affairs played by a Non-Garbo as stupid, not very classy, and two shades from pure ugly, is a perfect Festival film, steeped in attitudes. The theme, from Naked Night, through three festival films, has the director as a ringmaster, magician, lion-tamer, vulnerable to man’s foibles but knowing everything about life. There is a grandiose attempt at cosmic embrace, pro-life and pro-love, with the requisite number of peculiar bosom shots: the breasts are pushed up and then bounced, always a couple of fleshy folds around the armpits. Any Ophuls movie is supposed to be fluid magic, but after the first five minutes of circus, it is like driving an old corpse around and around in sawdust.

The truth about a film festival is that it is a parlor of myths, a dilemma bound to overrun a place that is supposed to be exhibiting only the best blue chip films. Some of the very clear myths are (1) that Renoir is deadly accurate on “human passions,” hard working folk and the plight of the poor (2) that there is a torrent of important films washing through Czechoslovakia (3) that Ophuls made better films in Europe than in Hollywood (4) that American moviegoers want and need the taunts directed into films by Franco-Italian mandarins and mad dog labelers.

What a queer sensation to be face-to-face with a cause-less film that can draw a “my God, I like it” remark. Mailer’s Beyond the Law has a zillion little irritations, but it has authentic scurrility and funk before it goes sour with Mailer’s Irish brogue monologue. Faces is a real breakthrough in movie acting, despite the wrong stamping of Americans as compulsive laughers; it also goofs such motivations as a husband cheerfully clicking his heels and greeting his wife after spending ten hours with a high-priced whore, and a squad of elderly males who are just rancid hams with face-y leers.

Mouchette, by about three hundred miles the most touching and truly professional film, is a young fourteen year old girl of the peasant class, living in a small French village, daughter of two alcoholics. The film has apparently melted down to a short story, being adapted from a Bernanos novel, but it moves on about five levels. It has to do with the surpassing beauty of a girl who is in a state of excruciating physical discomfort. On another level it is about difficulty, an almost pure analysis of its sides, and, in this case, the way it multiplies when luck is out. (Mouchette has some luck in a bumper car concession at the amusement park, but it doesn’t last long—only long enough to create the most poetic action sequence in years.) Other levels deal with a particularly bitter village and its inhabitants (the snare theme, Life chasing the human being into extinction); the conception of people as being so deeply rooted in their environment that they are animal-like: the simple effect of form briefly lit by a truck’s headlights.

Mouchette, played by Nadine Nordier, has a touching toughness, the crushing sense of not expecting anything from anybody, and a harrowing know-how about every niche of village life. Unlike Frankie Darro who got the same desperate shadow effects in Riding High, Nordier’s singularity is tied to painful appearances: apathetic about her well-being, hair uncombed and probably lice-ridden, a large part of the painfulness has to do with large lumpy legs, stockings that won’t stay up, big shoes. Despite all these humiliations, she is never cartoon-y and gets enormous somber dignity into her walking tours, combats with other girls, and a terrific moment when she climbs into bed, wet from a rainstorm, and then goes into some slovenly chores for the baby.

Some of the most important things movies can do are in this film. The barmaid for instance. A queer and singular girl, as muscular as she is narrow, her character, which has tons of integrity and stubbornness, is just barely caught: through a crowd of locals, from an off-angle, pinning up the top flap of her apron, drying the glasses. The role is backed into through gesture and spirit, rather than through direct portrayal. Then there is the great device of placing Mouchette’s house on a truck route, and milking that device for the most awesome, mysterious wonders. Also, for a film that is unrelievedly raw, homely, and depressed, it seems a wild perversity to bloom four minutes with Michette, a likably acted boy, and some dodgem cars at a fair into sudden elation. After so many misused amusement parks in films, it is remarkable to come across one that works.

In the category called Bloody Bores, the Festival offered Capricious Summer, Hugo and Josefin and Twenty Four Hours in a Woman’s Life. Orson Welles’s little orchid, The Immortal Story, missed by being only thirty minutes long and having but four audible lines (“Take back your five guinea piece, old master.” The next line—“In one way or another, Miss Virginey, this thing will be the death of him.”—is repeated at least four times. What makes Eilshemus Levinsky so sure?)

Capricious Summer features three middle-aged crocks hanging around a 1920s bathhouse doing their thing. An ex-athlete gone to girth swaggers,brags, and plays dull largesse. An army officer is an irritating, strutting performer doing worldly cynicism. The third, a minister, works on timid innocuousness. A slender, owlish magician (acted in fey, fond-of-itself mime style by director Jiri Menzel) comes to town with a threadbare tightrope act, and, after his blonde assistant diddles the three dullards, this rerun of dozed-off acting, Renoir color and Bergman soupy philosophy winds up with the notion that a circus invariably leaves whistle-stop town sadder and wiser than it was in the first reel.

The most interesting work always occurred outside the self-conscious languor acting that grips French and Italian films. Jacqueline Sassard and her Lesbian owner in Les Biches sit on this veneer act so hard that it becomes possible to decide how much cosmetic art has been planted on an eyelid, or the number of small elegances that transpire in getting one bite out of a chicken leg. There is a strain of this nauseous elegant withdrawal in the two dozen conceited stiffs who make up the young Parisian middle class in Two or Three Things, led by Marina Vlady; a project-dwelling housewife who daylights as a prostitute when she isn’t haughtily walking through a dress shop, sniffing the air, discussing her inner life with the audience. It’s amazing how Raoul Coutard’s camera can transform this puerile conceit into a zingingly crisp image.

Manny Farber