Sunday, November 2, 2014




Created just a few years ago, the cinephile's heaven that is the Lumière Grand Lyon Film Festival is poised, in my opinion, to become the biggest classic cinema event in the years to come.  The adoration of the classics by the French is manifest in the overwhelming local support.  Almost every screening is sold-out with lengthy rush lines.  In terms of radius, the festival spreads over the entire length and breadth of the city and its immense suburbs with no less than 40 screening venues.  Armed with a good knowledge of how to traverse the city with subway tickets, it is easy to reap the benefits of the remarkably rich programming.  Each screening began with the Lumière 2014 intro set to the lilting tune of a Spanish guitar, honouring this year's Prix Lumière honoree, Pedro Almodóvar.  The intro ends with a quote from Almodóvar, so befitting a classic film festival, attended by hordes of film enthusiasts:  "Our lives would be nothing without the cinema."

Organized and directed by Thierry Frémaux, who is also the director of the Cannes Film Festival, Lumière is to the classics as what Cannes is to contemporary world cinema.  This very young festival, just based on the logistics, is a well-oiled machine and expertly organized.  With courteous staff and volunteers, interesting special guests, historians and critics introducing films, and Bertrand Tavernier everywhere, it would be impossible not to have a great festival.  However, becoming the biggest festival of this kind requires a very important ingredient for international guests, and that is English subtitles.  All films not in French are subtitled only in French.  However, there are many films in English, so one can have a good time with just these films.  I managed quite well with the French films considering I don't practise the language often.  Reading French subtitles was much easier than I expected.  However, if the festival would like to be more attractive to an international audience, it may be a wise thing to look into.  But judging from the presence of the French press, French media centre, the very busy Marché du film, the long line-ups and jam-packed houses, I doubt whether the lack of English subtitles is a major concern for this very successful and much beloved festival right now.  The invaluable and gorgeous catalogue, though only in French, is the best film festival catalogue I have ever had.  It is overflowing with pertinent information on each film and director and is nearly free of advertisements, which are in the last few pages.  It contains beautiful, glossy photographs of the original movie posters and stills. 

And then, there is the city of Lyon.  I have become enamoured with this lovely city.  A rich, warm, vibrant metropolis, throbbing with vitality and multiculturalism.  The kind and courteous people of Lyon were an added bonus.  Day after day, I met the friendliest of people and not just at the festival. They are very encouraging when one tries to speak French, even haltingly.  Then, there is the food.  There is something to eat at every corner with great coffee, mouth-watering desserts and pastries, particularly the apricot tarts.  As for the local bakeries, they are filled with the freshest breads of every sort.  Conveniently located, just outside the Institute Lumière, on Place Ambroise Courtois on a few days each week, is a grand old French farmers' market.  It is plenished with fresh fruits, baked goods, cheese, and brightly coloured vegetables.  Feeling nostalgic, I bought some Canadian apples which were imported! 

It would be remiss of me not to comment on the very well-behaved Lyonnaise audiences.  Phones are off and talking/whispering is kept to a minimum and in most cases non-existent.  There are hardly any late-comers and the majority stay until the end of the credits.  The cinemas are large, beautiful and comfortable and so are the screens.  A delight it was to listen to Thierry Frémaux introduce the films.  He is knowledgeable, affable and able to discuss films without any notes.  His passion for classic cinema is obvious and he is also quite funny.  Remarking that he is happy to see so many high school kids at the screening of Thérèse Raquin, he teasingly warns, "It's in black and white, you know..."  Speaking of the school tours, I sat with dozens of school children for many of the screenings and they were very well-behaved.  This is also a great initiative of the festival to provide the opportunity to young children to see classic films on the large screen with a packed audience, the way they were meant to be seen.  One could hear a pin drop during the screening of Powell & Pressburger's digitally restored The Tales of Hoffman, preceded by a most informative and interesting discussion with Thelma Schoonmaker, which was a highlight of the festival for me.

Another major highlight was an in depth conversation with Thierry Frémaux and Isabella Rossellini, who introduced Cineteca Bologna's beautiful digital restoration of Roberto Rossellini's La Paura (Fear).  Isabella spoke intimately and passionately about her renowned parents, her career and her gratitude to Bologna as they continue to restore her father's films as part of their Project Rossellini.  She reminisced about fond memories of her work and experience in Blue Velvet, which was also playing at the festival.
With three major director's retrospectives (Frank Capra, Pedro Almodóvar, Claude Sautet), the rest of the programme provided a dazzling array of a cinematic buffet:  Focus on Spanish Cinema, Ida Lupino, Italian Westerns, Silent Cinema, Master Classes, Cult Cinema and much more.  These are my favourites of the festival, in order of preference:

35mm | Marcel Carné | France | 1953 | 107 min | Programme: Almodóvar Carte Blanche
With just Les enfants du paradis, the great Marcel Carné was guaranteed to be remembered as a brilliant director.  But along with Le jour se lève, Port of Shadows, Hôtel du Nord and Thérèse Raquin, his reputation as one of the greatest of all French directors has forever been cemented.  Marcel Carné's adaptation of Emile Zola's tale of adultery, set and filmed in Lyon, much to the audience's delight, has Simone Signoret playing an unhappy wife (believe me, she has reasons to be unhappy) who falls in love with an Italian truck driver (Raf Vallone).  Daily life is dull and at times demeaning, especially with her calculating mother-in-law, played to perfection by single-named actress, Sylvie, whose accusing eyes dominate, pierce and judge.  The mother-in-law seems to be in love with her own spineless and sickly son.  As marriage wasn’t what she envisioned it to be, she attempts to elope with the rugged truck driver, who is clearly smitten by her.  A trip to Paris by train, a tragedy and a most pernicious eye-witness played to delicious perfection by a creepy Roland Lesaffre, all culminate to make Thérèse Raquin a great film.  Lesaffre steals every scene he is in.  Released in America under the scandalous but dismissive title “The Adulteress”, the film’s story may sound familiar but under the skillful direction of Marcel Carné, the film pulsates with tension, fear and energy.  It is perhaps important to note that Emile Zola wrote Thérèse Raquin 67 years before James Cain wrote The Postman Always Rings Twice.

35mm | Musidora & Jaime de Lasuen | France | 1922 | 43 min | Programme: Henri Langlois - A Memory for the Future
A gorgeous 35mm print from the Cinémathèque Française of Musidora's 1922 classic was an unexpected thrill.  One of the only two surviving silent films directed by Musidora, Soleil et Ombre is set in the world of bullfighting and shot in Spain.  A woman is the lover of the star bullfighter.  In just one week, he completely drops her for another woman.  Both women are played by Musidora.  A simple love triangle is punctuated with an assured sense of style and expertly edited sequences, the most thrilling of which is a bullfight.  The emotional impact of this bullfight is much more related to the betrayed woman than the bull.  As the actual taunting and goring of the poor animal progresses, the camera cuts constantly to Musidora and each blow is inflicted on her during this very long but powerful sequence.  It ends but only when the final blow is struck on the animal.  And Cupid has lost his aim...

35mm | Jos
é Luis Borau | Spain | 1975 | 83 min | Programme: Almodóvar Carte Blanche
A grim tale of a young poacher who lives in the forest with his over-protective and staunch Catholic mother.  On a trip to the city, he meets a young girl who has escaped from a juvenile detention facility.  She takes one look at him and realises he will do.  She follows him, seduces him, gets him to buy her a dress so she can discard her uniform and they head back to the forest.  Without an explanation, he tells Mother the girl will now live with them.  Metaphoric and symbolic of the horrific times under Franco, the film depicts scenes of torture and cruelty to animals (representing humans) as they are hunted by a group of ignorant city officials and the hypocritical Governor, who is the poacher's stepbrother.  As the tension intensifies between the mother and the girl, the poacher has to make sure she is hidden from the officials and her former pimp/boyfriend, who has been scouring the forest for her.  Franco was still alive when this film was made, so how this got past the Spanish censors is a mystery.  He died two months after the film's release.  Allegorical without being overtly political, Poachers is one of the finest films of the festival.

35mm | Fernando Fernán Gómez | Spain | 1964 | 92 min | Programme: Almodóvar Carte Blanche
A deliciously uproarious black comedy set in a small Spanish town.  A tyrannical spinster takes care of her simple brother and sister, both adults but infantile.  These two become aware of a plot concerning their older sister selling their property, getting rid of them, before taking off to Paris with her unknown lover and accomplice.  There is also a local shopkeeper who wouldn't rest until she has found out who has stolen the corset from her shop.  There is also the local band whose lead singer is courting the shopkeeper's assistant.  A wide array of colourful locals, idiosyncratic and hilarious, plus a dead body dumped in a wine vat (instead of ham), apparitions, and a serious bout of transvestism, Strange Voyage is not only strange, but highly original.  It is also the first Spanish film to show a man fully dressed as a woman, and not just for comical reasons.  He is on full display for the pleasure of a voyeur, showcasing evening gowns, casual wear and the frilliest of nightgowns.

DP | Jerry Schatzberg | USA | 1970 | 105 min | Programme: Homage to Faye Dunaway
Faye Dunaway gives a powerful and perhaps her best performance as a model who tries to balance professional and personal relationships while dealing with persuasive inner demons.  It is an audacious undertaking, blunt in its execution and filled with complex ideas on societal relations.  There are scenes of such vulnerability and pain as she is rejected over and over, not as a model, but as a person.  Narratively fragmented and seemingly plotless, the pivotal moments of her life are accounted for with precise quietude, but the effects are lasting.  A film that deserves to be rediscovered as quickly as it was dismissed by American critics and forgotten.  It was, of course, embraced and championed by French critics, who most likely understood what Schatzberg was trying to say, not just about the world a model inhabits, but the fragility of a mentally unstable human being.  It has one of the best titles ever, which is quite apt.  The film itself is a puzzle in the way it unfolds as we never get a complete grasp on her character; she is still a child in many ways and her downfall started long before she even became a woman, when she was but a young girl.  I struggle to comprehend why this film was dismissed.  Puzzle of a Downfall Child is a gem from 1970s American cinema.

35mm | Albert Lewin | USA | 1945 | 110 min | Programme: Film Historian Patrick Brion Carte Blanche
Oscar Wilde's novel of the permanently youthful Dorian Gray is brought to life with intelligence and panache.  The young Dorian Gray whilst posing for his portrait, makes a wish and asks for the reverse of order - that the painting should age instead of him.  Basically, he has bargained his soul to be granted this wish.  As he is always reminded how innocent and good he looks, an inner Mr. Hyde surges from within and Dorian Gray commits many an evil act, causing suffering and losing all his friends.  He remains unmoved and cold about the plight of others.  But in spite of this and as he continues to age, he remains forever youthful and beautiful.  However, his deeds are accumulated and are on display elsewhere.  The painting serves as a reminder of his bargain, but it not only ages as a man would in terms of the passage of years.  It shows the ugliness of Dorian’s now corrupt soul.  Each cruel act he has committed is depicted in the most horrific distortion of his face and body in the portrait.  The film has some of Oscar Wilde’s best and wittiest quotes, sarcastically delivered by a cynically superior George Sanders, who gives the film’s best performance and steals every scene he is in.  He seemed to be thoroughly enjoying his role, which is not that different from the other witty cynic he plays five years later, Addison DeWitt, in All About Eve.

DP | Claude Sautet | France | 1960 | 109 min | Programme: The Films of Claude Sautet
The debut film by Sautet all but fizzled upon its release and was forgotten by all and sundry until its auspicious re-release in 1971, when it was championed by the directors of the French New Wave.  Originally released just two weeks after Jean-Luc Godard's blockbuster, Breathless, which also stars Jean-Paul Belmondo, Classe Tous Risques is a gritty crime drama that did not stand a chance of being paid any attention to.  It is less stylistic than Breathless, but has a superb script and fully-developed characters.  The film begins in Milan where the always dependable character actor, Lino Ventura, plays a tough but wise criminal in exile from France.  He is trying to get back to his country by sneaking past the authorities.  He commits one last robbery in broad daylight in Milan before heading to the border along with his accomplice.  His wife and children are already en route to France.  He is relying on his criminal friends in Paris to come get him so he can have a safe journey back.  Instead, they send a young stranger, played by Belmondo.  A bond develops between the two men.  Upon arrival in Paris, Ventura’s old friends no longer want to help him even though they owe him their lives.  The film turns into an introspective look at how gangsters exist, think and feel.   It is regrettable that I was not able to see any more of Claude Sautet’s films at the festival, especially the much celebrated Un coeur en hiver, César et Rosalie, Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud, Les choses de la vie - all of which I have always wanted to see.

DP | Frank Capra | USA | 1936 | 116 min | Programme: The Films of Frank Capra
Frank Capra's delightful film is the first one of the festival that brought a tear to my eye.  Written and directed with skill and confidence, it has the ability to make the heart soar and bleed for the earnest Mr. Deeds.  Gary Cooper is perfectly cast as a small town man who is given the news that he has inherited $20 million.  He moves to New York City to handle the affairs of his inheritance and soon becomes the target of scandal mongers and the gossip columns as he is mocked because of his naïveté and simplicity.  Enthusiastically introduced by actor Vincent Perez, who is an intense Capra fan, he was shocked to see that there were still a few in the audience who have never seen It's a Wonderful Life, after he asked the question.  I was among the few raised hands and realise that I need to rectify this very soon.

35mm | Albert Valentin | France | 1939 | 97 min | Programme: Focus on French Cinema
Michèle Morgan glows and glides across the screen in Albert Valentin's tale of a nightclub hostess who works at the Dame de Coeur.  After a few consecutive stressful episodes, she decides to go for a vacation on the Côte d'Azur.  There, she meets a vacationing family with three young and energetic men who all pursue her.  Michèle Morgan does not play her character as a victim or ashamed of her life.  She is gracious and offers no information about her private life.  She runs into clients on holiday at the hotel, but these scenes are cliché-free without the typical melodrama of fear of exposure.  As things progress with one of the young men, she has to decide whether to take the route back to Paris as it beckons her and if the nightclub is in her future. 

35mm | Frank Capra | USA | 1932 | 77 min | Programme: The Films of Frank Capra
Set in the world of finance, mergers and avaricious bankers just 3 years after the Wall Street crash, this gem from Frank Capra is of such relevance today, for obvious reasons.  Walter Huston plays the President of a large and successful bank.  He thrives on honest business practice and his kindness to his loyal clients causes much grief to the very conservative board of directors.  After a robbery, a rumour spreads that the bank is now bankrupt and is closing.  Still in the throes of the Depression, an understandably terrified public rush to withdraw all of their money.  Hence, a sort of American madness ensues.  With naturalistic acting, sparse music and a compelling lead performance by Huston, American Madness is timely and important 82 years later.  Not to mention, it is a fine film.

DP | Ted Kotcheff | Australia | 1971 | 108 min | Programme: Homage to Ted Kotcheff
When introducing the film, Ted Kotcheff said that at an Australian screening where the film was first released and then quickly closed, a man shouted from the audience, "This is not us!"  A response echoed, "Shut up!  This IS us!"  A tight screenplay interweaves frighteningly real and shocking moments of manly behaviour gone awry.  It is a mystery how and why this film took decades to be rediscovered or even remembered, because I think it’s unforgettable.  It is thanks primarily to the personal finance and hard work by the film’s editor, who spent years tracking down a copy of the print.  He found one in a warehouse in Pittsburgh in a box that was marked for destruction the following day.  The film depicts how easy it is for the evolved and civilized man to retrogress as he is tempted and influenced by primal instincts.  A film of discomfort and the complicated notions of manhood, it is a classic of Australian cinema.  Well, at least it should be.

DP | Robert Enrico | France | 1975 | 102 min | Programme: Restorations
What starts as an idyllic family film set during the final days of the Nazi occupation of France, quickly turns into a bitter saga of vengeance and death.  Philip Noiret is terrific as a doctor whose wife and daughter are savagely murdered by the Nazis as the family spends a few days in their old country chateau.  The Nazis have now taken over the chateau.  Noiret's transformation from the good doctor and adoring husband to a vengeful and determined killer is quite striking.  What makes it even more special is the tense and tight proximity director Robert Enrico takes us through the second half of the film.  The old chateau is the doctor's childhood home so he is familiar with every nook and cranny, each hidden room and passageway.  A physical endurance indeed as Noiret leads, chases and taunts the Nazis throughout the chateau, as he coldly exacts his vengeance.  Beautifully restored, Le vieux fusil won the César for Best Film and Best Actor at the 1976 César Awards.

Other great screenings:  

Overlord (Stuart Cooper, 1975)
Opening Night (John Cassavetes, 1977)
They Drive by Night (Raoul Walsh, 1940)
My Love Will Never Die (Mario Caserini, 1913)
The Hitch-Hiker (Ida Lupino, 1953)
The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (Luis Bunuel, 1955)
The Exile (Michael Curtiz, 1914)
Au grand balcon (Henri Decoin, 1949)
Embrujo (Carlos Serrano de Osma, 1948)

October 2014

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