Paris in July wrap-up (with three film reviews)

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View from Notre Dame Cathedral, on my visit to Paris in 2003

Well, the end of July is here, and thus the end of the Paris in July blogging event, hosted by Karen of Bookbath and Tamara of Thyme for Tea (thanks both of you!). It’s been fun participating in an event with other bloggers and reading their Paris in July posts. I’d do it again next year. As for my own Paris in July participation, I’ll admit it wasn’t as robust as I’d initially hoped. Besides rewatching Paris Je T’aime, I also watched the 1953 Max Ophuls film The Earrings of Madame de . . . [Trying to end a sentence where the film title ends in ellipsis is awkward]. The acting by Charles Boyer and Danielle Darrieux as the husband and wife at the center of the story was great, and the cinematography was artful: what you didn’t see in a shot was as significant as what was in the shot.

Since I didn’t end up watching or rewatching quite as many films as I’d planned, I thought I’d ‘cheat’ a bit and include shortened versions of three reviews that I wrote years ago about some recommended French films.

L’Atalante
(1934, Michel Simon, Dita Parlo, Dir. Jean Vigo)

L’Atalante is a great example of how it’s not the story, but how you tell it, that’s the most important aspect of a film. The director, Jean Vigo, was assigned what seems like a ho-hum plot – two newlyweds, Juliette and Jean, start out their married life on a barge – and makes visual poetry out of it.

With its sparse dialogue and its strong reliance on music and evocative images, L’Atalante often feels like a silent film. Vigo manages to make the barge seem by turns cozy and claustrophobic, changing with Juliette’s mood as she tries to adjust to life on her husband’s barge.

Dita Parlo does a fantastic performance as Juliette. She’s sometimes like a little girl in her curiosity and delight in small things, but also displays a slightly unconscious sensuality.

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Interestingly, I feel like the film refrains from lingering too much on the husband’s face through the first part of the story. He didn’t seem like an individual, just a character, until after the couple are separated. Suddenly his grief and regret from one jealous, rash decision brings him into focus.

It’s sad to know that I was probably not watching the version Jean Vigo intended. The film was apparently butchered when it was distributed for release and this sad fact is made sadder knowing that Jean Vigo died of tuberculosis at age 29 soon after the film came out. Still, I’m glad that some of the original vision was restored and that decades later, I’m able to enjoy L’Atalante’s terrific mix of warmth and melancholy.

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Cleo from 5 to 7
(1962, Corinne Marchand, Antoine Bourseiller, Dir. Agnes Varda)

Cleo (Corinne Marchand) is a self-centered rather vain singer, referred to by her maid as a ‘drama queen.’ As such, she normally would not attract my empathy as a character. However, as the film progresses, I warmed up to her – whether because fear revealed the vulnerable person underneath or that she just has some likeable qualities as well – a sense of humor, a genuine charm.

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Throughout the film, I sensed that Cleo was searching for some understanding about the fear she is experiencing. However, she doesn’t seem to find it among the people who know her. It isn’t that they don’t care, but one suspects they cannot tell the difference between Cleo’s dramas: which of them are rooted in real fear and which are just manufactured crises. Also, I believe that people have a limited sense of empathy. It’s the first day of summer, and most people in the film are feeling expansive and content with the beautiful day, unable to understand Cleo’s feelings without much effort.

Near the end of the film, Cleo does find someone who has the capacity to understand because he too faces an unknown future – a soldier about to fight in Algeria. This film’s ending is poignant and rather perfect.

Queen Margot / La Reine Margot
(1994, Isabelle Adjani, Daniel Auteuil, Dir. Patrice Chereau)

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Queen Margot is a riveting and bloody historical epic set in 1572 Paris, when Protestant and Catholic enmity divided France. The film starts with the politically arranged marriage of the Catholic Margot (played by Adjani), sister of King Charles, to Henri de Bourbon (Auteuil), a Protestant King from Navarre. Margot has no intention of sharing her bed with Henri, but she does agree to preserve Henri’s life as much as it is her power. For Henri senses, rightly, that the ‘peace’ forged by their marriage is a false one. Indeed, soon after their marriage, thousands of Protestants who have come for the wedding are massacred. This sets off a series of alliances and betrayals within the court, not to mention affairs and murders.

Miramax’s marketing of the film emphasized the romantic relationship between Margot and the Protestant La Mole (Vincent Perez), who she saves during the massacre. I can tell you right now that this is the least interesting part of the film and fortunately does not eat up too much of the film’s two and a half hour screentime.

The real appeal of Queen Margot is the perilous way to survival of Henri, aided as promised by Margot. Forced to convert to Catholicism to save his life after the massacre, he is nevertheless threatened at every turn. In a cast full of strong performers, Daniel Auteuil still has a stand-out performance as Henri.

Adjani’s beautiful face reflects the desperation of Margot, the subject of twisted familial relationships and political machinations, and who is challenged continually to keep safe those she loves and those she has sworn to protect.

The film is gritty and unflinching in its portrayal of 16th century violence. The costumes are striking and often blood-soaked.

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