M. Butterfly (1993) Written by David Henry Hwang Directed by David Cronenberg
In 1986, France was caught up in a scandal involving one of their diplomats in China. Bernard Boursicot has been engaged in an affair with Peking opera singer Shi Pei Pu. Shi was a male singer who performed primarily in female roles, and Boursicot insisted that he believed Shi was a woman the whole time. This seems incredulous as both men admitted to having sex together numerous times. Furthermore, Boursicot claimed that Shi could retract his testicles and shape his genitals to resemble female anatomy. However, the French diplomat engaged in same-sex intercourse while in boarding school as a teenager. Only after graduation did Boursicot choose to be with women, as he claimed he thought homosexuality was a rite of passage among the youths at his school.
Europe is producing some fantastic films these days and today we spotlight two of them. In one film, a young boy finds his friendship with another boy questioned by their peers leading to a fatal outcome. In the other, a writer attends the court trial of a woman accused of infanticide and in turn discovers truths about her own relationship with her mother.
We’re going back to 1995 for April to watch & re-watch some fantastic films. Our first picture is a darkly comic examination of life in the East Coast suburbs. Our second film is a French crime-drama that moves at a breakneck speed and is a perfect piece of cinema.
The Five Devils (2023) Written & Directed by Léa Mysius
The Five Devils opens and concludes with a character looking directly into the camera at the audience. That makes sense because much of the film’s narrative centers on voyeurism. So it is appropriate that we are reminded through bookends that the characters within the film could look back at the audience. That first glimpse is followed by a little girl sitting up in bed, and this cut implies the girl was dreaming this moment, that the gaze was directed at her. As the film progresses, this same little girl becomes the one spying on the adults, trying to piece together the cryptic things they say in her presence to create a more significant meaning. She wants to understand who these grown-ups are and how she came into being. What she discovers is how fragile her existence is in the face of different choices that her parents could have made. And while this movie markets itself and even feels like a horror film through the start, it ends up not being that at all, which left me feeling unsatisfied.
Three Colors: Red (1994) Written by Krzysztof Kieślowski & Krzysztof Piesiewicz Directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski
In the excellent documentary short Krzysztof Kieślowski: I’m So-So… (available to view on The Criterion Channel), we get a small glimpse into the mind of this complex filmmaker. Kieślowski defines himself in this way: “I am a pessimist. I always imagine the worst. To me, the future is a black hole.” He further clarifies that he sees this as a good trait. I cannot disagree with him, as many of his thoughts in this short film felt like someone putting into perfect words a lot of what I have felt and have felt more intensely since 2020. (A side note, this comment on his visit to the United States made me feel like I have found yet another kindred soul in cinema: “the pursuit of empty talk combined with a very high degree of self-satisfaction.”) How does this kind of director make a movie centered on the theme of fraternity/brotherhood? He does it by focusing on how people communicate in the late 20th century.
Three Colors: White (1994) Written by Krzysztof Kieślowski & Krzysztof Piesiewicz Directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski
There are multiple ways to look at the structure & its relation to the themes of the Three Colors trilogy. One of those is, of course, the three ideals of the French Revolution: liberté, égalité, fraternité. However, Krzysztof Kieślowski is intent on subverting our expectations about these concepts. Another is through the lens of a Europe that was in the process of being partially unified. Blue is about Western Europe, White is about Eastern Europe, and Red is set in the “neutral” nation of Switzerland. There are also mood associations with color. Blue tells the story of a woman who has lost her family (she feels “blue”). Red is about passion & love, which that color regularly symbolizes.
Three Colors: Blue (1993) Written by Krzysztof Kieślowski & Krzysztof Piesiewicz Directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski
My first thought when I decided to watch Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors trilogy was why this Polish filmmaker chose to make a series centered around the three political ideals of France: liberty, equality, fraternity. His explanation reveals a lot about how the director approaches his work. Kieślowski said he chose these themes because the funding he received to make the pictures were in francs which bear these three ideals as France’s motto. Kieślowski had no interest in making nationalistic propaganda for France, and instead, these ideas are often presented with a sense of irony in the trilogy, exploring them in ways that feel antithetical but ultimately uphold their meaning. Even stranger is that only one of these movies takes place in France; White is set mainly in Poland, while Red is about people living in Switzerland. While The Three Colors trilogy isn’t attempting to be overtly political, it is set against the backdrop of the most significant change to Europe since World War II, the formal treaties signed to create the European Union, a political body that has reshaped life in the continent.
Eyes Without a Face (1960) Written by Georges Franju, Jean Redon, Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac, Claude Sautet, and Pierre Gascar Directed by Georges Franju
The 1960s were the prelude to the horror boom of the 1970s. This means you’ll find some archetypes and tropes refined here, elements that will be at their zenith in the following decade. Foreign film markets were gaining strength during the Sixties, with places like France & Italy at the forefront. There weren’t many French horror films then, so Eyes Without a Face was quite different. Producer Jules Borkon thought it was an untapped market in France and purchased the rights to a horror novel he’d recently read. Director Georges Franju had only made documentaries, so this was his first fictional narrative feature. Smartly, he hired writers who had worked on Les Diaboliques and Hitchcock’s Vertigo to help work out the script. The result is something that feels like a horrific modern fairy tale. A princess locked in a tower in the woods who has been turned into a monster by another.
The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) Written & Directed by Jacques Demy
Undeniably, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a perfect masterpiece of filmmaking. But…I sort of loved The Young Girls of Rochefort more. Rochefort is a comedy in the classical sense, as opposed to the definition of a tragedy. Cherbourg is a serious story with a down ending, while Rochefort is very upbeat and does allow its characters to have a happy ending. Now one of those endings is more ambiguous than most films would deliver, but that makes it feel like a Demy movie. We don’t see our characters living happily ever after; we see them happy right now. Sometimes that’s the most you can ask for. Stories have to end, meaning we’ll never know if these characters stay happy. If it’s anything like real life, there will be a series of ups and downs, and you eventually learn how to appreciate the good moments.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) Written & Directed by Jacques Demy
Masterpieces don’t happen all the time. Sometimes they happen, and people don’t realize they are looking at one. Other times, they know right away when they see it. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a true masterpiece of filmmaking. The script alone is a perfect plot, no fat; everything moves the characters forward, whether getting closer to their goals or having it complicated. There’s not a single second of wasted time on the screen, which says a lot for a film that is also spilling over with style. Oh yes, and every word in the movie is sung, starting with an exchange between a mechanic and a customer talking about the status of a car. Damien Chazelle boldly claimed this is “the best film ever made.” But is it?