Summer Movie Blogathon: La Piscine (1969)

June 24, 2017

For the Summer Movie Blogathon, I decided to pay tribute to my favorite summer flick, La Piscine (1969) starring Alain Delon, Romy Schneider, Maurice Ronet, and Jane Birkin.

Lots of movies take place in the warmest season of the year, but few of them manage to capture the sizzle, the heart-palpitating heat, the gentle buzz of insects, the rapture of flesh slowly baking in the sun. When you watch La Piscine, you can feel that late 60's French summer radiating through the screen; it roasts your skin and leaves you aching to dive into the pool with Romy and Alain. I suffer a form of cinematic heat stroke each time I watch it. It paralyzes me completely.

Romy and Alain play a seemingly content couple, Jean-Paul and Marianne, vacationing at their friends' villa for the summer. Spending their days swimming in the pool, laying next to the pool, kissing beside the pool, and kissing in the pool (see above) they're the picture of luxurious sun-kissed bliss. As Millie said when I forced her to watch it, "Romy just changed from her swimsuit into ANOTHER swimsuit. I love this movie."

But all of that changes when Jean-Paul's old friend Harry (who is possibly Marianne's ex-lover... hmm...) played by Maurice Ronet, turns up unexpectedly with his barely-legal daughter Pénélope, a young Jane Birkin in one of her first roles. And that's when the summer sizzle turns into a full-blown fire. Raging jealousies and coy flirtations give way to an unexpected plot twist that turns this slow steamy flick into a fiery suspenseful thriller!

I've seen a lot of complaints that this movie is too slowly paced, or too (God I don't even want to type this word) boring, but it is so incredibly full of innuendo, side-eyes, subtle glances, scorching resentments, and dangerous mind games. Harry constantly makes little digs at Jean-Paul, while Marianne decides to fuel the gossip mill and play the coquette with her rumored ex-lover. Meanwhile Pénélope meanders aimlessly around the villa, alternately lounging in the sun to escape an oppressive case of teenage boredom, and indulging the advances of a romantically frustrated Jean-Paul.

La Piscine has the honorable distinction of being the second most-watched movie I've logged since I started keeping track of my movie-watching habits on Letterboxd in 2015. I've seen it seven times in the last 1.5 years (at one point last year I was watching it once a month!) and I still feel like each time I watch it I pick up on another passive-aggressive remark or a sly exchange. I've seen it so often now that sometimes I watch it without the subtitles and just pay attention to their expressions, how the actors react to each other and how the camera often slides slowly from one person to the other as if to say "et, tu?" after a particularly blistering burn.

Sometimes I revisit La Piscine for the summerness itself -- when our heater broke in mid-February 2016, it was a welcome respite from the frosty air. I swear I felt palpably warmer, as if the rays of the sun had reached into my arctic abode and physically enveloped my body in La Piscine's warmth.

But usually I return more for the torrid romance, the sweltering glances, the pressure-cooker of envy and blazing emotions, the fevered innuendo. While the scorching summer sun is essentially a co-star in the film, it's the plot and the characters (and let's be honest, Alain Delon shirtless. I had to say it.) that make this movie so burning hot.

La Piscine used to be streaming on Amazon but it doesn't appear to be available anymore. The only Region-1 DVD that I managed to find with English subs came as part of an Alain Delon boxset, available here. If you're a Delon fan I highly recommend it. I especially love The Widow Couderc, which teams him with Simone Signoret. The film is also currently on youtube, albeit without subtitles.

UPDATE: Criterion has announced a 4k restoration of La Piscine, coming to DVD and Blu in July 2021. It comes with brand new English subtitle translations, an alternate ending, a documentary, and more. When I tell you that I have never ordered anything quicker in my life, I am not exaggerating.

And if you want to experience La Piscine in person (unfortunately minus Alain and Romy) the villa where the movie was filmed is now a hotel/restaurant, so you can actually swim in LA PISCINE! Between that and Frank Sinatra's Palm Springs estate, I have a lot of bucket-list saving to do!

Classic film book challenge: Desperately Seeking Marie Prevost

June 23, 2017

For my first book in Raquel's summer reading challenge, I read Desperately Seeking Marie Prevost by Richard Kirby.

I couldn't stand this book. And while I'd normally try to give the author the benefit of the doubt, and assume that they were well-meaning even if their final product fell short, I honestly can't do that for Mr. Kirby. He admits himself in the text that he couldn't even put in the effort to watch all but ONE of silent film star Marie Prevost's silent films.

Not an awful lot is known about Prevost, as the author readily acknowledges multiple times. You would think that when approaching a subject about whom most public records are a confection of studio system publicity departments, the least you could do (actually, literally, THE VERY LEAST) would be to watch the star's films. But 57 pages into this 93 page volume -- and 13 years into Prevost's career -- Kirby admits, "Movie number three from 1928 gives me the perfect opportunity for a review of a Marie Prevost film I've actually seen." *record scratch*


Let's rewind a bit to page 48, where Kirby mentions that IMDB lists Prevost in the credits of the 1926 Jean Renoir film Nana. He debates this credit because "This movie was filmed in France, but so regular were press mentions of Marie's comings and goings in America, that it seems unfeasible that she would have had the time travel [sic] to Europe for a starring role, let alone the minor part of Gaga." This gave me pause. Couldn't one easily just watch the movie to see if Prevost was in it? So I googled. Not only is the movie available on youtube and the internet archive, but apparently MoMA has a 35mm print. It took me one minute to find this. Surely even if the digital streaming copies weren't around in 2014 when the book was published, a serious researcher could have approached MoMA to see if they could view, or at the very least obtain information about the film. But it seems from this book that Kirby chose instead to base his assumption on her travel schedule.

Stacia from She Blogged By Night had an ongoing Marie Prevost series from 2010-2012, and her coverage of Nana indicates that Prevost was, indeed, not in the movie. But her references to the travel schedule are supplemental to *actually watching the film.* I don't want to get gossipy but I'm pretty sure that this post here is referencing the author/book that I'm reviewing today. I haven't read any other Prevost biographies but if ever there was one where the author just borrowed all of his research from online blogs (Kirby even references SBBN on the first page of the typo-ridden book) I'd say it's probably the same guy who couldn't even put in the effort to watch some of the silent movies that his silent film subject had starred in. Sheesh!

Anyway, when I got to the Nana anecdote I started to get suspicious that this guy hadn't actually watched any of Marie's films. He'd often mention a movie and base his own conclusions on the reviews or the plot descriptions (probably from IMDB) without providing any information that would show he had seen the movies. And if you doubt at all the level of his laziness, take this quote from the book, preceding an excerpt from a magazine article, "I'm going to reproduce the two paragraphs using the pretense of interest and appeal to distract from what is little more than laziness on my part."

When page 57 finally rolled around, and we got to that Marie Prevost movie he had "actually seen" he dedicated a whole chapter to describing each plot point in detail. It was like The Movie Spoiler edition of The Racket. Kirby must have been proud of himself, since he admits it was "the first full-length silent film that I have ever watched." A big accomplishment for the author of a book about -- (say it with me now) A SILENT FILM STAR. At the end of the chapter-long review he adds "I have to admit that I really enjoyed this movie. I wasn't sure what to expect as a silent film virgin" (FACEPALM) "but I actually found the plot easy to follow; characters and storylines perhaps need a little more substance given the lack of dialogue" (omg) "but the pivotal figures in the movie were definitely well realized. I apologize in advance if, at any point, I try to sound even vaguely like a film critic -- my knowledge is far too limited" (no kidding) "but hopefully a subjective opinion is of some passing interest." Yes, because a subjective opinion about whether or not silent movies suffer from a lack of dialogue was EXACTLY what I was looking for when I bought a book about a silent movie star. Exactly.

With the exception of some film magazine excerpts (which, I suspect, were probably lifted from blog posts online and not from the author's personal collection as he asserts a few times in the text) this book was very poorly researched, meandering, interjected way too often with personal asides, seemingly unedited, and, at times, downright odd. Take for instance the part where Kirby flips a coin to decide whether to tell us about Prevost's film The Godless Girl or Prevost's opinions about love (the "coin" chose love, if you're curious) or when Kirby detours from Ernst Lubitsch for a brief anecdote about Marie's hatred of monkeys. He concludes by saying "Probably best to return to the big screen now." Yes, probably best.

Towards the end of the book things take a skeevy turn when the author fawns over Jean Harlow. He even includes a screenshot from Three Wise Girls with both stars sharing the frame and captions it "Marie (as Dot) and la belle Ms. Harlow as Cassie." Why he didn't just write a book about the star he obviously prefers, I have no idea. And don't get me started on the time he referred to a 1928 movie as a pre-code.

I'd be remiss though if I didn't at least give Kirby credit for treating Prevost's last days with the respect that has been denied her in pretty much every other printed account of her life. He calls out Kenneth Anger for the gross gossipy story concocted in Hollywood Babylon (although he mistakenly refers to it as Hotel Babylon.) He gets points for that. But Marie Prevost deserves so much more than what Mr. Kirby could give her here.

Ideally, I hope that Stacia from She Blogged by Night will come out with the definitive biography someday. Her articles are way more informed than Mr. Kirby's book, and she is clearly much more passionate about her subject. She even watches Marie Prevost movies! But seriously, I would love to read a well-written, edited, informative, heavily researched, heartfelt biography and I hope that Marie gets one soon.

Update: Stacia has confirmed that Mr. Kirby is the author referenced in the She Blogged by Night article. I would not recommend buying this book under any circumstances. If you're interested in learning more about Marie Prevost, you can read Stacia's SBBN Marie Prevost Project archive here. I'm sad that I purchased this book without knowing the backstory, but hopefully my folly can save someone else the trouble of reading a poorly written biography by a shady author.

Still Discovering Dirk Bogarde: The Fixer (1968)

June 05, 2017

"Luck I was always short of. I'm the kind of man who finds it perilous just to be alive."

It's time for the 24th installment in my Discovering Dirk Bogarde series, where I share my first impressions after watching a new-to-me Dirk Bogarde film.

In The Fixer (1968) Alan Bates stars as an innocent, apolitical Jewish handyman who finds himself charged with committing a ritual murder in turn-of-the-century Russia. The film is loosely based on a true story, and much of the movie follows Bates' character as he tries to survive the brutal Russian penal system with his dignity intact. As much as I adore Dirk, The Fixer is definitely Alan Bates' movie. Bates was so amazing in this role that I immediately checked to make sure he had been nominated for an Oscar (he was, but lost to Cliff Robertson for Charly.)  His performance here is stunning in so many ways. He handles the lighter moments at the beginning of the film with a gentle finesse, but then once his character is arrested he plunges deep into the type of acting where it seems impossible that the performer could have walked away unscarred by the performance. It's a raw, painful, deep portrayal that possesses Bates completely.

Dirk Bogarde plays Bates' Christian lawyer, one of the only decent men that Bates meets after he's been arrested. It's a supporting role -- he doesn't even appear for at least the first 30-40 minutes, and then isn't in the last 30-40 either -- but, as usual, he shines whenever he's onscreen and his sympathetic, well-meaning character is definitely a highlight of the film. There are a few scenes where the Jew and the Christian connect  -- over asthma or a shared love of the philosopher Spinoza -- and those moments are almost more painful than all of the scenes of suffering. They acknowledge the truth that we are all human and we have the same interests and ailments. Here are two men who seem to understand the thread that ties us all together, and yet they are the only two men in the whole film to see it. It brings to mind Shakespeare's verse from The Merchant of Venice:

"Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?"

I always worry when I'm exhausting an actor's filmography that at a certain point I'll run out of the really good movies and I'll only be left with their lesser works. But with Dirk Bogarde that certainly hasn't been the case. With each new movie that I watch I find another masterpiece, proving once and again that he had impeccable taste in choosing his roles. In 1968 Dirk was still starring in movies -- Sebastian was released the same year, and he still had some six years to go before The Night Porter -- but here he chose to accept a minimal role in an exceptional film. And The Fixer was all the better for it.

This was a very serious review, but I wouldn't be me if I didn't at least mention the mustache. While his King and Country 'stache was definitely unfortunate, I'm not actually opposed to this one. I think it's actually rather becoming! So the answer to my perpetual question -- "Is that mustache really necessary?" -- is yes, I think this one is. Or at the very least, it's not unnecessary.