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A friend recommended Audiard’s Read My Lips (2001) to me almost a year ago. For a while, I struggled to get hold of a copy and, having seen A Prophet (2009), I watched The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005) and A Self-Made Hero (1996) instead. Now though, finally, I’ve seen the picture. It seems to mark the beginning of a move in Audiard’s canon towards an idiosyncratic shooting style, a development perhaps continued in his later films by the use of cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine for both The Beat That My Heart Skipped and A Prophet.
At the same time, visual echoes key the film into earlier cinematic traditions, as Hollywood is both invoked and reacted against. In its first few scenes, Read My Lips presents a lonely protagonist and establishes a situation familiar to a romantic comedy. The opening series of close ups, showing Carla (Emmanuelle Devos) fitting her hearing aids and washing her mouth with water, root us to the secretary’s sensory perception. Yet in the tedious everyday surroundings of her workplace, we see her socially separated and sensorily sealed-off – despite her aids, unable to interact. Tight framing, often claustrophobically filled with coworkers that ignore her, reinforces that she is alone.
There’s a gesture in this opening section which is reminiscent of an earlier work from Hollywood – Howard Hawk’s Bringing Up Baby (1938). As Carla returns to her desk after completing a task, she sits on some spilt coffee which has been (accidentally?) left on her seat. When called again into her boss’s office, panicked, as well as upset, she tries to cover the stain on her skirt. Devos moves her hand and herself in such a way that the gesture and the particulars of the framing bring to mind Katharine Hepburn’s ripped dress in Bringing Up Baby.
Read My Lips both invokes the earlier Golden Age comedy – chiefly through similarities of gesture – and distances itself from it. The different means used by Devos and Hepburn to resolve their parallel problems construct two distinct social contexts. While Hepburn must fill an absence (a large hole in a ripped dress) with Carey Grant, Devos seeks to hide an unexpected and unwanted addition (a coffee stain) simply with her own body. While Hepburn and Grant are left to stroll hilariously through the convivial setting of a bar and restaurant, Devos must walk unnaturally through her place of work, avoiding the harsh gazes of her coworkers.
So Bringing Up Baby‘s social situation is hinted at before quickly being recast in a minor key. As Grant’s parallel in Read My Lips is not an archaeologist but a criminal, the divergence between Audiard’s picture and a comic Hollywood hinterland only gets greater as the film progresses. In fact, by casting Vincent Cassel (who plays a skinhead hoodlum in Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (1995)) as Paul, Audiard gives Read My Lips an iconically French cinematic face. Furthermore, the entrance of Paul in the picture begins to usher in a shift in genre, as the criminal world of La Haine starts to pervade the (albeit already slightly more tragically presented) situation of domestic loneliness.
Carla stands as a bridge between the two worlds, as the film blends the generic expectations of a thriller with a relationship drama. So, having dressed herself for a night out in the club in which Paul works, Carla becomes enmeshed not in a lighthearted fling but trapped in the threat of rape. The situation (which Paul rescues her from) reinforces the violence of his criminal past and its inescapable contiguity with the present situation. Earlier, when Paul tries to jump Carla, attempting to repay a flat and an advance on his wages with sex, it’s clear that he also struggles to adapt from one mode to the next. For him, sex – like keys or cash – is something simply to use and to exchange.
Despite what is, in some senses, an excellently neat resolution of the criminal and emotional elements through Carla’s deafness, Audiard’s script (written with Tonino Benacquista) refuses to settle entirely. The picture’s haunted by a sub-plot involving Paul’s parole officer Masson (Olivier Perrier). Only given a few fleeting moments, this story is revealed almost in a series of set pieces: in one scene, for example, Masson sits drunk with opera loudly leaking from his headphones; later, he covers his head with a bag and screams; finally, as Carla and Paul drive away, we’re given a glimpse of him being arrested by the police. Carla reveals, reading his lips, that he says he loved her, though whether he killed her is left uncertain.
There’s a moment quite early on in Howard Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby (1938) when David (Cary Grant) drops his top hat. Immediately, Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939) came to mind: Jefferson Smith (James Stuart) repeatedly fumbles with his hat when speaking to Susan Paine (Astrid Allwyn). These instances make me wonder if the hat – though not necessarily the top hat – is a recurring motif in Hollywood during the 30s and 40s? Off the top of my head, it could stand as an emblem of social convention (a hat should be doffed) and, at the same time, indicate the constraints and pressures of such demands (we hope it doesn’t fall off uninvited). I think more time and more viewings will tell.
If the hat is a frequently used symbol shared between many Hollywood films then it likely functions as an external image system. The term is borrowed from Story, Robert McKee’s practical screenwriting guide. He suggests such a system ‘takes a category that outside the film already has symbolic meaning and brings it in to mean the same thing in the film that it means outside.’ A national flag or a crucifix are other examples. I think, though, in Bringing Up Baby, Hawks also makes effective use of an internal image system to strengthen the sexual double entendre that begins in the dialogue. McKee defines an internal image system as a design that ‘takes a category that outside the film may or may not have a symbolic meaning attached to it but brings it into the film to give it an entirely new meaning appropriate to this film and this film alone.’ I believe the system centres around the titular baby: the notion of a leopard and its spots.
When Susan (Katherine Hepburn) asks David over the phone “Do you want a leopard?”, she is wearing a striking dress dotted with spots. When David arrives at the apartment, we notice that she has changed into a dress with stripes. On the one hand, Susan’s wardrobe binds her to Baby the leopard and his (or her?) animalism which is, in essence, both playful, forceful and sexual. On the other, we see quickly that this leopard is special: Susan can change her spots. Though, like Baby, she may balance sexuality and playfulness, she can also go beyond such drives, demonstrating an ability to control a situation: we notice that she lures David to the apartment through intelligent trickery rather than animal magnetism.
A network of related images extends from the central notion of a leopard and all the facets of its behaviour as an animal. When Susan comments “Don’t be silly David you can’t make a leopard stand still”, the incessant energy of the woman herself – revealed in her speech and her movements – comes to mind just as readily as the literal lost leopard. There is a sly nod to David’s sexual desires when he, rather than Susan, is linked to the beast. He warns Susan “never hang onto a leopard’s tail.” We remember the earlier scene in which Susan accidentally rips David’s suit: she backs away nervously (as David presses forward almost menacingly), explaining “I didn’t mean to. I’ve just been hanging on your coattails.” There’s a wonderful moment when David, seated on some stairs and dressed in a borrowed negligee, among much commotion caused by (almost) shouting women and a barking dog, quietly but explicitly demonstrates his animalism. He has tried and failed to interrupt the speech with human means – with language – so he sits, slumped, and simply hisses at the yapping dog. He hisses. In other words, he behaves like he suggests cats (of various sizes) will behave towards dogs when provoked.
There’s much more to say on this film. But here’s something to start.