Monday, January 29, 2007
1968 Double Feature
The strongest source of inspiration (theft?) for the plot of Tarantino’s Kill Bill, The Bride Wore Black is Truffaut’s Hitchcock homage starring a beautiful but coldly rampaging Jeanne Moreau. She methodically murders two young men before we realize the motive to her madness: on her wedding day, her new husband was accidentally gunned down by a party of bachelors cleaning a rifle in a nearby hotel, and somehow she has discovered their identities but not their appearances. With equal parts sex appeal, calculation, and improvisation, the bride uses her surroundings to trap and kill her unwitting prey. While aping the Master of Suspense in style and even music (with Bernard Hermann recycling some of his best Hitchcock riffs), he fails to maintain the carefully calibrated emotional tone so crucial to Hitchcock’s success. Truffaut may give us only the perfect amount of plot needed to keep us in the scene unfolding, but he also neglects the Master’s deft coloring of character, his trademark moral ambiguity.
I find Moreau’s undeniably pretty but fairly inexpressive face ideal for her destructively cerebral role, but her motivation and flashbacks are never fully dealt with. She remains little more than a kind of “superfeminized” cipher, a symbol of heartbreak run amok. While each of the bride’s victims turns out to be a sexist pig, they nonetheless become progressively more pathetic or even somehow likeable in the face of Moreau’s practical, cold omnipotence. No one ever stood a chance; even luck (witness the final moments) is on her side. Still, the former Cahiers critic utilizes some brilliantly suspenseful long takes and interesting performances from each male victim of Moreau’s web, especially Michael Lonsdale as a wannabe bureaucrat and Charles Denner as an artist thunderstruck by the bride’s beauty. There are hints that the murder of the bridegroom may not have been accidental (the criminal nature of the final “victim”), and that the bride’s crusade is not entirely justifiable (the confession scene, the bride’s callous use of the boy), but these subversions to the bride’s mission get steamrolled over by Truffaut’s nonetheless impressive attempt at Hitchcockian storytelling.
With hallucinatory imagery and a resonant, rebellious mentality, Lindsay Anderson’s nonconformist masterpiece remains a hip British landmark. An examination of a repressive boarding school (most likely standing in for the entire British class system, but accurately representing any number of social institutions) and the surreal revolt led by Mick Travis, who reappears in O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital, the film balances political relevance with credible but not stringent realism. From his first appearance, clad in a scarf concealing his defiant moustache, Travis represents the only uncertainty facing uncaring schoolmasters and oppressive seniors; Anderson carefully chronicles the heartless regulations that govern the children and promise to graduate wave after wave of unimaginative, bourgeois citizens. In his debut as Travis, Malcolm McDowell displays the dangerous, youthful swagger that would make his Alex in A Clockwork Orange such a likeable antihero. His walls papered with images of world revolution, Travis imagines (the operative word) himself as a schoolyard Che Guevara, leading a violent if imaginary coup against the powers-that-be, an amalgam of authority figures: teacher, classmate, and priest. It plays like an acid trip through Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct.
If.... unfolds in a series of vignettes that loosely follow the school term. The longer the film goes on, the harsher the punishments for Travis and his two compatriots become, and the more surreal Travis’s youthful reactions are. An effective but uncomfortable long take accompanies their whippings by the Establishment seniors: as each of his friends walks into the closed-door gym for their punishment, we stay with Travis and bleakly imagine their pain by ourselves. Once it is Travis’s turn, we see the pain as the strikes connect, but his eyes reveal more defiance than agony. What exactly occurs in “reality” and what is just in Travis’s elaborate daydreams is a moot point against the energy of Anderson’s images, especially in the exhilaratingly unruly conclusion.
Stylistically, alternate scenes in B&W and color show the tedium of the school year but reveal brief possibilities of emotional and mental, if not physical, escape. In addition to the energetic if obvious us-versus-them plot points, there are fascinating moments of sexuality equated with control and domination. The privileged seniors argue over the morality of taking liberties with the new students, the “scum,” as they are called. Travis’s main enemy takes a distinct perverted pleasure in dealing out punishment. Only a possibly-imaginary café girlfriend (Christine Noonan) and the incongruous nude appearance by an attractive bureaucrat’s wife (Mary MacLeod) provide any kind of relief to the schoolboys’ sexual frustrations, even if they may be mostly symbolic. The film works equally well as a student’s daydream of destruction and escape, or a rallying cry for revolution against the social complacency. Unfortunately not yet available on DVD, it’s more than worth finding any way you can.