Death on the Nile (1978)

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La grande ambition des femmes est d’inspirer l’amour. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot gets to flex his little grey cells on a luxury cruise through Egypt that is filled with eccentrics, madwomen and murderers.  Peter Ustinov plays the beloved Belgian for the first time in this plush, epic adaptation by Anthony Shaffer which is as much black comedy as murder mystery. Linnet Ridgeway (Lois Chiles) is the heiress who steals Simon Doyle (Simon McCorkindale) from her best friend Jackie (Mia Farrow) and the jilted one turns up on their honeymoon everywhere they stop – including Egypt. Poirot meets up with Colonel Race (David Niven) and a right motley crew of passengers on a paddle steamer tour, including a drunken romance writer Salome Otterbourne (Angela Lansbury) with her long-suffering daughter Rosalie (Olivia Hussey); kleptomaniac socialite Marie von Schuyloer  (Bette Davis, in Baby Jane eyeliner) and her decidedly masculine assistant and travelling companion Miss Bowers (Maggie Smith); Linnet’s greedy lawyer Andrew Pennington (George Kennedy); Linnet’s decidedly frisky French maid Louise Bourget (Jane Birkin). Turns out everyone on board had a good reason for killing Linnet. There’s also Jon Finch, Jack Warden and Sam Wanamaker for good measure. While we see Aswan, the Pyramids, Karnak and the Sphinx, we enjoy the trials and tribulations as these people knock up against each other and what unspools when Linnet is eventually murdered. Seeing Lansbury strongarm Niven into a dance is a particular delight. This is a great cast playing with evident relish. Gorgeously costumed by Anthony Powell, beautifully lit and shot by Jack Cardiff,  typically well scored by Nino Rota and handled with pace and humour by director John Guillermin, this is a leisurely and colourful Sunday afternoon treat.

By the Sea (2015)

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I have major typewriter envy. Why do I say this? A few weeks ago I missed out on a vintage red Italian one in an online auction, much  to my dismay. It’s very like one that Brad Pitt has in this film, a work of fetish objects, looking, voyeurism, sex and surfaces. We could be crass and strike through the star texts and just say, Brangelina made a Seventies French art house porno:  go figure.  But no matter how meta you want to make it, as a confrontational post-honeymoon disaster flick, it’s not Boom! A more elegant discussion hinges on the individual sequences: the first seventy minutes when their marriage is dissected in fragments:  the arrival at the seaside hotel of this couple married for 14 years;  Roland’s a writer,  Vanessa used to be a dancer; her reliance on pills and the hole in the wall through which she observes a newly married couple having sex in the room next door;  his daily trips to the bar and his conversations with widowed proprietor Nils Arestrup (in French), looking for a subject, drowning his sorrows while he remains blocked – in all senses. It’s opaque and inexact and a gloss on a marriage gone stale enduring its own particular troubles which are only suggested by Vanessa’s refusal to have sex with him. Then she appears to be pushing him to have sex with the newlywed woman next door. Then the twenty-minute sequence when he joins in with her voyeurism and they get the young couple, Melvil Poupaud and Melanie Laurent, liquored up and he concludes they’re miserable too as they observe them together again, through that hole in the wall. Now it’s more than sexual stimulation: Roland is trying to control the images too, in an effort to redirect his marital narrative. It’s very well directed and much better written than anything else Jolie has made so far:   every shot is framed with great care and her own skeletal shape frequently dictates how we look at the story, ironically it’s her own performance that’s perhaps not as impressive as you might expect. Then, the last twenty minutes. What happens when Vanessa enters the drama being staged next door and Roland finds himself looking at her, being disrobed, is what triggers revelations and a change in storytelling. Roland was looking for a subject, Vanessa couldn’t endure seeing a successful young marriage. We learn what happened three years ago. Roland writes again. The cinematography by Christian Berger is beautiful, bathing each image in gorgeous natural light. The soundtrack is to die for, with Jane Birkin crooning Jane B in a broad song selection dominated by her own other half, Serge Gainsbourg, that agent provocateur par excellence, with other choice Seventies chansons dimpling the pictures at opportune moments. What am I going to do now? Watch it all over again. It’s that fascinating. Then I’ve got to find my Lina Wertmuller collection. And a new-old typewriter.


A Bigger Splash (2015)

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Four of the most beautiful people on the planet spend a few days together at a villa and one morning one of them is found floating on the surface of the swimming pool. Alain Page (writing as Jean-Emmanuel Conil) wrote the story La Piscine and Jacques Deray filmed it in 1969. It starred Alain Delon, Romy Schneider, Maurice Ronet and Jane Birkin. All these years later Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino decided to remake it in a different setting (using David Hockney’s famous title), a volcanic Italian island where rock singer Marianne (Tilda Swinton) is recuperating from throat surgery with her documentary maker boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenarts).  She isn’t speaking to protect her voice, he’s not drinking because, as we learn, he was in rehab following a suicide attempt. Old friend, Marianne’s producer and ex-boyfriend Harry (Ralph Fiennes), arrives with a young American girl Penelope (Dakota Johnson) who’s apparently the daughter he discovered he had fathered just last year. Tensions unfurl among the foursome and the complexities of Harry and Marianne’s previous relationship unravel as the heat pulses, Harry’s larger than life personality unsettles everyone and we wonder just what is going on: is jailbait Penelope really Harry’s daughter? Just look at Swinton’s reaction when Harry says to Penelope ‘You’re the best thing that ever happened to me!’ It’s something to behold. Not to mention that it happens at a karaoke party he’s orchestrated at the local bar. She doesn’t talk, he never stops. Marianne seems to be a female Bowie, a latterday Siouxsie Sioux perhaps, and Penelope likens her life to an album of twelve tracks – one side for Harry, one for Paul, six years each, with one good song on each side ‘to make people turn over’.  This is a tough film of relationships, fame, creativity or lack of it (how daring to have a singer unable to vocalise), the choices people make to withdraw and have different kinds of lives than the crazy ones they used to  lead. There’s a clever, ironic screenplay by David Kajganich and the volcanic landscape is a useful and unforgiving correlative for tensions that are going to boil over… Fiennes and Swinton are wonderful.

The Prodigal Daughter (1981)

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Thirtysomething child-woman Jane Birkin leaves her marriage and returns to her parents, the wonderful Michel Piccoli and Natasha Parry. They treat her as the child she needs to be again in order to recover from her crippling depression. Her mother reveals that Papa is having an affair and she leaves the family home to take care of Birkin’s sister, who is about to give birth. When the mistress, Eva Renzi, arrives, Birkin resorts to making her father jealous. There are some truly disturbing scenes here, as composed by writer/director Jacques Doillon, Birkin’s then companion. You are compelled to ask at times, Is this really plausible? But Doillon is such a careful writer and the actors so good, that you go with it.  Emotions run high and the prognosis for the family is not good.  Birkin and Piccoli would of course be reunited in La Belle Noiseuse, a decade later, while she would play a different kind of prodigal daughter for Tavernier in Daddy Nostalgie.


Le Divorce (2003)

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The house of Merchant Ivory had a huge impact on me as a kid – I was desperately impressed with Shakespeare Wallah, Bombay Talkie and Heat and Dust. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s screenplays and the settings were elemental. Here she and James Ivory adapt a novel by Diane Johnson, not a woman entirely unfamiliar with the monde du film herself – she did a little screenplay for a certain Monsieur Kubrick called The Shining. So far so unbelievably fabuleux. But her novels about transAtlantic manners Le Divorce and Le Mariage are modern Jamesian comedies which teach us a lot about what goes in France. It’s beautifully handled with a colour palette and a throughline of etiquette that sustains a millefeuille-light story. Unemployed Californian graduate Isabel (Kate Hudson) visits pregnant half-sister Roxanne (Naomi Watts) in Paris just as the latter’s husband walks out on her – literally. Isabel starts working for a writer, apparently a Johnson avatar (Glenn Close) and having an affair with her ex, who also happens to be Roxanne’s uncle by marriage, and a famous politico to boot, played by Thierry l’Hermitte, a one-time heart throb in France. We have digressions on handbags, scarves, sugar, cheese, hunting, greetings, mistresses … and all the time Isabel is making herself over from femme fatale to upholder of women so that she finally resembles the old painting hanging on the apartment wall and which is the subject of a legal and artistic wrangle. When Stockard Channing and Sam Waterston turn up as the girls’ parents, you know you’re in excellent company. There is a brilliantly chosen, unobtrusive score with a variety of artists whom you may or may not know (Jane Birkin, Carla Bruni et al).  This is stylish, subtle and sophisticated. Bon appetit!

Jane Birkin

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Jane Birkin turned 69 on Monday. Hard to believe but for the francophiles among us she has been an indelible cultural icon for a very long time, even if only through the infamously banned Gainsbourg duet, Je t’aime (moi  non plus). Her impressive screen career continues apace, albeit overtaken somewhat by her Gainsbourg interpretations and lately by the sad death of her daughter the photographer Kate Barry – from an absurdly early first marriage to composer John Barry. While she is probably best known in the English-speaking world for early roles in The Knack and Blow-Up, she later appeared in the starry Agatha Christie ensembles Death on the Nile and Evil Under the Sun.  Otherwise she impressed under the direction of major figures like Tavernier  in These Foolish Things/Daddy Nostalgie opposite the wonderful Dirk Bogarde and Jacques Rivette in La Belle Noiseuse.  A sexy film opposite Brigitte Bardot (who did the first recording of the notorious Je t’aime...) Don Juan, secured her own sex kitten persona which was never in doubt once she became the muse for Serge Gainsbourg, father of actress Charlotte. She is a renaissance woman. Melody Nelson, we salute you. Joyeuse anniversaire.