Hotel Reserve (1944)

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Don’t just stand there – do something! The great novelist Eric Ambler was a screenwriter himself but this time round his Epitaph for a Spy was adapted by John Davenport who turns in a very tense thriller despite the obvious limitations of this studio-bound production. It’s the eve of WW2.  James Mason plays Peter Vadassy, an Austrian medical student (he’s half French!) on holiday on the Riviera. He’s arrested for photographs of a naval base near Toulon that appear to have been taken on his camera – but the police know the truth and need to root out a Nazi spy in the hotel without raising suspicions. Vadassy is keen to assert his French nationality and if he doesn’t go along with agent Julien Mitchell’s plans he might be deported to Germany and face goodness knows what. There follows a positively Christie-esque drama as Vadassy attempts to figure out which of the hotel’s suspect residents swapped cameras with him and it’s not hugely surprising when Herbert Lom tops the list. Better still, his villainous other half is played by Lucie Mannheim. If you’re wondering who the Irish-accented lovely is who has a crush on Vadassy it’s Maureen O’Hara’s sister Florrie Fitzsimons in her sole screen appearance under the name Clare Hamilton. Directed by a trio of men – Lance Comfort, Max Greene (Mutz Greenbaum) and Victor Hanbury – who turn in an atmospheric film that raises questions about Britain’s wartime relations with France which still had that government at Vichy when this was released …

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Christopher Strong (1933)

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Aka The Great Desire and The White Moth. Don’t ever stop me doing what I want. Fascinating and startling Pre-Code drama starring Katharine Hepburn not as the eponymous Member of Parliament but a daring aviatrix modelled on Amy Johnson. Lady Cynthia Darrington meets the married Sir Christopher (Colin Clive) at a party and they can’t help but fall for each other. His wife, Lady Elaine (!) (the fabulous Billie Burke) worries about their daughter but the frankly virginal Cynthia stirs Christopher, especially when she dons a silver moth costume for a fancy dress ball and to hell with marriage and flying… for a while. The clever way to illustrate sexual congress – a bedside lamp switched on with just Hepburn’s bangled wrist in shot as we see from a clock it’s the wee small hours – the use of altimeters not just as a signal for her ambition but a correlative for this extra-marital relationship – and of course Hepburn’s striking look in her second film appearance – make for a stylish Art Deco picture. Cynthia’s final flight after she discovers her pregnancy still gives her an opportunity for personal expression and record-breaking and it is this aspect – and the fact that the film was directed by Dorothy Arzner (with a little help from silent director Tommy Atkins who also assisted on Hepburn’s debut Morning Glory) – means this was rehabilitated over the years by feminism. Adapted from Gilbert Frankau’s novel by Zoe Akins. Quite dazzling.

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Un moment d’egarement (1977)

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Aka In A Wild Moment/One Wild Moment. Auteur Claude Berri a fait un cycle de films sur la masculinité au début des années 1970 et c’est probablement l’un des plus fantastiques, un conte de deux hommes fortysomething en vacances dans la Riviera avec leurs filles adolescentes. Jacques (Victor Lanoux) est le père de Françoise (Agnes Soral) qui aime soudainement le divorcé Pierre (Jean-Pierre Marielle) et le séduit à la plage après avoir été invité à un mariage. Il est très pénible de voir une jeune fille de quinze ans grimper au-dessus d’un homme d’âge moyen résistant, mais après son premier choc, il ne fait rien pour apaiser sa poursuite agressive. Sa propre fille Martine (Christine Dejoux) suspecte que quelque chose soit écoulé. C’est certainement plus dramatique que la comédie. Il y a de bonnes scènes: quand Françoise avoue à son père, elle a dormi avec un homme de quarante ans, c’est bien écrit et crédible et elle ne lui dira pas qui c’est. Dans un casino, il pense qu’un chanteur est le coupable et l’attaque dans les toilettes pour hommes. Quand Pierre voit que Françoise disparaît avec un garçon de son âge, il est clairement jaloux de ce qu’il interprète comme un rejet. Le désespoir de Jacques est total et la scène où Pierre est propriétaire des incidents (quelques fois – ce n’est pas une affaire) est rafraîchissante à la profondeur de leur amitié. La dernière scène, quand Pierre rencontre Françoise, est un cliffhanger: il n’y a pas de conclusion réelle, bien que nous puissions probablement l’écrire. Il est facile d’oublier, compte tenu du calibre de l’écriture et de la performance, qu’il s’agit effectivement d’une histoire d’exploitation sexuelle assez choquante. On lui a donné un remake d’Hollywood comme Blame It On Rio.

The Day of the Jackal (1973)

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Frederick Forsyth was my gateway drug to faction:  novels based more or less truly on historical incident. You could trust him because he had a long history as a respected and conscientious journalist. And what a way with plot! This story of a 1960s assassination attempt on the despised French President Charles de Gaulle by disgruntled members of the exiled OAS (the militant underground) would seem to have nothing much going for it on the surface:  the outcome, for one. But the trick here is brilliant.  These patriots hire a British hitman (Edward Fox) who is completely unknown to the authorities. And as he gathers the materiel required for such an audacious once-in-a-lifetime evenement and removes all the human obstacles in his path, we realise, at the foregone but nail-biting conclusion, that we know absolutely nothing about him at all.  This is narrative sleight of hand at its best. And it is crucial to the tension that the ruthless professional Jackal remains a complete enigma, a mystery at the heart of a brilliantly staged action thriller with a great supporting cast. His nemesis proves to be a Parisian police detective (Michael Lonsdale) determined to root out this threat to democracy.  Adapted by Scottish-American screenwriter Kenneth Ross who would perform the same miracle with The Odessa File. Gripping outing by director Fred Zinnemann who meshes his predilection for documentary-style realism with all the tricks of a cinema of attractions. Flawlessly executed.

A Good Year (2006)

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Ridley Scott wanted to make something light and local near his home in the South of France and someone suggested he adapt a Peter Mayle book. Instead they met up and had a chat and developed a story which became a different sort of film for Scott (and a somewhat altered version of the story in the subsequent novel by Mayle) with Russell Crowe as Max Skinner the uptight London City broker inheriting his uncle’s estate which he hasn’t been back to in ten years – despite having been brought up there. He falls for a local restaurateur (Marion Cotillard) and tries to sell up with the incursion of his uncle’s illegitimate daughter (Abbie Cornish) throwing an ownership spanner in the works, especially since she’s an oenologist. There’s mischief afoot back at work, a subplot about the vines and wine appellation with local Francois (Didier Bourdon), and flashbacks to Max’s childhood (he’s played by Freddie Highmore) with Uncle Henry (Albert Finney) and none of the stories really work in tandem with odd shifts in tone, but it looks beautiful and the women are great. Crowe would be much better served with a humorous role in The Nice Guys. Written by Marc Klein.

Rebecca (1940)

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Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again … One of the most famous opening lines in a novel. Daphne du Maurier got the A-treatment by new arrival to Hollywood, Alfred Hitchcock, working closely with producer David O.Selznick to bring a hugely popular bestseller to the screen. It’s the story of ‘I’ (we never do learn her name) companion to obnoxious American woman Mrs Van Hopper, who escapes her bullying to marry Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), the widower of the eponymous Rebecca, a glamorous socialite who supposedly drowned. When she arrives at their country house Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson) jealously guards her late mistress’ domain and tries to drive this innocent girl mad … Joan Fontaine made a spectacular impact as the ingenuous Second Mrs de Winter in a production dogged by censorship problems – look at what they had to do the ending! But the recovery from those issues (adapted by Joan Harrison and Robert E Sherwood) works beautifully and is adorned by superb performances elsewhere –  George Sanders as Jack Favell, for instance, can’t you practically smell the sweat on his adulterer’s shirt collar?! There are so many great scenes – the hotel bedroom when Mrs Van Hopper stabs out her cigarette, when Fontaine arrives at the costume ball in the dress Rebecca had worn, when Danvers encourages her to commit suicide, the boathouse …    And the overwhelming monogrammed R  … It’s a textual dream. The final images are unforgettable. Rumours abounded that Selznick took over the film and overruled Hitchcock one too many times leading him to edit in camera in future, but du Maurier’s work had a strong influence not just on the great director but on Forties cinema in general. I trace the powerful connections between this haunting drama and Hitchcock’s later Shadow of a Doubt, here:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Girl-Who-Knew-Too-Much-ebook/dp/B01KTWF08U/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1480331252&sr=8-1&keywords=elaine+lennon.

French Kiss (1995)

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I once sat next to an inflatable man on a flight from London to NYC but I never sat next to Kevin Kline playing a snarky French jewel thief who slips a diamond necklace into my handbag. That’s what happens to Meg Ryan as she heads for Paris where her fiance, Tim Hutton, is having it away with a Francaise. Only in romcom! Kline gets a pass at the airport because he saved policeman Jean Reno’s life. And whaddya know, Meg’s bag is stolen by Francois Cluzet in the Georges V (can’t get the staff) and she’s off to the Riviera with Kline where Hutton is meeting his girlfriend’s parents and they stay at the Carlton with a stolen credit card. There’s a confrontation, Kline pretends to be Meg’s boyfriend, and romantic disarray ensues… with a conclusion involving a picturesque vineyard.  It looks great, well it would, Owen Roizman shot it, and the story is by Adam Brooks, and if it’s whimsical and slight, well, it’s Queen Meg, it’s Kevin with a dreadful accent, Lawrence Kasdan directed them and it’s a nice scenic way to round out Thanksgiving evening. Paris? Cannes? Hell, yeah! I’m there!

Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie (2016)

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With Bridget Jones back in our lives like it was 2001 all over again, surely it was time for those other old drunk birds Patsy and Edina to re-enter the fray, this time on the big screen. The Four Js are back and it’s much as before – a small idea stretched too far but with enough funny moments to make you realise you missed them. Edina (writer/creator Jennifer Saunders) is no longer a hot London PR – she’s only got Lulu, Baby Spice and a boutique vodka to her name and her memoirs are rubbished by a prospective editor. Patsy  (Joanna Lumley) hears from her editor Magda (Kathy Burke) that Kate Moss needs new representation so Edina uses her half-African wealthy granddaughter Lola (Indeyarna Donaldson-Holmes) as bait. Unfortunately it goes wrong and Edina ends up pushing the world’s most famous model into the Thames. Threatened with prison for manslaughter and the pariah of the whole world and not just the world of PR/fashion, she and Patsy decide to go on the run to the South of France (bien sur) where Mother (June Whitfield) is partying, with Saffy (Julia Sawalha) and her boyfriend DI Nick (Robert Webb) on their tails as they come up with an ingenious idea for a profitable marriage and a whole new life of luxe involving a drag act … Aside from the usually silent and Garboesque La Belle Moss, there are as many slebs here as you’ll find in Vivienne Westwood’s diaries:  models, designers, actors (with a couple of great cameos) as well as the usual suspects and a brilliant opportunity (not used enough IMHO) to see the inside of Pierre Cardin’s fabulous bubble (a propos…!) house in Saint Tropez. It’s as rackety as the series always was, Joanna Lumley the whole show with her deathray stare – but weirdly (given the plot) no reference to a famous episode when she admitted to a sex change in Morocco back in the day. For cult TV afficionados Wanda Ventham (Sherlock’s mum) makes a welcome appearance and for the yoof there’s Glee’s Chris Colfer and the cool factor is supplied by Jon Hamm reliving his de-virginizing at Patsy’s hands:  he’s stunned she’s still alive. There’s not much new here and the story is as coke-thin as a supermodel, nor is it well directed by TV veteran Mandie Fletcher, making just her second film, paired once again with Jane Horrocks (Bubble) from Deadly Advice two decades ago.At its essence this is a movie about two women who are best friends lumbered with people who don’t want to have fun any more. However in a year of few good films this fashion flick is like water in a desert. And I gasped at the Botox injection scene (yikes!) Welcome back, ladies. God I miss the Nineties!

Two For the Road (1967)

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Architect Albert Finney is on a road trip to Saint Tropez with wife Audrey Hepburn to meet a wealthy client. On the way, they reflect on their relationship, how they met, their marriage and the possibility of splitting up for good. Who was it said every road movie was an emotional journey? And this Frederic Raphael screenplay directed by Stanley Donen is all that, and more besides, influenced as it was by the work of French auteurs, chiefly Alain Resnais, whose non-linear mosaic-like approach also had its effect on Nicolas Roeg. So the contemporary scenes are juxtaposed variously with scenes from alternating phases in their 12-year long relationship, all emblemised by different models of  (enviable!) cars, to great effect. The leads are as magnificent as you’d expect (Hepburn was not even wearing Givenchy, shock horror!) and it really is as magical as you’d want for a film that sends them towards the glorious Med as their marriage spirals up and down. It’s a daring film for its time with adult themes, realistic depiction of the banality of marriage and brilliant locations for the armchair francophile. Extraordinary photography by Christopher Challis, a great score (and song) by Henry Mancini and a notable titles sequence by Maurice Binder distinguish this mid-Sixties gem. A wonderful meshing of talents, this was the final of the three films Hepburn and Donen made together after Funny Face and Charade and it’s not remembered as well as it deserves to be.

L’Annee des Meduses (1984)

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The French they are a funny race and if you’re allergic to women’s breasts best not watch … most of this. They’re all off to the Riviera for the summer and it’s bikini tops off all round in this low key thriller about teenaged Chris (Valerie Kaprisky) and her maman, Caroline Cellier,who leave Papa back at home while each pursues their affairs. Then Chris becomes dangerously jealous of her mother’s relationship with gigolo Bernard Giraudeau … Christopher Frank adapted and directed his own novel and you have to admit French psychodramas are better than anyone else’s. Watch out for an early appearance by Emmanuelle Seigner. Wonderfully photographed by Renato Berta with a suitably disturbed/disturbing score by Nina Hagen – remember her?