Hello and welcome back – So soon, I see you swoon!
As long as you’ve provided the coffee we’re away…
But a few days ago, I wrote and told you how five books changed my life, or helped make me who I am today. I’d now like to tell you of five such films to have also helped the process along.
Once more, they won’t be in order of preference – it’s hard enough having to pick only five – but what I will say is that they’re films to have lasted the course; I never tire of seeing them. And what I’m able to conclude from my list is very interesting indeed; I might even say alarming…
Therefore, as with the afore-mentioned five books, prepare for a four–dimensional journey, and do dress accordingly.
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Flat caps on, then, for I’d like to begin in God’s Own Country, or County, the one of my birth: Yorkshire; amid World War Two. On second thoughts, forget the flat caps, make it steel helmets…
Adapted from Ronald Harwood’s successful 1980 play, The Dresser, directed by Peter Yates and released in’83, hits home on a number of levels, some being very personal. But I’ll start by stating that, for all its wonderfully comic moments, and lines, particularly between Finney and Courtney, actor and dresser, the pervasive sense of pathos running throughout the film is almost tangible. We can’t help but laugh, and yet feel guilty for doing so…
I believe Finney was only in his forties when taking this role, the one of an old man verging on madness, and how convincing he is. But then, he’d already more than proved himself in another film adaptation, in the musical Scrooge, a version which, for me, will never be surpassed.
Finney’s character, known only as ‘Sir’, has problems – excluding the fact he’s on his last legs. All the able-bodied actors are overseas fighting for Britain’s life against Nazi Germany, while the luftwaffe is bombing all the better theatres. He, therefore, in Churchillian endeavour without the splendour, fights the fight to hold the Shakespearean company together, having, in his own words, been reduced to “old men, cripples and nancy-boys”.
At one point, ‘Sir’, who’ll be taking the stage in about 30 minutes’ time, can’t remember which play the company is performing that night. As it turns out, he’ll be playing King Lear.
As it follows, he can’t remember his first line. It’s every theatre-actor’s nightmare – my bi-annual dream is that I’m offered a large part in a play to be performed that very evening; I’ve somehow lost the ability to say ‘You can get lost!’ and so spend what little time I have striving to cram the text into my head, while an audience impatiently waits at the other side of the curtain.
I wake up in a sweat…
Joking aside, though, this film is essentially a love-story with a difference; and the symbiotic relationship, between the washed-up actor and his dresser – or one of society’s outcasts of the day – is doomed from the outset.
As with any great book, film or play, a line tends to sum it all up, a line encapsulating the story’s very essence. When Sir lies down for what is the last time, on the dressing room sofa, provoking the dresser’s bout of hysteria, the latter suddenly, poignantly, utters: “Come back”.
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We’ll now steal to France, and to the mountainous Clermont-Ferrand, during the mid-00s, for a film very similar, thematically, to The Dresser: Quand J’étais Chanteur – translated as The Singer.
This time, the pained relationship is between a young, new-in-town, blond-cropped beauty – Cécile de France – and an ageing, portly, regional celebrity and crooner, a survivor – Gérard Depardieu.
Their initial meeting – in L’Aquarius, where Alain Moreau, Depardieu’s character, is a regular performer – is everything you’d expect it to be: awkward. Moreau relies on old lines; and Marion (de France) rebuffs them with equal worldly-wisdom. It’s cringe-worthy, difficult to view… and yet hilariously irresistible.
One character is everything the other isn’t; they’re chalk and cheese, a living incongruity, and yet, they were somehow made to be together. Indeed, they end up ‘together’ on the first night, due to a little too much champagne, only for Marion to flee before breakfast is served and Moreau to thus call in on her place of work. Another magical meeting takes place between the two in a café across the street. Moreau’s philosophy is a simple one: “A singer becomes corny only if he survives; if he doesn’t survive, he doesn’t become corny…”
Pacino and De Niro meeting up in The Heat? No, give me De France and Depardieu any day of the week…
Written and directed by Xavier Giannoli, he chose the perfect couple for this relationship, and, furthermore, left us guessing as to what would become of our heroes following their final meet-up in the film, as the credits begin to roll.
Will they or won’t they? It seems ok… But then all happy endings are ironic, somebody once said. Xavier Giannoli must believe that too.
Still, it doesn’t prevent panache.
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A short train ride will suffice for our next cinematic classic, to a black and white Paris of 1959. A major influence on Depardieu, Francois Truffaut was one of the leading lights in the Nouvelle Vague movement: a group of cineastes endeavouring to create a new kind of realism.
Les Quatre cent coups – The 400 Blows – was Truffaut’s first and finest film, in my humble opinion.
Autobiographical, Truffaut chose as himself a remarkable young actor by the name of Jean-Pierre Léaud – and as a little treat, below you’ll see the interview for the actual role.
What Truffaut succeeds in drawing from Léaud is purity; it’s unadulterated, unselfish and untainted; raw innocence, it is magic. And when Leaud’s character, young Antoine Doinel, is interviewed by a social worker – whom we never see but hear her voice, the emphasis being on Doinel – we, thus, partly become the jury, having borne witness to the kind of broken home from which he hails. How does the saying go again? He manages to suspend our disbelief? I, back then, viewing the scene for the first time – a good twenty-five years ago; when Channel 4 was a worthy channel, and indeed introduced me to La Nouvelle Vague – was convinced there was nothing fake about it.
And in a way there wasn’t.
Of course, the final scene must be one of the most iconic in French Cinema, where Doinel has escaped the Boys’ Home and made it to the sea – it’s all he ever wanted; he’s never seen it before – and so turns to the camera, which, in turn, leaves us with a still.
Speechless, in every sense of the word…
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It would be so easy for me now to keep you here, same time, same place, with A bout de souffle – Breathless – which was Jean-Luc Goddard’s first and finest film, too; the ultimate style-film, making way for the ultimate Mod icon, another cropped-headed blond by the name of Jean Seberg – do you see a pattern? And is there any wonder – as some of you may remember from my previous post covering my five all-time books – I fell in love with Truman Capote’s literary Holly Golightly?
But I’ll yet resist. For as with those five books, we’re off again to Flanders Fields, and to a film that, if it doesn’t surpass Erich Remarque’s book from which it was adapted, it certainly stands equal to it: Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front…
I saw the film as a young boy; the book came later. And if I’m honest, as powerful and as heart-wrenching as the book is, particularly by the end where the narration suddenly moves from first to third person, as Paul Baumer’s life is snuffed out by a sniper’s bullet on the eve of the Armistice, a little part of me was disappointed by Paul’s not having left himself open to the bullet for reaching out to a butterfly… a butterfly in No-man’s land…
Made in 1930, it’s a time of transition in film, from the silent movies to the ‘talkies’, which serves somehow to enhance its greatness, and it is non-replicable…
My debut novel, Wood, Talc and Mr. J: We never had it so good…, about a lad growing up in the 1970s – you know where to find the chapter and synopsis – is, believe it or not, greatly inspired by both the book and the film.
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Our final destination is to a fictional place in England, of the 1980s, and to an animated one at that.
When The Wind Blows was a 1986 film adaption of Raymond Briggs’ 1982 graphic novel of the same name, using Briggs’ illustrations and directed by Jimmy Murakami, David Bowie and Roger Waters providing the soundtrack.
And it is pure genius.
From the perspective of old country-dwellers and comical couple, James and Hilda Bloggs – to the voices of John Mills and Peggy Ashcroft – When The Wind Blows tells the story of a nuclear attack on Britain. They’re hardly ready, James and Hilda, for this new kind of war. But then that’s the point: who was? Who is?
But not to worry, the ever-pragmatic James will take a bus ride down to the village library, to pick up the leaflets before stocking up on provisions and such, much to the scorn and ridicule of his son at the other end of a phone call – each seems to think the other’s lost his mind… and somehow, once again, we have to laugh when there’s nothing else we can do.
The film is imbued with such exquisite moments, like when James gets carried away, standing before the fireplace, and recalls how things were different for Monty’s war… and when Monty appears momentarily beside him, like old buddies from bygone days. Or when Hilda takes a walk in the garden, picks a dandelion and blows it into the breeze, to a Roger Waters acoustic backing of Folded Flags, and all the good times flash before her eyes… Or like when Hilda’s hair begins to fall out following the nuclear blast, and the look on James’ face when he realises he can do nothing about it.
And ending with their final prayer…
As I said in my intro, the word is timeless.
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And I only hope you haven’t been too traumatised by my choice of five films, five films, along with many others, as with the books I chose in a previous post, to have marked me profoundly, to have guided me along; to have opened my eyes to the power of the seventh art…
For my art, I tend to go for a sense of realism, where less is more, where there is hope, but yes, where happy endings are ironic, where everything is temporary, where only time resolves issues and so we must cherish, embrace the now, for good or bad…
You might well think that, for the above five films, all our heroes are doomed, but that’s only one viewpoint. I prefer to think that what makes all our heroes stand out is due to the fact that they truly live within the confines of each film.
There’s the secret. Hope you’ve enjoyed the journey.
Your literary, theatrical friend