Friday, February 08, 2008

More Eddie Constantine... from Criterion!

I was taken by surprise last night, while watching Agnes Varda's CLEO FROM 5 TO 7 (1961) for the first time, to find Eddie Constantine and some other luminaries of the French New Wave making cameo appearances in a charming little film-within-the-film. Criterion's new disc of CLEO, included in their quietly wondrous box set 4 BY AGNES VARDA, includes the entire short film -- Les Fiancés du Pont Macdonald -- as one of the supplements, along with commentary by the director.

In the film, shot in the style of a silent comedy, two young lovers have a sentimental parting on the Macdonald bridge -- a place, we're told, that's no longer extant. The lovers, seen here, are played by none other than Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina. Varda recalls that she was inspired to make this little film because she resented Godard's habit of always wearing sunglasses because she thought his eyes were beautiful. In her film, after the lovers part, Godard dons his "lunettes noirs" and watches his beloved skip away... but everything that was white about her a moment ago -- her dress, her shoes, her hair, even her skin -- has turned black, when seen through his dusky lenses. (David Cronenberg told me, during the filming of VIDEODROME, that he couldn't remember an earlier example of a film that contrasted subjective realities, but here it is -- twenty years earlier -- in a comic context.)

Anna skips merrily down to the quay where she trips on a hose, attracting the attention of Eddie Constantine, who is rinsing off the stonework of the landing. Eddie's in blackface and charmed by "meeting cute" with this temporarily ebony goddess. He raises his hose into frame for a double entendre.

Godard witnesses this from afar and removes his glasses to dash to Anna's rescue. Everything is white again (except Eddie), and an ambulance driven by Jean-Claude Brialy arrives to assist the fallen girl.

I don't think Anna Karina has ever been more beautiful than when she sits up from her pratfall, batting her eyelashes. Godard intervenes before the handsome doctors, stealing peeks up her dress, can spirit her away, and the short concludes with the two lovers returning atop the bridge and kissing in celebration after the repentant Godard throws his "damned sun-glasses" into the Seine.

Without his glasses, Godard looks remarkably like the later British actor Robert Powell and the sequence indeed plays like one of the stylistic vignettes from Ken Russell's MAHLER (which starred Powell) or LISZTOMANIA, made in the mid-1970s. It is a treat to see how wonderfully well all of the participants adapted to this antiquated manner of filmmaking, with Godard especially evoking comparisons to the likes of Buster Keaton (no small compliment, of course), and Agnes Varda also conforming to filmmaking techniques quite unlike her own with such studied success. I had assumed, while watching CLEO FROM 5 TO 7, that Varda must have filmed this short while Godard, Karina and Constantine were working together on ALPHAVILLE, but no... both CLEO and this short date from 1961, so this was in fact the first collaboration of Team Alphaville.
CLEO FROM 5 TO 7 chronicles, in real time (actually closer to "from 5 to 6:30"), roughly two hours in the life of a pampered, alienated yé-yé singer (Corinne Marchand) awaiting test results from a cancer exam. Dreading the worst, she embarks on a walk through Paris and we discover, with her, just how much a person and their outlook on life can change in such a short time. Criterion's disc includes a wonderful 35m documentary by Varda that reunites her with the film's cast and crew, and it's a wonderful chaser to a lovely and surprisingly profound experience.
The disc also includes Varda's early experimental short L'opera mouffe (1956), which reminded me of work in the short form that David Lynch would only achieve after a passing of twenty years or more. It also rewrites all the film history books I have ever read, moving back the advent of full frontal female nudity on the screen by approximately a decade. It's powerful, sensual, deeply felt work.

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