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Le Feu follet, 1963
[The Fire Within]

Ronet/Skerla Alain (Maurice Ronet) silently observes his lover Lydia (Léna Skerla), struggling to decipher the elusive meaning beneath the wistful, attentive eyes, lingering beyond the point of reassuring tenderness to where the potentiality of the moment of connection has irretrievably slipped away, and all that is left is the inscrutable, opaque gaze. Confronting the awkward silence, the lovers continue in their polite charade of shared intimacy: clutching at empty embraces and impassive expressions of happiness, substituting a haze of cigarette smoke for a stream of unarticulated thoughts - the sentimental inertia of an indefinable fire within - that separates them. Having spent several months confined in the safe insulation of a sanitarium for the treatment of alcoholism, Alain is reluctant to leave the facility and face the temptations and uncertainties of the outside world again, despite the encouragement of his therapist who reassures him that he is cured of his malady and that his lingering anxieties merely reflect the normal process of psychological transition to adjusted wellness. But Alain is not so certain of his ability to return to his former life. Rejecting Lydia's proposal to return to his adoptive city of New York, away from the temptations of his self-destructive existence in Paris, he instead begins to visit each of his estranged friends in an attempt at reconnection: an intellectual (Bernard Noël) who has settled into a comfortable bourgeois existence pursuing mystical studies in lieu of searching for (and working towards) true knowledge and enlightenment; a bohemian (Jeanne Moreau) living in a squalid commune who has become resigned to a life of drug addition and suicidal recklessness; a pair of militant brothers (François Gragnon and Romain Bouteille) who, in the aftermath of the Algerian independence and brewing domestic terrorism, have decided to set their sights abroad towards joining the struggle and political agitation of other countries. Drifting through a seemingly alien and disconnected past, Alain retreats further into the emotional void of his self-imposed exile.

From the opening sequence of an immobile Alain studying the face of his silent lover as an off-screen narrator provides the contextual interior monologue to encapsulate the depth of his despair in his inability to connect beyond physical intimacy, Louis Malle establishes an intrinsic disjunction that reflects Alain's emotional inertia and ambivalence following his figurative catharsis and rebirth. Visually, Malle reinforces this sense of stasis through Alain's enigmatically encircled, handwritten date on his bureau mirror that commemoratively reads "July 23" and a string of photographic proofs tacked onto the walls of his private room at the clinic, documenting a logical progression of images (perhaps of his estranged wife) even as each representational frame is static and immutable. Malle further incorporates recurring imagery of relative motion as a near-still Alain is juxtaposed against people (and objects) in accelerated motion: navigating through a maze of speeding cars to cross busy streets, walking out into the unexpected sight of a cycling race that momentarily whisks by in front of the hotel, observing a crowd of people walking (and driving) past as he sits in the café, having been left behind by the Minville brothers as they plot to embed themselves for a covert operation in the Spanish underground. Through his figurative stasis and tabula rasa, Alain serves as an incisive reference point for the profound social and cultural turmoil of his environment, a foil for the carefree idealism of his generation that has transfigured into complacency, resignation, hedonism, violence, and self-destruction. It is this profound desolation that is inevitably captured in the film's haunted postscript, a desire to erase the tainted illusion and restore to the purity of the ideal ...the first gaze.

© Acquarello 2005. All rights reserved.

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Au Revoir les enfants, 1987
[Goodbye, Children]

Fejto/MannesseAu Revoir les enfants is a touching and nostalgic film about the loss of innocence. Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse) is an awkward, fanciful adolescent who is sent by his doting mother to a provincial Catholic boarding school. Set in 1940s war-torn France, there is an underlying sense of hardship and uncertainty in this idyllic countryside: German-patrolled streets, food rations, and air raids. The children, oblivious to the crisis plaguing their nation, react with contempt and cruelty at the adults around them who are desperately trying (with their extremely limited resources) to protect them. One day, three new students are introduced to the class, including an unassuming young man named Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejto). Julien is initially envious of the silent, enigmatic Jean, who seems to excel in everything he tries, but gradually cultivates a friendship with him. They sneak into the music room to play the piano, team up for a treasure hunt in the woods (and subsequently, get hopelessly lost), and secretly read Arabian Nights (undoubtedly a pensive and literate adolescent's erotica). However, there are also fragments of Jean's actions whose significance eludes the naive Julien. It is his moment of realization that shatters Julien's innocence and has profound consequences for Jean. Au Revoir les enfants is a visually stunning and emotionally devastating story of innocence, friendship, and regret.

Louis Malle's autobiographical account of life in occupied France is a compelling, provocative, and heartfelt examination of personal and national identity. True to life, there is often a discrepancy between who we really are, and who we perceive ourselves to be. Thematically, Malle uses youthful role-playing in the school courtyard, exploring in the woods, and reading adventure books to illustrate the boys' search to define their own identities. The pervasive presence of German soldiers searching for dissidents, criminals, and Jews provide an uncomfortable sense that their identities are constantly in question. Cinematically, several scenes occur in dark or poorly lit environments, which reflect Jean's obscure past and Julien's naiveté. Who are we, and what do we stand for? The answer proves unsettling for the thoughtful Julien - the realization of his own ignorance and culpability. Perhaps the most poignant moment of the film is Malle's narrative epilogue. Despite the passage of time, the incident is clearly an unsettling memory that continues to haunt him. Au Revoir les enfants, an ominous line taken directly from the film, is an intensely personal and deeply affecting retrospective of innocence, and paradise, lost.

© Acquarello 1998. All rights reserved.

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Fatale, 1992

Irons/BinocheThe German concept of liebestod (explored by such varied artists as composer Richard Wagner and author Thomas Mann) proposes the idea that true love cannot be attained without the complete abandonment of the will and submission to suppressed passion (hence, the literal translation of love and death). From the novel by Josephine Hart, Louis Malle's Damage is a harrowing, emotionally charged, modern-day adaptation of this theme. Stephen Fleming (Jeremy Irons) is a reserved, middle-aged government minister who, during a cocktail party, is approached by an enigmatic young woman named Anna Barton (Juliette Binoche). She introduces herself as his son Martyn's (Rupert Graves) "friend". From the initial encounter, it is clear that there is an immediate attraction between them. Despite Stephen's marriage to Ingrid (Miranda Richardson), and Anna's relationship with Martyn, they become involved. She reveals to him that she is "damaged", the object of her brother's incestuous obsession, who committed suicide rather than face losing her. Accustomed to order and structure, Stephen is overwhelmed by the intoxicating Anna and, for the first time in his life, his passion is out of control. Soon, he, too, is obsessed with her, follows her to Paris, and arranges a rendezvous: "e;I can't see past you". The discovery of their affair shatters Stephen's fragile, idyllic existence. Binoche's portrayal of the alluring, mysterious Anna is intriguing. Note the cocktail party scene where her nonverbal presence alone suggests that there is an understanding between them. Damage is a riveting, highly sensual, and well-crafted film about love, betrayal, and emotional destruction.

Irons/BinocheThe mystery of the elusive Anna is an important aspect of the film (as Catherine is in Francois Truffaut's Jules and Jim). She is a seeming paradox: victim and aggressor, vulnerable and fiercely independent, guarded and uninhibited. Visually, her enigmatic persona is developed using dark clothing and minimal room lighting. She speaks with a slight, obscure accent, attributed to her extensive travels as a child in diplomatic circles, an implied rootlessness. Symbolically, a pivotal scene involving a spiral staircase seemingly reflect her enigmatic history as well as Stephen's moral descent. We are drawn to her in a futile attempt to see past the image, and understand who she is. However, like Stephen Fleming, we are left hollow after the eviscerating experience... with nothing but memorable images on which to reflect and reconstruct the enigma of the unreconciled pieces.

© Acquarello 1998. All rights reserved.

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