Tag Archives: French cinema

Crouching Tiger


by Cat McAlpine

When you recommend this film, do not lead with “French, subtitled.” Though an accurate description on both counts, the association of moody cigarette smoking would do little to represent the raw heart of Dheepan.

Dheepan is a Tamil freedom fighter (called Tigers) who flees as the war begins its bloody close. Having lost his own wife and daughters, he must travel with Yalini (26) and Illayaal (9), posing as family to secure asylum in France.

These three strangers become dependent on one another for the facade that protects them. Unfortunately, fleeing Sri Lanka makes only minor improvements in their livelihoods, and the makeshift family discovers that war comes in sizes great and small.

Writer/director Jacques Audiard (A Prophet) is hyper-aware of light, using both color and shape to carve out living, breathing moments. Dheepan battles his monsters in a red-lit basement room. An elephant sways slowly in the dappled light of the forest. Yalini leaves the door open while she showers, and the blue light from the bathroom flickers teasingly.

This is the vision that truly guides the narrative, finding those quiet moments in-between the gruesome truths of war, gangs, poverty, immigrants, and trying to love someone you do not know.

The camera work, too, defines these moments. The close-up seems to be a favorite of Audiard, but it is not misused in context. The camera betrays when Dheepan’s world feels small and when it feels large. The watcher often feels like they are peering into rooms where they were not invited.

Jesuthasan Antonythasan’s Dheepan is stoic, contemplative, and yearning. You can feel his need for anything simple and real. His violence is believable and earned. Kalieaswari Srinivasan as Yalini builds a curious fear of the world and people around her. She is rarely likable, but always enthralling. That’s the humanity in Audiard’s characters, they are more real because they are less likeable, but this can make Dheepan harder to watch.

The film could lose 20 or 30 minutes, or at least appropriate it to the more aggressive scenes. Beautiful and real though it is, there are long periods where not much happens. Its pinnacle violence is gruesome and triumphant, leaving you wanting more. But a lust for violence is precisely what Dheepan and his family have been running from.


Halloween Countdown, Day 21

Eyes Without a Face (1960)

The only real flaw in this French classic is that at no point does Billy Idol ride a motorcycle through the rain into an obscurely Satanic ring of fire. Beyond that one obvious problem, Eyes Without a Face is a pretty great flick.

The circus music score that opens the film and shadows it throughout subtly works on your nerves as sort of a cross between a child’s toybox tune and an absurd joke. We first hear those freaky notes as a handsome woman nervously drives a tiny European car with someone in the backseat. Eventually she dumps the young passenger – nude except for a trench coat and oversized hat that obscures her face – into the river and drives away.

From this dialogue-free opening scene, with its sparkling black and white photography and immediate, mysterious tension, you realize that Eyes Without a Face is stylish in that effortlessly French way.

The formula behind Eyes Without a Face has been stolen and reformulated for dozens of lurid, low-brow exploitation films since 1960. In each, there is a mad doctor who sees his experiments as being of a higher order than the lowly lives they ruin; the doctor is assisted by a loyal, often non-traditionally attractive (some might say handsome) nurse; there are nubile young women who will soon be victimized, as well as a cellar full of the already victimized.

But somehow, in this originator of that particular line of horror, the plot works seamlessly.

An awful lot of that success lies in the performances. Pierre Brasseur, as the stoic surgeon torn by guilt and weighed down by insecurities about his particular genius, brings a believable, subtle egomania to the part seldom seen in a mad scientist role.

Alida Valli, in particular, makes all other “devoted beyond reason nurse helpmates” look ridiculous by comparison. She lets both devotion and guilt flavor her performance, allowing it to be surprisingly empathetic given her duties (to lure young victims and support their subsequent butchering).

Still, the power in the film is in the striking visuals that are the trademark of giant French filmmaker Georges Franju. His particular genius in this film gave us the elegantly haunting image of Dr. Genessier’s daughter Christiane (Edith Scob).

Christiane is the image of dainty innocence, a waif-like apparition hiding her monstrousness behind the most divinely spooky, blank mask. Her graceful, damaged presence haunts the entire film and elevates those final scenes to something wickedly sublime.