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Michel Piccoli

May 10, 2008 at 2:47 am

At the French Cinematheque the other night, at the opening of Humbert Balsan’s retrospective, director Serge Toubiana (who writes an interesting French language cinema blog) called to the scene Michel Piccoli, to say a few words about Balsan. For me this was an unexpected appearance. I was thrilled to see the actor in person. He is now an old man, in his 80s, and if I passed him on the street I probably would have never recognized the man that I know from so many films.

A real titan indeed. His filmography includes more than 200 titles, and he still takes on roles. Showing to students a clip from Godard’s Contempt in an introductory cinema class (the moment in the screening room, with Fritz Lang and Jack Palance), lets me encounter the young Piccoli at least once a year. In my mind, however, Piccoli is engraved rather with his powerful presence bordering on a madman, full of sexual intensity. At least, this is how I have come to think of him from his best performances in films by Bunuel (Diary of a Chambermaid, Belle de Jour), Marco Ferreri (La Grande Bouffe), and in lesser-seen gems (Francis Girod’s L’etat sauvage, Youssef Chahine’s Adieu Bonaparte, Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse, Manoel de Oliveira’s I’m Going Home). Piccoli is certainly a perfect candidate for the title of a cult actor!

Late one night last month I came across a film with Piccoli on one of the French TV channels. It was clearly something from the 1970s, judging by the visual style. A truly engaging viewing, one could not get away, a film that had no talk, the characters were only making sounds and yet communicating perfectly and everything was clear. Piccoli, the protagonist, was a working class man who goes mad and rebels against society, sexually and morally. He goes on a self-styled strike, a sort of siege of his semi-destroyed apartment. Some neighbors are outraged but some like it and join in; the police (shown as stupid and corrupt) cannot do much to get him out of the barricaded room; it is all resolved at the end with the arrival of a lovable mason, played by Patrick Deawaere, who puts everybody at peace with his friendly whistling. It took me quite a bit of time to search the next day to find out which is the film, but I finally identified it as Themroc, directed by Claude Faraldo, a film that seems to be available only in the UK on a very limited basis for the time being (so buy it). It is a potential cult classic that has been shot simultaneously or just before the making of La Grande Bouffe, a film that fully unleashes Piccoli’s dark manly force.

Piccoli today. He looks pretty much like this in Manoel de Oliveira’s short at Chacun son cinéma. There he plays Nikita Khrushchev!

© Dina Iordanova
10 May 2008

Humbert Balsan retrospective at the French Cinematheque, Paris

May 9, 2008 at 1:08 am

This retrospective, which opened two days ago at the Cinematheque Francaise at Bercy, features the work of the producer. Balsan committed suicide in 2005, on the very day of the opening of Berlin Film Festival, reportedly over serious financial difficulties, leaving the European film community distraught and bewildered. Some of the films that he had committed to at that point, like Bela Tarr’s The Man from London, have since been completed (See Dave Kehr’s revealing hommage to Balsan at the Rouge web-site).

One of the most versatile French producers with more than sixty titles to his name, Balsan worked with key international figures like Ismail Merchant and James Ivory (The Proprietor; Mr. & Mrs. Bridge; Jefferson in Paris; Quartet), with French directors, such as Sandrine Veysset (Y aura-t-il de la neige à Noël?/ Will It Snow for Christmas ) and Claire Denis (The Intruder), and produced films directed by actors like Brigitte Rouan (Post coitum animal triste) and Jean-Louis Trintignant (Le Maitre-nageur ).

More uniquly, however, Balsan was committed to working with directors from the Arab world and the Middle East. Besides a host of documentaries, he produced most of the important work of celebrated Egyptian Youssef Chahine, as well as films by Youssry Nasrallah, and Lebanese Maroun Bagdadi . He was the man behind some of the most important films of the decade, such as Ismael Ferroukhi’s pensive Mecca-pilgrimage Le Grande Voyage and Palestinian Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention.

Balsan would have been 54 today. He entered cinema as an actor and appeared in a host of smaller roles later on.


Balsan as Gauvain in Robert Bresson’s 1974 Lancelot of the Lake

© Dina Iordanova
9 May 2008

London/Paris: Mobile Phone Cinema

May 8, 2008 at 2:43 am

In London last week, at Bloomsburry’s Brunswick Centre (Tube Russel Square), I stumbled upon what was billed as The World’s Smallest Cinema, a Nokia-sponsored project, which, I understand, is moving around town these days as it was also spotted at Canary Wharf. It is a small cube-shaped shack which holds five comfortable red chairs. You can come in and view a programme of several shorts, all shot with an advanced model Nokia mobile phone. I entered with the intention to focus on the screening and tried to concentrate on the films, but was distracted by the harassment of the cinema’s staff, whose task is evidently to use the projection facility as a ‘squeeze page’ and get e-mail addresses out of viewers that drop in, for some research purposes. So while they were looking for a pen to give me to fill in the form and telling me that if I agree to participate, I may win one of these camera-phones, the short film programme rolled on, and all I was able to register were some shaky Tarnation-style images of diverse ordinary people speaking to the camera. Nice.

\"The cubicle of the cinema spotted by Mark Hillary at Canary Wharf

This is a picture of the cubicle of the cinema spotted by Mark Hillary at Canary Wharf

Back in Paris this week, I see that mobile phone filmmaking is advancing even further. Joseph Morder’s I’d Like To Share The Spring with Someone/ J’aimerais partager le printemps avec quelqu’un, a full-length (85 min.) expressionistic diary-like feature shot entirely on a mobile phone is scheduled to play at two well-positioned arthouse cinemas, MK2 Beaubourg and Reflet Medicis. This appears to be the very first full-length film of this nature, produced by Baba Yaga films, and sponsored in the context of a project called Festival Pocket Films, an organization fronted by Benoît Labourdette. Morder and Labourdette are appearing twice this week to discuss the project after screenings.

Here is the film’s trailer, or ‘la bande annonce’ as they call it here, from AOL video.

© Dina Iordanova
8 May 2008

Paris, May 1968- May 2008

May 7, 2008 at 1:44 am

Being in Paris these days certainly feels like touching history. It is the 40th anniversary of May 1968, and the memory of these long lost days is all in the air. Yesterday there was a large student demonstration at Place de la Bastille, only remotely reminiscent of ‘68, of course, yet with a strong police presence (’les flics’ were just watching quietly on the side, but ready for action if challenged, with truncheons and plastic shields). News stands around town are full of special newspaper supplements that reflect on the lessons and the value of ‘68. André Glucksmann and his son were appearing at an event at FNAC at Place d’Italie last week, to promote their book Mai 68 expliqué à Nicolas Sarkozy, which is just one or many published these days on the May 68 legacy.

Some good things have happened in the world of DVD releases. First of all, there is a Chris Marker film about 1968, Le fond de l’air est rouge. Then, there is William Klein’s famous documentary Grands soirs et petits matins 1968-78, as well as various other documentaries that revisit May 1968 (see the display of some of these titles below). The trend in reassessing the legacy of ’68 seems to be that the French events are more and more placed in a wider global context, and linked to what has been happening at the same time in other parts of the world, like Vietnam or Prague.

Alas, of many the films that treat this period, it seems that only Philippe Garrel’s Les Amants reguliers/Regular Lovers and Bertolucci’s The Dreamers are readily available in subtitled version.

© Dina Iordanova
7 May 2008

Cannes Film Festival in scholarly writing

May 5, 2008 at 11:47 pm

There is no day now that the French media wouldn’t build up their coverage of the coming Cannes Festival. Last year, the festival celebrated its 60th anniversary and it is a sort of a national institution. Sony released a special CD of soundtracks related to the festival, Festival de Cannes: 60th Anniversary, and a special omnibus film was commissioned,Chacun Son Cinema, with contributions from all international directors who are supposedly ‘in’ with Cannes at the moment.

By consensus, Cannes is the world’s most important film festival. Several monographs have been dedicated to it over the years. The most recent one was commissioned also in connection with the 60th anniversary, it is Kieron Corless and Chris Darke’s BFI/Faber and Faber 2006 book Cannes: Inside the World’s Premier Film Festival. The year before, another similar account was published in France, by Loredana Latil (with Giles Jacob), Le festival de Cannes sur la scène internationale. There had been other exclusively Cannes-themed books published about 15 to 20 years ago, many of which have now come out of print, such as Rogert Ebert’s account Two Weeks in the Midnight Sun and Cari Beauchamp/Henri Behar’s Hollywood on the Riviera, and more. And then, there are interesting snippets to the festival’s workings in the books by Kenneth Turan on festivals and by Peter Biskind on Miramax (these titles are displayed below).

For me, the most important analytical observations on the festival are to be found in two recent scholarly books. One is Vanessa Schwartz’s It’s So French!: Hollywood, Paris, and the Making of Cosmopolitan Film Culture, a historian’s look into the festival’s operations in the 1950s and early 1960s. The chapter dedicated to Cannes makes for an enjoyable and engaging reading into Cold War international cultural diplomacy focusing on the American-French cultural relations at the time, persuasively busting the myths of the supposed ideological animosity between these two nations. Marijke De Valck’s recently released Film Festivals: From European Geopolitics to Global Cinephilia (Film Culture in Transition) includes another interesting investigation into the workings of Cannes.

In writing this I now realize that the list is actually much longer. There are another five or six French books that merit mention, as well as articles. I will stop here, however, only recommending Henry Jaglom’s satirical observation on Cannes mores (one of journalists’ favorite topics), the film Festival in Cannes, nostalgically featuring a host of now somewhat forgotten European stars such as Maximilian Schell, Anouk Aimee, and others.

© Dina Iordanova
5 May 2008

Portfolio Grader: Navellier

May 4, 2008 at 11:22 pm

Louis Navellier’s The Little Book That Makes You Rich: A Proven Market Beating Formula for Growth Investing, endorsed by Steve Forbes, struck me as a really helpful and insightful guide to the principles of growth investing. It gave me a much better understanding of some of the underlying principles of stock picking and portfolio management. Ultimately, however, the book reads as one extended advertisement for the services available from Navellier’s company, which publishes four investing advice newsletters, the subscription to each costs about $1000 per annum. There is a web-site, Get Rich With Growth, that has been created for the readers of the book, which is now free (but not clear for how long).

The site contains a Portfolio Grader that allows you to enter the codes of stock you are considering buying. Once you do this, it rates the stock against the eight main categories which Navellier uses for assessment, and gives it a fundamental and a quantitative grade (fundamental grade is weigthed at 70% and the quantitative grade – at 30%), as well as an overall grade which translates into a recommendation, A- Strong Buy to F – Strong Sell. The site also rates your overall portfolio, from A to F.

I worked to create a tentative portfolio for myself, aiming to get an overall grade of an A for all the stocks I am planning to invest in. But I also did something else: I went to the Stockpickr web-site which lists the content of various people’s portfolios (probably with some delay in time but a very interesting reading nonetheless). I got all the stock codes for what was listed as the contents of Navellier’s portfolio and entered them into the Portfolio Grader on his own site. The surprising thing was that of the 30 or so stocks only a handful came out as A-rated in Navellier’s own system. Quite a few had fundamental grades of B and quantitative grades of C, and the overall grade for the portfolio itself was a B. Surprising, indeed, provided this man is a growth investor — why would he invest in a confirguation that does not seem, in his own ratings, to be geared to supply the best results? Especially as he writes in the book that if a stock falls below fundamental grade of A or below a quantitative grade of B it is immediately sold (p. 125). True, he is discussing the so-called ‘quantum’ stocks in this part, those of aggressive growth potential; he may not be interested to have many of these in his portfolio during the currently volatile period. Still, I feel there is a contradiction here.