Monday, March 23, 2015

L'Immortelle (1963)

Alain Robbe-Grillet found himself in an interesting position in 1963. Always quick with some self-deprecating humor, the brilliant novelist and filmmaker constantly quipped that during the 50’s and 60’s when the “nouvelle roman” or new novel movement which Robbe-Grillet was a leader, if not the inventor of, was en vogue, Robbe-Grillet’s name was one to drop, even if as he put it, nobody read him. Robbe-Grillet’s name became even famous when his screenplay for Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marinbad (1961) was nominated for an Oscar, even though he wasn’t a best seller and French literary critics failed to comprehend his radical writing style. Robbe-Grillet had always expressed interest in making films and during a 1989 lecture at San Francisco University he joked that he was probably asked to direct films due to the popular critical consensus that his novels were films that just haven’t been made yet, citing his 1957 novel Jealousy in which over the course of 200 pages a house is described while still not really giving a clear example of what the house actually looks like so it was only right to give Robbe-Grillet a camera and literally show the house! Robbe-Grillet’s astonishing first film, 1963’s L’Immortelle was a perfect cinematic translation of his unconventional nouvelle roman writing style and set in motion what was to become one of the most fascinating, provocative and distinctive filmographies in European cinema.    

Shortly after arriving in Istanbul for work purposes, a professor meets a mysterious woman (Françoise Brion) and is immediately taken with her. The two begin a relationship although she remains enigmatic, never really letting him get to know her much to his frustration. He becomes even more perplexed when she tells him she’s going away for a few days without giving any explanation why and is adamant about not being contacted. Afterwards the man becomes obsessed and sets out on the mystifying and potentially dangerous task of finding out all he can about his elusive companion.

At one point during L’Immortelle (The Immortal One) Françoise Brion’s nameless enchanter muses to her (also nameless) suitor that the Turkey in which the film takes place is the “Turkey of your dreams”. Its a description that couldn’t have been more apt, yet at the same time could also be taken with a grain of salt with nothing in a Robbe-Grillet film being instantly explainable. The Istanbul which Robbe-Grillet presents certainly exists in the real word, the film itself however seems to be suspended between the waking and dream world. It’s a world where every character seems to be in a zombified haze of sorts, where the inhabitants speak in cryptic, oftentimes contradicting terms and events are repeated but perhaps not in the exact way they happened in the first place. Such descriptions might make L’Immortelle sound impenetrable however the opposite is true. Robbe-Grillet’s fragmented presentation is unquestionably bewildering but it is also exotic and enticing. The mood the film projects as a result of Robbe-Grillet’s direction and disjointed narrative is astounding making L’Immortelle a film that’s incredibly difficult to not get lost in. Two factors also contribute immensely to the films already trancelike ambiance. The first being Robbe-Grillet’s postcard-esque display Istanbul which essentially becomes its own character but more importantly, the arresting presence of Françoise Brion, with the spell Brion casts on the star-crossed professor carrying over to the audience as well, so much so that the film never once drags even during the portion of the film when she is absent.

L’Immortelle was awarded the Prix Louis Delluc, a prestigious French film award given out buy a jury comprised of mostly film critics, although ironically when the film was released the overall critical response was generally lukewarm or negative. While the majority of Robbe-Grillet’s films were difficult to find up until early 2014 when L’Immortelle along with Trans-Europ-Express (1967), The Man Who Lies (1968), Eden and After (1970) and Successive Slidings of Pleasure (1974) finally received remastered DVD treatments, L’Immortelle was one of the more if not the most tricky to track down unless a screening was held. Thanks to BFI who released all the aforementioned films in a box set and Kino/Redemption who released the films separately, L’Immortelle is readily available. All the discs contain interviews with Robbe-Grillet and the one conducted for L’Immortelle is one of the most interesting as he goes into great detail as to what it was like directing a film for the first time and goes into some of the mistakes he made as a first time filmmaker. It’s a fascinating conversation for an even more fascinating film and it shouldn’t even need to be said that the disc is essential. L’Immortelle is one of Robbe-Grillet’s finest films and like all debuts from major auteurs its is a special film and one that serves as a sign of things to come. A stunning debut from a true original.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Lower Level (1992)

Kristine Peterson probably isn’t a name that is familiar to a number of genre fans however from 1988 to 1997 Peterson helmed a handful of films that should be of interest to genre fans. Peterson cut her teeth working as an assistant director or second unit director on low budget cult classics like Chopping Mall (1982), The Ladies Club (1986), Reform School Girls (1986) and even bigger budget Hollywood productions such as Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989) and Tremors (1990). In the late 80’s Peterson began directing her own films, the first of which was Deadly Dreams (1988), a psychological slasher with far greater ambitions than other films of its ilk. Peterson followed up Deadly Dreams with the Roger Corman backed erotic thriller Body Chemistry (1990), a film that probably isn’t going to be given any awards for “best original screenplay” but is nonetheless one of the best erotic thrillers to come out of the post-Fatal Attraction (1987) craze. Peterson’s career took some pretty interesting lefts, IE Critters 3 (1991) and Kickboxer 5 (1995), but its clear that Peterson was comfortable working in genre film, namely the horror, thriller and action genres and in 1992 she blended the three masterfully with Lower Level, a brilliant low key little B-thriller that despite its title, is at a higher level than most (pun intended) .

Architect Hillary White (Elizabeth Gracen) returns to her high-tech, high rise office building after her boyfriend Craig bails on their plans for a romantic night out together. Unbeknownst to Hillary, Sam (David Bradley) the night watchman at her building has been harboring an obsession with her for the longest time and has planned a special evening of his own for Hillary and himself. Hillary however doesn’t reciprocate his feelings which sends Sam over the edge and Hillary suddenly finds herself trapped inside her office building with a psychopath who controls the entire buildings securely system and every exit.

While there is certainly a direct to video/late night cable vibe to Lower Level, considering the talent involved it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the film achieves things similar films wouldn’t even think of attempting. With a dependable director like Peterson and the flawless casting of Gracen and Bradley the film succeeds in being escapist entertainment but also a film with more on its mind than what’s advertised. Although a third player re-enters the film about midway through, this is Gracen and Bradley’s show and both steal equal parts of it. Far from being the stereotypical damsel in distress, Gracen’s Hillary is no victim. She’s a fighter, and Gracen, along with being a knockout beauty, has the presence and personality to make Hillary’s strength convincing. A more than worth opponent to Bradley’s Sam. Perhaps best known for his martial arts skills, Bradley can act and much like Hillary not being a standard genre film victim, Sam isn’t a stock ranting and raving maniac. “Sympathetic” isn’t the right word, but there is an obsessive method to Sam’s madness. Peterson doesn’t shy away from psychology, going the extra mile by acknowledging that it isn’t so much Hillary Sam is “in love” with but rather a fantasy version he’s slowly developed in his head having fetishized her for so long. Of course the other star of the film would be the office building with Peterson’s precise and slick direction wasting none of its spacious yet isolating potential including some pretty innovative moments involving elevator shafts.

After Lower Level Peterson would go on to direct only three more features, the action/caper thriller The Hard Truth (1994) which featured an impressive ensemble trio in the form of Michael Rooker, Lysette Anthony and Eric Roberts, the aforementioned, often maligned Kickboxer 5 and finally the music based drama Slaves to the Underground (1997). In between all that she also directed an episode of the CBS/USA series Silk Stalkings in 1992 as well as an episode of the Playboy series Eden in 1993. Lower Level however is easily her best and most accomplished work and although the films feature different subject matter, Lower Level would nonetheless make for great marathon viewing with Peterson’s Deadly Dreams and Body Chemistry as all three seem to occupy the same obsessive headspace. The film went direct to video and probably pay cable back in the day and the film actually did get a DVD release courtesy of First Look Features. Unfortunately that release seemed to go out of print almost as fast as the discs were pressed and as is so often the case goes for ridiculous prices. Thankfully the film is still easy to find on VHS even though it’d be a beautiful thing to see the film get a re-release on DVD as like the best of Peterson’s films Lower Level epitomizes the term “hidden gem” and deserves better than to be hidden in obscurity.