Listen to this article
Some say that cutting meat from one’s diet induces a more pacific temperament. I have a parallel theory for the cinema. What if Hollywood cut all the Italian-American directors from its payroll? We would begin with older bloodletters like De Palma and Scorsese. Then we would round up newcomers like Quentin Tarantino, whose Reservoir Dogs has caused much swooning and screaming in US cinemas. It is the tender tale of six hoodlums running amok with guns and razors after a bungled bank robbery.
I jest, of course, about the ethnic expulsion: I like cathartic violence as much as the next Aristotelian. Besides, Reservoir Dogs is overpowering not for what it shows - here a lake of blood around dying Tim Roth, there a severed ear brandished like a Christmas cracker novelty - but for the nervy fear it sets pumping in us from its start.
We keep shuttling between the horrific and the ridiculous. The camera circling six black-suited thugs as they chatter over trivia in a diner; then the gang’s post-heist explosion into a warehouse, plus hostage policeman; then the flashback glimpses, jagged as broken glass, of the robbery; then the Jacobean momentum with torments, quarrels and deaths mounting up, cabined inside a single setting and scored to a dialogue track as haywire-demotic as early Scorsese. ‘Who’d you kill?’; ‘A few cops’; ‘Any real people?’; ‘Just cops.’
This is the end of the world seen as both bang and whimper. There is comic nihilism even in the characters’ Toytown job-names, bestowed on them by their Mr Big (Lawrence Tierney) and used by Tarantino to chapter-head sequences: ‘Mr White’ (bullet-faced Harvey Keitel), ‘Mr Pink’ (verminous Steve Buscemi), ‘Mr Blonde’ (razor-wielding Elvis lookalike Michael Madsen), ‘Mr Orange’ (Britain’s Tim Roth, superb as the dying crook).
The characters’ interchangeability is the film’s big, black joke. Out goes the romantic Manicheism of traditional heist cinema: the loveably kooky crooks versus the cut-outs from the cop shop. Here by the close every crook is firing guns at every other crook - catalysed by the horrific scene in which Mr Orange sets about the pinioned cop and his ear - and the exact casus belli is lost in the chaos of identikit suits and dotty names. Cursed by many for its vicious amorality, Reservoir Dogs seems to me, in its apocalyptic contempt for the criminal mind-set, the most moral crime film in memory.
Watching Brian De Palma’s Raising Cain - another day, another Italian-American bloodfest - is also a moral experience. Like Tarantino, De Palma neither canonises the criminal mind nor portentously condemns it. Better to shake the thing around in an absurdist Moulinex and see how quickly and interestingly it comes apart.
For QT’s reductionist verismo, though, substitute B De P’s accretive rococo. Disturbed psychologist John Lithgow has an imaginary evil twin (Lithgow with a sneer) and a not-so-imaginary evil father (Lithgow with Kane-like white hair). Dad once used Lithgow Jr as a guinea pig for experiments in childhood trauma. Now Mrs Lithgow Jr (Lolita Davidovich) is worried her spouse is doing the same. ‘I go to work,’ she exclaims, ‘and the child psychologist stays home playing house Dad!’ She is concerned, you see, about their little child.
Then there is more. An old flame of Mrs L’s (Steven Bauer) turns up to scorch the status quo; a murder is committed; a pair of odd detectives call in an odder super-shrink (Frances Sternhagen); and finally a shopping bag of oranges, a baby, a sun-dial and a black-wigged woman with a gun come together to form the climax.
This wonderfully crazed thriller bears the same stylistic relation to early De Palmas like Obsession and Carrie as The Tempest does to Hamlet. Be gone, dull realism. Here the swags and flourishes of De Palma’s last great brainstorm Dressed To Kill are re-touched to create an other-worldly fable about our world.
In De Palma films there is no such thing as terra firma. Every setting, however humble from city park to motel bedroom, is queasily stylised by colour or camerawork; and even life’s simple certainties rebound or betray. Nor, in the giddy drama of existence, do human beings quite know what roles they are meant to be playing. Miss Davidovich might be lead victim or lady detective. Mr Lithgow might be son, father or twin; doctor or demon. And Miss Sternhagen - well, note the scene in which she walks one way down a police corridor and is then pulled back another and tell me why you laugh out loud.
Of course the film was rubbished in America. They have still not pardoned Mr De P for The Bonfire Of The Vanities. And in any case cinema in the US is fast becoming a branch of daytime soap opera. If it does not stand there delivering platitudes in head-and-shoulders shots, it must be kinky or corrupt. But Raising Cain’s title dares to invoke a sound-syllable from another great rococo title in the cinema, and how Orson Welles would have loved this strange, beautiful descendant.
Elsewhere, all is France. Bertrand Tavernier, Eric Rohmer and Alain Corneau all steal into London bearing celluloid. Two and a half hours of it in Tavernier’s L627, a neo-realist cop drama whose exact purpose eludes me. Surely it cannot be a rechauffage of the old chestnut about the police being as bad as the criminals?
Perhaps it can, as the plain-clothes Paris drug squad led by plain-looks Lulu (Didier Bezace, magnetic despite wearing what looks like joke-shop nose, moustache and glasses) hurtle about town making busts. The film’s pattern is as follows. Out to the streets or subways to capture dealers; then back to the portacabin-style HQ to have tea or do over the captives; then out to the streets; then back to HQ …
Is this is a vivid picture of a monotonous, soul-destroying life - or a monotonous, soul-destroying picture? Tavernier’s humanism never takes short cuts: hence its magnificence when it is in full motor order (Round Midnight, Life And Nothing But). But L627 - the title invokes a French article of law about the treatment of drug offenders - is by my watch two decades behind what popular American cinema has been doing and saying, more interestingly, about dodgy cops since The French Connection.
On to Alain Corneau’s Tous Les Matins Du Monde, and not a cop in sight. Gerard Depardieu’s face in full close-up sighs out memories of his great music master as a tear falls. We are in the late 17th century when baroque music reigned and when, in extended Depardieu-recalled flashback, one maestro called Sainte Colombe (Jean-Pierre Marielle) handed down viol de gamba wisdom to one Marin Marais (Depardieu in youth played by his son Guillaume).
Yet Monsieur SC, a stern and jealous widower with a love-starved daughter (Anne Brochet), first welcomes MM into his country villa as one would welcome a hatchet murderer. Moods are as high-strung as the music. Faces glower through the half-light washing in from windows - cameraman Yves Angelo’s no-tricks period lighting is a joy - while tautest cat-gut sings out pain and transcendence.
Pascal Quignard wrote the script from his truth-based novel. Yes, these star-crossed musicians did live and love: although I question whether Sainte Colombe was so deaf to non-musical sounds that he never heard his disciple slither into the eavesdropping crawlspace under the master’s garden studio. Gem-like performances, though, in a dark jewel of a film.
A Winter’s Tale has an almost terminal case of the chatters. Well-known French winemaster Eric Rohmer removes the corks from three garrulous souls - pretty Felicie (Charlotte Very) and the two lovers she must choose between - and watches as they fizz like long-distance champagne bottles. Will the girl go for middle-aged Max or pale, intellectual Loic? Or will she wait for long-lost Charles, whom she met en vacances years before but gave the wrong address to? (It could only happen in a Rohmer film.) Plato, Pascal and other pensive matters are mixed in. Pleasant if non-vintage.
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published