Friday, November 21, 2008

DVDebuts: LE DOULOS ("classic" disappointment) and GARDEN PARTY (disposable charmer)

Has anyone ever looked better in a trench coat than Jean-Paul Belmondo? For evidence, I offer up Jean-Pierre Melville's LE DOULOS. All the correct accoutrements are on view here: said trench coat, glowing b/w cinematography (by Nicolas Hayer) complete with noir shadows and gleaming darkness, criminals, attitude, a heist, loot and betrayal. Yet, with the recent release of this film and Le Deuxième souffle, M. Melville, as director/adapter (from Pierre Lesou's novel), is looking less and less interesting, except as a primer on how NOT to make a thriller. Initially, the story involves us, as characters change from who and what you first imagine into something quite different. But entire scenes are given over to ludicrous, lengthy exposition, while chance -- rather unbelievable chance, at that -- plays far too much of a part in the events, which, once you learn who's what, become more and more predictable until they climax/collapse into an ending so manipulative and obvious that it approaches camp.

Perhaps, back in 1962 when the film was first released, it seemed less obvious. But today it comes off as a kind of compendium of French noir tropes, without ever coalescing into real emotion or narrative truth. Serge Reggiani provides stellar support to Belmondo, who looks fabulous. I can understand Criterion's releasing (via Rialto) this second-rate Melville for completists' sake. The transfer, as usual with Criterion, is everything you could want. And the Extras on Le Doulos are splendid: interviews with both Bertrand Tavernier, who handled PR for the film!) and Volker Schlöndorff, who acted as Melville's first assistant director.

Expectations do the darndest things. A supposed "classic" can leave you cold, while a little trifle like GARDEN PARTY, which ought not to rate too high on any scale, manages to surprise and entertain while providing a sometimes silly but very pleasant 90 minutes. Writer/director Jason Freeland's film observes some almost "haves" and some barely registering "have-nots" on the radar of the L.A./Hollywood scene. There's little new here, and yet Freeland's observations seem generally real and quirky enough to engage. If the movie's title reminds you of a very popular Ricky Nelson song, that's intentional, and the song itself is played more than once. Were the entire musical score and various songs selected for the soundtrack not so damn good, this might seem like crass misuse of an oldie-but-goodie. But no: the music here is generally wonderful and well-chosen.
The cast -- mostly new to me, even one of the older members, Christopher Allport, since deceased -- gives lively and interesting performances all. Vinessa Shaw (bottom row, right) lets us see the cracks in her hard-edged real estate agent (and, boy, does she offer plenteous evidence of the wonders of the uplift bra); Richard Gunn (top row, center) makes his mopey, porn-obsessed male more interesting and varied than most of this ilk; Alexander Cendese (top row, right) allows his hunkiness to play second fiddle to his gay character's loneliness and insecurity; Patrick Fischler (top row, left, and these days best-known as the nasty commedien Jimmy Barrett on AMC's Mad Men) probes for extra reality and pizzaz in his role of porn photographer; best of all is Erik Scott Smith (bottom row, left: he played the Colin Farrell character as an adolescent in A Home at the End of the World) as a mysterious young musician who charms the pants off everyone he encounters on his way to the land of dreams-come-true. Smith does his own singing here, and he's good. As is -- in its lightweight, take-it-or-leave-it manner, the entire movie.

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