Claude Lelouch‘s epic version of Hugo‘s Les Miserables turns a 19th century novel into a 20th century cinema masterpiece. Trevor Johnston meets the Oscar- winning director.
Still only in his 581bycar.(‘laudc l-elouch has over 30 features under his belt. an Oscar and the (.‘annes l’alme I)'()t' on his shelf (for l‘)(i()'s (XII Hmmm' If! ("My Manure) and an enviable record at the French box office. He has also enjoyed a long history of working with the biggest stars in the (iallie lirmament — among them (‘atherine l)eneuve. Yves .‘ylontand. Jean-l.ouis 'l‘rintignant. Anouk Aimee. wonderful old crinkly- face Lino \‘entura. and an ongoing collaboration that has shown Jean-Paul Belmondo‘s still a line actor as well as a star.
l.elouch himself isn‘t exactly unknown in Britain. btit very few of his films since (Tn Hmn/m' [it Une I’t’nnne have been shown here: that film‘s chic romanticism. flashy technique and sickly Francis Lai score earned him a
critical reputation for empty display that he's hard a had time living down ever since. In France. of course. he's never lost the place. but on these shores his epic and highly individual new take on Hugo‘s l.ex Alivemlilcx might as well be a comeback movie. lts recent Best Foreign Film nod at the (iolden (ilobe Awards is evidence that perhaps l.elouch‘s grandiose. even exultant brand of personal cinema has found its moment once again.
‘lt's a story of today and yesterday" is how l.elouch describes his century- hopping treatment of France's most famous historical novel. which casts a grizzled. beatific Belmondo as the small-time criminal whose admiration
for llugo's fictional hero Jean \"aljean
inspires him to do the decent thing
Les Miserables: ‘abundant pleasures‘
amid the moral upheavals of World War ll France under the Nazis. "The thing about the way it's told here is that it gets to the heart of the good and the bad that we each have inside of us. and it's that switchback that explains the 20th century as well as it does the
As written. directed and even photographed by l.elouch. his l.es .llis generates as much enthusiasm for the act of reading as it does for the sheer
joy in whirling a camera around.
However. despite the director's avowed optimism ‘I think the universe has an overall plan for the good and I suppose it shows through in all my lilms' -- the film is unstinting in its scorn for Vichy France‘s shameful treatment of its Jewish population during World War II.
These were also formative years for the young l.elouch. w ho lived a peripatetic childhood on the road with his mother and first heard the story of Hugo's Jean \'al_iean while dodging (iestapo check-points. By this time. his Jewish father. a textile mamifacturer who'd immigrated to Paris from Algeria. had returned home to join the Free French forces. and the whole experience continues to mark the positive world-view at the core of the filmmakers celluloid sensibility. ‘When you survive a war. when you've lived daily with the fear of death. everything else is relative.‘ he reflects amid the cushioned comfort of his suite at London‘s l)orchester llotel. 'll's like coming out of a severe illness; you really appreciate being alive."
While l.elouch's penchant for multi- stranded narrative and his unique camera style - prowling around the action with often extraordinary fluidity (‘For me it‘s another character in the lilm.‘ he says) » contributes substantially to the abundant pleasures of the whole. much of it would go by the wayside were it not for the inexhaustibly charismatic presence of Belmondo at the centre of things. Predictably. l.elouch has little but praise for the one-time .\'ew \Vave idol with whom he's now made four films: ‘lle‘s in his sixties now. but Belmondo is still a child too. This is the story of a man who only tlis'coycl's life in his later years. and there’s a little bit of that in Jean-Paul. lle‘s learned how to be happy. really. and you can see it in his performance. It's the essence of hope.‘
l.ex .I/l.\'(’l'(l/)/(’.\’ ope/1x (1/ l/lt’ lit/ni/un‘g/i Film/muse on Friday //) l‘t'lH'l/tll'i.
mm:- Journey’s end
‘It is the case,’ argues David Thomson, in his Biographical Dictionary 0! Film, ‘that many people who take the medium seriously have scarcely heard of, let alone encountered, the work of a master. And there are so few masters left now.’ The filmmaker in question is Greece’s Theo Angelopoulos, whom Thomson ranks alongside Antonioni, Bresson and Bivette as the four greatest living directors. That’s a stirring endorsement for a writer-director whose highly personal and uniquely evocative meditations on time, history and the nature of the celluloid image itself have achieved a further distillation in his latest offering, the Cannes Jury Prize winner Ulysses’ Gaze.
Although the presence of Harvey Keitel — typically committed and reflective as the Greek-American moviemaker returning to the Balkans to trace his geographic, emotional and artistic roots - gives the film an immediate point of entry to audiences who may not be familiar with the rest of the magnificent Angelopoulos oeuvre, it’s still a good place to start exploring the work of, yes, ‘a master’.
Here are the deliberately unfolding tracking shots that give Angelopoulos’s films a stately fluidity that proves cumulatively compelling;
here’s the landscape of the Balkans, scrubby and desolate, unfolding in muted colours, evocative and melancholy; here’s a meditation on the conflict-torn political status,
expressed with humanity and a pan-
European sense of inter- connectedness; here is a typically bold conception of time, which may co-exist in different periods and different characters within the same sequence, elucidating in visual terms the continuing weight of the past on the present. Here is, well, genius at work, or at least something close to it. At three hours, Ulysses’ Gaze is a massive undertaking, though not the longest film Angelopoulos has made (1975’s milestone The Travelling Players runs for four hours, for
’95 Ulysses’ Gaze: ‘genius at work’
instance, but takes only 80 shots to do so - which says everything about the director’s graceful, modulated formal approach). The filmmaker himself, a former Athens movie critic who went to the prestigious IDHEC film school in Paris in the late 60$, traces it down to a set of fairly basic notions, prefacing his words with the dictum that ‘all ideas are simple’ - before plunging into a mazy ten-minute answer.
‘One assumption is the concept of the journey, and, of course, in Western mythology the journey of all journeys is The Odyssey. That was one starting point, but another was the question I always ask myself when I embark on my own quest for a new film, which is whether I still see images with the fresh sense of a new discovery. Each
time I look through the camera, can it really be like the first moment that people started to make cinema, like the Manakis brothers 100 years ago in the Balkans, filming peasant workers or the conflict of their time? That’s the opposition I wanted to make: the Manakis brothers - real historical figures - at the start of our century, and Harvey Keitel playing a filmmaker at the end of our century. Two regards, as the French say. Two fields of vision. And they meet each other.’
Just how that encounter develops, you’ll need to see the film to find out. Be prepared for a challenging but deeply satisfying experience, one which is truly cinematic in that it pays little heed to the bite-size aesthetic of the TV generation — ‘l have to stand up against the rising tide of uniformity and the Americanisation of our screens’ is Angelopoulos’ cri de coeur.
Different viewers may get different things from it, of course, but as the camera traverses the ravaged interior of Eastern Europe before reaching Bosnia’s heart of darkness, it was clearly a journey that marked Angelopoulos and his collaborators very deeply. ‘Harvey Keitel said it for all of us, when someone at the Toronto Film Festival asked him about making the film. He said, “I want to tell you so much about what we saw there, but there are some things I just can’t speak of.” And then he began to cry.’ (Trevor Johnston)
Ulysses’ Gaze opens at the Filmhause, Edinburgh, on Fri 16 Feb.
24 The List 9-22 Feb I996