Jules and Jim
Sunday, 3 p.m.
WALLY: Wait—before we begin . . . Obviously, we can mention ten films from the Criterion Collection that have been deeply meaningful to us in one way or another, but once we have a list of films that we’ve loved or been affected by, do you actually feel capable of saying which films on the list you prefer or think are better? Because I don’t. I think we should just mention ten films, but we should announce at the beginning that the order of the ten is arbitrary. And as a matter of fact, the list of the ten itself—well, it isn’t arbitrary, but speaking for myself, on a different day I could easily have mentioned other films . . .
ANDRÉ: I totally agree. How could I ever choose between a Matisse and a Vermeer or a Rembrandt and a Hockney—or between this Matisse and that Matisse? And we are different people at different times of our lives, with different tastes. When I was twenty, I loved Dostoyevsky, and now I can hardly get twenty pages into one of his novels.
WALLY: Besides, we’re making this list together, but you and I are two different people—aren’t we?
ANDRÉ: Well, yes, I suppose we are two different people, although after having worked together for forty years, I’m sometimes not quite sure whether you are me or I am you.
WALLY: Another thing about trying to put things in a numerical order is, I mean, on what basis could we say that film X, that I like, ought to be higher on the list than film Y, that you like—do you see what I mean?
ANDRÉ: Yes, I see your point.
WALLY: So the list is just one possible list, and the order of the list will be arbitrary. And I’m going to try to avoid mentioning friends and neighbors and people who are living down the street from me, because I don’t want to get into any dog-eat-dog competitive wrangles. And so I’m not going to mention anyone my age or younger than me. But anyway, let’s start with Jules and Jim, because Jules and Jim is certainly one of the films—along with The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries—that, when I saw it as an adolescent, I felt . . . It was as if I could literally feel the movie reaching inside me and rearranging my internal organs . . . The beauty was almost too much for me—the music, the images, the emotions of the characters . . .
ANDRÉ: I’ve seen Jules and Jim four or five times over the years. And for me . . . now, Truffaut may not have been thinking about this, but for me the film is about the way we project what we want to project onto our lovers—and have great difficulty seeing who they actually are. A great love can often be a figment of our feverish imaginations. We’re not falling in love with a real person but with who we want that person to be . . . And oh my God, that Jeanne Moreau!!!!!!!!
Cries and Whispers
ANDRÉ: The first time I saw a Bergman film—it may also have been Wild Strawberries—I was a very young man, and I couldnt believe I was seeing what I was seeing. It was as if Moses had brought down the tablets into the movie theatrer. I mean, I’d been staggered by On the Waterfront, but when I saw Bergman—he was so bold, so experimental, doing things no one had ever done before. And now I’ve seen each one of his films so many times . . . I love the fact that the story of My Dinner with André actually begins with a Bergman film. The André character has gone to see Bergman’s Autumn Sonata and has run out of the theater in tears at the moment when Ingrid Bergman, who plays a concert pianist, says, “I was always able to live in my work, but not in my life”—the very dilemma from which André felt he was suffering at the time. Remember? And then a friend finds him leaning against a wall twenty blocks away, sobbing, and the friend tells Wally about it, and that’s what leads Wally to call André, which leads to the dinner. I love so many of Bergman’s films—Persona . . .
WALLY: Oh my God, I think everything I’ve ever written has been influenced by that movie—I mean, for whatever that’s worth . . . Those talking heads go everywhere with me.
ANDRÉ: In Cries and Whispers, as I recall it, two sisters who have always loathed each other finally have the courage to sit together at the dining table and describe just how deeply each has always hated the other. And once they’ve found the courage to speak the truth, they can begin to love each other.
ANDRÉ: It’s almost embarrassing to say this, but we have to admit that our own two directors are among the finest in the history of cinema. And I think we both felt that way a long time before we ever dreamed of working with either of them.
WALLY: Definitely. And I said a minute ago that I wasn’t going to mention anyone younger than me, but I have to say Jonathan is younger than me. Actually, for the first long period that we worked with him, I assumed he was about twenty years younger than he really is. I remember being electrified by seeing Something Wild back in 1986. Jonathan presented a portrait of an America that was garishly and gorgeously colorful—the colors, the characters, the actors were all so fresh, so delicious—it was an amazing world in which anything could happen.
ANDRÉ: And I was electrified by seeing The Silence of the Lambs, which I immediately understood to be something far more complex than a horror movie. I experienced it as a parable about the horrors of our presence in Vietnam. Jonathan is always showing us more than one thing at a time, and it was a godsend for us that he wanted to direct A Master Builder. Like Louis, he is both a master director of feature films and a master documentarian. It was an amazing experience to have him film our work. What can one say? Jonathan is a volcano in shoes. He’s a dynamo, a whirlwind, a tornado of passion and enthusiasm. Only someone with that energy could have directed our lovely, difficult film in one week.
WALLY: The films both of Jonathan and of Louis show a restless, hungry desire on the part of the filmmakers to test themselves by constantly doing things that are completely different from what they’ve done previously. It’s all risk all the time.
ANDRÉ: I remember seeing Murmur of the Heart when it first came out and thinking, This is an ecstatic ode to freedom—the freedom to visit a brothel with your brothers, the freedom in a strict family to have a spitball fight at the formal dining room table, the freedom to even make love to your mother! I believe Louis was brought up extremely formally. As was I. But oh the joy of letting loose, letting all the shit fly, breaking barriers that perhaps we couldn’t do in our lives, but we had this amazing outlet where we could do anything and say anything in our work. When I saw Murmur of the Heart, I vowed that I would try to be as free, as unfettered, as transgressive as Louis in my own work. And I have been, often when directing plays of yours.
WALLY: It was lucky for me that you saw that film! . . . Of course, in contrast with Murmur of the Heart, some of Louis’s very best films deal with very grim subjects, such as Au revoir les enfants and Lacombe, Lucien, which is a remarkable psychological study of a political question. For anyone who’s interested in the question of how ordinary people get sucked into doing evil things, that movie is a must.
Army of Shadows
WALLY: And that suggests another favorite film of mine, Army of Shadows, which in a way uses film not for a psychological study of a political question but really for a philosophical study of a basic human (as well as basic political) question: the question of killing. At any rate, I think Army of Shadows upset me more than any film I’ve ever seen. This one also deals, like Au revoir les enfants and Lacombe, Lucien with World War II. A leader of the French Resistance has been betrayed to the authorities by a young informer. The leader was arrested but has escaped, and now he has the young informer in custody in a small house. According to the rules of the Resistance, he and the three men working with him have to kill the young informer. I’m still upset when I think about that movie. It’s profound.
ANDRÉ: Another favorite of mine was actually filmed during World War II—Brief Encounter. This one deals with love. And of course there are many kinds of love. One, I suppose, the best kind, I think, is to find someone to love who reciprocates your love. I'm really the marrying kind. And I love being married to Cindy, who, incidentally, happens to be a very fine filmmaker. But another kind of love is to love hopelessly, to love someone you can never have, the awful sweetness of longing for the unattainable, that strange and blissful frustration. Brief Encounter, so gorgeously acted, so lovingly directed, is the finest film ever depicting that kind of love. Both heartbreaking and romantic.
WALLY: I adore that film also. I believe Noël Coward is a shared passion of ours. Since I was a very young man, I have always been in love with the various recordings of his nightclub performances, and among those twentieth-century performers who have died, he’s sort of my favorite. And you gave me that incredible collection of his letters, each one of which is more or less engraved on my heart.
ANDRÉ: It’s interesting that we keep mentioning World War II, but I suppose I’m drawn to any good film about life during or just before the Second World War, because our family, Jews, escaped from Europe just as the war was breaking out, just in the nick of time. We escaped by the skin of our teeth. And I feel I’ve probably read almost every book written about the Holocaust, or about Hitler, Eichmann, Albert Speer (who is mentioned many times, sometimes comically, in My Dinner with André), and probably every other Nazi bigwig.
WALLY: Well, England is to my taste a great, great film country. I don’t think any filmmakers have been greater than Hitchcock, fabulously represented in the Criterion Collection by The Lady Vanishes and a great box set, Wrong Men & Notorious Women; Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, represented by many films, including The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (one of their very best, also made during World War II); and of course Mike Leigh. Topsy-Turvy is so fascinating, because Mike Leigh celebrates precisely the approach to acting that he has driven his own actors farther and farther away from in his own films.
ANDRÉ: The Lady Vanishes is one of the great World War II films. I honestly might have seen it two dozen times. I adore it, each and every scene. As I adore almost every Hitchcock film. And, in passing, I have to mention the greatest book on Hitchcock, which is also one of the finest on film and on the creative process in general, Truffaut’s marvelous work called Hitchcock, in which he interviews Hitchcock about his films. As for Mike Leigh, he is one of my most treasured filmmakers. I love his subject matter, and I love his actors. I shouldn’t admit this, but part of the reason I love his actors so much is that I can think of no other director, no one, who works with his actors in ways so similar to my own. We could sort of be the same person as directors. And Topsy-Turvy is one of my favorite of all Mike Leigh’s films because, except for the actors who appear in it, it resembles no film he had ever shot before. The style is different. The content is different. And it’s about the theater!
ANDRÉ: In regard to acting, I have to mention Secret Sunshine. It has a performance by Jeon Do-yeon that must be one of the most shockingly truthful, harrowing—unbearable, really—performances in the history of film. When I walked out of the theater, I wondered out loud to my wife Cindy if performances like that shouldn’t perhaps be against the law. So naked. Too naked? I will never forget it, and anyone reading this should watch the film. If you can bear to witness such depth of feeling. And it isn’t just acting. It’s the truth.
WALLY: Jesus, I must have been out of town when that one appeared.
ANDRÉ: Well, don’t feel badly about missing it. It played at the New York Film Festival, and that was about it in New York.
The Long Day Closes
ANDRÉ: And I don’t want to leave this list without alluding to The Long Day Closes. It’s about many things; it’s about the strangeness and disorientation and passions of youth, but most of all it’s about vocation, the calling of an artist and how early in one’s life that vocation comes. As a boy, Richard Avedon, the photographer, covered the entrance to his bedroom with a dark curtain, punched a tiny hole into it, and watched his family all day long. And in The Long Day Closes, in myriad, tiny details, often easy to overlook, Terence Davies is showing how filmmaking comes to a very young man who one day will become a filmmaker. For some weird reason, Davies is relatively unknown, especially in this country. Why? The cinematography is so poetic. The shots are like great music.
WALLY: Yikes, I never even heard of that film. You’re so much more sophisticated than I am. Wait—is Terence Davies the guy I once heard you and Jonathan Demme discussing?
ANDRÉ: Yes, Jonathan is also a great fan of Davies, and we were discussing The Deep Blue Sea.
The Rules of the Game
WALLY: When people have asked me suddenly, “What is your favorite film?” I have sometimes said “Contempt by Godard,” also in the Criterion Collection, and sometimes I’ve said “The Rules of the Game (La règle du jeu) by Jean Renoir.” There are a couple of more recent films that seem to sometimes be my answer to that question, but those two have stayed on my “perhaps my very favorite” list for a long time. I first saw The Rules of the Game around fifty years ago, and I saw it again quite recently. Apparently I’m the same person I used to be, because I still felt that everything in the world is in that film, and I’m inside of it myself somehow. By the way, another French film that made an enormous impression on me was À nos amours by Maurice Pialat.
ANDRÉ: I never saw it.
WALLY: Really? I can’t believe there’s a film I saw that you haven’t seen.
ANDRÉ: Well, a lot of films have been made over the years. When I look at this catalog, I want to put a bathtub on wheels, roll it over to the Criterion offices, and steal (I mean borrow) every single one.
WALLY: I have possibly spent more hours in a state of pure enjoyment watching Eric Rohmer’s films year after year than I have spent watching the films of any other filmmaker, though Claude Chabrol or Woody Allen might win the competition if I could recall my whole life and accurately tally the hours. Rohmer had the light touch to filmmaking. There’s a subtle, delicate sensuality to his films. He seems to show us his characters and their lives so completely, but it seems effortless.
ANDRÉ: When I once asked Louis what really led him to make My Dinner with André and Vanya on 42nd Street, he replied, “I’ve always loved the talkies,” and so, yes, we come to Eric Rohmer, whose films I’ve also adored for so many hours over the years. I’ve seen each of them so many times that I can no longer remember which one is which. In my mind, it’s one big, sumptuous chocolate soufflé. And how deceptive the utter seeming simplicity of it all. So yes, it’s so refreshing to return once again, perhaps for the last time, though I hope not, to “the talkies.” But if I were to tally the many, many hours I’ve spent watching the work of one filmmaker—well—I have to end with a few words about the king of kings, not the DeMille movie but my favorite of all filmmakers, Andrei Tarkovsky, and his film Andrei Rublev. This is a staggering, panoramic, epic masterpiece. If I could only have one film on a desert island, this would be it. It is mysterious, poetic, musical, thrilling, ultimately enigmatic, and deeply spiritual. Something wonderful about perusing the Criterion catalog is to realize how many extraordinary directors there have been in cinema—including so many we haven’t mentioned, such as Kurosawa, Antonioni, John Cassavetes, Stanley Kubrick, and on and on and on—but for me, the Michelangelo who towers above them all, one of the great, great artists of the twentieth century, is that unique poet of the art of pure cinema, Tarkovsky. And to truly appreciate him—well—watch his work over and over and over again.
Michael Atkinson’s Top 10
Michael Atkinson writes film criticism for IFC.com, Sight & Sound, and Moving Image Source. His books include Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood and the novel Hemingway Deadlights.