The 400 Blows
I was nineteen the first time I saw The 400 Blows. I spent my childhood in Budapest, but by the time I saw the film I was living in Paris and was a student at the Sorbonne Nouvelle University. That year I spent in Paris was very much defined by the amazing cinema culture of the city. There were dozens of little art-house theaters where I had the chance to watch essential pieces of film history. One of the first I saw there was François Truffaut’s debut feature, a coming-of-age story so fresh, painful, and yet full of humor that I quickly became a huge fan, absorbed in both his films and his theoretical writings. The 400 Blows has four sequels, all about the character of Antoine Doinel, who is a special mixture of Truffaut himself and his lead actor, Jean-Pierre Léaud. This idea of following a character (and an actor) over so many years led to one of the most beautiful and riveting experiments in film history. Still, as Truffaut generously wrote about his alter-ego star: “Jean-Pierre Léaud is, in my view, the best actor of his generation, and it would be unfair to forget that for him Antoine Doinel is just one of the characters he has played, one of the strings to his bow, one of the costumes he put on, one of the schools of his childhood.”
Fanny and Alexander: Television Version
One of my formative childhood reading experiences was David Copperfield, and watching this magical (and long) film by Ingmar Bergman is very similar to spending time with Dickens. There were so many layers of Fanny and Alexander that grabbed me. First, there was the empathetic and sometimes cruelly honest portrayal of family life, and the significance of rituals in it. Most of the story is told from Alexander’s perspective, and I find the position of the children in this big family, and the sense of safety as well as defenselessness, to be heartbreaking. Mixing reality and elements of fantasy seems to come so naturally to Bergman. It’s as if the film were a reconstruction of childhood memories, filling in the gaps of forgotten or not fully understood events with the help of ghosts, magic tricks, and imagination.
Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
There are so many good films but far fewer really unique ideas. At the age of twenty-five, Chantal Akerman certainly had one. Jeanne Dielman is a hypnotic study of the daily routine of a middle-aged widow. Eventually we realize that this micro-realist film is in fact a melodrama, but it’s one that shows the events that would definitely be left out of other films in the genre. It goes into the smallest details of domestic choreography, depicting the ordinary at the same level as the shocking. The bravery and straightforwardness of this structure still shine today.
I watched Jeanne Dielman again while I was preparing for my second feature, Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time. The female protagonist is depicted alone in quite a significant portion of the film, for different reasons than Akerman had while making Jeanne Dielman. But the framing and the presence of Dephine Seyrig was still very inspiring when I was thinking of how to approach my own material.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder
The Marriage of Maria Braun
As a filmmaker, I find it hard to understand how Rainer Werner Fassbinder managed to make over forty features during his short life, on top of all his work in theater and television. The Marriage of Maria Braun is my favorite of his films. While it has a metaphorical level that speaks to postwar German society, it can also be viewed as a portrait of a self-made woman, played magnificently by Hanna Schygulla. I like that although Maria is a dubious character we observe with growing aversion, Fassbinder manages to sustain our empathy for her.
Unless I’m looking for specific references, I don’t often rewatch films that mean a lot to me. I like them to inhabit my mind and take a slightly different shape through the prism of memory, and help my work that way. However, I watched Mulholland Dr. on three consecutive days when it was released in Hungary—not only because I badly wanted to solve the mystery but also because I wanted to return to Lynch’s empire, to live in that utterly cinematic world of fantasy. Back then, I was in the middle of my entrance exams for the Budapest University of Theater and Film. I felt that a heavy door was slowly opening for me to become a filmmaker, and that feeling is somehow forever connected with Mulholland Dr.
The Man Who Fell to Earth
I’m attracted to high-concept stories. What if an alien fell to earth in the form of a young man? Nicolas Roeg’s film is quite unique in the science-fiction genre because its strength is not in the plot or special effects but in the concept, which gives him the opportunity to contemplate human existence and to carefully build a complex character study. And who else could have played this extraterrestrial man in 1976 other than David Bowie? His distant and dreamlike presence was a perfect fit for the role, and his portrayal of an alien was rooted in his own personal character and required very few additional elements. The Man Who Fell to Earth is also one of the few films that embrace their strangeness and experimental qualities while also having mainstream appeal.
Love Streams is another film I saw in a small Paris movie theater at a young age. At the time, I was reading a book of interviews with Jim Jarmusch (Permanent Vacation, Stranger Than Paradise, and Night on Earth are still among my favorite films), and he mentioned John Cassavetes, a director I hadn’t heard of before, as one of his big inspirations. So when I saw in the magazine Pariscope that there was a Cassavetes program playing, I went right away to see it. I was overwhelmed by the rough and genuine intensity of the performances and the storytelling. I’d never seen anything like that before. Now my memories of the film involve the whole uncompromising body of work of Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands that I’ve seen since. But what makes Love Streams still stand out for me is its portrayal of trust, the strength of familial bonds, and the comradeship between two aging siblings, played by a husband and wife in their last work together. We see trapped people here, in mad situations, but they never give up on communicating with each other.
His Girl Friday
Never say never, but I don’t see myself ever directing a fast-talking screwball comedy. I don’t think it’s a genre I would be particularly good at. So I didn’t pick His Girl Friday because I find it exceptionally inspiring for my work as a director; rather, I chose it as a moviegoer. Watching this film again and again, admiring its superb dialogue and the gorgeous comic timing of Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant, takes me back to the pure joy of going to the movies as a child.
Deep into Paris, Texas, we don’t really know what the story is about exactly. The premise isn’t communicated in the usual way. It’s about a child being reunited with his long-lost mother through sacrifice, out of the deepest love. But we only know this once we’ve reached the cathartic ending, which is so happy and so sad at the same time. I admire the reconstruction of dramaturgy in the film and the way it’s supported by Robby Müller’s strict and impeccable framing.
Paris, Texas has such an importance for me that in Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time I evoked a scene from it, recreating a playful overture between father and son, but as a scene with two lovers who have a hard time communicating with each other.
I love films that operate with a dramaturgical cliché and suddenly step off the expected track. How brave it is to start a film with the disappearance of a woman and follow the search for her, only to offer no solution for the mystery at the end. The lack of conclusion or resolution is deeply unsettling. This reminds me of Loveless, a beautiful film by Andrey Zvyagintsev that works a bit similarly. The haunting images and off-center compositions of L’avventura, as well as the actors’ faces (especially Monica Vitti’s), show us an existential alienation that is forever perplexing.
Neil LaBute’s Top 10
Neil LaBute, director of In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors, and Nurse Betty, has contributed supplemental interviews to two Criterion DVD editions: Mike Leigh’s Naked and Eric Rohmer’s Love in the Afternoon, the latter available i…
Georgia Hubley’s Top 10
Georgia Hubley is one of the founding members of the Hoboken, New Jersey, band Yo La Tengo, whose The Sounds of Science, a score to eight Jean Painlevé shorts, is available on Criterion’s DVD set Science Is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painlevé.