Sunday, 23 May 2010

Les Cent et une nuits de Simon Cinema (1995)

I have now watched this film from veteran French director Agnes Varda three times, but have only just really fully experienced it. To explain further, the first viewing was on German TV and like virtually all films shown thereon it was dubbed in German. Despite having virtually no idea what the characters were gabbing about, I was fascinated by the visuals. Here was definitely an affectionate tribute to the power of cinema, made to celebrate its centenary. There were a host of recognizable stars, largely in cameos, and brief clips from dozens of famous and less well-known films. I then found a French-language copy of the DVD, but horror of horror, the English subtitles wouldn't work. (I gather that this is not just my problem, but a widespread one, although the titles do show up on an Xbox! apparently.) I had just about enough French to pick up some of the subtleties of the script, but hardly enough to understand the dialogue completely. Still it was wonderful yet again to see the well-chosen extracts and visuals.

Now finally I have viewed a print with legible titles at the National Film Theatre during their current celebration of Varda's films. The story concerns a 100-year-old man in the character of Simon Cinema, played with great verve by veteran French actor Michel Piccoli. He lives in a beautiful country house filled with acres of cinema memorabilia tended to by his very strange butler, who constantly dons outlandish outfits, and by two acrobatic maids. A young cinema-buff, Julie Gayet, is employed to visit for two hours daily (latterly fixed from 5 to 7 in echo to one of Varda's own films) to discuss cinema generally and to jog Piccoli's occasionally failing memory. Mind you, as far as he is concerned, he was present on every classic film set and starred in most of the great movies referenced. The household has a constant stream of visitors to pay homage to the grand old man and to cinema in general; these include amongst others Gerard Depardieu discussing ways of being put to death on screen, Jeanne Moreau and Hanna Schygulla -- as two of his screen wives, Alain Delon, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anouk Aimee, Romane Bohringer as the spectre of death, and many, many more. A pair of occasional visitors are the ghosts of the Lumiere Brothers, wreathed in lights like a dressing-room make-up mirror. The most frequent visitor is an also-aging Marcello Mastroianni as 'the Italian friend' who argues with Piccoli on themes such as did Godard steal from Fellini or vice versa, but who is really out to relieve Piccoli of his valuable collection of prints and artefacts.

Apart from the judicious use of the many very short film clips which include "The General", "Singin' in the Rain", and "Un chien andalou" to enlarge the action, there are other purely visual gags, such as Gayet's bicycle being stolen or Robert DeNiro and Catherine Deneuve going boating together. At one stage Monsieur Cinema wishes to visit Hollywood for one last time; Harrison Ford and Stephen Dorff appear briefly -- both looking completely gormless -- in a room where other actors wear the black and white masks of bygone screen legends like Bogie. Similarly there is one last trip to the Cannes Film Festival to include fleeting shots of Clint Eastwood and the like. Varda obviously made judicious use of her stars' availability and good-natured help with her project.

The film is not exactly perfect. Far too much screen time is given to Varda's own son, Mathieu Demy, who plays Gayet's boyfriend here and an aspiring filmmaker. Together they conspire to pass off a friend as Piccoli's missing grandson and his only potential heir to get their hands on his fortune to finance Demy's own ambitions. This subplot really adds very little but I suppose one must allow Varda her own maternal indulgences. However one is still left with a wonderful wallow in nostalgia for anyone who loves movies. Now if I could only get the subtitles on my disc to behave themselves...
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