I should point out to all those lovely people who’ve read my idiotic stories and said kind things about them that this isn’t an idiotic story – it’s a real, grown-up idiotic blog post.
Despite my feeble attempts to pass myself off as a Spaniard, I’m well aware that only an Englishman could come up with a term like ‘foreign films’. I suppose what I really mean is ‘Foreign Language Films’ – i.e. films that are not in the English language (I’m digging myself into an even deeper Anglo-centric hole here) – that category which is given one slot at the Cannes Film Festival (even though Cannes is in a foreign country). I hope I’m not confusing my readers as much as I’m confusing myself.
Most of we Brits, while not averse to a good film as long as it has a comprehensible plot and a happy ending, are under the impression that cinema, as an art form, is somehow inferior to painting, writing, music and rock-bun making – one which, compared to those other venerable art forms, is barely out of puberty. This is partly due to our proud history of snobbery – which infects the arts as it infects all walks of life – but also to the exclusive diet of American (and occasionally British) films which are endlessly regurgitated on our television screens, giving the impression that ‘Jaws’ , ‘Alien 2’ and ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ are what cinema is all about. Nothing could be further from the truth. This area of film-making only constitutes a tiny fraction of the cinema produced throughout the world – not only in the big players like France, Italy, Germany and Japan but also in hundreds of smaller countries, often those not normally associated with freedom of artistic expression, such as Iran. Yet only rarely do foreign language films turn up on our tellies – and always at two in the morning when only nocturnal arthouse weirdos like myself are creeping about, usually in an advanced state of inebriation.
My love of foreign films (can’t be bothered to justify the term yet again – you know what I mean) began a few million years ago when I was at boarding school. The high point of life in those days (besides sneaking behind the bike shed for a quick fag and a peak at the well-thumbed copy of Playboy that was going the rounds) was Saturday night Film Club. This was instituted by a charming and enormously fat geography teacher called Tony Duckering, who is now almost certainly pushing up a prolific crop of daisies. Though I was unaware of it at the time (let’s face it, a 15 year old boy is unaware of everything except girls, his ego and his acne) Mr Duckering’s Film Club was sowing a seed which has blossomed throughout my life, and for which I’ll always be grateful. And it wasn’t just the films, it was the whole experience – the clattering projector that frequently gave up the ghost mid-reel and even once caught fire, the first flickering of light and images on that rolled-down screen – textures the thrill of which young people raised in this digital age can never comprehend.
Not that Film Club was all foreign films. Being a Hitchcock fan, Mr Duckering showed us ‘North by Northwest’ (iconic crop duster, Mount Washmore and Cary Grant looking impossibly smooth), ‘The Birds’ and, of course, ‘Psycho’ which, in the days before wall-to-wall violence was truly disturbing and had one little boy (I forget his name) screaming up and down the dormitory at 1 o’clock in the morning.
I can’t pretend that all the foreign films we were shown exactly floated my boat. Classic masterpieces such as ‘Battleship Potemkin’ , ‘The Seventh Seal’ and ‘Ivan the Terrible’ (with all that moaning, pointy beards and manic Russian eye-rolling) left me pretty cold I have to say. In fact, now that I think about it, there were only a handful of films that really left their mark, and most of those were French.
One such is still among my all-time favourites – ‘Monsieur Houlot’s Holiday’ (Jacques Tati) – a symphony of sea and sand and Gallic sunshine, the endlessly repeated background tune like a musical ping-pong ball, the funniest squeaking door in history, the ridiculous Englishwoman and her hen-pecked husband and, of course, the preposterously correct and well-meaning Monsieur Houlot, unintentionally wreaking havoc wherever he goes. A wonderful example of how to make a masterpiece out of almost nothing.
Another was ‘A Bout de Souffle’ (Breathless) directed by Jean-Luc Godard, which, on the face of it, was about as far from ‘Monsieur Houlot’s Holiday’ as it’s possible to imagine – although, in some strange way there is a similarity, and not just because they’re both quintessentially French. Not a great deal happens in this film and, though classed as a thriller, it isn’t particularly thrilling by modern thriller standards. Yet somehow the sight of cocky, lissom Jean-Paul Belmondo with his Fedora pushed back on his head and his Gaulois dangling from his lower lip and the pert, tomboyish Jean Seaberg in her stripy sweatshirts and sixties slacks giving a ‘two fingers’ to the entire world seemed incredibly subversive and sexy to us would-be rebellious teenagers – and still does. And, of course, you got to see the hero and heroine in bed together which – believe it or not –was pretty earth-shattering to a fourteen-year-old boy in 1964. Not that you saw much except Jean Paul’s smooth, tanned torso and fine gold necklace, and Seeberg with the sheets pulled up to her chin followed by some suggestively bouncing blankets. And you didn’t have to be a film expert to realise that the jump-shots and weird camera angles characteristic of the Nouvelle Vague were totally groundbreaking.
I think what was exciting (and even faintly disturbing) about ‘A Bout de Souffle’ was that Belmondo’s character was completely amoral and anarchic. He didn’t give a shit about anything or anybody – the police, the law, the man he had shot or even the girlfriend he might have made pregnant. All films up to then, however evil the characters, had used the established moral order as their dramatic pivot, but this film seemed to throw the established moral order out the window, leaving you with a hero who was a total bastard at every level and yet still totally a hero and lovable to boot.
I don’t want to overload this blog post with recommendations, but just to show I’m not rooted in some rosy-tinted distant past, I’ll recommend one film from the present century. This is ‘Hable con Ella’ (Talk to Her) by Pedro Almodovar – a glorious testament to the power of love, hope and the life force. This film is possibly untypical of Aldomovar – it lacks the freneticism of ‘Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’ or the Goyaesque bloodlust of ‘Matador’ yet it still maintains that dreamlike sexual surrealism characteristic both of Aldomovar and of Spanish cinema generally. Okay, there has to be the odd suspension of belief, but with its flawless directing, seamless timeshifts (there’s even a flashback within a flashback) and truly gorgeous musical score this film carries you from the first to the last frame. There is one incident which, though kept discreetly off camera, is bound to cause controversy, but even this – in the context of the story – Aldomovar manages to charm his way through and come out of smelling of roses. But be warned – there’s a brief bullfighting scene about 15 minutes in which may be the moment to pop out and put the kettle on. All in all, though, this is a wonderful and thought-provoking film experience.
I’m going to shut up now but, like The Terminator, I’ll be back with more recommendations. I’m sorry this isn’t one of those all-singing all-dancing blogs with photos and videos and links, but all these films can be easily obtained by searching DVDs on Amazon. So why not give yourselves a holiday from football, the X Factor, Big Brother and all the other televisual crap currently on offer and dip your toes in the vast and wonderful ocean of world cinema? You may find it hard to come back.