SCREEN GRABS If you’re not busy this week with CAAM (see our preview here), there’s a competing mini-festival of sorts which overlaps with it just this first weekend: the latest edition of The French Had a Name For It, Midcentury Productions’ showcase for noir-ish Gallic cinema at the Roxie. This time 13 features will span four decades, with a special emphasis on the enormously popular (not to mention prolific) pulp thriller author Georges Simenon’s most fabled connection, the police detective Inspector Jules Maigret.

That fictive figure has dominated some 75 novels, numerous TV series (as far afield as Japan), and umpteen movies, the very first of which came out just a year after his literary debut. 1932’s Night at the Crossroads is a very low-budget early sound film by the young Jean Renoir, who cast his brother Pierre as the sleuth investigating murder at a remote highway pitstop. Crude in many aspects, it’s nonetheless fascinating as a sort of rough primer in what would much later become the noir genre’s standard cinematic vocabulary. Far more accomplished was the next year’s La Tete d’un Homme aka A Man’s Head, whose noir ambiance is so sophisticated you’ll be amazed it wasn’t made ten or fifteen years later. Julien Duvivier (Pepe le Moko) directed Harry Bauer as Maigret in a vivid tale of murder and revenge amongst the denizens of lower-end cafe society.

A quarter-century (and many Simenon adaptations) later, Jean Gabin assumed the inspector’s trenchcoat for the first of three times in Jean Delannoy’s Inspector Maigret aka Maigret Sets a Trap, in which he tries to stop an elusive serial murderer of women in Montmartre. Jean Desailly is discomfitingly intense as the hysterical manchild overprotected by both wife Annie Girardot and mother Lucienne Bogaert, who between them have helped create the perfect woman-hating monster. Both star and film demonstrate the stodgier side of 1950s French cinema, soon to be nose-thumbed by the nouvelle vague. But Gabin is well-cast nonetheless, and the colorful supporting performances punch across this inevitably engrossing story.

Delannoy also directed 1954’s Obsession, a circus melodrama in color with Michele Morgan as devoted wife to neurotic, possibly homicidal trapeze partner Raf Vallone. Other notable titles in the current Roxie series include Costa-Gavras’ 1965 first feature (and nearly his last to have a non-political subject) The Sleeping Car Murders. This playful whodunnit places an all-cast (including Simone Signoret, Yves Montand, Michel Piccoli and Jean-Louis Trintingant) on the suspect list after a young woman is strangled on a train. There are two 1949 features (Wicked CityPortrait of a Killer) starring erstwhile Hollywood siren Maria Montez (of Cobra Woman fame) towards the end of her short career.

Her husband Jean-Pierre Aumont got an earlier showcase in Je t’attendrai aka The Deserter, as a soldier whose stalled transport train gives him just the film’s running time to visit his village sweetheart and parents. It’s an accomplished exercise in poetic realm marred only a bit by too much scripted contrivance. The series will also include contributions from Fernandel, Jeanne Moreau (both in 1950’s Three Sinners), Dita Parlo (The Queen of Spades), and more. Fri/10-Mon/13 at the Roxie, double feature tickets $14, $60 all-festival pass. More info here.

Among regular commercial openings this week, there were several unavailable for preview: Tolkien, a tale of the Lord of the Rings author’s youth that sounds much in the vein of such prior popular-author-biopics as Finding Neverland and Goodbye Christopher Robin; Werner Herzog’s latest documentary Meeting Gorbachev (at Opera Plaza), a sit-down with the Russian leader who finally ended the Cold War, only to see his nation revert to Stalinesque ogliarchy under Putin; and at the Roxie, Qiu Sheng’s debut feature Suburban Birds, a purportedly arty, artful and elliptical tale of two groups—land surveyors and children—roaming the same Chinese streets, the connection between them left for viewers to puzzle out. It’s been called one part Stand By Me to one part Kafka.

ELSEWHERE (all opening Friday unless otherwise noted):

The White Crow

Ralph Fiennes is unquestionably a great actor, and his first two films as director—Shakespeare’s military drama Coriolanus, and The Invisible Woman, about a secretive aspect to Charles Dickens’ life—were certainly good enough to make one think he was on the brink of achieving brilliance behind the camera, too. But while impressive in some respects, and never less than intelligently competent in others, this movie doesn’t make that leap. It dramatizes the Mariinsky Ballet troupe’s trip to Paris in 1961, when hard-to-control Rudolph Nureyev’s performances caused a star-making sensation, and where he ultimately decided to defect rather than risk what seemed a likelihood of imprisonment back home for his rebellious behavior. The screenplay, by no less than leading British playwright David Hare, also interweaves flashbacks to the legendary dancer’s impoverished childhood, and his training in St. Petersburg under ballet master Alexander Pushkin (Fiennes).

Even if he can’t replicate Nureyev’s magnetism onstage—who could?—dancer Oleg Ivenko is a fair lookalike, and he captures some of the subject’s fiery, willful, often childish personality. Even at this early point, Nureyev had by all accounts an arrogant, egomaniacal capriciousness that nonetheless seemed oddly guileless, and rather forgivable, because after all he was right: He was the best. Yet this handsome production somehow fails to ignite, at least before its reasonably exciting climax of the airport defection. Part of the problem is the leading figure’s relationships with men are superficially dealt with, even Fiennes’ character staying fairly one-dimensional.

Conversely, there’s too much emphasis placed on his rather murky involvements with two women, a young Paris socialite played very flatly by Adele Exarchopoulos (of Blue is the Warmest Color), and Pushkin’s own wife (Chulpan Khamtova). No doubt Nureyev had much more of an “out” gay life after leaving the USSR, but this narrative tilt does feel a bit like “straightwashing.” Fiennes (who performs most of his role in Russian) clearly has great respect for both dance and Russian culture in general. But The White Crow winds up falling short as a respectable but not-quite-inspired portrait of an extraordinary talent. Embarcadero. Various showtimes. Embarcadero Center Cinema, SF. More info here.

Shadow

For just over a decade, from 1990’s Ju Dou to 2002’s Hero, Zhang Yimou was mainland China’s most prominent and acclaimed director, at least internationally. While his budgets have only gotten bigger since (particularly on some multinational projects featuring stars like Christian Bale and Matt Damon), his luster has faded somewhat in recent years. Many are considering this ornate period action-intrigue his best work in some time, however. In an ancient Chinese court, a weak ruler (Ryan Zheng) depends on the muscle of his military commander (Chao Deng), not realizing that the man currently in that position is a lookalike imposter meticulously trained to “pass” by the man himself, who’s gravely ill and in hiding.

Building rather slowly towards climactic action, this is a corpse-strewn sort of Jacobean revenge drama, its violence staged with considerable panache. But impressive as it is, there’s also something rather suffocating about Yimou’s approach, which has a cold, monolithic feel like late Kurosawa. The undeniably striking film is stylized to a fault, its monochrome palette broken only by flesh tones and (eventually plentiful) blood, an effect that evokes the calligraphic style of traditional Chinese ink paintings. All this aesthetic rigor doesn’t result in a lot of emotional impact, let alone depth. But if you’re after museum-gallery-grade compositions plus the occasional severed limb, this could be your movie of the year. Embarcadero, Shattuck. 

Archive Fever: Revival House

If last week’s Silent Film Fest or this week’s Roxie French noir series gets you thinking about preservation, check out Other Cinema’s program dedicated to “the newly energized field of film archiving.” INCITE journal editor Brett Kashmere will be on hand to discuss “folk libraries” of vintage film, including the one just below ATA’s screening room. There will also be input from erstwhile SF Bay Guardian contributor Max Goldberg on the California Light and Sound project, which is digitizing the state’s institutional audiovisual collections, plus relevant shorts including a new found-film collage by Bill Morrison, an old one by Bruce Connor, and more. Sat/11, Artists Television Access. More info here.

Charlie Says

Proof that it’s still no picnic for female directors lies in the fact that Mary Harron, of I Shot Andy Warhol and American Psycho (the ultimate case of making a silk purse out of sow’s ear), has only managed to make five features in nearly a quarter-century. Yes, she’s done a lot of TV work, but it’s hard to imagine a male director with such a solid track record having such a hard time getting work outside random cable episodes. Her participation (and that of past collaborating scenarist Guinevere Turner) raises expectations that this rehash of the Manson “Family” saga will be more than a gate-rushing attempt to cash in on Tarantino’s upcoming, similarly themed Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It’s also based on respectable nonfiction tomes on the subject by Ed Sanders and Karlene Faith.

Faith was a graduate student whose work in prison education introduced her to three of the Manson “girls” three years into their never-ending prison sentences. Thus we get the tale of their absorption into drifter Manson’s (Matt Smith) desert-ranch cult from the mouths of Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendon) and Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon) as they regale their new teacher (Meritt Wever) with reminiscences of the communal life whose indoctrination they’re still fully in thrall to. Of course all that peace and love somehow led them to the Tate-LaBianca murders in August 1969, which are duly (if fairly discreetly) depicted at the climax here.

The filmmakers do a fair job conveying how this supposed hippie idyll curdled under Manson’s psychotic leadership, even if the episodic film often feels too conventional to capture the real insanity of the escalating situation. (In that respect, Jim Van Bebber’s crude, ultra-low-budget The Manson Family may remain the best dramatization of this story to date.) It does offer some novelty in showing how the imprisoned “girls” were gradually educated out of their brainwashed stupor. Still, unless you’ve somehow managed to avoid the umpteen prior retellings of this story, Charlie Says won’t provide truly fresh insight, or any other reason to mine the Manson mess yet again. 4-Star.