Tag Archives: adultery

Simenon’s Act of Passion

I’ve read more than forty novels by Georges Simenon (1903-89), who published close to five hundred, more than two hundred in his own name. I trust New York Review books to pick from those I have not read, and have been rewarded by finding some masterpieces (Dirty Snow, Red Lights; Tropic Moon I had already found on my own). All evoke particular locations, including the provincial towns in Act of Passion (first published in 1947 as Lettre à mon juge (Letter to My Judge) while Simenon was living in North America and had taken up with a younger woman hired as his secretary; he would divorce his wife and marry the younger woman in 1950).

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Not just the cases intuited by Parisian Inspector Maigret, but Simenon’s romans durs (hard[-boiled] novels) focus on transgressions, chiefly murder and adultery. Martine, the woman murdered by Charles Alavoine, who is writing form to explain himself to the examining magistrate, does not appear until nearly the midpoint of the novel (which is 212 pages long).

The backstory of the conventional country physician whose second wife, Armande (a widow who entered the household no nurse a home-quarantined daughter through diphtheria), ran his life and home didn’t interest me, and I almost didn’t get to Martine. In any case, Martine is a less vivid character than the narrator’s humble mother and self-assured second wife. She is comparable in her indistinctness to the first wife, who died just after giving birth to a second daughter (who weighed in at 12 pounds).

The clipped voice of Dr. Alavoine is not especially interesting and far from insightful. Its main interest is that it is the only Simenon novel in the first-person that I can recall. The obsession with Martine, who like him misses a train in Nantes is barely credible. That the good doctor wants something of his own is credible, though he contrives to have his wife manage Martine, too, who starts working for him as a bookkeeper. His jealousy about her past liaisons is harder for me to credit, and that he feels he must kill the thing he loves even harder. (Martine has no agency and no consciousness in the novel, so “thing” is le mot juste.)

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The New York Review edition has an introduction by Roger Ebert (who begins by noting that he has read more words (and certainly more books!) by Simenon than by any other 20th-century writer. I don’t agree with his view of Alavoine as a fetishist. Simenon, oui; Alavoine, non! Ebert is on solider ground characterizing Simenon’s narrative voice (in general, not just in Act of Passion) as “direct, detached, factual.” Also, “he describes [Martine] slightingly. She has no particular personality. For him she is an object.”

 

In 1961 Jean Delannoy (who directed many Maigret movies) made a film  based on this novel starring Jean Gabin (who played Maigret in many movies).

©2017, 2019, Stephen O. Murray

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Decalogue 4-6

Krystof Kieslowski is at the top of my list of overrated directors, with Mike Leigh, just ahead of Stanley Kubrick. By “overrated” I don’t mean that they were bad directors or that they made no movies I regard highly, only that I am much less impressed by their body of work than are many cinema enthusiasts. In my opinion, the “Color Trilogy” is uneven and has stretches of tedium. The Decalogue—ten one-hour movies made for Polish state television, each keyed to one of the Ten Commandments, all written by Kieslowski and Krystof Piesiewicz, directed by Kieslowski, and using ten different cinematographers—is more uneven. I think that all but the last of the ten episodes drags at least some of the time. Kieslowski favored a static camera and fairly long takes. The parts of the Decalogue all have a dark palette with overdoses of sickly greens. Most (but not this pair) are very talky.

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In the fourth episode of the Kieslowski/Piesiewicz Decalogue, “Honor they father and thy mother, “a young woman, Anka (Adrianna Biedrzynska), who is a disengaged, passionless acting student, finds a letter marked to be opened after her father’s death. Later, the viewer learns that she has known of its existence for a long time and that her father (Janusz Gajos) usually takes it with him when he travels, but he left it behind on this trip. It seems that at least a quarter of the episode involves her staring at the envelope. There is a brief flash of feeling when she confronts her father at the airport upon his return to Warsaw, followed by what I find totally unconvincing dialogue between the two for the rest of the episode.

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I don’t believe in the father-daughter relationship portrayed or the girl’s understanding of paternity (or, for that matter, of maternity), though part of this may be that my view of parenthood is more about raising a child than about supplying the sperm that fertilized the egg that became an offspring. Also, in my view, Anka honors neither her father nor her mother (who died when Anka was five days old, after having written her a letter to be opened in the then-future.)

Even for an episode of the Decalogue, this one moves very slowly and gets nowhere. (Arguably, as with the third episode, it makes a circle, though I don’t see how the status quo ante can be resumed in #3 and have a hard time imaging it in #4.)

Parts V and VI were expanded into feature films: V into “A Short Film About Killing” (from 57 to 84 minutes in length) and VI into “A Short Film About Love” (from 59 to 86 minutes).

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is the part of the Decalogue most obviously connected to its commandment. There is not the slightest question that it is about killing. The killings are not at all stylized or glamorized. The first involves a sickeningly extended murder of a taxi driver. The taxi driver (Jan Tesarz) is shown to be something of a pig, but not in any way to be deserving the fate, Jacek (Miroslaw Baka), who kills him brutally and very inefficiently.

The second killing is the murderer’s execution. He is hanged, and the killing itself take practically no time, though something like a third of the movie concerns the preparations by the prison and the prisoner for the execution.

Despite Kieslowski’s frequent disclaiming of any didactic or polemical intent, some have claimed that the movie was a significant impetus to the abolition of the death penalty in Poland (near the end of the Soviet puppet state there). I find this somewhat surprising, in that there is not the slightest doubt that the man being executed committed a particularly gruesome murder and is completely without charm.

As narrative cinema rather than as a statement on capital punishment, I think that the movie can be faulted for being confusing. There is no information about whether the murderer had any previous contact with the taxi driver he murdered, and not much about the victim. What is confusing is that the portrayal of the taxi driver’s morning, the murderer’s morning, and the drive onto a deserted lane is juxtaposed with the graduation of Piotr (Krzysztof Globisz) from something. Eventually, one can infer back that he joined the bar. Defending Jacek was seemingly Piotr’s first case, and he is wracked by fear that it is his inexperience and inability that resulted in the death penalty—though the judge tells him that he was particularly eloquent and that a more experienced lawyer could not have saved Jacek from execution… and though Jacek’s crimes were heinous and in no doubt (and there were more that the viewer saw that were not linked to Jacek’s perpetration).

Jacek’s bravado runs out before he is hanged and Piotr’s anguish is further increased by seeing his client’s end. The drama is stripped down to observation of concrete detail in a very Bresson manner. Decalogue V is an outstanding, if hard to take, film.

Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery

is one of the more intriguing and accomplished episodes of the Decalogue (and bluer than green; V may be the greenest of the ten). It has a young male lead who is almost as blank a slate as Jacek, but one who is socially very backward rather than one who is a psychopathic murder.

Tomek (Olaf Linde Lubaszenko) is a post office clerk whose only friend has left Warsaw. Tomek stays with his friend’s mother (Stefania Iwinska, who reminds me of Alice B. Toklas without the mustache). He is obsessed with a young (but older than he is and way more sexually experienced) woman across the way. His friend first began peeping and labeled her as SSIA (she spreads it around). Tomek has a telescope trained on the woman’s window and also calls her up and does not speak.

Tomek devises some rather bizarre and complicated ways to meet this woman, whose name is Magda (Grazyna Szapolowska). When he admits to his campaign of harassment, Tomek tells her that he loves her.

I think the viewer is supposed to believe that Magda knows a lot about sex but not much about love and that Tomek knows little about either, but is touchingly ardent. She has experience and he doesn’t, but “innocent” is not a label I would apply to Tomek. He strikes me as more than a little corrupt, if earnest and inept. The hunter is easily captured and toyed with by the game, but there is also a sense in which Tomek corrupts Magda (that would be plot-spoiling to elaborate upon).

The very strange romance develops in interesting ways, though the conclusion of the movie is rushed (after some longeurs en route). It is not as kinky as I may have made it sound, but it is definitely a quirky romance, and others seem to regard Tomek as purer than I do. (He is purer than the retired judge turned electronic eavesdropper played by Jean-Louis Trintignant in Kieslowski’s masterpiece, “Red”, however. And has considerably less personality…)

In that neither Tomek nor Magda is married, I don’t understand how they can be committing adultery (fornication, I guess)

I don’t want to spoil the plot, but recommend it. My favorite part of the Decalogue is the last (X), but VI is with I and IX in the second tier (with V just below it).

I don’t think that the order in which one watches the individual components of the Decalogue matters (though there is something to be said for saving the best for last, as I think that Kieslowski did).

In the packaging in 5 parts, this one is second only to the last (9-10) one. In the packaging of three parts (1-3, 4-7, 8-10) and of two parts (1-5, 6-10), the last one is still the best one.

©2005, 2018, Stephen O. Murray

Romance of a Japanese neurasthenic, ca. 1909

It’s hard for me to imagine that 1909 readers of the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shinbun could keep track of (or care about!) the very slow development and shifting consciousness of Daisuke, the hypochondriac slacker protagonist of Sôseki Natsume’s novel Sorekara (And Then), a follow-up (not exactly a sequel) to the 1906 Botchan. I found the book very easy to put down and can’t imagine being eager to pick up the next installment and then the next installment (the paper was — and still is — daily; I don’t know if the serialization was).

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Daisuke is quite content to live on the allowance his father and older brother give him. He focuses on any signs of heart problems, grooming, and reading European literature. “Daisuke had never considered himself idle. He simply regarded himself as one of those higher beings who disposed of a large number of hours unsullied by an occupation.” He has a horror of working at a job to pay for food and lodging… and has been able to avoid getting a job because of his indulgent father and brother, whose company may not be as impeccably honest as they lead Daisuke to believe. That is never definitively settled in the text. Not a lot is!

Having turned 30, it is past time for Daisuke to marry. He has rejected every candidate his father, brother, and/or sister-in-law suggest. Now there is one whose marital alliance would aid the company. Daisuke has no specific objection to the young woman, but has come to realize that he is in love with a married woman.

Not just any married woman, but Michiyo, the wife of his university classmate and friend, Hiraoka. Daisuke arranged the marriage himself when his friend said he wanted to marry Michiyo.

Three years later the couple has returned to Tokyo after Hiraoka’s assistant embezzled some funds (500 yen). Hiraoka seeks Daisuke’s help to find a job and to borrown the money he put up to cover his subordinate’s theft.

Daisuke cannot avoid seeing that Hiraoka not only neglects his wife, but doesn’t even provide sufficient funds for her food. They had a son who died after a few months, and Michiyo is sickly.

Daisuke decides he is in love with Michiyo and cannot acquiesce to the marriage his family is promoting. Before he can take Michiyo away, he feels that he must get the permission of Hiraoka, for whom he now feels no friendship. The permission to poach the wife is the same “règle du jeu” as in Jean Renoir’s movie (“règle” has been pluralized in the English title, “Rules of the Game”), which I just tried for the first time to appreciate.

I find Sôseki’s novel even less amusing than Renoir’s film and very, very slow moving. Though open-ended, the denouement is not hopeful. Hiraoka writes an account of Daisuke’s perfidy to Daisuke’s father (who cuts him off), which strikes me as quite caddish. Hiraoka granted permission to Daisuke to take Mishiyo off his hands, admitting he does not love her and knows she does not love him. But she is sick and he says he cannot turn her over in such damaged condition. I think it quite likely she will die and that Daisuke will have squandered his patrimony for nothing. But Sôseki does not reveal what the future (and then!) held for the pair, whose relationship is a scandal even though there has been no physical consummation (adultery). Daisuke seems ill-equipped, especially by inclination, to support himself, let alone a wife, let alone a wife with medical problems (who will not be able to produce an heir).

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I guess Daisuke is alienated, though I’m more inclined to regard him as spoiled. Certainly, as he realizes, Daisuke is very ineffectual, partly because he has no assets of his own, only a monthly allowance. Throwing over comfort and everything he has known and valued for love makes him something of a romantic hero, however.

Translator Norma Moore Field has appended a biographical sketch with an emphasis on the sort-of “trilogy” of Botchan, Sorekara, and Mon (The Gate, 1910). She sees them as dominated by three A’s: abandonment, alienation, and ambivalence with the protagonist of each older than in the previous book, and argues that they are not especially autobiographical. She notes but does not explain that Japanese consider Sôseki their greatest modern writer, though others (Kawabata, Tanizaki, Mishima, Murakami) have been embraced more by western readers.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

 

Oil Hell Murder

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“Oil Hell Murder” (1992) has to be one of the least inviting of movie titles. The Japanese title of what provided to be the last movie directed by Gosha Hideo, “Onna goroshi abura no jigoku,” which means “Woman murdered at oil hell” is at least more informative, specifying the sex of the person murdered in a lot of spilled oil at an oil store in 18th-century Osaka.

The movie opens with police examining and charting the knife wounds (plus two severed fingers) on the corpse. It then shows the recent past of Kichi (Higuchi Kanako), the wife of an oil merchant who was also the daughter of one. I think she was the cousin of the spoiled young womanizer, Gohei (Tsutsumi Shin’ichi). At one point he calls her “auntie.” Whatever the exact family relationship, Kichi took care of Gohei as an infant and continues to lecture him on how he should settle down and learn the business rather than collecting the hearts of geishas. (Higuchi Kanako is six years older than Higuchi Kanako.)

Gohei is carrying on an affair with Kogiku (Fujitana Miwako), the only child of the Ogura-Ya oil magnate (on whose good will Kichi’s husband’s shop depends) Kichi is determined to end the affair for a number of reasons and chides Kogiku as well as Gohei. Both women call him a womanizer, though the movie does not show him being at all promiscuous.

First he is in love with Kogiku, defying the brutal opposition of both families. Then Kichi seduces him and he is besotted with her, demanding that she run away with him with or without her two young children. After being married to a socially good match, Kogiku is sleeping around. Kichi is less a cocktease than a heart-tease, wanting a sexual relationship with her younger relative (Yohei) but not to leave the husband who has never provided her sexual pleasure, but who has sired two children on her.

The movie is based on a kabuki melodrama (of the same name) by Chikamatsu. Goha was an action-film director, even in the bizarre campy “Death Shadows” (1989), the most recent other Goha movies that Criteiron/Hulu has imported. Gohei’s knife is frequently brandished and even more frequently shown sheated, and there are some beatings and a prolonged, slip-sliding in the oil murder, but no swordfighting. Not just in being based on a Chikamatsu kabuki play but in the artful composition of shots (the cinematographer was Ichida Isamu, who had shot earlier films, including “Tracked,” for Gosha) , the movie seems more like a Shinoda film than a Goha one. The focus on a woman’s sexual obsession could as well have been Shinoda’s or Ôshima’s. The slow pace does not differentiate the late work of any of these three new wave directors.

Either of the other two would probably have provided more female nudity than Goha did. “Oil Hell Murder” displays all of the body of Tsutsumi Shin’ichi except for what little is covered by a fundoshi (and Kogiku slices off a “strap” of it). All three leads were physically attractive (and received multiple closeups), though none of them is very sympathetic a character. In that she should be the mature one, Kichi’s seems more reprehensible to me than the other two’s, though she pays the ultimate price for her manipulations.

Reviews of the other Goha-directed movies available from Criterion/Hulu and stars (1-10scale):

Three Outlaw Samurai (1964) 8

Sword of the Beast (1965) 8

Goyokin (1969) 8.4

Hunter in the Dark (1979) 5.5

Tracked (1985) 5.4

Death Shadows (1986) 3

Oil Hell Murder (1992) 6

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray