Tag Archives: Paris

Modiano, Modiano, Modiano

A few years back (before winning the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature and the French publication of So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood), Patrick Modiano said “I have the impression of writing the same book for 45 years.” Besides being very repetitious from novella to novella, Modiano’s plots are wispy without any counterweight of character development: that is, his novels are neither character-driven nor plot-driven. Indeed, I’d say they lack narrative drive. They have a protagonist life experiences match Modiano’s, one who is curious about people with whom he interacted (I can’t say that “he knew”) as a child or as a young man or (though not in this case) with whom his petty gangster father interacted at some time in the past. The protagonist, almost always a writer, is definitely not a professional investigator or researcher: he gives an additional meaning to the “private” in “private investigator”!


As usual, in “Lost” the writer (given a name other than Patrick for a change: Jean Daragne) never attempts to investigate the police records involving the adults whose relationships with each other were mysterious to him when he was a child left by his mother with shady friends, one of whom was murdered.

When he finds someone who might know something about those about whom he is recollecting and speculating, Modiano’s investigator is too diffident to talk to them and ask any questions.. This one asks a physician across the street in the Parisian suburb where Jean was stored for a time as a child some questions, but his absurd cover story prevents him from asking much of what he really wants to know. Similarly, though he has a cache of old papers in a suitcase, he has lost the key and is unwilling to break it open to try to ground his feeble memories and extremely limited analytical abilities.

And, as usual in Modiano novels, at the end of the wispy book, the investigator does not know why the subject of his investigation did what they did decades earlier (let alone who the murderer was!). Even what Jean has blocked from his memory is something readers of Modiano’s Prix Goncourt-winning Missing Persons will already know.

The novel begins with someone else, an inveterate gambler, interested in writing about the murder of Colette Laurent and the girlfriend of the gambler. These two characters are MacGuffins (to borrow Alfred Hitchcock’s term) and disappear from the book fairly early on.

Modiano is hyper-specific about place names (mostly, but not only Parisian ones), often noting both what once stood at an address and what is there now. Perhaps these details covey more to readers who have lived there whole lives in Paris than they do to me, but can that substitute for plots and characterizations, even for native Parisians?

I don’t know what the writer of the cover cop could mean by “psychological insight” in the novel, and I think the Swedish Academy made another mistake in awarding the Nobel Prize to a very bad mystery writer of very limited scope. (Joseph Kanon, who provides solutions to the murder mysteries in his novels that also have developed characters and diverse settings, seems to me a better choice, though my first choice for the Nobel Prize is Michael Ondaatje.)

(My Amazon Vine review of the forthcoming translation recycles a lot from what I wrote about earlier Modiano novellas earlier this year, I know! And in responding to comments:)


I have read variants of Modiano’s story in multiple volumes and have yet to notice much in the way of gifts, at least any that make it across translation. “Lost purpose since 1945” (not 1940?) is wooly, but Modiano’s picking at the wounds of his youth (especially his gangster Nazi-collaborator father) are far, far, far less grandiose. And in the present instance, keeping the same number of years back to last meetings with childhood caregivers from 2012 makes no sense.

As I wrote, his novels lack character development (his characters are barely even wispy and definitely boneless), plot development, ideas (about anything, macro or micro), or any serious attempt to solve/resolve even the minor mysteries that slightly pique his characters’ (variants of himself) interest. Simenon’s non-Maigret novels (of which there are a great many) don’t provide the “solutions” you demean (Agatha Christie wrap-ups). Moreover, I think Simenon’s Dirty Snow, the Simenon novel focused on occupation/collaboration, is far superior to any Modiano novel.

It seems to me that Modiano (and his autobiographical protagonists) are treading water that is not very deep: if they stretched their legs, they could find they could walk. And to press my analogy, the man flailing in the water has his eyes closed speculating about how far from shore he is and if he opened them could see it is not very far.


©2015, Stephen O. Murray


Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, and Paris

Can there be anyone who is not charmed by Audrey Hepburn? Or who doesn’t like “Charade,” the rom-com/thriller Stanley Donen made with her and Cary Grant with Paris backdrops in 1963? Something of a gender-reversed “North by Northwest,” I’d hope that Alfred Hitchcock regarded it as an homage. There is no cornfield buzzing and the hanging over a precipice is more prosaic than Mount Rushmore. And Martin Landau’s villain is multiplied to include three then-rising stars with Oscars in their futures: James Coburn, George Kennedy, and Walter Matthau. It’s not hard to recognize any of them, but there are the pleasures of looking back to when they were less well-known than they became.


There is a plot involving a quarter of a million dollars of gold bullion that the four (plus Ned Glass) GIs liberated from the Nazis and did not deliver to their own government at the end of World War II. Hepburn’s husband, who is thrown off a moving train in the first scene seems to have returned first to claim it, and his partners believe Hepburn must have it.

She is befriended under suspicious circumstances by Cary Grant, who was the male star and suspect in Hitchcock’s “Suspicion.” before being pursued for reasons unknown to him in “North by Northwet.”  He goes through a series of names and exchanges snappy dialogue with Hepburn and the competitors for the loot. There is a pretty obnoxious child, if not as horrible as the one in Donen’s 1967 “Two for the Road,” —the American girl there may count as someone who did not like Audrey Hepburn.


Donen, who died 21 Feb at the age of 94, was on a roll, having made the move from musicals (of which “Singing in the Rain” is his most famed) to nonmusical movies with major stars (Surprise Package, The Grass Is Greener, Arqbesque). My favorites both starred Audrey Hepburn: “Charade” and “Two for the Road.” (Donen also directed Hepburn in a musical with another of her many aged costars, Fred Astaire, “Funny Face” in 1957). For uncomplicated enjoyment, “Charade” has to be the choice. Among other things, it has better music from Henry Mancini. Both have attractive French backdrops (18-times-nominated for Oscar cinematographer Charles Lang shot “Charade”; Christopher Challis “2 4” and “Arabesque.”)


The Criterion Edition has an entertaining and informative commentary track laid down by Donen and screenwriter Peter Stone.


©2019, Stephen O. Murray



A terrified Roman Polanski

With a very geeky Isabelle Adjani and four Oscar winners (of a total of six awards: Melvyn Douglas, Lila Kedrova, Jo Van Fleet, and Shelley Winters) as other people living in an old Paris apartment building, Roman Polanski’s first movie after fleeing California was “The Tenant” (1976). Polanski was an actor (for Andrzej Wajda in “A Generation” among others) before becoming a director. His slight physical stature and early life experiences made him a “natural” for bullied characters (The Fat and the Lean).


In addition to the outright “paranoid thrillers” (Chinatown, Ghost Writer), the films Polanski has directed recurrently have considerable anxiety and dread (Knife in the Water, Repulsion, Cul-de-sac, Rosemary’s Baby, Macbeth, Tess, Frantic, Bitter Moon, Death and the Maiden. The Ninth Gate, The Pianist, Oliver Twist, Ghost WRiter).

Polanski was born in France and like the somewhat devious but easily cowed Slav, Trelkovsky, whom he played in “The Tenant,” is a French citizen. At the beginning, the third-floor walkup apartment without a private bath that he wants to rent from M. Zy (Melvyn Douglas) is shown by the surly concierge (Shelley Winters) who assures Trelkovsky that the previous tenant, Simone, who defenestrated herself, will not be returning. Trelkovsky goes to the hospital to check on the status of the woman who is in traction and almost mummified in bandages.

A friend of Simone, Stella (Isabelle Adjani dubbed into English) is also there, and the two go off for drinks after Simone starts screaming. Simone dies that night and Trelkovsky moves in. The dead woman was fascinated by ancient Egypt and has multiple representations of Nefriti in the apartment, along with her clothes and makeup.


Trelkovsky is bullied by his coworkers into loud partying that infuriates his landlord and the chief busybody (Jo Van Fleet, pictured above) among other tenants. A pixyish woman with a crippled child, Madame Gaderian, played by my beloved Lila Kedrova (who won an Oscar in “Zorba the Greek,” and was great in “Tell Me a Riddle” and “The Angel Levine”) seeks his support against the nasty neighbors.

And different people stand in the window of the toilet across the courtyard from Trelkovsky’s room staring out. The glass awning that the previous resident broke in jumping to her death is repaired.

Eventually, Trelkovsky sees a ghost, but it is more that the dead woman increasingly possesses him than that she haunts him. Trelkovsky believes that the neighbors who are hounding him and Mme. Gaderian hounded his predecessor to suicide. (In “Rosemary’s Baby,” not to mention “Chinatown,” and “The Ghost Writer,” there was a real conspiracy; “The Tenant” is more like “Repulsion” in that the dissolution seems paranoid.)

As when I saw the movie in its theatrical release, the movie seems far too long to unfold its rather simple portrayal of going crazy. I don’t care if it is classified a “psychological thriller” or a “horror movie,” “Kafkaesque” or “Cormanesque,” there’s just not enough there there to run 126 minutes. It’s creepy and there are some mean-spirited women in it (Van Fleet and Winters along with the coworker who insists on playing the phonograph full-blast), but also the very generous Stella, and most of the others are more indifferent than spiteful, though that is not how he perceives their intentions.

Not knowing who can be trusted is a leitmotif of Polanski’s movies from “Knife in the Water” through “Venus in Furs,” with particularly masterful examples in “Death and the Maiden” and “The Pianist” (and very popular ones in “Rosemary’s Baby” and ”Chinatown”). In my view Trelkovsky is not to be trusted, but I will not speculate on reading into this anything about Polanski’s then-recent crimes involving some misplaced trusts in him and hostile gazes of many.

The image was very well transferred, but Paramount provided no extras other than a trailer. The dynamic range of the dialogue is so great, that to know what was said in whispers I found myself readjusting the volume over and over, and eventually turned on the English subtitles.


©2010, 2018

Stefan Zweig’s memoir of vanished worlds


The memoir, The World of Yesterday (Die Welt von Gestern), completed the day before his suicide by Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), does not seem to me to be leading up to suicide (with his younger, second wife, Lotte). Like the (later) memoirs of Paul Bowles, Without Stopping, The World of Yesterday is a startlingly impersonal memoir. It really is about the worlds (in Vienna, Paris, Innsbruck, London) in which Zweig lived and increasingly prospered, not about what he felt. Each of his two wives gets only a cursory mention. The man who achieved great fame and fortune writing about sexual passion does not even hint at any sexual passions of his own. The one passion that is detailed is one for acquiring memorabilia of those he revered, including Beethoven’s desk (and indeed the furnishings of the flat in which he died), a Michelangelo sketch, and the first page of a Mozart aria. These treasures were mostly left behind in London, which Zweig expected to be conquered by the Nazis (these are now in the British Library).


He did get himself and a lot of his stuff out of Austria in 1934, well before the Anschluss of 12 March 1938. And before being treated as an enemy alien in Britian, he moved on to the New World (Ossington, New York; Pertópolis, Brazil) in 1940. Exile did not agree with him, though there was much of Viennese culture (the backbiting, the educational system) that he also disliked. He seems to have been happiest in Belgium and France before they were engulfed by the First World War. He particularly revered the forgotten Francophone Belgian poet Émile Verhaeren (1855-1916), Bohemian-Austrian lyrical poet Rainer Marie Rilke (1875-1926), and his French brother in pacifism, Romain Rolland (1866-1944; author of the ten-volume Jean-Christophe, Nobel Prize 1915). Both Zweig and Rolland revered Sigmund Freud (1856-1919) , whom Zweig saw more in London than earlier in Vienna.

Zweig praises the early work of Hugo von Hoffmannstahl (1874-1929) without noting the contempt in which Hoffmanstahl held Zweig’s work. Zweig succeeded Hoffmannstahl as librettist of choice of Richard Strauss (1864-1949) and Strauss insisted on Zweig’s name remaining on the opera Fredenstag premiered in Munich in 1938 (and performed before Hitler in Vienna on 10 June 1939). Zweig recorded his appreciation for Strauss’s support when no work by a Jew was permitted in the Reich.

Zweig had resisted Zionism (though his first patron was the founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl [1860-1904] and other –isms other than pacifism. His refusals, including of war with the Nazis, irritated most everyone, including Thomas Mann and Hannah Arendt (who was in a Zionist phase in 1942 and misrepresented what was in his memoir in a vicious review of it). His memoir certainly did not scant the forebodings he felt about the Nazis, even before they gained power in Germany. And he criticized even his own limited involvement in the folly that was the First World War (he had a job in the archives of the Austrian Ministry of War).


The memoir is remarkably self-effacing, praising many other writers (“If we admire more, and more intensely than others, we shall ourselves grow richer than those timid ones who content themselves with choice morsels of life ,” he wrote. “The more a man admires, the more he possesses”,) and not reveling in his widespread popularity (the most translated of German writers between the war, more than Thomas Mann, Herman Hesse, or Sigmund Freud). “I never considered myself important enough to feel tempted to tell others the story of my life” he wrote early on in World, and he treats his trajectory primarily as a vantage-point into the vanished Hapsburg world, pre-WWI Paris, and the chaos of inflations, etc. between the world wars (living in Innsbruck).

There is nothing about the process of Zweig’s voluminous writing or the sources of ideas for his fictions.

The end of the book is quite upbeat, not at all despairing (as its author must have been to take his own life and that of his younger wife):

“In the last resort, every shadow is also the child of ight, and only those who have known the light and the dark, have seen war and peace, rise and fall, have truly lived their life.”

Though it has an index, the University of Nebraska edition of Anthea Bell’s very limpid, not-at-all Germanic translation irritatingly lack a table of contents.


©2017, Stephen O. Murray

A waned Japanese New Wave washes up the Seine

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I see some continuity between the homoerotic obsessions in “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” (1983) and “Gohatto” (1999), although there was years between their making a major stroke (the first of many). And there was also another feature film in between, “Max, Mon Amour” (1986) filmed in French and English in Paris. It has an obsession that seems more one of affect than of sexuality, one that is heterosexual, but inter-species.

The cool, elegant Charlotte Rampling plays Margaret, the wife of a British diplomat, Peter Hones, played by a fairly cool and chic Anthony Higgins. The couple has a winsome, blond son, Nelson (Christopher Hovik). Peter wants to know who his wife goes to meet every afternoon except Sunday.

The detective he hires (director Pierre Étaix) reports the location of an apartment she rents, but from which no one other than Margaret emerges. Peter has a key made, and discovers that Margaret is visiting (and keeping) a chimpanzee named Max.


Peter tries to accommodate that his wife is in love with a chimpanzee. Their son Nelson has less (well, no) problem with that. Other than flickers of jealousy and Peter picking up a prostitute to try to mate with Max, the movie seems like it could have been a Disney product. It is far more difficult to get the mind around this being a movie by the auteur of “In the Realm of the Senses,” etc. That extreme display of eroticism, and “Empire of Passion” were partly French co-productions, and the similarities of early Japanese New Wave and French New Wave are undeniable (though how much Ôshima was influenced by Godard, how much he was independently doing some of the same things and the same time during the early 1960s is unclear). For “Max,” Ôshima had the cinematographer of early Godard movies (not least, “Breathless”), Raoul Coutard, though there are no jump cuts, and the look of a haute bourgeois apartment is pre-New Wave.

That the screenplay was co-written by Jean-Claude Carriere, who frequently collaborated with Luis Bunuel made some people liken “Max” to satires such as “The Discreet Charms of the Bourgeoisie,” though I don’t see it. Maybe the fatuous psychiatrist?

The charming pet and boy (even if the primary relationship is the boy’s mother and the abimal) story, especially the second return of Max, has the look and feel of a Disney movie of the early 1960s. IMHO Ôshima frequently lost sight of the point of his films. A fable needs a point, and an Ôshima film needs more than tolerance for the unusual.

The DVD had no bonus features, not even a trailer.


©2016, Stephen O. Murray