Sunday, December 29, 2019

The best Sixties musical you’ve never seen — and the best Anna Karina vehicle that *never* plays in the U.S.

Anna Karina, who recently died at 79, had a rich and vibrant career after her divorce from Jean-Luc Godard, but she will forever be best known as Uncle Jean’s first muse and a living embodiment of the Nouvelle Vague — of which only a scant few are left (namely Leaud and Belmondo; Bulle Ogier, Piccoli, and Trintignant deserve honorable mention). Her legacy of collaborations with Godard is strengthened by her later work with other great directors like Rivette, Michel Deville, Agnes Varda, Eric Rohmer, Roger Vadim, Visconti, Schlondorff, Tony Richardson, Cukor, Benoit Jacquot, Ulli Lommel, Jonathan Demme, Raoul Ruiz, and Funhouse deity Fassbinder (not forgetting Anna herself).

Pierre Koralnik, a specialist in telefilms and episodic TV, wouldn’t ever be placed in that company, but he made one of the single best Karina vehicles, the musical Anna (1967). The film’s charm and rewatchability comes not from Koralnik’s deft, professional touch with the material, but from its stars and a wonderfully memorable score by Serge Gainsbourg.

Anna was a telefilm that first aired on January 13, 1967. It was notable for being the first French telefilm in color and for being Gainsbourg’s only full score for a musical — he wrote dozens of instrumental and vocal scores for dramas and comedies, of course, and created two perfect concept albums (Histoire De Melody Nelson and L'Homme À Tête De Chou), but Anna was his only full-fledged musical.

The film’s international distribution remains a puzzle. It has never acquired a U.S. distributor and hasn’t played in NYC arthouses at all in the last quarter-century, since Gainsbourg became a cult figure in America. During which time, of course, the Godard films with Karina have been restored and revived countless times, in theaters and on home entertainment media.

I acquired a copy of the film from a Japanese home-entertainment release in 2002, and discussed and showed scenes from it on the Funhouse TV show at that time. I have since rerun those episodes twice and will be showing them again this weekend and next. (The show, for those who are unaware, is a non-profit enterprise that has aired for 26 years on Manhattan access and remains the premier American TV series covering both arthouse and grindhouse cinema.)

If American viewers have wanted to see the film, they have to acquire it from vendors selling overseas DVDs, or they can watch the musical numbers from the film on YouTube — without the fairy tale plot that comes between them, or the finale. In 2018, I was in Paris and was informed by a cineaste friend that it was “Anna’s year,” because three of her films were being restored and shown in cinemas again. These three were one of the Godard films (which we have never not had in the U.S.), the first feature she directed (Vivre ensemble, 1973), and Anna (which the Gilles Verlant bio of Gainsbourg notes was unseen in France from ’67 to 1990). Of those three, we proceeded to get more 4K restorations of the films she made with Godard — and nothing else.

So this piece serves as both a discussion of the film and a plea for some U.S. distributor to acquire it. (According to its IMDB listing, it has none at the moment and has never had one, thus accounting for it never being shown in U.S. rep houses, or even museums and non-profit spaces.) At some point in the future, it may appear on disc and some other writer will be asked to do the notes for the booklet contained in the release. For the time being, this piece will hopefully serve as that “101” for a film that Americans can’t see, unless they purchase it from overseas vendors (or hunt around on the underside of the Net, which benefits none of the French rights-holders).

The film was clearly inspired by the success of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964). It has a plot as flimsy as any great MGM musical and a look that is half-Demy, half-pop art.

The wafer-thin plot is a classic of convenient misunderstanding. An advertising man (Jean-Claude Brialy) who has a rich-kid, playboy lifestyle, searches Paris for a woman (Anna Karina) whose picture he took by accident at a photo shoot that was done at a train station. He doesn’t put 2 and 2 together and realize that the woman works in his own office, because she had dropped her glasses at the time the shutter was clicked and the pictures were taken. Upon such sweet misunderstandings great and timeless romances (and farces) are built and Anna is one of those, despite its utter invisibility in the U.S.

Karina is in full flower here. She is charming and resolute, and the bittersweet finale shows that her character is not made to simply melt into the scenery. She is a modern woman who, while pining for meaning in her life, doesn’t need or want the role of “dream girl” for a rich playboy. Although she is indeed a fantasy figure in certain scenes, most particularly in the oh, so Sixties dream sequences where she’s a sci-fi space traveler and a cowgirl gunfighter (!). (Part of a Fellini-esque dream seemingly added to stretch the film to 85 minutes; the sequence, which criticizes American militarism, overlaps with a later film that featured Serge in a supporting role, William Klein's Mister Freedom.)

Anna is both an object and a subject of passion in the film. Her specs-less image is put on posters throughout Paris by Brialy, and she becomes the subject of a glamorous “hunt.” On her own, though, she is a lonely soul, looking to take a vacation in a sunny clime. This is expressed in the film’s most beautiful song, an experiment in waltz-time by Gainsbourg called “Sous Le Soleil Exactment” (Right Under the Sun). He later recorded it himself, but Anna’s wistful vocals and the images Koralnik added (he had worked on pop-rock TV shows in France) are gorgeous.

In her stolen moments, Anna dreams of being a superhero, the “roller girl.” This song is by far one of Serge’s great pop-rock numbers of the period, with a riff that sticks to the brain pan (so much so that later songwriters ripped it off shamelessly). All of the tunes in the film are memorable, but this and “Sous Le Soleil Exactement” are the two that are sheer pop perfection. Unlike the later “Comic Strip” performed by Bardot and Gainsbourg, this sequence has no comic-book element visually, but it conveys its point and also gives us a glorious moment of fantasizing by the lonely, bored (slightly drunk) heroine.

In Le Petit Soldat (1960, released ’63), Godard has a character make a bet with the hero that he will fall in love with Anna instantly. The hero demurs, but instantly pays up as soon as he sees her. Viewers of Anna will have the same reaction, as she is thoroughly charming, especially when seen on her own, away from the playboy’s idealizing lens.

Brialy was notably the only performer to work with all five of the Cahiers du Cinema posse (in starring roles, yet). He is perfectly cast here as the conflicted, spoiled photographer. He had a somewhat flat singing voice, so he goes the Rex Harrison/Richard Burton route and recites-sings Serge’s gorgeously playful lyrics, which works perfectly in numbers like “Boomerang.”

Serge himself wasn’t the greatest actor, but his appearances here are wonderful because he serves as the “jaded best friend” — a Gallic version of Oscar Levant’s role in MGM musicals. Given the high quality and catchiness of the songs here, one is amazed that there was never a second Gainsbourg musical. (Thankfully, there is no “jukebox musical” in store, mostly because his greatest muse, Jane Birkin, has been touring the world with a live show called “Gainsbourg Symphonique.”)

He sings two songs in the film, with the second being a bravura piece of lyric writing in which he cautions his friend Brialy against love — the title “Un poison violent, c'est ça l'amour” translates as "Love is a violent poison." The lyrics posit that one’s behavior moves “from appetite to disgust” and back again — an irresistible notion for Gainsbourg to include in a lyric (one with rhymes and poetry that are untranslatable). It came from his reading matter at the time, an essay by 17th-century French theologian Jacques-Bénigne Lignel Bossuet. (This crap copy of the scene shows just how badly we need to actually get a quality, *legal* copy of the film here in the U.S.)

Serge is quoted in the official Gilles Verlant biography as saying, “[The score] was French rock before French rock existed. I think the soundtrack has aged poorly but the visuals still hold up. I always thought Koralnik was going to have an amazing career. He’s a great director….” [Gilles Verlant, Gainsbourg: the Biography, Tam Tam Books, 2012 (French edition, 2000), p. 286]. It is also noted that these songs were created “under enormous pressure” since Serge kept hitting creative blocks (per Jean-Pierre Spiero). [ibid, pp. 287-88] Half of the score was written in the final 15 days before shooting began.

A quote from Serge about the composition of the songs is included in the Verlant bio: “It was at that time I set my record for successive nights of intentional insomnia — eight nights. At night I’d compose music that would be recorded the next day. In the mornings I had studio sessions and in the afternoon I was playing a convict in the Loursais film, Vidocq. When it was over I slept for 48 hours straight…” [ibid, p. 288]

Anna and Serge sing "Ne Dis Rien" on a variety show.
Musicians are notoriously hard on themselves, and it has to be said that Serge was wrong about the inspired score he came up with for Anna. Sure, at points, it’s effervescent, frothy pop nonsense, but what other songwriter wrote bubblegum music that had the lyric “Baby gum, baby gum!” in a song that openly references (in the title, yet) Stendhal?

There are several beautiful melodies in Anna, but the most touching love song is “Ne Dis Rien” (Say Nothing). The song is performed as a duet with Brialy and Karina alternating not just full lines but small phrases in the verses. The result is a beautiful counterpoint that adds to the romance of the song.

And because Serge was truly in literary mode in the mid-Sixties, the key line is “Suis-moi jusqu'au bout de la nuit/Jusqu'au bout de ma folie...” (Follow me to the end of the night/to the end of my madness...)  This evokes Journey to the End of the Night by seminal dark humorist (and figure of great controversy) Celine.

Anna can be obtained by Americans on the "underside" of the Net, with or without subtitles. There are actually several different subtitled versions of the film floating around. The oddest one is the one that aired on TeleFrance 5 from Montreal, which provides literal English translations of Gainsbourg’s lyrics, losing nearly all of the brilliant wordplay and the emotion as well.

The original soundtrack LP.
The film is truly a missing link in Sixties pop cinema. From its paint-splattered opening (which overlaps, again, with the film work of Serge’s friend, American expat photographer William Klein), to the primary-colored images crafted by Koralnik and cinematographer Willy Kurant (Godard’s Masculin-Feminin, Varda’s Les Creatures), to the sudden guest appearance of Marianne Faithfull (singing her latest single, a Gainsbourg composition), and the triumphant finale, the film is a gem that needs to be seen on the U.S. repertory circuit and be legally released on disc.

As for Koralnik (whom Serge roomed with at one time) and Gainsbourg, they worked together one more time, not counting a TV pop-music variety show, on a rather lousy thriller called Cannabis (1970). Though uncompelling as a drug trafficking crime drama, the film stars Serge, Jane B, and Paul (“Cousin Kevin”) Nicholas. It contains, though, Serge’s other great film score of the Sixties. (The entire film can be seen here, without English subs.)

He deemed the score a fusion of Jimi Hendrix, who he was listening to at the time, and old fave Bela Bartok. Serge described his soundtracks as “laboratories” for music he wouldn’t put on his own or other’s pop albums. The score for Cannabis is a dazzlingly psychedelic creation that remains brilliant with each listen.

And, moving back to Anna, her post-Godard films— and the ones she made for other directors while married to him – will be rediscovered and re-evaluated as the years go by. Recently, one of her best Sixties performances, in Rivette’s The Nun (1966), finally appeared on disc in the U.S.

The films with Uncle Jean remain eternal. Oddly, in some write-ups of Anna it was noted that she “had never sung before” onscreen. Clearly those writers had never seen the absolutely perfect Pierrot Le Fou….

Thanks to Paul Gallagher for help discovering the different versions of the film, and Charles Lieurance and Laura Wagner for some of the Karina pics.

No comments: