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In the French Style (Blu-ray Review)

9 May, 2016 By: Mike Clark



Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time
Drama
$29.95 Blu-ray
Rated ‘R.’
Stars Jean Seberg, Stanley Baker, Philippe Forquet.

Either co-creators Irwin Shaw and director Robert Parrish were going for ambiguity with 1963's In the French Style (as I would like to think) or they didn’t quite know what they were doing (apparently the collective opinion of Style Blu-ray commentators Nick Redman, Julie Kirgo and Lem Dobbs). Whichever the case, this big-screen meshing of two Shaw short stories plays better for me each successive time I’ve seen it, and this lovely Twilight Time rendering — whatever else you think of the picture, its overwhelming physical time capsule elements amount to a cameraperson’s dream — is probably my fourth go-round. By the way, cinematographer Michel Kelber had quite the career, working with Jean Renoir, Jean Cocteau, Rene Clair, the “shaky-A” unit at Republic — and Nicholas Ray (Bitter Victory).

American-born Shaw and Parrish, both longtime residents of Paris, fashioned what became Iowa-bred Seberg’s swan song with the prototypical “youth” characterization she absolutely owned at the time and likely will forever — that of the quintessential American fresh-face who found herself in France as society was about to change everywhere, or at least everywhere that had a pulse. But this period — from Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse in 1958 through this picture in terms of Seberg’s career — was still in the early ’60s and thus not even the “real” ’60s for Americans who date the decade’s real beginning with the JFK assassination. And speaking as an inveterate Midwesterner who has mixed emotions about the region, I can tell you that that the times weren’t a-changin’ that fast in sizable chunks of the country, back when, say, "Bonanza" was still huge.

Thus, we have a movie about a super-comely Christina (daughter of a Chicago history prof) who’s studying painting in Paris — though the sad fact, initially obscured, is that she doesn’t have much talent or at least the distinctive talent to reward a Parisian long-haul beyond the intangible rewards of the experience itself. The haul, of course, easily can be extended if your radiance automatically beckons invitations to neon parties that offer something more than bread and wine. But the glitz probably comes with a statute of limitations as well, or at least that would have been the worry back then. Christina’s father (silver-haired Addison Powell, with exactly the right physical tools for the part) is uncommonly levelheaded and quietly clinical when eventually displaying a surprising degree of cruelty when dissecting her art skills. In contrast, nearly every Midwest father of daughters that I knew at the time was much more like the Eddie Albert rage-prone volcano in The Heartbreak Kid (the dead-on funniest portrayal of Midwestern WASP-ism ever captured on screen). In fact, five years after my own closest gal-pal from high school temporarily left Illinois to study at the Sorbonne, we saw Kid together, and she screamed out loud in the theater in recognition of the Albert character. Powell is a different bird.

All of this is getting a bit ahead of the narrative because, as mentioned, Style is based on two stories that are kind of spliced together with a band-aid, though I also think it can be argued that transitioning automatically from one to the other sans any Kwai-caliber bridge is a more modern way of telling a story. Christina’s experience in the first half is something of a spoiler minefield, but it’s fair to say that she gets involved with an extraordinarily handsome young man (Philippe Forquet) who’s full of himself — but whose overly critical bravado (about everything) is an attempt to conceal his insecurities over a secret he’s concealing. Some will find the character off-putting, but I think he’s kind of funny — though if Christina already has an inherent taste for older men (one senses this even before the evidence piles up), logic would dictate that this earlier experience would give her an extra nudge.

The second half, in which dad is a factor, finds Christina looking notably older — like, say, someone in her chic late-20s. And yet, Seberg was only 24 during the movie’s shooting, nor is there any truly marked time-leap like that in the story. In keeping with this, the character is more outwardly confident — and after a botched brief courtship with royalty we hear about and an indeterminate number of additional romances, she’s taken up with a middle-aged reporter (Stanley Baker) who’s always off covering some kind of munitions mayhem or other international turmoil that keeps him away from her. The Blu-ray commentators are right when they note that Baker’s menacing look made him a shaky bet for romantic roles of any kind, but otherwise, he strikes me as the kind of person Christina would probably go for at this stage of her life. It’s noted, and approvingly, on the bonus track that Robert Redford was considered for the Baker role, but I think he would have been way too young and predictably handsome in a way that would have reduced Christina to being one half of a “class couple” — something she got have gotten just as easily back in Chicago.

Despite what he has to say about her art, visiting father Powell is too refined to be overly dramatic in his skepticism about her social life; he’s identified as a professor, after all, and not a high school history teacher. This might mean University of Chicago and a certain degree of urbanity — a thought reinforced by the bit where he tells his daughter that he strongly doubts his generation was any less wild than the then current one. On the other hand — and one of the things I really like about this movie is that it shows both sides — all of this high life is presumably taking place on dad’s dime, a consideration that forever cuts across the decades, as far as I know. But on the third hand, you can’t watch Style without noting that every male of every age spends the movie’s entire running time trying to tell Christina how to live, and how long can anyone put up with this? Especially from a modern viewpoint.

Ultimately, this intriguingly imperfect super-curio is melancholy at best and bleak at its most brutal extreme, which is true of many stories about life’s trade-offs (one of my favorite of all subjects). This is ultimately a crossroads story in which both paths come to look like dead-end material, though maybe someday, the Paris experience will turn out to be nothing more than some sewing-oats time recalled by elderly Christina in her rocking chair (though possibly on her fourth drink of the day). Ironically, Seberg is such a hypnotic visage here that it’s possible that her character’s insecurities would be more apparent if a lesser presence were in the role. It’s not a theory I’d have wanted to test because I don’t think Seberg was ever more appealing than she is here, and I like it that Christina keeps her cool until finally letting loose (but non-hysterically) in the restaurant climax, which to me is the movie’s strongest scene.

One can’t, of course, watch Style without projecting Seberg’s own story on to it. Which is one of how a pharmacist’s daughter from Marshalltown, Iowa, ended up being found dead and decomposed at 40 in a Parisian parked car — this after a jet-setter’s life marked by unthinkably brutal harassment from Hoover’s pathologically twisted FBI after she became a political follower of the Black Panthers. One of the best movie-star print bios ever — David Richards’ Played Out — tells the story, and I don’t think you have to be a social reactionary to at least wonder if Seberg might not have been happier with some other kind of life. By this I don’t mean Des Moines but maybe in another matrix altogether.


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