Déesses Fatales: Duelle (1976)

Hotel

Jacques Rivette’s 1976 movie Duelle opens with a textbook film noir scenario: One night, a mysterious woman named Leni (Juliet Berto) — who’s even dressed in 1940s-style clothing, despite the fact that the film seemingly takes place in the era in which it was made — arrives at a Paris hotel and requests a specific room. She explains to Lucie (Hermine Karagheuz), the porter on duty, that it’s the room in which her former longtime lover Max Christie (or Lord Christie, as he’s often called) stayed a year ago. “I’ve lost his trail. I must find him again,” she insists. Lucie never met him, but she’s heard about him from another employee: that he left big tips, that he was often there with a girl by the name of Stern, that he only came to the hotel after visiting a nearby hostess club called the Rumba. Leni decides to seek further information there, and she also hires Lucie to investigate. To anyone familiar with noir conventions, it should come as no great surprise that Leni turns out to be a femme fatale — but the form that takes isn’t quite so conventional.

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Two Sisters: Peppermint Soda (1977)

Cafe

Diane Kurys’s 1977 film Peppermint Soda shares its name (Diabolo menthe in the original French) with the bright green beverage that Anne Weber (Éléonore Klarwein) and her friends order when they visit a cafe one day after school. It’s an exciting outing, novel, rather grown-up — a couple of boys several years their seniors even wink and smile at them, much to their amusement — but Anne’s pleasure is cut short when her sister Frédérique (Odile Michel) enters and recognizes her voice. “What are you doing here?” Frédérique addresses her angrily, for all to hear. “Are you out of your little head? Go home immediately. Since when do you hang around in cafes? Wearing stockings! Putting on airs! Mom will be delighted.” Anne, humiliated, walks out just as the waiter returns with a tray of peppermint soda. The adult world, or at least the world of older teenagers, remains elusive. She and her sister are only two years apart in age — Frédérique is fifteen, Anne thirteen — but sometimes that small gap seems like an abyss, an eternity.

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Traveling Through Time: Two for the Road (1967)

Opening

“They don’t look very happy.”
“Why should they? They just got married.”

As this cynical, even grim little exchange that opens the Stanley Donen-directed, Frederic Raphael-scripted 1967 film Two for the Road immediately makes clear, the relationship between Joanna and Mark Wallace (Audrey Hepburn, Albert Finney) isn’t exactly the picture of connubial bliss. When, while driving, they chance across a glum pair of newlyweds, prompting this conversation, the Wallaces are over a decade into their own marriage. In light of the coldness and tension between them, their frequent bickering and their open talk about the possibility of divorce, it appears that the end of their shared road through life may be within sight — a road comprising numerous literal journeys throughout France that, taken together, offer a multifaceted portrait of their marriage and how they reached this point.

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Director Series: François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard’s Une histoire d’eau (1958)

Boat

“It was obvious, once the film was finished, that it wasn’t his or mine and that it would be logical for both to sign and to make a present of it to the producer who never made a fortune out of it.” — François Truffaut

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The Unlikely Femme Fatale: Breathless (1960)

Patricia Michel

When Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg) makes her first appearance in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 film Breathless, she hardly seems the femme fatale type. An American in Paris, hawking the New York Herald Tribune on the Champs-Élysées, she looks rather boyish in her t-shirt, pants and tightly cropped pixie cut. In fact, she doesn’t behave like a femme fatale either; far from seducing Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo), the film’s antihero, she turns down his advances multiple times, uncertain about her feelings for him. Nevertheless, his infatuation with her brings about his own destruction — almost as if she can’t avoid destroying him.

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Scenes from a Marriage: The Catered Affair (1956)

Announcement

When Jane Hurley (Debbie Reynolds) announces that she’s engaged to Ralph Halloran (Rod Taylor), her boyfriend of three years, at the beginning of the 1956 Richard Brooks-directed film The Catered Affair, her parents’ reactions are decidedly restrained. “Well, Jane, that’s very nice,” replies her mother, Aggie (Bette Davis), in the midst of making breakfast. Her father, Tom (Ernest Borgnine), who’s just come home after driving a taxi all night, doesn’t respond at all until prodded by his wife, and then he merely echoes her words: “Jane, that’s very nice.” To be fair, Jane herself is rather subdued in delivering the news, and as she explains, their reasons for getting married now are largely practical: “Well, what finally decided us was Ralph’s got this friend, you know, in California, but his wife’s pregnant, so he asked Ralph if he knew somebody who could drive his car out for him ’cause he can’t drive it out himself, you know, ’cause his wife’s pregnant, so Ralph thought quickly and decided we could make a nice honeymoon out of a nice trip to California like that.” For them to take advantage of this opportunity, the wedding will have to take place in only a few days’ time, a no-frills, ten-minute affair, without a reception or any guests beyond the bride and groom’s immediate families. That’s how Jane wants it, and her parents are fine with the idea — at least at first.

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Accidental Detectives, Accidental Pilgrims: A Canterbury Tale (1944)

Hair Washing

In a place with a name like “Chillingbourne,” perhaps it’s inevitable that something strange and unsettling should happen, particularly on a dark night made all the darker by the enforcement of a blackout. Even so, when Alison Smith (Sheila Sim), a member of the Women’s Land Army, arrives in the Kent village, having a mysterious uniformed man pour glue in her hair and then run off is probably the last thing she expects — yet that’s exactly what happens at the start of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1944 film A Canterbury Tale.

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Fugitive Friendship: Tiger Bay (1959)

Spying

The 1959 film Tiger Bay, directed by J. Lee Thompson, takes its title from the area of Cardiff now known as Cardiff Bay. As the name suggests, the district is located along the waterfront, encompassing the city’s docks; consequently, in addition to being home to an ethnically and culturally diverse, immigrant-rich population (at least fifty-seven different nationalities were represented there in the 1950s), it also serves as a temporary host to countless people coming and going by boat. In this kind of setting, it’s inevitable that strangers with little or nothing in common should find themselves crossing paths on occasion — although few such chance encounters are apt to bind two strangers together the way this one does.

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