Laughter in the Dark (Tony Richardson, UK, 1969)

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One of a number of cynical romances of the time, this one has a wealthy art expert falling in love with penniless young cinema usherette Margot (Anna Karina). This expert, Sir Edward More (Nicol Williamson), has a beautiful wife and bright young child, a house in the country in spacious grounds, even spots on the telly. Clearly he’s no fool, yet he falls for this scheming bint head-over-heels.

This is the first problem with the film. Williamson is an engaging actor, sometimes fragile and irrational, so very believable and easy to empathise with if not to like. Here you just want to give him a slap. The girl taunts him with greedy demands to be set up in a flat with everything to match while turning up at his house unasked and wrecking his marriage. And all before he’s even slept with her. Sometimes the less you get the more you want, but this is taking it too far.

No sooner is Margot shacked up with her sugar daddy than she takes up with an old flame, a French art forger and all-round chancer (Jean-Claude Drouot). Together they plot to fleece the older man, under the cover story of the virile lover being in fact a homosexual. Older men with nymphette lovers are renowned for raging jealousy, but that of Sir Edward is ridiculously easily dispelled. Later, when he has become entirely dependent on the girl, we the viewers are aware of things that he himself is not. But he clearly ought to be, so the necessary suspension of disbelief is not there.

Another weak point surprisingly enough is Anna Karina. She is a little too old for the part, and is an unenticing presence with an unpleasant (and unplaceable) European accent. Worse, the camera doesn’t really love her. Sometimes she doesn’t even look beautiful.

The story is adapted from a novel by Vladimir Nabokov, and here lies another common problem. Perhaps because they are too attached to the dialogue on the printed page the characters don’t come alive, and neither does the story. Something similar happened with another Nabokov adaptation, Jerzy Skolimowski’s King, Queen, Knave (1972). Visually the film is uninspired, though the photography is acceptable if a little limpid. Tony Richardson is one of those journeyman directors who made his name undeservedly by attaching it to the work of other rising stars of the time.

The film gets better as it nears the end, with the atmosphere becoming more dreamy and thus believability no longer a concern, but in the end the viewer is left with the realisation that’s he’s been promised a challenging arthouse drama and been served up nothing but a B-movie, and a slack one at that. People wonder why these films get neglected and forgotten.

Three clips with Anna Karina

scene from Laughter in the Dark scene from Laughter in the Dark scene from Laughter in the Dark

Rating:   ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 2/5

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L’Alliance (Christian de Chalonge, France, 1971)

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The wedding of the title is so perfunctory you are left uncertain that such a thing has actually taken place. Was it even consummated? It’s not like a French film to leave you in the dark about something like that. Hugues had advertised for a bride via an agency. “Shy vet seeks young beauty with rambling old house containing mysterious locked room”, he wrote, “please send photo of mysterious locked room”. Or at least if he had done he would have saved me a certain amount of exposition.

The young beauty who answers in the positive is Jeanne (Anna Karina). Surely there must be a catch in this? The house is musty and decrepit as only a locked-up town house can be. Putting aside any nagging doubts he may have over what happened to all the other shy young men who went before him and what she did with the bones, Hugues sets about renovating the place and turning it into a modern veterinary surgery.

They make a very dull household; just husband, wife, and housekeeper – and little to look forward to at bedtime either. At first Jeanne seems to be the sinister presence, with her mysterious shopping expeditions, and the vanishing chemical supplies. “What’s happened to all my ether?” – not a question you ever want to ask of your wife. Eventually we suspect that Hugues may be the odd one.

Initially this film shares much of the same atmosphere of the contemporary Le seuil du vide. The black-clad greying old matrons who bring increasingly exotic pets in for consultation are a peculiarly French thing. But the sinister shadow of the past is slowly replaced with the menacing trappings of a scientific age as Hugues gradually installs modern lighting and decor; a research laboratory follows. The animals that inhabit the cages around the walls become more bizarre. Not exactly dangerous, but forbiddingly strange. The housekeeper is the first to crack: “J’ai peur des animaux” she says before leaving. But what of Jeanne?

An absorbing curiosity, a little pretentious maybe, but with an original atmosphere and a notably peculiar ending.

Rating:   ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 3/5

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