Frenchman's Creek

Quentin Tarantino introduces his personal 16mm print of "Frenchman's Creek," part of the excellent Arturo de Cordova retrospective in Morelia this year, with a fast-talking infectious rush of enthusiasm. He says that he discovered the film on late night television when he was 16 or 17, and that he was in an acting class with a woman who said she liked Arturo de Cordova, and when he saw "Frenchman's Creek," he completely agreed with her -- and he watched it whenever he could again, over 20 or 30 years. 

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At the time, he didn't know that de Cordova was one of the great stars of Mexican cinema. He's only seen a couple of his Spanish-language films, he said, "and that's why it's so great to be at this festival. Boy is de Cordoba cool in this movie!" And he repeats "super cool" after he hears festival director Daniela Michel translate "cool" into Spanish that way. "It's different than any other swashbuckler because it's female-driven, co-starring Joan Fontaine," he said. "Mitchell Leisen, one of Paramount's best directors, was a great director of women.  It has a women's picture kind of feel -- even Arturo's character as a pirate is more drawn from a romantic novel than an Errol Flynn type."

"Frenchman's Creek," Tarantino points out, also features great character actors from Paramount's stable: Cecil Kellaway, Basil Rathbone. He adds that "Casanova's Big Night" has the exact same cast -- minus de Cordoba! (Well, I think, plus Bob Hope.  Later IMDb tells me that the Hope picture, made at Paramount a decade after "Frenchman's Creek, does indeed feature Fontaine and Rathbone, though that seems to be the extent of the overlap.  It might be interesting to see it in light of the fact that de Cordoba's last big Hollywood/Paramount picture, "Adventures of Casanova," is also playing here.)

Tarantino wraps up with "Enjoy Mitchell Leisen's "Frenchman's Creek"!  And I do.  The script, by Talbot Jennings from a Daphne du Maurier novel, is wittier and more suggestive than I remember. By chance, I'm sitting behind Tarantino, and it's impossible not to notice that he's paying as much attention to the film and responding to it as though he's never seen it before -- every good line gets an appreciative laugh from him.  He's having a great time.

I'm especially taken with the lavish costumes (by Raoul Pene du Bois, better known as a designer for the theater). There's one extraordinary outfit of orange iridescent silk. Joan Fontaine wears pink silk sleeping gloves, with lace cuffs. And there's the obligatory scene with her dressed as a boy. She has never looked better, nor do I think her breasts have ever been in such evidence.  Kellaway, in the role of a servant who aids and abets the scandalous affair between the married aristocratic lady and the handsome pirate, causes to be prepared a midnight supper whose menu -- crab "in the French fashion," small new potatoes, green salad, a bottle of wine, and strawberries, "the first of the season" --  rivals the equally seductive one savored by Charles Boyer and Jean Arthur in "History is Made at Night": lobster Cardinale, salad, and Pink Cap champagne.  

Alas, the Code (and perhaps du Maurier's novel) prevents the lady (who has two young children, after all) from running off with the pirate.

I leave the 17th century and its country houses, lavish banquets, and pink sleeping gloves for skateboards, garage bands, cellphones, and disaffected youth in the charming, affecting "Somos Mari Pepa" ("We are Mari Pepa"), from young director Samuel Kishi Leopo.  A coming-of-age story set in Guadalajara, it centers on Alex (wonderfully incarnated by Alejandro Gallindo), a 16-year-old living in almost complete silence with his aged grandmother (except for his punk rock warring with her sentimental records).  He tries to corral his three fractious band mates -- in Mari Pepa: mari, short for marijuana, and pepa, "in reference to female genitalia," he shyly tells a girl who's chatting him up at a party -- to come up with a second song in addition to the only one they've written ("I want to come in your FACE, Natasha!").  Meanwhile he's also trying to figure out what he wants to do with his life, and how to lose his virginity, and how to earn a little cash in order to replace his guitar, taken away from him as he walked home one dark night.

I find it amusing, delicately acted -- the four young bandmates are superb, and their quarrelsome rehearsals completely believable -- and moving. I feel for Alex the way I feel for Antoine Doinel in "The 400 Blows." It's a movie I will recommend, from a director I'm eager to see more from.

I slip into "Twilight" ("Crepusculo"), the deep, dark twilight of film noir, with Arturo de Cordova directed by the fascinating Julio Bracho (also a director of experimental theater), and shot in striking, often off-balance compositions by the genius cinematographer Alex Phillips, born in Canada but who came to Mexico to shoot its first sound film and stayed for the rest of his over-200-film career. Filmed directly after "Frenchman's Creek," it's light-years away in sensibility. Daniel Michel says in her introduction that it defined Arturo de Cordova as the maximum exponent of neuroticism in Mexican cinema.  He plays a surgeon ("a priest of a mystical religion, like an artist or a sculptor"), torn between his love for the hot, sexy, dark-haired wife of one of his best friends, with whom he'd had a brief affair before the marriage, and her virginal blonde younger sister. I love the art deco sets of the swanky city apartments and the rustic but modernistic ones of the lavish country house. 

"Crepusculo" is a masterpiece of the genre, and, along with "In the Palm of Your Hand," should take its place in the pantheon and be a mainstay of film noir festivals around the world. It deserves to be much better known. Paging Eddie Muller!  The appreciative audience includes Tarantino and his entourage, and John Sayles and Maggie Renzi.