The Eloquent Screen: The Sound Sequences that Made Me Want to Re-Watch Three Films

In The Eloquent Screen, Gilberto Perez writes about film moments. Isn’t this what a film lover’s cinematic memory is comprised of? Moments rather than full-length features, details rather than genres, sounds and songs that take us on a journey. He explores the ways that lead to a seamless transition between filmmaker and audience by bringing into discussion such a varied film work, from Chaplin, Murnau and Renoir to Kiarostami, Malick and Hitchcock. I have singled out three films I want to rewatch after reading how Perez portrayed them focusing on one particularity: soundtracking, be it music, natural sound or voice-over.

”Toni”, 1935 | Les Films Marcel Pagnol

Toni, 1935, directed by Jean Renoir

Toni begins on that train, where migrant workers are coming to work in the south of France and singing songs of the home land they left behind. They pause to have a drink from a bottle of wine they pass among them, and we suddenly hear the loud sound of the train whistle and cut to a long shot of the train crossing the bridge leading to the station at Les Martigues. The sweet human sound of the folk songs contrasts with the harsh industrial sound recorded on the spot and a representation of the experience of peasants arriving in an alien land where they are to do alien industrial work. […] In keeping with Renoir’s preference for direct sound, there is no background music in Toni. The music is provided by the immigrants themselves singing their folk songs, which recur throughout the movie like the refrain of a ballad. […] Toni brings together and bounces off each other the modern form of realism and the traditional form of a ballad – which is the way the immigrants would tell the story themselves.”

Jean Renoir made Toni in 1934, before the emergence of the Italian neo-realism (Luchino Visconti was his assistant on Toni and the French filmmaker gave him the book The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain, which would lead Visconti to directing his first film, the first neo-realist film, Ossessione, in 1943) and Renoir, nor I, did not understand how the Italians could dub the sound in the studio after shooting the picture on location, arguing that he preferred a sound that was technically bad but authentic. Using the music of the times, along with the direct sound of the outdoors where it was filmed, is one of the elements that portray a convincing image of that time and bear the mark of the place, a place that both unites and divides the characters and which is felt through language, food, dress, custom and music. André Bazin said about Toni that it was not the best or the most perfectly constructed of Renoir’s prewar movies, but it was the film “in which Renoir pushed his personal and cinematic quest the farthest”, which makes it all the more eloquent in view of the subsequent development of neorealism and of cinematic realism.

”Badlands”, 1973 | Warner Brothers

Badlands, 1973, directed by Terrence Malick

“Visually as well as verbally Malick is an exact craftsman. And verbally as well as visually he liberates his films from the tyranny of the plot line. Voice-over is the device he uses to embroider events with musings and reflections and also to fill in narrative gaps, releasing the images from their usual subordination to the story so that they can flourish in splendid autonomy.”

The use of voice-over is a characteristic of Malick’s, along with other distinctive elements in his movies, like the poetic approach to narrative and character, the innovative editing, the collision of human suffering or violence with natural beauty, and Badlands (1973) was the film that introduced us to the filmmaker’s unique talent. It was his particular film-making style that made a story that had been told many times, of two lovers who are criminals and are pursued across America, an original. In her autobiography, Sissy Spacek said: “Nothing has ever really matched the magic of discovery we all felt that summer in the Colorado desert, when we learned how a film could be a living, breathing, collaborative work of art.”

”In the Mood for Love”, 2000 | Block 2 Pictures, Jet Tone Production, Paradis Films

In the Mood for Love, 2000, directed by Wong Kar-Wai

“This is a film of fragments rather than long takes, of repetition rather than progression, elliptical, off-centered, oblique. I found it and still find it to be very sexy in the way it dwells on the aroused possibility, the sustained expectations of the mood rather than the fact of love. This is melodrama with the accent on melody rather than drama – particularly a recurring waltz accompanying slow-motion images in a transformation of ordinary movements into a kind of mating dance. […] This is a film about the promise rather than the fulfillment of love, the promise of happiness that for Stendhal defined beauty.”

In the Mood for Love depicts sensuality through light, colour, space and music alone – that haunting, recurring refrain of Shigeru Umebayashi’s Yumeji’s Theme. It is the things that remain unworded and that are only grasped by sight and sound that say more. It evokes the essence of romantic love, while keeping everything wonderfully ambiguous. Wong Kar-Wai said in the book-length interview with John Powers that he designed the soundtrack of the film, from music to ambience, taking into consideration that in a neighborhood like that, you would hear Beijing opera and Shanghainese opera, and that he re-created the soundtrack of his childhood, hiring retired radio broadcasters to re-record radio programs and weather reports like they used to do and he conducted the soundtrack of the film like he was a radio DJ from the 60s. It is about the mood of the 1960s of Wong Kar-Wai’s childhood. Isn’t film a multi-sensory experience, isn’t it more about mood and feeling than fact?

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François Truffaut’s Heroines

Jean-Pierre Léaud, Jacqueline Bisset and François Truffaut in ”La nuit américaine”, 1973 | Les Films du Carrosse, Produzione Intercontinentale Cinematografica

Cinema is a woman’s art, François Truffaut used to say, and the great moments in cinema involve “the convergence of the gifts of a director and those of an actress who is being directed by him.” Just look at Jeanne Moreau in Jules et Jim and you will realise that that was one of the great moments in cinema as well – the beauty and happiness and energy of a director filming his actress! In his films, it’s his feminine characters who are more dynamic, more enterprising, it’s them who direct events. It’s them he wants to get close to and his close-ups, much more often than when filming men, show that. Even in Tirez sur le pianiste, the two gangsters who kidnap Charlie (Charles Aznavour) talk only about women. One of them even says that his father died in a car accident because “he turned his head after every woman (…) one of them must have had her skirt too short, he didn’t take his eyes off of her and was run over by a car.” And just like that, we are introduced to the precursor of Charles Denner in L’Homme qui aimait les femmes. The male characters in François Truffaut’s movies, just like Truffaut, love women. In his films, he avoided political or social concerns to focus on love and relationships, many times concentrating on character rather than plot and stimulating interest through suspense. Love was the subject of subjects for Truffaut, but it had to have something distinctive about it, never involving general consensus, never packed with artificial problems. An ardent Alfred Hitchcock admirer, Truffaut regularly played with the suspense repertoire, but parted company with Hitchcock in key moments, because François Truffaut’s cinema and style are all his own.

“I was attracted to his world, I think, a world in which women figure importantly usually,” Jacqueline Bisset, who starred in La nuit américaine, told Film Talk. “They are important is his stories and as a woman you feel that. Children are also important, so you feel the sensitivity. His dialogues are so marvellous, so fresh, so personal, cynical at times, all kinds of points of view, even if you look at Jules et Jim [1962] today, you can still recognize all of that. When I was a child I didn’t have lots of media, so when I saw one of his films I let it sit in my mind, it filled a large space with things I didn’t know about. I don’t know picking on any film nowadays when there’s so much media – it just bombards you, whether you can pick up things in the same way.” It is the magic of cinema that Truffaut believed in and made us believe in it, too, even when he made a film about making films, La nuit américaine, seemingly peeling away layers of acting and craft. Much of the mystery and fascination remains. Just as the recurrent question in his films: “Are women magic?” He regularly, eloquently demythologizes this idea, and, still, he goes back to it in almost every movie. The fascination is permanent and vital.

Jeanne Moreau, Oskar Werner and Henri Serre in ”Jules et Jim”, 1962 | Les Films du Carrosse, Sédif Productions

Jeanne Moreau (Catherine) in Jules et Jim, 1962

In Jules et Jim, Truffaut wanted to depict something films had never done before: showing a woman who loves two men simultaneously, all her life. And he wanted to do it in a way in which he would keep the film from being typecast into an existing film style. Which he did with exceptional flair: calling it a love triangle would not be quite accurate, because there is a true friendship among the three of them, such freshness, simplicity and naturalness, and the feeling of the eternal present in the relationship of Jules and Jim and Catherine, somehow “the ideal image of romantic life, minus the cruelty brought about by the desire of possession that leads to jealousy”, as Jeanne Moreau explained in a comment about the film. You don’t judge Catherine and you don’t take any sides, because as Jim says to Jules, “she is an apparition for all men, but perhaps not a woman one can have for oneself.” Catherine does not cheat on anyone, she is free and open, but she is ready to punish anyone who lies.

“I believe, just like you do, that in love, the couple is not the ideal formula. You wanted to build something better, refusing hypocrisy, you wanted to invent love. But pioneers have to be humble and selfishless. No, you have to face it, Catherine, we have failed,” says Jim. Catherine is one of those Truffaut heroines who don’t like to be read or judged. Truffaut said that the character “wants to live in the same manner as a man, but that is only a particularity of her personality, and doesn’t represent a feminist attitude or a form of protest.” In fact, Truffaut later admitted that he would have been embarrassed to have made Jules et Jim during the time of the Women’s Liberation Movement. He said he would have been troubled by the similarities that have occurred between his story, in which a woman is queen, and the actions promoted at present by the MLF. Long gone are the days of pure, independent cinema, freed of social and political factors.

Catherine is admired, not loved. Truffaut didn’t seek popularity with his characters. But his film depends heavily on the luminous femininity of Jeanne Moreau, as her character Catherine embarks on a dangerous liaison with bohemian best friends Jules and Jim (Oskar Werner and Henri Serre). Inquisitive, spontaneous, iconoclastic and capricious, the free-spirited Moreau refuses to be understood and she slips between affection and cruelty in her bid to live for a moment forever on the verge of being snatched away. “Her qualities as an actress and as a woman made Catherine real before our eyes, made her plausible, crazy, possessive, passionate, but above all, adorable,” said the director about Jean Moreau, whom he was in love with at the time of making Jules et Jim. “Through me, François learned about women, and through him, I learned about cinema,” Moreau would confess.

Catherine is intensely feminine and sexually provocative even when she disguises herself as Thomas, surprising herself too of how she gets away with wearing men’s clothes and a mustache in a scene of shared dandyism. It was the character’s tomboy fashion that became iconic. The French New Wave invented a whole new cinema style, from experimenting with new film form, to costume approach, embracing an openness to seize whatever happened during filming and using it in the film. As Jeanne Moreau said in an interview, “I was at that age where one lives very egocentrically; I saw it as the chance of a lifetime a chance to escape the ‘star’ style… all of a sudden we were filming in the street with very little makeup, costumes you found yourself. No one was telling me anymore ‘you have circles under your eyes, your face is lopsided’, suddenly it was life.” A lot of the clothes Catherine is wearing in the film, especially the modern clothes she wears after the war (the oversized cardigans and striped sweaters – there are stripes of every kind in Catherine’s wardrobe: from mariniere tops to a single stripe detail around the neckline or sleeve edges of a sweater -, the pleated skirts, the suede mid-calf boots, the espadrilles, the preppy checkered skirts and ties with white shirts, the newsboy cap), belonged to Jeanne. It’s so effortless, but let’s not forget that the dandy woman loves showing off her most hidden feminine side. It’s the male/female puzzle that so much fascinated in those days as it does today.

Delphine Seyrig in ”Baisers volés”, 1968 | Les Films du Carrosse, Les Productions Artistes Associés


Delphine Seyrig (Fabienne Tabard) in Baisers volés, 1968

“I was thinking of Delphine Seyrig for Baisers volés. The role was written for her. […] Part of the role depended upon the glamour she had gained from her role in L’Année dernière à Marienbad; my film had to have an actress who had made that earlier film – it couldn’t be anyone else.” In Alain Resnais’ film, Delphine is wearing Chanel and the baroque decors (the filming took place at two castles outside of Munich, Nymphenburg and Amalienburg) served as an impressive frame for the elegance and exactitude of Chanel’s dresses, which, in turn, played a crucial role in capturing the restrained passion of A (Delphine Seyrig) but also to piece together a sense of time in a story that constantly misses reality and imagination. Delphine’s wardrobe is so sophisticated, yet so light in details: layers of tulle, wisps of chiffon, delicate lace and dramatic feathers (those sensational white feathery peignoir and black cape), as if especially created to drift unnoticed through the sumptuous corridors and gilded rooms and the architectural, majestic gardens in Resnais’ unconventional and stirring movie. It is in fact a wardrobe that evokes a modern, timeless allure, as Resnais did not want Delphine to wear costumes specifically created for the film. And that, designing clothes that appealed to every woman, Coco Chanel could do better than anyone else.

Baisers volés (Stolen Kisses) is about learning to love, shot with a comical and melancholy tone, with enough acting improvisation which reinforced the unpredictable quality of the scenes. We meet Delphine’s Fabienne Tabard as she enters in the middle of the night the shoe store where Antoine Doinel works because she is in the mood for a pair of Chanel shoes. She wears Chanel, naturally, throughout the film, just as she has in Last Year at Marienbad. And that’s how Doinel discovers this glamorous dream apparition, a graceful silhouette in a black dress wrapped in a white fur and trying on a shoe. She presents herlsef as Mrs. Tabard, the owner’s wife. The inaccessibility occurs. But Truffaut wants to demythologize the concept of “magical woman”. Antoine places her on a pedestal, and when he is invited to her house for lunch, he gets uncomfortable and spills a cup of coffee and runs away, as he always does when he is uncomfortable. But she steps down from that pedestal, goes to his house and joins him in bed. “I am not an apparition, I am a woman. […] For example, this morning, before coming here, I dressed up, I powdered my nose… I made up my eyes and .. crossing Paris, I realised all women do the same thing, for their own pleasure or out of politeness… You say I am exceptional. That’s right, I am, all women are exceptional, everyone in their own way, you are exceptional, too… Your fingerprints are unique… Do you know that? You are unique. We both are unique, unique and irreplaceable.” Unique yet accessible, that could describe perfectly well Coco Chanel’s own style philosophy.

Truffaut admitted he cast Seyrig on account of her reputation, but in a comic way, something she had never attempted but was perfectly capable of delivering. It is the Léaud-Seyrig couple that makes one laugh, because there is indeed an enormous contrast between her and him. And yet… “Moments in which one shouldn’t be afraid to linger – like Delphine Seyrig in Jean-Pierre Léaud’s bedroom, for instance. She can take her time, allow silences to occur – I know that we are going to listen to her.” And we do, because she speaks a tough and profound truth, but which Truffaut had the skill to present as lighthearted.

Jeanne Moreau in ”La mariée était en noir”, 1968 | Les Films du Carrosse, Les Productions Artistes Associés, Dino de Laurentiis Cinematografica


Jeanne Moreau (Julie Kohler) in La mariée était en noir, 1968

Having declined Mike Nichol’s invitation to play Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate (1967), Jeanne Moreau reunited with François Truffaut in this homage to Alfred Hitchcock. Moreau, as Julie Kohler, a widow wreaking vengeance on the five men linked to the killing of her husband on their wedding day, eschews tragedy and takes Truffaut’s advice to play the character “like a skilled worker with a job to do, conscientious and obstinate”. Moreau impressed Hitchcock with her performance, who wished she had given poison victim Coral (Michel Bouquet) a pillow “so that he could die with more comfort”.

The Bride Wore Black is actually a film about love that is grounded in a pure feeling, because, for Julie, it involves a love from the past. She herself, on the screen, incarnates a kind of living death. She lives on after her husband only for the sake of avenging him,” Truffaut explained. “I stayed awake at night counting the minutes and seconds that separated me from the moment when I would see him again,” is Julie Kohler’s final confession.

There is no emotion, no guilt in her, and you are not appalled by her actions, because they are part of a necessary plan. And nothing deters her from her goal. Truffaut wanted no artifice, he wanted Jeanne to play the role simply, in a manner that would render her actions believable and human. “No laugh, no smile, no sulking, no bitter expression. I wanted her face to be neither open, nor closed, but normal, determined. I asked her to act without any flirtations, like a man, a man who is thinking about a job he needs to get done. I wanted Jeanne Moreau to remind one less of a goddess of revenge than of someone who is purposeful and efficient. I asked her to act like a skilled craftsman.”

Throughout the film, despite the title, The Bride Wore Black, Julie wears black as well as white (her costumes were fashioned by her ex-lover Pierre Cardin), and Truffaut explained that by dressing her only in black and white in a colour film, she gave the impression that “rather than entering into the setting or leaving from it, one would say that she simply appears or disappears.” We never see her arrive or leave. She is like an apparition, but her presence is less dreamlike and more shocking, foreseeing the worst. White as a validation of her absolute motives, black as a testimony of her preordained fate rather than a punishment for her actions. This duality comes in full play in the sequence where she comes after Fergus (Charles Denner), her fifth victim. He is an artist and she goes to his studio to pose for him as his model. He asks her to dress as Diana the Huntress, in a white dress, with a bow and arrow. Goddess? Huntress? Both. But dressed like that, she’s only playing a role. She doesn’t need a disguise, because she has come dressed in a white dress with a black pattern resembling a grabbing fateful hand (image above).

Catherine Deneuve and Jean Paul Belmondo in ”La sirène du Mississippi”, 1969 | Les Films du Carrosse, Les Productions Artistes Associés


Catherine Deneuve (Marion Vergano) in La sirène du Mississippi, 1969

François Truffaut attributed part of the failure of La Sirène du Mississippi (the film was poorly received) to the difficulty he had persuading the public to accept an actor like Jean Paul Belmondo in the role of a defeated, desperate man: “It’s not hard to understand what shocked the Western world. La Sirène shows a man who is weak (despite his looks) captivated by a woman who is strong (despite her appearance).” What did Truffaut do? He switched the male and female roles, imagining Catherine as “a boy, a hoodlum who’d been through hard times”, and Jean Paul as “a young girl who was expecting everything from marriage”. Catherine’s Marion is an orphan, a prostitute, accomplice to murder and attempts murder. She is streetwise, cynical, an usurper. Jean Paul’s Louis Mahé, a plantation owner on Reunion Island, is rich but naïve, trusting and indifferent to his wealth, still a boy.

The film was based on William Irish’s novel “Waltz into Darkness”, but Truffaut felt he had to bring it to contemporary times, precisely because gender roles had begun to interplay, and because the contrasts between the good and the bad were considerably reduced. The villain was not entirely bad and the victim wasn’t entirely good anymore, there are much more understandable, regardless of their flaws and mistakes, things were not black and white anymore, they had become grey. It is again a love story. The story of a man who marries a woman who is the exact opposite of what he was expecting. But he falls in love and accepts her as she is. At the same time, he becomes a man, finally learning about life. It’s again the subject most dear to Truffaut, because the film is less a thriller than a study of love, of a couple, of real characters in intense situations, which makes them react in a genuine way.

Beautiful and mysterious, hidden behind her opaqueness and inaccessibility, with her crisp, realistic acting, Catherine Deneuve’s femme fatale taps into that “paradox between the inner fire and the cool surface”, as Truffaut himself put it, categorization that defined Hitchcock’s blondes. In fact, throughout her entire career, Deneuve has not been afraid of taking complex roles that ruffled and darkened the surface of her beauty. Deneuve’s icy, mysterious cool blonde look would have been indeed perfect for an Alfred Hitchcock noir or thriller – Catherine reportedly admitted that she would have loved to make Marnie with Hitchcock. I like that Mississippi Mermaid is an unusual noir, capturing the dark spirit of classic noir and putting it into a setting that is rotting and tropical, the decaying colonial backdrop of Réunion Island.

Catherine is dressed in Yves Saint Laurent and some of her outfits were part of the Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche Spring-Summer 1968 collection. Catherine Deneuve “was the woman he was waiting for, the one who is his style”, the modern woman who saw beyond haute couture and embraced the times, life, the street wise, a new kind of luxury that had nothing to do with made-to-measure and everything to do with ready-to-wear. The first act of the film takes place on the island and the clothes perfectly fit the exotic scene. The designer made great use of his safari styles, like a mini-dress version of the safari jacket, reminiscent of the iconic deep lace-up neckline design Saint Laurent had created in 1968, which was immortalized by Veruschka in a series of photographs by Franco Rubartelli, or a safari skirt suit with a jacket that respects the sketch of the designer’s first safari jacket, from his Spring/Summer 1967 haute couture collection.

In the second act of the film, set in a few locations in France, like Aix-en-Provence and Lyon, Catherine’s wardrobe is just as simple, with clothes that denote the practicality the designer’s creations came to embody, but which nonetheless serve the plot beautifully. I am particularly speaking about the little black dress towards the end of the film, first worn with a trench coat and then with the black feathered Rive Gauche beau manteau, the most ornate wardrobe item in the entire film, a counterpoint between realism and the imagination, between the classical and the baroque. The eccentric ostrich feather collar could easily cause Marion to be spotted by the police. When the cops arrive in the apartment in Lyon and Marion and Louis have to try to recover the money they have left upstairs, Louis stops Marion because her coat could give her away. And she answers: “Are you crazy? What’s wrong with this coat?” They are as much lovers on the run as they are an ordinary married couple going about the little everyday life things. There’s Truffaut’s counterpoint between the ordinary and the extraordinary, between reality and fiction.

Of Yves Saint Laurent, François Truffaut said he was the greatest cinephile among the fashion designers. He “really understood what cinema costumes had to be like, and he designed them both for their movement and style. The little feather coat at the end, which caused me a lot of worry as far as its execution was concerned, thanks to him, turned out to be a character in the film” in that ending that was a final indirect homage to Renoir and his La grande illusion.

Brigitte Fossey and Charles Denner in ”L’Homme qui aimait les femmes”, 1977 | Les Films du Carrosse


Brigitte Fossey (Geneviève Bigey) in L’Homme qui aimait les femmes, 1977

I had to laugh when I read about The Man Who Loved Women being categorized as anti-feminist (it isn’t even worth mentioning where). Bertrand Morand is not a chauvinist, just as Truffaut’s film is not anti-feminist. “The immense sadness of films without women,” the director used to say. “I hate war films, except for the moment when the soldier takes out of his pocket the photo of a woman.” Truffaut said that he simply wanted to tell a story in L’Homme qui aimait les femmes. “This is a feminist film made after my fashion”.

He also wanted to investigate further the character of Ferguson that he and Charles Denner had created in 1968, in La Mariée étairen noir. Denner thus followed in the footsteps of Jean-Pierre Léaud, becoming another alter ego for Truffaut. The film-maker said he chose Denner because he had “a natural seriousness, he rarely smiles – he has something fierce, wild about him”. Bertrand Morane is a seducer. He is obsessed with women’s legs, he loves to see them walk, nothing is more beautiful to him than a woman in motion, because seeing her walk is seeing her walk into his world. His world is formed of women and it takes all these women to make up a world. “Bertrand is not however portrayed as the conventional womaniser. Truffaut makes no apology for him, he is not presented sympathetically,” concludes Robert Ingram in the book “François Truffaut: The Complete Films”. We see him as he is. “He is not arrogant, nor does he force his attention upon women,” Ingram continues.

He is the natural seducer, he does not idolatrize some women in the detriment of others. He generously recognises the attractive potential in every woman. They are all unique and irreplaceable. He is capable of traveling hundreds of kilometers to find an unknown woman he barely saw, as if his life depended on it. He is a loner, he has no family, no friends, he is happy in the company of women. And by responding to every look a woman gives him – the look of a married woman he sees in a restaurant, the look of a young woman who comes to the window with a book in her hand – he is confronted with his raison d’être. It is only this way, by responding to every woman, by delaying solitude, that he has the illusion of vitality.

“Who are all these women, and where are they going? Who are they meeting? (…) I will tell you the truth: they all want the same thing as me, they want love …” At the very end, at his funeral (he was badly injured when he was chasing a woman in the street, then died at the hospital falling from his bed while trying to look at the legs of a nurse – yes, Truffaut saw the humour in the tragic), Geneviève Bigey (Brigitte Fossey) says: “Bertrand looked for happiness in quantity, in the multitude.” She is the only one who got it right. Geneviève is the editor of the book he had written and which is about to be published, “L’Homme qui aimait les femmes”, which he wrote as a tribute to all the women in his life, because otherwise “I am afraid I will forget”. But maybe he is also afraid of him being forgotten if he doesn’t write the book. A book ensures its writer timelessness, too. And that’s where the idea of Truffaut’s alter ego comes in full play. “It was inevitable,” Truffaut said about the ending. “I was working on something that was mythic. You have to respect the law of myth.”

But let’s return to the character of Geneviève. She is the only one who is given enough screen time for us to be acquainted with her, we get to know what she does, what she likes. Even the costumes seem to be more carefully chosen for her: the elegant camel coat, the high boots, the knee-length skirts, the knitted cardigans. It’s like we are let in not only on her outer world, but on her inner world as well, and on a could-be relationship, could-be life together of the two. She is, after all, the one Bertrand gets to make plans with, only he doesn’t get to honour them because he dies. But, most importantly, she is the only one who has the exact intuition, and isn’t this saying a lot again about Truffaut’s female characters? The director gives the narrative control of the film to a woman.

Catherine Deneuve in ”Le dernier métro”, 1980 | Les Films du Carrosse, Sédif Productions


Catherine Deneuve (Marion Steiner) in Le dernier métro, 1980

In Le dernier métro (The Last Métro), Truffaut approached a subject he has never attempted before: the war and the Occupation. But this is not a political film, as this wasn’t in Truffaut’s nature, he wanted to focus on characters and feelings, especially characters in an exceptional atmosphere. The war is simply a background. This is once again an intimate study of a complicated love triangle. The idea of the film came to him and Suzanne Schiffman, his trusted collaborator, after reading Jean Marais’ autobiography and the memoirs of other actors from the period. He wanted to make a film about theater on the backdrop of the Occupation, a time when creativity flourished despite the tragedy in real life, a time when many theaters in Paris remained open and run by women, as is the case in Le dernier métro. “The world was living through a tragedy, but as far as artistic life was concerned, this was a great period, especially for theater. Television did not exist, people were living in solitude, cold, with restriction, anxiety. Theater could provide a rare form of escape.”

Lucas Steiner, a famous Jewish playwright and director of Montmartre Theater has supposedly fled Paris and his wife, Marion (Catherine Deneuve – she had the same name in Mississippi Mermaid), has taken over the theater business. She is also the star of the ensemble. Gérard Depardieu (Bernard Granger – Depardieu‘s character in the following La femme d’a cote will also be named Bernard) is a talented young actor who is hired for the play Steiner has written and which now, in his absence, is staged by Jean-Loup Cottins (Jean Poiret). Both Deneuve and Depardieu embody a sort of anti-heroes, compromising characters. They are human, more so, they are humans in harsh times, during the war, when people had to live with compromises, and for good reason. “I didn’t make a dark film, but I think that I am also speaking in it of the cruelty of everyday life. […] More than anything else, my film embodies a notion of compromise and tolerance. Instead, my characters have obsessions. They do not necessarily achieve their goals, but they keep on pursuing them nonetheless.”

“Le dernier métro” alludes not only to the curfew during the war and to the fact that Parisians had to make sure to catch the last metro home, but it’s also an illustration of the American slogan “The show must go on.” Serge Toubiana remarked how Truffaut considered that a film taking place during the Occupation should occur at night, in enclosed spaces, suggesting the idea of confinement, frustration, danger. They used an old factory as main set, a “studio” element rather unusual for Truffaut. But this did not take away from the authenticity and vitality of the story (great attention was given to the smallest of details, like, for example, to the music and the radio programmes of the time portraying a convincing image of everyday life in the 1940s) and it was the perfect backdrop for the enigmatic progression of the story and the rising tension in the third act (the historical events may not have been the central subject, but the film presents a complex and clever portrait of the time and the thin line between resistance and collaboration).

Truffaut wrote the role for Catherine Deneuve. “I was thinking of her natural authority, and also of her age: she is now thirty-five and it is time she give up playing young women with hair down to their shoulders. It was during the war and women began to manage theaters. […] Catherine Deneuve is both feminine and energetic, in a plausible way. I like the way that she always seems to project on the screen a double life: an apparent life, and a secret life. One gets the impression that she is keeping her thoughts to herself, and that her inner life is at least as important as her outer life.” In one of the sequences with her husband, the camera is placed somewhere above their heads and as she get close to Lucas to kiss him, the camera zooms in on her hair, that perfectly coiffed blonde hair, and that camera movement reminded me of Hitchcock’s shot of Kim Novak in Vertigo. The double life.

François Truffaut recalled how Chanel No.5 was almost part of the character. At the beginning of the film, Marion is talking about how her husband came to know her, and says he has kidnapped her from the world of fashion and that he said that if she had refused, he would have asked Mademoiselle Chanel to fire her. Of course, Catherine Deneuve has been a model for Chanel No. 5 in the 1970s, and Truffaut knew how to make use of this social reality that actors have and that you can’t get around very easily. “All the roles that an actor has performed accumulate to give him or her an image that it is impossible to overcome entirely. It is better to go with it.” But the beauty of Catherine Deneuve in this film, as a woman torn between two men, is that she displays a humanity and versatility she rarely lets surface from her icy, enigmatic blonde beauty that consecrated her. In Truffaut’s film, the film that truly made her shine through, she is an actor, not a star, not an icon, and that’s his homage to her.

Gérard Depardieu and Fanny Ardant in ”La femme d’à côté”, 1981 | Les Films du Carrosse, TF1 Films Production


Fanny Ardant (Mathilde Bauchard) in La femme d’à côté, 1981

La femme d’à côté is one of my favourite Truffaut films, a beautifully composed film, stylized and harmonious, conceived by a film-maker in full possession of his craft. Truffaut wanted to bring a man and a woman who had loved each other in the past face to face, something he had been taking notes on, but, because he was a director who liked complications and detours and had a Hitchcock affinity, he wanted to do it in his own singular style. He went for the theme of “the conjugal thriller, a thriller without gangsters where the police remain in the background and the action is led from start to finish by the imagination of a woman.”

Fanny Ardant is Mathilde Bauchard and Gérard Depardieu is Bernard Coudray. He lives with his wife and son in a little provincal town near Grenoble, France. Mathilde moves with her husband next door. We soon find out that Mathilde and Bernard were lovers in the past, a relationship that ended bad. But soon after they meet again by chance as neighbors, Mathilde knows right away, before he does, that their encounter can not remain innocent. She takes the reins, right to the end.

“I immediately spotted and appreciated in Fanny Ardant the qualities I most frequently look for in the protagonists of my films: vitality, courage, enthusiasm, humour, intensity but also, to counterbalance those, a taste of secrecy, a wild side, a touch of savagery and, above all, something vibrant. […] She reminds me of the Brontë sisters, she’s like all three Brontë sisters rolled into one.” For La femme d’à côté, her first movie role, he wanted her very beautiful, said William Lubtchansky, Truffaut’s cinematographer. Truffaut was worried that Fanny, tall and well-built, might appear too masculine, so they had to choose the costumes and hair styles very carefully. She is “the unintentional femme fatale”, says Véronique Silver, who played a crucial character in the film, one of those supporting roles that make a film come full circle, Madame Jouve. “There is a mystery about Fanny Ardant, in her smile and poise”. Gérard Depardieu recounted how he himself felt during filming, saying that he sensed that they were making a scary film about love, very Hitchcockian. That dangerous, permanent attraction neither of them can escape is felt throughout the film. Their tragedy is that they can not love or suffer at the same time, but they can’t live apart either.

There is something different about Mathilde’s clothes, too, from the opening costume, the way she is filmed, from the back and from the feet up, in a grey suit that made me think again of Vertigo and Kim Novak, the trench coat, the white shirt, the two pieces Chanel-like looks, her clothes are definitely femme fatale, unlike Bernard’s wife’s (played by Michèle Baumgartner), which are more feminine, in floral patterns and very innocent. Truffaut wanted the two women to be very distinctive and had Michèle’s hair, a natural brunette, cut short and dyed blonde in order to seem more anchored in everyday life. Truffaut knew how to punctuate a scene not only through dialogue, but through details, too. In the most disturbing scene in the film, when Bernard becomes violent, an act of physical violence without precedent in Truffaut’s cinema, Mathilde is wearing a green dress. Commenting on the film, Véronique Silver jokes that “Green is a colour you shouldn’t wear, in theater is the colour of death.” It suggests both attraction and the potential for harm.

Towards the end of the film, when her husband brings her the clothes she had asked for before getting out of the hospital after her breakdown, Mathilde goes through them and picks the white blouse between the two in her suitcase, clearly underlying her choice: “This is the one I want.” The trench coat is also clearly stated out. It’s for the final sequence and, as in all great films noir, the end can not be but one.
Editorial sources: Truffaut on Cinema, compiled by Anne Gillain / François Truffaut at Work, by Carole Le Berre / François Truffaut, bãrbatul care iubea filmele, by Magda Mihãilescu / François Truffaut: The Complete Films, by Robert Ingram / The Films in My Life, by François Truffaut / Yves Saint Laurent, published by Foundation Pierre Bergé Yves Saint Laurent / audio commentaries with Serge Toubiana, Fanny Ardant, Gérard Depardieu and Véronique Silver on The François Truffaut Collection and The Adventures of Antoine Doinel, released by Artificial Eye / interview with Jacqueline Bisset for Film Talk
Related content: Hitchcock Style: Grace Kelly in Rear Window / The French Noir Anti-Hero and the Trench Coat / Catherine Deneuve in Belle de jour


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The Culture Trip: February Newsletter

”Western Stars”, 2019, directed by Bruce Springsteen and Thom Zimny | Warner Brothers


A regular round-up of the latest talks, films,
music, books, interviews and cultural news.

In The Atlantic, George Packer writes about the enemies of writing. “A writer who carries the thought police around in his head, who always feels compelled to ask: Can I say this? Do I have a right? Is my terminology correct? Will my allies get angry? Will it help my enemies? Could it get me ratioed on Twitter?—that writer’s words will soon become lifeless. A writer who’s afraid to tell people what they don’t want to hear has chosen the wrong trade.”

Who is a writer today in the true sense of the word if everyone is afraid to stand alone, to abide by his/her principles, to tell the truth, to write as if he/she wrote just for himself/herself without considering the risks, without constantly being afraid you might offend someone or you may be ostracised by that movement or that editorial power, or, worse, by your “followers”? A fellow editor has recently confessed to me that he had doubts about giving Roman Polanski’s new film, An Officer and a Spy, editorial space of any kind because of the media scandal the director has been facing, even if he highly regarded his film, which, by the way, has been nominated to 12 César Awards, despite its being overlooked by any other international recognition. This is not right. The same editor further admitted that a while ago he refrained from posting on Twitter the news about Anjelica Huston defending Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, because he was afraid of a backlash from his followers.

Another publication has recently written about the most promising movies premiering at Sundance. They are all directed by women – yes, all the movies released at the festival deemed most worthy of our viewing are ALL directed by women. Objectivity based solely on cinematic achievement? Let me have my doubts. Political correctness disguised as openness to diversity? Much more likely. Artificially misinterpreting women directors’ merits (who, by the way, are considerably fewer than male directors, hence the number of movies directed by women are less likely to be taken into consideration for awards – but why bother explaining when everyone has such obtuse view on the matter?), or any artist’s, for that matter, does them no favour. Where does this leave us? It is a dead end, from where you can only fall deeper into a hole of ignorance and fear and do-what-you-are-told and think-as-you-are-told.

George Packer continues: “As for the notion of standing on your own, it’s no longer considered honorable or desirable. It makes you suspect, if not ridiculous. If you haven’t got a community behind you, vouching for you, cheering you on, mobbing your adversaries and slaying them, then who are you? A mere detached sliver of a writing self, always vulnerable to being punished for your independence by one group or another, or, even worse, ignored.”

Left: ”An Officer and a Spy”, 2019, directed by Roman Polanski, Légende Films/Gaumont | Right: “The Crown”, 2016, Netflix

Remembering Kirk Douglas in his own words. “Don’t crucify me because of what your idea of a movie star is. I didn’t start out to be a movie star. I started out to be an actor.”

You know how the saying goes, better late than never. The Crown (2016-) is the first series I have watched since Breaking Bad. I have finally watched all three seasons over the past couple of months (I don’t binge-watch Netflix). I was totally immersed in the first two seasons, loving Claire Foy’s extraordinary performance as Queen Elizabeth II, as well as the entire cast, the screenplay, the love story, historical facts, score, set design and cinematography, with everything so beautifully crafted and executed. Then, after initially finding it hard to overcome the complete change of cast in the third season (Olivia Colman took over as Queen Elisabeth in middle age), I was eventually won over, except for Helena Bonham Carter.

Illustrator Malika Favre about the link between her work and cinema.

Bruce Springsteen has co-directed his first film (with Thom Zimny), Western Stars. In it, Springsteen performs his 19th studio album, Western Stars, released last summer, live in his 100-year-old barn, interspersed with short films musing on his music and life.

The Staggering Girl, the short film of Luca Guadagnino produced in collaboration with Valentino creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli, featuring Julianne Moore and Kyle MacLachlan, will be released on MUBI this February. The film follows a writer, Moore, attempting to complete her memoir, who travels from New York to Rome to visit her mother. The film’s costumes, an important element in all Guadagnino’s movies, bear the signature of Pierpaolo Piccioli (the filmmaker’s collaborations with fashion designers for film costumes are among the most fruitful and effective in the world of cinema) and are based on the haute couture designs of the fashion house.

Life Cinematic explores the art of film-making in a completely new way, featuring an interview with a renowned film-maker alongside a mix of classic clips that have influenced them.

Brian Willson of The Beach Boys talks about his former band and old demons, about the great guys of rock and roll and the biographical movie Love & Mercy (2014), starring Paul Dano and John Cusack, and his advice about making it in the music business.

Diane Keaton has just released an autobiography, Brother & Sister: A Memoir, “a heartfelt memoir about Diane Keaton’s relationship with her younger brother, and a poignant exploration of the divergent paths siblings’ lives can take” (Knopf publishing group).

Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea) talks about the cinema of William Wyler, a filmmaker whose work has long captivated and inspired him.

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A Sporting Life: Reinhold Messner


1. Reinhold Messner photographed by Arne Schultz | 2. Reinhold Messner on K2, 12 July 1979 |
3. Reinhold Messner photographed by Markus Kirchgessner


“Where does alpinism begin
when tourism has reached the summit of Mount Everest?”


I was distraught when I read these words by Reinhold Messner, who is probably the world’s greatest living climber. Distraught because I felt it like a verdict: solitude and counterculture and pure experience, which really are in the DNA of mountain climbing, are highly incongruous with mainstream culture and live streaming and 4G service, so where does that leave us when consumerism and technology have reached the top of the mountain? It is respecting nature over making money, it is the love for the mountain over making a buzz. There is no compatibility between these extremes.

Messner, 75, and still looking like the rock star mountaineer as he always has, is part of the old guard of mountain climbers, of traditional alpinists. What does traditional alpinism mean? The kind of alpinism that puts its faith in the abilities of the humans, and consists of climbing with very light equipment and minimum external help. Reinhold Messner was the first man to climb all fourteen peaks above 8,000 in the world (conquered the last two, Makalu, 8485m, and Lhotse, 8516m, in 1986, when he was 42) and the first man to conquer them all without bottled oxygen. He used climbing gear only as a last resort, always putting his faith in his own physical abilities and mental capacities. He pulled off his solo Everest climb (he had already conquered the peak two years before, in 1978, together with Peter Habeler) in four days and using a route that had never been done before. He condones the lack of imagination and adventure of the speed mountaineers of today who look after one thing and one thing only, breaking speed records and chasing the limelight, saying once again that “what’s happening on Everest, with sherpas preparing everything, is tourism.”

Alpinism, exploring, adventure is about going, not necessarily far, but about breaking away from your own limits and going from your own instinct, not because others are going. The mountain, the true passion for the mountain, is not for tourists, not for those who want to check another destination off their bucket list, not for those who post every movement on Instagram for the gratification and scrutiny of others. Being up on the mountain you are awake, touring the mountain you are awashed, awashed in a mass of fame seekers who measure adrenaline in the number of likes they gather on the social networks. Mountaineering, climbing, not necessarily professional alpinism, is for those who don’t seek for an explanation to give themselves or others when they are up on the mountain. It should be, like it once was, about freedom, not about fame, about following your own rules and those of the mountain, about going to have a look and see what is behind the next ridge and then the next and the next. You don’t do it for others, but for yourself, to prove to yourself, not others, that you can do it without expecting anything in return. Climbing today is scientific more than it is a real connection with the mountain. Before cash and exposure, the only currency used to be your own belief.

“Ninety per cent of the tourists climbing big mountains are on 10 mountains – and one million mountains in the world are empty. No one is going there. Traditional alpinism is to go where the others are not going and to be self-reliant,” Messner told The Financial Times in 2015. He also says he can not tell people to love the mountain, that they have to find their own way. But what he can do, and has been doing for decades, is lead by example. And the message he wants to get trough is that the point of climbing, as the point of going out to see, explore, discover, is not getting to the top, but the experience. What greater advice for children and adults alike?


Corones, one of the six Messner Mountain Museums, situated on the summit plateau of Kronplatz (2,275 m),
is dedicated to mountain history and offers unique views of the great mountain walls of the Dolomites and the Alps.

Reinhold Messner is not only the original alpinist, but a true adventurer and a complex explorer – he crossed Antarctica on skis in his mid-forties and the Gobi Dessert on foot in 2004. But he is also a storyteller. A few years ago he completed the construction of his series of six mountain museums in the Dolomites, because he wants to tell the future generations about traditional alpinism, it is his homage to traditional mountain climbing.

“As the storyteller of traditional mountaineering, it is not my intention to judge or dramatise but simply to condense human experience of a world that is my world, of the 250-year-old contest between man and the mountain. The focus is not on sport and records but on people, on the key contributors to mountaineering, including philosophers and pioneers who had the courage to take the ‘golden step’ from the idea to the deed, disregarding the question “Why?””

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The Theatrics of Tennis: Interview with Artist Març Rabal

”La terra batuda” | Març Rabal

Març Rabal is one of the contemporary artists who offer a new notion of collage as an artistic medium and as a fundamental concept of making art. Collage allows interacting with existing materials, deconstructing, repurposing, and then creating new visually dynamic hybrids. But Catalan artist Març Rabal carves out her own pathway in multi-media art. Her inventive collages are more than creative assemblies of images, textures and objects, they are choreographed playgrounds, theatrical stages where we can easily imagine an overture of a multi-act story, unfolding before our eyes. The mise-en-scenès take the form of boxing rings or tennis courts, and the characters take on the role of players ready to perform, game, set and match.

In our interview, Març shares her life-long relationship with tennis (just in time for the final acts at the Australian Open) from game to creative canvas, her conviction that inspiration has to find you work, and the good and bad of the online on an artist’s work in particular and on culture in general.

”It is in manual work where most improvisations and
surprises occur, which takes you to new and unexpected places.”


Dancing on the tennis court | Març Rabal

I have a passion for tennis. Your tennis collages are what have drawn my attention to your work in the first place. Where does your interest in tennis originate?

Tennis was my favourite sport during my childhood and adolescence, I practiced it for years and I was pretty good. I stopped practicing right at the moment when I decided to start “training” in art, that is, take painting classes. This series of tennis playing surfaces is a way to revisit those playgrounds where I spent so many hours.

How does dance and classic ballet come into play in your art (not just in the tennis, but also in the boxing collages)? What is the message you want to transmit?

The fusion between dance and boxing (and later dance and tennis) came naturally to me. Many of the works of my first pictorials were studies of the body in motion and many times my reference images were photographs of modern dance of the early twentieth century or of the Russian Ballets … plastically very suggestive images that I used as a starting point.

When much later I was researching the boxing theme and started looking for graphic documentation of this sport, I realised how well the two worlds fit together. It was like solving a puzzle. Not only plastically were they two aesthetics that matched perfectly. But also conceptually. The contrast of the brutality of boxing together with the delicacy of dance create a very powerful poetic. In the case of the collages of tennis players with tutu, they highlight the choreographic nature of the sport from a somewhat ironic look.

Your interest in tennis goes back to your childhood. What is your earliest drawing memory?

I think that for many children of my generation (who grew up before the digital era), drawing was our first language of expressing ourselves. We could draw before we could speak. I was also a very shy girl, so drawing was not only a means of expression, but also a refuge.

Terreny de joc | Març Rabal


”The profession of my father, set designer,
and my close relationship with the theater
have greatly influenced my plastic work.

You studied at Bellas Artes at la Universidad de Barcelona and at la École Nationale d’Arts Décoratifs in Paris. Do you find it important for an artist to have formal education in art?

I do not think it is essential, the history of art is full of self-taught artists to prove it, but learning some notions of technique can always help. I think it’s like riding a bike, it is essential that someone teaches you the technique, but when you start pedaling without falling, you can escape, and if you go alone, you can probably go further.

I don’t really like to ask artists to explain their work, but I would like to ask you one thing. You have a very distinctive style, especially in your collages. Multidimensional, reminding me of a production set, or a theater stage. How would you describe it? Has anyone in particular influenced it and how did you develop your style?

You don’t look for a style, it comes working… Picasso said something like that about inspiration, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you work…”, and I think it is perfectly applicable to one’s artistic style. I think a style is forged after many years of looking for forms of expression.

My work does have a significant scenographic element. Space and how the human presence in space is related to it is a permanent theme in my work. I believe that the profession of my father, set designer, and my close relationship with the theater have greatly influenced my plastic work. Many times I imagine my works as scenarios where different scenes occur.

How important was it for you to be exposed to a creative environment when you were growing up? And generally speaking, how can you foster creativity in children from an early age?

Growing up in a creative environment where not only is your vocation not questioned but encouraged and supported makes things much easier. I think children are curious by nature, and curiosity is essential for creativity. So leaving space and time for the child to discover and explore is basic.

Is there a specific medium you prefer in your creations, and why?

I have expressed myself through collage for a long period of time, it is a medium that I like very much for the richness of the paper textures and for the immediacy it allows. But lately I have returned to painting and I enjoy it a lot. I do not have a favorite medium, I am looking for the medium that best suits each work I want to do.

Grass court | Març Rabal

How did you start doing collages? Do the materials and objects you prefer, bearing the mark of time, signs of wear and tear, have a particular significance?

I’ve always loved books, reading, but also the book as an object and as raw material. Over the years I have collected many books and all kinds of old paper that I naturally started using to make the backgrounds of my paintings, for breaking a little the initial white of the fabric, as I preferred to start from a background with textures and paper was the ideal material. I like the texture they bring to the skin of the painting or collage. In my opinion, the whole story behind an old piece of paper represents a texture that enriches my work.

You said you have recently returned to painting. Have you ever encompassed painting in your collages?

Yes, I think at my collages as pictorials, paintings in the sense that I use papers just like working with the painter’s palette. The brushstrokes in this case are fragments of paper of different shades and textures. In my most recent works, I play the surfer. I literally paint small characters who surf in a sea of colours. It’s like a representation of myself finding a balance in painting. I have once again embarked on a sport, as a metaphor of the creative act.

Do you do everything by hand?

Yes, except the editing of some videos, which requires technology. Sometimes I also do some sketches in digital, but I still prefer to work directly with the material, because it is in manual work where most improvisations and surprises occur, which takes you to new and unexpected places.

How challenging is for an artist to do commissioned work? How does it relate to your personal, freelance work?

I like commissioned work for two reasons: on the one hand, they are secure jobs, from an economical point of view, a difficult issue in the artist’s trade, and, on the other hand, because working from an imposed starting point forces you to explore different territories where otherwise you would not have arrived and where sometimes you discover new paths to explore.

Artists are often asked how much talent and how much work one needs in order to be successful. But I often think of another quality, childish enthusiasm, especially when it comes to paintings, drawing and illustration. As Picasso said, “every child is born an artist, the problem is staying one as you grow older.” Do you agree?

Yes, regardless of how much talent one has, the essential thing is perseverance and hardwork. And I totally agree, it is essential that the artist finds joy in his work, just like a child. This does not save you from an implicit suffering when you work, when you create, but it is part of the vulnerability of the child/artist. We are people with a pronounced sensitivity and attention to what happens to us, so it is inevitable that pain also comes into play. This could be illustrated with one of the collages of the Dancing in the ring series, this dichotomy of dance (pleasure) and boxing (fighting, pain).

Dancing in the ring | Març Rabal


”I use papers just like working with the
painter’s palette. The brushstrokes in this case are
fragments of paper of different shades and textures.”

Some of your works can be found in galleries and private collections. How important is it to be present online? Does it help when an artist’s work becomes more visible in this way? Or do you sometimes feel that your art is drowning in the mass of social networks?

Nowadays it seems important to me to be present online, although this means a lot of work for the artist. In my case, thanks to the social networks, I have the kind of visibility that I could hardly achieve without the internet. I have customers from Hawaii or Asia who have bought my work. I love that my art pieces travel so far! I wish I did, too … all in its time, I hope.

But there is also the downside to it. Have technology and social media made people forget how to have a conversation, how to communicate, and, yes, how to be more receptive to art and culture?

Yes, I think there is a setback when it comes to human relationships. Before, we used to spend more time in the company of other people, to look into each other’s eyes, to touch each other more. Now we spend more time with our machines than with other people, I think we have to fight this.

I also believe we have to take care of our relationship with culture. It seems that people are constantly watching images on the Internet, but they only stop briefly before a painting. It is true that it is a matter of rhythm and that the present day life is happening at dizzying speed, but you can not have art and culture on the go.

So what do you wish people appreciated more in this day and age?

I would like people to try harder to take care of their relationships with other human beings and also to slow down the pace a little so that they can better appreciate art, culture and their surroundings.

Març Rabal painting


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Posted by classiq in Art, Culture, Interviews | | Leave a comment