In our regular column, Less Than (Five) Zero, we take a look at films that have received less than 50 logged watches on Letterboxd, aiming to discover hidden gems in independent and world cinema. This week Brad Mariano looks at Agnes Varda’s forgotten celebration of cinema, One Hundred and One Nights.
Date Watched: 25th February, 2015
Letterboxd Views (at the time of viewing): 35
Last week I looked at Jacques Demy’s peculiar A Slightly Pregnant Man for this column, and this week forms a spiritual sequel in some sense, the second of a two-part series, or however else you may wish to conceive of it. The connection to last week’s film (which is to say, how I came to discover this) is twofold – the first being that Agnes Varda is of course Demy’s widow, a filmmaker who in her own right is both a clearly significant filmmaker in post-war France, but also who has a varied body of work between her narrative features, documentaries and shorts, many of which still aren’t widely discussed (a particular absurd favourite is 1966’s Les Creatures, one of the weirdest films of the New Wave era, and one that bombed so disastrously that she was unable to make a fiction film for another decade). The second reason is yet another appearance from Marcello Mastroianni in a winking, self-caricature mocking his own screen persona in a different way than his gender-bending lead role in Demy’s film.
One Hundred and One Nights was made in the not insignificant year of 1995, to mark the centenary of cinema, and the film celebrates the art form in its own peculiar narrative – our central character is Monsieur Cinema (Michel Piccoli), a centenarian in a mansion losing his memory, who wants to relive cinema while also being a very obviously allegoric personification of cinema itself, assuming the look of characters as varied as Nosferatu and Norma Desmond. He hires a young cinephile (Julie Gayet) to come each evening (“between the hours of 5 and 7”, a cheeky reference to Varda’s own landmark film, Cleo from 5 to 7) to come and remind him of films past – describing the legendary opening shot of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, for example.
In between he is visited by a parade of legendary film stars who stop and talk, some as themselves, some as characters, in what becomes a showcase revolving door for a who’s who of post-war European cinema. In addition to Piccoli and Mastroianni with the meatiest parts, we are joined by Catherine Deneuve, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Gerard Depardieu, Jeanne Moreau in addition to Robert De Niro and blink-and-you’ll-miss cameos from Clint Eastwood and Harrison Ford, amongst many others. Some are instantly recognisable, others less so (Belmondo did not age as gracefully as come of his colleagues) as they swap stories, relive moments. It’s flimsy and paper-thin as a gimmick, but too enjoyable and luminescent in its star power, while never taking the film too seriously, with the actors addressing the camera continuously and going in and out of character – Piccoli, not only is Monsieur Cinema, but himself; he takes his wig off with Marcello as they compare their respective bath scenes in both Contempt and 8 ½.
This last part is confusing – Piccoli’s resume is impressive to the extent that he has as compelling a claim for the title of “Monsieur Cinema” as anyone, but a no-name blank slate actor might have been more useful in steadying the film’s shaky narrative. As it stands, it’s centered around him to the extent that the cameos mostly revolve around relationships or shared films with Piccoli, making the film occasionally feel like a celebration of Michel Piccoli, rather than cinema itself. Not that he doesn’t deserve one, but it seems to skew the film’s objective. But in its grander vision its point is clear – a celebration of cinema and cinephilia, and the film feels like a living, breathing document of the cinema as embodied by Monsieur Cinema’s mansion, full of lobby cards, posters and other film paraphernalia, making cinematic reference in just about every shot. It also anticipates the direction in which film culture would proceed following film’s centenary. Monsieur Cinema’s amnesia can be clearly read as an analogy for a collective cultural one, showing the continuing importance of cultural preservation and discourse of cinema past and present, and the film nicely precedes the two technologies – DVD and the Internet – that would revolutionise cinephilia in ways previously unimaginable. The other interesting thematic element is its connection to notions of storytelling more general, as the obvious allusion in title and plot to One Thousand And One Nights draws the correlation between cinema and storytelling that has existed for hundreds of years.
In the context of Varda’s own filmography, the film is somewhat awkwardly placed, and Varda feels like an unusual figure to make this. Of all the New Wave and Left Bank filmmakers, she is the least historically fascinated with cinephilia – she was, after all, a director who claimed to have seen almost zero films when she made her debut feature, La Pointe Courte, and whose interests in photography and documentary were never totally consumed by a love of gangster pictures, Hitchcock flicks or MGM musicals in the same contagious ways they affected her friends. This may lead to one weakness, which is for all the dozens upon dozens of references and allusions, it doesn’t dip particularly far or wide within the hundred years of cinema, and the film tends to limit these towards big Hollywood films or key European arthouse auteurs. It’s a narrow, canonical conception of a centenary of film, neither broad enough to capture a good sense of cinema’s history as a whole (and completely depoliticised, as if one hundred years of cinema came about in a vacuum, Big-Bang style), nor idiosyncratic to give an interesting conception of what Varda sees cinema like – it’s easy to imagine Godard hijacking such a project with non-stop references to Johnny Guitar, which at least would have some personal spin. But I’d ultimately recommend this film – it’s silly and ultra-kitsch fun, with a shallow celebration of cinema history that focuses on the joys of film watching more than anything much deeper, and the sheer talent in one place is near unprecedented.