Notes from the Dream House (Carcanet Press, £19.99).
Selected Film Reviews 1963 - 2013 by Philip French.

 

Philip French

 

 

In my youth there were two leading lights of British film criticism: one was that much loved devotee of cinema Dilys Powell and the other was the idiosyncratic, sharp and somewhat quirky C.A.Lejeune. After their passing this status became the personal domain of a single individual, Philip French. On reaching the age of eighty and no longer in the best of health, he brought to an end the full-scale weekly reviewing which for over forty years had been a mainstay of The Observer, but he continued to write about DVD releases right up to his death on 27th October 2015, his standing unchallenged to the end as was his due.

 

Given that background, it is a pleasure to welcome the publication of this book by Carcanet offering as it does a selection of Philip French's film reviews from 1963 to 2013. In a short Introduction to this book edited by his wife Kirsti and their sons Karl, Patrick and Sean, they explain the format that they have chosen. Rather than concentrate on any particular theme or themes, they have opted simply to give us a series of pieces in chronological order so that we can witness his development as a critic. Their decision also means that the book reflects the changes of tone and subject matter in cinema over the years linked as they are to the drastic alterations in what censors will permit and to changing public taste. As one would expect the items selected are for the most part from The Observer and consist of individual reviews. However, there are also four pieces that fall outside that category (there's a short 1967 reflection on his children's taste in films at that time, an article about the celebrated Critics' Poll initiated by Sight & Sound, a dissertation on the kind of postmodernism that finds films quoting from other films and a look at 'Bonnie and Clyde Forty Years On' which is more than a fresh review of that famous film).

 

The very first review reproduced here is one written for The Times and it finds Philip French championing Joseph Losey's The Damned, a film released without a press show. As such it illustrates his desire to stand up for films badly treated - a trend also illustrated here by his staunch defence of Heaven's Gate and Excalibur. Similarly, not without some judicious reservations, we find him supporting such maligned works as Revolution and 2013's The Lone Ranger. However, it could well be that the reason for beginning this book with The Damned was the fact that it gave the opportunity to print alongside the review a letter of thanks for it from Losey himself.

 

As is always the case with the best critics, Philip French would be happier praising than condemning. On such occasions he could be admirably direct: of Woody Allen's Radio Days seen in 1987 he declares that "no film this year has given me as much pleasure", in 1995 he hails the documentary Hoop Dreams as "one of the best American  films of the  decade" and six months later rates alongside it Ken Loach's Land and Freedom ("among the finest films of the decade"). I am certain too that he would welcome the fact that some of his approving reviews in this book will draw attention to works which, while well received in their day, have arguably been forgotten (I think of such titles as Little Ida (1983), Sunday in the Country (1984) and The Visitor (2008) as obvious examples).

 

The inclusion of one film covered in this collection did surprise me, that being the 2011 release Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. It's an interesting review of an unexceptional film, but it leads into a touching appreciation of Philip's colleague Gilbert Adair who had recently died and that may be why this piece was included. As for our critic's negative reactions, no reviews here are devoted to them, but it is enjoyable to come across passing references showing less respect than one might expect for certain films that could be considered classics (that's the fate of The Bridge on the River Kwai and West Side Story).

 

The publication of this book also brings home to the reader the qualities that made Philip French stand out from other film reviewers. His ability with words was special and is evidenced throughout Notes from the Dream House. As early as page 7 in a review of The Gospel According to St. Matthew we have this sentence notable both as a vivid description and for its surprise ending: "Pasolini's John the Baptist is a scrawny fellow, balding and undernourished, with a mouthful of bad teeth and the radiance of a true believer". Elsewhere Philip's famed love of puns yields the phrase "a run-of-De-Mille adventure" and nothing  could be neater and more precise than his summing up of Meet Me in St. Louis (one of eight reissues covered here): he describes it as "a work that defines perfection". Another perfectly shaped sentence opens his appreciative review of Wolfgang Becker's comedy Good Bye Lenin! where he writes "There's an insular arrogance in the confident British claim that the Germans don't have a sense of humour".

 

If Philip French's writing skills gave his work its literary quality, its character was informed no less by his intellect. He was famous for his encyclopaedic knowledge of film so, to give just a single example, it is characteristic when one finds him including in his review of The Remains of the Day a comparison with Bergman's Wild Strawberries. But unlike most critics he could call on his breadth of knowledge in other spheres to enhance his film reviews. His awareness of history, of sociology and of art forms other then cinema (literature in particular) would colour his assessments rewardingly. Thus Robert Duvall's Colonel in Apocalypse Now is "by Joseph Heller out of John Ford" while Alan Bennett's portrayal of lower-middle-class life in Yorkshire in A Private Function is "halfway between Hoggart and Hogarth".

 

There are certainly strong pieces among the early reviews included in this book but both Philip French's appreciation of film technique (editing as much as camera movement) and his ability to use his wider knowledge to set a film in context meant that he was more at home and more at ease as the years passed and he was given more space in which to write. These later and longer reviews often enabled him to adopt an oblique approach as when a summary history of pirate movies provides the build-up to his assessment of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Similarly his awareness of Irish history fully informs his review of Michael Collins while knowledge of American matters is tellingly woven into his admiring piece on L.A.Confidential. No review here is unworthy of attention, but if I had to pick a handful that fully display the special talent of Philip French I would nominate Au revoir les enfants, Kinsey, ManhattanSecrets and Lies and Under Fire.

 

As I mentioned at the outset, the Introduction to Notes from the Dream House is brief but it does contain one piece of information that will be unknown to most readers and which stands out. It's a reference to the very last review that Philip French wrote which, as it happened, covered a DVD re-issue of The Ladykillers. What we learn is that he filed it on the evening of 26th October 2015, the day before he died. All admirers of this fine critic will be pleased to learn this, recognising that Philip French would not have wanted things to fall out any other way.  



MANSEL STIMPSON.

 

"Notes from the Dream House" is published in paperback by Carcanet Press on 25th October 2018. For further details please refer to the Carcanet Press website at:

 

https://www.carcanet.co.uk/cgi-bin/indexer?product=9781784106027