Reviews

Charlie Chaplin Murders a Myth in 'Monsieur Verdoux'

This film represents not only the death of a myth, but its willful execution. The Tramp Is Dead. Long Live Chaplin!


Monsieur Verdoux

Director: Charles Chaplin
Cast: Charles Chaplin, Martha Raye, Marilyn Nash, Isobel Elsom
Distributor: Criterion
Release date: 2013-03-26

A strong comic persona is a hard thing to shake.

Remember when Paul Reubens, aka and always Pee Wee Herman, was caught allegedly pleasuring himself to a cinematic image, and everyone rallied ‘round him with cries of “Free Pee Wee”? All I could think at the time was, “Free Paul Reubens -- from Pee Wee!”

Now multiply that by generations.

When Charles Chaplin created or discovered or conjured the Tramp, he may have had little notion of the potency of the image he was unleashing. Yet Chaplin was wise and instinctual enough of an artist to realize the power in simplicity of expression when he reduced the physical attributes of his comic persona to basically four: rags, a cane, a shuffle and a mustache. As Ignatiy Vishnevetsky points out in his excellent DVD booklet essay for the newly released, fully-stuffed Criterion edition of Monsieur Verdoux, “[Y]ou couldn’t reasonably do a Buster Keaton impression (people would just assume you were in a bad mood), but all you need for a good Tramp is to point your feet out and shuffle.”

This persona has generated such goodwill throughout the world that one can’t now imagine our culture, any culture, without it. The Tramp was a meme before memes, the Meme of memes, a symbol and a spirit. The Tramp/Charlie was and is, as the great film critic André Bazin claims in a brilliant analysis also excerpted in the DVD booklet, a myth.

Whatever elation and release granted a spectator through a performer’s mythic persona, this onus must ultimately feel just that, a kind of burden and prison to its originator. A myth has very specific ligature, without which it isn’t that specific myth; a myth without its conventions collapses. A cinematic myth especially has restrictions, bound as it is by an ineradicable image.

How, or how long, could a performer of Chaplin’s powers be confined to one character, however durable?

True, Chaplin had played other characters on film, most famously in The Great Dictator. But even there the characters of Hynkel and the barber were discernable variations on the Tramp, copping his movements and his mustache.

No. The only way to escape the Tramp was to kill him.

That’s really the most indelible and shocking death in Monsieur Verdoux (1947). Based on an idea by Orson Welles, inspired by the real-life marry’em-and-murder ‘em serial killer Henri Landru, the story centers on a man who weds rich spinsters and widows, only to kill them and take their money. The excuse given for these murders is questionable, to say the least -- Verdoux was a bank clerk who lost everything in the Depression, and now must support his crippled wife and their young son somehow -- but the situation is bare bones basic: Bluebeard for the Murderous Modern Age.

Monsieur Verdoux was made by Chaplin amidst a slew of personal and political problems. America, the country that had fostered and adored him, was turning against him. The Communist scare that would reach full-blown paranoia throughout the '50s was in its fierce infancy, and Chaplin, already suspect due to his clear humanist tendencies, was an easy target. Plus, he had recently been taken to court on an overblown paternity suit, which he had settled despite probable proof the child was not his. A Communist and a despoiler? Political paranoia coupled with pseudo-social prudery, and the deal was sealed.

Yet rather than roll over and solicit public or official favor, Chaplin reared up on his artistic haunches, drew from his deepest darkest reserves, and attacked. Not in a vulgar, ostentatious manner (never Chaplin!) or even as an overt strike on a person or a political system, as he had with the lethal The Great Dictator, but through a simple but pointed application of his most powerful asset, his artistic refinement and authority.

Like all great artists, Chaplin wasn’t afraid to throw down the gauntlet. Monsieur Verdoux was a challenge to his most devoted fans, not just the ones who adored the Tramp’s antics, but the hardcore Chaplin champions, the sentimental cineastes who had lauded his most angelic dances and sweetest polemics.

Who would stay with him now, through not only the abandonment but the execution of his Tramp persona?

This challenge was made explicit in the film’s ad campaign: “Chaplin changes! Can you?” That statement may be seen as both Hollywood’s attempt to undercut the change (“We know it’s different! Will you forgive us?”), and Chaplin’s dangerous dare. Will you allow him artistic growth, or keep him saddled to his myth?

What kid of fan are you?

Monsieur Verdoux’s dark challenge is especially insidious as it’s funneled through Chaplin’s airy facility and touch. Regardless of the 'heavy' story, the film often feels oddly light and stagebound. Scenes play out on single sets in medium long shot with characters swapping lines, sometimes in front of very obvious painted backdrops.

Such static choices add to the almost fairytale-like quality of the film. Indeed, rendered any more realistically the subject matter may have alienated any audience. The film upon its release was met with confusion if not outright betrayal. It wasn’t just the Tramp’s absence -- heinous enough -- but his replacement with this sometimes overbearing, always unapologetic lady-killer who yet seduces spectator sympathies.

As usual in a Chaplin film, perfect casting radiates from its central star outward. Chaplin plays Verdoux as a fastidious eccentric whose elegant appearance fidgets over a shaky foundation of bitter cynicism. There’s a weariness in Verdoux's eyes, evidence of a soul withered by the revelation of its own violence. It's clear that Verdoux didn’t begin as evil or murderous; his wife and child love him dearly, his old friends display an affectionate association, and when he does show compassion it is genuine.

But he is also diligently systematic in his criminal behavior. He dispatches a wised-up police detective with particular aplomb, and when he believes he is going to murder the young girl (Marilyn Nash) he finds on the street, he prepares the poison with culinary nonchalance.

Chaplin embodies all Verdoux’s incongruities effortlessly, his trim movements bearing the weight of his ponderous gaze. Verdoux is a man with a mission -- he must amass enough money, before his inevitable capture and condemnation, to keep his wife and child afloat -- but his eyes can’t conceal the cost. The more he kills the deader he looks; that which fuels him depletes him. It’s no coincidence that Verdoux courts widows, who seem perpetually wedded to death.

These victim-wives vary from the lemon-faced Lydia Floray (Margaret Hoffman), the harried grande dame Marie Grosnay (Isobel Elsom) and the epitome of American brash and volume Annabella Bonheur, played by legendary comedienne Martha Raye as a steam engine with Chaplin tied to her tracks.

The wives’ murders are all implied. The first is given as merely smoke rising from an incinerator. The second is an exercise in cinematic tact. In one long take, Chaplin has Verdoux and his wife, money box clutched to her bosom, retire upstairs, the camera rising with them before halting on the second floor; as the wife walks off-screen, nagging from the bedroom, Verdoux lingers to gaze out the window onto a painted backdrop, delivering some wistful lines of poetry. Then he, too, walks, or rather, plunges off-screen to his “work” in the bedroom, and we’re left with an empty hall and a shrieking musical score that settles as the false sun brightens.

In a vastly entertaining documentary included as a special feature, French director Claude Chabrol likens the above scene to Alfred Hitchcock, and it's certainly just as sinister and suspenseful as anything by that director. Despite the theatricality of its simple set-up on a single set, it’s a bravura cinematic performance, a tasteful and precise combination of décor, lighting, minimalist pantomime, camera placement and music.

Throughout Monsieur Verdoux, the music, written by Chaplin himself, is used to hugely manipulative effect; for example, the uplifting crescendo when Verdoux arrives home, and his son calls out, “Daddy!”, or the swelling of what sounds like Chaplin’s “Smile” theme crashing through the end of the scene in which Verdoux decides against killing the young girl he picked up to test his new poison.

Philosophically, Monsieur Verdoux is Chaplin’s toughest film. First, a dead man narrates, a deceptively coy device with grave metaphysical implications given Verdoux’s career choice and manner of death. Is he speaking from above, below or, in light of his atheistic tendencies, from some indeterminate nowhere land? Second, the film is rife with lines like, “If the unborn knew of the approach of life, they’d be… terrified.”

That’s a pretty bleak outlook in any era, and perhaps understandable given the grim revelations of the then very recent war. But from Chaplin!

At another point, Verdoux and the girl (she is designated in the credits as “The Girl”) engage in a prominent exchange about the world’s cruelty:

The Girl: “I was beginning to lose faith in everything…”

Verdoux: “This is a ruthless world and one must be ruthless to cope with it.”

The Girl: “That isn’t true. It’s a blundering world and a very sad one, but a little kindness can make it beautiful.

Verdoux: “You’d better go before your philosophy corrupts me.”

One imagines Chaplin weeping at his desk as he was writing out his own warring philosophies and emotions. In the film, he looks right into the camera at the word “corrupts,” a gesture that doesn’t quite break the fourth wall but does considerable damage to one’s heart.

In fact, throughout Monsieur Verdoux Chaplin often seems to look into or just past the camera, and while one senses an inevitable self-acknowledgement in his stare, there's also a kind of snide indictment. This impression reaches its apex when Verdoux declares at his sentencing, “I shall see you all very soon.” It’s a tough moment, delivered unapologetically and with sinister relish. Chaplin changes all right.

As dark as it all is, there are classic Charlie bits: Verdoux’s inhumanly brisk counting of money, his banging animatedly on a piano, or his little guilty twitches every time a bell rings or someone knocks, a contagious comic epilepsy infecting anyone in his vicinity. And Verdoux’s misdirected surrender/capture is a masterpiece of comic timing and staging, nearly Keystone in its chaos.

In many ways, all this represents the last of the Tramp’s business. Many commentators have noted that, clearly, it is the Tramp who shuffles off to the guillotine, even though it is Verdoux we see there, flanked by guards, led by the priest whose prayers he has just rejected. In the documentary extra, Claude Chabrol reveals Chaplin’s crucial choice of shooting this last scene first, as if he needed to get the Tramp out of the way, kill him off once and for all, rid himself of the persona in order to play a person.

It’s sad to see Chaplin’s hands restrained behind his back. One waits for some devious slip, from his wrists to those of his captors. But the master of movement and pantomime, whose hands were so devilishly, elegantly expressive is bound immobile. Monsieur Verdoux enacts not merely the death of a myth, but its willful execution.

Bazin declared, “…lo and behold, society killed Charlie!”

The Tramp Is Dead. Long Live Chaplin!

The DVD extras are pretty special: Two illuminating documentaries (Chaplin Today: “Monsieur Verdoux” and Charlie Chaplin and the American Press), an audio interview with actress Marilyn Nash, advertisements and trailers, and the booklet with its essential essays “The Myth of Monsieur Verdoux” by Andre Bazin and “Sympathy For The Devil” by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, as well as “My New Film” by Chaplin himself.

10

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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