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What happens when you find your holy grail?

Screenshot: Hardware
Screenshot: Hardware

What Are You Watching? is a weekly space for The A.V Club’s film critics and readers to share their thoughts, observations, and opinions on movies new and old.

Back in 2014, I did a long-ish piece for this site called “Neither lost nor found: On the trail of an elusive icon’s rarest film,” about my fascination with the 1955 short film Une Femme Coquette, a very early work by the French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard. The prose could be cleaner, but it’s probably some of the best writing I’ve done in my three years as staff film critic for The A.V. Club. In terms of personal favorites, I’d rank it second to a still-incomplete essay that I hope to finish and publish soon—a sort of counter-history of film that has taken a lot of research, and is the reason why I often bring up very early and primitive silent movies in this space.

Anyway, I can now report that I’ve seen Une Femme Coquette. In the process of writing “Neither lost nor found,” I learned that a privately owned 16mm print of the film—possibly the only extant copy—was being stored in a European national film archive, which I was asked not to name. There was some suggestion that a digital transfer of the print might have been made. Who knows the real story, but earlier this week, a copy of Une Femme Coquette showed up on a private torrent tracker that caters to rare film buffs. Very soon after, someone uploaded it to YouTube with subtitles. This was a movie that was so elusive that it had become, for me, the symbolic center of the cosmos of film obsession—my holy grail.

Screenshot: Une Femme Coquette

I like this term, “holy grail.” It is in my job description to be something of a rationalist, but the truth is that I still harbor a belief in the mysticism of cinema—all those dumb subcultural fetish items make the movie theater a sanctum. Grail legends drove my imagination wild as a kid; for that, I blame a combination of Indiana Jones and my dad’s small collection of books on medieval and alchemical esoterica, the lavish illustrations of which I used to pore over on long afternoons. Those unattainable objects and goals are important, and can hold some of the value of the unknown and the divine; they are a way to mediate an understanding of the more rational and tangible, and give them a framework. Plus, I like mystery.

As for Une Femme Coquette itself: a pocket-sized film with some charm, based on a short story on Guy De Maupassant about a woman who briefly allows herself to be mistaken for a prostitute. (As it happens, I’m reading a new translation of Maupassant’s novel Like Death, which I’ll be reviewing for The A.V. Club.) Shot in Geneva, it was Godard’s first attempt at narrative, and demonstrates that this maverick filmmaker’s non-intellectual preoccupations—cars, texts, prostitution, handheld shots of women walking down city streets—were there from the start.

I do think that most artists start knowing what they want to portray, and only learn what it can mean later. Perhaps the same is true of the arts themselves. I am always on the lookout for primitive forms and earliest possible examples—and now, for a new holy grail.

Mechanical menaces

This past weekend, I went to a midnight screening of Hardware, Richard Stanley’s 1990 claustrophobic debut feature about an artist in a post-nuclear-fallout future and the killer robot terrorizing her apartment. I’d seen the movie about a decade ago and found it just as tiring this time around; it has a lot of bulleted thesis points and low-budget production-design ideas and no clue as to how to use perspective or hold an audience’s attention. Stanley is exhaustively caught up in close-ups of decrepit kitchen gadgets, TV screens, and glowing robotic eyes, and I’ll give a special prize to anyone who can figure out the floor plan of the junkyard-futuristic home where more than two-thirds of the movie is set.

Yesterday, I saw James Mangold’s Logan, which is one of more remarkable and grown-up movies to try to pass itself off as a superhero film. Reviews are embargoed until later this afternoon, but we won’t be running ours until closer to the release date. My colleague A.A. Dowd will be writing it, though I’ll also have a separate long piece on the film.

As always, I’m also watching a lot of early silent shorts. Out of the two dozen or so I saw this week, I would recommend The Thieving Hand, an inspired Vitagraph comedy from 1908 about a one-armed cigar seller who gets a wind-up prosthetic limb better fit for a thief. In one of those mystical coincidences that you watch out for as a critic, it happens to overlap with both Logan (which features quite a few cybernetic appendages and sinister implants) and the techno-fears of Hardware.