Criterion Sunday 485: The Last Days of Disco (1998)

This film was released just as I was starting to properly get into film so I imagine I may have turned my nose up at it. Apparently I did see it on a visit to London in 1998, the day before watching Velvet Goldmine, the memory of which has stuck with me far more vividly (perhaps because it embodies the qualities that this film seems designed to erase, but more on that later). I imagine at the time it just seemed a bit odd and stilted but with the benefit of hindsight, I think it’s lovely.

Of course, it has a specific point of view: that of a straight white man with an acerbic New York aloofness surveying the landscape of his youth and you could say it suffers for that, but I prefer to think of it as a self-critique. It’s a film set during the disco era, absolutely packed from start to finish with classic tunes, but it’s a film about the gentrification of a scene, of that slightly hollow sadness when looking around at what was once about parties and drugs and, most importantly, its acceptance of, if not predication on, queerness and diversity (the things that made so many people unironically want to express their hatred for disco music at the time).

It’s not called The Last Days of Disco for no reason: the club here is half populated by bankers in suits with the kind of floppy hair that says 90s to me more than 80s but perhaps that’s apt. There’s nothing transgressive, though even among the dad-dancing on the disco floor there is still a bit of joy, and it’s largely within the relationship between its two leads played by Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale, the latter of whom has some of the films best lines, shady comments delivered almost as asides to Sevigny. It’s a curious balance this movie achieves between fun, snarky and eminently quotable bitchiness and the hollow empty nostalgia of 20-something aimlessness.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Four deleted scenes are shown, in unfinished rough cuts, for those that want more of these characters hanging out in their slightly depressing railroad apartment.
  • A behind-the-scenes featurette is very much in the mould of five-minute bonus features made by studios that have a sort of blandness to them (the blandness of advertising, which is apt given the broadsides at one such character in the film itself) but you do get to hear a few little soundbites from the actors at the time.
  • The stills gallery includes plenty of contextualisation of what we see, making it something of a production diary or a reflection on the film by its director.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Whit Stillman; Cinematographer John Thomas; Starring Chloë Sevigny, Kate Beckinsale, Chris Eigeman, Mackenzie Astin, Robert Sean Leonard; Length 113 minutes.

Seen at a cinema, London, Saturday 28 November 1998 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Thursday 2 December 2021).

Criterion Sunday 484: Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

I’ve seen this film before, though it took me a long time between first reading about it (when I was first getting into film in the late-90s) to actually getting to see it (in 2007, by the time I’d moved to London, at the NFT). I loved it back then yet in thinking about rewatching it, what stuck in my head was the boring quotidian rituals that Jeanne goes through robotically at home. And indeed the first half of the film is largely just this: her doing the chores, at great length. However, Akerman and cinematographer Babette Mangolte frame and light her home as carefully as a video art installation in a gallery, and there’s still something hypnotic about her actions. Even her welcoming a client into the home is part of the everyday ordinariness — sex work is neither glamourised nor ridiculed, it’s just part of the ritual of her life.

But for all its peculiar fascination, this is just a set up for the drama that takes place when, having become used to Jeanne’s rituals, things start to fall apart. She has a long (for the film) chat with an unseen neighbour outside her door, and then a second client seems to put her off her rhythms. This quickly leads to the rituals of her life, the chores and the busywork she does to keep the home tidy for her and her son, starting to unravel a bit. There’s an obvious feminist message about the toll that this work takes on women’s lives, though for all that happens, it’s not clear that Jeanne ends up in a bad place. That final shot, of her in the dark, the weight of her life seemingly somehow lifted, makes it feel like she has been freed of something, though I concede that perhaps everyone has a different reaction to it. That’s part of the film’s beauty, in allowing those readings, because it does still feel like an open text, that hints at things without playing its hand, and it’s another role for Delphine Seyrig (after Last Year at Marienbad, which preceded this by a few titles in the Criterion Collection) in which her character’s reality seems open to question.

In short, this is a film filled with wonder and misery, which is very much about everyday life, about the mundanity of it all but also about the choices we all make every day in every moment of our lives.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Chantal Akerman; Cinematographer Babette Mangolte; Starring Delphine Seyrig; Length 201 minutes.

Seen at the NFT (now the British Film Institute), London, Wednesday 21 March 2007 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Friday 3 December 2021).

Criterion Sunday 483: Repulsion (1965)

This is a dark, atmospheric horror film, or perhaps more a psychological terror film, because much of the pain and panic we see is inside Catherine Deneuve’s heroine Carole. She seems traumatised by something, and while it’s not something that we ever see or is ever explained, it seems fairly clear that it goes back some way into her past, causing her to move through the world as if in a fugue state. That’s what the film’s camera is attempting to capture, along with a jarring score, that constantly fixates on small details that take on something greater, something horrific in the way that it all cuts together. And while nothing particularly shocking happens outwardly — though there are some deeply unpleasant men (even if a lot of their behaviour is just that of 60s London) — the accretion of details mount up to something tense, putting us inside Carole’s mind, inflicted by a constant state of terror. As an English-language outing from its director (Roman Polanski, who would go on to greater renown and of course infamy) it has a peculiar focus and a power that follows on from his (Polish language) debut Knife in the Water.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Roman Polanski; Writers Polanski, Gérard Brach and David Stone; Cinematographer Gilbert Taylor; Starring Catherine Deneuve, Ian Hendry, Yvonne Furneaux, John Fraser; Length 105 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 28 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 482: 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle (2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, 1967)

I think the way you feel about this film probably has a lot to do with how you feel about Godard overall. His can be a very frustrating body of work to follow, and even at his most accessible, back in the 1960s, by the end of the decade he was starting to get abstruse and political in ways that weren’t always friendly to audiences watching. However, for my money this is the film where he balances those two opposing tensions best, being both pretentious in the way his whispered narration hints at various topics around capitalism, alienation of labour and the modern city, while also presenting an identifiable character whose life we can be pulled along by. It’s pretty abstract at times, but there’s beauty as well as b0llocks in that abstractness and if it seems like an impressionistic grab bag of ideas, it’s still for me pretty compelling, a film that doesn’t divulge all its mystery but holds back something for repeat viewings.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard (based on an article by Catherine Vimenet); Cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Starring Marina Vlady; Length 87 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 27 November 2021 (and earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, March 1999).

Criterion Sunday 481: Made in USA (1966)

Godard always had a way of making films really quickly, especially in his mid-60s career pomp, and most seemed to be either stark black-and-white films about a woman (often Anna Karina), or widescreen saturated-colour genre riffs (often with Anna Karina). Made in USA, as its title implies, is very much one of the latter, and the genre it’s playing off is the detective film, via a novel by the creator of the Parker character (very much unofficially at that, hence the film’s relative unavailability in the US until this release, due to threats of legal action). The plot itself makes very little sense at a casual acquaintance, and this is surely the point: it’s more about using the tropes and the visual language of detectives, spies, gangsters and the like to create some nifty juxtaposition of colour, sound and image that throws up a critique of the capitalist West and its innate corruption. Anna Karina is fetching as ever in the lead role of Paula Nelson, while everyone else sports character names based on Godard’s favoured directors (the film is dedicated to Sam Fuller and Nick Ray, after all). His resulting movie has energy to spare, with all the little tics Godard was known for, layering multiple texts with jarring sound effects, only further obscuring the machinations of the plot. It feels like a heady formal exercise, and it rather paved the way for later films like Week End (1967) that Le Gai savoir (1968) that lead towards abandoning such bourgeois affectations altogether.

(Written on 8 January 2016.)


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard (based on the novel The Jugger by Donald E. Westlake [as “Richard Stark”]); Cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Starring Anna Karina, Jean-Pierre Léaud, László Szabó; Length 85 minutes.

Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Thursday 7 January 2016.

Criterion Sunday 480: 人間の條件 Ningen no Joken (The Human Condition, 1959/1961)

I suspect part of the power of this film lies in its epic running time. This first of three instalments (sometimes called No Greater Love) is itself split into two parts, each with its own credits, so perhaps properly this is the first two parts of a six-part film. In any case, it tracks the life of one man during World War II, played by legend of Japanese cinema, Tatsuya Nakadai. Kaji is a bureaucrat who is posted to Manchuria to help run a mining operation staffed by indentured locals and captured prisoners of war. Already the film is gearing up to examine its major thematic question, which is whether it’s possible to act justly during a time of war. Certainly there’s no particular attempt to soften the edges of Japanese imperialist ambitions of the era, though Kaji continues to try and do the right thing and be an honourable man even when he has almost no agency or control over the suffering around him. His attempts to make reforms at the mine and to treat the workers fairly only drives a wedge between him and his superiors and causes him no end of trouble — and of course the situation he finds himself at the end of this first film is clearly not going to be the worst place he’ll end up. Kobayashi directs in stark black-and-white with plenty of fine directorial touches but this remains a sweeping epic of the sort that was prevalent in this era, all of which presumably owe something to the experience of the previous few decades: a grand statement on the big themes that elaborates on what it is to be just a single person against an enormous system designed to crush everything around it.

Continuing the story of the first two parts, the third and fourth chapters of this epic (called Road to Eternity) chart Kaji as he works as a private in the army, having been beaten down to this in the first film from his work as a mine overseer due to his attempt to show mercy and restraint. Here again his commitment to being a good person is again tested sorely, and again he finds himself at the sharp end of a brutal system of punishment and repression that doesn’t encourage positive behaviour or good soldiering and only rewards giving up one’s life in the futile pursuit of wartime ambition. There’s some lovely stuff here too, and a strong moral thread with Kaji attempting to navigate the constant ritual humiliations of the service, but this is still firmly within the mould of a grand historical epic, and how much you respond to it may depend on your love for the genre.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Masaki Kobayashi 小林正樹; Writers Kobayashi, Zenzo Matsuyama 松山善三 and Koichi Inagaki 稲垣公一 (based on the novel by Junpei Gomikawa 五味川純平); Cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima 宮島義勇; Starring Tatsuya Nakadai 仲代達矢, Michiyo Aratama 新珠三千代; Length 575 minutes (split into six parts in three films of 206 minutes, 178 minutes and 190 minutes).

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 19 November, Thursday 25 November and Saturday 27 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 479: My Dinner with Andre (1981)

I’m not sure this film should really work: it’s just two men at a restaurant talking to one another. Wallace Shawn is seen going to meet an old friend, uncertain if he wants to, and intending to rely on just asking him about his life to keep him interested. Theatre director André Gregory, meanwhile, barely seems to need an interlocutor, as he spins stories about his travels almost endlessly, drops pearls of wisdom and generally confounds Shawn, an audience surrogate one assumes, with his quizzical looks and sputtering incredulity at André’s high-minded spiritual quest and new age-y ideas. It shouldn’t work, this extended dialogue, certainly it shouldn’t work as cinema, but it does just about. Some will find it boring or aggravating, the prattle of self-satisfied bloviating intellectuals, and I certainly don’t find it to be transportingly epiphanic as some others do, but the conversation flows like the wine and there are times when it even touches on something profound. It may be like a podcast avant la lettre, but this film of two men talking has its moments.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Louis Malle; Writers André Gregory and Wallace Shawn; Cinematographer Jeri Sopanen; Starring André Gregory, Wallace Shawn; Length 111 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 14 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 478: L’Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad, 1961)

This film works at many levels, and while it’s certainly possible to say it confounds narrative understanding (because that’s partly what it’s trying to do), it’s also in some sense very straightforward: a man is trying to persuade a woman that they’ve met, and she, for whatever reason, is not conceding it and avers they have not, at least not in the way he’s trying to imagine it. The reality of the film mirrors the logic of the narrator, as the scenes we see and the topology of the hotel they’re staying in shift — the layout and the rooms, the placement of statues, and the gardens and even the shadows being thrown by the sun — as the camera glides by and around the actors. Just about every aspect of their material reality is constantly reconfigured as the dreamily detached narrative voiceover floats over and suggests different realities, which then appear on screen. Throughout it all the woman (Delphine Seyrig) is adamant, and so the film might be seen as a woman trying to get away from a creepily insistent man, and as a plot line it really doesn’t get much more simple (or empathetic) than that.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alain Resnais; Writer Alain Robbe-Grillet; Cinematographer Sacha Vierny; Starring Giorgio Albertazzi, Delphine Seyrig, Sacha Pitoëff; Length 94 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Friday 12 November 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, March 1998).

Criterion Sunday 477: Bergman Island (2006)

There’s a film with the same title directed by Mia Hansen-Løve currently doing the festival circuit rounds, but this is not that film, it’s rather the Criterion release of a documentary about Ingmar Bergman, filmed a few years before his death in his reclusive life on the island of Fårö. It’s edited down from a much longer conversation, and you can see snippets of the rest appearing as introductions to the various Bergman films in the collection as he talks about his own films. However for this documentary a lot more focus is on his own life as an artist, with a few clips from his films and some discussion of a handful of specific titles, but really it’s about him as a creator and about him as a person. The latter leads to the most revealing stuff, as he admits to having been a cruel man in his life, playing with women’s feelings (he had five wives, nine children and a string of affairs). But perhaps the most indelible turning point is his return to Sweden after being invited to a pool party by Barbra Streisand. I’m sorry, Ingmar, you made some good movies but that was the wrong choice.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Marie Nyreröd; Cinematographer Arne Carlsson; Length 83 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 7 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 476: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

I guess that at a certain level this is one of those stories of a lifetime lived over much of the 20th century meaning it gets to reflect on these different eras of American life as it goes on, but it never dwells on them like in, say, Forrest Gump. This is a film that lives in period details and its fanciful imagination, and undoubtedly David Fincher (a legendarily exacting director) brings something rigorous to the way its filmed, such that I can’t entirely take against it (a bit like Todd Haynes changing gears with Wonderstruck a few years back). But it’s very strange and not entirely successful in its whimsy and wonderment. Brad Pitt does his beautiful moping thing (eventually; it’s a long wait until we see him as the Redford-like Hollywood golden boy we know he will eventually turn into), and the fine Black actors feel somewhat relegated in a by-the-numbers southern plot, which is a shame as Taraji P. Henson and Mahershala Ali are, as we all know, capable of so much more. It’s a long work (especially for a film based on a short story) and the reverse-ageing Pitt’s love story with the normally-ageing Cate Blanchett makes for some discomfort, but there are also some genuinely emotional moments that mean this film isn’t entirely wasted. Also, it looks great of course. It’s just… odd.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director David Fincher; Writers Eric Roth and Robin Swicord (based on the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald); Cinematographer Claudio Miranda; Starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormond, Maheshala Ali, Tilda Swinton; Length 165 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 6 November 2021.