Criterion Sunday 252: Faces (1968)

This is in some ways the ur-Cassavetes picture, which came after a few unsuccessful studio pictures in the early-60s as a return to the improvisational quality of Shadows, not to mention developing the verité-style black-and-white high-contrast camerawork into a grander form. Although it was all scripted, it does still feel like the actors are using the script as a means to finding the emotion, and that’s what Cassavetes is ultimately most interested in, those unforced moments of feeling that come through in the actors’ performances. Frequently the scenes as written feel rambling or unfocused, and often the actors are playing drunk, which doesn’t always pay off, but it captures something that a lot of cinema wasn’t doing in the US of the 1960s (Bergman is namechecked within the film, and that feels like a more fair comparison point). Thus, for all that it’s a film about an older man confronting mortality and a fairly unremarkable working life, as well as people trapped somewhat in the past, it also feels quite fresh and honest in a way.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • As with most of Cassavetes’ films, there are multiple versions that exist. The original cut was around three hours, and there was also a 147 minute cut, from which 18 minutes of an introduction feature here as an extra.
  • Making ‘Faces’ (2004) is a fairly standard making-of Criterion extra, which is structured around interviews with four key members of the production who were still alive: the cameraman/editor Al Ruban, and actors Gena Rowlands, Seymour Cassel and Lynn Carlin. All of them provide stories from the film’s set that suggest Cassavetes’ methods, how he helped actors to find the performance, as well as the way his artistic direction manifested itself (he wanted actors to find their own way into the characters, rather than providing notes, as one example). Al Ruban (the cinematographer and editor) expands on some of the technical challenges, such as finding all the sound was un-synched at the end, or having too few lights to film the big club scenes.
  • Ruban also contributes a separate 12-minute extra just about his choice of film stock and lighting for the film’s relatively restrained number of locations, which is probably more for those with an interest in lighting.
  • Finally, there’s a two-part interview for the French TV series Cinéastes de notre temps, conducted during the making of and after the release of Faces. We get much of his credo and philosophy of filmmaking — and one which has informed a lot of independent cinema ever since: the idea that even if you don’t have any money, you should go out and make your vision, in the hope that at least someone will share your passion somewhere down the line. Cassavetes comes across as supremely relaxed and chatty in the first part, filmed presumably in some manic period during production, as he paces around his offices and home, and introduces the people around him, all bonhomie and gregarious host, which the filmmakers cannily intercut with footage of laughter and joviality in the film he’s made, suggesting the direct line from his lived experience to his art.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer John Cassavetes | Cinematographer Al Ruban | Starring John Marley, Gena Rowlands, Lynn Carlin, Seymour Cassel | Length 130 minutes || Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 8 May 2002 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, March 1999, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Monday 27 May 2019)

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Two Films by Catherine Corsini: Leaving (2009) and An Impossible Love (2018)

Partir (Leaving, 2009)

Film posterSomehow, French films never seem quite as French as they could be until they have Kristin Scott Thomas in them, and so this film feels very French. It has all your classic themes of a slow-boiling relationship drama, not least adulterous passions leading to an explosion of violence and anger. Characters circle around each other, playing a talky psychological game about love, divorce, the ungrateful kids, and the threat of losing everything (or at least one’s access to a thoroughly bourgeois lifestyle). It’s fascinating to me how it is that Scott Thomas is such a fixture of this kind of French cinema, but she is, still, a very good actor.

CREDITS Director Catherine Corsini; Writers Corsini and Gaëlle Macé; Cinematographers Agnès Godard; Starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Sergi López, Yvan Attal; Length 85 minutes; Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 14 April 2019.


A woman is followed by a smoking man

Un amour impossible (An Impossible Love, 2018)

Film posterAfter making the 1970-set romance La Belle saison (2015), Corsini returns with a film that steps back a few decades but spans multiple generations. It starts with a young woman who has a passionate affair with a man; he’s charming and then he leaves, and at this point already the type seems familiar, from film as from life (not my own life; I do try to be better than that). But she keeps trying to reconnect with him despite his abandoning her while she was pregnant, and he comes back into their lives for brief moments over the following years, until things take a darker turn. However, even at this point it’s never about the darkness, as about this bond between mother and daughter, and the way that it’s seen by the mother (although the film as a whole is narrated by the daughter).

Virginie Efira’s performance as Rachel is really great, because so much is just on her looking, expressively, and even when she’s supposed to be in her 70s or something (towards the end) and the ageing makeup is alright but she’s hardly convincing as someone that age, it doesn’t really matter, because it all rests in that interaction between her and her daughter Chantal. In the end, then, it’s a character study of someone who loves too deeply, placed in a situation just as much by a society that rewards taking a man’s name as by this feckless man himself (although he is clearly at fault, and an awful man besides), who pursues something — a connection, a patrimony, an idea of the ideal family — that ends up hurting her daughter more than her.

Basically, there’s a lot going on in the film, a lot of barely-buried emotion, which never overwhelms the story, or becomes melodramatic or cloying, but is always there.

CREDITS Director Catherine Corsini; Writers Corsini and Laurette Polmanss (based on the novel by Christine Angot); Cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie; Starring Virginie Efira, Niels Schneider; Length 135 minutes; Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Monday 7 January 2019.

Varda par Agnès (Varda by Agnès, 2019)

Film posterVarda was doing a number of talks around the world in the last few years before she passed, and this film is sort of based around those, going back over her life with clips from her films, as she talks about what made her excited, what she liked to film, her philosophy of living, as well as some of the people she met along the way. Given its clip-show format it’s hardly the equal of her recent documentaries, or her greatest fiction filmmaking (all of which is imbued with a documentary fascination with peoples’ lives), but if anyone has earned this kind of warm and gentle summation, then it’s certainly Agnès Varda. And of course this film, like her presence — which is a constant throughout — is very much warm and gentle.

CREDITS Director/Writer Agnès Varda; Cinematographers Claire Duguet, François Décréau and Julia Fabry; Starring Agnès Varda; Length 115 minutes; Seen at Cinema Jolly, Bologna, Friday 28 June 2019.

Two 1988 Films by Agnès Varda: Jane B. by Agnès V. and Kung-Fu Master!

Both these films were made by Varda as collaborations with Jane Birkin. The idea for Kung-Fu Master! came from Birkin during the production of Jane B. and so Varda helped her realise the concept. Varda’s similarly playful (and similarly titled) final film Varda par Agnès (2019) is released in the UK this Friday 19 July.


Jane Birkin with Agnes Varda reflected in a mirror

Jane B. par Agnès V. (Jane B. by Agnès V., 1988)

Film posterWatching this film for the first time 30 years after it was made, I wonder if Todd Haynes had seen it before making his one about Bob Dylan (I’m Not There). There’s a similar sort of playfulness in the way that it takes a person’s life (Jane Birkin’s in this case) and reworks it, plays with what it means to be represented on film, to be a performer and inhabit roles, and how the (re)presentation changes the meaning of what we see. We see Birkin in a variety of costume dramas and staged tableaux of baroque paintings, or enacting genre scripts (a gangster heist drama, or a love story across generational boundaries with Varda’s son Mathieu, expanded into feature-length as Kung-Fu Master!), as well as talking to Varda in almost (and yet not quite) documentary-like behind-the-scenes setups. It’s fun and perplexing, dazzling and strange, in ways that get to the core of being a public figure, of acting and of filmmaking itself. Plus, it has a very self-awarely digressive style that pulls all this material together and even makes it seem natural.

CREDITS Director/Writer Agnès Varda; Cinematographers Nurith Aviv and Pierre-Laurent Chénieux; Starring Jane Birkin, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Agnès Varda; Length 80 minutes; Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 16 June 2018.


Kung-Fu Master! (1988)

Film posterThis is an odd film, and one can see how it might have languished somewhat in Agnès Varda’s filmography, given its themes. Even so, Varda imparts an earnest inquisitiveness to the whole undertaking that almost redeems the slightly dicey subject matter. It was more of Birkin’s conceit than Varda’s, as middle-aged Birkin falls for her daughter’s 14-year-old school friend (played by Varda’s son Mathieu), and in which she is abetted by her own family. Indeed, much of Birkin’s extended clan appears here, in scenes set in both Paris and London, and so this is also in some way an exploration of family dynamics. The documentary elements extend to scenes, apparently unrelated to the drama as a whole, depicting the panic around AIDS in both countries, and these are almost more troubling than the central plotline (especially given Varda’s husband died only a few years later of complications from this disease), and hearing contemporary schoolyard homophobic taunts is somewhat brutal, even if they don’t go unchallenged. But that central story, with its uncomfortable age and power dynamics, is treated simply, with a strange tenderness, but it never feels comfortable (nor indeed should it), and makes the film as a whole, well… very odd.

CREDITS Director Agnès Varda; Writers Jane Birkin and Varda; Cinematographer Pierre-Laurent Chénieux; Starring Jane Birkin, Mathieu Demy, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Lou Doillon; Length 80 minutes; Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Tuesday 14 May 2019.

Une saison en France (A Season in France, 2017)

Film posterA warm, human story about an excellent father (Eriq Ebouaney) and his kids trying to make a new life in Paris after fleeing civil war in the Central African Republic. It moves slowly, showing the father’s life working in the markets (having been a French teacher back home), and that of his brother, who’s a former philosophy professor, still dressed up snappily in a suit and tweed jacket as, dispiritingly, we realise he’s heading towards a shop where he’s working on security. All of them have new connections, new relationships, they have jobs and places to live, and yet ultimately no security, and the film is absolutely focused on just how tenuous everyone’s hold on security is in this kind of place, especially as we move towards the end, surveying the bleakness that awaits, the systemic deracination that Western nations (and Europe specifically) have effected on those who are in this desperate situation.

CREDITS Director/Writer Mahamat-Saleh Haroun محمد الصالح هارون; Cinematographer Mathieu Giombini; Starring Eriq Ebouaney, Sandrine Bonnaire; Length 100 minutes; Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 20 June 2019.

Hester Street (1975)

It’s been a while since I posted non-Criterion reviews over on my blog, but I’m always writing little capsules about every film I see elsewhere, so I thought I’d try adding them here too! Let’s see if I can keep this up better than some other features I’ve tried to add.


Set in late-19th century New York City, this period film focuses on Steven Keats’s character Yankle, who arrives in America from a Russian shtetl and soon shaves his beard to assume a new ‘Yankee’ appearance as Jake, despite still being very much immersed in and surrounded by Jewish life. When his wife Gitl (played by a young Carol Kane) arrives behind him with their son, the story starts to shift its focus towards her inability to assimilate, and the tensions this causes in the marriage. As such, it’s a story about immigrants in a new culture, and the ways they adjust. There’s a slightly stagy quality to the film in terms of the way it’s filmed (it reminds of some contemporary British television plays), but I suspect this may be more of an attempt to formally locate the film in its period setting: it has an archaic quality not just from its setting and from the costumes and the use of Yiddish, but also the formal strategies themselves. It’s not a silent movie though (aside from the credits sequence), but it pretty succesfully feels like a film preserved from another era entirely.

CREDITS Director/Writer Joan Micklin Silver (based on the novella Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto by Abraham Cahan); Cinematographer Kenneth Van Sickle; Starring Steven Keats, Carol Kane; Length 90 minutes; Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 9 July 2019.

Criterion Sunday 247: Slacker (1990)

It’s 30 years since this film was shot, and whatever you might think of it, it certainly has created a legacy, both of independent filmmaking, but also by way of capturing a zeitgeist, a spirit of a certain strand of alternative American existence (whether here in Austin TX or in Portland OR, et al.): places that have defined themselves by a certain lo-fi aesthetic and bohemian drop-out culture. The strongest aspect remains Linklater’s narrative structure, which builds on the familiarity of multi-strand intersecting narratives, but instead has characters just bump into one another, pulling the camera (and thus the viewer) into these constantly changing stories, all set within the same city, in a tight (but not real-time) framework. It’s all queued up by Linklater’s appearance as the first of these figures, indulging in some pseudo-philosophical ramblings in the back of a taxicab (shades of Scorsese in Taxi Driver, and a tendency which Linklater would indulge in his later films), which both gently pokes fun at his pretensions but also lays out the film’s alternative realities groundwork. Ultimately the rambling concept can’t help but exceeding the framework of the film, but this leads to a final act of filmic self-destruction a little bit reminiscent of Two-Lane Blacktop in a way, and brings a fitting close to this era-defining film.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Among the many extras is Woodshock (1985), a very early short film by Linklater which focuses on a local indie music festival. No footage of the music is shown, but there’s a charming DIY aesthetic to this lo-fi footage of the audience just milling about and acting like quintessential music festival audiences, not to mention an eager young Daniel Johnston toting his cassette album.
  • There’s also footage from a 10th anniversary cast reunion at a cinema in Austin, which features a lot of the local cast reflecting on the film and their experiences in front of an audience.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Richard Linklater | Cinematographer Lee Daniel | Length 100 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 28 April 2019 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, January 2000)

Criterion Sunday 246: I vitelloni (1953)

I gather that the title sort of loosely means “the idle men”, but I like to think of it as “the lads”, because that’s what this film is about, a group of five young men in a small seaside town, who have hopes and aspirations and find them somewhat waylaid in the whirl of life. The film is largely focused on the ladies’ man Fausto (Franco Fabrizi), who despite his early marriage and child finds plenty of time to flirt with other women, though the other four variously come into focus throughout the piece. It’s beautifully shot, with a fantastic sense of framing, as these five men are first seen hanging out with one another, before the framing starts to fracture and they each move into their separate worlds. There are some lovely set-pieces, and a strong sense of a world that’s been left behind, and a nostalgic pull to a certain vision of provincial Italian life (even though this is a film contemporary to when it was made). Perhaps that’s the black-and-white, perhaps it’s just innate in the thematics of the story. But escape from the dreary monotony is an ever-present pull in what is to my mind one of Fellini’s finest films.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Federico Fellini | Writers Fellini, Tullio Pinelli and Ennio Flaiano | Cinematographers Carlo Carlini, Otello Martelli and Luciano Trasatti | Starring Alberto Sordi, Franco Fabrizi, Franco Interlenghi, Leopoldo Trieste | Length 83 minutes || Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 16 June 1999 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Sunday 21 April 2019)

Criterion Sunday 238: Une femme est une femme (A Woman Is a Woman, 1961)

This very early film, Godard’s third feature I believe, gets wildly disparate reviews, and I sort of land somewhere in the middle. It’s a thin undertaking, like so much of JLG’s work, a few recycled ideas stolen from books and film, made feature-length, and largely predicated on the on-screen allure of his leading lady Anna Karina. Of course, there have been less substantial reasons for making a film, and if it’s going to be Karina mugging for the camera or doing little musical interludes (though this is not really a musical), then there are plenty of pleasures along the way. The fourth-wall breaking, the self-aware nods to cinema history, and the constant inventive staging and cutting mark out this period of Godard’s work, and just on a formal level it’s a pleasant undertaking. That said, Karina’s character feels like little more than a cipher for her (fairly bland) male co-stars’ sexual competition, as Brialy and Belmondo try to woo her, and so it ends up feeling overlong even at its shortish running length. Likeable, colourful, and playful, with an excellent Karina only hinting at her much greater work in Vivre sa vie (still my favourite of Godard’s films)… but little more than that.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard | Cinematographer Raoul Coutard | Starring Anna Karina, Jean-Claude Brialy, Jean-Paul Belmondo | Length 85 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 5 February 2019 (and originally on VHS in the university library, Wellington, October 1998)

Criterion Sunday 236: Mamma Roma (1962)

Pasolini’s second film is this slice of the kind of subject matter that Fellini was more used to serving up, which is to say a richly melodramatic story of the former sex worker of the film’s title and her relationship with her son Ettore. Of course, stylistically, Pasolini’s take is hardly comparable to Fellini, aside from the garrulous camera-hogging of Anna Magnani in the central role recalling Giulietta Masina. This is far more focused on the fragile ground on which Magnani’s character tries to rebuild her life, as her honest profession as a vegetable seller in the market is undercut by not just forays into vice in order to try and provide for her son’s future (a little play-acting with a pimp and a sex worker to blackmail a restaurant owner into getting him a job) but also the return of her former pimp Carmine. Fragile too is Ettore’s self-identity within his social circle — he’s a young man trying to prove himself by courting one slightly older local woman — while meanwhile given a hard time by his male friends, all of which combined with a revelation of his mother’s former career, seems to push him over the edge. Pasolini’s attention then is on wider society — including, of course, the church — and the part it plays in destroying a family. Magnani remains at the heart of the film, though, and there are some particularly striking tracking shots showing her walking around the darkened streets lit by ethereal street lights, as people hove into view out of the darkness to engage her in conversation before peeling off again. She may be trying to constantly move forward, but she never seems to be given the chance to get anywhere.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Pier Paolo Pasolini | Cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli | Starring Anna Magnani, Ettore Garofalo, Franco Citti | Length 106 minutes || Seen at home, London, Monday 21 January 2019