Criterion Sunday 127: Gertrud (1964)

I’ve always loved this film, ever since first watching it, transfixed, on a 16mm print at a film society. It has a transfixing power, specifically in the way the actors interpret their lines, the fugue-like oneiric monotone and constant off-screen gaze of the title character (Nina Pens Rode), moving about her world as if nothing exists — indeed, if she had passed through a wall like a ghost, I’d hardly be surprised. Every element is controlled, not just the acting and movement, but the placement of decor, the use of paintings as counterpoint to the discussion, the ripples on the pond as Gertrud and Erland speak (pathetic fallacy, I suppose, but not even that overdetermined), the lighting, just everything. It’s also uncompromisingly about a woman who rejects the men in her life — not least by barely ever even looking at them — and I don’t blame her.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Carl Theodor Dreyer (based on the play by Hjalmar Söderberg) | Cinematographer Henning Bendtsen | Starring Nina Pens Rode, Bendt Rothe, Ebbe Rode, Baard Owe | Length 116 minutes || Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 23 June 1999 (also the Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Sunday 6 July 2003, and the BFI Southbank, London, Saturday 17 March 2012, as well as on VHS at home, Wellington, January 2001 and most recently on DVD, home, 3 December 2016)

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Criterion Sunday 62: La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928)

© The Criterion Collection

I don’t know there’s much more to add about this most famous of Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s films, a masterpiece of the late silent cinema and one of the greatest in all of film history. It may not even be my favourite Dreyer film (he had some fantastic later works in his native land), but it seems working in France with a bold and expansively modernist set, and some fine theatre actors, was no great obstacle to his vision. Amongst these actors are Antonin Artaud as one of the more sympathetic of Joan’s accusers, though of course — whatever Dreyer’s important contributions may have been to this film and to cinema as an art — it is Renée Falconetti in the title role who remains the film’s iconic and lasting presence (she was never to act in cinema again, preferring the stage). The film takes the transcript of Joan of Arc’s trial for heresy, and dramatises it, largely in a series of close-ups on the faces of these stern, judgemental men in their austere courtroom as Joan meets their gaze and responds with patience and unwavering belief in God, undiminshed by their taunts or by the mistreatment from her English captors. It’s a film which seems scarcely to have aged.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Carl Theodor Dreyer | Writers Joseph Delteil and Carl Theodor Dreyer | Cinematographer Rudolph Maté | Starring Renée Falconetti | Length 82 minutes || Seen at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Friday 27 June 2003 (and earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, September 1999, an on several subsequent occasions at home, most recently at a friend’s home on DVD, Sunday 15 November 2015)

Carol (2015)

There’s always been plenty for film fans to fetishise about their favourite medium, whether the unstable nitrate stock used in early cinema (I seem to recall David Fincher’s Se7en was initially released on some kind of ‘silver nitrate’-enhanced print), the threading up of 8mm home movie footage, or the epic splendour of 70mm. In this modern digital age, just seeing a film on 35mm celluloid is enough of a treat for plenty of film fans, and the fact that some screenings of Carol have been on this antiquated stock has been enough to get many excited. Resistant as I’ve been to this level of film stock fetishisation, the cinematography of Ed Lachman (who used 16mm cameras when shooting) does come across particularly nicely, and there is a sort of cultish mystique to seeing Carol projected on film stock, though it still works fine on digital too. No, scratch that, it works great, because I’ve seen the film three times already in the last week, and I continue to want to go and see it. I love Carol, certainly more than any other film this year, possibly more than any film this decade.

As for explaining why, it’s not just the film, and it’s not just the period clothes and settings — although those are, it has to be said, fantastic. There’s seldom been so powerful an advertisement for the joys of sipping gin martinis in plush hotel bars, or lighting up a cigarette, for that matter. That grainy film stock really gives a tactility to this evoked world, just as it seems to make it impossibly distant. Director Todd Haynes emphasises this by frequently shooting his actors through glass, often fogged up or dirty, using reflections which fade away into darkness or into the film grain. Carol, more than anything else perhaps, is a seance with something unattainable — whether the texture of the historical past, or the ineffability of rendering something so fragile as love on screen. But in acknowledging this distance, it also heightens the emotion of evoking it.

Still, all this would be for nothing without the performances. Rooney Mara as Therese Belivet does her best to hold herself in check despite a sort of giddiness to her youthful acceptance of the world at times, and you can see those emotions fighting within her, especially evident in that opening scene which the movie at length loops back to. Cate Blanchett as Carol Aird, though, is acting in almost a different world, yet her connection to Therese remains palpable, other characters seeming to fade away in their exchange of glances. Blanchett modulates her voice, giving an almost neutral flatness to some of her line readings, though it’s in her eyes and the curl of her lips that the real heavy lifting is done. And then there’s Sarah Paulson as Carol’s best friend Abby, who surely remains the best supporting actor around. Abby’s exchange with Carol somewhere in the middle of the film — “Tell me you know what you’re doing.” “I don’t. I never have.” — pretty much destroys me every time and feels like the film’s emotional core (that and Carol’s “living against my grain” in the custody hearing).

I’m unequal to telling you all the ways I love this film. I haven’t even really conveyed the story, but it’s fairly straightforward in some ways (two people fall in love). Still, there are moments here that are as rich in magic as any other film I know (although I’ve already seen a number of critics resisting the film’s charms, so I can’t claim these effects are universal). Still, it works for me, and perhaps yes there is a level of fetishisation to it. Maybe I’ll go see it again tonight, or tomorrow, while I can, before it disappears forever, lingering only in distant, impossible memories.


© The Weinstein Company/StudioCanal

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Todd Haynes | Writer Phyllis Nagy (based on the novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith) | Cinematographer Edward Lachman | Starring Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler, Jake Lacy | Length 118 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central [35mm], London, Monday 30 November 2015; Hackney Picturehouse, London, Tuesday 1 December 2015; and Cineworld West India Quay, London, Tuesday 8 December 2015 (so far)

Criterion Sunday 23: RoboCop (1987)

© The Criterion Collection

It’s quite difficult, it turns out, to write a coherent review of a film that you spend a lot of time saying is one of the great films of the 1980s (if not all time), but I’ll have a punt. It may have a silly, pulpy title, but what Paul Verhoeven and his screenwriters have done here is to craft a masterful satire of a society in which government has outsourced its functions to a greedy private corporation, which leverages the societal decay attendant on its own chronic underinvestment in public services as a means to impose a police state enforced by its own military hardware. In short, like a lot of Verhoeven’s work, it’s about the heady allure of fascism, with a story that’s still sadly current in our own times of austerity. In many ways, its only concession to science fiction is the title robot, although the film has two robotic cops: one is RoboCop, a wonder of brushed steel-effect costume design (which must have been quite some work for the actor underneath, Peter Weller); and the other its clunky counterpart ED-209 (animated using stop-motion techniques developed from those employed in the 1950s by Ray Harryhausen). But the effects are just the veneer, because RoboCop is about what it means to have a soul even in the absence of a body; its hero is in many ways a Christ-like figure of suffering, rebirth and redemption (though that much is to be expected from the devout Verhoeven).

All these thematics would be for naught, though, were it not for the tightly structured script, the comedic levity of the satire, and the very fine performances. Of the latter, the standouts are two actors more known for easygoing likeability, cast well against type: Ronny Cox as Dick Jones, the Vice-President of OCP (OmniConsumer Products, the corporation at the film’s dark heart); and Kurtwood Smith as the grinning, leering Clarence Boddicker, unofficial crime lord of old Detroit and a footsoldier for Jones. The comedy comes through in unlikely places, like the overextended violent death of the junior executive Mr Kinney at an early board meeting, and the repeated failings of Dick Jones’s ED-209 droid (of which this is just the first). Most effective are the newsbreaks which punctuate the film and their fake adverts, a technique that Verhoeven extended in Starship Troopers ten years later, along with a penchant for casting daytime soap actors and an attempt at gender-blind casting (there’s a hint of it in the police station locker room scene in RoboCop, not to mention the prominent role for Nancy Allen’s Detective Lewis).

I’ve seen this film so many times over the last twenty years that it’s hard for me to stand back and objectively assess it (which is partly what the five-star rating category is about). The fashion and especially the hairstyles may have dated, and the technology on view is pretty clunky as you might expect, but Verhoeven and his screenwriters Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner are playing with some ideas that haven’t weakened in the ensuing years. More to the point, the characters have a deeper symbolic dimension that makes the story an effective allegory. Verhoeven speaks feelingly on the commentary track about his childhood in Holland under Nazi occupation and about the horrors he witnessed then and how it had affected his filmmaking, and there’s a lot of that wary relationship to power and its abuses to be seen in his films, particularly his strong run of US films from this one through to Starship Troopers. As a society, after all, the United States has a lot to criticise in this regard, but we all live to some extent under the power of corporations and RoboCop is a brilliant dissection as well as a cautionary tale. Your move, creep.

Criterion Extras: The Criterion release of this film leans heavily on textual sources once again, with a very lengthy piece (with some illustrations and video clips) focusing on the special effects and how they were achieved. There are also some storyboards for unshot sequences, which work a lot better with this film (with all its comic-book trappings) than some of the other titles on which they’ve cropped up as extras. The chief interest, though, is in the commentary. Too many of these are dull, but Paul Verhoeven, screenwriter Edward Neumeier and executive producer Jon Davison have a lot of interesting insights into the film, and it’s well worth a listen.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Paul Verhoeven | Writers Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner | Cinematographer Jost Vacano | Starring Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Ronny Cox, Kurtwood Smith, Miguel Ferrer | Length 102 minutes || Seen at Prince Charles Cinema, London, Friday 7 November 2014 (and many times before and since on VHS and DVD, most recently at a friend’s home on DVD, London, Sunday 8 February 2015)

Before Sunset (2004)


FILM REVIEW || Director Richard Linklater | Writers Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and Kim Krizan | Cinematographer Lee Daniel | Starring Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke | Length 77 minutes | Seen at Ritzy, Brixton, London, 2 August 2004, at Curzon Soho, London, 29 August 2004 (and at home on DVD, Tuesday 18 June 2013) || My Rating 5 stars masterpiece


© Warner Independent Pictures

There’s a lot to like and admire in Before Sunrise (1995), but in retrospect it comes across as merely a prelude to this second film in the series, which returns to the same characters nine years later. Both Jesse and Céline have moved on in life, and meeting again in Paris, it feels like so much more is at stake for them. This has the effect of sharpening the feelings we are left with at the film’s close, which again like the first is very much ambiguous.

The film itself comments on this ambiguity, by having Jesse address the question at an author’s talk that starts the film (he has written a novel about the events of the first film, and is on a European book tour). In fact, at several stages the characters show an awareness of these very fictional structures within which they exist. However, this never comes across as unduly precious or pretentious, because the film’s focus remains sharply on this specific time and place, and on their conversation.

Stylistically, this is emphasised by constructing the film to take place in ‘real-time’. There’s a brief prologue showing empty locations anticipating the couple’s conversation (just as the first film ended with those empty locations where they had been, presumably a nod to Antonioni’s L’eclisse). However, from meeting at the bookshop by the Seine, via meandering walks around the streets and parks of Paris, followed by a boat ride and a car ride, there are no (obvious) ellipses. Most of the shots are Steadicam tracking shots following the two, so there’s an even clearer sense of geography in place — it feels as if you could go to Paris and reconstruct their walk yourself.

Best of all are the characters themselves, Continue reading “Before Sunset (2004)”

Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

I’m on holiday in France this week, so I’m re-posting some reviews (of French films, naturally) that I wrote many years ago when I was on LiveJournal, back when I was watching a lot more arthouse films.


Alongside the name and street address which forms the film’s title, anchoring it in a very specific place, Babette Mangolte’s camera provides the utter piercing clarity of this film, the stark images indelible in the celluloid. There’s very little camera movement, just frontal shots of the title character preparing her home in meticulous detail. When she leaves the frame, often the shot lingers on the environment she’s left, suggesting a permanency, an unchanging constant.

The film starts on Jeanne’s back as she works over the kitchen stove. There’s a doorbell, and she slowly and carefully folds away her apron before answering. The caller is a gentleman whom she ushers away into her room, and there is a cut to later, when it is darker, as he leaves the room and pays her by the doorway. This quickly creates a tension within the narrative, which is otherwise focused on a mother and homemaker. This initial rift soon gets wider, threatening the very stability of Jeanne’s life.

The minuscule focus allows the viewer to notice small details accrete, as tasks which are repeated over the three days diverge ever so slightly. That Jeanne eats the dinner she has prepared for her son with only one hand. The fumbles she makes with some of the dishes during her repeated actions on day two (the days are not consecutive, but they do follow closely upon one another). The lack of focus she shows towards some tasks. Within this dicourse, an act as otherwise mundane as peeling a potato becomes central to the viewer’s understanding of her character. The first potato is lazily done, with little energy; the second she attacks fiercely. The build-up of details seems to augur something, and when that happens on the third day, it’s not entirely unexpected.

Dielman is a progression of sorts from Akerman’s previous films. The black-and-white intensity of Je tu il elle (1974), the fixed camera positions of Hôtel Monterey (1972) observing hotel guests from afar, the monomaniacal and self-destructive short film Saute ma ville (her first film, 1968), along with a dextrous sinuous camera tracking the female protagonist that she’d develop further in Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (Meetings with Anna, 1978). All of them are focused and brilliant in their own ways, but Jeanne Dielman seems to synthesise these disparate tactics and use them to elucidate one woman’s liberation.

There’s no doubt in me as to the greatness of this work; the surprise is just how watchable and compulsive it is. No doubt this is due in great part to the lead actress, Delphine Seyrig. But the camera of Mangolte and the unerring narrative sense of Akerman are marvellous co-conspirators.


© Janus Films

ARCHIVAL FILM REVIEW: French Film Week
Director/Writer Chantal Akerman | Cinematographer Babette Mangolte | Starring Delphine Seyrig | Length 201 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT), London, Wednesday 21 March 2007 | Originally posted on 22 March 2007 (with slight amendments)

My Rating 5 stars masterpiece

The Shining (1980)

This review (of a 33-year-old film, and one you should really have seen already — just saying) contains plot spoilers, just so you know.


RE-RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director Stanley Kubrick | Writers Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson (based on the novel by Stephen King) | Cinematographer John Alcott | Starring Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd | Length 144 minutes | Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 23 February 2013 || My Rating 5 stars masterpiece


© Warner Bros.

I do, of course, sometimes go to see old films at the cinema, and the NFT (or “BFI Southbank” if you want to call it by the name it likes to use of itself) is a great place to catch retrospectives and archival screenings of old films. The Shining however had something of a wider re-release recently, so I went along as I’d never seen it on the big screen, and I’m a particular fan of late-period Kubrick. Everything he did from Barry Lyndon (1975) onwards remains exceptional to my mind, including (I would argue) the posthumous A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), directed by Steven Spielberg.

Continue reading “The Shining (1980)”