Criterion Sunday 572: Léon Morin, prêtre (Léon Morin, Priest, 1961)

I’m not exactly certain what makes a Jean-Pierre Melville film a Melville film, what his particular touch is, but I do know that I really like just about all of them that I’ve seen. In his way he’s as singular a director as his contemporary (albeit slightly older) Robert Bresson, who also had an interest in religious themes. Melville didn’t really explore them quite as much as he did here, and maybe that’s what sets it apart from his gangster films, but it has all the essential elements of great drama — two people, drawn to each other despite the fact that one is a priest, at a time and place of great trauma (Nazi-occupied France) — and is filmed in austere black-and-white. Belmondo is an actor I’ve never fully connected with, but he brings something compelling to his priest, and the film becomes one of clandestine glances shared between him and Emmanuelle Riva. That said, the film is never quite as melodramatic as I’ve made out, and moves like a chamber drama, while giving enough life to the characters around this central pair that it threatens throughout to move off on another tangent, before being pulled back into these two, and their tangled, messy lives, but it’s a sympathetic portrait of what a good and moral church man might be at a time when such figures seemed to be sorely lacking.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Pierre Melville (based on the novel of the same name in French but usually translated as The Passionate Heart by Béatrix Beck); Cinematographer Henri Decaë; Starring Emmanuelle Riva, Jean-Paul Belmondo; Length 117 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 25 September 2022.

Criterion Sunday 570: Zazie dans le Métro (1960)

I do know that I’ve read Raymond Queneau’s 1959 novel — the man who the following year would go on to found Oulipo, a collective known for their playful experimentation with narrative form — and surely what Malle has done with this film adaptation is to translate Queneau’s inventiveness and wit, and his particular glee in coining new words (certainly something that the subtitles are keen to capture). Whether it will be to your taste is another matter, and I found the non-stop “zaniness” of the whole enterprise was a little grating to me. That’s less to do with the young girl at the heart of the film (Catherine Demongeon, who’s not nearly as abrasive as the poster image would have you believe) and more the way that Malle has put it all together, with frequent recourse to sped-up sequences playing at a manic knockabout pace, quick cuts that violate time and space and create a certain level of magic (albeit not the same kind of magic that Rivette would dabble with the following decade in Céline and Julie Go Boating), and an exhaustingly inexhaustible energy from all its leads. There’s also a underlying weirdness about the way men respond to Zazie which seems somehow inappropriate but also difficult to pin down (I suppose one could write it off as ‘of its time’, except that Malle was often of another time when it comes to young women in his films). Still, I can’t fault the energy on display, and while it may not be for me, it has its definite charms.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Louis Malle; Writers Malle and Jean-Paul Rappeneau (based on the novel by Raymond Queneau); Cinematographer Henri Raichi; Starring Catherine Demongeot, Philippe Noiret, Hubert Deschamps; Length 92 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 18 September 2022.

Criterion Sunday 567: 細雪 Sasame-yuki (The Makioka Sisters, 1983)

A later film by Japanese master Kon Ichikawa and this does attain a sort of regal bearing, not least for the way its four titular protagonists carry themselves. I must confess the first two times I started watching this I fell asleep, and partly that must be due to me being tired, but to a certain extent it has a sort of drifting and undemonstrative quality that I’ve seen in a lot of Japanese domestic dramas. After all, not a huge amount happens in the usual plot sense, but lives move and change — cities, lovers and marriages prospects, allegiances to other sisters — in ways that remain profound within the world of the film, even if it all just seems to be taking place while seated on the floor of various homes. But it’s beautiful and arranged like a novel, elegantly broken up into chapters and allowing each of these sisters to have her own distinct character within the piece. Just make sure to watch when you’re able to give it your full attention, because the action remains fairly subtle.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Kon Ichikawa 市川崑; Writers Shinya Hidaka 日高真也 and Ichikawa (based on the novel by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki 谷崎潤一郎); Cinematographer Kiyoshi Hasegawa 長谷川清; Starring Sayuri Yoshinaga 吉永小百合, Yuko Kotegawa 古手川祐子, Keiko Kishi 岸惠子, Yoshiko Sakuma 佐久間良子, Juzo Itami 伊丹十三; Length 140 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Monday 5 September 2022.

Criterion Sunday 566: Insignificance (1985)

I’m not honestly sure where the comedy is in this, except that it’s a fantasy scenario. Not unlike the more recent One Night in Miami…, it’s a theatrical production which imagines four historical figures gathering together in a single hotel room to talk over various ideas of interest to the playwright/screenwriter. None of these figures is identified by name but it’s clear who they’re supposed to represent (Marilyn, Joe DiMaggio, Einstein and Senator Joseph McCarthy), and over the course of the night various ideas are discussed. There’s some exploration of Marilyn’s inner life, of sex and hypocrisy, of the American state’s interest in foreign individuals like Einstein (even if it does see McCarthy acting more like an FBI agent), and some kind of fantasy nuclear apocalypse scenario in which Marilyn dances through the fire, the hotel room exploding like the end of Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point. It’s a lot to take in, and given its origin, it’s rather talky, but there’s plenty to like, plus watching Tony Curtis play McCarthy here makes me wonder how many other actors have starred in films with both the real person and someone doing an impersonation of them.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Nicolas Roeg; Writer Terry Johnson (based on his play); Cinematographer Peter Hannan; Starring Theresa Russell, Michael Emil, Tony Curtis, Gary Busey; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 28 August 2022.

Criterion Sunday 565: The Great Dictator (1940)

This is the film in which Chaplin finally takes on that other notable world figure with the same moustache. And, suitably, he comes to him with comedy, and it is certainly always worthwhile ridiculing fascism. There are indeed some fine laughs in this film, well-constructed little asides that resonate with some darker undertow while also keeping the film fairly light on its feet — whether it’s Chaplin as a Jewish barber, dazed from being struck with a frying pan, doing a little dance up and down a street with boarded shops daubed with the stark words ‘JEW’, or Chaplin as the dictator Hynkel presiding over underlings demonstrating new technological advances that end up (somehow, comedically) killing them. As I’ve seen other critics note, the horror comes across effectively in these fleeting moments. Elsewhere it’s absurdity that he uses to undercut Adenoid Hynkel with his speeches (in some kind of mock-German) and his posturing, though the broadest pure comedy performance is reserved for Jack Oakie as the Mussolini stand-in, Benzino Napaloni, a true buffoon. It’s all approached with a deep earnestness, and I can appreciate that — the end has a touching quality to it that’s hokily undeniable — but the existential threat of fascism doesn’t ever really feel as if it’s captured, and the comedy never achieves more than just isolated moments of greatness. But that’s only my opinion; those who love it have purer hearts.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Charlie Chaplin; Cinematographers Karl Struss and Roland Totheroh; Starring Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Jack Oakie; Length 125 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 27 August 2022.

Criterion Sunday 563: Something Wild (1986)

I can only assume there’s an element of nostalgia to the way people view this film. It’s good fun, for sure, and perhaps setting it against much of what passed for mainstream entertainment in the 1980s is enough to rate it highly. I can respect that, but this feels like a messy film. It’s certainly a film about messy people living their lives, and that’s going to get messy, but just structurally there are plenty of longueurs where the film feels aimless, the way Charlie is trying to put his life together, or Audrey/Lulu is trying to figure out her identity. All I know is that Ray Liotta adds a necessary element of danger to a story that could easily get bogged down in new wave 80s quirkiness, like its angular soundtrack (which is nevertheless pretty solid). There’s a sense in which these characters feel like a throwback, and Melanie Griffith is somehow both iconic — a manic pixie dream girl avant la lettre — and deserves a better written character, but she knows exactly how to pitch herself against Jeff Daniels’s rather dull NYC corporate salary man. It’s a bold, colourful film brimming with ideas, not all of which work, but I’m glad Demme found an outlet for them.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jonathan Demme; Writer E. Max Frye; Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto; Starring Melanie Griffith, Jeff Daniels, Ray Liotta; Length 113 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Wednesday 24 August 2022.

Criterion Sunday 560: White Material (2009)

Part of what I think is difficult to take in about this film, at least on a first viewing, is that so much of it happens off-screen when we aren’t (or the central character, Maria Vial, played by Isabelle Huppert, isn’t) looking. By which I mean the violence that drives it, that claims several central characters, that drives a wedge between Vial and her coffee plantation business, as well as her family (Christophe Lambert as estranged husband and Nicolas Duvauchelle as deranged son). Partly that’s because she’s never reliably looking the right way to witness it, so intent on downplaying and ignoring the rising tide of anti-colonial violence taking place, the efforts to push out white landowners; she’s too immured in a rapidly vanishing system of rule to even seem to notice the threats to her existence, because it is her home after a fashion, the only life she’s known. And so while I think this film is filled with bold contrasts and strong drama, a lot of it just seems to seep in around the edges, until eventually it starts to overwhelm even La Huppert, who as an actor — as much as a character — feels like an indomitable spirit. She’s hardly a hero, but she just keeps trying to make things happen and she doesn’t know how to relent.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s an interesting little short film made by Denis, filmed from her point of view on a camcorder of some sort, of her taking this film to the Écrans Noirs film festival in Yaoundé, Cameroon, and having to deal with the outdated technology and limited screening conditions available there. Indeed, the whole story builds to a bit of a punchline, almost.
  • There’s also a short deleted scene of Maria finding a certain person (no spoilers, eh) dead near the end, but presumably this was just too direct for Denis’ method.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Claire Denis; Writers Denis and Marie NDiaye; Cinematographer Yves Cape; Starring Isabelle Huppert, Christophe Lambert, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Isaach de Bankolé, Michel Subor; Length 105 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 31 July 2022.

Criterion Sunday 557: The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)

I do wonder, watching this classic documentary once again, how many figures from history are forgotten or only dimly recalled, people who have had enormous influence in their time. As the filmmaker reflects in one of the extras, you can easily imagine Harvey Milk fading from view, for while his importance at a certain point in San Francisco’s civic history may have been undoubtable, the wider significance of his work could easily have never been properly established. What this film does then is a work of urgent engagement with a public legacy, coming from a sense of injustice — not just in the way that Milk was killed, but in the way his voice took so long to be heard at all and about the easy way in which his killer was treated. But it’s not the story of Dan White that’s of interest here — his brand of neo-conservative Bible-thumping bigotry has been every bit as influential in American politics sadly — but the effervescence and life of Harvey Milk, a man who knew early on what his fate would be (as anyone who’d grown up in American politics of the post-war period surely knew) but forged ahead anyway. He has a great skill with oratory and a belief in what was right, more than can be said for some of his political colleagues who may continue to wield influence in the state of California. It’s a great film to celebrate a life, not just mourn a death, and that’s what it taps into more than anything else.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There is a wealth of documentary material included as extras here, including the film’s premiere at the Castro (although not its first screening, but the first to the local community), introduced by Vito Russo and with speeches from its director, as well as the rather more staid affair of the Oscars where it won the best documentary that year (no mean feat, given the closed way that the Documentary Oscar was for many years selected).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Rob Epstein; Writers Epstein, Carter Wilson and Judith Coburn; Cinematographer Frances Reid; Length 88 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 30 July 2022 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, June 2000).

Criterion Sunday 556: Senso (1954)

This film is, undoubtedly, full-blooded. If you have any kind of aversion to melodrama, you would be well-advised to be aware of that going in, because Visconti and his lead actor Alida Valli do not, in any way, hold back. She plays the Countess Serpieri, an Italian noblewoman in 1866 just as Italy is seeking its independence, whose cousin (Massimo Girotti) is deeply embedded in the resistance fight, but yet she dramatically, deeply, impossibly falls in love with a young Austrian officer Franz (played rather less memorably by Farley Granger, and truly the lip-synching is, as you’d expect from Italian films, very far off). The further she is sucked into passionate love for this pathetic preening jerk, the further she betrays her country and her ideals, until both are thrown explosively against one another in a final showdown that really undoes them both. The title is apt: this is a film of the senses, taking its cue (as VIsconti often does) from opera, which is where it literally begins, until the entire film is suffused with an operatic sensibility and the denouement can’t help but be bold. So if you like your films melodramatic and operatic, then this is exactly the kind of cinema you will love.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luchino Visconti; Writers Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Visconti, Giorgio Bassani, Carlo Alianello, Giorgio Prosperi, Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles; Cinematographers G.R. Aldo and Robert Krasker; Starring Alida Valli, Farley Granger, Massimo Girotti; Length 123 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 24 July 2022.

Fire Island (2022)

Not all the best new films are released to cinemas, especially not if it’s screening on Disney+ because they really don’t like to get their films onto big screens anymore, which is a real shame because there’s no reason why this comedic retelling of Pride and Prejudice shouldn’t be a wider hit (though to be fair it’s not soft-pedalling the gay comedy here like similar 90s films might have done).


I feel like we had that great era of classic texts being revamped — and indeed, there’s even a brief throwaway reference to Clueless (1995) at one point in this film — and why not, because at this point it’s those films I’m pegging any remakes to rather than the original texts. But if Emma. (2020) and its ilk have been trying to take the classics back to their period settings, Fire Island proves that there’s still a lot of value in finding contemporary resonances. Imagining the Bennet sisters as a ‘family’ of gay men on a final summer holiday to the titular destination of their hedonistic youth turns out to be a pretty great twist, and productive too. There’s all the finely-nuanced character work drawn from the original with a wealth of sly references to modern culture and socialising added in, but if this were all just a studied ‘spot the reference’ competition it would quickly become boring. Luckily star/writer Joel Kim Booster and his co-lead Bowen Yang really bring the pathos along with the jokes. Yang, for all his other memorable turns, is still best known to me for being a breakout star on recent seasons of Saturday Night Live but here, fabulously, his level of party-killer/boring dorky dude is set via the detail of his recapping memorable SNL skits for people who couldn’t really care less. And while the rest of the cast are largely unknown to me, I look forward to all of them guiding the future of comedy, because there’s scarcely a dull performance amongst the group.

Fire Island (2022)CREDITS
Director Andrew Ahn; Writer Joel Kim Booster 조엘 킴 부스터; Cinematographer Felipe Vara de Rey; Starring Joel Kim Booster, Bowen Yang 楊伯文, Conrad Ricamora, James Scully, Margaret Cho 조모란, Matt Rogers; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at home (Disney+ streaming), Wellington, Friday 1 July 2021.