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)

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Criterion Sunday 245: Le Quai des brumes (Port of Shadows, 1938)

People talk about this being a proto-noir, and I’ll defer to those more knowledgeable about their genres than I am, but it somehow feels less doomed, though it’s bleakly fatalistic in its way. It does, however, have an amazing sense of setting, as fog constantly closes in around all the characters in the port setting of Le Havre, shot by the great Eugen Schüfftan, who did Metropolis amongst others and so has a hand in defining how noir might (and would come to) look. It’s been described as “poetic realism”, and this feels like Carné’s thing in this film, harking back to earlier examples of the style through the casting of L’Atalante‘s Michel Simon. Jean Gabin’s army deserter Jean finds himself trying his best to stay out of trouble, but as they say trouble constantly seems to stick to him, like the fog, the oppressive sets, and the petulant baby-faced pretend-gangster Lucien (Pierre Brasseur) who’s on his case the whole time. It’s all rather glorious.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Marcel Carné | Writer Jacques Prévert (based on the novel by Pierre Mac Orlan) | Cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan | Starring Jean Gabin, Michel Simon, Michèle Morgan, Pierre Brasseur | Length 91 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 31 March 2019

Criterion Sunday 243: French Cancan (1955)

I think I like Renoir’s late-period French films over his earlier, more celebrated ones (I feel the same, incidentally, about both Bresson and Buñuel), not least because I think the way he uses the colour and the staging is so precise and memorable. Of course there’s an artifice, as there always is with Renoir’s films, especially in this run of 50s films set in the theatrical demi-monde starting with The Golden Coach. However, it’s the artifice of cinema at its grandest and this is a film that celebrates the spectacle of putting on a show and the dramas that takes place behind the scenes with the greatest of them — whether Lola Montès or Showgirls, burlesque and cabaret seem often to be particularly fruitful locations for films about social mores, shifting attitudes, and for the expression of pure cinema artistry itself.

Of course it helps that Renoir was being reunited with Jean Gabin and indeed with France itself for the first time after a long (and apparently not particularly welcome) exile in the United States, so there’s a self-conscious embrace of Frenchness, ironic perhaps given the film’s English title (in late-19th century Paris, it is explained, there was rather a penchant for the exoticism of foreign words, hence Gabin’s impresario Danglard reinventing a traditional French cabaret dance by using an English-language name). There’s also a rather frank subtext of sexual libertinism — a conversation early on with her friend about having to prepare adequately for her audition leads her to sleeping with her boyfriend. Indeed, lead dancer Nini’s affairs with three different men seems to highlight her class aspirations, as she moves from humble washerwoman (in love with a baker) to the world of arts, via a dalliance with minor royalty. When Danglard rejects Nini’s advances at the end, by protesting that he cannot be caged in love, it feels like the most French moment in this very French film.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jean Renoir | Writers Renoir and André-Paul Antoine | Cinematographer Michel Kelber | Starring Jean Gabin, Françoise Arnoul, Maria Félix | Length 104 minutes || Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Sunday 11 June 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Monday 11 March 2019)

Criterion Sunday 239: Les Bas-fonds (The Lower Depths, 1936)/Donzoko (The Lower Depths, 1957)

I am perhaps missing something, but Renoir somehow contrives to make this story of the poorest in society seem like another of his genteel comedies of etiquette and civility, a twirl through upper-class society mores but with shabbier clothes and fewer prospects. It certainly doesn’t feel like something based on a Russian source, but then perhaps in 1936 that’s not the kind of story that was needed. The poor and the rich are just part of a continuum perhaps, all on the same level, and certainly the Baron character moves swiftly and easily between the two. Still, not much seems particularly convincing, though Gabin remains a watchable screen presence in the lead role as a likeable thief.

A few decades later and Kurosawa’s take on Gorky’s slum-set drama really gets the sense of grinding poverty that eluded Renoir, I think. That said, by this point, Mifune’s scowling renegade character seems a little weary, barking at all the other characters in the way that hardly ingratiates him as a charismatic centre. No, instead this film is really about all the other flophouse inhabitants, each of whom has their various intersecting thing going on (and reminds me a little of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Hana). To be honest, none of it ever really held me, but Kurosawa has a way with the camera and the staging that remains impressive.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection

Les Bas-fonds (The Lower Depths, 1936) || Director Jean Renoir | Writers Yevgeni Zamyatin, Jacques Companéez, Renoir and Charles Spaak (based on the play Na dne by Maxim Gorky) | Cinematographer Fédote Bourgasoff | Starring Jean Gabin, Suzy Prim, Louis Jouvet | Length 95 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 11 February 2019

Donzoko (The Lower Depths, 1957) || Director Akira Kurosawa | Writers Hideo Oguni and Kurosawa (based on the play Na dne by Maxim Gorky) | Cinematographer Kazuo Yamasaki | Starring Toshiro Mifune, Kyoko Kagawa, Isuzu Yamada | Length 124 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, DVD, Thursday 14 February 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 237: Sommarnattens leende (Smiles of a Summer Night, 1955)

I’ve seen this Bergman film before and what I like about this comedy — and it is very much a comedy, even if it has moments of existential doubt and crises of faith — is that its characters are so flamboyantly ridiculous. At least, I should say, its male characters: the pompous lawyer Fredrik with his ridiculous beard (though his charm seems largely that he’s aware of how he’s mocked); Count Malcolm with his high-handed manner; and the foolish young Henrik, who falls for Fredrik’s younger bride. Sondheim adapted all of this for a musical, and that all makes perfect sense when you see this parade of emotions play out on screen, with particularly strong roles for the older woman Desirée who so effortlessly manipulates everyone around her, not to mention the maid Petra who cares so little for their bourgeois affectations. It’s a fun film, and one that I wish more of Bergman’s filmography could be like.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman | Cinematographer Gunnar Fischer | Starring Eva Dahlbeck, Harriet Andersson, Gunnar Björnstrand, Ulla Jacobsson | Length 111 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Friday 22 February 2019 (and originally on DVD at home, London, Monday 12 August 2013)

Criterion Sunday 235: Il gattopardo (The Leopard, 1963)

There’s something about Visconti’s The Leopard that makes it feel like a relic from a previous era of filmmaking, or perhaps its ultimate summation in many ways. Of course, it’s set in the past (the 19th century), and tells a story of an aristocratic family headed by Burt Lancaster’s paterfamilias, confronting a new era of Italy’s reunification under Garibaldi. However, it has that period detail and a certain patina of widescreen cinematography and big, lush melodramatic action that suggests the prestige Hollywood pictures of the 1950s. The confrontation between the aristocracy and the middle-classes — the resigned sense of a world that’s changing beyond one’s control (which plays out primarily across Lancaster’s face) — is very much the kind of grand theme that feels of its time, rather less common in modern cinema (though entitled aristocrats will also be a staple of the costume drama). The way the film works best comes down in large part to Lancaster’s stillness while everything whirls around him — literally so in the last third, which is set amongst a grand ball. Those who are attentive to acting, as to sumptuous set design, will find a lot to like here, and there’s something about the grandeur of the entire undertaking that feels like it will only become more suggestive and richer the more times one watches it, so perhaps by the time I reach Lancaster’s age, I will unreservedly love this. For me now, the film feels like an exemplar (a glorious, expressive one admittedly) of a certain decadent form, just as Lancaster (and his nephew played by Alain Delon) represent that decadence in practice.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luchino Visconti | Writers Pasquale Festa Campanile, Enrico Medioli, Massimo Franciosa, Visconti and Suso Cecchi d’Amico (based on the novel by Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa) | Cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno | Starring Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale, Alain Delon | Length 185 minutes || Seen at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Friday 6 June 2003 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Sunday 6 January 2019)

Criterion Sunday 233: Nora Inu (Stray Dog, 1949)

A fine crime procedural, which follows a young detective (Toshiro Mifune) who has his gun stolen from him in a moment of weariness on a tram, and spends the rest of the film tracking it down, learning along the way the serious consequences of such a breach of attention. It has a noirish hue, as Mifune goes deeper into the sleazy underworld, and throughout there’s a tangible sense of suffocating heat, characters constantly wiping the sweat from their faces, their clothes suffused with damp. It set up Kurosawa’s interest in refining pulpy generic storylines that he’d further pursue in subsequent films with Mifune and over his career.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • As with many of the Kurosawa discs, it includes a short documentary about its making, part of a Japanese TV series called It Is Wonderful to Create. The format remains consistent: text-heavy and reliant on interviews, with original archival materials interspersed with the words of surviving collaborators. The art director who worked on the film is interviewed wearing a Guns N Roses t-shirt, so there’s that. The image of Mifune doing a little jig, as relayed by the (then) young co-star, is also amusing.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa | Writers Kurosawa and Ryuzo Kikushima | Cinematographer Asakazu Nakai | Starring Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura | Length 122 minutes || Seen at university library (VHS), Wellington, April 1998 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 28 October 2018)

Criterion Sunday 232: Ukikusa Monogatari (A Story of Floating Weeds, 1934)/Ukigusa (Floating Weeds, 1959)

Bringing together two films by Ozu, his first made towards the tail-end of the silent era of cinema in Japan, and the later one a remake in colour towards the end of his career, this allows for a compare-and-contrast approach between the two, and for me Ozu has grown significantly as a filmmaker, such that the latter is the greater work. Ozu didn’t make many colour films (it took him long enough to get into sound films, after all), but the remake is lovely in many respects. The framing, the pacing and the use of colour is all expertly done. While it’s a drama about an elderly travelling player returning to the small town where he fathered a child — a son who only knows him as ‘Uncle’ — it’s also filled with moments of comedy, for the father (here played by Ganjiro Nakamura) is a rather bad actor and there’s plenty of fun at the expense of his hamminess. The drama with his son didn’t always connect with me on this viewing, but there’s a lot of pathos to the way his life has unfolded — even if he rather too often takes it out on the women around him. The earlier film (from 1934) follows the same melodramatic plot (with Takeshi Sakamoto as the father), but it never succumbs to anything mawkish or sentimental. Ozu expresses it all so clearly that I imagine I’d pick up on a lot more were I to watch it again (which, given for technical reasons I had to watch it all completely silent, I feel I should probably do).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection

Ukikusa Monogatari (A Story of Floating Weeds, 1934) || Director Yasujiro Ozu | Writers Tadao Ikeda and Ozu | Cinematographer Hideo Shigehara | Starring Takeshi Sakamoto, Choko Iida, Rieko Yagumo | Length 86 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 30 September 2018

Ukigusa (Floating Weeds, 1959) || Director Yasujiro Ozu | Writers Kogo Noda and Ozu | Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa | Starring Ganjiro Nakamura, Machiko Kyo, Haruko Sugimura | Length 119 minutes || Seen at university library (laserdisc), Wellington, October 1997 (and most recently on DVD a friend’s home, London, Sunday 7 October 2018)

Criterion Sunday 230: 3 Women (1977)

While I like a lot of what Ingmar Bergman has created (and feel equally frustrated by a lot of what’s within his work), I do not like his influence in cinema, which seemed particularly prevalent amongst American filmmakers in the 1970s. Bergman, it seems to me, was every bit as patchy as Robert Altman has been in his career, and this film — an avowedly dream-based rendering of relationships amongst three women (well, primarily two really: Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall) seemingly inspired by some kind of Bergmanesque mood of Scandinavian disaffection, as well as psychoanalytic ideas — feels like a copy. A lot of people seem to love it, but I can’t find much to love really, but they seem to be tapping into an emotional range that I think would take me more processing to grasp. The performances are great, but the core relationships seem indebted to over-familiar mother/whore dichotomies, and the alienating score is (perhaps appropriately, of course) suffocating.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Robert Altman | Cinematographer Chuck Roscher | Starring Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Janice Rule | Length 124 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 11 November 2018