Petite maman (2021)

Another of my favourites of the year, I went to see this twice (the running time helped). The second viewing prompted a long discussion about when exactly it’s set, as it doesn’t appear to be the modern day but the markers of the time period are fairly oblique. The presence of a Walkman suggests to me maybe the early-90s at the latest, but I’m really not sure. Anyway, it’s a U-rated film about children that is still suffused with melancholy.


I’d just finished watching a 10-hour film when I went to see this, so was particularly appreciative of the virtues of concision. This film feels exactly as long as it needs to be. It tells a story that’s about grief and loss, sadness and familial disconnection, but from the point of a view of a child, and formally it sort of matches its narrative structure to that of a child’s game. with all the inventiveness and non sequiturs you might expect, as young Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) finds a very similar looking and similarly aged playmate called Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) in the forest near her recently-deceased grandmother’s home, with whom she starts to form a friendship. Sciamma has done films about childhood before (the excellent Tomboy) and I particularly appreciate her clear distinction between the two lead actors (sisters in real life, I can only assume from their names) marking them out with different clothes and a hairband for Marion. The film’s conceit becomes clear as it goes on, and yet it still preserves that mystery about really knowing someone else, even the connection one has with one’s own mother.

Petite maman (2021) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Céline Sciamma; Cinematographer Claire Mathon; Starring Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Stéphane Varupenne, Nina Meurisse; Length 72 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Friday 26 November and at the Light House, Wellington, Monday 20 December 2021.

Criterion Sunday 487: That Hamilton Woman (1941)

This very much feels like a film from 1941. Almost every account of the film seems to want to mention that it was Winston Churchill’s favourite film (even that maybe he wrote one or two of Nelson’s speeches), but that’s the kind of thing that feels apocryphal: it’s a film that is engineered to feed into the war effort, and is thus part of a propaganda machine. If Nelson’s speeches feel Churchillian that’s because they are designed to be a rousing call to arms against a foreign despot hellbent on European domination. Still, for all that, this cannily remains focused on Vivien Leigh’s title character, Emma Hamilton, a Lady but one of dubious morals, it seems. Or perhaps not dubious, but certainly a woman who remains hampered throughout her life by the taint of her class background. You can see it in the aristocratic men who fall for her, falling for an image or idea of her (as a teenager she was the model for a number of paintings, particularly by Romney), but who keep her at arm’s length, never quite admitting her to the centre of society, and thus it’s framed by the story of her sad demise. It also feels a little wayward in its plotting at times, taking us down side roads that don’t seem to add to the drama at the heart, which is about her affair with (real-life husband) Laurence Olivier’s Lord Nelson. It ends up feeling like a missed opportunity with the strong undertow of wartime propaganda, albeit a much more palatable way to spin that.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alexander Korda; Writers Walter Reisch and R. C. Sherriff; Cinematographer Rudolph Maté; Starring Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, Alan Mowbray, Gladys Cooper; Length 125 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 11 December 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 461: Hobson’s Choice (1954)

Not sure why I should be suspicious every time I start a David Lean film, but he knew how to craft a movie and most that I’ve seen have been exceptionally well crafted, and not all of them have attained the renown of, say, Lawrence of Arabia or Brief Encounter. The cannily observed The Passionate Friends is a personal highlight, for example, and while this particular film looks to be a rather knockabout comedy — it casts Charles Laughton as a drunken bootmaker in late-19th century Salford (just outside Manchester), and that’s a recipe for comic disaster — it turns out to be, if not social realism, still a fairly incisive work about the English working classes. The title comes from a phrase referring to having no effective control over a situation, and his daughter Maggie (Brenda De Banzie) is the one offering Henry Hobson that particular ‘choice’, as she takes control of her own future within the (fairly mean) terms that society is offering her. I wouldn’t call it a progressive film, but it feels moreso than some of what would come out of English society in the decades after this, and at its heart is a delightful romantic fantasy about getting one up on the small-minded mean-spirited small town forces of conformity.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director David Lean; Writers Wynyard Browne, Lean and Norman Spencer (based on the play by Harold Brighouse); Cinematographer Jack Hildyard; Starring Charles Laughton, Brenda De Banzie, John Mills, Daphne Anderson, Prunella Scales; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 10 September 2021.

Criterion Sunday 457: Magnificent Obsession (1954)

I don’t know enough about the career of German expatriate director Douglas Sirk to be certain, but this feels like the first film of his imperial phase of filmmaking, or at least an important milestone in defining that peculiar style of gaudily-coloured, stylistically heightened melodramas of the late-50s, often produced by Ross Hunter and starring Rock Hudson. It’s not to my mind the equal of All That Heaven Allows or Written on the Wind (or the monochrome Tarnished Angels) but it orchestrates a thrillingly tangled web of obsessions pretty well.

Jane Wyman plays Helen (or Mrs Phillips), a woman indirectly widowed due to wealthy playboy Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson)’s misadventures, which prompts him to reform himself and, via a series of ridiculous plot contortions, win the love of Helen (sure) and restore her eyesight (don’t ask) by becoming a world-leading surgeon (look, okay, yes). To say that last half hour is a rush of absurdity heaped upon absurdity is hardly to deny the central power of the film as a full-throated melodrama, and indeed Sirk is attentive to the power differentials between characters (even if Helen’s eventual acceptance of her feelings toward Bob — who initially rather dubiously romances her under a different name while she’s blind — feels a little bit perfunctory). Still, if you like Sirk’s style, it’s all done with an assertive sense of style.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The main extra is the bonus disc dedicated to a presentation of John M. Stahl’s original 1935 adaptation of the same book (written by Sarah Y. Mason, Victor Heerman and George O’Neil, cinematography John J. Mescall, starring Robert Taylor and Irene Dunne). I’ve seen a few of Stahl’s films as director (mostly at Il Cinema Ritrovato) but still don’t feel I really have a grasp on him. That a handful of his films, like this one, were remade by Douglas Sirk is probably unfortunate to Stahl’s own standing but I just wonder if these early melodramas would ever make quite the same impression as Sirk’s gloriously overwrought 50s pieces. I’m certainly surprised at how much is similar in both, mostly all the ridiculous plot twists, but while this is a fine Irene Dunne performance, I am nevertheless somewhat underwhelmed by the sneering arrogant Bob Merrick of Robert Taylor, the poor man’s James Stewart as far as I can tell (both started around this time, so maybe 30s Hollywood just liked that look). Where Sirk brought the saturated colour and equally saturated string section, this plays a little more austerely, largely as a morality play of Taylor grappling with his conscience over the way things have played out and resolving to become a better man. A likeable film without the obvious hooks of Sirk’s but probably that’s down to me.
  • There are a couple of short ten-minute pieces paying tribute to this film (and Sirk) by Allison Anders and Kathryn Bigelow, both of which are effusive in their praise and interesting in terms of each’s own filmmaking, even if neither strikes one as particularly Sirkian.
  • The screenwriter Robert Blees also speaks a bit about his work on the film as the primary writer (there are a lot of credits, including the writers on Stahl’s own film) but clearly Blees was more attuned to what Sirk and his producer Ross Hunter wanted.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Douglas Sirk; Writers Robert Blees and Wells Root (based on the screenplay by Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman, itself based on the novel by Lloyd C. Douglas); Cinematographer Russell Metty; Starring Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson, Barbara Rush, Agnes Moorehead; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Sunday 1 August 1999 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Monday 30 August 2021).

Criterion Sunday 445: Madame de… (The Earrings of Madame de…, 1953)

It feels a little as if historically this penultimate film by Max Ophüls has been somewhat undervalued due to its focus on jewellery, dancing, grandiose set design and its melodramatic storyline, but of course I think we can all rate it as one of his finest achievements now. Truly, his visual style reaches its apotheosis in his last few films, with the famed sequence of ballroom dances over time to convey the development of a romantic relationship just being one of the great sequences that Ophüls devises for the camera of Christian Matras. It also has an intricate plot construction, with the final movement achieving a certain emotional pitch that feels satisfying even as events unravel for all our major characters. It’s a glorious piece of work.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Max Ophüls; Writers Marcel Achard, Ophüls and Annette Wademant (based on the novel by Louise Lévêque de Vilmorin); Cinematographer Christian Matras; Starring Danielle Darrieux, Charles Boyer, Vittorio De Sica; Length 100 minutes.

Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Sunday 16 July 2000 (earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, May 2000, and most recently on DVD at home, Wellington, Wednesday 30 June 2021).

Criterion Sunday 442: 二十四の瞳 Niju-shi no Hitomi (Twenty-Four Eyes, 1954)

It’s over two-and-a-half hours long, and it feels like a great Japanese epic of wartime defeat, humbling itself on the world stage, but yet it humanises the conflict effectively by focusing on a strongly anti-war teacher and her 12 young students, who grow up from little rascals in 1928 to fighting in the war by the end of the film. We never see any war action, but it’s all filtered through the teacher (Miss “Pebble” is her nickname for much of the film, played by Mikio Naruse’s favourite Hideko Takamine), with a strong heft of sentimentality in the musical cues — not one of those twenty-four eyes is dry at any point in the film, it sometimes seems. Still, it’s a lovely film, with wide vistas of the island they all live on, contrasted with close-ups of the children’s faces for maximum pathos. Despite it all being thickly laid on, it never feels overly manipulative: this is a story about loss and sadness, but also of people whose lives continue regardless, and about the value of life itself.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Keisuke Kinoshita 木下惠介; Cinematographer Hiroshi Kusuda 楠田浩之; Starring Hideko Takamine 高峰秀子, Chishu Ryu 笠智衆; Length 156 minutes.

Seen at Courthouse Cinema, London, Sunday 22 April 2018.

Criterion Sunday 431: The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

The Criterion release of this film has a commentary by Scorsese and Coppola, and you can understand when you watch it what might appeal to them. Would that every era of cinema had such a colourful and inventive spectacle and I can see that children exposed to this in the 1940s or 50s might have had little to compare it to in terms of the effects it achieves. There’s a gloriously saturated colour scheme in the filming and the production design and costuming that heightens the magical wonder of the storytelling. It’s just that watching now makes for a more problematic experience and it’s not that I’m out here calling for any ‘cancellations’ or whatever your term du jour is when you read this for the idea that maybe art has certain responsibilities. After all, things that seem a bit racist now (or orientalist or just a bit misguided, depended on your point of view) might have been equally so back then, it’s just that there was an unexamined expectation that putting dark makeup on very white English actors and having them enact Middle Eastern-set stories was perfectly fine and nothing to be concerned about. Of course, compared to some contemporary films, there was certainly worse racism in othering depictions of such parts of the world and their people, but that doesn’t excuse what at best just seems a little painful now, however well-meaning it might have been. There’s plenty to enjoy here, and those who find it easier to tap into the childlike spirit at play will be rewarded more handsomely than those hatchet-faced killjoys like myself who’d rather not watch fully-grown and very English gentlemen (along with a German, an Indian and an African-American) play dress-up as Arabs.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell and Tim Whelan [as well as Alexander Korda, Zoltan Korda and William Cameron Menzies, uncredited]; Writers Lajos Biró and Miles Malleson; Cinematographer Georges Périnal [as “George Perinal”]; Starring Conrad Veidt, John Justin, Sabu, June Duprez, Miles Malleson; Length 106 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Thursday 27 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 388: Le Vieil homme et l’enfant (The Two of Us, 1967)

Given that the director’s birth name is Claude Langmann and he was born to Jewish immigrant parents in 1934, and this film, set in 1944, is about a 10-year-old called Claude Langmann who is sent to stay in the countryside by his Jewish parents, I think it’s fair to assume this is at least semi-autobiographical. In the opening scenes, we see the besieged spirit of Paris in the months leading up to the D-Day invasions (chronicled in 1975’s Overlord, just added to the Criterion Collection shortly before this film) and the liberation of Paris in August that year (covered in Melville’s Army of Shadows, also recently introduced to the collection). Claude’s parents worry about the fate of their kid under the Nazis and so they send him off to the (non-Jewish) family of a friend out in the countryside, where he is exhorted to use the surname Longuet and avoid anything that might give away his ethnic and religious identity, and that’s really where the film gets going. He’s introduced to his new grandfather figure (played by Michel Simon) and when he learns of grandpa’s antisemitic beliefs and Pétainiste solidarity, hilarity ensues. I’m only slightly joking though: ultimately the film isn’t about the terror of being Jewish under a Nazi puppet government (we never learn the fate of his parents back in Paris, for example, and there are no scenes of threat or violence against the boy, mercifully) but instead there are a lot of gently comedic scenes which hint at his situations, like his desperate attempts to avoid anyone looking at his penis, or the exchanges with his grandpa where Claude subtly mocks his antisemitism by using his own prejudices against him. The film largely progresses this way, and while it’s not perhaps fair to say it’s soft-pedalling the war, it definitely has a sentimental view of the past, and this much is acknowledged by the opening text: it’s a child’s-eye view of the war, spent in relative bliss in a rural setting.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Claude Berri; Writers Berri, Gérard Brach and Michel Rivelin; Cinematographer Jean Penzer; Starring Alain Cohen, Michel Simon; Length 87 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 9 January 2021.

Global Cinema 27: Burkina Faso – Samba Traoré (1992)

It may be a rather poor and (relatively) small West African country, but Burkina Faso has a really strong cinematic history, not least thanks to the FESPACO film festival, celebrating pan-African cinema. I’ve reviewed a number of films from the country, and here I cover one of the lesser-known works by its greatest director, Idrissa Ouedraogo.


Burkinabé flagBurkina Faso
population 21,510,000 | capital Ouagadougou (1.5m) | largest cities Ouagadougou, Bobo-Dioulasso (490k), Koudougou (88k), Banfora (76k), Ouahigouya (73k) | area 274,200 km2 | religion Islam (61%), Christianity (23%) | official language French (français) | major ethnicity Mossi (52%), Fula (8%) | currency West African CFA franc (CFA) [XOF] | internet .bf

A landlocked West African country, formerly known as Upper Volta, and whose official language is only spoken by around 10-15% of the people (Mòoré, the language of the Mossi people, is far more widely spoken). The name comes from the Mossi for “upright” and the Dioula for “fatherland” (the old colonial name comes from its position on the River Volta). Habitation in the country stretches back to 14000 BC in the north-west, with more permanent settlements from the 4th millennium BCE. An Iron Age Bura culture existed until around the 13th century CE, while the modern day ethnic groups arrived just prior to this. Several separate Mossi kingdoms were set up, and these various tribal groupings existed side-by-side until the arrival of European colonialists, who started to claim territory from the 1890s onwards, and the French protectorate taking in the present country was formed in 1896 and by 1898 took in all the present-day lands, although as part of an Upper Senegal and Niger territory. It wasn’t until 1919 that the present country was separated as Upper Volta (Haute Volta), before being dismantled in 1932, then revived again in 1947. Autonomy was achieved in 1958 and full independence on 5 August 1960, under its first president Maurice Yaméogo, who swiftly suspended democracy and was ousted in 1966. A series of military and military/civil governments marked by coups governed until the coup which installed Capt Thomas Sankara in 1983; he pushed through the country’s change of name the following year and an ambitious programme of anti-imperialist reforms, though another reactionary coup replaced him with Blaise Compaoré in 1987. A semblance of democracy was introduced in 1991, though power still resides largely with the President, who appoints the Prime Minister and has the power to dissolve government.

Though the country is underdeveloped in many ways, Burkina Faso is one of the chief countries in African cinema, not least due to the establishment of the pan-African FESPACO film festival in Ouagadougou in 1969, which continues to take place every two years. A number of internationally renowned directors have come from the country, including Idrissa Ouedraogo (one of whose films I review below) and Gaston Kaboré, amongst others.


Samba Traoré (1992)

The great Burkinabé filmmaker Idrissa Ouédraogo died on 18 February 2018, so in the weeks following that I had wanted to check out one of his lesser-known films, and this is the one I alighted on. There is no hint in Samba Traoré (which takes its name from that of the lead character, played by Bakary Sangaré) of any deficiency of production or craft: it’s a handsomely shot and beautifully acted film about a man returning from the city to his home village, to settle down and find a new life. He’s running from a life of crime, or at least, one specific crime (the film starts with him staging an armed robbery of a petrol station), and of course the narrative demands that this eventually catches up with him. In the meantime, this is an easy, fluid portrait of small village life, as Samba reconnects with old friends and meets a woman he wants to marry (Mariam Kaba). It’s never condescending to its characters or to its audience: the film is simply constructed, but the camera moves expressively and there are layers to the characters that go beyond any simple didactic drama of wrongdoing, punishment and redemption. This really is a fine film.

Samba Traoré film posterCREDITS
Director Idrissa Ouedraogo; Writers Ouedraogo, Santiago Amigorena and Jacques Arhex; Cinematographers Pierre-Laurent Chénieux and Mathieu Vadepied; Starring Bakary Sangaré, Mariam Kaba, Abdoulaye Komboudri; Length 75 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 1 March 2018.