Criterion Sunday 466: 愛のコリーダ Ai no Korida (aka L’Empire des sens) (In the Realm of the Senses, 1976)

Truly, the ‘is it art or is it pornography’ debate is the most boring and irrelevant lines of discussion regarding this film. It certainly does intend to push boundaries, but it’s a film about primarily a sexual relationship, about two people who are inescapably, tragically drawn to one another and so they do spend a lot of their time at it. The filmmaking never feels exploitative though or even prurient, but its clear that as the story goes on and as (in the background) Japan becomes more militarised and drawn towards war, things take on a frantic and slightly dangerous note in their sex. The whole thing is gorgeously staged and filmed, and the leads are compelling to watch, even if they’re just mooching about at home, doing little more than drinking and fvcking, but it’s doomy and evocative, a fascinating way into a peculiar time period where everything looks set to break apart.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Nagisa Oshima 大島渚; Cinematographer Hideo Ito 伊東英男; Starring Eiko Matsuda 松田暎子, Tatsuya Fuji 藤竜也; Length 102 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 3 October 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, March 2001).

Criterion Sunday 462: Le Dernier Métro (The Last Metro, 1980)

There are two stories here and I’m not convinced they are always in sync with one another. There’s the story of occupied France in the early-1940s, under Nazi control with people just doing what they can to make ends meet and escape the controlling boot of the occupying forces. And then there’s the theatre story, which is very much at the centre. It has all the feeling of Les Enfants du paradis but with opulent colour and set design and a bravura performance from Catherine Deneuve as a woman whose Jewish theatre director husband (Heinz Bennent) she says has escaped Paris but is actually secretly hiding out in the cellar. So you’ve got this behind-the-scenes story of a theatre troupe rehearsing for a new production, a bit of three-way love action courtesy of a handsome leading actor (Gérard Depardieu), and then you have Nazis. I suppose that puts it somewhat in the camp of Cabaret except with less, er, camp. It’s gorgeously shot and mounted, with some tense set-pieces involving the Germans, but in keeping its focus on the theatrical setting over the horrors of the era, it feels far more like a throwback to a classic era of French filmmaking, and that’s not a bad thing.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director François Truffaut; Writers Truffaut and Suzanne Schiffman; Cinematographer Néstor Almendros; Starring Catherine Deneuve, Gérard Depardieu, Jean Poiret, Heinz Bennent, Sabine Haudepin, Jean-Louis Richard; Length 131 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Wednesday 15 September 2021.

Criterion Sunday 459: El ángel exterminador (The Exterminating Angel, 1962)

It’s difficult to imagine from the plot summary how this is going to play out, given the set-up is fairly thin: a bourgeois group of high society socialities go for a slap-up dinner after the opera and find themselves unable to leave the home they’re in. But Buñuel, of course, knows what he’s doing, and mixes jabs at the aristocrats, at complacent bourgeois values, and at the church itself (the ending is bitterly directed and something he developed further in Simon of the Desert and Viridiana, amongst other works). It’s a psychological horror of sorts, at least in the way its structured: there’s an invisible force seeming to prevent them from leaving, but this seems to be a deeply-ingrained sense of decorum. At the end it feels like they are able to leave when the correct formula of words is uttered: the entrapment is very much a social one, as everyone is constrained by their own sense of what’s allowed, what’s considered polite, and it’s that in the end which is their tragedy, the pathetic sadness of this entire class of people. It’s all beautifully acted and staged, and ends up — in a low-key way — being perhaps Buñuel’s strongest film.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Luis Buñuel; Cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa; Starring Silvia Pinal, Enrique Rambal; Length 93 minutes.

Seen at the National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 18 August 1999 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, April 1999, and most recently on YouTube streaming at home, Wellington, Sunday 12 September 2021).

Criterion Sunday 458: El Norte (1983)

I didn’t really expect much going into this, perhaps something a bit well-meaning and earnest, like contemporary Costa-Gavras films or those of John Sayles — which to be fair, is really quite deeply unfair to the latter’s work, but I’m trying to convey that sense of slightly po-faced political dramas about ordinary people in challenging times. In a sense, cinema since then hasn’t really grappled with those topics so much, but in relation specifically to the Anglophone cinema of Latin-American politics that I’m most familiar with, Gregory Nava’s feature has a more poetic register. This isn’t magical realism, though, it’s a poetic realism more akin to the Italian Neorealists, I think, but imbued with a lived sense of how America treats its Latin-American citizens. The central characters are indigenous people, from a small Guatemalan village, who journey to the North because of conditions back home, and who have to endure a lot to get to the very bottom of the ladder in the US. It’s not straightforwardly for or against anything though — their lives in the US do have some benefits compared to the past, but oppression comes in many guises and for all that they do see some material changes to their position, in other ways they are made to feel very much an underclass, not least in terms of the bureaucracy of immigration (and not much has changed there in almost 40 years one suspects). It’s a film that is as concretely about the conditions of work and life as anything else of the decade, but one imbued with a sense of almost mystical dread, that can be at times overwhelming but equally quite beautiful and resonant.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Gregory Nava; Writers Nava and Anna Thomas; Cinematographer James Glennon; Starring David Villalpando, Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez; Length 140 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 3 September 2021.

Criterion Sunday 453: Chung Hing sam lam (Chungking Express, 1994)

Thinking back on it, it’s difficult to sum up what the plot of this film is exactly, but made in a break from filming his grandiose epic folly Ashes of Time, it’s fair to say that Wong Kar-wai is going for a looser feel here, two stories of people passing by one another in a busy city, barely enough time to make a connection that’s lasting. Thinking back to when I saw it several decades ago, my abiding memory is its heavy use of the song “California Dreamin'” but watching again it’s not in it all that much and just in the second story, certainly not to Godardian levels of replaying snippets of music, though you get the sense that Godard’s New Wave work is one of Wong’s touchstones. But there’s both a denseness to the imagery — of a crowded city, of colourful lights and rain-slicked streets, of bustling shopping streets and little food stands — but also a lightness to the tone, with two flirtatious stories that touch on crime (because in the first, Brigitte Lin is engaged in drug dealing and kills those who double-crossed her, though the second just features Tony Leung as a cop stopping by for food on his downtime near where he lives) but really are about the feelings of the central characters in each, Takeshi Kaneshiro (also apparently a cop though we don’t see him in uniform like Leung) and the mesmeric Faye Wong who takes a job at a snack bar and, yes, plays that Mamas and the Papas song a lot. There’s an oneiric sense to Chris Doyle’s camerawork and a sense of fleetingness to each story, as if these characters will soon disappear into Hong Kong’s bustle never to be seen again, and indeed they seem to do that. It’s a very film-y film ultimately, but grounded in a very specific place and time — in many ways, to me, it is the apex of 90s filmmaking.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Wong Kar-wai 王家衛; Cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Andrew Lau 劉偉強; Starring Faye Wong 王菲, Tony Leung [Chiu-Wai] 梁朝偉, Takeshi Kaneshiro 金城武, Brigitte Lin 林青霞; Length 102 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Wednesday 11 August 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, December 1997).

Criterion Sunday 446: 秋刀魚の味 Sanma no Aji (An Autumn Afternoon, 1962)

I’ve just watched this film for the first time, Ozu’s final film as a director, and like a lot of final works, it’s probably one that I need to sit with for a long time in order to understand it fully. Ostensibly, it’s not particularly bleak, but it follows a familiar late Ozu pattern of having his lead actor Chishu Ryu play a lonely elderly character, and the movement of the plot is towards his eldest daughter (Shima Iwashita) being married off and leaving the family home, where she cares for him. However even this plot is hardly the centre of the film’s narrative momentum; Ryu’s Shuhei is a company man who still has friends. His old teacher (Eijiro Tono) is still alive too, though he’s a drunkard and a source of barely-disguised pity for his former students due to that and his fall in status to a (not even very good) noodle joint owner. But for all that, Shuhei is looking at a life on his own, as his family move away. There’s a generational gulf too evident in all the talk, both at home and in workplaces, of women getting married, questions about when they’re getting married, and constant reminders of this patriarchal expectation hanging over everyone in their 20s. Meanwhile the older characters reminisce about the war and get nostalgic for old military marches; this is a society that has definitively moved on (shots framed by new buildings, English language signage, old and new facing off), populated by people who haven’t. Ozu’s characters (and perhaps the director himself, too) feel out of step with this changing world, and that suffuses the film throughout, in elegantly framed set-ups that leave our protagonist isolated from others, blankly nodding and smiling into a quieter future.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Yasujiro Ozu 小津安二郎; Writers Kogo Noda 野田高梧 and Ozu; Cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta 厚田雄春; Starring Chishu Ryu, 笠智衆, Shima Iwashita 篠田志麻, Nobuo Nakamura 中村伸郎, Eijiro Tono 東野英治郎, Haruko Sugimura 杉村春子; Length 113 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 23 July 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 437: Vampyr – Der Traum des Allan Gray (Vampyr, 1932)

I can imagine this film at the time seeming quite quaint and old-fashioned. It very much still feels like a silent film: most of the exposition is done via text-heavy images of book pages like a silent film’s intertitles and there’s very little in the way of spoken dialogue. It also, even for the period, feels rather slow with a minimum of plot drama; much of the film revolves around the atmospherics that Dreyer and his production designer and cinematographer are able to evoke. It is the very cinematic expression of the uncanny/unheimlich, as many of the images are filmed with a heavy grain, almost washed out and shot through veils, like the title character’s dream (which is after all the subtitle of the full German original title). It’s a morbid, imagistic and fantastic dream or nightmare, a reverie of the waking dead, and vampirism just seems like part of the heavy folk stylistics being conjured here, only added to by the heavy somnabulistic movements of the amateur aristocratic socialite (Nicolas de Gunzberg, credited as Julian West) in the lead role. Certainly the vampirism doesn’t seem to connote the blood-sucking of capitalists as it can in more modern interpretations, but instead evokes the sense of an ancient rural curse and restless vengeful spirits. It’s all very mysterious and beautiful, whatever inspires the horror, and while it doesn’t conjure the same kind of frightfulness as modern works, it has its own sense of the uncanny.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Carl Theodor Dreyer; Writers Christen Jul and Dreyer (based on the collection of short stories In a Glass Darkly by Sheridan Le Fanu); Cinematographer Rudolph Maté; Starring Nicolas de Gunzberg [as “Julian West”], Maurice Schutz, Sybille Schmitz, Rena Mandel; Length 73 minutes.

Seen at the Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Sunday 29 June 2003 and at the BFI Southbank, London, Monday 19 March 2012 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Sunday 13 June 2021).

Criterion Sunday 432: Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)

I think there are a lot of opinions one could hold about the films of Paul Schrader as about the art of Yukio Mishima, and though I’ve read a novel of his and enjoyed it at the level of writing, you don’t have to dig very deep into his life to get profoundly concerned. He’s the kind of man who would probably in our modern age have connected far more readily with the army he was looking for, and perhaps we can be glad of the times he lived in that this didn’t happen. He wanted to roll back post-war changes in Japanese society that he detested and restore Japan to its rightful place of honour, or something along those lines. And Schrader’s own work has been so boldly sadomasochistic and masculinist at times that it feels that matching the two might make for discomfort, and yes it’s certainly not easy to watch this story, either as a character study of a man fixated on honour and death, but also at a formal level it can be challenging to follow. After all, as the title suggests, it’s split into four chapters but is further fractured by various re-enactments of his works (shot in luridly saturated colours) as well as flashbacks in black-and-white to foundational moments in Mishima’s development, as played by Ken Ogata. Still, it remains a beautiful work, with gorgeous lighting and framing and a transcendent Philip Glass score which for a change doesn’t overwhelm the film (mainly because the filmmaking has a strong enough visual look and narrative structure to withstand Glass’s hammering and repetitive musical cadences). I will surely never feel any kinship with Mishima’s ideas but the film does give a visceral sense of his strange relationship to his society, and the fact that this is made by an American creates a strange thematic connection to some other contemporary titles in the Criterion Collection, like The Ice Storm (a quintessential suburban white American story as told by a Taiwanese filmmaker) or The Last Emperor (in which Chinese political history is interpreted by an Italian).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Paul Schrader; Writers Leonard Schrader and Paul Schrader; Cinematographer John Bailey; Starring Ken Ogata 緒形明伸; Length 120 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Tuesday 25 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 426: The Ice Storm (1997)

I remember loving this as a 20-year-old back in 1998 when it was on its first release. After all, I’ve always responded positively to elegantly filmed adaptations of contemporary literature, with all those underlying themes of suburban ennui and disaffection, couched in a stylised and ironic register, and in truth I still like it a lot. However, I find it more difficult to watch it without groaning at the immediacy of the “ice storm” metaphor, given these peoples’ lives in 1973 Connecticut, the suburbs of New York, the playground of the middle-classes as they struggle to adjust to… well, to the same things to which people in books and movies (and life) have always failed to adjust: them losing the spontaneity in their relationships; their tedious friends they’re stuck with; their kids growing up and becoming more sexual; the mindless tedium of the working life; you know, the usual. And with Kevin Kline in there you wonder if this isn’t just an updated The Big Chill (I haven’t seen it yet, mind, but the titles do seem superficially similar). Anyway, in short I think what happened to Elijah Wood’s character was a bit overdetermined, and things just seem so oppressively miserable for everyone (even though materially they’re all pretty well-off), but even so the look of the film is gorgeous, and the acting is all excellent, not least of all Joan Allen, who is I think the emotional core of the film, increasingly so as I get older.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ang Lee 李安; Writer James Schamus (based on the novel by Rick Moody); Cinematographer Frederick Elmes; Starring Joan Allen, Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Christina Ricci, Elijah Wood, Tobey Maguire; Length 113 minutes.

Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 11 April 1998 (and again on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Saturday 15 May 2021).