Criterion Sunday 332: Viridiana (1961)

I’ve never quite been sure how to take Luis Buñuel, and I certainly wouldn’t wish to deny that his films have a vision and polish to them, but I’m not sure I’m particularly receptive to that vision. Undoubtedly it’s not from love of the Catholic church, because that seems to be his most consistent target, as indeed it is here. Most of his strategies seem to be a form of heightened trolling, so when for example he deploys rape as a trope (and our saintly titular heroine is threatened with it more than once in this film), it’s presumably to make the point that it is inextricable from religion itself, almost as if tacitly condoned by the God-fearing patriarchy. Likewise, having the beggars profanely recreate the Last Supper, trashing the bourgeois villa, seems to be implicating hypocrisy in the middle-classes. I can feel these things at an intellectual level, but there’s a certain heavy-handedness to it that I find myself resisting, quite aside from the very real trauma that these ideas carry. I guess this way of blending a sprightly humour and a gift for evoking atmosphere and place with a deep, acrid bitterness is very much Buñuel’s style, and sometimes it’s unclear to me whether that bitterness is directed at the institutions or the people trapped within and by those institutions, but it comes off at best as misanthropy.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luis Buñuel; Writers Julio Alejandra and Buñuel (based on the novel Halma by Benito Pérez Galdós); Cinematographer José F. Aguayo; Starring Silvia Pinal, Margarita Lozano, Francisco Rabal, Fernando Rey; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 5 July 2020 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, July 2000).

Criterion Sunday 330: Au revoir les enfants (1987)

The title is taken from the final words of the priest, Father Jean, headmaster of the Catholic boarding school to which its protagonists are sent from Paris at the height of World War II, but it could as easily be bidding goodbye to them from where they live with their parents, or indeed to their innocence of course. The film builds up its picture of these wartime kids leaving the city, and shows the mysterious appearance of a few more kids to their classes early on, one of whom, Jean Bonnet (Raphaël Fejtö), sits next to our main protagonist, Julien (Gaspard Manesse), who can be taken as something of a stand-in for the director, given this story is based on his own experiences. It soon enough becomes clear that these new kids are Jewish, and so the tension builds and remains through otherwise quotidian scenes of playing with the class, or eating food together. Characters who seem to be on their side are revealed to have secret collaborationist tendencies, and even refined upper-class spaces seethe with barely-hidden prejudice. However, it’s all handled in a way that allows us as audience to come to that realisation with Julien, without overburdening the narrative, and the acting is naturalistic. The film is shot by Renato Berta, who worked with Straub/Huillet, and brings a certain starkness to the imagery, avoiding sentimentality. This is a very fine film about a bleak period in history.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Extras which had been on a supplementary disc as part of the original box set are included on the Blu-ray reissue, most notably the Charlie Chaplin short The Immigrant (1917), which is seen being screened to the kids within the film, with musical accompaniment from Irène Jacob in her first film role. I’m hardly a connoisseur of Chaplin’s films (I’ve only seen a small handful), but you can see a certain virtuosity in the staging of this, in which Chaplin’s familiar “Tramp” character is an immigrant on a ship bound for New York. We’re introduced to him leaning over the side while the ship rolls dramatically, suggesting he’s heaving his guts out, but the first gag reveals no, he’s just catching a fish. This continues with all kinds of physical comedy — there’s a particularly nice scene in the mess hall, where food slides between the immigrants — and a sweet bit where he anonymously helps out a young woman (Edna Purviance) who’s had her money stolen by a gambler whom he’s won it off. The ending with Purviance is rather abrupt, but it caps a film with a number of solid comedy setpieces.
  • Another extra is a five-minute visual essay about one of the more troublesome characters, an outcast named Joseph, trying to locate and understand what drives him, and the difficulties that drive him to his final decisive action in the film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Louis Malle; Cinematographer Renato Berta; Starring Gaspard Manesse, Raphaël Fejtö, Francine Racette; Length 104 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 28 June 2020.

Criterion Sunday 328: Le Souffle au cœur (Murmur of the Heart, 1971)

I’m not quite sure how to take this film by Louis Malle. It seems like a provocation — if a rather gentle one — in many respects, especially with the mother-son relationship between our protagonist Laurent (Benoît Ferreux) and his mother Clara (Lea Massari). Indeed, the tone is rather gentle despite all the trouble Laurent gets up to, as if it were a soft-focus remake of The 400 Blows perhaps — it’s set in the 50s as well, though aside from mentions of the war in Indochina, that is largely about the set dressing and the style. He’s not ultimately very likeable though, and perhaps that’s just me missing the charm all the characters in the film seem to see in him, and perhaps the fact it’s a lightly fictionalised autobiography of the director blinded him to those qualities (or maybe it’s just honesty), but Laurent has the smug look of a future leader of society, like the jerks his brothers are or the young people he seems to hang around when in recuperation (thanks to the medical condition that gives the film its title). With all this incident, at times it just wants to be a slight sex comedy, at other times it’s far more interested in his mother and her struggle in her relationship with a boring doctor father. For me, it never quite resolves into anything, and as far as period 70s coming of age films, I prefer Peppermint Soda (1977).

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • All the extras are on a supplementary disc, which I shall comment on in the post for the box set.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Louis Malle; Cinematographer Ricardo Aronovich; Starring Benoît Ferreux, Lea Massari, Daniel Gélin, Michael Lonsdale; Length 118 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 20 June 2020.

Criterion Sunday 325: Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

The fact of Alec Guinness playing eight roles is of course always the headline fact about this Ealing comedy of 1949, but that alone would certainly not make it a great film. He’s not even the only actor to take on a dual role as its lead, Dennis Price, plays social climber Louis Mazzini as well as (briefly) his own father, but his character is the core of the film, a sleek and urbane charmer who, as an opening framing scene makes clear, has managed to get himself sentenced to death, and who as we discover from his prison-penned autobiography, the narration of which provides most of the film’s incident, has made a habit of knocking off the obstacles to his becoming the Duke of Chalfont. We may be thankful that his half-Italian heritage was changed from the Jewish one of the original source text, though there’s some disturbing (for us, now) use of the N word near the end which clearly was not considered bothersome at the time for its British makers (indeed, its use in the ‘eeny meeny miny moe’ children’s rhyme was still around the schoolyard when I was a kid in the 1980s I’m fairly sure, though even the contemporary American release version changes it, so it can hardly be said to have been unproblematic at the time). That aside, this is an astute satire on the presumed superiority of the nobility, that a fine education and a quick wit somehow makes you a better person — whether it’s the callous behaviour of the d’Ascoyne family (Alex Guinness) which leads to Louis’ crimes, or the similarly high-handed way that Louis treats those he presumes to be below him from the very outset. Very few characters are indeed likeable throughout, though Louis does at least have the wrong done to his family, a sympathy increasingly worn thinner by his every subsequent action. Still, and perhaps for that reason, it remains a great black comedy about social climbing.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • This two-disc DVD release has on the first disc a trailer and some photo galleries, both stills taken of the actors as well as behind-the-scenes production photos, including some rather striking costume designs and handsome portraits and group shots.
  • There’s also the American ending to the film, which differs just in the final shot, which (sorry, obviously spoilers follow for those who are concerned) makes Price’s inevitable come-uppance all the more clear by instead of showing his tell-all memoirs sitting on his prison table unread, has a guard run up to the warden and thrust them under his nose. This clarification was due to the Production Code requiring all crimes to be clearly punished.
  • The main extra on the second disc is a feature-length episode of the BBC documentary series Omnibus called Made in Ealing (1986). This is a straightforward run down of the history of Ealing Studios, particularly focusing on when it was acquired by Michael Balcon (whom everyone calls “Mick” or “Mickey”) and taking it through its heyday in the 40s and 50s, backed up by clips from the films and interviews with some of the key figures (archival footage of Balcon from 1969, along with contemporary interviews with his daughter and those directors and crew who still survived, like Sandy Mackendrick and Douglas Slocombe, amongst many others). It’s all narrated with a calm BBC gravitas, and is a decent introduction to the studio’s output until it was sold off in the mid-1950s.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Hamer; Writers Hamer and John Dighton (based on the novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman); Cinematographer Douglas Slocombe; Starring Dennis Price, Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood, Valerie Hobson; Length 106 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 24 May 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Saturday 13 June 2020).

Trop tôt/Trop tard (Too Early/Too Late, 1981)

I wrote about Straub/Huillet’s Antigone in last week’s ‘cinema of resistance’ theme, as a sort of abstract text touching on ideas of resisting authority, but in looking at history, their work also draws out plenty of important themes, largely with regards to class consciousness. Like the films by Ulrike Ottinger and Ruth Beckermann that I covered earlier today, also in the essay film/travelogue vein, Too Early/Too Late juxtaposes historical texts with present reality, drawing out both change and continuity over time.


I think I may like this film best of Straub/Huillet’s works that I’ve seen, though even on second viewing I can’t pretend it’s all gone into me, and an academic introduction to the screening did rather impress on me how little purchase I have on the language for describing this kind of cinema. The film’s topic (and its title) is about the way that revolution never comes at the right time, so I gather. The film itself is structured into two parts, one set in France, the other in Egypt, accompanied by the reading of texts about class consciousness from either country (the one for France is Friedrich Engels, read by Huillet herself in heavily-accented English, and the Egyptian text is by a pair of academics writing pseudonymously as Mahmoud Hussein). The texts don’t exactly match what we see, but seem to be discussing the places shown. For the French-set scenes, Engels runs down a list of various rural towns and the numbers of people within them who live in poverty. We don’t see many people here, but there are a huge number of cars, and these signs and sounds hint at changes to working conditions that the images, in the placidity of the rural scenes, also belie.

Formally, the strategy seems to be constant movement. The camera starts in a car circling a roundabout in Paris (I’m going to guess Place de la Bastille) until the audience is dizzy, and then subsequent images show the camera panning across small towns and then back again constantly. In the Egyptian scenes, we see more people, walking or on bicycles, so at times the camera just sits still and watches them move around and across the scene (such as one memorable scene mimicking the Lumière brothers’ “La Sortie de l’usine Lumière à Lyon” [Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory]). Another shot tracks along a dirt road for the same amount of time as the roundabout in Paris, but here the movement is linear towards the horizon rather than circular. The use of the camera thus seems to be creating formal parallels (as well as dissonances) between the two locations, all while the spoken texts emphasise an understanding of the operation of class consciousness.

However, even if I can’t fully grasp every element of the discourse, I do like a good piece of slow cinema, and for a change with these filmmakers (unlike in, say, Fortini/Cani), there is plenty of time to process the words, as the visuals have an almost hypnotic effect, beautifully framed and shot.

CREDITS
Directors/Writers Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub (adapting a letter to Karl Kautsky and the essay “Die Bauernfrage in Frankreich und Deutschland” [The Peasant Question in France and Germany] by Friedrich Engels, and the book La Lutte des classes en Égypte de 1945 à 1968 “The Class Struggle in Egypt from 1945 to 1968” by Adel Rifaat عادل رأفت and Bahgat El Nadi بهجت النادي [as “Mahmoud Hussein” محمود حسين]); Cinematographers Caroline Champetier, William Lubtchansky, Robert Alazraki and Marguerite Perlado; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Tate Modern, London, Sunday 30 November 2003 (and most recently at the ICA, London, Tuesday 19 March 2019).

Criterion Sunday 318: Jeux interdits (Forbidden Games, 1952)

Nowadays this seems to rather divide the critics I follow, though this was hugely lauded on its release (at least internationally), and so I wonder if this plays differently with parents. It certainly fits into the sort of faux-rustic and hazily sentimentalised vision of traditional values that’s always played well to a certain strain of middlebrow filmgoers, at least when it’s in French (and not everything derided by the New Wave as cinéma du papa was bad, but there hasn’t been any shortage of these kinds of titles in all the years since then). Perhaps I’m just betraying some kind of inner cynicism, but this feels too calculated to be effective. The rough, rude peasantry — whether the poor couple seen right at the start who barely give a thought to the bereaved kid, the farmer family who take in Paulette (quite against their instincts), their bitter rivals in the village — all seem to exist solely to contrast with the innocence of the two children. There are also the bookended titles, further pulling this away into the realm of the cozily fabulistic, though the film’s opening minutes have a simple, vicious intensity that is never quite matched for the rest of the running time. Together the two kids make a little graveyard in a derelict mill to all the dead animals they find, starting with Paulette’s beloved dog, getting themselves into trouble with the local priest as the boy starts grabbing all the crosses he can find. I don’t mean to be too down on it, though, because there’s still plenty to commend it, particularly in terms of the expressive acting of these kids. Let’s just say this isn’t to my taste and leave it at that, because it’s certainly brought plenty of others joy.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The disc presents the alternative opening and ending for the film (all that remains in the finished film is the credits written on the pages of a book), but it explicitly has the two kids living happily, hardly peasants any more, and playing by a big pond, where the boy tells the little girl a story about children very much like them. It’s a framing that puts the horrifying context of the film safely in the past, and it’s surely to the film’s credit that they didn’t end up using these sequences.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director René Clément; Writers Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost (based on the novel by François Boyer); Cinematographer Robert Juillard; Starring Brigitte Fossey, Georges Poujouly; Length 86 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 17 May 2020.

Criterion Sunday 316: 乱 Ran (1985)

Twenty years on from first watching this film on (pan-and-scanned, no doubt) VHS at home, my chief memory of the film is a lot of horses rushing back and forth with primary-coloured flags — and yes there’s quite a bit of that in the film — but seeing it on the big screen seems to make a lot more sense of its human machinations. Those battle scenes do get a little repetitive by the film’s close, but the use of the coloured flags makes the engagements easier to follow, and there’s a real sense of physicality that you don’t get with massed CGI encounters of more recent films. Ran also feels like Kurosawa’s swansong (he’d do a few more, smaller-scale, films before his death a decade later), and at the very least it’s his farewell to the samurai period epic he’d become most well-known for after the break-out success of Seven Samurai (1954). The story, as is well known, follows the contours of Shakespeare’s King Lear, with an elderly warlord Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) ceding control of his kingdom to his eldest child — the three here are sons — and in so doing, banishing his youngest, Saburo (Daisuke Ryu). When the elder two turn on him, he’s left almost alone, except for his fool, wandering in the wilderness of the Azusa Plain, driven almost to madness by the treachery. The staging is exemplary, with some spectacular and memorable imagery, such as a scene of Hidetora staggering out of a bloodied rampart as it burns to the ground, or an opening hilltop meeting amongst all the local warlords. As the film progresses, the second son’s wife Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada) unexpectedly comes to the fore, quickly becoming the most notable obstacle to peace in the kingdom and pushing the film to its chaotic ending (the Japanese title means “chaos”). And all along the way, Kurosawa presents images of Buddha, implacably and serenely unconcerned with what is going on in the muddy, windswept plains beneath, as they increasingly run with blood.

(Written on 18 April 2016.)


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa 黒澤明; Writers Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni 小国英雄 and Masato Ide 井手雅人 (based on the play King Lear by William Shakespeare); Cinematographers Takao Saito 斎藤孝雄, Masaharu Ueda 上田正治 and Asakazu Nakai 中井朝一; Starring Tatsuya Nakadai 仲代達矢, Daisuke Ryu 隆大介, Mieko Harada 原田美枝子; Length 162 minutes.

Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Sunday 17 April 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, July 1997).

Criterion Sunday 315: Tirez sur le pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player aka Shoot the Pianist, 1960)

People who love this film really go to bat for it, and there’s a lot to like here. Truffaut was following up his debut The 400 Blows and made a far more self-consciously American-inspired picture, a sort of mash-up of noirish mood, crime film thriller and a bit of comedy (the most ‘French’ element, as far as I can tell). Being based on a hardboiled pulp novel, there’s a lot of plot, and it’s not always clear what’s happening to whom for what reason, but basically washed-up piano prodigy Charlie (Aznavour), who’s hiding from a former life as Edouard after the suicide of his wife (which he drove her towards), gets tangled up in his putz brothers’ problems (and they certainly have a Marx Brothers energy to them). You could say that it’s critically examining his relationships with women, indeed about a certain type of masculine performance, and it’s just a shame that women have to die to deepen his character. That said, this is 1960 and this is probably quite different from what was being made at the time in terms of protagonists (Godard’s heroes seem a lot more unexamined in some respects). I liked it and admired it, but have never yet fallen in love with this film.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director François Truffaut; Writers Truffaut and Marcel Moussy (based on the novel Down There by David Goodis); Cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Starring Charles Aznavour, Marie Dubois, Nicole Berger; Length 81 minutes.

Seen at home (YouTube streaming), London, Saturday 9 May 2020 (and originally on VHS at the university library, Wellington, April 1999).

Criterion Sunday 314: Pickpocket (1959)

This film certainly trades in all of Bresson’s hallmarks — the austere settings, frontal framing of his protagonists, their solid, even slightly wooden, acting style, casting their eyes to the ground as they deliver their laconic lines — and so anyone who gets on with his work will find plenty to like here, in what Bresson is very clear to point out is not a policier/thriller in the opening titles. That said, it has a grim determination to the way it unfolds, as our antihero Michel (Martin LaSalle) takes up a life of pickpocketing in lieu of honest work. If Bresson casts judgement on Michel, it’s not necessarily about his choice of lifestyle, as about the lack of attention he shows his relatives (like his dying mother, from whom he steals) of friends, and about how this seems to be rooted in a deep-seated rejection of Christian values. He’s a young man, clearly well-read, who fancies himself as smarter than those around him, and can thus be seen in a lineage with plenty of other filmic anti-heroes. Still, like all his protagonists, Bresson sees in him a path of redemption, and that’s what the plot of the film is, really, as he moves through criminality towards his redemption, embodied in the figure of Jeanne (Marika Green). This isn’t my favourite of Bresson’s works but it’s certainly interesting when looked at in the context of the other (more youthful) filmmaking taking place in Paris in 1959.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The main extra is probably filmmaker and famous cinematographer Babette Mangolte’s 52-minute documentary Les Modèles de ‘Pickpocket’ (2004). From doing a cursory search on the internet (specifically, on Babette Mangolte’s own website) it appears there is an 89-minute version of this film, although the 52-minute one attached as an extra to this Criterion edition doesn’t appear to be in need of any extra footage. Unlike most of these kinds of documentaries, it takes the form of a personal essay film, in which Mangolte encounters by chance at a party Pierre Leymarie, now a scientist on the verge of retiring, but known to her as one of the supporting actors in Bresson’s 1959 film, made 45 years earlier. She speaks to him, then tracks down Marika Green (who was only 16 when she made the film) in Austria, and the film’s star Martin LaSalle who’s living in Uruguay and barely ever even speaks French anymore (we hear him chatting in Spanish to Mangolte’s assistant). Each of them offer their own ideas about Bresson’s art, and of course all are quite different from how they were in the film — just their smiles and warmth make it clear to what extent they were in fact acting in Bresson’s film. It becomes clear that everyone glance and affect seen on screen was down to Bresson’s fastidious manipulation, and they put across various ideas as to what he was trying to achieve. Green reflects on how none of Bresson’s “models” really know one another, each monastically clinging to their own version of the master, and perhaps the love of Bresson is a deeply individual one after all.
  • There’s a six-minute clip of a French TV interview with Bresson from 1960, in which he discusses the film and his vision for it, how the idea came to him and some of what he was trying to put across in film, stuttered out under the glare of the two interviewers.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Robert Bresson; Cinematographer Léonce-Henri Burel; Starring Martin LaSalle, Marika Green, Pierre Leymarie; Length 76 minutes.

Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Monday 18 June 2001 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Friday 8 May 2020).

火垂るの墓 Hotaru no Haka (Grave of the Fireflies, 1988)

As my Japan-themed week goes on, I need to be careful not to just review films nobody’s seen and can’t easily watch, so I’m turning to one of the major Studio Ghibli films, albeit one directed by its less-famous partner, Isao Takahata, who nevertheless is responsible for many of its great works like The Tale of the Princess Kaguya and My Neighbours the Yamadas. It’s a World War II-set film, and given it’s Japanese, you can imagine it’s hardly triumphal; in fact, it’s one of the more heart-wrenching animated films you can watch.


I put this on at home, more or less without thinking, after returning from a screening of A Hidden Life (2019) and it strikes me that they make a sort of thematic double-bill, both being stories from World War II that find empathy amongst the defeated peoples in that conflict. Nobody really wins in war, to a certain extent, but it’s very clear from this story of Seita and his sister Setsuko that it’s particularly difficult trying to survive near the end of the war, when resources and empathy are scarce. Of course, the elegiac, mournful aspect is set up right from the very outset, as this is a film narrated by a dead body, but even so it wrings out enormous amounts of pathos from its story, in which the fireflies of the title become a beautiful visual metaphor for a certain sort of transcendence that perhaps the two find which eluded them in life. It’s grim, of course, but suffused with light and joy and hope — and a keen graphic stylishness — even in its darkest moments.

Grave of the Fireflies film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Isao Takahata 高畑勲 (based on the short story by Akiyuki Nosaka 野坂昭如); Starring Tsutomu Tatsumi 辰巳努, Ayano Shiraishi 白石綾乃; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 17 January 2020.