Criterion Sunday 260: Les Yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face, 1960)

This is one of those precursors to any number of schlocky, gory horror movies of the coming decades (and indeed was first released with a similarly B-movie title in the States), but manages to be somehow elegant enough that Édith Scob in the more recent interview on the Criterion disc contends it is not a horror movie. (It is very much a horror movie.) But that assessment makes sense because it sits somewhere between older films about mad scientists performing experiments and the French policiers and thrillers of the 1950s (themselves staples of the Criterion catalogue). Of course, key to director Georges Franju’s vision of horror is that the scientist at the heart of this film, Dr Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), isn’t mad at all — he’s just driven by a love for his daughter Christiane (Scob), whom he has caused to be disfigured, in conjunction with a very loose sense of ethical responsibility. The horror then is really not in anything we see — though there are some brief gory and troubling images — but in the way it all seems so complacently self-evident to the doctor and his nurse accomplice (Alida Valli). It remains an elegant film about very inelegant people.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The chief extra is one of Franju’s short films, Le Sang des bêtes (Blood of the Beasts, 1949), which is undoubtedly a difficult film to watch, and one can only be thankful it’s in black-and-white. After all, it presents the work of a French abattoir contrasted with a small town idyll and the benign indifference of the people tasked with chopping up these living creatures. It’s a horror film of sorts but largely avoids editorialising.
  • There’s an 8 minute interview with Scob from 2013, in which she discusses the film and it making, and her place in it.
  • An odd little 5 minute French TV piece has Franju being interviewed about the ‘cinema of the fantastic’ by a man in a silly wig and a prominent chemistry set in the foreground — presumably as part of some kind of TV themed bit about mad scientists.
  • A 7 minute excerpt from a 1985 French TV documentary presents interviews with Boileau and Narcejac about their crime writing partnership, though they don’t specifically touch on this film.
  • Finally there are French and US trailers, the latter particularly interesting because it’s for the original release under the title The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus as a double-bill along with a creature feature called The Manster (he’s half man! half monster!).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Georges Franju; Writers Franju, Jean Redon, Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac and Claude Sautet (based on the novel by Redon); Cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan; Starring Pierre Brasseur, Édith Scob, Alida Valli; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 11 July 2019 (and originally on VHS at the university library, Wellington, July 1999).

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Criterion Sunday 259: À ma sœur ! (aka Fat Girl, 2001)

It’s fair to say that, even from her very first film and certainly up until today, Catherine Breillat has been a rather troublesome and controversial figure, increasingly as much for her confrontational views as for her movies (for example, comments minimising the Weinstein allegations, and dismissing the #MeToo reckoning, though these appear to have been in the context of an ill-tempered run-in with Asia Argento). Indeed, Breillat doesn’t exactly fit very neatly into feminist critiques of film, or at least you get the sense that she’d certainly resist that kind of reading. For all that, she’s made some excoriating films, and none more so, I think, than À ma sœur! (released in the US as Fat Girl; apparently Breillat likes the English-language title better, but it certainly seems to change the focus of the film).

This is a work that for all its dark subject matter is really about sisterhood, and while this may suggest a sentimental point of view — and there are some lovely, supportive scenes between the two sisters Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux) and Elena (Roxane Mesquida) — Breillat was of course never going to be content to leave it at that. Instead there are some almighty power plays going on between the two (and equally between the two sisters and their parents, who are fairly detached from their daughters’ emotional states). On a family holiday, Elena falls for a handsome older Italian law student, Fernando (Libero De Rienzo), while Anaïs looks on, pouring scorn on Elena’s gullibility (when she speaks up at all) and apparently fully cognisant of where it’s all leading. All of this unfolds in long sinuous takes, whose gliding grace only seems to intensify the emotion underpinning the relationships. When Fernando wants sex, we barely get a chance to look away from his disingenuous flattery and cajolement, alternately tender and piqued, until he gets his way. In the context of all this, the ending then seems to take the film in an even darker direction, albeit with a strangely defiant final freeze frame reminiscent of The 400 Blows — not that I’d anticipate Breillat following up with an entire series about Anaïs (as Truffaut did with his character), though one can but imagine where her life takes her at this point.

Sometimes Breillat’s dark imagination, the way she plays out these sexual power dynamics (often between young women and older men) can make her films feel unsatisfactory, but in this one she seems to find a way of bringing out the humanity underlying the nastiness. The film could be dismissed as exploitational or emotionally vampiric perhaps, but it never loses sight of the people at the heart of these characters, and their capacity for enduring and reconfiguring disappointment and trauma, at which both the leads excel.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s a 5 minute behind the scenes making of featurette, which shows Breillat directing and shooting some scenes, along with a few brief interviews.
  • Two interviews with Breillat are included, one at the Berlin premiere, where she gets into some of the dramas of the film, and the other in which she discusses her working methods, the actors, and the alternative ending — of which there’s footage included.
  • The French and US trailers are included, which have much the same soundscape, though of course the French one includes dialogue from the film where the US one does not. The US trailer also does that thing of basically recapping the entire movie and even includes the final shot of the film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Catherine Breillat; Cinematographer Yorgos Arvanitis Γιώργος Αρβανίτης; Starring Anaïs Reboux, Roxane Mesquida, Libero De Rienzo, Arsinée Khanjian Արսինէ Խանճեան; Length 86 minutes.

Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Monday 16 July 2001 (then later on VHS at home, Wellington, January 2003, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Saturday 10 July 2019).

Criterion Sunday 254: The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)

Back in the day I used to say this was my favourite of Cassavetes’ films, and though I probably like Shadows or A Woman Under the Influence better in retrospect, it’s still pretty powerful. Cassavetes approaches an almost genre theme — as the title suggests, there’s a gangland hit involved — but he approaches it obliquely. Watching the original 1976 135 minute cut, it takes almost an hour or so to even get to that point, and what we see is a portrait of a man who runs a nightclub (a strip club), arranging and putting together the shows. For all his evident sleaziness and self-absorption, he also clearly cares about his club and his dancers, but he also has a gambling problem that leads to the title’s killing, and ends up being his downfall. The film, however, remains focused at all times on Ben Gazzara’s Cosmo (who could be read as a directorial stand-in, in the way of many great films about art made by artists), on his flaws but also his strange, sweet integrity.

The shorter 1978 cut of the film certainly gets to the plot a lot quicker, and does a better job overall of setting up the machinations that lead to the action of the title, though we still get a strong sense of Cosmo’s world, particularly his drab nightclub with its ridiculous amateurish routines that nevertheless he is still utterly invested in. But once the hit happens, it seems to slip back into the rhythms of the longer cut, upping the existential angst of its protagonist as he faces (possible) mortality, with things unravelling on the business side as his ties with the mobsters who keep him afloat seem to fall away, even as he desperately tries to keep everything under control. The way Cosmo pretends everything is normal, that he is in (creative) control, even when he seems to be slowly losing everything is at the heart of both films ultimately.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Ben Gazzara and Al Ruban speak in the mid-2000s to the Criterion Collection about the film, with Gazzara in particular unpacking it as the portrait of a misunderstood artist (Cassavetes himself).
  • There’s also a short audio interview with two French critics from the time, where Cassavetes gets a little tetchy about his film being described as a genre piece — although the point the critics were making is that it uses such conceits as a starting place, but certainly doesn’t define the film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer John Cassavetes; Cinematographers Al Ruban and Mitch Breit; Starring Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassel, Timothy Carey, Azizi Johari; Length 135 minutes [original version] and 108 minutes [1978 re-edit].

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 15 May 2002 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, January 1998, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Saturday 6 July 2019 [original version] and Wednesday 24 July 2019 [1978 re-edit]).

Criterion Sunday 253: A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

In my ongoing Criterion watching project, I stalled a bit before this film. I’d seen it before, and I’d rated it highly, but it’s one of those films that you need to take a big breath and a bit of time before you launch yourself into it because it is unrelenting. It’s not bleak exactly, but it’s exhausting because Gena Rowlands — who utterly dominates the film — just fills every empty space with her presence. She’s Mabel, the mother to three kids, and the wife to Peter Falk’s construction engineer Nick (or some kind of municipal worker), and if the way I’m defining her life seems a little regressive, well that’s the world of the film, and it’s strongly implied that part of her problem is the way that she has been pushed into this role, and the way she comes apart at the seams trying to live up to expectations made of her. That’s also partly why it’s so heartbreaking, because although she’s clearly become unhinged, it’s Nick who’s the bully and the bad person. He can be sweet and understanding at times, but every time he loses control of Mabel, he starts shouting and gets pushy and violent, and the kids, who are there most of the time, can’t do much about it. Cassavetes keeps the camera tight in on them for much of the film, only at the end disappearing behind a closed curtain as he leaves them. It’s a film of towering acting performances, not least from Rowlands, although Falk is also on brilliant form. There are these characters around the edges (parents, kids, co-workers of Nick’s), who feel almost like non-actors and perhaps they are, but for all its age, it feels continually fresh and perceptive about its characters, and about mental health.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer John Cassavetes; Cinematographers Al Ruban and Mitch Breit; Starring Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk; Length 147 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 12 May 2002 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, February 2000, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Thursday 4 July 2019).

Criterion Sunday 252: Faces (1968)

This is in some ways the ur-Cassavetes picture, which came after a few unsuccessful studio pictures in the early-60s as a return to the improvisational quality of Shadows, not to mention developing the verité-style black-and-white high-contrast camerawork into a grander form. Although it was all scripted, it does still feel like the actors are using the script as a means to finding the emotion, and that’s what Cassavetes is ultimately most interested in, those unforced moments of feeling that come through in the actors’ performances. Frequently the scenes as written feel rambling or unfocused, and often the actors are playing drunk, which doesn’t always pay off, but it captures something that a lot of cinema wasn’t doing in the US of the 1960s (Bergman is namechecked within the film, and that feels like a more fair comparison point). Thus, for all that it’s a film about an older man confronting mortality and a fairly unremarkable working life, as well as people trapped somewhat in the past, it also feels quite fresh and honest in a way.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • As with most of Cassavetes’ films, there are multiple versions that exist. The original cut was around three hours, and there was also a 147 minute cut, from which 18 minutes of an introduction feature here as an extra.
  • Making ‘Faces’ (2004) is a fairly standard making-of Criterion extra, which is structured around interviews with four key members of the production who were still alive: the cameraman/editor Al Ruban, and actors Gena Rowlands, Seymour Cassel and Lynn Carlin. All of them provide stories from the film’s set that suggest Cassavetes’ methods, how he helped actors to find the performance, as well as the way his artistic direction manifested itself (he wanted actors to find their own way into the characters, rather than providing notes, as one example). Al Ruban (the cinematographer and editor) expands on some of the technical challenges, such as finding all the sound was un-synched at the end, or having too few lights to film the big club scenes.
  • Ruban also contributes a separate 12-minute extra just about his choice of film stock and lighting for the film’s relatively restrained number of locations, which is probably more for those with an interest in lighting.
  • Finally, there’s a two-part interview for the French TV series Cinéastes de notre temps, conducted during the making of and after the release of Faces. We get much of his credo and philosophy of filmmaking — and one which has informed a lot of independent cinema ever since: the idea that even if you don’t have any money, you should go out and make your vision, in the hope that at least someone will share your passion somewhere down the line. Cassavetes comes across as supremely relaxed and chatty in the first part, filmed presumably in some manic period during production, as he paces around his offices and home, and introduces the people around him, all bonhomie and gregarious host, which the filmmakers cannily intercut with footage of laughter and joviality in the film he’s made, suggesting the direct line from his lived experience to his art.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer John Cassavetes; Cinematographer Al Ruban; Starring John Marley, Gena Rowlands, Lynn Carlin, Seymour Cassel; Length 130 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 8 May 2002 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, March 1999, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Monday 27 May 2019).

Criterion Sunday 251: Shadows (1959)

Cassavetes had great success as an actor but his directorial recognition came somewhat belatedly, though it’s what he’s most known for now, and this, his first film, feels at times like an experiment that doesn’t always work. But when it does work, it has the energy and spontaneity that little of the rest of American cinema of the time had, though it shares some genetic material with, say, the location-shot films of Ruth Orkin and Morris Engel, so it’s not entirely sui generis. However, it feels most of a part with contemporary trends such as the French New Wave, and there’s so much of this (literally) jazzy first film that recall the flights of fancy of the French directors. Much of that revolves around the three or four key actors in the movie, and especially Lelia Goldoni as the mixed-race Lelia (the actor is Italian-American), though even her drama with a white guy who comes home to meet her brothers feels like just one small part of a wider story that feels at times more like it’s documenting a scene or capturing an era — though that’s probably the benefit of hindsight. Even after 60 years, this still feels like a fresh and interesting film, and there’s a lot more laughing and joking around than I remember, and that’s how the film leaves us: a little bit light-hearted about the young people in NYC.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are some mid-2000s interviews with the star Lelia Goldoni, and with Seymour Cassel, who even this early in Cassavetes’ career was already working with him (and served as associate producer on the film).
  • There’s silent footage from the acting workshop that Cassavetes ran during the late-50s, including some images of the actors in this film.
  • There are some images from the production and posters in a small gallery section.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director John Cassavetes; Writers Cassavetes and Robert Alan Aurthur; Cinematographer Erich Kullmar; Starring Lelia Goldoni, Ben Carruthers, Hugh Hurd; Length 87 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 8 May 2002 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, July 2001, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Friday 10 May 2019).

Criterion Sunday 249: La battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers, 1966)

Over 50 years on and there’s still an enormous amount of clarity and power in this film set against the backdrop of the last few years of the French occupation of Algeria, during the Algerian War, effectively a battle for independence. Pontecorvo’s style emphasises its indebtedness to documentary, by using handheld cameras and a grainy high-contrast black-and-white image that suggests newsreel footage at times. But its thematic achievement is in treating both sides with some semblance of equality, even if it’s clear that the moral force is on the side of the Algerians. While the FLN agitators are not dismissed as mere terrorists, there’s also clearly conflict about their methods and targets, and they are hardly romanticised as freedom fighters. Meanwhile, the film does not in any way exonerate the French in this conflict either, who are ultimately the aggressors, as the colonialist power. The French commander, a tall man in shades, strikes a heroic figure, but despite his successes against the Nazis, his tactics are questioned here, and he remains morally compromised as a player in the drama. The central character arc is for Brahim Haggiag’s Ali, who ascends from petty thief to a figure of central importance within the FLN resistance as a result of prison radicalisation. The film’s narrative takes his story, starting with the end and looping back in time to bring the story full circle, all the while moving the action forward propulsively. As such, the film never slows down for much of its two hours, a very watchable film about a complex struggle that never feels like it’s taking an easy way out.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The first disc includes a documentary called Pontecorvo: The Dictatorship of Truth (1992), a fairly brief TV piece which has Edward Said reflecting on the relatively few films of Pontecorvo, and why he should have largely disappeared from the cinephile conversation by the 1990s. There’s an interview with Pontecorvo himself, who suggests some reasons (a fear of failure seems to be chief among them), and there’s some good context on the making of all three of the features mentioned, particularly The Battle of Algiers.
  • There are interviews with five directors who speak about the film’s importance to their own craft, picking out elements of the style and its production, not that you’d necessarily expect it from people like Steven Soderbergh or Mira Nair.
  • There are also loads of other films and contextualising documents, which I’ll add here as I watch them.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Gillo Pontecorvo; Writers Pontecorvo and Franco Solinas; Cinematographer Marcello Gatti; Starring Brahim Haggiag براهيم حجاج, Jean Martin; Length 120 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Thursday 20 May 1999 (also earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, January 1998, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Sunday 19 May 2019).

Criterion Sunday 248: Videodrome (1983)

I had this idea that I watched this film with my stepbrothers when I was a kid, but if I did I certainly didn’t get it at the time (nor do I remember any of it upon rewatching so I may just be imagining it). However, as a result, I’ve probably spent more of my life than is reasonable believing I wasn’t really ‘into’ David Cronenberg’s brand of body horror combined with media satire. That said, I’ve seen plenty of his films since, and I’ve liked most of them quite a lot, but yet still retained some core of that original belief, perhaps modified somewhat into some idea that he’s just an outré auteur who panders to horror-soaked fanboys’ wet dreams… and clearly — look, you all know this already — but I’m wrong.

Videodrome looks from the outside as something nasty and exploitative, but it feels more like an advance warning from a Nostradamus of the early-1980s about everything we have in our culture now. The technology may look a little clunky but the effects still hold up really well. It’s the kind of film that you probably need to rewatch a number of times to figure out its particular configuration of the televisual exploitation of sleaze, sex, sexual violence and depravity, the way that links to notions of masculine performance (James Woods, who nowadays probably really is that guy he’s playing here, hallucinates a literal vagina opening across much of his torso), added to which there’s the fetishisation of videotapes. There are also so many layers of hallucinatory dream life that it stops being clear what’s real and what’s just in the head of Max/Nicki/Prof O’Blivion/Cronenberg/whoever else might be imagining this stuff.

In short, it opened up my head like Barry Convex’s in this film, and I don’t know if I can be the same again. The 1980s was the decade of Cronenberg, no doubt.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer David Cronenberg; Cinematographer Mark Irwin; Starring James Woods, Debbie Harry, Sonja Smits; Length 89 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 6 May 2019.

Criterion Sunday 247: Slacker (1990)

It’s 30 years since this film was shot, and whatever you might think of it, it certainly has created a legacy, both of independent filmmaking, but also by way of capturing a zeitgeist, a spirit of a certain strand of alternative American existence (whether here in Austin TX or in Portland OR, et al.): places that have defined themselves by a certain lo-fi aesthetic and bohemian drop-out culture. The strongest aspect remains Linklater’s narrative structure, which builds on the familiarity of multi-strand intersecting narratives, but instead has characters just bump into one another, pulling the camera (and thus the viewer) into these constantly changing stories, all set within the same city, in a tight (but not real-time) framework. It’s all queued up by Linklater’s appearance as the first of these figures, indulging in some pseudo-philosophical ramblings in the back of a taxicab (shades of Scorsese in Taxi Driver, and a tendency which Linklater would indulge in his later films), which both gently pokes fun at his pretensions but also lays out the film’s alternative realities groundwork. Ultimately the rambling concept can’t help but exceeding the framework of the film, but this leads to a final act of filmic self-destruction a little bit reminiscent of Two-Lane Blacktop in a way, and brings a fitting close to this era-defining film.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Among the many extras is Woodshock (1985), a very early short film by Linklater which focuses on a local indie music festival. No footage of the music is shown, but there’s a charming DIY aesthetic to this lo-fi footage of the audience just milling about and acting like quintessential music festival audiences, not to mention an eager young Daniel Johnston toting his cassette album.
  • There’s also footage from a 10th anniversary cast reunion at a cinema in Austin, which features a lot of the local cast reflecting on the film and their experiences in front of an audience.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Richard Linklater; Cinematographer Lee Daniel; Length 100 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 28 April 2019 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, January 2000).

Criterion Sunday 242: Le Carrosse d’or (The Golden Coach, 1952)

I think the tendency of post-war European cinema around this time, especially in Italy, was towards neo-realism, shooting on the streets, giving that documentary sense of gritty immediacy, and so Renoir shooting a very theatrical film on the soundstages of Cinecittà in Italy, with a very stylised use of saturated colour and glorious, ornate sets and costumes, with Italian and American actors speaking in English in a story set in Latin America (Peru, apparently) feels like a very studied riposte to all that. In fact, it feels like a more deeply-felt commentary on the nature of acting and performance to make this kind of film at this time, a film that dwells on spectacle as something which almost seems corrupting: the obscenity of the golden coach at the film’s centre makes the government lose their minds, and becomes a tool of bargaining between men and, ultimately, the church — in a penultimate speech by the Bishop which is interrupted by Renoir cutting between all the assembled faces, expressing wry delight or shocked disdain. There’s a subtle comment on the nature of imperialism, too, as this Latin American colony becomes enthralled to the Italian Anna Magnani and her troupe of actors, threatening to depose the viceroy and create a new life fighting for the rights and sovereignty of the native peoples (though this at least feels a little in passing). I think Renoir’s later films are some of his finest work, operating at a different register from much of contemporary cinema, and all the better for it.

[NB Criterion lists the year as 1953, although this film appears to have been released in Italy in December 1952.]


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jean Renoir; Writers Renoir, Jack Kirkland, Renzo Avanzo, Giulio Macchi and Ginette Doynel (based on the play Le Carrosse du Saint-Sacrement by Prosper Mérimée); Cinematographer Claude Renoir; Starring Anna Magnani, Odoardo Spadaro, Duncan Lamont; Length 103 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 3 March 2019.