Obviously a Danish film made in the 1940s and set in the 17th century about living under an oppressive regime intent on suppressing individuality, victimising women and blaming them for society’s ills couldn’t possibly have any modern relevance, but I suppose historical fashions come back around periodically. Dreyer is on his usual fine form, finding a core of empathy (if not always compassion) for all his characters, whether Anne (Lisbeth Movin), a young woman who has married the older Reverend Absalon (Thorkild Roose), and his grown son Martin (Preben Lerdorff Rye) who falls for Anne. An opening sequence with the elderly Herlof’s Marte being chased down by the villagers and taking refuge at Anne’s home introduces the information that Anne’s mother was also a witch, and it is strongly implied that Absalon suppressed this fact in order to marry her (or perhaps the marriage was arranged to head off criticism of Anne’s mother; it’s never quite clarified). In any case, the accused witches clearly do actually profess some form of magic — and this was presumably a response to the position of women within their societies, not to mention the level of scientific understanding available — but that scarcely diminishes Dreyer’s harsh judgement of the town elders (shot like the old men in The Passion of Joan of Arc) for their treatment.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Carl Theodor Dreyer | Writers Carl Theodor Dreyer, Poul Knudsen and Mogens Skot-Hansen (based on the play Anne Pedersdotter by Hans Wiers-Jenssen) | Cinematographer Karl Andersson | Starring Lisbeth Movin, Thorkild Roose, Preben Lerdorff Rye | Length 100 minutes || Seen at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Monday 23 June 2003 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, February 1999, and most recently on DVD at home, London, Saturday 3 December 2016)
When Kenneth Branagh filmed his own dark and politically cynical vision of this play in 1989 it kick-started his career and marked a resurgence of Shakespeare on film, but Laurence Olivier was the original actor/director and puts the play and its hero in quite a different light. Of course, being made at the height of the Second World War, you might expect a more triumphant hue to proceedings. There’s also an admirable commitment to theatrical non-naturalism in the sets and setting — again, this may have been motivated by avoiding anything reminiscent of the actual conditions of war — but brings to my mind Rohmer’s later experiments in staging the Mediaeval story of King Arthur in Perceval le Gallois (1978). Indeed Olivier’s film itself starts through a recreation of a performance at London’s Globe theatre in the early-17th century (strikingly similar to the reconstruction now on the South Bank), before at length moving away from the theatre, without ever quite relinquishing the stagy feel, though that’s as much to do with the beautifully saturated Technicolor cinematography as with anything in the performances. Whatever its limitations, and however carefully it works to work around the more melancholy notes in the play (most obviously its coda of how Henry promptly lost France shortly afterwards), it’s still a fine staging of a classic English play.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Laurence Olivier | Writers Alan Dent and Laurence Olivier (based on the play by William Shakespeare) | Cinematographer Robert Krasker | Starring Laurence Olivier | Length 136 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 14 June 2015
I could glibly try and claim this is the best drama about gardening released this year, but that wouldn’t really be much help would it? Certainly the subject matter is niche — aside from The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982), I can’t think of any films primarily dealing with the creation of a garden (in this case, the Bosquet des Rocailles, or Salle de Bal, at the Palace of Versailles). Of course, it’s really about plenty of other things, like the tentative love affair between Kate Winslet’s Sabine du Barra and Matthias Schoenaert’s André Le Nôtre (the chief designer of the gardens at Versailles, a real historical figure), or the fluid movement of relationships and the shadings of class within the French court of the 17th century. I’m not sure how much of this detail is true to the period — Sabine is a fictional character, and Winslet seems all too English, though the garden Sabine is working on is real — but it allows for some lovely little vignettes, as when Sabine interacts with the King (Alan Rickman) incognito as if he were a fellow gardener. There’s a smaller role for Stanley Tucci as a prominent nobleman within the French court, another excellent reminder of his talent for stealing scenes, while Helen McCrory rounds out the ensemble as Le Nôtre’s jealous and unfaithful wife. As director, Rickman certainly manages to round up a good cast (as you’d expect), so even if the film sometimes seems slight, it’s never anything less than enjoyable to watch.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Director Alan Rickman | Writer Allison Deegan | Cinematographer Ellen Kuras | Starring Kate Winslet, Matthias Schoenaerts, Alan Rickman, Stanley Tucci, Helen McCrory | Length 117 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 29 April 2015
The Duel at Ganryu Island is the final film in Inagaki’s trilogy about the famous 17th century samurai Musashi Miyamoto, and it follows on from the introduction of our hero as a young man in the first film and then his peripatetic years as a wandering ronin in the second. By this point he is widely renowned, and courted by powerful leaders, but elects instead to live in a humble fashion by a village. Again, there are reminders of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai in the way Musashi works to protect the village near which he lives from bandit attacks, but for the most part the film again focuses on his relationship with Otsu and Akemi, two women who’ve been in love with him for much of the trilogy’s running time. The visual palette is once again richly coloured, and Inagaki and his cinematographer (different on this film than the previous two) show a fondness for long shots with plenty of depth of focus. The big challenge for Musashi — and the conflict with which the film ends (at sunset once again, as with both previous films) — is his fight with the charismatic Sasaki Kojiro; both of them have been developing swordplay techniques which are put to the test here. The surprise for me has been quite how immersive and enjoyable this series has been, despite not being much aware of it beforehand. Inagaki has every bit the technical mastery of his more famous compatriots, and a sure sense of storytelling that still allows for plenty of character development. It’s a fine way to end an excellent run of films.
Criterion Extras: As a result of this project, I’ve been buying a lot of Criterion editions of the films, but it would surely be almost impossible (or would probably bankrupt me) to watch every film in its Criterion edition. However, where I have, I will add a note about the extras. I’ve mentioned already the beautiful colours of the film, and of course, as you’d expect, these have been rendered wonderfully by Criterion. As far as the extras go, all we have on the Samurai Trilogy are the original trailers, along with some short (c. 8-10 minute) video pieces in which an academic discusses the historical context for the real character of Musashi. These are all perfectly informative, if hardly up to Criterion’s usual standard.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Hiroshi Inagaki | Writers Hiroshi Inagaki and Tokuhei Wakao (based on the novel Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa and the play by Hideji Hōjō) | Cinematographer Kazuo Yamada | Starring Toshiro Mifune | Length 105 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 28 December 2014
Like many second films in trilogies, this second instalment of Inagaki’s story of 17th century swordfighter and cultural hero Musashi Miyamoto seems to lack a focus, although unlike the first film it heads towards something of a cliffhanger. Musashi travels to Kyoto to pick a fight against a samurai school that is home to his former friend Matahachi, calling out the school’s sensei, though the men there are at first dismissive of Musashi’s talents, drawing him into a massed battle scene once again reminiscent of the denouement of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. The film also introduces a challenger to his position of swordfighting dominance with Sasaki Kojiro (Koji Tsuruta), a matinee idol of a man who intitially just follows Musashi warily, intent only on observing him. However, despite the increased number of battle scenes, the heart of the film remains his relationship with the women, primarily Otsu (Kaoru Yuchigusa), who continues to follow him, as well as the younger Akemi, who had tried to tempt him (unsuccessfully) in the first film. Finally, the style changes a little, and though the colours are still vibrant, there seems to be a rather darker tone, not to mention a studio-set feel to proceedings, slightly more stylised than had been the case in the first film. Still it keeps Musashi’s education moving forward, and sets up the third and final instalment nicely.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Hiroshi Inagaki | Writers Hiroshi Inagaki and Tokuhei Wakao (based on the novel Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa and the play by Hideji Hōjō) | Cinematographer Jun Yasumoto | Starring Toshiro Mifune | Length 103 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 28 December 2014
One of the things that becomes clear from watching the Criterion Collection releases is that someone there really likes samurai films (known as chanbara in Japanese, a subset of jidaigeki or ‘period films’). And when I say likes them, I mean really REALLY likes them. There’s a 25-film boxset of Zatoichi films coming up (quite a lot) further down the line, as well as many others in between, but here, an early release, is this trilogy by Hiroshi Inagaki. Such was the popularity of its titular hero (Musashi Miyamoto, referred to as Takezo in this film, as he does not receive his samurai name until the end) that this wasn’t even Inagaki’s first trilogy of films about Musashi. He was a legendary swordsman, not to mention author and artist, who came to prominence at the very start of the 17th century in Japan, and Inagaki sets out to depict his journey. To see these films now, it hardly seems surprising to see the great Toshiro Mifune in the title role — after all, in this very same year, he also starred in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai — though the two roles are quite different. In Kurosawa’s film, he’s a bit of a fool, but here he commands respect — or at least comes to do so by the end, for this first film is dedicated to Musashi’s earliest exploits. A lot of these revolve around the women who fall in love with him, though it’s Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa), the jilted fiancée of his friend Matahachi, who has the most lasting relationship with the wandering ronin. The narrative arc of the film is towards Musashi’s maturation (he is even locked in an attic with a stack of books for three years at one point), rather than any big conflict or battle, and the route towards this is via a series of incidents, through which familiar characters start to thread. This all works rather nicely, no little thanks to the richly colourful cinematography, and fine ensemble performances. It would be for subsequentfilms in the trilogy to develop his fighting skills.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Hiroshi Inagaki | Writers Hiroshi Inagaki and Tokuhei Wakao (based on the novel Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa and the play by Hideji Hōjō) | Cinematographer Jun Yasumoto | Starring Toshiro Mifune, Kaoru Yachigusa | Length 93 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 28 December 2014
I want to start with the problems I have with this film, Cocteau’s adaptation of the famous fairy tale, because at times I find it a little slow and ponderous. We start out with the banter and knockabout everyday world of Belle (Josette Day), in which she (though hardly servile) is tormented by her vain and grasping sisters, and pursued by a pompous suitor (Jean Marais), but though nicely staged, it’s all rather uninvolving. There’s also something more than just a little camp about the mock-historical setting and the melodramatic acting, which needn’t really be a problem (and indeed Day’s occasional display of self-conscious poses are rather fitting the film’s theatrical staging), though it can make some of the dialogue seem a little risible. And yet, when the film eventually enters the magical, mythical world of the Beast (also played by Jean Marais, under a whole lot of furry makeup), there are sequences which are among the most breathtaking and inventive in all of cinema. There are the animated fittings and statuary, the use of smoke effects, Belle’s gliding movements down the hallway, the expressive set design and the gorgeous monochrome cinematography of Henri Alekan, all of which adds up to create a genuinely uncanny world of magic that permeates the whole enterprise. The character of Belle never really seems more than a cipher, for Cocteau’s interest is far more with Marais and his Beast, but for sheer beauty, the film remains essential.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director/Writer Jean Cocteau (based on the fairy tale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont) | Cinematographer Henri Alekan | Starring Jean Marais, Josette Day | Length 93 minutes || Seen at Victoria University library (laserdisc), Wellington, September 1997 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Sunday 21 December 2014)