After some genre-defining silent films (which we’ll get to much later on in the Criterion Collection), Austro-Hungarian émigré director Josef von Sternberg did a run of films with Marlene Dietrich — the first in Germany (The Blue Angel, 1930) but the rest in the United States. In some ways these defined something else in cinema, every bit as important as a narrative structure, which is a sense of the fetishisation of the actor as icon. Obviously there had been stars before Dietrich, but the quality that Sternberg gets across in his run of films with her is something else, something more profound, something almost magical. His penultimate film with her was The Scarlet Empress, and alongside the shimmering beauty of Dietrich — the burnished close-ups, the flamboyant dress — this must rank as some kind of masterpiece of set design. Every image is crammed with baroque detail, every shot framed by grotesque sculptures presiding creepily over the action. This latter largely revolves around Dietrich on her road to becoming the Empress Catherine II, “Catherine the Great”, married into Russian nobility (the mad Peter, played with wide-eyed intensity by Sam Jaffe) and learning the ways of the court and methods of extending her power. The camerawork and lighting is bravura, but it’s those stylish set touches that only heighten the film’s giddy campness and emphasise how much Sternberg has given to the cinema in the 20th century. Stars would never again shine quite as brightly.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Josef von Sternberg | Writer Manuel Komroff (based on a diary by Catherine II) | Cinematographer Bert Glennon | Starring Marlene Dietrich, John Lodge, Louise Dresser, Sam Jaffe | Length 104 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 31 July 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, April 2001)
A strange film, at once adapted from a puppet drama and also self-consciously taking some of its formal characteristics. The story follows a relationship which has tragic overtones, involving a man out of step with his society. However, the presence throughout of these puppeteer characters, at once mutely witnessing and manipulating what’s happening, is pretty powerful.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Masahiro Shinoda | Writers Taeko Tomioka and Toru Takemitsu (based on the play by Chikamatsu Monzaemon) | Cinematographer Toichiro Narushima | Starring Kichiemon Nakamura, Shima Iwashita | Length 105 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 June 2016
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Friday 27 June 2014 || My Rating good
I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with the traditional period drama so beloved of English filmmakers. There’s something peculiarly retrogressive about that heady blend of overdressed men and women walking into, out of and around grandly decorated rooms in vast mansions, aristocratic seats of wealth and power, while talking about politics (if the character is a man) or matches that bring in £10,000 a year (for the ladies). And yet I’ve always been rather drawn to these overprivileged lives, with their finery and their petty concerns. At a certain level, Belle is no different: it has heritage sets, vast homes filled with art and beautiful furniture, and overdressed men and women entering and leaving its overdressed rooms. Yet its title character is one who would usually be doubly excluded from such a milieu, being a black woman. Her position is neatly signalled by repeated shots of her looking at paintings around the house which show black people subservient to their white masters, gazing adoringly upwards from prone positions in the corners of the canvases. The title character of Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) has a quite different, and quite unusual, position in society, for her parentage to a British Navy Captain allows her to be raised within this overprivileged world and through the independent wealth this affords her can break traditionally gendered restraints to get involved directly in the political arguments of the time. These, of course, revolved primarily around slavery and its importance to the interests of the British Empire, and in this respect it’s particularly helpful that Dido Belle’s surrogate father is the Lord Chief Justice, the Earl of Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), who is working on a case involving the human rights of slaves killed by a slave trader. This case (known as the Zong massacre after the ship involved), along with another he later worked on (Somersett’s Case) and which is sort of elided into it here, are small but crucial steps on the path towards the abolition of slavery and the film implies that his relationship with the mixed-race Dido is key to his decision. All of this is, on the level of historical record, fairly unclear — there is little documentary evidence of Belle’s life aside from a remarkable painting of her with her (white) cousin Elizabeth — but as a film, it’s all very nicely staged and enjoyably acted by a set of excellent thespians with much experience at this sort of thing.
CREDITS || Director Amma Asante | Writer Misan Sagay | Cinematographer Ben Smithard | Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Sam Reid, Emily Watson | Length 104 minutes
This series is inspired by the Movie Lottery blog, whose author is picking DVD titles from a hat in order to decide which films to watch. I’ve selected another one from the hat to watch and present my review below.
FILM REVIEW: Movie Lottery 8 || Director Michael Mann | Writers Michael Mann and Christopher Crowe (based on the novel by James Fenimore Cooper) | Cinematographer Dante Spinotti | Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Madeleine Stowe, Russell Means, Wes Studi, Steven Waddington | Length 112 minutes | Seen at home (DVD), Sunday 8 August 2013 (and on plenty of occasions previously) || My Rating a must-see
I’m not sure that I ever saw this film at the cinema, but ever since I first saw it so many years ago, probably on VHS, it’s a film to which I’ve constantly returned. It’s not necessarily the period setting and the many historical details that get me, though I concede these are well co-ordinated, it’s that The Last of the Mohicans is a shameless (and why feel shame?), epic romantic melodrama that pulls all the right strings in me. Call it manipulative, but in the best way. So having picked this as a random film to watch, I shall try to do a little bit of justice to how I feel about it. The one thing I won’t be doing is comparing it to the source novel, for I’ve never read it and I may never get round to it: the space in my life reserved for caring about Uncas and Chingachgook and Nathaniel Hawkeye and Cora Munro is amply sated by re-watching this film, and by now I’d probably just assess the novel negatively in comparison.
FILM REVIEW || Director Joe Wright | Writers Deborah Moggach (based on the novel by Jane Austen) | Cinematographer Roman Osin | Starring Keira Knightley, Matthew Macfadyen, Tom Hollander, Donald Sutherland, Kelly Reilly | Length 129 minutes | Seen at home (DVD), Tuesday 21 May 2013 || My Rating good
There have been a lot of adaptations and reimaginings of novels by Jane Austen (there was a particular glut of them in the 1990s), and for my sins I’ve seen a fair few, such that I’m never really sure what’s going on and who’s who whenever an Austen film starts. I feel like I should know the stories better, but they always seem to involve a bit of to-do around social status, some mentions of the gentleman’s annual income, several lengthy dance sequences, and many many glorious frocks. As staples of the ‘heritage film’ — a moribund genre if ever there was one, laid out by Merchant-Ivory and focused above all on bloodless period frippery — they should by all rights be terrible, but I must admit I like the odd period film with all their stuffed shirts and wilful heroines.