Two Japanese Biopics about Artists: Tochuken Kumoemon (1936) and Utamaro and His Five Women (1946)

While there are a huge number of recent biopics I can (and have) reviewed recently during this themed week on the genre, they have also had popularity throughout the history of cinema, and in many other parts of the world. Today I am focusing on two Japanese examples I watched more or less back-to-back this past year, both of which are concerned with artists, and are made by among the better directors of Japanese cinema, Naruse and Mizoguchi.

Continue reading “Two Japanese Biopics about Artists: Tochuken Kumoemon (1936) and Utamaro and His Five Women (1946)”

Criterion Sunday 270: Casque d’or (1952)

After a decade or two of films noirs, films of picturesque hoodlums lurking in the chiaroscuro frame, the French were pretty excellent at black-and-white crime thrillers, and for me this must rank as one of the finest. Jacques Becker hits all the expected notes with Simone Signoret as Marie, a prostitute who hangs out with some rather unsavoury types (including the no-good Félix), who falls for a carpenter and ex-hood Georges (Serge Reggiani). There’s no shortage of doomed romance, of beautiful close-ups of Signoret and her striking golden hair (the “golden helmet” referenced by the title), and exquisitely framed and filmed sequences, as he falls back into a world of crime all for the sake of Marie. The narrative is tightly structured and moves forward implacably, save for an all-too-brief sequence of the two in love by a riverside somewhere in the middle of the film, before the tragic denouement is set up.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s eight minutes of silent 8mm footage shot on the set of the film, during the sequence where Georges and Marie first meet and dance together, presented with an optional commentary from Philip Kemp, who picks out the key figures and explains a little of what we’re seeing. It’s certainly interesting to get this brief glimpse at how studio filmmaking was done in France before the New Wave.
  • We get around 27 minutes of Cinéastes de notre temps: Jacques Becker (1967, dir. Claude de Givray), originally well over an hour in length, although another five minutes show up on the Touchez pas au grisbi disc, next up in the Criterion collection. Several of Becker’s collaborators speak about his work (he died in 1960, shortly after Le Trou), and Givray’s technique with the talking heads is to cross-cut between them, as if they’re all in dialogue with one another, and may be a tip of the hat to Becker’s own (relatively) frenetic editing style, which his editor Marguerite Renoir speaks a bit about.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jacques Becker; Writers Becker and Jacques Companéez; Cinematographer Robert Le Febvre; Starring Simone Signoret, Serge Reggiani, Claude Dauphin; Length 98 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 27 October 2019.

Yentl (1983)

Another key figure not just for the American musical but for music and indeed society itself, from the 1960s on, is Barbra Streisand. She is a towering presence in a number of films created around her charismatic on-screen persona, but she moved into directing as well, most notably with this adaptation of a Isaac Bashevis Singer play and short story.


There’s probably no real intellectual response to this film, because you’re either partial to Barbra Streisand or you’re not. She certainly does dominate the film, though when he shows up a young Mandy Patinkin does distract attention somewhat, even if (perhaps wisely) Streisand doesn’t give him any singing to do — the music is all for Yentl to perform, for hers is the central drama. Her struggle is against the religiously-mandated life that has been set out for her in early-20th century Poland — wife and motherhood — when all she wants to do is study and learning, right from the very outset (when we see her buy a religious text off a passing bookseller). So she cuts her hair and goes into town, dropping quotes from the Talmud and enrolling in a yeshiva with aforementioned Avigdor (Patinkin), who’s engaged but doesn’t really want to get married. The production values are big, of course, and it’s all rousingly put together. The incipient gender-non-conformist themes are somewhat let down in the final act, but it does enjoyably flirt with these ideas for at least part of its running time, and that (along with those central performances) probably keep it worthwhile.

Yentl film posterCREDITS
Director Barbra Streisand; Writers Streisand and Jack Rosenthal (based on the play by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Leah Napolin, itself based on the short story “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy” by Singer); Cinematographer David Watkin; Starring Barbra Streisand, Mandy Patinkin, Amy Irving; Length 131 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 25 August 2019.

Criterion Sunday 263: Fanny och Alexander [The Theatrical Version] (Fanny and Alexander, 1982)

Having seen this film for the first time a few weeks ago in its “TV Version”, I now watch the “Theatrical Version” — although the latter is really just the former cut in half (they’re both films) — and I have the sense of seeing some things for the first time. I suppose it’s just the necessarily more clipped way that things progress, but some of these moments just never really struck me so much when it played out in full. In either case, Bergman’s artistry as a filmmaker is fully evident, with long scenes filled with detail and artifice playing out almost effortlessly, though they must have taken a fair bit of staging and practice. However, the brevity brings its own rewards, and in some ways the little moments of the supernatural or hallucinatory — the way dead figures come to life in front of our young protagonists’ eyes, for example — seem to have more of a punch to them in the shortened version. In any case, this remains a film about Alexander primarily, a portrait of the artist as a young man if you will (for he is the Bergman stand-in). Every element is crafted with deep care, particularly the set design of the various family apartments and the austere parson’s lodgings. I had perhaps not expected to like this coming of age period costume drama as much as I did, but it’s a towering achievement.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s a commentary on the film by Peter Cowie, but I’ve not listened to it yet.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman; Cinematographer Sven Nykvist; Starring Ewa Fröling, Jan Malmsjö, Allan Edwall, Bertil Guve, Erland Josephson, Jarl Kulle; Length 188 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 15 September 2019.

Criterion Sunday 262: Fanny och Alexander [The Television Version] (Fanny and Alexander, 1982)

I started watching this under the impression that, as a “television version” which is ostensibly split into four episodes, it would therefore be watchable in small chunks. However, do not be fooled, for despite its five act structure (plus a prologue and epilogue), and the separate credit roll at the end of each “episode”, this is essentially a single 312-minute film, so I ended up watching most of it in a single sitting.

There are different ways to use this kind of duration and Bergman focuses on the characters. There are essentially three households at the heart of this film: the Ekdahls (with Ewa Fröling as the key figure, Emilie), a rich theatre-owning family in whose company we start the film, as they throw a grand Christmas gathering; that of the austere Bishop Vergérus (Jan Malmsjö); and the Jewish moneylender Isak (Erland Josephson), who is more a passing background character for much of the film. The title may put the emphasis on Emilie’s two children, and their experiences guide the structure of the film (Bertil Guve’s Alexander is the character that director Ingmar Bergman identified with, and whose point of view we mostly adopt), but Emilie is the film’s linchpin.

Intended perhaps to be his swansong, this is a gloriously mounted production, which carefully contrasts the burnished colours, deep rich saturated reds, brocaded fabrics and warm lights of the Ekdahl household, with the gloomy bare prison-like atmosphere of the Bishop’s home, with his wan, dispirited serving women and authoritarian mother. In fact, generally Bergman is pretty savage with this man of the cloth, although religious belief runs throughout the film and is hardly all the kind of dour torture that the Bishop cleaves to, even if that’s the most “Bergmanesque” passage of the film. But it’s mostly a film about family and growing up, a warm remembrance of childhood and of a certain kind of cultured middle-class upbringing. The acting is all superb, too, with a vast roster of talent familiar from many other Bergman works.

But this remains very much a film, not a TV series.

[NB This version was released the year after the feature version, in 1983, although I would consider it an alternate cut of the same film, so I’m sticking with the original release year on the heading of this post.]

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are no extras on this disc, as they are all on a separate supplements disc.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman; Cinematographer Sven Nykvist; Starring Ewa Fröling, Jan Malmsjö, Allan Edwall, Bertil Guve, Erland Josephson, Jarl Kulle; Length 312 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Friday 16 August 2019.

Criterion Sunday 127: Gertrud (1964)

I’ve always loved this film, ever since first watching it, transfixed, on a 16mm print at a film society where I grew up. It has a transfixing power, specifically in the way the actors interpret their lines, the fugue-like oneiric monotone and constant off-screen gaze of the title character (Nina Pens Rode), moving about her world as if nothing exists — indeed, if she had passed through a wall like a ghost, I’d hardly be surprised. Every element is controlled, not just the acting and movement, but the placement of decor, the use of paintings as counterpoint to the discussion, the ripples on the pond as Gertrud and Erland speak (pathetic fallacy, I suppose, but not even that overdetermined), the lighting, just everything. It’s also uncompromisingly about a woman who rejects the men in her life — not least by barely ever even looking at them — and I don’t blame her.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Carl Theodor Dreyer (based on the play by Hjalmar Söderberg)l Cinematographer Henning Bendtsen; Starring Nina Pens Rode, Bendt Rothe, Ebbe Rode, Baard Owe; Length 116 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 23 June 1999 (also at the Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Sunday 6 July 2003, and at the BFI Southbank, London, Saturday 17 March 2012, as well as on VHS at home, Wellington, January 2001 and most recently on DVD at home, London, 3 December 2016).

LFF 2016 Day Eleven: Daughters of the Dust (1991), Park (2016), Born in Flames (1983) and Moderation (2016)

Saturday 15 October, the penultimate day of the London Film Festival, and another heavy one for me, with four films. Two of them were archival restorations, so a bit of guaranteed classic status in amongst the new works.


Daughters of the Dust (1991)Daughters of the Dust (1991, USA, dir./wr. Julie Dash, DOP Arthur Jafa)
It’s quite an achievement this film, but it’s not one that goes in for a straightforward narrative or overt central character. It’s about a whole family, if not an extended community, who are — at length — preparing to leave their home on an island in South Carolina in 1902. And it’s about their stories, and memories, and inherited customs. But none of this is presented in a particularly linear way; instead there’s a flow of characters and images (strikingly beautiful at times), and an accretion of scenes illustrating their lives. It’s not perfect either — the score sadly hasn’t dated very well at all, a wash of post-80s synths that doesn’t always add to the drama — but for the most part it’s excellent and singular.


Park (2016)

Park (2016, Greece/Poland, dir./wr. Sofia Exarchou, DOP Monika Lenczewska)
I can already see the reviews of a few people calling this film “boring” and “overlong” and… well, it would be disingenuous to claim I don’t know what they’re talking about, but as far as I’m concerned films that get those labels — or at least films which aren’t superhero movies — tend to be just my kind of thing (see also: “self-indulgent”). It’s a film about a bunch of disaffected young people congregating amidst the detritus of Athens’ Olympic Park; their lives are going nowhere, so yeah, it’s fair to say there’s plenty of boredom and entropy. The two characters who come to be central, Dimitri and Anna, just mooch around, fight, fuck, dance, nothing special. But I thought it was compelling in its atmosphere of dereliction and dead-ends, a clarion call from a certain precarious position in a decaying society.


Born in Flames (1983)

Born in Flames (1983, USA, dir./wr. Lizzie Borden)
This is a film that comes from a specific time and place (New York in the early-80s) and perhaps some choices might not have been made today — bombing the WTC seems most obvious — but there’s still an enormous amount that retains both relevance and power 35 years on. Most notably this is an expression of intersectionality in practice avant la lettre, giving strong central roles to women of colour and criticising some of the viewpoints and privilege expressed by white feminists. That’s just one aspect; I liked also the way that its imagined socialist revolution (shades of Bernie brocialism?) hasn’t materially altered the patriarchal power structure, leading to calls for continued feminist insurrection. It’s all made in a sort of pseudo-documentary collagist agitprop style that is perhaps born of its extended genesis (filmed over five years) but works admirably. A lo-fi no-wave independent feminist masterpiece of sorts.


Moderation (2016)

Moderation (2016, UK/Greece, dir. Anja Kirschner, wr. Kirschner/Maya Lubinsky/Anna De Filippi, DOP Mostafa El Kashef/Dimitris Kasimatis)
There’s a certain category of experimental filmmaking whose films seem more tailored to an academic appreciation, by which I mean that they are clearly carefully thought out in terms of thematics and ideas, but express themselves visually in ways that don’t always hold the casual viewer’s attention. Or maybe I was just coming down off three other films, because there was plenty in it to like, intellectually speaking. It’s a disquisition of sorts into horror cinema, without ever quite being a horror film — though it certainly flirts with generic elements both in its film-within-a-film story of strange sand-spewing pods, as well as in some of the apartment-bound scenes with actors encountering creepy poltergeist-like activity. The film is structured around a woman director and her screenwriter (Maya Lubinsky and Anna De Filippi), who are in a relationship, talking to prospective actors for their mooted horror film, and these extended scenes form a key part of the film. Indeed, storytelling, whether in dialogue by the actors or as an exercise of artistic creation dramatised between the two women, is very much the film’s most sustained theme, with horror just a heightened form of that basic need to tell stories. Also, there’s one scene where the Egyptian actor Aida’s pink hair and turquoise eye shadow perfectly matches her floral print dress, and it’s gorgeous to behold.