There’s a lot of really strong stuff in this film, set in 1919 towards the latter stages of the Russian Civil War, but it all seems so curiously distant and alienated, perhaps because it’s partly a film about the way the ravages and atrocity of war makes people curiously distant and alienated from one another. They don’t even always speak the same language to one another (sometimes French, sometimes German), as if even at a production level they couldn’t quite connect. It’s a film of passionate feelings conveyed coldly, suppressed and pushed away, and finally snuffed out. The black-and-white cinematography is beautiful and glacial, and Margarethe von Trotta (usually a director in her own right, but who wrote the script with two other women adapted from a novel by Marguerite Yourcenar) is excellent in the lead role of Sophie, who almost callously demands the love of Erich (Matthia Habich), an officer, who pushes her away, leading them to get tangled up in a strange psychosexual relationship (somewhat reminding me of The Night Porter too). However, the film never enunciates anything quite so clearly as that, and a lot of these dramatic shifts in their relationship seem to happen off-screen or almost in passing. But as I said, it has that strange distancing affect to it.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Volker Schlöndorff | Writers Jutta Brückner, Margarethe von Trotta and Geneviève Dormann (based on the novel Le Coup de grâce by Marguerite Yourcenar) | Cinematographer Igor Luther | Starring Margarethe von Trotta, Matthias Habich | Length 97 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 21 January 2018
This adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s classic 1932 novel — which my mother will be disappointed to hear I haven’t yet read, but I’m pleased to register does feature a key character with my own name — has been many years in the making, but Terence Davies has previous form with fine period literary adaptations (The Deep Blue Sea, The House of Mirth and the underrated The Neon Bible all fall into this category, and are all excellent). What he’s done here fits into that continuum, and there’s a really handsome visual quality to the staging, all rolling vistas and sweeping location shots — which I trust are of Aberdeenshire, although I know some of the filming took place in New Zealand, and this latter may be why the accents don’t always fully convince. In the lead role of Chris Guthrie, the farmer’s daughter who finds herself rather put upon by circumstance — not to mention by her gruff father (Peter Mullan, of course) — Agyness Deyn (hitherto a fashion model, I am given to understand) does excellent work. However, clearly director Terence Davies has worked hard with his actors to find a register which is not quite naturalistic, but which strikes a balance between the immediacy of the characters’ emotions (the plot, set on the cusp of World War I, is rich with melodramatic detail) and creating a stylised distance for viewers that self-consciously reminds us that this is both an adaptation of a beloved literary work and one which is set a hundred years in the past, in a world which is largely lost. Davies has always been apt to find this balance, particularly by interpolating traditional songs (he does it here, when the characters sing after a wedding), but elsewhere there’s an almost theatricality to the staging. As to the world the film depicts, it’s hardly an idyll of course, but one of the themes is the way that modernisation has largely supplanted (if not destroyed) traditional methods of working and living, and shaken up familial relationships, which is only cemented by the outbreak of war. I suspect this is a film that needs a second viewing to appreciate fully, but it’s certainly rich in detail.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Director/Writer Terence Davies (based on the novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon) | Cinematographer Michael McDonough | Starring Agyness Deyn, Kevin Guthrie, Peter Mullan | Length 135 minutes || Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Tuesday 8 December 2015
My sense of late Fellini is that his filmmaking moved into a more determinedly nostalgic register — it’s certainly the feeling I got from 1973’s Amarcord — but if that’s the case, there’s still plenty of interest, much of it rather idiosyncratic. With And the Ship Sails On what we have is a story about the journey of a cruise liner in 1914, around the outbreak of World War I and the delineation of some of the class antagonisms onboard. Obviously, there are shades of another famous (real-life) story here, and some of the same terrain is covered: we have the plutocrats in their opulent dining rooms and cabins while beneath decks are men heaving coal into the boiler’s fires, and a boatload of Serbian refugees from the Austrian-Hungarian empire. Fellini’s style, though, is more playful, and the audience’s entry point is a journalist, Orlando, played with admirable campness by Freddie Jones — indeed, much of the core cast appear to be English actors, albeit dubbed into Italian. Orlando shares his commentary directly to the camera, but all the actors are aware of it and frequently break the fourth wall with nervous glances, as if they are being unwillingly shadowed by a film crew. There’s also a very obvious non-naturalism to the sets and the sea-bound effects, particularly in a sequence near the end, in which the waves are evidently tarpaulins, and a battleship’s smoke is drawn on. It all contributes to a precarious sense of a stratified society teetering on the brink of collapse, something perhaps summed up best by the opera-singing haute bourgeoise characters memorably showing off against one another in heated competition in the ship’s boiler room, egged on by the sweaty men below.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Federico Fellini | Writers Federico Fellini and Tonino Guerra | Cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno | Starring Freddie Jones | Length 127 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 23 August 2015
As one of the big cinematic releases here in the UK this autumn, Suffragette goes back to a fertile period of modern history — the 1910s shortly before the outbreak of World War I — tackling a story that’s certainly well-known to people at least in passing, if rarely thus far attempted on the big screen. Partially that may be due to the rather limited scope of the so-called ‘suffragettes’, being the militant wing of the campaign for women’s suffrage (voting rights); they were, after all, engaged in a domestic form of terrorism, albeit directed at manifestly unjust laws (not even all men had the vote in this period). Moreover it’s debated amongst historians quite how effective their campaign was, and it’s suggested that women’s involvement in work during World War I was more decisive in swaying political opinion on the matter (in 1918 women over 30, along with all men over 18, were awarded voting rights). However, that doesn’t change the fact that this is a stirring story of a small number of women who campaigned passionately for something they believed in enough to suffer abuse and imprisonment (and in some cases even death), and which continues to have resonances today, judging from the list that ends the film of when various countries finally allowed women the vote. It’s unquestionably a handsomely-mounted piece, with plenty of detail in the costumes and setting, and although most of the central characters are fictional creations, they are in some cases (most notably Helena Bonham Carter’s militant pharmacist) based on some aspects of real life figures, while there are effectively cameos from the movement’s leading lights (including Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst, and Natalie Press as Emily Wilding Davison). However, in some ways the film’s real achievement is in focusing on one working-class family woman (Carey Mulligan’s Maud, married to Ben Whishaw’s Sonny), rather than the upper middle-class ladies who are usually the linchpin of such stories. It’s her realisation of the importance of political representation, as effectively contextualised within her unfavourable working environment in an East End laundry, that moves the narrative along, and all the details of her working life are the most persuasive aspects of the drama. There are indeed many more stories of this type to be told about women in history — the past hundred years of cinema has provided rather a surfeit of tales of chauvinist political machinations — and Suffragette should be welcomed as a big-budget evocation of an important, if under-represented, story.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Director Sarah Gavron | Writer Abi Morgan | Cinematographer Edu Grau | Starring Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne-Marie Duff, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson | Length 106 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Thursday 22 October 2015
There’s something almost a little unfashionable, it seems to me, about filmmaking in the 1930s and 1940s, perhaps because fashions and lifestyles in the lead-up to world war were just a little more buttoned-down and less flamboyant, and stories had to keep pace with dolorous political events. But this also means it was a time when stories of great humanity and soul were being made, not least by French filmmaker Jean Renoir, whose great masterpieces of this era still sit solidly near the top of ‘best ever’ film canons. La Grande illusion is Renoir at the top of his form, crafting a beautifully-shot story of class antagonism set at a German prisoner of war camp during World War I. It depicts a changing world, where the aristocrats in charge (Pierre Fresnay’s de Boeldieu, and Erich von Stroheim’s von Rauffenstein) find that the extreme events of war have united them with people they’d not usually fraternise with (Jean Gabin’s mechanic Maréchal and Marcel Dalio’s Jewish nouveau riche Rosenthal, among others). It’s clear that each has different ideas of the value of war and about how it should be conducted, and ultimately the film sides with the lower-class characters, implying that aristocratic values are increasingly irrelevant and doomed to disappear. (Would that this had been proven true in the real world, where Renoir’s warnings about war’s futility were hardly taken on-board, and where our current ruling classes hardly seem to have moved on in some respects.) It’s all beautifully filmed in shimmering monochrome, and in the end somehow uplifting, despite the setting.
Criterion Extras: As with these early Criterion DVD releases, there are some text-based extras, although the Press Book essays are fairly informative. There’s a brief demonstration of the film’s restoration, and indeed the print is sparkling and gorgeously-toned. An audio excerpt of the film winning at the 1938 New York Film Critics Awards has the voices of Renoir and von Stroheim, while there’s a trailer that presents not the film but Renoir talking about the film and his experiences making it (looking back from the late-1950s). Finally, Peter Cowie’s commentary is attentive to the film, giving some background and discussing some of the issues that Renoir raises.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Jean Renoir | Writers Jean Renoir and Charles Spaak | Cinematographer Christian Matras | Starring Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay, Marcel Dalio, Dita Parlo, Erich von Stroheim | Length 114 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 October 2014
FILM REVIEW || Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Tuesday 18 July 2000 (and at home on DVD since, most recently Wednesday 6 August 2014) || My Rating excellent
I recently spent over a year reading Marcel Proust’s sweeping novel (so long mainly because I was doing it in the 10-15 minutes I had on a tube train every morning and occasionally on the way home, but also because it is a novel of fantastically dense and complex sentences which resist easy consumption). It may have taken me some time to read, but it certainly has a cumulative emotional effect as we are introduced at length to an array of society characters who flit in and out of the author’s life over the course of the novel’s seven volumes, but it’s an effect you can also get pretty well from this film adaptation by Chilean-born director Raúl Ruiz. It takes its title from the last of the novel’s volumes though it flits around to take in scenes from elsewhere: Ruiz’s method in his films has always felt a bit magpie-like and it’s a method well-suited to Proust’s dense and allusive text. Many people may be familiar with Proust’s famous image of the madeleine dipped in tea provoking in the grown man a rush of childhood memories (probably because it occurs only a few pages into the novel), but it’s one of the major themes of his work, and an idea to which he returns in many forms (like the little phrase in Vinteuil’s sonata, for example). Ruiz repeatedly invokes that sense of nostalgia with numerous flashbacks prompted by the author’s experiences at dinner parties and social gatherings (he is incidentally played here by the Italian Marcello Mazzarella, cutting an appropriately bland and retiring figure, and voiced by Patrice Chéreau). This serves to illustrate well one of Proust’s central themes — of the way that our past and present selves and experiences are always in dialogue — something only further heightened by scenes where younger actors step in to scenes featuring their older, decrepit incarnations. One of the questions a potential viewer may pose is of whether it will work for those unfamiliar with Proust’s work, and I think it does (I saw it for the first time having read very little of the novel). It’s a film of carefully-tuned performances by a coterie of French acting talent (and John Malkovich) enlivened by the director’s playful style, which passes by easily despite the film’s length. For all the hubris in taking on such an adaptation, it largely works, and does so very well.
CREDITS || Director Raúl Ruiz (as “Raoul Ruiz”) | Writers Raúl Ruiz and Gilles Taurand (based on the novel À la recherche du temps perdu by Marcel Proust) | Cinematographer Ricardo Aronovich | Starring Marcello Mazzarella, Emmanuelle Béart, Pascal Greggory, Vincent Pérez, Catherine Deneuve | Length 162 minutes
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director/Writer Pablo Berger (based on the fairytale Schneewittchen [Snow White] by the Brothers Grimm) | Cinematographer Kiko de la Rica | Starring Maribel Verdú, Macarena García, Ángela Molina | Length 105 minutes | Seen at Renoir, London, Sunday 14 July 2013 || My Rating excellent
Are silent films now a thing that people do? Is it a trend? Technically pre-dating the Oscars™ success of The Artist (2012) is this Spanish film, now on general release in the UK after some festival appearances, which to my mind is a far more nuanced and interesting take on the silent film form, though certainly darker in tone than that other famous recent silent. It’s also a more sympathetic pastiche (for a start, there’s no diegetic sound), yet swiftly moves beyond mere slavish hommage in crafting a rounded film that plays to all the strengths of this antique form.
Of course, over the 80 or so years since sound film came to pre-eminence, there have been periodic throwbacks to the specially-moving qualities of the silent film form. There are those which reference the era within otherwise mainstream (sound) films like Singin’ in the Rain (1952), and then there are those which imitate the style, like the fantasias of Guy Maddin or the overly-grim lugubriousness of Aki Kaurismäki’s Juha (1999), amongst several others, most rather more experimental in form. So, whether these recent few films constitute a real trend is up for debate.
If there’s more interest in silent cinema now — and, from a capital city perspective, my friend Pam’s Silent London site is some small evidence of that (there are plenty of other silent-film-specific blogs to suit your tastes) — I don’t think a handful of films really does constitute a trend exactly. However, it’s nevertheless pleasing to see filmmakers (and audiences, since these films would hardly exist if there weren’t an audience for them) respond to the peculiar joys of voiceless cinematic art. I say ‘voiceless’ of course, since as we all know now, these films are not really silent: there’s a lot that can be done with a good score and expressive acting. For Blancanieves, Alfonso de Vilallonga provides the music; he’s not a name I’m familiar with, but his score leans heavily on traditions of silent-film accompaniment that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen a live screening.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director Peter Chan | Writer Aubrey Lam | Cinematographer Lai Yiu-fai and Jake Pollock | Starring Donnie Yen, Takeshi Kaneshiro | Length 98 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Monday 6 May 2013 || My Rating likeable
It takes no little confidence to title your movie Wu xia, given this is the name given to an entire genre of martial arts films and literature, often featuring lone swordsmen from a lower social class righting wrongs, the most famous of which for Western audiences is undoubtedly Wo hu cang long (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, 2000). The hero of Dragon, Liu Jinxi (played by Donnie Yen) isn’t initially presented as a swordsman, but he does have a mysterious martial arts past that only slowly comes to light thanks to the investigations of detective Xu Baijiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro).