Criterion Sunday 416: Fröken Julie (Miss Julie, 1951)

I’ve actually seen this Strindberg adaptation before (16 years ago), and I’ve seen others too, but I don’t really retain anything of it, perhaps because I don’t particularly get on with the text. It feels a little bit pointedly about the terrible toll that an interest in women’s rights might get you to from a tut-tutting older Swedish man, and that may be a little unfair, but at the very least it’s certainly melodramatic. That said, this film is a stylish adaptation at times, which takes the play and interleaves past and present in an almost modernist way. This is most evident when the camera sweeps around from the present to the past in a single fluid motion, as the title character recalls her unhappy childhood and her fiercely independent mother, who is seen framed by flames with a wry smile on her face at one memorable point. Then there’s Julie’s romance with the groom, Jean (Ulf Palme), a mere servant though splendidly attired, which starts out flirtatiously but eventually descends into all the metaphorical angst in the world (caged and crushed songbirds, grand paintings collapsing on our leading man, flames and madness licking around this rotten world). There’s certainly stuff to like here, and Anita Björk gives an impressively imperious performance, but it’s Strindberg’s vision of the world that probably puts me off.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Alf Sjöberg (based on the play by August Strindberg); Cinematographer Göran Strindberg; Starring Anita Björk, Ulf Palme, Märta Dorff; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at Tate Modern, London, Sunday 17 April 2005 (and most recently on DVD at home, Wellington, Sunday 18 April 2021).

Criterion Sunday 396: Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival, 1951)

I’m sitting here, late at night, trying to figure out what to write because I have a bit of a blind spot for classic era Hollywood films of the past (even the slight failures, as this one was, at least commercially, though I gather contemporary critics didn’t much like it either). Billy Wilder is very much a great Hollywood director, particularly known for his comedies, and while this does function somewhat as satire, it can also be nasty and manipulative when it needs to be, because it’s about cynical people gaming a system that is, sadly, very much still in place. In fact the idea of reporters twisting the truth to make newspapers (or the media in general) more saleable to the public is pretty much the dominant paradigm now, and though this film would have us believe there were honourable men (they’re always men) in positions of power, I’m not quite sure that’s ever been the case, which probably makes me even more cynical than the film. Kirk Douglas plays Charles Tatum, who is very clearly a Bad Guy, but he’s charismatic and, though not likeable particularly, gets results because he’s pushy and persistent. Generally I think the film hits a lot of targets, and does so very capably, but it can be hard going perhaps precisely because of how well it captures a media circus, even a hard-boiled film noir 1950s one.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Billy Wilder; Writers Walter Newman, Lesser Samuels and Wilder; Cinematographer Charles Lang; Starring Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Robert Arthur, Porter Hall; Length 111 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 7 February 2021).

Criterion Sunday 317: The Tales of Hoffmann (1951)

I watch plenty of films but I’m still not sure I have the language to express how this post-Red Shoes fantasia by Powell and Pressburger comes across, because more than most films it seems to move somewhere beyond the reach of mere words. It blends ballet and opera on sets that don’t merely defy naturalism but seem to actively conspire against it in every dimension, as people vanish into the floors, run down grand staircases in 2D, float in the sky or disappear into the trees. And that’s before we’ve even mentioned the gaudy costumes, each colour-themed to the film’s three segments and framing story. It’s a film about a writer called Hoffmann (Robert Rounseville), in love with a dancer called Stella (Moira Shearer), who waits for her during one of her performances and regales the lads down the pub with some stories of his past loves. If this were taken as being about the nature of women, then it comes up a little short (as Shearer she’s a puppet, as Ludmilla Tchérina she’s a courtesan, and as Ann Ayars she’s tragically doomed), but it’s really about this self-regarding man and his obsessions, which doom him never to be happy with a woman. It’s as much an aesthetic experience as it is a film, and it will weary you if you’re not a fan of opera, but it’s certainly something special.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; Writers Powell, Pressburger and Dennis Arundell (based on the opera Les Contes d’Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach with libretto by Jules Barbier, itself based on the short stories “Der Sandmann” [The Sandman], “Rath Krespel” [Councillor Krespel] and “Das verlorene Spiegelbild” [The Lost Reflection] by E.T.A. Hoffmann); Cinematographer Christopher Challis; Starring Robert Rounseville, Moira Shearer, Robert Helpmann, Ludmilla Tchérina, Ann Ayars, Léonide Massine; Length 127 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 13 May 2020.

めし Meshi (Repast, 1951)

Continuing the Naruse theme, I’m now starting in on his 1950s masterpieces. All of these major films from the 1950s are easily available on DVD through the Masters of Cinema label in the UK, while many of his minor works can be viewed on YouTube (many with English subtitles).


This is, as one might expect from Naruse, a beautifully modulated film about Michiyo, a woman unhappy in her marriage. Setsuko Hara (surely familiar to even the most idle viewers of Japanese cinema from Ozu films like Tokyo Story and Early Summer) plays Michiyo, and Hara remains so very brilliant at conveying her dissatisfaction even as she’s smiling and reassuring people. Such indeed is the weight of societal expectation that there’s no meaningful way for her to confront the misery of her household chores and the disinterest of her husband (Ken Uehara), who only becomes animated when his young female cousin comes to visit spontaneously. My favourite moment is when Michiyo is asked “so what do you talk about with her husband?”, and she pauses, looks away and replies “I have a cat.” (It’s a very cute cat.)

Japanese films confronting domestic politics aren’t a million miles away from those of other traditional cultures (old British films like Brief Encounter seem to operate on a similar subterranean level, as everyone observes the correct etiquette and minuscule breaches are punished), so here too elaborate codes of conduct loom just beneath the surface of everyone’s actions, and it’s a great testament to the filmmaking skill that it’s all so very evident without being showy and didactic. Within this context (and I am treading carefully in how I phrase this), I was initially disappointed with the ending, but in retrospect it feels like a bitterly sardonic riposte to everything that has gone before, like the way Hollywood tacked on demonstrably phony ‘happy endings’ to films that really weren’t heading that direction. This is a brilliant and watchable — and, at times, even light-hearted — film about profound unhappiness.

Repast film posterCREDITS
Director Mikio Naruse 成瀬巳喜男; Writers Yasunari Kawabata 川端康成, Toshiro Ide 井手俊郎 and Sumie Tanaka 田中澄江 (based on the novel by Fumiko Hayashi 林芙美子); Cinematographer Masao Tamai 玉井正夫; Starring Setsuko Hara 原節子, Ken Uehara 上原謙, Yukiko Shimazaki 島崎雪子; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 26 April 2018.

Criterion Sunday 294: The Browning Version (1951)

I’m pretty sure that most people going into this film aren’t exactly expecting anything thrilling. After all, as a film it exudes exactly the atmosphere of the scenario it depicts, black-and-white photography capturing the fusty old corridors of a large overprivileged English public school where Michael Redgrave plays a Classics teacher, Mr Crocker-Harris. He has a quote from Aeschylus’s Agamemnon permanently chalked up on the board behind his desk as he dispassionately surveys his classroom and speaks in a flat monotone to the boys, all but one of whom very much dislike him. It takes its time, too, for the drama to get going, but it works in some of the same ways, as, say, Brief Encounter in tracking these minute little changes of emotional register among a small group of central characters. It’s easy to miss what’s going on, and I suspect it only improves on re-watching, but this impressed me far more once it had finished than I had any expectation upon starting.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s a five-minute clip from British TV in the late-1950s with Redgrave being interviewed about acting and how he gets into roles, during which he briefly touches on this film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Anthony Asquith; Writer Terence Rattigan (based on his play); Cinematographer Desmond Dickinson; Starring Michael Redgrave, Jean Kent, Nigel Patrick, Brian Smith; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 12 February 2020.

Criterion Sunday 276: The River (aka Le Fleuve, 1951)

There’s a hint in this Jean Renoir film, made in India in the English language, of contemporary Powell and Pressburger films. Not just from the lush and almost anti-realist colour, but also in a certain colonialist attitude: it’s set amongst British settlers, presumably in the past when it was a colony of the Empire, and concerns three young women and their affections towards a one-legged American ex-serviceman called Capt John (he limps a bit). It’s narrated by the youngest of the three, Harriet (Patricia Walters), who is a writer of sorts, and creates her own narrative for the oldest, who is half-Indian. It all has a languorous air, perhaps because it’s about the last vestiges of colonialism in a newly independent country, or perhaps because of its Western gaze, although it feels like a benign vision of the country compared to some other more orientalist portraits (or a film like Black Narcissus), but I would imagine that’s largely down to Jean Renoir’s sensitivity as a director and writer. Certainly a film that will reward another viewing, I suspect.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s an interview with Martin Scorsese, whose Foundation helped in the restoration of the film, and who is unabashedly a big fan of the film. He speaks about his childhood experiences seeing it, about the colour and the staging, about Renoir’s collaboration with Rumer Godden and the humanity that Renoir has for his characters, as well as touching on the colonialist aspects.
  • Renoir introduces the film in a 7-minute filmed introduction made in 1962 (there are similar ones included on other Renoir films in the Criterion Collection). He relates some stories about the production in an avuncular manner, and hints at his (perhaps troubled) collaboration with the producer Ken McEldowney.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean Renoir (based on the novel by Rumer Godden); Cinematographer Claude Renoir; Starring Patricia Walters, Radha Burnier, Adrienne Corri, Thomas E. Breen, Esmond Knight; Length 99 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 17 November 2019.

Víctimas del pecado (Victims of Sin, 1951)

Mexican cinema was responsible for a glorious run of full-blooded melodramas in the 1940s, and I’ve already covered a few in recent posts, including Another Dawn (1943) with Andrea Palma and Twilight (1945) with Gloria Marín, both directed by Julio Bracho, and the wonderful Dolores del Río in La otra (1945). I mention the female leads because it’s the women who really define this period in cinema, and before we move on to Ninón Sevilla, it’s worth mentioning my favourite restoration at the 2018 London Film Festival, Emilio Fernández’s Enamorada (1946), which stars the glorious María Félix, who not only dominates the film but steals every single frame she’s in, a definite highlight of the era.


Ninón Sevilla as Violeta comes across a bit like Elizabeth Berkley in Showgirls (1995), and like that film this is a melodramatic ride through the sleazy underworld of a (Mexican) city. Still, director Emilio Fernández shows a great deal of sympathy and generosity towards his nightclub dancers forced into street work thanks to the dangerous and violent vicissitudes of low-class gangsters like Rodolfo (Rodolfo Acosta). He is introduced in the opening scenes and, without any dialogue required, his character is perfectly set up: big suit, concerned about appearances, cheap with his barber but flashy with his money, he struts out into this underworld with the brio of a man who is clearly not only going to fall but ensure that he pulls down with him as many others as he can. Throughout, the grimy sweaty reality of inner city life is stressed, the vast plumes of smoke from the steam trains that pass by crowd the frame like a bleak Turner painting (and like a lot of red-light districts, this one is tucked up alongside railway lines). The women of this film aren’t victims of their own sin, but very much that of the men around them, who are violent and, with a few exceptions, thuggish brutes. If anyone here survives, it’s only by the slenderest margins, but those margins are what the film is all about.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Emilio Fernández; Cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa; Starring Ninón Sevilla, Tito Junco, Rodolfo Acosta; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Tuesday 2 July 2019.

Criterion Sunday 240: 麦秋 Bakushu (Early Summer, 1951)

Setsuko Hara always has a way to just smile and smile and smile and break your heart, but maybe that’s also innate in Ozu’s filmmaking too, the way he picks apart these delicate domestic stories to find the hurt and conflict within. She’s being pestered by her family to marry as she’s reaching the grand old age of 28, and there’s a sense in which you wonder whether she’s just settling for someone, or reacting to them, or whether even all this talk isn’t out of step with the times. After all, there’s a lot of play around the generational gaps, about post-war Japan’s youth not adopting the same values as their parents and grandparents’ generations, and that all seems to play out here. For me, it’s one of Ozu’s very finest films, and Hara is just such a watchable actor.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Yasujiro Ozu 小津安二郎; Writers Kogo Noda 野田高梧 and Ozu; Cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta 厚田雄春; Starring Setsuko Hara 原節子, Chishu Ryu 笠智衆; Length 125 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 24 February 2019.

Criterion Sunday 222: Journal d’un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest, 1951)

I remember first watching this when I was a university student and finding it quite tedious, then a few years a later completely reversed my opinion of it with a fine new celluloid print in a cinema, and as such I believe it is a film that ages well with its audience. After Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, it finds Bresson coming into his own in terms of the way he choreographs his actors, while still holding a little of that melodramatic form of his previous two features. It’s held together by a central performance by Claude Laydu recalling Falconetti in La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc a little — the intensity of suffering, held in the eyes. Indeed, Laydu generally moves across the whole gamut of emotions from merely apprehensive through melancholy, baleful, anguished, pained and tormented. One of these tormentors is a Mouchette-like young girl, and another is also a young woman, though perhaps it’s his own self-doubts that torment him the most. Even as the film moves towards an ending that reminds me of Ikiru (the film before it in the Criterion Collection), it’s the grace in which Laydu holds himself — and which Bresson’s filmmaking captures, in beautiful, ethereal and softly contrasted black-and-white — that most marks out our country priest, and which lend him and the film a touch of the divine.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Robert Bresson (based on the novel by Georges Bernanos); Cinematographer Léonce-Henri Burel; Starring Claude Laydu; Length 115 minutes.

Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Saturday 16 June 2001 (also earlier on VHS in the university library, Wellington, August 1998, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 22 July 2018).