I think I like Renoir’s late-period French films over his earlier, more celebrated ones (I feel the same, incidentally, about both Bresson and Buñuel), not least because I think the way he uses the colour and the staging is so precise and memorable. Of course there’s an artifice, as there always is with Renoir’s films, especially in this run of 50s films set in the theatrical demi-monde starting with The Golden Coach. However, it’s the artifice of cinema at its grandest and this is a film that celebrates the spectacle of putting on a show and the dramas that takes place behind the scenes with the greatest of them — whether Lola Montès or Showgirls, burlesque and cabaret seem often to be particularly fruitful locations for films about social mores, shifting attitudes, and for the expression of pure cinema artistry itself.
Of course it helps that Renoir was being reunited with Jean Gabin and indeed with France itself for the first time after a long (and apparently not particularly welcome) exile in the United States, so there’s a self-conscious embrace of Frenchness, ironic perhaps given the film’s English title (in late-19th century Paris, it is explained, there was rather a penchant for the exoticism of foreign words, hence Gabin’s impresario Danglard reinventing a traditional French cabaret dance by using an English-language name). There’s also a rather frank subtext of sexual libertinism — a conversation early on with her friend about having to prepare adequately for her audition leads her to sleeping with her boyfriend. Indeed, lead dancer Nini’s affairs with three different men seems to highlight her class aspirations, as she moves from humble washerwoman (in love with a baker) to the world of arts, via a dalliance with minor royalty. When Danglard rejects Nini’s advances at the end, by protesting that he cannot be caged in love, it feels like the most French moment in this very French film.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Jean Renoir | Writers Renoir and André-Paul Antoine | Cinematographer Michel Kelber | Starring Jean Gabin, Françoise Arnoul, Maria Félix | Length 104 minutes || Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Sunday 11 June 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Monday 11 March 2019)
I’ve seen this Bergman film before and what I like about this comedy — and it is very much a comedy, even if it has moments of existential doubt and crises of faith — is that its characters are so flamboyantly ridiculous. At least, I should say, its male characters: the pompous lawyer Fredrik with his ridiculous beard (though his charm seems largely that he’s aware of how he’s mocked); Count Malcolm with his high-handed manner; and the foolish young Henrik, who falls for Fredrik’s younger bride. Sondheim adapted all of this for a musical, and that all makes perfect sense when you see this parade of emotions play out on screen, with particularly strong roles for the older woman Desirée who so effortlessly manipulates everyone around her, not to mention the maid Petra who cares so little for their bourgeois affectations. It’s a fun film, and one that I wish more of Bergman’s filmography could be like.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman | Cinematographer Gunnar Fischer | Starring Eva Dahlbeck, Harriet Andersson, Gunnar Björnstrand, Ulla Jacobsson | Length 111 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Friday 22 February 2019 (and originally on DVD at home, London, Monday 12 August 2013)
These grand and handsome stagings of Shakespeare made Olivier something of a predecessor to Kenneth Branagh towards the end of the century, and as with Branagh, I feel a little underwhelmed. It’s not that the acting is stodgy (there have been some patchy adaptations, but on the whole Richard III is well acted, without egregious hamminess), and it certainly doesn’t lack in visual splendour. In fact, the Technicolor Vistavision looks gorgeous, all saturated colours on beautifully theatrical sets (not quite the Brechtian level of, say, Rohmer’s Perceval, but still mightily stagy and unreal-seeming). I just find Olivier’s adaptations unengaging, with too many scenes that don’t really seem to grab much attention (Loncraine and McKellen’s adaptation seemed much stronger in that regard). I still think this is one of his better ones, and I prefer it to Henry V, so maybe I’m just being churlish.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director/Writer Laurence Olivier (based on the play by William Shakespeare) | Cinematographer Otto Heller | Starring Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Claire Bloom, Ralph Richardson, Cedric Hardwicke | Length 161 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 11 June 2018
I’m never quite sure how to respond to the characters in this film, though over time I’ve come to accept it as a great and profound work (on my first viewing, in my early-20s, I was distinctly unimpressed, and it took seeing it on the cinema screen to appreciate its artistry). Everyone acts at times like a fool, at times with grace and acceptance; it’s religious, not in a simple way, but at a fundamental level — Ordet (which when translated means “the word”) seems hardly about creed so much as the underlying belief in the value and beauty of all life. And on the evidence here, Dreyer is surely, too, one of the greatest directors for use of lighting, somehow too coordinating effects of nature into his mise en scene.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director/Writer Carl Theodor Dreyer (based on the play by Kaj Munk) | Cinematographer Henning Bendtsen | Starring Preben Lerdorff Rye, Henrik Malberg, Birgitte Federspiel, Emil Hass Christensen | Length 126 minutes || Seen at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Friday 4 July 2003 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, August 1999, and most recently on DVD at home, London, Saturday 3 December 2016)
This film is generally acclaimed as a classic of the heist genre and justifiably so. Indeed, there are some pretty clear reasons, chief among them the impressive way in which an extended, almost silent, sequence of the gang breaking into a safe is handled. Nevertheless, for all writer/director/star Jules Dassin’s nous behind the camera — and indeed in front of it, decked out as he is in a stylish bowtie (why can’t gangsters have that kind of style anymore?) — the film devolves into a morality play for its last half that feels a little backwards looking. Again, it’s all classic genre stuff nowadays: the criminal gang divided amongst themselves, fractured not just by the investigations of the police but by internecine squabbling over the lucre. Still, the style and the performances of Rififi carry it ably.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Jules Dassin | Writers Auguste Le Breton, Jules Dassin and René Wheeler (based on the novel by Le Breton) | Cinematographer Philippe Agostini | Starring Jean Servais, Robert Manuel, Carl Möhner, Jules Dassin | Length 115 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (streaming), London, Thursday 4 August 2015
Douglas Sirk was a director from Germany who was working within mainstream Hollywood cinema in the 1950s, where he had great success though at the time his pictures were largely sidelined as merely ‘women’s interest’. They later came to influence a diverse range of directors, not least his countryman Rainer Werner Fassbinder (whose 1974 film Angst essen Seele auf largely remakes the one under discussion here), but his style is perhaps at its most refined in All That Heaven Allows. Certainly it looks spectacular (a palette borrowed by Todd Haynes for his own 2002 hommage Far from Heaven), and boasts some fine acting from Rock Hudson — just coming into his own around this period — as well as veteran A-list star Jane Wyman. The story concerns itself with the repressed middle-classes and the cumulative power of society’s judgement on Wyman’s widowed matriarch Cary, who falls for a younger man, her gardener Ron (Hudson). More than his age, it’s class which is the chief battleground, and Cary’s self-esteem is progressively whittled away by her friends and frightful selfish children. There’s a rather implausible denouement, albeit clearly tacked on where the story really finishes, and little opportunity is spared to heighten the campness of the settings (the appearance of a deer is particularly memorable), but this is a gorgeous, emotional film which still resonates.
Criterion Extras: There’s a commentary track by a couple of British academics, who draw attention particularly to the design and lighting of the film, but also favourably towards the acting and draw out some of the meanings of melodrama and camp at work in the film. There’s an hour-long excerpt of a 1979 British TV show Behind the Mirror about Sirk, based around an interview with him at his home in Switzerland, as well as a shorter French TV piece about him from a few years later, again featuring his own words. One of the actors in the film (William Reynolds, who played Cary’s son Ned) talks about working with Sirk from a vantage point of 50 years later. There’s also a rather glorious trailer.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Douglas Sirk | Writer Peg Fenwick | Cinematographer Russell Metty | Starring Rock Hudson, Jane Wyman, Agnes Moorehead | Length 89 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 24 April 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, January 2002)
Acclaimed as a classic psychological thriller, Les Diaboliques was an inspiration for Hitchcock’s Psycho (he worked another novel by Boileau & Narcejac into Vertigo, after all) and a whole strand of creepy haunting horror films. There’s certainly a tension throughout between the supernatural and the all-too-real, though it’s never in doubt as to what an unpleasant, controlling character headmaster Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) is, simultaneously keeping his wife Christina (Véra Clouzot) in check while carrying on with his mistress Nicole (Simone Signoret). Putting the viewer onside with Christina and Nicole’s plot to do away with Michel is a key to the way the subsequent events play out, and though the end title card may warn against spoilers, the set-up probably seems quite familiar thanks to its influence over subsequent filmmaking. Clouzot is excellent at building suspense through the womens’ plotting and then over the uncanny turn things take when he’s gone, using the shadows in the black-and-white photography to good effect. There’s a nasty streak to the film, but it remains an effective genre exercise, even 60 years on.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Henri-Georges Clouzot | Writers Henri-Georges Clouzot and Jérôme Géronimi (based on the novel Celle qui n’était plus by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac) | Cinematographer Armand Thirard | Starring Simone Signoret, Véra Clouzot, Paul Meurisse | Length 117 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 April 2015
David Lean has always been an exemplar of a certain cinema-of-quality within the English-speaking firmament (big overstuffed period pieces, later taken up by Merchant & Ivory), so I didn’t expect much from this tourist’s point-of-view story of romance in Venice. It is indeed filled with picture postcard views as might befit the American tourist on holiday — albeit ones shot with an exemplary eye by cinematographer Jack Hildyard, packed with saturated colours and beautiful light — but there’s a surprising depth of pathos to the characters. Katharine Hepburn’s Ohio-born school secretary Jane, overseas for the first time, is shot through with an indefinable sadness, expressed through her buttoned-up (if nevertheless fashionable) dress sense and cheerful embrace of the pleasures of a solitary drink. Her repression is never explained precisely, but it’s suggested during her halting romance with Venice native Renato (Rossano Brazzi) that this is her first time in love. It’s a bittersweet story which doesn’t condescend to its two lead characters, though there’s plenty of caricature to be found amongst the supporting roles. Chiefly though, it’s Hepburn’s subtle performance and the Venice scenery which do much of the work here.
Criterion Extras: More than most releases, this one really is bare bones, having only a trailer on it. The focus of course is in the film transfer, which is excellent.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director David Lean | Writers H. E. Bates and David Lean (based on the play The Time of the Cuckoo by Arthur Laurents) | Cinematographer Jack Hildyard | Starring Katharine Hepburn, Rossano Brazzi | Length 100 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 15 February 2015
FILM REVIEW || Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman | Cinematographer Gunnar Fischer | Starring Eva Dahlbeck, Harriet Andersson, Gunnar Björnstrand, Ulla Jacobsson | Length 111 minutes | Seen at home (DVD), Monday 12 August 2013 || My Rating excellent
Ingmar Bergman is one of those feted directors of the past who I imagine is more admired than actually watched these days. I mean, correct me if I’m wrong, but his reputation is nowadays largely founded on the idea of dour Scandinavian films grappling with faith, death, and other big themes. As it happens, these are ideas that come more from parodies of his style than the actual films, though even in this comedy (and Sommarnattens leende, his first major film, is a comedy) there are scenes of questioning doubt and existential torment, not to mention an attempted suicide — it’s all just worn rather lightly.