Criterion Sunday 473: にっぽん昆虫記 Nippon Konchuki (The Insect Woman, 1963)

I do feel like there was a lot going on in this film that I wasn’t taking in. Partly that’s just the way it tells its story, in little chunks dispersed through time, constantly shifting forward a year or so, constantly moving location, never really settling, like its central character. She is buffeted and moved around as much as Japan is over the course of the time period (from her birth in 1918 to roughly the film’s present), as Japan moves into and out of war, its economy changes, there are changes to social structures, but still this woman (and by extension women generally within society) seemed to receive fairly short shrift. I suppose another key factor is that she’s born poor and must seize whatever opportunity she can, whether prostitution or other unfulfilling labour. It’s far from a rosy picture, but it’s a Japanese one, a story of adversity and struggle for little reward.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Shohei Imamura 今村昌平; Writers Keiji Hasebe 長谷部慶次 and Imamura; Cinematographer Shinsaku Himeda 姫田真佐久; Starring Sachiko Hidari 左幸子, Jitsuko Yoshimura 吉村実子; Length 123 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 24 September 2021.

Criterion Sunday 430: Le Feu follet (The Fire Within, 1963)

I think you could probably construct a small cinematic canon of works that deal with characters who are profoundly depressed and suicidal, but I don’t think there are a huge number which confront it head on. And by ‘head on’ I do mean that this is a film entirely about a man adrift. The protagonist moves around Paris, from a clinic in Versailles where he’s trying to clean up his alcoholism, into town where he tries — disconsolately, lackadaisically — to meet up with former friends and acquaintances. He seems to be seeking something, some connection that will convince him not to kill himself, but he’s also pretty set on not finding it, and that makes for uncomfortable watching. Don’t get me wrong, as played by Maurice Ronet, Alain Leroy is charismatic and can be good company, but it becomes increasingly clear that he is adrift and that things aren’t going to work out for him. The filmmaking matches his mental disarray at times, and underpins his emotions with the similarly desolate piano work of Erik Satie (which is too often misused in films in my opinion, but works rather well here).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Louis Malle (based on the novel [also translated as “Will O’ the Wisp”] by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle); Cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet; Starring Maurice Ronet; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 24 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 417: This Sporting Life (1963)

The idea of watching one of these 60s British ‘kitchen sink dramas’ never really thrills me, but yet they have often been really compelling. Billy Liar showcases Tom Courtenay, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning does the same for Albert Finney, and here we have Richard Harris as Frank, a typically laddish rugby player (though, being from Yorkshire, he’s less posh than many who play the game in the south of England). His performance has that Brando swagger to it, as he punches his way through early scenes, told in flashback from a dentist’s chair as he gets his teeth extracted following a particularly vicious blow on the field. He recalls his life and ascent to rugby stardom (of a sort, a very local kind of stardom), which also lay bare his difficulty with women — part of which you suspect just comes down to the very poor role models he must have had, and certainly the rather leering sporting life he leads doesn’t help much — and a fundamental emptiness at his heart that the film’s end seems to suggest is just going to continue.


  • Among a few of Anderson’s short films is Wakefield Express (1952), a modest half-hour film, a documentary in the old style (where scenes seem a little more staged for the camera) about a local Yorkshire newspaper putting together its pages. The first half largely puts across a sort of mythical vision of small-town England, with idealistic reporters getting out and about, picking up local gossip and interacting with all the main sources of news in their community (in the pub, flagging down the postie, chatting to the priest, a bus driver with a fondness for budgerigars). It’s the later sequence of the newspaper being put together which seems particularly alien now, all those typesetters and proofreaders, hot lead type and moulds being poured in an environment far more like a foundry. It’s a real insight into just what a lot of work it was to put out even a small regional newspaper.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Lindsay Anderson; Writer David Storey (based on his own novel); Cinematographer Denys Coop; Starring Richard Harris, Rachel Roberts, Alan Badel, Vanda Godsell, William Hartnell; Length 134 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 17 April 2021.

Criterion Sunday 387: La Jetée (aka The Pier, 1962) and Sans soleil (aka Sunless, 1983)

Unquestionably a classic of the French New Wave, though it somewhat stands apart from the other familiar films of that period what with it being un photo-roman, driven by still photographs. It’s a canny technique for a low-budget science-fiction film, and director Chris Marker exploits it fully, with a range of photographic effects matched by the familiar poetic narrational style from his documentaries. The plot hinges on its central time-travelling dichotomy, which I think is well-known enough that it’s not exactly a spoiler any more (especially after its reimagining as 12 Monkeys, but look away if so): the man who remembers witnessing his own death. Having seen this sub-30 minute film several times, it’s still enormously affecting the way the film loops around to this, hopping back and forth through time, evoking an apocalyptic Paris through simple effects: dungeon-like settings, a bleak high-contrast photography and the simple foam pads over the eyes that hint at the only technological resources the future still possesses, whereas the present is in a softer monochrome, flickering briefly to life in the eyes of the woman our protagonist is fixated on. I think it’s Godard who is often quoted as saying his films have a beginning, a middle and an end though not necessarily in that order, but La Jetée exemplifies that in practice.

I think Chris Marker’s poetic documentary style of film essay has been incredibly influential, and Sans soleil (1983) is one of his key works, the title also translated on screen as Sunless (and, strangely, in Russian if I recall correctly). It’s a documentary after a fashion, but really it’s a reflective personal essay about memory and understanding, put into the words of a fictional Hungarian cameraman in letters to the narrator, who may be understood to be an alter ego for Marker himself I suppose, as this film was made after a period in which Marker and his New Wave compatriots had been in various leftist collectivist political groups that eschewed authorial credit. In any case, you can see a lot of what has been inspiring about the film though it remains something of a product of its times. It’s mostly concerned with a travelogue around Japan, from the point of view of someone who grew up during World War II, and so turns back every so often to the remnants of the war, probably more in the narrator’s mind than those he films, but it makes for slightly uncomfortably viewing. This kind of othering, or exoticising of foreign people (and the film also flits occasionally to Africa and Cape Verde), sits oddly but really it’s a film about memory that loops in travelogue and even a bit of film criticism (of one of Marker’s favourites, Vertigo, a film which had a strong formative role in La Jetée also) and as such occupies a sort of poetic imaginary. Certainly, it’s not a film that will necessarily help you understand Japan except as it figures in western consciousness of the mid-20th century perhaps.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection

La Jetée (aka The Pier, 1962)
Director/Writer Chris Marker; Cinematographers Jean Chiabaut and Marker; Starring Jean Négroni; Length 27 minutes.
Seen at the Paramount, Wellington, Wednesday 30 July 1997 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Thursday 7 January 2021).

Sans soleil (aka Sunless, 1983)
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Chris Marker; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at the Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Tuesday 10 June 2003 (and before that on VHS at home, Wellington, August 1997, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Saturday 9 January 2021).

Criterion Sunday 355: Le mani sulla città (Hands Over the City, 1963)

In a way I’m surprised there haven’t been more films about the decisions that lie behind the construction of the cities most of us (in this country, on this continent, on the planet) live in. After all, the decisions that shape our built environment can be some of the most decisive around our quality of life, what jobs we do, where our aspirations lie, and most of these decisions are ultimately political ones. It doesn’t take a country with as much of a history of political volubility and public corruption as Italy for it to be applicable to the rest of the world, because the decisions about new housing projects are often the most nefarious of deals wherever you live, and so the subject matter of this film has barely aged in the 57 years since it was made.

Of course, watching Hands Over the City you get a little sense of why there aren’t more films like this, because all the major players in this drama look sort of the same — all well-groomed patrician men of a certain age, who all look the same in black-and-white aside perhaps from the way they wear their hear or the glasses they have on their face (and even then, there’s not a great variety). Perhaps the situation may be different now, but not much different really. The men who make these decisions, who hold the power and the money, and decide how we will live are often these men, and this film revolves around one developer (Rod Steiger), also a city councilman, who has access to the levers of government that means decisions on his projects are fast-tracked (“approved in three days!” rages one left-wing council member, played by Carlo Fermariello, explaining that most decisions of this nature come in a timeframe of six months to two years). When his project leads to the collapse of a building in a slum area, killing multiple people, it leads to some intense questioning — but because they’re poor people, it all feels like fairly superficial, gestural politics.

There’s a docudrama element to this, then, because even if the film is fictional, a lot of the scenarios are drawn very much from real life — if you’re willing to look for it, there’s a lot of drama in city planning (as films like Chinatown were only too aware). And so, though it takes a little while to pick out the players from this sea of fancy suits, Rosi’s film about a corrupt real estate developer, retains its power and potency.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Francesco Rosi; Writers Rosi, Raffaelle La Capria and Enzo Forcella; Cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo; Starring Rod Steiger, Carlo Fermariello, Salvo Randone; Length 100 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 20 September 2020.

O něčem jiném (Something Different, 1963)

Okay, I did a week of Czech/Czechoslovak films and came up a bit short because it turns out I’ve not seen all that many (and those I have, I wrote very short reviews about so couldn’t really use them here). Well, I’ll finish by returning to another Věra Chytilová film, her first full-length feature film in fact, though she did some shorts and the mid-length A Bagful of Fleas before (it’s available on British DVD with the film I’m reviewing today, from the excellent label Second Run).

Věra Chytilová’s first proper feature film follows two parallel stories, ostensibly quite different — a female gymnast (Eva Bosáková) trains for a major competition, a woman (Věra Uzelacová) looks after her home — but in cutting between them Chytilová finds parallels. Neither has much support from the men in their lives (the housewife somewhat less than the gymnast, whose trainer is at least there for her, even if he rarely seems to offer encouragement). Chytilová is already showing a fine eye for compositions and for cross-cutting, and the film is a rather stylishly well-made exercise.

Something Different film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Věra Chytilová; Cinematographer Jan Čuřík; Starring Eva Bosáková, Věra Uzelacová; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 30 July 2016.

Criterion Sunday 344: La Carrière de Suzanne (Suzanne’s Career, 1963)

Following swiftly on from The Bakery Girl of Monceau is this slightly longer portrait of another man with two women on his mind. We find ourselves in a Parisian café, where all the film’s figures are introduced. It’s not initially clear that the protagonist is Bertrand (Philippe Beuzen), the shy wallflower in the corner, rather than his gregarious friend Guillaume. It’s the latter, after all, whom we see chatting up Suzanne (Catherine Sée), a pretty, smiling girl from the provinces sitting by herself reading. As in the earlier film, a class distinction starts to be formed between Suzanne and her rival in Bertrand’s affections, Sophie, a taller, elegant Parisian. Yet despite not being as clearly compromised as his bolder friend, whose morals are lax to say the least, Bertrand is hardly presented as a perfect match either. His more exaggerated sense of courtliness (no doubt a reaction to Guillaume’s boorishness) makes him rather seem callous and unfeeling, and indeed both women largely shrug off his attentions. And slowly, then, despite Bertrand’s central role in the story (he is the film’s narrator after all), it’s Suzanne who emerges as the strongest and clearest character. Narratively speaking, it’s fascinating the way that despite having this power to shape the audience’s opinions through his point-of-view narration, Suzanne almost seems to move beyond his preconceptions and confounds him through to the end; she could be some Daisy Buchanan-like figure of male desire, but it’s in this interplay that the film particularly succeeds. I wouldn’t say she’s rounded exactly, but she exceeds the narrative and breaks free from it, and ultimately it turns out that she is the character with more than one love interest, while the women in Bertrand’s life move on from him.

(Written on 7 January 2015.)


  • The second short film on the first disc, an supplement to Suzanne’s Career is Nadja à Paris (Nadja in Paris, 1964), and at a certain level there’s really not very much to this short film — the titular student is in Paris to do a thesis on Proust, wanders around, makes observations — but it very much captures a certain spirit of the age. It’s listed as documentary but it could as easily be a drama (and perhaps it is), but it’s about hanging out and soaking up the feeling of a place, and it seems to me that the New Wave filmmakers were among the best at just capturing a feeling.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Éric Rohmer; Cinematographer Daniel Lacambre; Starring Philippe Beuzen, Catherine Sée; Length 54 minutes.

Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Tuesday 6 January 2015.

Criterion Sunday 343: La Boulangère de Monceau (The Bakery Girl of Monceau aka The Baker of Monceau, 1963)

Eric Rohmer returned to filmmaking (after a period editing Cahiers du cinéma followed by the relative disappointment of his delayed feature debut) with this short film, the first in a six-part cycle he called the ‘Contes moraux’ (‘Six Moral Tales’). If the story seems somewhat slight (a man pines for an elegant woman, while flirting with a shopgirl), that doesn’t make its execution in any way simplistic. There’s some of that familiar nouvelle vague charm to the location shooting, which all takes place in one neighbourhood, on its grand boulevards, as well as its smaller byways and street market, and there’s charm too in the simplicity of the storyline. Indeed, the narrative pattern of a man in love with two women would be repeated in the later moral tales, but the differences in the women here is telling — Sylvie is a tall woman he passes regularly in the street, who holds herself with a slight hauteur, while Jacqueline (Claudine Soubrier) is a young shop assistant in a bakery who works every day. Our protagonist (played by the producer Barbet Schroeder) thinks he has a shot at Sylvie but he stops seeing her around for a while and, in her absence, makes a romantic move for Jacqueline. It’s significant too that our male protagonist isn’t named, and that the title of this (and most other films in the cycle) is after one of the women. In a sense, the man is a stand-in for the filmmaker and an audience surrogate, but if so, it’s a deeply critical portrait. He may have some success in love, but he’s shallow and frankly a bit creepily stalky too, and his voiceover makes it clear that his motives are pretty flawed. Rohmer’s sympathy is with the boulangère.

(Written on 7 January 2015.)


  • The short film Présentation ou Charlotte et son steak (Presentation, or Charlotte and Her Steak, 1960) is a supplement to The Bakery Girl of Monceau. This is the earliest short film by Rohmer, starring Jean-Luc Godard and filmed apparently in 1951 although not finished until the end of that decade. Like a lot of the early New Wave films, it’s a slight premise, just two people hanging out and talking. She’s waiting for a train to leave, he’s killing time, chatting her up, hoping for something. Slight, but certainly not lacking in interest.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Éric Rohmer; Cinematographers Bruno Barbey and Jean-Michel Meurice; Starring Barbet Schroeder, Claudine Soubrier; Length 23 minutes.

Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Tuesday 6 January 2015.

Criterion Sunday 268: 野獣の青春 Yaju no Seishun (Youth of the Beast, 1963)

I can’t honestly tell you I understood every twist and turn in this film about a man seeking revenge for the death of his friend. It starts out in black-and-white as we happen upon an apparent double-suicide of a cop and his girlfriend, though even here there is a splash of colour in some roses, before we barrel straight into the rest of the movie, in sharp poppy colours in a widescreen format. In truth it’s the visuals that really stand out here, and director Suzuki has an eye for framing in what is very much a stylish picture. As for the plot, our anti-hero Jo (played by the easily-recognisable Joe Shishido) swings through various setups involving gangsters and hangers-on, pretty liberally wielding his fists, guns and even a spraycan he’s adapted into a flamethrower to elicit the information he wants about who was responsible for what in those opening scenes he clearly thinks was a murder. It zips along at a good pace but it always retains its pop-art appeal.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Seijun Suzuki 鈴木清順; Writers Ichiro Ikeda 池田一朗 and Tadaaki Yamazaki 山崎忠昭 (based on the novel 人狩り by Haruhiko Oyabu 大藪春彦); Cinematographer Kazue Nagatsuka 永塚一栄; Starring Joe Shishido 宍戸錠, Misako Watanabe 渡辺美佐子; Length 92 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Friday 20 September 2019.

Two Films by Youssef Chahine: Saladin the Victorious (1963) and The Land (1969)

I’m spending a week looking at Arabic language cinema, from around the Arabic-speaking world, stretching from North Africa across the Middle East. One of the key early figures in modern Arab cinema is the work of Egyptian director Youssef Chahine, and indeed Egypt has always been the powerhouse cinematic country of the whole region, with a range of popular cinema rivalling that of Bollywood to the East. Chahine integrates influences from France and the Soviet Union, amongst other traditions, creating some of the greatest works of modern cinema and he has certainly been influential in Arab cinema. I’ve already reviewed one of his earlier films, the excellent melodrama Cairo Station (1958), though these 60s works feel like quite different films.

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