My first day of four films was day five of the festival, which I started with an archive screening of a new restoration of Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity, with an alternative ending sequence thrown in at the end (wisely ditched from the original film in my opinion), then a new British film introduced by its director, a Tunisian-French co-production with a star more familiar with French cinema, and finally the last screening of Rose Plays Julie, part of the official competition, and a striking Irish film which bristles with technical sophistication.
I have taken up doing themed weeks on my blog, and this week it’s all about African cinema, one of the least represented and worst preserved continents for film history. Although I touched on North African cinema in my recent week of Arabic language films, this week will be all about sub-Saharan Africa. Filmmaking on the continent stretches back through various colonial administrations (British, Belgian and French amongst others), but I want to start in the post-colonial era, rooted in the idea and dream of pan-Africanism that was celebrated by Ouagadougou’s FESPACO film festival, which started in 1969 and where this local Ivoirian film was shown (if not premiered). Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato festival has been involved in restorations of notable films for the past few years, and this year they had a strand dedicated to FESPACO and some highlights of its programme over the years.
Despite screening at the very first FESPACO festival, this Ivoirian film is certainly not currently prominent in cinematic discourse, as I can barely find an image of it online. I know there’s a poster because in another film screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato (Med Hondo’s excoriating Les Bicots-nègres, vos voisins of 1974) it appears in the background of one sequence as an example of African cinema made for Africans. In any case, the film has been newly restored so with any luck it will regain some of its place in the history books.
The film deals with a man whose mind and existence seem to be fractured, apparently a result of his time in Europe. Played by the director (Timité Bassori), he is seen both as a young man and as an older one in black tie, possibly the same character at different times in his life, who imagines a woman with a knife trying to kill him and spends much of the film trying to get to the heart of his issues with women. The meeting between Africa and Europe becomes part of a dense psychoanalytic framework, and leads to a sort of double-consciousness from which the character may or may not fully recover, but it inhibits his socialisation into his own society. There are frequent repeated shots of him walking down roads, cast out and wandering, from rich streets to poorer ones, in his home town of Abidjan. Other elements of the film bring into focus his double life — the music moves from jazz to drums, the apartments we see have both high Western culture (shelves of books on French artists for example) as well as indigenous instruments and artwork — and if the film feels at times rather difficult and opaque, it is also brimful of ideas.
Director/Writer Timité Bassori; Cinematographer Ivan Baguinoff; Starring Timité Bassori, Marie Vieyra, Danielle Alloh; Length 77 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Friday 28 June 2019.
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.
These three films all feature on a box set put out by the Korean Film Archive, though many of their film restorations (not just these three, but many others) are available to view for free on an official website and a YouTube channel, which I’d recommend checking out if you want to follow up on classic Korean cinema. As for the director, I can’t give you much information. His name is sometimes transliterated as Lee Man-hui, and he was born in Seoul in 1931 and studied there too. He started out in the industry as an actor in the 50s, but had graduated to directing in 1961 and as a director had a prodigious output for much of the 1960s, making up to 10 films in a single year (1967 seems to have been his most prolific). He died at the age of 43 from liver cancer, in 1975.
A strange film, at once adapted from a puppet drama and also self-consciously taking some of its formal characteristics. The story follows a relationship which has tragic overtones, involving a man out of step with his society. However, the presence throughout of these puppeteer characters, at once mutely witnessing and manipulating what’s happening, is pretty powerful.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Masahiro Shinoda 篠田正浩; Writers Taeko Tomioka 富岡多恵子 and Toru Takemitsu 武満徹 (based on the play by Chikamatsu Monzaemon 近松門左衛門); Cinematographer Toichiro Narushima 成島東一郎; Starring Kichiemon Nakamura 二代目中村吉右衛門, Shima Iwashita 岩下志麻; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 June 2016.
The two English language titles (The Laughing Woman vs The Frightened Woman) are suggestive of the ways in which Italian films of the giallo style sometimes straddle the line between gynophobic/misogynist exploitation and empowered critiques of patriarchy. Rather, I should say that most fall pretty clearly on the former side, but this one manages to be both — the original title is in Latin, which seems to place ‘woman’ as something of a scientific curio — and in doing so is rather delightful. That said, having called it giallo (a heightened form of Italian horror film), it isn’t exactly that, but is mixed with comic pop-art inflected psychodrama. The drama of the film — a two-hander of power and control between Mary (a glorious Dagmar Lassander) and the manipulative Dr Sayer (Philippe Leroy) — moves one way then is suddenly reversed, much like the visual jokes which come suddenly out of nowhere, masterful uses of the set design and quirks of acting: the leap from bathtub to trapeze! the automated partition between halves of the bed! the car-boat!! Femina Ridens is filled with the joy of mise en scene, plus a bit of stylish S&M-lite in its story of toxic masculinity confronting its emasculating other.
Director/Writer Piero Schivazappa; Cinematographer Sante Achilli; Starring Dagmar Lassander, Philippe Leroy; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Barbican Cinema, London, Wednesday 22 June 2016.
Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky is certainly no stranger to grand portentous overlong films that seem to hold within their allegorical narratives some statement about society and the world, and in many ways this 1966 film (not released until 1969 due to problems with the Soviet censors) is the first of those to break through to an international audience. It did so in a series of increasingly shorter cuts of around 2.5 to 3 hours in length, but the full 205 minutes is restored here by Criterion and, assuming you’re already in for meandering stories about wandering monks in 14th century Russia, then it won’t disappoint. Although Rublev was a famous painter of icons in Russian Orthodox churches, there’s relatively little of that actually in the film (possibly the creation of art isn’t quite as compelling). However, it enacts a narrative of divine inspiration challenged by atheist philistines, and one can already sense why perhaps the atheist Communist Party of 1960s USSR might not have taken too kindly to Tarkovsky’s themes. The film is split into eight chapters, set in chronological order and dealing (if sometimes tangentially) with episodes from Rublev’s life — encountering a sarcastic jester, discussing art with his mentor Theophanes, enacting Christ’s passion, dealings with pagans and Tatars, et al. It’s probably best to think of these as each illustrating some allegorical lesson about Russia, but they are also quite often handsomely mounted and beautifully shot in sinuous long takes. The final section is perhaps the most impressive, wherein a young boy, the son of a bellfounder, is called on to forge an enormous bell for the Grand Prince, and does so by submitting blindly to faith, while Rublev watches from a distance in silence, having at this point given up on his art. Its message of the importance of artistic creation even under oppressive regimes is a valorous one, and though it may take some time to sink in, the film is a grand achievement.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Andrei Tarkovsky Андре́й Тарко́вский; Writer Andrei Konchalovsky Андре́й Михалко́в-Кончало́вский and Tarkovsky; Cinematographer Vadim Yusov Вадим Юсов; Starring Anatoly Solonitsyn Анатолий Солоницын; Length 205 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 3 May 2015 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, September 1997, and at the university library, Wellington, September 2000).
I am, it must be said, a huge fan of director Jacques Demy’s Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964), with its bittersweet take on French provincial life at a time of colonial unrest. That film shared some of its fictional framework with Demy’s earlier film Lola (1961), which lacked the songs but still had a rich orchestral score by Michel Legrand and an assured performance by Anouk Aimée as a cabaret dancer. Her character returns in this intriguing Stateside film for Demy, every bit as enigmatic as that earlier outing.
Demy was hardly the first European auteur to do a film in the States, and the chief point of comparison for me here is Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970), which casts a similar wry eye over the smog and ersatz glamour of Los Angeles, not to mention focusing on the student dropouts and hippies colourfully inhabiting the city’s fringes. Model Shop has all these elements, but seems to offer a more self-reflexive take on the artistic soul adrift in an increasingly consumerised world. However, despite the presence of a French character, here the author figure is an American architect, George (Gary Lockwood), who is professionally unhappy and drawn to the mysterious glamour of Europe (which is to say, Aimée’s Lola), only to find the truth is not what it seems.
It’s the film’s title that hints at the locus of these shattered truths — the eponymous shop is a sleazy dive where men photograph women in various states of undress, and it transpires that Lola works there. George is fixated on Lola, stalking her rather creepily (which she acknowledges), and declares love for her impetuously at one point, but it seems more as if he’s desperate for something that’s only illusory — love is packaged and sold, after all, like anything else in this town. The dislocation is caught nicely by the film’s settings — the long, wide traffic-clogged streets with their power lines and advertising signage, or Lockwood’s home at the edge of the airport and next to an oil derrick which makes noise night and day. There’s only one brief mysterious scene where he finds himself outside, up in the Hills at a glamorous mansion, looking out over the whole city; for the most part, this is a film buried in the sleazy depths.
For all its fascinations, there’s still a deeply chauvinist 60s sensibility to its Los Angeles. Lockwood has a bland charm, and the women he meets and lives with seem vapid and blonde, presented in various stylish period outfits (some skimpier than others). The society he frequents is of long-haired (male) artists like the band Spirit (who soundtrack and appear in the film), who may wear the vestments of the counter-cultural but seem to have achieved some commercial cachet. Only Aimée really stands out (though that’s clearly by design) in her elegant white dress and matching car, though we never really get a strong sense of her character beyond the fact that she wants desperately to return to France.
But this isn’t a film made by an outsider wanting to criticise a country and a culture he barely knows. Demy’s alter ego George is filled with love for Los Angeles that he isn’t shy in confessing, and the film’s beautiful cinematography seems to glow under the neon and street signage of the city, traffic-clogged and smog-filled though it is. It may not be perfect, but it’s still an interesting film that seems to get at some idea of what it is to be an outsider, a film made by a master filmmaker about being an exile in a land of movies.
Director Jacques Demy; Writers Demy and Carole Eastman; Cinematographer Michel Hugo; Starring Gary Lockwood, Anouk Aimée; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Monday 14 October 2013.