Criterion Sunday 164: Solaris (1972)

Undoubtedly ponderous in its pacing, for me this still feels like Tarkovsky’s weakest film — which is to say, a lot better than most other films, but somehow thin, especially in comparison to his later science-fiction Stalker (1979). That said, it’s a film about grief and memory that happens to be partially set in space, as astronaut/psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is sent to figure out what’s going wrong on board the space station orbiting the title planet. It is beautifully shot, and it’s not even the pacing which mars it for me, so much as the sense of it being this choreography of people walking into and around the frame while grappling with some portentous metaphysics. Give me a few more decades on this one and I may come round.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Andrei Tarkovsky | Writers Fridrikh Gorenshtein and Andrei Tarkovsky (based on the novel by Stanisław Lem) | Cinematographer Vadim Yusov | Starring Donatas Banionis, Natalya Bondarchuk | Length 166 minutes || Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Thursday 23 December 1999 (also before that on VHS at home, Wellington, June 1999, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 9 July 2017)

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Criterion Sunday 132: The Ruling Class (1972)

There’s a tradition of British comedy that we’ve seen already in the Criterion Collection of revelling in over-the-top satirical absurdity, with silly voices, musical sequences, delusions of grandeur, all that bit (think Monty Python’s Life of Brian or How to Get Ahead in Advertising as two examples), and this film clearly fits into that tradition. It’s certainly enjoyable, with Peter O’Toole on fine form as a delusional Christ-like aristocrat who comes into his inheritance. The film is made in a self-consciously theatrical style, with frontal framing, addresses to camera, no end of soliloquies, though it adds a few fine camera flourishes for cinematic effect. I just wish I could believe in the power of satire as something other than simply a way for an out group to laugh self-satisfiedly at entitled people they deem infra dignitatem but who retain the reins of power even so. It’s very hard in 2017 for me to be anything but angry at the self-appointed upper crust inveighing against immorality whilst revelling in it, invoking white imperialist legacies to justify their authoritarian tendencies. Still, there’s a lot to like if you’re willing to allow it.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Peter Medak | Writer Peter Barnes (based on his play) | Cinematographer Ken Hodges | Starring Peter O’Toole, William Mervyn, Coral Browne, Carolyn Semour | Length 154 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 13 November 2016

Nathalie Granger (1972)

Like a proto-Jeanne Dielman, nothing much happens in this film. Or everything maybe. It’s a quiet film, with long stretches barely even encumbered with sound effects let alone dialogue or music. Frequently figures have a spectral presence, as names on a tag, a closing door, voices off camera, a shadow on a wall. The set up is two women (sisters perhaps?) and the troubled daughter of the title. A lot of looking off frame, out of windows, and an amusing role for young Gérard Depardieu as a fumbling salesman while the women just shake their heads quietly at him, saying no. I think a lot more is going on here than is initially apparent (there’s a background radio story about young killers on the loose), but it asks the audience to fill in much of the blanks, a bold narrative strategy. I suspect if I watched it again there would even more mystery, something lacking in too many films.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Marguerite Duras | Cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet | Starring Lucia Bosé, Jeanne Moreau, Gérard Depardieu | Length 83 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 1 October 2016

Criterion Sunday 102: Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, 1972)

As Criterion in this period increasingly starts to look back to the great directors of history, it’s no surprise to see some representation for Spanish surrealist Luis Buñuel. His style has never been as flashy as some of the more vulgarian of auteurs, forever delighting in camera effects, but rather it’s the sly sense of humour which comes through so well, especially in his late period French films, which I adore. Much has been written about this film — still one of the best, though maybe if I were being stubborn I might opine the only great film, to have won an Academy Award in the US (for best foreign film, obviously) — but it stands up over forty years on. Some of the set design and costume choices are a little dated, but at heart this remains a delightful anarchic satire on the self-regarding, classist, greedy bourgeois class, forever just looking for a catered meal but, here at least, forever thwarted by Buñuel’s satirical ire.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luis Buñuel | Writers Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière | Cinematographer Edmond Richard | Starring Fernando Rey, Delphine Seyrig, Bulle Ogier, Paul Frankeur, Julien Bertheau | Length 102 minutes || Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 16 August 2000 (earlier at home on VHS, Wellington, November 1997, but most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 19 June 2016)

Criterion Sunday 101: Viskningar och rop (Cries and Whispers, 1972)

The experience of working through the Criterion Collection is one of having a slightly patchwork introduction to the ‘great directors’. We’ve had a few Fellinis, a bunch of Kurosawas and a clutch of Bergmans, amongst smatterings of Hitchcock and Powell/Pressburger, so I’m by no means an expert on these grand old men of the artform. However, my feeling is that for Ingmar Bergman, having largely moved on from his early, funny stuff (and I’m a fan of his 50s comedies like Smiles of a Summer Night and The Seventh Seal), he went through a more bleak period of introspective psychodramas, and amongst these Cries and Whispers is perhaps a good — if not the archetypal — example. It’s a chamber film, largely set in a single home in the late-19th century, as two sisters, Maria (Liv Ullmann) and Karin (Ingrid Thulin), take care of their dying third sister Agnes (Harriet Andersson), with the help of the family’s maidservant Anna (Kari Sylwan). No one really has much love for anyone else, save for Anna’s love and affection towards Agnes, as we learn in flashbacks. These depict each of the four struggling with earlier relationships, such as that of Karin with her husband, or Maria with a young doctor, and each is bookmarked by a brief image of the woman’s face in close-up, looming out of a red-filtered darkness. Indeed, red is a key colour in the film: formally, Bergman employs frequent fades to red to mark scene transitions, and in terms of the set design, one of the room’s in the home is the “red room” — truly a vision of bourgeois hell, though at least each of the sisters makes sure to wear white when they’re in there. It’s hardly genteel either, as under this etiquette-ridden formally-dressed exterior are all kinds of roiling emotions, expressed most forcefully by one scene of Karin’s self-mutilation in order to escape her husband’s attentions (which I’m sure didn’t escape Michael Haneke either). It has a certain cumulative force to it, though whether you love it depends on how you respond to Bergman’s moralistic hand-wringing.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman | Cinematographer Sven Nykvist | Starring Liv Ullmann, Ingrid Thulin, Kari Sylwan, Harriet Andersson | Length 91 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 12 June 2016

Criterion Sunday 83: The Harder They Come (1972)

The soundtrack for this was a mainstay in my household during my formative years, so I can attest to the excellence of the music in this apparently first Jamaican feature film. Indeed, music features heavily in the life of its protagonist Ivan, as you’d expect given he’s played by recording artist Jimmy Cliff. He’s a small-town country boy moved to the big city after the death of his guardian, where he hopes to make it in the music business, but is swiftly derailed by the corruption of the system. It seems like it’s going to be a film about achieving your dreams, but the socio-economic circumstances of his life pushes him towards criminality, and that’s where the film finds its groove. I would shy away from calling it gritty or realistic — it plays around with plenty of gangster genre tropes — but it certainly does give a vivid sense of the shantytown geography of the poorer parts of Kingston. It also doesn’t avoid the local dialect, to the extent that I found it much easier to follow by putting on the English subtitles. In any case, it has the charm of a young industry flushed with the possibilities of the format, and most of all an incredible, pulsating soundtrack, whether the hit song of the title which Ivan is seen recording, or the incidental music that follows his progress throughout the film.

Criterion Extras: Aside from those handy English subtitles for the hard-of-hearing, there’s a short interview with Island Records boss Chris Blackwell, an instrumental figure in the popularisation of reggae in the Western world.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Perry Henzell | Writers Perry Henzell and Trevor D. Rhone | Cinematographers Peter Jessop, David McDonald and Franklyn St. Juste | Starring Jimmy Cliff | Length 103 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 6 March 2016

Three Italian Giallo Films

I may have lived almost half my life (obviously this is a vague metric, but let’s be optimistic and just assume 40 is a median), much of it as an ardent fan of cinema, yet there are vast swathes of the seventh art which have passed me by. One such blindspot is the horror genre, and of this the so-called giallo films of Italian cinema (the word means “yellow”, from the covers to the pulp crime novels popular in the country at the time) are a particular mystery: for all their exploitational slasher origins, many of them are highly praised by critics for their artistic and narrative playfulness (as much as they are decried for their lapses into misogyny, though this could equally apply to much of slasher horror, surely). Directors like Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci and Mario Bava are frequently cited, the baroque titles of whose opuses have long taken up a small corner of my brain, even as I’ve never seen any of them. Therefore, I thought it only sensible to accept a recent opportunity offered by a horror-cinema-loving friend to visit and watch a number of these films back-to-back, with appropriate food, drink and enthusiastic company.

The pretense for this event was my friend Matthew coming across a film called Death Laid an Egg (1968) deep in Jean-Louis Trintignant’s filmography, and indeed this is the oldest (and perhaps oddest) of the three films we watched. It also has the most bankable stars of the three, with Trintignant and Italian actor (and 50s sex symbol) Gina Lollobrigida both receiving starring roles. In some ways, it seems to fit in more closely with trends in European art cinema, taking its cues as much from Michelangelo Antonioni’s architecturally-framed elliptical modernist narratives on the one hand and trippy, hippy late-60s head films on the other, as much as from traditional horror or crime genre tropes. It also features less overt violence towards women than the other films, though the staging of the opening shots does strongly imply that Trintignant’s poultry farmer Marco has a penchant for murdering prostitutes, which is the motivation for a plot against him and his wife Anna (Lollobrigida) by his cousin Gabri (Ewa Aulin). The idea of Trintignant and Lollobrigida as farmers isn’t in the end as absurd as that may seem, for the film is interested in a more coldly futuristic idea of the role, manipulating genetics and engineering the perfect animal from a lab, rather than mucking out cages or suchlike. The latter stages of the narrative are all set out in a rather maddeningly opaque way, such that it’s easy to miss some of the final revelations, but as a whole the film is nicely controlled.

More traditional, then, is Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972), another rather oblique title which hints at perversions in its small-town Italian setting. A number of boys have been murdered, and a big-city reporter, Andrea (Tomas Milian), comes to town, with his tight jeans and archetypal 70s moustache, digging into the events. The film offers a number of possible suspects for the murders, including a mysterious witch-like woman (Florinda Bolkan), a hermit, a simpleton and a young priest, amongst others. The film is pretty sharp on indicting religious-based repression and the power of the local church and police authorities to turn local anger into murderous vendettas. It also gets over a good sense of atmosphere for its story, with outbreaks of gory violence to move things along.

However, best of the lot is the now-admired and acknowledged classic Profondo rosso (or Deep Red, 1975) directed by Dario Argento, towards the end of the first classic period of giallo filmmaking. A recent Blu-ray edition captures the beautiful cinematography of this slow-building mood piece, which features recurring sequences languidly panning across mysterious items in extreme close-up, not to mention an unfussy set design with a bar right out of Edward Hopper. The plot has jazz musician Marcus (David Hemmings from Blow-up) investigating a gory murder of a psychic, and his ensuing chase folds in all kinds of supernatural mystery to tinge the horror premise. Indeed, there’s a prominent role for a particularly spooky house which hides dark secrets (as such houses always seem to do). Despite its length, it all moves along without excessive flab, albeit taking its time to build up the eerie atmosphere nicely. It’s one of the few horror films I’ve seen that even I feel would repay multiple viewings, but Argento is clearly well in control of his craft by this time. A high point for Italian cinema of the 1970s.


La morte ha fatto l'uovo (Death Laid an Egg, 1968)

FILM REVIEW || Seen at a friend’s home, Leighton Buzzard, Saturday 27 February 2016

La morte ha fatto l’uovo (Death Laid an Egg, 1968)
Director Giulio Questi | Writers Franco Arcalli and Giulio Questi | Cinematographer Dario Di Palma | Starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Gina Lollobrigida, Ewa Aulin | Length 90 minutes

Non si sevizia un paperino (Don’t Torture a Duckling, 1972)
Director Lucio Fulci | Writers Gianfranco Clerici, Lucio Fulci and Roberto Gianviti | Cinematographer Sergio D’Offizi | Starring Tomas Milian, Barbara Bouchet, Florinda Bolkan | Length 102 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home, Leighton Buzzard, Saturday 27 February 2016

Profondo rosso (Deep Red, 1975)
Director Dario Argento | Writers Dario Argento and Bernardino Zapponi | Cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller | Starring David Hemmings, Daria Nicolodi | Length 126 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home, Leighton Buzzard, Saturday 27 February 2016

Tout va bien (1972)

After the apocalyptic ending of Week End, Godard’s filmmaking became more and more overtly political in content and confrontational in form. We’ve already seen in his collaboration with the Rolling Stones, One Plus One, a characteristic blend of documentary elements with characters reciting political theory in support of direct action, and this would be taken further in his other works of this period, often put out under the Dziga Vertov Group rubric. Vertov was a pioneer of documentary filmmaking in the Soviet Union of the 1920s, and it was his formal innovations combined with frank political underpinning that must have attracted these French filmmakers. I’ve not seen a great deal of Godard’s work of this period, but if Un film comme les autres (A Film Like the Others, 1968) is anything to go by, they could be quite challenging — it consists of long-shot takes of students filmed from quite some distance sitting around talking about politics, split into two halves using the same images but a different soundtrack in each (at least, this is my recollection of it).

For the majority of the 1970s Godard was engaged in pseudo-agitprop films and collagist television experiments, so Tout va bien (which translates as “everything’s going well”) is almost accessible by contrast, and links in mostly clearly with his late-1960s work in style. Again we see that blend of political discussion within a narrative framework which in this case admits of two significant international actors (Jane Fonda and Yves Montand), playing reporters investigating a strike at a meat processing factory. Of course Godard and his co-director Jean-Pierre Gorin, who is now a film professor, were hardly likely to allow these famous actors the usual trappings of celebrity so afford them few close-ups and minimise their prominence in scenes where they do appear. For example, there’s a conversation between them filmed from behind Montand’s head, which itself hides Fonda’s face — a method of withholding identification that can be seen as early as Vivre sa vie (1962) and is fairly common in Godard’s films.

Alongside the bigger stars is a greater transparency about the practices and more particularly the economics of commercial filmmaking. Two voices at the start explain that a scene of the two stars being in love is necessary (presumably to secure funding), and this sits alongside a shot of cheques to the key personnel being signed; the voices return at the end to talk over the top of a climactic scene, preventing Fonda and Montand’s story being resolved. There’s also a notable long lateral tracking shot recalling the pile-up in Week End, this one filmed along the tills in a supermarket where everything is being sold — even the French Communist Party has a stall, though that may be as much to do with Godard’s sectarian antipathy towards the Communists.

Making plain the mechanics of the film’s production goes along nicely with the way the film seeks to expose all levels of the consumer society. Prior to the supermarket scene, the bulk of the film depicts staff discontentment at a factory where sausages are made — a place of contact between the rural agrarian world, the suburban working classes, and the urban bourgeois owners. Montand’s character, meanwhile, works in advertising, which sells products (such as those produced in the factory) to the consumer. This strategy is accompanied by formal distantiation techniques: the factory is filmed as a vast self-contained set, the rooms like a set of stacked boxes across which the camera pans (there’s even a banner hanging from this set). Moreover, various characters speak directly to the camera about their contrasting expectations (the Italian boss and the union leader for example).

Godard’s film is upfront about systems of production and consumption, but it avoids being boring. Quite aside from its saturated colours and frontal framing with shallow depth of focus (familiar from Godard’s other features), there’s also some fairly easily-digestible criticism of inequalities that exist within these systems. For example, female workers are given a voice to express their discontent at the male hierarchy within the factory, and the way women’s voices are suppressed is suggested in voiceover as we are shown Jane Fonda listening. There’s also that favourite of the post-1968 period of filmmaking, the class war (“lutte de classe”) expressed in fighting between students and police.

Tout va bien, of course, ends up being a bitterly ironic title. The playfulness of the earlier 1960s films is still somewhat in evidence, but there’s little hope left when all’s done. At the end, the mordant caption “FRANCE 1972” accompanies another lateral tracking shot, as it takes in a bleak industrial landscape and long stretches of barren brick wall, set to a cheerful pop song claiming “it’s sunny in France”. The voiceover implicates everyone in this outcome and you get the sense here more than ever that Godard is ready to give up on France.


© Gaumont

DIRECTOR FOCUS FILM REVIEW: Jean-Luc Godard
Directors/Writers Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin | Cinematographer Armand Marco | Starring Jane Fonda, Yves Montand | Length 95 minutes || Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 16 May 2001 (and most recently at home on DVD, London, Monday 26 August 2013)

My Rating 3.5 stars very good


Next Up: Godard didn’t return to ‘proper’ feature filmmaking until 1980’s Sauve qui peut (la vie), and his early 80s films start to focus on a new interest in collage backed by strong soundtracks. The second of these 1980s works is Passion, reuniting him with actor Michel Piccoli and cinematographer Raoul Coutard, as well as returning him to self-critique within a filmmaking setting.