Criterion Sunday 576: 밀양 Miryang (Secret Sunshine, 2007)

There are abiding mysteries in this film, as I suppose there have been in other films of Lee Chang-dong (the most recent I’ve seen is Burning from a few years back, I think). But it’s never quite possible to be clear who anyone is. There’s our leading lady who we first meet in a broken down car outside a small city near Busan that she’s relocating to in memory of her dead husband, but as to why she’s moving or how he died, those are things that take some time to come out. But it all makes more sense if you see this as a film about a woman trying to deal with trauma. More comes as the film goes on, and then she takes a turn into an evangelical religious group. Whether or not they are manipulative and hypocritical, it feels like something she needs at that point in the film, and while in some senses nothing quite resolves for her, you’re left with those abiding mysteries — which by the end seem more spiritual than merely narrative.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Lee Chang-dong 이창동 (based on short story 벌레 이야기 “The Story of a Bug” by Yi Cheong-jun 이청준); Cinematographer Jo Yong-gyu 조용규; Starring Jeon Do-yeon 전도연, Song Kang-ho 송강호; Length 142 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 2 October 2022.

Criterion Sunday 561: Kes (1969)

The UK seems like a pretty horrible place to be right now — reading the news, there seems to be a lot of intolerance and judgment, and it primarily seems to flow from the top down (you just have to look at the current Prime Minister and those people vying to take over from him). Turns out none of this is new and you can hear this strain of small-minded authority figures lecturing down to poor working-class kids here too, in a film made at the tail end of the 1960s, in a mining community where young Billy doesn’t want to follow his family down the pit. There’s a lot of bleakness to this quiet story of childhood desperation, and then there’s the eponymous bird (a kestrel, of course) which seems to signify so much more potential to Billy’s world. I think Loach keeps this all in nice balance — the metaphors of freedom and the bleak reality of constraint — and though the grim constant grind that Billy lives under, the abuse of the school teachers (except for the one kind soul who encourages him towards the end), and his horrible brother, loom large they never quite become the whole story. Perhaps there’s hope, perhaps there’s not, you can read the film how you want to.

NB: This is listed as 1970 by the Criterion Collection, though it was screened at the 1969 London Film Festival.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ken Loach; Writers Barry Hines, Loach and Tony Garnett (based on Hines’s novel A Kestrel for a Knave); Cinematographer Chris Menges; Starring David Bradley, Freddie Fletcher, Colin Welland; Length 99 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 20 August 2022 (and earlier, probably on VHS in the 1990s).

Criterion Sunday 560: White Material (2009)

Part of what I think is difficult to take in about this film, at least on a first viewing, is that so much of it happens off-screen when we aren’t (or the central character, Maria Vial, played by Isabelle Huppert, isn’t) looking. By which I mean the violence that drives it, that claims several central characters, that drives a wedge between Vial and her coffee plantation business, as well as her family (Christophe Lambert as estranged husband and Nicolas Duvauchelle as deranged son). Partly that’s because she’s never reliably looking the right way to witness it, so intent on downplaying and ignoring the rising tide of anti-colonial violence taking place, the efforts to push out white landowners; she’s too immured in a rapidly vanishing system of rule to even seem to notice the threats to her existence, because it is her home after a fashion, the only life she’s known. And so while I think this film is filled with bold contrasts and strong drama, a lot of it just seems to seep in around the edges, until eventually it starts to overwhelm even La Huppert, who as an actor — as much as a character — feels like an indomitable spirit. She’s hardly a hero, but she just keeps trying to make things happen and she doesn’t know how to relent.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s an interesting little short film made by Denis, filmed from her point of view on a camcorder of some sort, of her taking this film to the Écrans Noirs film festival in Yaoundé, Cameroon, and having to deal with the outdated technology and limited screening conditions available there. Indeed, the whole story builds to a bit of a punchline, almost.
  • There’s also a short deleted scene of Maria finding a certain person (no spoilers, eh) dead near the end, but presumably this was just too direct for Denis’ method.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Claire Denis; Writers Denis and Marie NDiaye; Cinematographer Yves Cape; Starring Isabelle Huppert, Christophe Lambert, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Isaach de Bankolé, Michel Subor; Length 105 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 31 July 2022.

Criterion Sunday 546: Five Easy Pieces (1970)

As a seminal film in the ‘New American cinema’ movement, moving away from the Hollywood studio system, and a key piece in Jack Nicholson’s filmography, I must say that I like but don’t love Five Easy Pieces. It tells the story of Bobby Dupea, a man who seems pretty desperate to get away from himself, from his well-educated upper-class (for America) background, a world of conservatories and piano prodigies at a youthful age (which is what Bobby once was). Quite what he’s looking for is the drama of the film, though: some kind of pure and authentic expression of being American, perhaps, though most of the time it seems like he’s just running with no clear goal, lashing out at those who love him and constantly cheating on his girlfriend (Karen Black). It’s a great performance from Nicholson, but it’s not an easy one to love, given how rough around the edges he is, though it feels somehow quintessentially American. I can certainly understand how it hooks people in, but watching it I feel more like one of the pseuds that Bobby is so angry at all the time.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Bob Rafelson; Writers Carole Eastman [as “Adrien Joyce”] and Rafelson; Cinematographer László Kovács; Starring Jack Nicholson, Karen Black, Susan Anspach; Length 98 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Wednesday 29 June 2022.

Criterion Sunday 534: L’Enfance-nue (aka Naked Childhood, 1968)

This film was Maurice Pialat’s debut feature, made when he was already well into his 40s, though it’s a film about childhood. And while it’s set in the contemporary France Pialat was working in, during the late-1960s, it feels like a slightly provincial world, a little bit stuck in time. Like its famous precursor by Truffaut ten years earlier that (more or less) kicked off the Nouvelle Vague, The 400 Blows, this is about a difficult young kid — François (Michel Terrazon) — who doesn’t seem to have a place in the world. Unlike that earlier film, young François’s dislocation is literalised by having him passed around foster families. He’s not always angry, and there are moments of warmth and even familial affection of sorts, but one of the strengths of the film is not making it all about the kid, who almost seems to be in the background a lot of the time, making his outsider status part of the film’s formal strategy, which builds up in little snatched moments, almost a collage of scenes that build towards a life. There’s something confident here that you imagine might derive from Pialat coming to filmmaking relatively late in life, and there’s a tenderness too at times.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Maurice Pialat; Writers Arlette Langmann and Pialat; Cinematographer Claude Beausoleil; Starring Michel Terrazon, Marie-Louise Thierry, René Thierry; Length 83 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Thursday 12 May 2022.

Criterion Sunday 520: Maria Larssons eviga ögonblick (Everlasting Moments, 2008)

There are a number of Jan Troell films in the Criterion Collection and this just happens to be the first of those titles to have been put out by them, but despite having constructed myself a rigorous schedule by which to watch them in order (two every Sunday, as you should know by now!), I still managed to put off this one because it sounded boring. In a sense, it is what I thought it would be — a slow, elegiac ode to a lost personal history — but it also stays clear of being boring by having some fine performances, anchored in a history that feels close to Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (a high bar), while also somehow being a film reflecting on what it is to be a journeyman artist. Our lead character Maria (played by Maria Heiskanen over a period of years) is seen from her youth through to old age, dealing with a moody husband and an increasing number of children while also occasionally showing some interest in photography. It’s a film that’s about the past enough that it looks like an old film, all sepia tones and earthy colours, but it’s the complexity in the characters and the way that what might become simple moral stories become more layered and complex, as Maria becomes stronger in herself but never quite does what people expect. It’s a very handsome movie, and that’s a fine thing, almost a lost art itself.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jan Troell; Writers Niklas Rådström, Troell and Agneta Ulfsäter-Troell; Cinematographers Troell and Mischa Gavrjusjov; Starring Maria Heiskanen, Mikael Persbrandt, Jesper Christensen; Length 131 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 28 May 2022.

Global Cinema 34: Chad – Grigris (2013)

Not ostensibly a major player in world cinema, Chad is probably the African country I’ve seen more films from, solely due to the work of Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, who has carved out a distinctive an ongoing voice for himself representing the country. Works like Daratt and A Screaming Man made his name, and he’s also made work in France (with 2017’s A Season in France). His latest film was made last year, Lingui: The Sacred Bonds (set again in his native country).


Flag - ChadRepublic of Chad (جمهورية تشاد aka République du Tchad)
population 16,245,000 | capital N’Djamena (951k) | largest cities N’Djamena, Moundou (137k), Abéché (98k), Sarh (97k), Kélo (58k) | area 1,284,000 km2 | religion Islam (52%), Christianity (44%) | official language Arabic (اَلْعَرَبِيَّةُ), French (français) | major ethnicity Sara (27%), Arab (13%), Kanembu (9%) | currency Central African CFA franc (FCFA) [XAF] | internet .td

A country which stretches from the arid Saharan north, through an arid Sahel belt in the centre to fertile savannah in the south. It is indeed named after the lake which is the second-largest wetland on the continent (though may have shrunk by up to 95% between the 1960s and 1990s), itself named from a Kanuri word meaning “large expanse of water”. Some of the most important archaeological sites are located in Chad and habitation became denser from the 7th millennium BCE. As a crossroad of civlisations, the earliest known were the Sao, but the Kanem Empire took over around 800 CE and lasted the longest, though the Bagirmi and Wadai emerged in the 16th and 17th centuries, and each raided for slaves from the south. French colonial expansion took hold in the late-19th century and by 1920 they had taken it in as a colony, part of French Equatorial Africa (with what are now CAR, the Republic of Congo and Gabon). Even compared with their other colonies, modernisation was slow and education was neglected, as France treated it merely as a source of cheap labour for the cotton industry. After WW2 it became an overseas territory and had an assembly, in which the largest party was the PPT (Chadian Progressive Party), and upon independence on 11 August 1960, the leader of the PPT became the first Prime Minister, François Tombalbaye. His autocratic rule sparked a northern insurgency and civil war, with Hissène Habry taking the capital in 1979 (several years after the deposition of Tombalbaye). Libya tried to use the fragile balance of power to take control (in the so-called Toyota War), but were repelled in 1987. Habré consolidated his dictatorship but was overthrown by his deputy Idriss Déby in 1990 (both died in 2021, the former from COVID while imprisoned in Senegal for war crimes, the latter in combat while fighting an insurgency). A transitional military government under his son Mahamat Déby is currently in power.

As a country blighted by civil wars and insurgencies, as well as chronic underinvestment while a colony of France, understandably cinema has not progressed quickly in the country. The first film made there appears to have been a 1958 John Huston film, and the earliest indigenous work documentary short films made by Edouard Sailly in the 1960s. The few cinemas which existed closed down due to civil war, but some stabilisation post-1990 allowed filmmakers like Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (the country’s best-known internationally) and Issa Serge Coelo to make a name. As of 2011, there is apparently only a single cinema in the country.


Grigris (2013)

This is a stylish film from a director who has very much proved himself in his filmmaking, but it’s also one that is truly built around a riveting central performance (in this case from Souleymane Démé). The title character is a studio photographer by day (his dad’s trade) and a dancer in nightclubs by night. He loves the dancing, and even though his legs are paralysed, he makes such effective and spectacular use of them in his dance routines, but it’s a not a film about overcoming physical limitations, it’s about what happens when you need to make choices beyond your control. He falls in with some dodgy guys and ends up doing a bit of smuggling to make money and that’s when things start to unravel a bit. It all moves at a deliberate, slow pace but it’s never unclear about what’s going on or who’s motivated by what, and it all ends in a spectacular scene that I shan’t go into obviously but, well, just don’t mess with village women in Chad I guess.

Grigris (2013)CREDITS
Director/Writer Mahamat-Saleh Haroun محمد الصالح هارون; Cinematographer Antoine Héberlé; Starring Souleymane Démé, Mariam Monory; Length 101 minutes.

Seen at home (Mubi streaming), Wellington, Tuesday 2 March 2021.

Criterion Sunday 512: Vivre sa vie: film en douze tableaux (aka My Life to Live, 1962)

I have of course seen this Godard film many times before (and written about it far more eloquently in the past than I can muster now) but it may be my favourite of Godard’s oeuvre. It limns the concerns of the contemporary 1960s world to something self-consciously archaic in cinema, using intertitles (the chapter headings for this most structural of films, composed as the subtitle says, in 12 tableaux), gorgeous black-and-white close-ups of Anna Karina’s face (not to mention the back of her head), and of course those images of Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc. But beyond that, it’s a film that deals with his eternal theme of capitalism, using the figure of Karina’s Nana as a way into a morally murky world. Nobody really ends up in a good place — shades of Breathless at the end — but the story of Nana’s falling into prostitution as a line of work and then into love (not a line of work) is almost sidelined by an aesthetic interest in the image. Indeed it’s very easy to miss the film’s ostensible plot, but also very easy (and equally pleasurable) just to look at the film as a series of tableaux vivants.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard; Cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Starring Anna Karina; Length 83 minutes.

Seen at university library (VHS), Wellington, October 1998 and June 2000 (later on DVD at home, London, Wednesday 14 August 2013, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Monday 7 February 2022).

Criterion Sunday 506: Dillinger è morto (Dillinger Is Dead, 1969)

I watched this a week ago and it’s lucky that it stays with me because I completely forgot to write it up at the time. In a way it’s like a movie perfectly suited to our pandemic times, albeit made decades ago. Our lead character is, of all things, a designer of gas masks (Michel Piccoli) — and certainly the question of living our lives in masks comes up, along with a sense of alienation that grows from that. He comes home to his wife (Anita Pallenberg), but his dissatisfaction is evident in both her and the meal that’s waiting for him, so he starts to cook another. Things move on from there, but the film is an accretion of details in a vaguely absurdist style that heightens his sense of disconnectedness from the world, and the revolver he finds wrapped up in newspaper clippings about the titular Chicago gangster only fuels that sense of disappointment with life. I suppose it could be said to satirically represent a man’s desire for a new life, even if it ultimately feels very masculine in the way he believes he can move out of his present circumstances (there’s a lot of performatively macho swaggering, and Piccoli bears his hairy chest once again after Le Mépris a few years earlier). There are certainly some ideas here that feel prescient, and a claustrophobic sense of space and time as he moves around his apartment, though I found it stylistically very much of its era in a way that was difficult to fully embrace.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Marco Ferreri; Writers Ferreri and Sergio Bazzini; Cinematographer Mario Vulpiani; Starring Michel Piccoli, Anita Pallenberg, Annie Girardot; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Thursday 10 February 2022.

Criterion Sunday 503: Lola Montès (1955)

This is one of those grand European follies (like Les Amants du Pont-Neuf in more recent times, perhaps) which burned up money in its production and then failed spectacularly at the box office, but it’s the last film by the great director Max Ophüls and if it’s a failure, it’s a spectacular and beautiful one, immaculately staged and choreographed. Of course, as a film, it’s not a failure at all, but perhaps it just didn’t suit the tastes of the mid-1950s audience. It’s set a hundred years earlier, around the time of the revolutions of 1848, and tells a story of a courtesan and (apparently fairly indifferent) dancer known primarily for her liaisons with rich and powerful men, such is the way of that era’s stardom. Martine Carol in the title role is a glamorous presence but, when seen from the vantage point of her later years performing in a circus, a curiously voiceless one, as the ringmaster Peter Ustinov puts most of her words into her mouth. I don’t think that’s a failure of acting, though: if she feels underwhelming, it’s because her life has pushed her to this, and the flashbacks in which her story is told find her with more agency and a more vibrant presence. But acting aside this is a film peculiarly constructed in the staging and shooting, as beautifully framed widescreen images are composed, and the emotional movement of the story is as evident from the camerawork as from the screenplay or acting. Undoubtedly a film to lose oneself in on the big screen, it’s one of cinema’s great films by one of the medium’s finest directors.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Max Ophüls; Writers Ophüls and Annette Wademant (based on the novel La Vie extraordinaire de Lola Montès by Cécil Saint-Laurent); Cinematographer Christian Matras; Starring Martine Carol, Peter Ustinov, Anton Walbrook, Will Quadflieg, Oskar Werner; Length 115 minutes.

Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Sunday 30 July 2000 (as well as earlier on laserdisc at the university, Wellington, April 1998, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Friday 7 January 2022).