Criterion Sunday 276: The River (aka Le Fleuve, 1951)

There’s a hint in this Jean Renoir film, made in India in the English language, of contemporary Powell and Pressburger films. Not just from the lush and almost anti-realist colour, but also in a certain colonialist attitude: it’s set amongst British settlers, presumably in the past when it was a colony of the Empire, and concerns three young women and their affections towards a one-legged American ex-serviceman called Capt John (he limps a bit). It’s narrated by the youngest of the three, Harriet (Patricia Walters), who is a writer of sorts, and creates her own narrative for the oldest, who is half-Indian. It all has a languorous air, perhaps because it’s about the last vestiges of colonialism in a newly independent country, or perhaps because of its Western gaze, although it feels like a benign vision of the country compared to some other more orientalist portraits (or a film like Black Narcissus), but I would imagine that’s largely down to Jean Renoir’s sensitivity as a director and writer. Certainly a film that will reward another viewing, I suspect.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s an interview with Martin Scorsese, whose Foundation helped in the restoration of the film, and who is unabashedly a big fan of the film. He speaks about his childhood experiences seeing it, about the colour and the staging, about Renoir’s collaboration with Rumer Godden and the humanity that Renoir has for his characters, as well as touching on the colonialist aspects.
  • Renoir introduces the film in a 7-minute filmed introduction made in 1962 (there are similar ones included on other Renoir films in the Criterion Collection). He relates some stories about the production in an avuncular manner, and hints at his (perhaps troubled) collaboration with the producer Ken McEldowney.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean Renoir (based on the novel by Rumer Godden); Cinematographer Claude Renoir; Starring Patricia Walters, Radha Burnier, Adrienne Corri, Thomas E. Breen, Esmond Knight; Length 99 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 17 November 2019.

Little Women (1994)

Well, I’ve done my due diligence now and have watched Gillian Armstrong’s 1990s adaptation of this perennial classic. It’s as white as the snow that adorns the Christmastime landscapes, but has many of the same delights as the most recent adaptation by Greta Gerwig.


Watching this for the first time after seeing the latest adaptation, and it feels in retrospect like that was a remix of this one (not least because the two adaptations share the same producers). Gerwig’s version cuts up the narrative, and reimagines what some of the leads might be like with different actors, but they have a certain fidelity in some respects. For my money, Christian Bale here has exactly the same dandyish energy as Timothée Chalamet in the new one and controversial as it may be, I like Saoirse Ronan more than Winona Ryder, although I don’t think it can be overestimated just how much Ryder embodied the 1990s in cinema. I feel sad that Trini Alvarado never had much of a (film) career after this, because she is every bit as good as everyone else in this ensemble cast. There’s a lush, almost nostalgic glow, but the film doesn’t dwell in this comfort, acknowledging the hardship and the sadness of life that surrounds the family. And then of course there’s Beth, who surely never had a better rendition than that by Claire Danes. Somehow director Gillian Armstrong’s choice to cut from her final bed scene to the nanny harshly ripping apart roses feels perfect, and in many ways this film may come to be viewed as one of the finest of the decade.

Little Women film posterCREDITS
Director Gillian Armstrong; Writer Robin Swicord (based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott); Cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson; Starring Winona Ryder, Christian Bale, Susan Sarandon, Trini Alvarado, Claire Danes, Kirsten Dunst, Gabriel Byrne; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 27 December 2019.

Little Women (2019)

Given this film has only just been released, it’s a late entry into my contenders for favourite of the year. To my shame, I’ve never seen a previous adaptation, and I’ve had the book unread on my shelf for half my life. I intend to remedy both points, as I’ve now ordered a copy of the much-beloved 1994 version by Gillian Armstrong; I was a teenager when it came out which may be why I didn’t see it then. Still, this latest film convinces me that it’ll be worthwhile.


I’ve seen some criticisms of this that mostly follow along the lines of the way it’s put together — not just the tricksy narrative conceit of bridging a seven year gap in the sisters’ storylines by constant cross-cutting, and the way that the death of [you all know which one right; we all know that surely by now, this story having been made so very many times?] becomes so emblematic of the death of their childhoods, as they move into a world of adult responsibilities… but also the way that the editing feels rather choppy, as if in a rush to move through this story. I can understand that some might suggest it would make a better miniseries, but honestly I think there’s little need to dwell too long on such a familiar story.

Despite not having read the original or seen any previous adaptation, the character arcs feel somehow very familiar, even as director Greta Gerwig brings something modern to the story. I imagine the older sister Meg has always felt a little bit underpowered (and requires someone of the iconic stature of Emma Watson to even bring a little bit of pathos to a very telegraphed storyline). Beth has humanity here, ironically a little bit more life to her than I had expected, but as presented it feels as if Little Women is canonically all about the conflict between Jo and Amy — and those more familiar with the story can put me right if this isn’t the case. Both Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh are wonderful actors, perhaps the best of anyone in the cast (and this is a cast with Laura Dern and Meryl Streep in it), but they capture the most attention, and there’s as much nuance in both performances as in any of recent memory (as much as in Streep’s, doing some of her finest work in years I think for the number of scenes she has). There are, for example, inflections to Ronan’s face in certain scenes that pull me back strongly to Cate Blanchett in Carol (if only because I’ve seen that film so often and so recently, not that I’m suggesting anything about Jo, though it certainly did cross my mind).

Aside from the acting, there’s a heavy emphasis on the monetary, proprietorial nature of marriage in this era, the sense of romantic partnership as transaction, which is what makes Amy’s storyline in particular so freighted with pathos. There’s this short scene where Streep’s elderly aunt calls Amy in from painting, something she loves and enjoys and wants to make a success out of (despite her self-awareness of her own limitations), to baldly inform her that the fate of the family basically rests on her making a good marriage and to forget about the frivolity of learning and artistic endeavour she’s currently engaged in. There are several scenes of this nature — in which women are confronted matter-of-factly with the reality of their world — that pass by almost subliminally, given the aforementioned speed of the film and its editing, but which resoundingly linger as these contrapuntal notes in what is otherwise a beautiful, warm and enriching film about life, with all the autumnal beauty and familial warmth you’d expect from a U-rated period drama. I suppose it could feel a little heavy-handed, but I think it all works enormously well within the context of a properly family film to make clear the constraints within which the characters live.

Little Women film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Greta Gerwig (based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott); Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux; Starring Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Eliza Scanlen, Meryl Streep; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Holloway, London, Thursday 26 December 2019.

Eighth Grade (2018)

Released last year in the States, and garnering most of its awards attention at that time, this teen film was released earlier this year in the UK. It at times has the feel of a film about the kids made by a sympathetic older brother figure, but the key is that it is sympathetic and not too judgmental about what is, after all, a very emotionally turbulent time.


I don’t know anything about being an 8th grader (which is I believe age 13/14) in the United States, and I’m too old to really understand the kids now, but this film captures some what we might nowadays call “emotional truths” of being at that age, just before reaching high school, the awkwardness and the desperation, which feel very real and understandable. In a sense, it’s the base of just about every American coming of age high school movie, about the cliques and the fitting in, and the dealing with your parents, but this is done not so much as a boldly-coloured satirical comedy, but as something a little deeper and more complex. It has a lot of laughs (although some of them are laughs of anxiety in the face of potential humiliation), but it’s also pretty gruelling at times. When I think about it, nothing particularly awful really happens, but the way it’s framed, it’s all turmoil and heartbreak and so every detail feels a lot more life-threatening than any individual one might be, and that’s where I think the strength of the film is. Also, there are lots of canny shots and nicely-realised scenes that make it seem as if the director has a great sense of how to set up these moments.

Eighth Grade film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Bo Burnham; Cinematographer Andrew Wehde; Starring Elsie Fisher, Emily Robinson, Josh Hamilton; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Sunday 21 April 2019.

Passe ton bac d’abord (aka Graduate First, 1978)

Not all my favourite films of the year are new films, and I’m always discovering films from the past to love. The BFI ran a small season dedicated to French post-New Wave director Maurice Pialat, and this 1978 piece — a follow-up of sorts to his L’enfance nue of 10 years earlier — was one that I managed to catch on the big screen, though all his films that I’ve seen have had much to commend them.


The title suggests the (sadly rather well-worn) genre of ‘old man director wags his finger at the teens for not applying themselves’ and I suppose there would be something to that. After all, it’s about a bunch of late-teenage kids studying for their university entrance exams, who seem largely less than interested in such high-minded educational application and — as teens are in movies everywhere — more interested in making out with one another, or smoking, or just hanging out. Some of them have jobs (not great jobs), some of them have dreams and plans, some just settle down because there’s little else to do and very few options in their small French town. I’d say what elevates it above run-of-the-mill coming-of-age exploitation is the sensitivity with which these situations are played out, and (title aside) the general lack of judgement that seems to be passed here. Everyone is played naturalistically and there’s no forced narrative that pushes everyone into particular places. Indeed it feels like it evolves in an almost documentary manner, in a way that’s both true to the characters and ultimately satisfying, though without tying everything up neatly.

Passe ton bac d'abord film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Maurice Pialat; Cinematographers Pierre-William Glenn and Jean-Paul Janssen; Starring Sabine Haudepin, Philippe Marlaud; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Sunday 10 November 2019.

The Beguiled (2017)

Sofia Coppola’s career has taken in a lot of hothouse environments of young women, guiding and socialising with one other largely independent of men, from her debut feature The Virgin Suicides. Her 2017 feature, from a novel already adapted in 1971 by Don Siegel, received a lot of criticism at the time for its elision of Black people in its southern US Civil War-era story, and there may of course be merits to those criticisms but there are other films that deal with these events, and Sofia Coppola is probably not the best-placed director to do justice to such themes. Instead, it takes the setting as a backdrop for another of her stories about young women’s coming of age, in difficult circumstances.


Sure, there are plenty of valid criticisms you could make, but I like Sofia Coppola’s work and I like what she’s doing with this film. A group of women isolated from their country and society isn’t exactly new territory, and if it’s not quite the masterpiece that The Bling Ring (2013) and Marie Antoinette (2006) were, it’s still very assured. Beautiful cinematography turns on a tightly judged acting performance from each of the women (and Colin Farrell), in which allegiances and sympathies shift markedly with only very subtle changes in the relationships (until it becomes less subtle and then the film just ends, rather swiftly). I don’t know if it says anything really about the period of the Civil War-era America or the end of the antebellum South, but I would venture that it’s more about sex and desire in a cloistered environment.

The Beguiled film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Sofia Coppola (based on the novel The Painted Devil by Thomas P. Cullinan); Cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd; Starring Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Angourie Rice; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Living Room Theaters, Portland OR, Friday 30 June 2017.

Criterion Sunday 269: けんかえれじい Kenka Ereji (Fighting Elegy, 1966)

Certainly a striking film from Seijun Suzuki, though he’s not exactly a director known for being boring. It’s set in the 1930s, as Japan teeters on the brink of militaristic nationalism, and the hero Kazoku (Hideki Takahashi) seems to be a prime candidate for making that particular journey. He’s raised Catholic and in love with a girl at his boarding house, but repressed sexuality and masculine bravado means he gets into lots of fights with his peers at school. Being Suzuki, these are all choreographed with an almost comic glee, though they do go on rather a bit as the film progresses. It feels both comically satirical about Japan’s recent past, but also imbued with the confusion of youth. It’s rather a marvel.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Seijun Suzuki 鈴木清順; Writer Kaneto Shindo 新藤兼人 (based on the novel by Takashi Suzuki 鈴木隆); Cinematographer Kenji Hagiwara 萩原憲治; Starring Hideki Takahashi 高橋英樹; Length 86 minutes.

Seen at Close-Up Film Centre, London, Saturday 21 September 2019.

LFF 2019 Day Twelve: So Long, My Son and Bombay Rose (both 2019) and House of Hummingbird (2018)

My final day of the London Film Festival sends me to three films from Asia (two directed by women), and all of which deal with families in their various guises, though Bombay Rose has more of a romantic flavour than the other two. All three represent reasons why I continue to love contemporary cinema, and value the films that the LFF presents.

Continue reading “LFF 2019 Day Twelve: So Long, My Son and Bombay Rose (both 2019) and House of Hummingbird (2018)”

LFF 2019 Day Four: A Thief’s Daughter, The Sharks and The Orphanage (all 2019)

Day four of the London Film Festival is the first weekend, and so the first day on which I have bought myself tickets to more than two films — only three, mind, and with fairly generous spacing, so there’s no running from screen to screen today. Two of them are in Spanish (one is Catalan although mostly in Castilian, the other Uruguyuan) and two are coming of age stories (The Sharks and The Orphanage). Oh, and all three are directed by women of course.

Continue reading “LFF 2019 Day Four: A Thief’s Daughter, The Sharks and The Orphanage (all 2019)”

Minding the Gap (2018)

With The Farewell in UK cinemas today, another recent film by a Chinese-American filmmaker was one of the finest documentaries out last year, although it only touches on themes related to the Asian diaspora experience (as when its director, who is a fellow skateboarder, appears on-screen). There have been a number of recent films about kids expressing themselves and finding a community through skateboarding (like Skate Kitchen), and this documentary is a fine addition to this burgeoning sub-genre.


I guess the obvious thing to say is that this isn’t a film about skateboarding, though the first shot of them gliding through the streets — a kinetic moment of movement and light and joy — is repeated throughout as a sort of motif. It underlines the film’s real point, which is about the precarious transition between entrapment and escape. Some of what keeps these men stuck in their lives (and there are three of them including the director Bing Liu) is partly down to society, but is also it turns out somewhat reflective of the domestic situations in which they all grew up, and that starts to become the focus of Bing’s questioning. This leads to scenes which are both heartbreaking and also really very painfully confrontational, such as Bing putting his mother under the spotlight, or about Keire’s relationship with his father, which feel sometimes like things that are too abjectly personal to be on camera. And then there’s Zack’s own patterns of domestic abuse, which Bing never really confronts his friend directly about, and which he leaves largely unresolved, while suggesting (perhaps more hopefully than anything else) that he could yet have matured. In any case, there’s a lot of material here, a lot of painful, confrontational material, nakedly emotional, but also there’s that through-line: the joy of skateboarding that brings these men together and makes them — they hope; we hope — better people, and helps at least some of them to break free from their pasts.

Minding the Gap film posterCREDITS
Director/Cinematographer Bing Liu 劉冰; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, 27 March 2019.