Criterion Sunday 488: Howards End (1992)

I feel it’s fairly easy to be sniffy about the period costume drama of much British cinematic and TV production. After all, the heritage industry is omnipresent in the UK and does seem to contribute a lot to the economy, though it contributes less that’s valuable to Britain’s perception of itself and its history, as most of these productions are focused on something glorious and golden about the past. I certainly lapse into an easy disdain for the costume drama, even as I love to go and see each new one and see how it tries to extend or adapt or even maybe undermine that (now tedious, to me) cultural narrative. As far as these productions go, Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, along with screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, were among the most adept, and I think in some ways this adaptation of an E.M. Forster novel — one of their later productions — maybe also be their finest.

It’s a handsomely mounted Edwardian period production, replete with all the fashions and details of the era, but it tells a story about class and wealth, which touches slightly on colonialism even — as when we see Anthony Hopkins’s rubber trader Henry Wilcox in his office named for Africa, but which Emma Thompson’s Margaret Schlegel notes has nothing that might suggest that continent. The two of them fall in love after the death of his wife Ruth (Vanessa Redgrave), who had become friends with Margaret, and even between these two families, the class divides are strong, roughly Tory vs Labour politically, bankers vs artisans. Into that mix, the story also throws the working class Leonard Bast (Samuel West), eagerly trying to better himself, but the way all these three families intersect creates tension, conflict, a bit of tragedy and a lot of shifting ethical dynamics. The film cannily compares the interaction between Leonard and Margaret’s younger flighty sister Helen (Helena Bonham Carter) with that between Henry and Margaret, and shows the hypocrisy of classism. But all the while, those who long for bucolic countryside, period dresses and the trappings of English heritage cinema will find plenty to their taste also.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director James Ivory; Writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (based on the novel by E. M. Forster); Cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts; Starring Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, Helena Bonham Carter, Samuel West, Vanessa Redgrave; Length 142 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Friday 17 December 2021 (and a long time ago, probably on VHS at home in Wellington in the 1990s).

Criterion Sunday 487: That Hamilton Woman (1941)

This very much feels like a film from 1941. Almost every account of the film seems to want to mention that it was Winston Churchill’s favourite film (even that maybe he wrote one or two of Nelson’s speeches), but that’s the kind of thing that feels apocryphal: it’s a film that is engineered to feed into the war effort, and is thus part of a propaganda machine. If Nelson’s speeches feel Churchillian that’s because they are designed to be a rousing call to arms against a foreign despot hellbent on European domination. Still, for all that, this cannily remains focused on Vivien Leigh’s title character, Emma Hamilton, a Lady but one of dubious morals, it seems. Or perhaps not dubious, but certainly a woman who remains hampered throughout her life by the taint of her class background. You can see it in the aristocratic men who fall for her, falling for an image or idea of her (as a teenager she was the model for a number of paintings, particularly by Romney), but who keep her at arm’s length, never quite admitting her to the centre of society, and thus it’s framed by the story of her sad demise. It also feels a little wayward in its plotting at times, taking us down side roads that don’t seem to add to the drama at the heart, which is about her affair with (real-life husband) Laurence Olivier’s Lord Nelson. It ends up feeling like a missed opportunity with the strong undertow of wartime propaganda, albeit a much more palatable way to spin that.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alexander Korda; Writers Walter Reisch and R. C. Sherriff; Cinematographer Rudolph Maté; Starring Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, Alan Mowbray, Gladys Cooper; Length 125 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 11 December 2021.

Criterion Sunday 464: Danton (1983)

I certainly don’t mean to be reductive about what is clearly a grand effort at staging a historical spectacle, but this very much seems to fall into the ‘sweaty men shouting at each other in antique rooms’ sub-genre of historical film. It’s not that any of them is specifically a bad actor — although the dubbing into French of the many Polish actors is a bit off-putting at times — but it is rather reliant on the conflict of men (the few women involved are reduced very much to side figures, a little unfair I think in the case of Camille Desmoulins’ wife Lucile at least, who was a prominent diarist and journalist).

Danton, of course, has the more heroic character in this rendering of history — the film is named for him after all, and is played with all the charismatic charm that Depardieu can bring — but he’s still more talked about than seen. The film focuses far more on his chief antagonist, Maximilien Robespierre (played by a Polish actor, Wojciech Pszoniak), a shrinking and rather pathetic figure here. Patrice Chéreau matches Depardieu for sweaty outrage as Desmoulins but doesn’t get too much time to shine (though his presence reminds me of Chéreau’s own grand historical drama from the following decade, La Reine Margot, an older bit of history but rendered much more lustily and effectively than here). So in a sense the period costuming and other effects — the sweat, the blood, the crumbling architecture — stands just as strongly in for the drama as the actors themselves, which may owe a little to Rossellini’s history films. Rossellini’s films may have a calmer demeanour, but Wajda’s protagonists really like to get stuck in. It doesn’t always serve the film best, but it’s not too dull.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Andrzej Wajda; Writers Jean-Claude Carrière, Wajda, Agnieszka Holland, Bolesław Michałek and Jacek Gąsiorowski (based on the play Sprawa Dantona “The Danton Case” by Stanisława Przybyszewska); Cinematographer Igor Luther; Starring Wojciech Pszoniak, Gérard Depardieu, Patrice Chéreau; Length 136 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 24 September 2021.

Criterion Sunday 456: La Prise de pouvoir de Louis XIV (The Taking of Power by Louis XIV, 1966)

Of the major post-war ‘neorealist’ directors, I think that Roberto Rossellini remains the most mysterious to me, not least because I haven’t seen a great deal of his films. However, it strikes me that his move into historical dramas isn’t necessarily as far from his roots as one might think (at least at the superficial level I have to draw on; I certainly look forward to immersing myself in more of his work, as it comes up in the Criterion Collection). While Rossellini’s focus in this historical film does certainly dwell on details of location and costume, it’s not in order to provide some kind of glamorous backdrop to melodrama, but rather as facts that are used to understand characters and motivations (when Louis insists on florid wigs and extravagant clothes for his court, it’s as part of a plot to bankrupt them and make them dependent on his own largesse).

Dramatically, this seems to share more with avant-gardists like Straub and Huillet (if not quite with their radical focus on the text) and studiously avoids the melodrama you might expect with this film’s title to instead focus on the essential humanity of the characters in the midst of these machinations. Louis (Jean-Marie Patte) has a doughy youthful face and delivers his lines flatly, moving around not heroically but nonetheless with the expectation borne from wealth and privilege, while his mentor Cardinal Mazarin (Giulio Cesare Silvagni) lays dying in bed. The events of the film stick closely to this period around the early-1660s, with much discussion of past dangers still an active threat to Louis’s reign (the Fronde, particularly) and to Louis’s strategy for consolidating his power, but amongst this there are forays into court intrigue (featuring his faithful courtier Colbert, played like everyone by a non-actor, Raymond Jourdan) and his love interests. But it’s almost like a social realist filmmaker’s eye (and camera) is being cast over the past. The work of those around Louis becomes as important as his own presence — the cooks in the kitchen preparing a banquet, or the courtiers ushering these figures between rooms, helping the Cardinal to vainly apply his makeup even on his deathbed — memorable little details that help to place us as viewers into the midst of this grand court. In the end, it’s a rather effective way of presenting history.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Roberto Rossellini; Writers Philippe Erlanger and Jean Gruault; Cinematographer Georges Leclerc; Starring Jean-Marie Patte, Raymond Jourdan, Giulio Cesare Silvagni; Length 100 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Thursday 5 August 2021.

Criterion Sunday 451: Fanfan la Tulipe (1952)

You can’t go into this 18th century swashbuckling romance with any kind of expectation of realism, for this is surely as silly as they come. A young man played by the dashing Gérard Philippe is given a prophecy by a fortune teller (Gina Lollobrigida) that he takes to heart, even as it’s swiftly revealed to be an army recruitment scam for her dad during the Seven Years’ War. The setting may be redolent of Barry Lyndon but this has the dashing spirit of The Princess Bride with more than a little mid-century European comedic flavour that may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s hardly offensive. Just extremely silly, as sabre fights make way to horseback chases, the King’s daughter Henriette, the King himself (Louis XV), romantic trysts and honestly, I sort of lost track about two-thirds of the way in.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Christian-Jaque; Writers René Wheeler, René Fallet, Christian-Jaque and Henri Jeanson; Cinematographer Christian Matras; Starring Gérard Philippe, Gina Lollobrigida, Olivier Hussenot, Noël Roquevert; Length 99 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Tuesday 27 July 2021.

Criterion Sunday 445: Madame de… (The Earrings of Madame de…, 1953)

It feels a little as if historically this penultimate film by Max Ophüls has been somewhat undervalued due to its focus on jewellery, dancing, grandiose set design and its melodramatic storyline, but of course I think we can all rate it as one of his finest achievements now. Truly, his visual style reaches its apotheosis in his last few films, with the famed sequence of ballroom dances over time to convey the development of a romantic relationship just being one of the great sequences that Ophüls devises for the camera of Christian Matras. It also has an intricate plot construction, with the final movement achieving a certain emotional pitch that feels satisfying even as events unravel for all our major characters. It’s a glorious piece of work.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Max Ophüls; Writers Marcel Achard, Ophüls and Annette Wademant (based on the novel by Louise Lévêque de Vilmorin); Cinematographer Christian Matras; Starring Danielle Darrieux, Charles Boyer, Vittorio De Sica; Length 100 minutes.

Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Sunday 16 July 2000 (earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, May 2000, and most recently on DVD at home, Wellington, Wednesday 30 June 2021).

Criterion Sunday 444: Le Plaisir (1952)

This is a film of three stories, though the first and third are rather brief and function more to introduce and close out the themes of the film, about pleasure of course (the title is clue to that at least), but pleasure as it’s intermingled with various more fleeting things like ageing and death. That first sequence, in focusing on a grand ball, also introduces us to Ophüls’ favoured camera style that loves decadence and the drama of a set combined with the elegant choreography of both bodies and camera in space. That said, for all his gliding camera work, much of it settles down in the longer central segment to deal with a group of women (prostitutes it would appear, not that we see anything so uncouth as coitus) on a group trip to the countryside to celebrate the madam’s niece’s first Communion. In that respect, it already breaks our expectations of prostitutes in film, but the simple bucolic charms of the country and their presence there neatly dovetail with the exploitation (if not unhappiness, so far as we see) back at work. There’s a sub rosa commentary on patriarchal society that runs through all three stories, of an older man desperate to regain his youth (and the youthful affairs that went with it), and an artist who objectifies a model he falls in love with in the third story, along with the women of the central section, free from the tawdry expectations of the men who habitually surround them.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Max Ophüls; Writers Jacques Natanson and Ophüls (based on the short stories “Le Masque”, “La Maison Tellier” and “Le Modèle” by Guy de Maupassant); Cinematographers Philippe Agostini and Christian Matras; Starring Madeleine Renaud, Jean Gabin, Danielle Darrieux, Daniel Gélin, Simone Simon, Jean Servais; Length 97 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Thursday 27 July 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, Wellington, Monday 28 June 2021).

Criterion Sunday 443: La Ronde (1950)

A typically elegant Max Ophüls film that luxuriates in that fin de siècle Viennese atmosphere, fully revels in it indeed as Anton Walbrook leads us as viewer through the various pairings, addressing the camera, changing costumes and acknowledging the artifice of what began as a play by strolling past film cameras and even at one point “censoring” a scene by snipping the celluloid. This could of course come across as altogether too arch, but it feels like a way of making the material — which concerns a series of sexual trysts between various members of Viennese society — somehow more refined than a simple recounting of the plot might suggest. Perhaps if anything it’s just a little too sophisticated for such frolics, but it holds itself so elegantly, with a gliding camera and the glow of the lights, that I can forgive it its longueurs.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Max Ophüls; Writers Jacques Natanson and Ophüls (based on the play Reigen by Arthur Schnitzler); Cinematographer Christian Matras; Starring Anton Walbrook, Simone Signoret, Simone Simon, Serge Reggiani, Danielle Darrieux, Jean-Louis Barrault; Length 93 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Wednesday 23 June 2021 (and earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, September 1999).

Cruella (2021)

My week of newish cinema releases continues with this film, directed by the dude who did I, Tonya (2017). Again, I didn’t review that on here, but I quite liked it? It had some good performances. This film is equally stylised, and very silly, and probably not Good. I expect there are people out there who hate it, but I try to be positive and, well, it looks good. Jenny Beaven did the costume design, who I laud below as the auteur at work here.


This is not, I suppose a ‘good’ film in the traditional sense, but it is in the sense that most films that seem to get made these days are: big and showy and well-designed and just so, with big performances. It’s fun, is what it is, but it has no depth. They clearly spent an enormous amount on the music, but I don’t think it’s used very inventively — it’s largely all 60s music for a film set on the cusp of punk with a lead character who has a sort of Vivienne Westwood chic but even her central fashion show is soundtracked by Iggy and the Stooges (though perhaps that’s a commentary in itself on the reliance of British punk on American archetypes). Anyway, too many of the cues seem too obvious, and then the plot in general is also really quite stultifyingly straightforward. (Quite aside from having us believe that an actress as distinctive as Emma Stone playing a character as singular as this could play an alter ego without detection, though I assume there’s a Shakespearean level of suspension of disbelief happening here.) But Stone and Thompson camp it up, Paul Walter Hauser is excellent as a villainous Cockney sidekick (with a wandering accent) and the real auteur here is the costume designer, clearly. This is a film about frocks: great gowns, beautiful gowns.

Cruella (2021)CREDITS
Director Craig Gillespie; Writers Aline Brosh McKenna, Kelly Marcel and Steve Zissis (based on the novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith); Cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis; Starring Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, Mark Strong; Length 134 minutes.
Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Monday 7 June 2021.

Criterion Sunday 386: 山椒大夫 Sansho Dayu (Sansho the Bailiff, 1954)

The Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi certainly was fond of a heartbreaking story of a family torn apart, often focusing on women who are placed under incredible strain, and that’s certainly the case here. Kinuyo Tanaka plays a mother whose husband is exiled and who finds herself forcibly separated from her children as she journeys to him. She is sent to work as a prostitute, while they grow up as slaves to the bailiff of the film’s title, and it is them that the film focuses on for much of its running time. Generically, it’s melodrama of the highest order, but of course Mizoguchi is hardly a sloppy director and there’s scarcely a shot or a moment that doesn’t build on the desperation of the situation, with a grace and beauty to the framings that’s at odds with the turmoil within the characters. This feels like the kind of film you have to live with for a while to get the most from, for while it has its undoubted bleakness, there’s a formal quality to the expression of sorrow that makes it almost reconstitutive. I really can’t place my finger on it, but I’ll want to see it again on the big screen.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Kenji Mizoguchi 溝口健二; Writers Fuji Yahiro 八尋不二 and Yoshikata Yoda 依田義賢 (based on the short story by Mori Ogai 森鴎外); Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa 宮川一夫; Starring Yoshiaki Hanayagi 花柳喜章, Kyoko Kagawa 香川京子, Kinuyo Tanaka 田中絹代, Eitaro Shindo 進藤英太郎; Length 124 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 3 January 2021 (and before that on VHS at home, Wellington, May 2000).