Criterion Sunday 559: The Mikado (1939)

There were two notable Broadway stagings of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operetta in the year this film was made, The Swing Mikado and The Hot Mikado, both all-Black casts which reimagined the text on a less specific island than Japan. I have no doubt that both would present problems to modern viewers, had they been preserved in anything more than audio excerpts from radio and a few still images, but instead we have this document. It has lavish, Technicolor staging, and I can’t dispute that it looks pretty lovely, rich and deeply saturated colours, flamboyant costumes and a bunch of actors who are largely familiar with the traditions of Gilbert and Sullivan. I’m not a massive fan of these two’s work, though Mike Leigh’s 1999 film about them (Topsy-Turvy) is one I really like, that gets into what it is to make an artistic collaboration and to deal with delivering a consumer-focused product to a popular audience. This, however, is a curio, and not one that exactly meshes with modern tastes. Of course, its Japan is a confected one, based on a vague interest in Japanoiserie and a vague idea about Orientalism, so yes it feels decidedly racist, but you get the sense (perhaps more so from Leigh’s film) that it’s only an affectation, as it’s really about a bunch of white Home Counties English people putting on a play, and on that level it’s probably quite fun. But it is hard, very hard, to watch it and to focus on the staging and the joy of performance, and not on the fact that they are all playing ridiculous Japanese stereotypes. But the colour and the costuming and the sets are lavish.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • One of the extras is a short deleted scene of a song that was excised (“I’ve Got a Little List”), perhaps for its topical political references (to a certain Mr Hitler), or maybe more so for its racial slur in the lyrics, because even in 1939 some things were just a step too far.
  • Surviving audio clips are presented from the two African-American productions of the musical mentioned in my opening sentence above, two songs from each, and though one cannot see them, you immediately get the sense that perhaps each would have made for a fine spectacle and ones far more worth preserving than this.
  • There’s a short, silent film of The Mikado (1926) included, which is obviously missing a key component of the Gilbert and Sullivan opera on which it’s based, but it’s there to give a sense of Charles Ricketts’ new costumes for the Savoy production of the long-running show, which draws more heavily on authentic Japanese costuming. Whether or not that’s the right direction to go for such a ridiculous piece of Orientalism is unclear to me, but the short preserves some little snippets of the D’Oyly Carte company’s performers of the 1920s, and of course those costumes (with a short sequence showing the designer at work, discarded cigarette butts and all).
  • A fascinating extra is a half-hour piece of two academics (Josephine Lee and Ralph MacPhail Jr.) speaking to this production, as well as to a history of productions of Gilbert and Sullivan, and both make some excellent points, one from a specifically Asian-American perspective, but both with a wealth of knowledge.
  • Mike Leigh gives his opinions too, and he certainly has positive things to say in the 1939 film’s favour, as well as plenty of critiques. Still, it’s interesting to hear a fellow film director’s take on a film production, even if he acknowledges it’s more of a curio now than anything else.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Victor Schertzinger; Writer Geoffrey Toye (based on the opera by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan); Cinematographers Bernard Knowles and William V. Skall; Starring Kenny Baker, Martyn Green, Sydney Granville, Jean Colin, John Barclay; Length 91 minutes.

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

Criterion Sunday 558: Topsy-Turvy (1999)

I’m not sure if this is his first period drama, but it’s certainly now a strand of filmmaking that Mike Leigh fairly regularly pursues, and he has a meticulous approach. I daresay some may construe it as boring — and I certainly did with Peterloo (2018) — though here his approach draws out a drama of artistic creation, which has a self-reflective aspect, especially as W.S. Gilbert (Willie, or “Schwenk” to his family) ruminates on how he will conceive his next project, while steadfastly refusing to engage with his audience. Jim Broadbent’s Gilbert is the highlight, bringing a finely tuned comic quality to a man who didn’t seem to find anything funny and certainly seems like an unpleasant person to have been around. Allan Corduner as the rather more boisterous and pleasant Arthur Sullivan, along with the rest of the cast, does sterling work, and there’s a lot of joy to be had in each of these performances. It’s the backstage work, the rehearsals and performances, the bickering and pettiness of the actors as they apply makeup and run their lines, which provides the heart of this endeavour, and I found the time flew by for much of these scenes.

I found too that Leigh was fairly successful in avoiding the rather large elephant in the room, which is to say the latent racism of the entire premise and execution of The Mikado, by focusing on the extremely shortsighted nature of the Englishmen and women who put it all together, along with a subtle critique of colonialist exoticism on the part of a cohort of people who never had any personal engagement with any of the places brought back to them in the imperial capitals (lauding questionable military heroes like Gordon of Khartoum in one scene, as well as the patriotic puffery of a young Winston Churchill in another passing reference). It also feels important that Leigh included a scene where a group of Japanese women could barely contain their confusion when presented with the ‘three little girls’ of The Mikado in person, as Gilbert tried to mine them for some expressive tips. For all that I don’t personally find a great deal to enjoy in the work of Gilbert and Sullivan, I can still appreciate some of its appeal, but this is a story of putting on a show and it really lives in the details of that shared endeavour, a shared madness and folly at too many points.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Mike Leigh; Cinematographer Dick Pope; Starring Jim Broadbent, Allan Corduner, Lesley Manville, Ron Cook, Timothy Spall, Martin Savage; Length 160 minutes.

Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Sunday 20 August 2000 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Saturday 30 July 2022).

Criterion Sunday 556: Senso (1954)

This film is, undoubtedly, full-blooded. If you have any kind of aversion to melodrama, you would be well-advised to be aware of that going in, because Visconti and his lead actor Alida Valli do not, in any way, hold back. She plays the Countess Serpieri, an Italian noblewoman in 1866 just as Italy is seeking its independence, whose cousin (Massimo Girotti) is deeply embedded in the resistance fight, but yet she dramatically, deeply, impossibly falls in love with a young Austrian officer Franz (played rather less memorably by Farley Granger, and truly the lip-synching is, as you’d expect from Italian films, very far off). The further she is sucked into passionate love for this pathetic preening jerk, the further she betrays her country and her ideals, until both are thrown explosively against one another in a final showdown that really undoes them both. The title is apt: this is a film of the senses, taking its cue (as VIsconti often does) from opera, which is where it literally begins, until the entire film is suffused with an operatic sensibility and the denouement can’t help but be bold. So if you like your films melodramatic and operatic, then this is exactly the kind of cinema you will love.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luchino Visconti; Writers Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Visconti, Giorgio Bassani, Carlo Alianello, Giorgio Prosperi, Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles; Cinematographers G.R. Aldo and Robert Krasker; Starring Alida Valli, Farley Granger, Massimo Girotti; Length 123 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 24 July 2022.

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).