LFF 2019 Day Eight: Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Maternal (both 2019)

My eighth day of the festival should have been filled with more films, but I ended up not going to the third. Perhaps you could say the long hours were getting to me (I did feel my eyelids getting heavy briefly during Portrait), but actually something else came up. However, the two I did see both presented fascinating films about women’s lives, neither of which featured men at all (or almost never), though of course patriarchal control was never too far from the surface.

Continue reading “LFF 2019 Day Eight: Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Maternal (both 2019)”

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海上花 Haishang Hua (Flowers of Shanghai, 1998)

Hou Hsiao-hsien remains probably Taiwan’s most famous filmmaker, though his films can be rather forbidding to casual viewers in their austerity (beautiful though they undoubtedly often are). He made his masterpiece in 1989 with A City of Sadness, but followed it with further important works, culminating with this period film, made close to the turn of the millennium (albeit restored to its original glory in the last year), but harking back a hundred years earlier on the mainland. His later work started to move towards more European collaborations, and sometimes settings, though still with his delicate style and sensibility.


I first saw this 20 years ago on its initial release, and it is still both bewitching and perplexing in equal measure. The film never leaves these interior settings, the chambers of various courtesans around Shanghai, but the camera glides around, moving first left and then right to take in the characters sitting in repose, gambling or smoking opium. There’s an almost constant drinking of tea and smoking of pipes and the word I have written in my notes most often, underlined at one point, is “languid”. This is a film that slips by, the emotions of the women trapped in this life, almost imperceptible and yet clearly fierce. Aside from the iconic face of Tony Leung Chiu-wai, most of these characters and their stories tend to slide into one another, and what you recall are the rooms, the noise, the quiet repetitive musical theme, and, yes, the languid atmosphere.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Hou Hsiao-hsien 侯孝賢; Writer Chu T’ien-wen 朱天文; Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bing 李屏賓; Starring Tony Leung Chiu-wai 梁朝偉, Michiko Hada 羽田美智子, Vicky Wei 魏筱惠, Carina Lau 刘嘉玲; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Arlecchino, Bologna, Thursday 27 June 2019 (and originally at the Embassy, Wellington, Tuesday 27 July 1999).

楊貴妃 Yokihi (Princess Yang Kwei-Fei, 1955)

A brief theme week not tied into any particular release coming up, though the London Film Festival starts on Wednesday 2 October and it always features a trove of world cinema. No, after my recent theme week on Asian diaspora cinema, I wanted to refocus on cinematic visions of China, some of which have been made by expatriate Chinese directors, most of which are made by other countries, and some which are perhaps specifically resistant to Chinese influence in the region — from or about contested territories like Taiwan and Hong Kong.


A late colour film by Mizoguchi, based in Chinese history, which deals with court intrigues involving the lowly lady of the title raised to chief consort of the Emperor, whose family are then inducted into government, provoking the ire of the people and a tragic ending for all concerned. The camera glides beautifully throughout these palatial rooms, strikingly picked out in shades of red, as Machiko Kyo does subtle work as a beautiful woman sacrificed to the imperial ambitions of the men around her. It may not be esteemed among Mizoguchi’s best, but it’s pretty great nonetheless.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Kenji Mizoguchi 溝口健二; Writers Ching Doe 陶秦, Matsutaro Kawaguchi 川口松太郎, Yoshikata Yoda 依田義賢 and Masashige Narusawa 成沢昌茂; Cinematographer Kohei Sugiyama 杉山公平; Starring Machiko Kyo 京マチ子, Masayuki Mori 森雅之, So Yamamura 山村聰; Length 98 minutes.
Seen on a train (DVD on a laptop), Monday 1 July 2019.

Criterion Sunday 263: Fanny och Alexander [The Theatrical Version] (Fanny and Alexander, 1982)

Having seen this film for the first time a few weeks ago in its “TV Version”, I now watch the “Theatrical Version” — although the latter is really just the former cut in half (they’re both films) — and I have the sense of seeing some things for the first time. I suppose it’s just the necessarily more clipped way that things progress, but some of these moments just never really struck me so much when it played out in full. In either case, Bergman’s artistry as a filmmaker is fully evident, with long scenes filled with detail and artifice playing out almost effortlessly, though they must have taken a fair bit of staging and practice. However, the brevity brings its own rewards, and in some ways the little moments of the supernatural or hallucinatory — the way dead figures come to life in front of our young protagonists’ eyes, for example — seem to have more of a punch to them in the shortened version. In any case, this remains a film about Alexander primarily, a portrait of the artist as a young man if you will (for he is the Bergman stand-in). Every element is crafted with deep care, particularly the set design of the various family apartments and the austere parson’s lodgings. I had perhaps not expected to like this coming of age period costume drama as much as I did, but it’s a towering achievement.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s a commentary on the film by Peter Cowie, but I’ve not listened to it yet.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman; Cinematographer Sven Nykvist; Starring Ewa Fröling, Jan Malmsjö, Allan Edwall, Bertil Guve, Erland Josephson, Jarl Kulle; Length 188 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 15 September 2019.

Criterion Sunday 262: Fanny och Alexander [The Television Version] (Fanny and Alexander, 1982)

I started watching this under the impression that, as a “television version” which is ostensibly split into four episodes, it would therefore be watchable in small chunks. However, do not be fooled, for despite its five act structure (plus a prologue and epilogue), and the separate credit roll at the end of each “episode”, this is essentially a single 312-minute film, so I ended up watching most of it in a single sitting.

There are different ways to use this kind of duration and Bergman focuses on the characters. There are essentially three households at the heart of this film: the Ekdahls (with Ewa Fröling as the key figure, Emilie), a rich theatre-owning family in whose company we start the film, as they throw a grand Christmas gathering; that of the austere Bishop Vergérus (Jan Malmsjö); and the Jewish moneylender Isak (Erland Josephson), who is more a passing background character for much of the film. The title may put the emphasis on Emilie’s two children, and their experiences guide the structure of the film (Bertil Guve’s Alexander is the character that director Ingmar Bergman identified with, and whose point of view we mostly adopt), but Emilie is the film’s linchpin.

Intended perhaps to be his swansong, this is a gloriously mounted production, which carefully contrasts the burnished colours, deep rich saturated reds, brocaded fabrics and warm lights of the Ekdahl household, with the gloomy bare prison-like atmosphere of the Bishop’s home, with his wan, dispirited serving women and authoritarian mother. In fact, generally Bergman is pretty savage with this man of the cloth, although religious belief runs throughout the film and is hardly all the kind of dour torture that the Bishop cleaves to, even if that’s the most “Bergmanesque” passage of the film. But it’s mostly a film about family and growing up, a warm remembrance of childhood and of a certain kind of cultured middle-class upbringing. The acting is all superb, too, with a vast roster of talent familiar from many other Bergman works.

But this remains very much a film, not a TV series.

[NB This version was released the year after the feature version, in 1983, although I would consider it an alternate cut of the same film, so I’m sticking with the original release year on the heading of this post.]

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are no extras on this disc, as they are all on a separate supplements disc.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman; Cinematographer Sven Nykvist; Starring Ewa Fröling, Jan Malmsjö, Allan Edwall, Bertil Guve, Erland Josephson, Jarl Kulle; Length 312 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Friday 16 August 2019.

Mary Shelley (2017)

Another rather dour heritage film was made recently about the writer of Frankenstein by expatriate Saudi director Haifaa al-Mansour, more famous (and justly so) for Wadjda (2012).


Watching this reminds me of going to lots of alternately dour and somewhat mediocre costume dramas in the mid-1990s (titles come to mind like Moll Flanders, Restoration or Mary Reilly). I cannot in any good conscience say that this is a good or well-written movie, but it has its moments, and given those youthful trips to the cinema, I do still have a nostalgic fondness for frock dramas featuring intelligent young women gadding about with blackguards and bounders. Sadly, the film doesn’t really give enough of a lucid focus to Mary’s story (played with spirit by Elle Fanning) and, despite the title, the film’s primary interest appears to be her relationship with Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth), though it does its best to dramatise her own literary inspiration. There are too many scenes in the half-light of people reciting lines to one another, so ultimately this feels greatly inferior to Bright Star (2009) or other films about literary figures. However, Bel Powley does once again steal the film with her portrayal of Mary’s impulsive step-sister Claire.

Mary Shelley film posterCREDITS
Director Haifaa al-Mansour هيفاء المنصور; Writer Emma Jensen; Cinematographer David Ungaro; Starring Elle Fanning, Douglas Booth, Bel Powley, Tom Sturridge, Maisie Williams; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 7 July 2018.

Criterion Sunday 243: French Cancan (1955)

I think I like Renoir’s late-period French films over his earlier, more celebrated ones (I feel the same, incidentally, about both Bresson and Buñuel), not least because I think the way he uses the colour and the staging is so precise and memorable. Of course there’s an artifice, as there always is with Renoir’s films, especially in this run of 50s films set in the theatrical demi-monde starting with The Golden Coach. However, it’s the artifice of cinema at its grandest and this is a film that celebrates the spectacle of putting on a show and the dramas that takes place behind the scenes with the greatest of them — whether Lola Montès or Showgirls, burlesque and cabaret seem often to be particularly fruitful locations for films about social mores, shifting attitudes, and for the expression of pure cinema artistry itself.

Of course it helps that Renoir was being reunited with Jean Gabin and indeed with France itself for the first time after a long (and apparently not particularly welcome) exile in the United States, so there’s a self-conscious embrace of Frenchness, ironic perhaps given the film’s English title (in late-19th century Paris, it is explained, there was rather a penchant for the exoticism of foreign words, hence Gabin’s impresario Danglard reinventing a traditional French cabaret dance by using an English-language name). There’s also a rather frank subtext of sexual libertinism — a conversation early on with her friend about having to prepare adequately for her audition leads her to sleeping with her boyfriend. Indeed, lead dancer Nini’s affairs with three different men seems to highlight her class aspirations, as she moves from humble washerwoman (in love with a baker) to the world of arts, via a dalliance with minor royalty. When Danglard rejects Nini’s advances at the end, by protesting that he cannot be caged in love, it feels like the most French moment in this very French film.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jean Renoir; Writers Renoir and André-Paul Antoine; Cinematographer Michel Kelber; Starring Jean Gabin, Françoise Arnoul, Maria Félix; Length 104 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Sunday 11 June 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Monday 11 March 2019).

Criterion Sunday 242: Le Carrosse d’or (The Golden Coach, 1952)

I think the tendency of post-war European cinema around this time, especially in Italy, was towards neo-realism, shooting on the streets, giving that documentary sense of gritty immediacy, and so Renoir shooting a very theatrical film on the soundstages of Cinecittà in Italy, with a very stylised use of saturated colour and glorious, ornate sets and costumes, with Italian and American actors speaking in English in a story set in Latin America (Peru, apparently) feels like a very studied riposte to all that. In fact, it feels like a more deeply-felt commentary on the nature of acting and performance to make this kind of film at this time, a film that dwells on spectacle as something which almost seems corrupting: the obscenity of the golden coach at the film’s centre makes the government lose their minds, and becomes a tool of bargaining between men and, ultimately, the church — in a penultimate speech by the Bishop which is interrupted by Renoir cutting between all the assembled faces, expressing wry delight or shocked disdain. There’s a subtle comment on the nature of imperialism, too, as this Latin American colony becomes enthralled to the Italian Anna Magnani and her troupe of actors, threatening to depose the viceroy and create a new life fighting for the rights and sovereignty of the native peoples (though this at least feels a little in passing). I think Renoir’s later films are some of his finest work, operating at a different register from much of contemporary cinema, and all the better for it.

[NB Criterion lists the year as 1953, although this film appears to have been released in Italy in December 1952.]


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jean Renoir; Writers Renoir, Jack Kirkland, Renzo Avanzo, Giulio Macchi and Ginette Doynel (based on the play Le Carrosse du Saint-Sacrement by Prosper Mérimée); Cinematographer Claude Renoir; Starring Anna Magnani, Odoardo Spadaro, Duncan Lamont; Length 103 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 3 March 2019.

Criterion Sunday 213: Richard III (1955)

These grand and handsome stagings of Shakespeare made Olivier something of a predecessor to Kenneth Branagh towards the end of the century, and as with Branagh, I feel a little underwhelmed. It’s not that the acting is stodgy (there have been some patchy adaptations, but on the whole Richard III is well acted, without egregious hamminess), and it certainly doesn’t lack in visual splendour. In fact, the Technicolor Vistavision looks gorgeous, all saturated colours on beautifully theatrical sets (not quite the Brechtian level of, say, Rohmer’s Perceval, but still mightily stagy and unreal-seeming). I just find Olivier’s adaptations unengaging, with too many scenes that don’t really seem to grab much attention (Loncraine and McKellen’s adaptation seemed much stronger in that regard). I still think this is one of his better ones, and I prefer it to Henry V, so maybe I’m just being churlish.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Laurence Olivier (based on the play by William Shakespeare); Cinematographer Otto Heller; Starring Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Claire Bloom, Ralph Richardson, Cedric Hardwicke; Length 161 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 11 June 2018.

Criterion Sunday 141: Les Enfants du paradis (aka Children of Paradise, 1945)

It’s a grand achievement; any review you look at will tell you that. Made when it was, at the scale it was made, it shouldn’t have been possible, but yet it’s a big, bold, crowded film teeming with life. Of course, it’s still a grand handsome well-mounted epic that trades on all those classic (and classical) qualities of Cinema Art: a woman whose amorous conquests, or those attempts of her suitors, seem to allegorise a political situation; a witty script of over-talkative thespian types exploring the power of art; big camera moves; and mass crowd scenes for spectacle. I admire it even if I (philistine that I may be) never quite love it, but admiration goes a long way so I expect I’ll watch it again some day and admit it’s a masterpiece.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Marcel Carné; Writer Jacques Prévert; Cinematographers Marc Fossard and Roger Hubert; Starring Arletty, Jean-Louis Barrault, Pierre Brasseur, Marcel Herrand, María Casares; Length 190 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Thursday 25 June 1998 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 29 January 2017).