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)

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Criterion Sunday 109: The Scarlet Empress (1934)

After some genre-defining silent films (which we’ll get to much later on in the Criterion Collection), Austro-Hungarian émigré director Josef von Sternberg did a run of films with Marlene Dietrich — the first in Germany (The Blue Angel, 1930) but the rest in the United States. In some ways these defined something else in cinema, every bit as important as a narrative structure, which is a sense of the fetishisation of the actor as icon. Obviously there had been stars before Dietrich, but the quality that Sternberg gets across in his run of films with her is something else, something more profound, something almost magical. His penultimate film with her was The Scarlet Empress, and alongside the shimmering beauty of Dietrich — the burnished close-ups, the flamboyant dress — this must rank as some kind of masterpiece of set design. Every image is crammed with baroque detail, every shot framed by grotesque sculptures presiding creepily over the action. This latter largely revolves around Dietrich on her road to becoming the Empress Catherine II, “Catherine the Great”, married into Russian nobility (the mad Peter, played with wide-eyed intensity by Sam Jaffe) and learning the ways of the court and methods of extending her power. The camerawork and lighting is bravura, but it’s those stylish set touches that only heighten the film’s giddy campness and emphasise how much Sternberg has given to the cinema in the 20th century. Stars would never again shine quite as brightly.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Josef von Sternberg | Writer Manuel Komroff (based on a diary by Catherine II) | Cinematographer Bert Glennon | Starring Marlene Dietrich, John Lodge, Louise Dresser, Sam Jaffe | Length 104 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 31 July 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, April 2001)

Criterion Sunday 104: Shinju Ten no Amijima (Double Suicide, 1969)

A strange film, at once adapted from a puppet drama and also self-consciously taking some of its formal characteristics. The story follows a relationship which has tragic overtones, involving a man out of step with his society. However, the presence throughout of these puppeteer characters, at once mutely witnessing and manipulating what’s happening, is pretty powerful.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Masahiro Shinoda | Writers Taeko Tomioka and Toru Takemitsu (based on the play by Chikamatsu Monzaemon) | Cinematographer Toichiro Narushima | Starring Kichiemon Nakamura, Shima Iwashita | Length 105 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 June 2016

LFF 2016 Day Eleven

Saturday 15 October, the penultimate day of the London Film Festival, and another heavy one for me, with four films. Two of them were archival restorations, so a bit of guaranteed classic status in amongst the new works.


Daughters of the Dust (1991)Daughters of the Dust (1991, USA, dir./wr. Julie Dash, DOP Arthur Jafa)
It’s quite an achievement this film, but it’s not one that goes in for a straightforward narrative or overt central character. It’s about a whole family, if not an extended community, who are — at length — preparing to leave their home on an island in South Carolina in 1902. And it’s about their stories, and memories, and inherited customs. But none of this is presented in a particularly linear way; instead there’s a flow of characters and images (strikingly beautiful at times), and an accretion of scenes illustrating their lives. It’s not perfect either — the score sadly hasn’t dated very well at all, a wash of post-80s synths that doesn’t always add to the drama — but for the most part it’s excellent and singular. [****]


Park (2016)

Park (2016, Greece/Poland, dir./wr. Sofia Exarchou, DOP Monika Lenczewska)
I can already see the reviews of a few people calling this film “boring” and “overlong” and… well, it would be disingenuous to claim I don’t know what they’re talking about, but as far as I’m concerned films that get those labels — or at least films which aren’t superhero movies — tend to be just my kind of thing (see also: “self-indulgent”). It’s a film about a bunch of disaffected young people congregating amidst the detritus of Athens’ Olympic Park; their lives are going nowhere, so yeah, it’s fair to say there’s plenty of boredom and entropy. The two characters who come to be central, Dimitri and Anna, just mooch around, fight, fuck, dance, nothing special. But I thought it was compelling in its atmosphere of dereliction and dead-ends, a clarion call from a certain precarious position in a decaying society. [***½]


Born in Flames (1983)

Born in Flames (1983, USA, dir./wr. Lizzie Borden)
This is a film that comes from a specific time and place (New York in the early-80s) and perhaps some choices might not have been made today — bombing the WTC seems most obvious — but there’s still an enormous amount that retains both relevance and power 35 years on. Most notably this is an expression of intersectionality in practice avant la lettre, giving strong central roles to women of colour and criticising some of the viewpoints and privilege expressed by white feminists. That’s just one aspect; I liked also the way that its imagined socialist revolution (shades of Bernie brocialism?) hasn’t materially altered the patriarchal power structure, leading to calls for continued feminist insurrection. It’s all made in a sort of pseudo-documentary collagist agitprop style that is perhaps born of its extended genesis (filmed over five years) but works admirably. A lo-fi no-wave independent feminist masterpiece of sorts. [****]


Moderation (2016)

Moderation (2016, UK/Greece, dir. Anja Kirschner, wr. Kirschner/Maya Lubinsky/Anna De Filippi, DOP Mostafa El Kashef/Dimitris Kasimatis)
There’s a certain category of experimental filmmaking whose films seem more tailored to an academic appreciation, by which I mean that they are clearly carefully thought out in terms of thematics and ideas, but express themselves visually in ways that don’t always hold the casual viewer’s attention. Or maybe I was just coming down off three other films, because there was plenty in it to like, intellectually speaking. It’s a disquisition of sorts into horror cinema, without ever quite being a horror film — though it certainly flirts with generic elements both in its film-within-a-film story of strange sand-spewing pods, as well as in some of the apartment-bound scenes with actors encountering creepy poltergeist-like activity. The film is structured around a woman director and her screenwriter (Maya Lubinsky and Anna De Filippi), who are in a relationship, talking to prospective actors for their mooted horror film, and these extended scenes form a key part of the film. Indeed, storytelling, whether in dialogue by the actors or as an exercise of artistic creation dramatised between the two women, is very much the film’s most sustained theme, with horror just a heightened form of that basic need to tell stories. Also, there’s one scene where the Egyptian actor Aida’s pink hair and turquoise eye shadow perfectly matches her floral print dress, and it’s gorgeous to behold. [**½]

Crimson Peak (2015)

Having this year been watching almost solely the output of female directors, I’ve become used to seeing on screen a certain level of budget (something nearer to the $0 end of the spectrum, let’s be fair). And then you watch something like this, just a grand, gorgeous staging with the sets! and the costumes! and the art design so elaborate and intricate you worry it’s all going to get in the way of, oh, the acting, the characterisation, that kind of thing. (I gather some critics feel that it has.) Now, I don’t deny any of Guillermo del Toro’s talent; he’s clearly done a lot of legwork to get to the stage where he can make something like this, and I think his great films like Cronos and El laberinto del fauno have given him a peerless sense of what works filmically. Because that stuff comes effortlessly here, especially when he’s marshalling all the tropes of the horror genre — the depth of field in staging shots, the creepy sound design, flashes of spectral presences, and then the full-on gory costumework. Because yes, there’s a lot of gore here, whether explicit or suggested: much of the latter part of the film is set in a house whose walls and foundations seem to literally ooze blood. Within this, it seems like a canny choice to go for actors like Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain and Tom Hiddleston, all of whom have previous in this kind of enterprise — portraying doomed lovers in a period setting — so all of them look quite at home in what is a Victorian-era gothic romance hat-tipping visually to Hammer horror as mcuh as to Italian giallo, not to mention a bit of Kubrick’s The Shining too. It does in the end all feel a bit oppressive, and it should of course, but it’s a bravura piece of filmmaking and it hits all the right notes, honouring its sources without condescending to them.


© Universal Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Guillermo del Toro | Writers Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins | Cinematographer Dan Laustsen | Starring Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain | Length 119 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Saturday 31 October 2015

Suffragette (2015)

As one of the big cinematic releases here in the UK this autumn, Suffragette goes back to a fertile period of modern history — the 1910s shortly before the outbreak of World War I — tackling a story that’s certainly well-known to people at least in passing, if rarely thus far attempted on the big screen. Partially that may be due to the rather limited scope of the so-called ‘suffragettes’, being the militant wing of the campaign for women’s suffrage (voting rights); they were, after all, engaged in a domestic form of terrorism, albeit directed at manifestly unjust laws (not even all men had the vote in this period). Moreover it’s debated amongst historians quite how effective their campaign was, and it’s suggested that women’s involvement in work during World War I was more decisive in swaying political opinion on the matter (in 1918 women over 30, along with all men over 18, were awarded voting rights). However, that doesn’t change the fact that this is a stirring story of a small number of women who campaigned passionately for something they believed in enough to suffer abuse and imprisonment (and in some cases even death), and which continues to have resonances today, judging from the list that ends the film of when various countries finally allowed women the vote. It’s unquestionably a handsomely-mounted piece, with plenty of detail in the costumes and setting, and although most of the central characters are fictional creations, they are in some cases (most notably Helena Bonham Carter’s militant pharmacist) based on some aspects of real life figures, while there are effectively cameos from the movement’s leading lights (including Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst, and Natalie Press as Emily Wilding Davison). However, in some ways the film’s real achievement is in focusing on one working-class family woman (Carey Mulligan’s Maud, married to Ben Whishaw’s Sonny), rather than the upper middle-class ladies who are usually the linchpin of such stories. It’s her realisation of the importance of political representation, as effectively contextualised within her unfavourable working environment in an East End laundry, that moves the narrative along, and all the details of her working life are the most persuasive aspects of the drama. There are indeed many more stories of this type to be told about women in history — the past hundred years of cinema has provided rather a surfeit of tales of chauvinist political machinations — and Suffragette should be welcomed as a big-budget evocation of an important, if under-represented, story.


© Focus Features

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Sarah Gavron | Writer Abi Morgan | Cinematographer Edu Grau | Starring Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne-Marie Duff, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson | Length 106 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Thursday 22 October 2015

Criterion Sunday 41: Henry V (1944)

© The Criterion Collection

When Kenneth Branagh filmed his own dark and politically cynical vision of this play in 1989 it kick-started his career and marked a resurgence of Shakespeare on film, but Laurence Olivier was the original actor/director and puts the play and its hero in quite a different light. Of course, being made at the height of the Second World War, you might expect a more triumphant hue to proceedings. There’s also an admirable commitment to theatrical non-naturalism in the sets and setting — again, this may have been motivated by avoiding anything reminiscent of the actual conditions of war — but brings to my mind Rohmer’s later experiments in staging the Mediaeval story of King Arthur in Perceval le Gallois (1978). Indeed Olivier’s film itself starts through a recreation of a performance at London’s Globe theatre in the early-17th century (strikingly similar to the reconstruction now on the South Bank), before at length moving away from the theatre, without ever quite relinquishing the stagy feel, though that’s as much to do with the beautifully saturated Technicolor cinematography as with anything in the performances. Whatever its limitations, and however carefully it works to work around the more melancholy notes in the play (most obviously its coda of how Henry promptly lost France shortly afterwards), it’s still a fine staging of a classic English play.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Laurence Olivier | Writers Alan Dent and Laurence Olivier (based on the play by William Shakespeare) | Cinematographer Robert Krasker | Starring Laurence Olivier | Length 136 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 14 June 2015

A Little Chaos (2014)

I could glibly try and claim this is the best drama about gardening released this year, but that wouldn’t really be much help would it? Certainly the subject matter is niche — aside from The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982), I can’t think of any films primarily dealing with the creation of a garden (in this case, the Bosquet des Rocailles, or Salle de Bal, at the Palace of Versailles). Of course, it’s really about plenty of other things, like the tentative love affair between Kate Winslet’s Sabine du Barra and Matthias Schoenaert’s André Le Nôtre (the chief designer of the gardens at Versailles, a real historical figure), or the fluid movement of relationships and the shadings of class within the French court of the 17th century. I’m not sure how much of this detail is true to the period — Sabine is a fictional character, and Winslet seems all too English, though the garden Sabine is working on is real — but it allows for some lovely little vignettes, as when Sabine interacts with the King (Alan Rickman) incognito as if he were a fellow gardener. There’s a smaller role for Stanley Tucci as a prominent nobleman within the French court, another excellent reminder of his talent for stealing scenes, while Helen McCrory rounds out the ensemble as Le Nôtre’s jealous and unfaithful wife. As director, Rickman certainly manages to round up a good cast (as you’d expect), so even if the film sometimes seems slight, it’s never anything less than enjoyable to watch.


© Lionsgate

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Alan Rickman | Writer Allison Deegan | Cinematographer Ellen Kuras | Starring Kate Winslet, Matthias Schoenaerts, Alan Rickman, Stanley Tucci, Helen McCrory | Length 117 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 29 April 2015

Amour Fou (2014)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 10 February 2015


© Coproduction Office

This Austrian film, set in the early-19th century, is a curious one. It unfolds in a very deliberately paced way, with a series of largely unmoving tableaux compositions with centred groupings of actors, brightly lit in brightly coloured, meticulously tidy rooms. The line delivery resists any overt melodrama while the actors tend to remain still in the centre of the frame, so outwardly this all suggests the formal rigour of, say, a Straub/Huillet film. One might easily assume that nothing happens — as a story about a real life love affair with a tragic denouement, there’s very little of the kind of hand-wringing content you might expect. (I’d go so far as to say this represents some canny anti-Valentine’s Day programming, coming out so soon before that particular festival.) But between the married Henriette Vogel (Birte Schnöink) and the doomy romantic poet Heinrich von Kleist (Christian Friedel), the film conveys plenty of emotion, through its focus on the minutiae of the exchanges between them. Meanwhile there are vast changes taking place in the very social fabric of everyday existence, as the effects of the French Revolution filter through, and Henriette’s husband is tasked with levying taxes on the now newly-emancipated populace of the Austrian empire (much to the chagrin of the aristocracy, one of whom is seen bewailing this invidious novelty). What particularly sets the film apart, though, is its wry take on the figure of Kleist, a self-involved fantasist so wrapped up in his own death-fixated romantic ideals that he seems uncomprehending that the women he meets should not want to join him in death’s loving embrace. He’s a figure more of laughable pretension, and it’s Henriette who seems the more clear-minded despite her terminal diagnosis. As a period costume drama, it certainly bucks the usual dramatic signifiers, but emerges no less clear-sighted for all that.


CREDITS || Director/Writer Jessica Hausner | Cinematographer Martin Gschlacht | Starring Birte Schnöink, Christian Friedel | Length 96 minutes

Belle (2013)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Friday 27 June 2014 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Fox Searchlight Pictures

I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with the traditional period drama so beloved of English filmmakers. There’s something peculiarly retrogressive about that heady blend of overdressed men and women walking into, out of and around grandly decorated rooms in vast mansions, aristocratic seats of wealth and power, while talking about politics (if the character is a man) or matches that bring in £10,000 a year (for the ladies). And yet I’ve always been rather drawn to these overprivileged lives, with their finery and their petty concerns. At a certain level, Belle is no different: it has heritage sets, vast homes filled with art and beautiful furniture, and overdressed men and women entering and leaving its overdressed rooms. Yet its title character is one who would usually be doubly excluded from such a milieu, being a black woman. Her position is neatly signalled by repeated shots of her looking at paintings around the house which show black people subservient to their white masters, gazing adoringly upwards from prone positions in the corners of the canvases. The title character of Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) has a quite different, and quite unusual, position in society, for her parentage to a British Navy Captain allows her to be raised within this overprivileged world and through the independent wealth this affords her can break traditionally gendered restraints to get involved directly in the political arguments of the time. These, of course, revolved primarily around slavery and its importance to the interests of the British Empire, and in this respect it’s particularly helpful that Dido Belle’s surrogate father is the Lord Chief Justice, the Earl of Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), who is working on a case involving the human rights of slaves killed by a slave trader. This case (known as the Zong massacre after the ship involved), along with another he later worked on (Somersett’s Case) and which is sort of elided into it here, are small but crucial steps on the path towards the abolition of slavery and the film implies that his relationship with the mixed-race Dido is key to his decision. All of this is, on the level of historical record, fairly unclear — there is little documentary evidence of Belle’s life aside from a remarkable painting of her with her (white) cousin Elizabeth — but as a film, it’s all very nicely staged and enjoyably acted by a set of excellent thespians with much experience at this sort of thing.


CREDITS || Director Amma Asante | Writer Misan Sagay | Cinematographer Ben Smithard | Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Sam Reid, Emily Watson | Length 104 minutes