Criterion Sunday 192: Coup de Grâce (Der Fangschuß, 1976)

There’s a lot of really strong stuff in this film, set in 1919 towards the latter stages of the Russian Civil War, but it all seems so curiously distant and alienated, perhaps because it’s partly a film about the way the ravages and atrocity of war makes people curiously distant and alienated from one another. They don’t even always speak the same language to one another (sometimes French, sometimes German), as if even at a production level they couldn’t quite connect. It’s a film of passionate feelings conveyed coldly, suppressed and pushed away, and finally snuffed out. The black-and-white cinematography is beautiful and glacial, and Margarethe von Trotta (usually a director in her own right, but who wrote the script with two other women adapted from a novel by Marguerite Yourcenar) is excellent in the lead role of Sophie, who almost callously demands the love of Erich (Matthia Habich), an officer, who pushes her away, leading them to get tangled up in a strange psychosexual relationship (somewhat reminding me of The Night Porter too). However, the film never enunciates anything quite so clearly as that, and a lot of these dramatic shifts in their relationship seem to happen off-screen or almost in passing. But as I said, it has that strange distancing affect to it.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Volker Schlöndorff | Writers Jutta Brückner, Margarethe von Trotta and Geneviève Dormann (based on the novel Le Coup de grâce by Marguerite Yourcenar) | Cinematographer Igor Luther | Starring Margarethe von Trotta, Matthias Habich | Length 97 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 21 January 2018

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Criterion Sunday 191: Jubilee (1978)

I don’t know what aspect of the punk spirit this speaks to — the messy avant-gardism and unpolished amateurishness, the gleefully garish colours (Toyah Willcox’s character Mad has hair which is a constant delight), the casual nudity, sex and violence — but it has a pleasingly anarchic, almost joyfully queer (although I suppose that’s not a word that would have been welcomed at the time), aesthetic that makes it still very compelling and watchable even as it must be now almost 40 years since its premiere. That said, it’s all very much of its time, a vision of post-apocalyptic England in a time of deprivation and uncertainty for which one can draw certain parallels, but a lot of which seems very much bound up in an era of political change. Jarman’s spirit is art school to the core, which made his film unpopular with the art school-bred punks (as Tony Rayns points out in a bonus feature documentary on its making), who preferred trying to come across as something more akin to brazen oiks. However, whatever Jarman’s own political take on things was, this is a still a bright, playful and inclusive vision of the end of days.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Derek Jarman | Writers Jarman and Christopher Hobbs | Cinematographer Peter Middleton | Starring Jenny Runacre, Jordan, Nell Campbell, Toyah Willcox | Length 103 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 14 January 2018

Criterion Sunday 190: Kumonosu-jo (Throne of Blood, 1957)

The most striking aspect of this (very loose) adaptation of Shakespeare is the mist that swirls about the characters, especially at the start as they ride about, lost, in “Cobweb Forest”, and again at the end with its strange uncanny trees. The costume design, too, is richly detailed, as Kurosawa transposes the story to feudal Japan, with a number of competing warlords seeking to usurp one another’s power and thus Shakespeare’s story doesn’t seem out of place at all, even within Kurosawa’s own oeuvre. Toshiro Mifune has never been more expressive in his facial acting — perhaps too much so at times — and the persistent sense of imminent danger, as well as those atmospheric effects, remain the finest achievements of this adaptation.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa | Writers Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, Kurosawa and Hideo Oguni (based on the play Macbeth by William Shakespeare) | Cinematographer Asakazu Nakai | Starring Toshiro Mifune, Isuzu Yamada, Takashi Shimura | Length 110 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 7 January 2018 (and years earlier on TV)

Criterion Sunday 189: Lo sceicco bianco (The White Sheik, 1952)

Early Fellini is probably the best Fellini, in my opinion, free of the baroque stylisation he would later fall victim to. That said, I find it difficult to imagine this as an Antonioni film (he was one of the writers of the original story, if not the screenplay), because it’s so filled with the extra touches Fellini would throw in, all light and music and movement and mugging for the camera. The lead actor is particularly good (Leopoldo Trieste), the one who plays the hapless husband making excuses for his star-struck wife, and it wasn’t until watching a making-of featurette that I realised this wasn’t a satire on film, but rather a satire on a very specific type of literature in which narratives were photographed for magazines, hence why I was confused about the nature of the shoot. Anyway, it’s all very pleasing and silly really.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Federico Fellini | Writers Federico Fellini, Tullio Pinelli and Ennio Flaiano | Cinematographer Arturo Gallea | Starring Alberto Sordi, Leopoldo Trieste, Brunella Bovo, Giulietta Masina | Length 83 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 3 December 2017

Criterion Sunday 188: L’Amour en fuite (Love on the Run, 1979)

There are elements here to the last Antoine Doinel film that feel a little cobbled together, not least the extensive use of flashback clips to the previous films. However, what is actually shot for this film — primarily scenes involving Antoine divorcing his wife Christine, and reconnecting with the lovely Marie-France Pisier as Colette (looking younger somehow than in the 1962 clips from Antoine et Colette) — all looks great, with some gloriously-lit frontally framed cinematography, and Truffaut has brought some new collaborators (including Pisier) on board as co-screenwriters. That aside, it does also try perhaps a little hard to wrap things up with Doinel’s new love interest, Sabine. It doesn’t outstay its welcome, in any case.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director François Truffaut | Writers François Truffaut, Marie-France Pisier, Jean Aurel and Suzanne Schiffman | Cinematographer Néstor Almendros | Starring Jean-Pierre Léaud, Claude Jade, Marie-France Pisier, Dorothée | Length 94 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 30 December 2017

Criterion Sunday 187: Domicile conjugal (Bed and Board, 1970)

A couple of years after Stolen Kisses, Léaud’s Doinel character is (somewhat) settled down, married to Christine and expecting a child, but he retains the comic insouciance and desperate inability to hold down a job that marks the character in the previous film (the earlier ones were more about his adolescence). There’s a sadness to his character now, as his age advances and he still dallies around in affairs (including with a Japanese women, which at least has the saving grace that I don’t have to lean too heavily on the ‘it was a film of its era’ excuse that’s so often required for such subject matters), and Truffaut livens it up with little visual gags like having Tati’s Monsieur Hulot character get on a metro train at one point. Léaud certainly is starting to become the character that he’s so recognisable as from much of his 70s and 80s work.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director François Truffaut | Writers François Truffaut, Claude de Givray and Bernard Revon | Cinematographer Nestor Almendros | Starring Jean-Pierre Léaud, Claude Jade, Hiroko Berghauer | Length 100 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 30 December 2017

Criterion Sunday 186: Baisers volés (Stolen Kisses, 1968)

In some ways, this film may be my favourite of the Antoine Doinel series Truffaut and Léaud made over 20 years between 1959 and 1979 (though in others, it’s still his debut, The 400 Blows). It returns to the character as a young 20-something beginning his first adult relationship with Christine (with Truffaut’s semi-autobiographical tendencies apparently extending to the actor who played Christine, Claude Jade). That said, like the subsequent films in the series, it remains broadly comic, with Doinel’s character being easily distracted by women — most notably Delphine Seyrig as Fabienne, a shopkeeper’s wife — and unable to hold down a job — he meets Fabienne through a client at a private detective agency where he works, who wants to know why everyone hates him. It’s the film that probably most excoriates Doinel’s romantic tendency and fecklessness, and there’s a beautifully-judged extended scene in front of a mirror where he just says the central characters’ names repeatedly.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director François Truffaut | Writers François Truffaut, Claude de Givray and Bernard Revon | Cinematographer Denys Clerval | Starring Jean-Pierre Léaud, Claude Jade, Delphine Seyrig, Michael Lonsdale | Length 91 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 30 December 2017

Criterion Sunday 185: “The Adventures of Antoine Doinel”

This box set brings together all of Truffaut’s films starring the fictional character Antoine Doinel (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud). His first in the series is also Truffaut’s debut feature, The 400 Blows (1959), released as Criterion spine number 5. The others are collected in this set: Stolen Kisses (1968), Bed and Board (1970) and Love on the Run (1979).

Among the many extras on the set is Antoine and Colette (1962), a short film originally part of an anthology, which offers the first sequel of sorts for the Doinel character, introducing Marie-France Pisier as his youthful crush Colette. It’s in widescreen black-and-white and still retains that link to the early Paris-street-bound energy of the nouvelle vague filmmakers, while cannily setting up Doinel’s later character as a feckless and unreliable lover that Truffaut and Léaud would pursue for the next 17 years.

Criterion Sunday 184: “By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volume One” (1954-2001)

This compendium of short films by the American experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage spans the range of his life, from his earliest works to after his diagnosis with the cancer which would claim his life in 2003. It was joined by a second volume some years later (as spine numbers 517 and 518), meaning this early instalment was retrospectively retitled as “Volume One” at that time. I present thoughts on some of the films below.

Desistfilm (1954) is my introduction to Brakhage’s work, like some kind of hepped-up beatnik film about a house party set to a hard-edged droning soundtrack, as people’s relationships break down. Wedlock House: An Intercourse (1959) takes glimpses of early married life, but edits them together with fades to black in flickering light and comes across as nothing so much as a Lynchian dystopia of nightmares, with negative-image graphic sex interpolated. It doesn’t exactly paint a pleasant portrait of marriage.

Brakhage’s most famous work, though, probably remains Dog Star Man, made in four parts with a prelude (so: five separate short films). As a whole it’s a fevered rush of images, or at least that’s the sense that Part IV conjures, though the Prelude sets up the basic imagery of the title, where the “man” is both Brakhage himself, and also his newborn baby, and the “star” seems more like a solar plexus of body imagery and film manipulation effects. It’s all quite affecting in its way, but perplexing too. Part I has the most sustained sense of narrative, as Brakhage journeys futilely up (or along, depending on the camera angle) a snowy slope like a deranged Sisyphean hunter figure with his dog. Part II introduces the baby imagery more fully, with this and the remaining parts being relatively shorter.

Possibly the most distinctive film, both integrated into his oeuvre but also standing apart by virtue of its extreme subject matter, is The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971). I don’t really know how to ‘rate’ this, but for all that the subject matter may be gruesome (footage taken during actual autopsies), I found it difficult to take my eyes off the screen, because to do so would seem somehow disrespectful to what Brakhage is filming here: the very substance of physical being itself. I suppose at a metaphorical level this could be construed as another film about the technical aspects of filmmaking — editing and deconstructing — but yet it’s really, really not: it’s the literalisation of some kind of metaphysical consciousness that doesn’t simply reduce once-living beings to cadavers, but finds some kind of transcendent purity in our essential form. This is supported by the formal means Brakhage uses, the occasionally occluded camera angles, the complete lack of sound, the structure moving us gently from coroners measuring things into the more macabre material. I wouldn’t call it disturbing exactly, though not everyone would wish to sit through it, but it certainly makes all other filmed images seem a little unnecessary.

At the other end of the spectrum of life, Window Water Baby Moving (1959) films Brakhage’s wife giving birth to their baby daughter (or is that a spoiler?). It has a lyrical quality to it, to the colours and textures, that carries it through the bloody and painful aspects of what’s taking place, seeming to communicate at least something of what’s special to it. From the same year, Cat’s Cradle is riven with blood red textures, of sensuality perhaps or something more eerie… and a cat. Family figures in a later film, Kindering (1987), in which odd contorted images of children playing in their backyard create a strange, slightly creepy effect. With I… Dreaming (1988), he again hints at a dark loneliness, something that seems to have been taken up by Lynch when I think about the spaces of void (or I believe that’s the word he writes most often over his film here), but it doesn’t entirely work for me.

There are a few films which continue to explore the textures of filmed matter. In Mothlight (1963), the light of the camera passes directly through the biological material of a moth and its world, creating patterns and textures directly on the film. Returning to similar ideas, The Garden of Earthly Delights uses plant ephemera, and sort of achieves something of the same effect.

Sometimes the experimentalism of Brakhage’s films comes from the sense of the editing, but in The Wold Shadow (1972), it feels more like he’s experimenting with effects in the camera, or using a static image of trees in a forest as a base for improvisation on the theme of colour and light. It’s fascinating. More perplexing is The Stars Are Beautiful (1981), in which Brakhage recounts various creation myths relating to the stars, while his children (I am guessing) clip a chicken’s wings. I guess those birds won’t be getting anywhere near the stars.

There are also a large number of colour films, painted and collaged, but the first on the set (1987’s The Dante Quartet) isn’t my favourite. However, it has (unsurprisingly, Dante-esque) headings to its sections. Somewhat a precursor to that is Night Music (1986), thirty seconds of colour, big and bold. Meanwhile, the colours just seem a little more dissipated in Glaze of Cathexis (1990), though it’s the film of his which sounds most like the name of a black metal band (yes, it turns out someone has taken it for such), while Delicacies of Molten Horror Synapse (1990) sounds like the title of that band’s first album. Once again, it does some lovely things with colour and light, as you’d expect. A few years later, Study in Color and Black and White (1993) is more dark than colour, more black than white.

Having watched a series of Brakhage’s short experiments with light and colour hand-painted directly onto film, the 10+ minute running length of Untitled (For Marilyn) (1992) suggests it might somehow be wearyingly epic by comparison, and yet this ended up being the one I most loved (alongside Lovesong). It has the textures, the colours, the feeling. It’s the whole package, and is dedicated to his wife. Black Ice (1994) is another of his films which, when watched alongside some sludgy doomy metal (as I was doing, given most of these films are silent), starts to feel like a crack in the cosmos, through which snippets of light and colour seem to make their way. Cosmic shapes appear in Stellar (1993) as well, extensions of Brakhage’s work with painting on film, and perhaps these are just suggested by the title, but there is a sort of harmony of the spheres to it all.

In Crack Glass Eulogy (1991), after a long run of his colour and light films, seeing filmed images seems rather a novelty. It has a spare, haunting, elegiac quality, like night vision, like surveillance. By the end of the decade, though, in The Dark Tower (1999), the darkness threatens to overwhelm everything else, perhaps suggestive of his failing vision. Likewise Comingled Containers (1996, which Criterion’s sleeve notes correct to “commingled”) feels like a blend of photography (water imagery) and the filmmaker’s manipulations of light and colour in a way that is rather more productive than some of Brakhage’s other works, but with a similar undertow of darkness.

The final film on the set is the most recent one, Lovesong (2001), made only a couple of years before Brakhage’s death from cancer. What I like most about this film is that it feels like a pure expression of paint on film. It seems so fresh, wet and glistening on the surface of the celluloid. It’s a film that has hundreds if not thousands of individual artworks, any one of which could be framed, but together seem beautiful and mysterious, like so much of Brakhage’s work.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection || Director/Cinematography Stan Brakhage || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, over Sunday 25 February, 4 March and 11 March 2018

Desistfilm (1954) | Length 7 minutes
Wedlock House: An Intercourse (1959) | Length 11 minutes
Dog Star Man (1961-64) | Length 75 minutes [1001 Films]

The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971) | Length 32 minutes [Rosenbaum 1000]

Cat’s Cradle (1959) | Length 7 minutes
Window Water Baby Moving (1959) | Length 13 minutes
Mothlight (1963) | Length 4 minutes
Eye Myth (1967) | Length 1 minute
The Wold Shadow (1972) | Length 3 minutes
The Garden of Earthly Delights (1981) | Length 2 minutes

The Stars Are Beautiful (1974) | Length 19 minutes

Kindering (1987) | Length 3 minutes
I… Dreaming (1988) | Length 7 minutes
The Dante Quartet (1989) | Length 7 minutes
Night Music (1986) | Length 1 minute
Rage Net (1988) | Length 1 minute

Glaze of Cathexis (1990) | Length 3 minutes

Delicacies of Molten Horror Synapse (1990) | Length 9 minutes

Untitled (For Marilyn) (1992) | Length 11 minutes

Black Ice (1994) | Length 2 minutes
Study in Color and Black and White (1993) | Length 2 minutes
Stellar (1993) | Length 3 minutes
Crack Glass Eulogy (1991) | Length 7 minutes
The Dark Tower (1999) | Length 3 minutes
Comingled Containers (1996) | Length 3 minutes

Lovesong (2001) | Length 11 minutes

Criterion Sunday 183: Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945)

I don’t consider this typical Bresson, as it uses professional actors and it has a sort of Hollywood melodrama feel to it, although it has a dark edge of course. It’s about a woman who manipulates those around her to engineer their (social) destruction, and Maria Casarès is exactly the right person to have casted in such a role, given her admirable talents at looking mischievous. It all moves forward with admirable aplomb, and it has its lovely moments and some great high-contrast monochrome photography, admirable shadows falling across conniving faces, all that kind of thing. Its only real failing is that it’s not as great as Bresson later proved he could be as a director.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Bresson | Writers Robert Bresson and Jean Cocteau (based on the novel Jacques le fataliste by Denis Diderot) | Cinematographer Philippe Agostini | Starring Maria Casarès, Élina Labourdette, Paul Bernard | Length 84 minutes || Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Saturday 16 June 2001 (also earlier in June 1999 on VHS in the Victoria University library, Wellington, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home in London on Sunday 3 December 2017)