Criterion Sunday 173: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

Powell and Pressburger were certainly at the height of their powers in the 1940s, judging from the glorious beauty of their finest works in this period. Blimp surely ranks as one of them, even if it were just for some of the eye-catching dresses modelled by Deborah Kerr, playing basically all the women in the two heroes’ lives. For a film made mid-war, it’s surprisingly lacking in jingoistic patriotism (which may account for some of the rather frosty contemporary reviews). Indeed, it has a ‘good German’ as a lead (Anton Walbrook), inveighing against the Nazis, and even hints that crippling post-World War I reparations may have driven Germany towards Nazism, as chummy Oxbridge types bray and laugh while making vague sympathetic noises towards the defeated Germans back home in Blighty. And whatever blustery old fuddy-duddy Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey) may think constitutes English fair play when it comes to war, the film’s core tenet is that we need to get over that and learn to punch Nazis. Surely a timely message that we should all still get behind.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors/Writers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; Cinematographer Georges Perinal; Starring Deborah Kerr, Roger Livesey, Anton Walbrook; Length 163 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 31 March 1999 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 17 September 2017).

Criterion Sunday 93: Black Narcissus (1947)

Having recently revisited my previously low opinion on Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, I’d hoped the same would happen for me with their big beautifully-coloured studio-bound epic of the year before. It’s an exoticist take on India, as Deborah Kerr plays Sister Clodagh, selected to run a new mountain outpost in rural India and swiftly despatched with a selection of other nuns, including the unstable Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron). The sets and filming is undeniably gorgeous, and there’s a lot of high camp to the proceedings, only heightened by that Technicolor. The fierce competition between Clodagh and Ruth largely takes place across their faces, with Mr Dean (David Farrar) stuck manfully in the middle, dispensing his sardonic advice about how best to get along with the locals. The film’s big misstep is in the whitewashing of Indian roles (with the exception of Sabu’s ‘little’ General), which may be a feature of contemporary filmmaking, but doesn’t make it any easier to watch, much though Jean Simmons in particular does her best to steal her scenes.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors/Writers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (based on the novel by Rumer Godden); Cinematographer Jack Cardiff; Starring Deborah Kerr, Kathleen Byron, David Farrar, Sabu, Jean Simmons; Length 100 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Thursday 20 May 1999 (also on VHS at home, Wellington, April 1998, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 17 April 2016).

Bonjour Tristesse (1958)

Jean Seberg, whose career was much too short, gained her greatest fame when she appeared in Jean-Luc Godard’s debut À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960). Godard, like many directors in the French New Wave, adored American B-movies, but it’s fair to say he also had a lot of respect for the mainstream films of such idiosyncratic studio directors as Nicholas Ray, Douglas Sirk and Otto Preminger. Therefore it’s no surprise that Godard claimed that Seberg’s character in his film was a continuation of her role of Cécile in Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse of only two years earlier. In both films, it would be possible to argue that Seberg’s young woman is in thrall to an overpowering older man, but where in Godard’s film that man is her occasional boyfriend and gangster Michel, here it’s her father Robert (played by an immaculate David Niven).

There’s an oddly blurred line in the relationship between the two in Preminger’s film — they are very touchy-feely around one another, and share a close confidence — but it is never pushed overtly into incest. Cécile is her father’s daughter, and they have a grand time in the social whirl of Paris, filmed in beautiful monochrome. Robert has a new (young) girlfriend, and the roteness in his daughter’s voice suggests this is a common occurrence. It all looks like high society fun until, during a dance with her father, Cécile’s face clouds over and in a girlish voiceover she speaks of her frustrations, as gradually the screen gives way to the Technicolor remembrances of the Riviera the summer before.

I love the luridly-coloured and set-designed CinemaScope melodramas of the 1950s, and this is an excellent example of the form. The elongated rectangle of the screen seems to allow the space for several different emotional arcs to take place within the same frame, something Preminger is particularly good at choreographing. If Jean Seberg’s character is at the heart of the film, then it’s David Niven’s Robert who motivates the drama. Through its framing and camera movement, the film manages to hold in tension the lightness of Niven’s character, never anything less than charming and skittish, with his effect on those around him. Somehow there seems to be no need for any big conflicts or melodramatic rages — if anything, it’s his capricious charm and sexual voracity that leads those around him to tragedy.

Joining Robert and Cécile at the Riviera is fashion designer Anne, played by Deborah Kerr — closer in age to Niven, and playing the mature older foil to his succession of naive girlfriends. She explicitly wants to reform Robert and to be a mother figure to Cécile, but as their relationship seems to get serious, the latter quickly takes against Anne’s influence and warns her that she shouldn’t expect to change Robert. It’s a complicated game the two women play, and there’s an element of betrayal just as in Godard’s film, but Anne’s involvement in the lives of these two acts as a catalyst to a lot of repressed emotions. There’s a striking scene, for example — striking as much for how brief it is, as for the emotions expressed within it — in which Cécile turns to herself in a mirror and angrily tells her reflection (in voiceover) how much she hates her. Meanwhile, Robert doesn’t take long to reveal his promises to be worthless, as he turns back to his younger girlfriend.

Ultimately there’s a lot of pain and betrayal hidden beneath the glamorous and colour-saturated surfaces that Preminger so masterfully delineates. There’s no clear way out for either of the central characters, except perhaps for that taken by Deborah Kerr’s Anne, and by the end the shimmering black-and-white sequences in Paris seem literally drained of colour, not to mention joy. Yet if a film with this title was never hiding the bleakness at its core, it’s still a wonderfully staged production with plenty of pleasures along the way.

Director Otto Preminger; Writer Arthur Laurents (based on the novel by Françoise Sagan); Cinematographer Georges Périnal; Starring Jean Seberg, David Niven, Deborah Kerr; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Friday 30 August 2013.