Criterion Sunday 117: Le Journal d’une femme de chambre (Diary of a Chambermaid, 1964)

Less of a black comedy than some of Buñuel’s other French films, this is more a portrait of the upper-classes during the 1930s as seen by the maid of the title (played well by Jeanne Moreau). There’s perversity of course and, as you’d expect from Buñuel, a feckless priest, but this film touches more on the spectre of fascism, with the casual anti-Semitism of the rural peasantry and incipient nationalist fervour always in the background. Fine widescreen monochrome lensing gives a bourgeois finish to a troubling tale.

As an aside, it was also interesting for me to watch this right after Nelly Kaplan’s La Fiancée du Pirate (1969), as that feels in retrospect like a satirical extension of the psychosexual undertow of this film, and if you get a chance to see it, do.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luis Buñuel | Writers Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière | Cinematographer Roger Fellous | Starring Jeanne Moreau, Michel Piccoli, Françoise Lugagne, Georges Géret | Length 97 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 11 September 2016

Criterion Sunday 113: I soliti ignoti (Big Deal on Madonna Street, 1958)

Apologies for this remarkably brief review; I watched it in a state of half-sleep, though I found it likeable, I don’t really have much to contribute…

A jolly Italian farce modelled on Rififi and the like, in which a bunch of fairly incompetent criminals try to take on a job they’re not really equipped to do. There are some good comic turns, and it moves along at a clip.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Mario Monicelli | Writers Agenore Incrocci, Furio Scarpelli, Suso Cecchi D’Amore and Mario Monicelli | Cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo | Starring Vittorio Gassman, Marcello Mastroianni | Length 111 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 14 August 2016

Criterion Sunday 111: Mon oncle (aka My Uncle, 1958)

Jacques Tati, having gained access to a more significant budget, paves the way towards his later masterpiece Play Time (1967) with this film, in which he constructs a large minimalist modern house almost all powered by electricity to contrast with the shabby, crumbling old world harking back to Les Vacances de M. Hulot (1953). The central character of that earlier film, played as ever by Tati, returns here as brother to Madame Arpel, the aspirational wife of a besuited businessman, seen in these fancy new digs. Hulot’s role is mainly to bumble about looking confused, and indeed many of the characters seem waylaid by all the confusing trappings of modernity. There is little enough plot, but elaborating on the theme of social class mobility and the depersonalising effects of the modern world, there are some wonderful running gags — not least that of Mme Arpel’s decorative fish-shaped fountain, which she turns on every time there’s a buzz at the door, and then turns off depending on the social class of the visitor. For me, it feels like notes towards Play Time, but it’s still an excellent film in its own right, and will no doubt also repay further repeat viewings.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jacques Tati | Writers Jacques Tati, Jacques Lagrange and Jean L’Hôte | Cinematographer Jean Bourgoin | Starring Jacques Tati | Length 111 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 24 July 2016

Criterion Sunday 105: Spartacus (1960)

There’s a certain quality to the classic Hollywood historical epic that by the mid-1950s had become pretty much fixed in the popular imagination, and is the kind of thing that is satirised in Hail, Caesar! (2016). In many ways, Spartacus feels like the culmination of these trends and a bookend of sorts, the sine qua non of the sword-and-sandals epic of the ancient world (aka the “peplum film” from those omnipresent flowing togas). The acting is largely excellent, with fine subtle work — when subtlety is required, but bombastic when not — from Kirk Douglas as the titular slave leader and Laurence Olivier as Crassus, a scheming Roman senator, not to mention Charles Laughton as his rival Gracchus. There are also more wooden efforts, but when they come, as with John Dall’s Glabrus, it’s a solid wood, a really finely-grained aged wood, the wooden hamminess of, say, Charlton Heston, which is after all very much within the generic convention. The direction is solid too, but this isn’t one of Stanley Kubrick’s usual films — he was brought on after production had started — and so it feels wrong to assess it as one of his steely auteurist pieces. Perhaps the strongest credit on the technical side is Russell Metty’s beautiful cinematography, particularly the shadowy interiors where deals are made and Spartacus’s will is most tested. In covering all these vicissitudes of fate (being set in pre-Christian Rome, religion is largely avoided), the film runs long, to be sure, but that’s hardly a criticism: it’s what the historical epic demands. There are the grandly-staged battle scenes, interspersed with smaller one-on-ones between Gracchus and Crassus, or Spartacus and his love interest Varinia (Jean Simmons). There’s also expert comedy relief from Peter Ustinov as Batiatus, introduced running a gladiator school but never one to stick around when things get tough. In short, it’s a fine film, a totem of Hollywood craft and large-scale organisation, and it’s never less than entertaining.

Criterion Extras: A full-to-bursting double-disc edition includes the usual commentaries, which I’ve yet to watch. There’s a clutch of deleted scenes, mostly just extra shots which were ditched, and a heavily cut version of the ending demanded by the Catholic Legion of Decency which entirely excises much of the pathos. There’s also a brief audio snippet of Gracchus’ death scene. There are a few minutes of vintage newsreels of the film’s production (it was one of the most expensive of its time hence the interest), including Kirk Douglas getting his chin print outside Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. Promotional interviews with Peter Ustinov and Jean Simmons from the time of the film’s release (edited absurdly to allow local news programmes to interpolate their own ‘interviewer’) are joined by an interview with Ustinov from 1992 as he reflects on his time on the production, fairly informative about the change of director, and the script credit issues, including a number of amusing anecdotes about his fellow actors. There are some Saul Bass storyboards for the fight sequences, and a huge number of production stills (as well as advertising material and even a comic book) with brief contextualising intertitles. Finally, but still very interesting, is some silent footage taken during the making of the film as the actors are trained up as gladiators.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Stanley Kubrick | Writer Dalton Trumbo (based on the novel by Howard Fast) | Cinematographer Russell Metty | Starring Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, Jean Simmons | Length 196 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 4 July 2016 (and earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, September 1998, and at the film department in April 2000)

Criterion Sunday 102: Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, 1972)

As Criterion in this period increasingly starts to look back to the great directors of history, it’s no surprise to see some representation for Spanish surrealist Luis Buñuel. His style has never been as flashy as some of the more vulgarian of auteurs, forever delighting in camera effects, but rather it’s the sly sense of humour which comes through so well, especially in his late period French films, which I adore. Much has been written about this film — still one of the best, though maybe if I were being stubborn I might opine the only great film, to have won an Academy Award in the US (for best foreign film, obviously) — but it stands up over forty years on. Some of the set design and costume choices are a little dated, but at heart this remains a delightful anarchic satire on the self-regarding, classist, greedy bourgeois class, forever just looking for a catered meal but, here at least, forever thwarted by Buñuel’s satirical ire.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luis Buñuel | Writers Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière | Cinematographer Edmond Richard | Starring Fernando Rey, Delphine Seyrig, Bulle Ogier, Paul Frankeur, Julien Bertheau | Length 102 minutes || Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 16 August 2000 (earlier at home on VHS, Wellington, November 1997, but most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 19 June 2016)

Criterion Sunday 98: L’avventura (1960)

Like a lot of filmmakers favoured by the Criterion Collection, Italian modernist auteur Michelangelo Antonioni has been through his critical ups and downs, but I think his minimalist dramatic style makes him more apt for modern reassessment than the carnivalesque spirit of his compatriot Fellini. For a long time, L’avventura was his quintessential work, and looking back on it around 55 years on, its shimmering monochrome has held up well. It still resists easy enjoyment though, primarily due to its still-radical narrative aporia (though perhaps less controversial than it was upon its release): not unlike the same year’s Psycho, it builds up a central character for the first half hour (in this case, Lea Massari’s Anna), only to have her disappear suddenly from the narrative. Antonioni doesn’t appear interested in why she disappears — it’s more of a narrative device than anything else — but in the way the remaining characters, Anna’s boyfriend Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) and best friend Claudia (Monica Vitti), react to her disappearance and find solace in one another. I readily admit, though, that this is a simplistic assessment of the way things progress; this is no grand romance, so much as part of a game played by the bored bourgeois upper classes, reminiscent of the dissipated world of Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley (another almost contemporary story in its original form). In this sense, a character disappearing seems more like a statement of feelings (lost, disconnected from her friends), than a tragedy to be solved. Much of the emotional turmoil is rehearsed not through words but via formal means, using the carefully-controlled mise en scène, framing characters against landscapes and buildings, while others leave or re-enter the frame in a sort of choreography of passion. It’s wonderfully strange stuff, and is undoubtedly one of the finer and more classically-balanced achievements of a cinema starting to become obsessed instead (via various New Waves) with the energy and brashness of youth.

Criterion Extras: Aside from the commentary, there’s a 25 minute piece with Olivier Assayas gushing over the film, excitedly throwing out ideas in a quintessentially French way, illustrated with clips from the film. It’s quite informative and does suggest ways into what is a notoriously opaque and difficult film. There are also a couple of essays by Antonioni, one about the film and one about acting, which are read by Jack Nicholson, who also contributes his thoughts about working with him.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Michelangelo Antonioni | Writers Michelangelo Antonioni, Elio Bartolini and Tonino Guerra | Cinematographer Aldo Scavarda | Starring Monica Vitti, Gabriele Ferzetti, Lea Massari | Length 143 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 8 May 2016 (and previously on laserdisc at the university library, Wellington, April 1998)

Femina Ridens (The Laughing Woman aka The Frightened Woman, 1969)

The two English language titles (The Laughing Woman vs The Frightened Woman) are suggestive of the ways in which Italian films of the giallo style sometimes straddle the line between gynophobic/misogynist exploitation and empowered critiques of patriarchy. Rather, I should say that most fall pretty clearly on the former side, but this one manages to be both — the original title is in Latin, which seems to place ‘woman’ as something of a scientific curio — and in doing so is rather delightful. That said, having called it giallo (a heightened form of Italian horror film), it isn’t exactly that, but is mixed with comic pop-art inflected psychodrama. The drama of the film — a two-hander of power and control between Mary (a glorious Dagmar Lassander) and the manipulative Dr Sayer (Philippe Leroy) — moves one way then is suddenly reversed, much like the visual jokes which come suddenly out of nowhere, masterful uses of the set design and quirks of acting: the leap from bathtub to trapeze! the automated partition between halves of the bed! the car-boat!! Femina Ridens is filled with the joy of mise en scene, plus a bit of stylish S&M-lite in its story of toxic masculinity confronting its emasculating other.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: She’s So Giallo Season
Director/Writer Piero Schivazappa | Cinematographer Sante Achilli | Starring Dagmar Lassander, Philippe Leroy | Length 108 minutes || Seen at Barbican Cinema, London, Wednesday 22 June 2016

Criterion Sunday 81: Luci del varietà (Variety Lights, 1950)

Federico Fellini’s first film was this ensemble piece set amongst a travelling troupe of performers putting on a variety show, of fairly mediocre quality one assumes from what we see of it. It’s led by Checcho (Peppino De Filippo) who is seen at the start being hounded by acting hopeful Liliana (Carla Del Poggio), much to the annoyance of his sweetheart Melina Amour (Giuletta Masina). Her arrival ruffles a few feathers as her ambition leads her to try and use the break to further a career for herself, and the film proceeds in a sort of bumbling, peripatetic way, introducing a number of side characters and tracing the fortunes of these various performers, most of whom never really get out of the rut they’re in. It makes the film rather a bittersweet look at the acting profession, but no less generous and enjoyable for that.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Federico Fellini and Alberto Lattuada | Writers Federico Fellini, Alberto Lattuada, Tullio Pinelli and Ennio Flaiano | Cinematographer Otello Martelli | Starring Carla Del Poggio, Peppino De Filippo, Giulietta Masina | Length 97 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 21 February 2016

Three Italian Giallo Films

I may have lived almost half my life (obviously this is a vague metric, but let’s be optimistic and just assume 40 is a median), much of it as an ardent fan of cinema, yet there are vast swathes of the seventh art which have passed me by. One such blindspot is the horror genre, and of this the so-called giallo films of Italian cinema (the word means “yellow”, from the covers to the pulp crime novels popular in the country at the time) are a particular mystery: for all their exploitational slasher origins, many of them are highly praised by critics for their artistic and narrative playfulness (as much as they are decried for their lapses into misogyny, though this could equally apply to much of slasher horror, surely). Directors like Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci and Mario Bava are frequently cited, the baroque titles of whose opuses have long taken up a small corner of my brain, even as I’ve never seen any of them. Therefore, I thought it only sensible to accept a recent opportunity offered by a horror-cinema-loving friend to visit and watch a number of these films back-to-back, with appropriate food, drink and enthusiastic company.

The pretense for this event was my friend Matthew coming across a film called Death Laid an Egg (1968) deep in Jean-Louis Trintignant’s filmography, and indeed this is the oldest (and perhaps oddest) of the three films we watched. It also has the most bankable stars of the three, with Trintignant and Italian actor (and 50s sex symbol) Gina Lollobrigida both receiving starring roles. In some ways, it seems to fit in more closely with trends in European art cinema, taking its cues as much from Michelangelo Antonioni’s architecturally-framed elliptical modernist narratives on the one hand and trippy, hippy late-60s head films on the other, as much as from traditional horror or crime genre tropes. It also features less overt violence towards women than the other films, though the staging of the opening shots does strongly imply that Trintignant’s poultry farmer Marco has a penchant for murdering prostitutes, which is the motivation for a plot against him and his wife Anna (Lollobrigida) by his cousin Gabri (Ewa Aulin). The idea of Trintignant and Lollobrigida as farmers isn’t in the end as absurd as that may seem, for the film is interested in a more coldly futuristic idea of the role, manipulating genetics and engineering the perfect animal from a lab, rather than mucking out cages or suchlike. The latter stages of the narrative are all set out in a rather maddeningly opaque way, such that it’s easy to miss some of the final revelations, but as a whole the film is nicely controlled.

More traditional, then, is Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972), another rather oblique title which hints at perversions in its small-town Italian setting. A number of boys have been murdered, and a big-city reporter, Andrea (Tomas Milian), comes to town, with his tight jeans and archetypal 70s moustache, digging into the events. The film offers a number of possible suspects for the murders, including a mysterious witch-like woman (Florinda Bolkan), a hermit, a simpleton and a young priest, amongst others. The film is pretty sharp on indicting religious-based repression and the power of the local church and police authorities to turn local anger into murderous vendettas. It also gets over a good sense of atmosphere for its story, with outbreaks of gory violence to move things along.

However, best of the lot is the now-admired and acknowledged classic Profondo rosso (or Deep Red, 1975) directed by Dario Argento, towards the end of the first classic period of giallo filmmaking. A recent Blu-ray edition captures the beautiful cinematography of this slow-building mood piece, which features recurring sequences languidly panning across mysterious items in extreme close-up, not to mention an unfussy set design with a bar right out of Edward Hopper. The plot has jazz musician Marcus (David Hemmings from Blow-up) investigating a gory murder of a psychic, and his ensuing chase folds in all kinds of supernatural mystery to tinge the horror premise. Indeed, there’s a prominent role for a particularly spooky house which hides dark secrets (as such houses always seem to do). Despite its length, it all moves along without excessive flab, albeit taking its time to build up the eerie atmosphere nicely. It’s one of the few horror films I’ve seen that even I feel would repay multiple viewings, but Argento is clearly well in control of his craft by this time. A high point for Italian cinema of the 1970s.


La morte ha fatto l'uovo (Death Laid an Egg, 1968)

FILM REVIEW || Seen at a friend’s home, Leighton Buzzard, Saturday 27 February 2016

La morte ha fatto l’uovo (Death Laid an Egg, 1968)
Director Giulio Questi | Writers Franco Arcalli and Giulio Questi | Cinematographer Dario Di Palma | Starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Gina Lollobrigida, Ewa Aulin | Length 90 minutes

Non si sevizia un paperino (Don’t Torture a Duckling, 1972)
Director Lucio Fulci | Writers Gianfranco Clerici, Lucio Fulci and Roberto Gianviti | Cinematographer Sergio D’Offizi | Starring Tomas Milian, Barbara Bouchet, Florinda Bolkan | Length 102 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home, Leighton Buzzard, Saturday 27 February 2016

Profondo rosso (Deep Red, 1975)
Director Dario Argento | Writers Dario Argento and Bernardino Zapponi | Cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller | Starring David Hemmings, Daria Nicolodi | Length 126 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home, Leighton Buzzard, Saturday 27 February 2016

Lotte in Italia (Struggle in Italy, 1971)

It feels like a difficult thing to come to this film, however much of Godard’s 1960s output you’ve seen (or even Tout va bien or his later work from the 1980s on), because it’s so much a part of a movement and a heavily-politicised time in both his life and that of cultural institutions in Western Europe. What we have here is Godard (with his occasional collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin) working within the “Groupe Dziga-Vertov” collective (named for an important early Soviet filmmaker and theorist), making agit-prop pieces seeking to contextualise and free the worker from a bourgeois framework. Needless to say, too, it’s all very densely allusive and, as has long been Godard’s way, anchored very much by written and spoken texts (here, in Italian with another layer of French translation). The film is structured in three parts with Paola (Cristiana Tullio-Altan) seen first in various situations attempting to espouse a radical ideology, in the second part learning how her actions are framed by bourgeois ideology, and in the third reintegrating her actions with reference to the means of production. Or at least, this is what I think is going on, but it would probably require someone with a sustained understanding of the political struggles — and perhaps a few more viewings — to articulate it more meaningfully. In terms of this progress of thought, there’s a lot of to-do about the black leader which breaks up the various scenes of Paola at the start, later replaced by images of workers in factories, while the voiceover draws attention to the artifice of the film itself. Throughout, faces are largely eschewed in favour of showing actions, with the camera (this work presumably done by Godard and Gorin themselves) tending to frame body parts. It’s a provocation, of course, but it marks a stage on Godard’s filmic evolution.

Screening alongside this film are the Ciné-tracts made by Godard, from a series of 41 three-minute silent black-and-white short films intended to be distributed cheaply around the country and to prompt a dialogue about state power and control. Although unsigned, Godard’s shorts have been identified and take the form of slyly punning text written on a collage of still photographs showing dissent and activism. Standing apart from these is Ciné-tract numéro 1968 (credited to Godard and artist Gérard Fromanger), which simply but effectively films a painting of a French flag in which the band of red paint slowly leaks across the flag like blood, vividly coloured and graphically striking.


RETROSPECTIVE FILM REVIEW: Jean-Luc Godard || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Tuesday 16 February 2016

Lotte in Italia (1971)
Directors/Writers Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin [as “Groupe Dziga-Vertov”] | Starring Cristiana Tullio-Altan | Length 62 minutes

Ciné-tracts (1968) [#7-10, 12-16, 23, 40]
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard [uncredited] | Length c33 minutes (3 minutes each)

Ciné-tract numéro 1968 (1968)
Directors Jean-Luc Godard and Gérard Fromanger | Length 3 minutes