Criterion Sunday 478: L’Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad, 1961)

This film works at many levels, and while it’s certainly possible to say it confounds narrative understanding (because that’s partly what it’s trying to do), it’s also in some sense very straightforward: a man is trying to persuade a woman that they’ve met, and she, for whatever reason, is not conceding it and avers they have not, at least not in the way he’s trying to imagine it. The reality of the film mirrors the logic of the narrator, as the scenes we see and the topology of the hotel they’re staying in shift — the layout and the rooms, the placement of statues, and the gardens and even the shadows being thrown by the sun — as the camera glides by and around the actors. Just about every aspect of their material reality is constantly reconfigured as the dreamily detached narrative voiceover floats over and suggests different realities, which then appear on screen. Throughout it all the woman (Delphine Seyrig) is adamant, and so the film might be seen as a woman trying to get away from a creepily insistent man, and as a plot line it really doesn’t get much more simple (or empathetic) than that.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alain Resnais; Writer Alain Robbe-Grillet; Cinematographer Sacha Vierny; Starring Giorgio Albertazzi, Delphine Seyrig, Sacha Pitoëff; Length 94 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Friday 12 November 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, March 1998).

Criterion Sunday 463: Il generale della Rovere (General della Rovere, 1959)

This is a solid film, no doubt, though by 1959 I can’t help but feel this kind of moral drama about the end of World War II was already rather long in the tooth, as well as something Rossellini had himself already explored quite extensively. Still, it sees him collaborate with actor/director Vittorio De Sica, who plays the title role with a great deal of conviction, a small time criminal who is drafted in by the Germans to impersonate a resistance fighter they’ve accidentally killed, in order to extract key information about the ongoing resistance efforts against the Nazis in Italy, and who comes to take on more of the character of the man he’s impersonating. It takes a while for it to get to that point, and that first hour or so of the film where he’s plying his trade in 1944 Italy is compelling stuff, giving an evocative sense of Italy in this period and the kind of moral dubiousness that was at play. I can’t fault any of the filmmaking of course, but it feels like something oddly out of time just as various New Waves were starting to take hold around Europe.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Roberto Rossellini; Writers Sergio Amidei, Diego Fabbri and Indro Montanelli (based on the novel by Montanelli); Cinematographer Carlo Carlini; Starring Vittorio De Sica, Sandra Milo, Hannes Messemer, Anne Vernon; Length 132 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 19 September 2021.

Criterion Sunday 451: Fanfan la Tulipe (1952)

You can’t go into this 18th century swashbuckling romance with any kind of expectation of realism, for this is surely as silly as they come. A young man played by the dashing Gérard Philippe is given a prophecy by a fortune teller (Gina Lollobrigida) that he takes to heart, even as it’s swiftly revealed to be an army recruitment scam for her dad during the Seven Years’ War. The setting may be redolent of Barry Lyndon but this has the dashing spirit of The Princess Bride with more than a little mid-century European comedic flavour that may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s hardly offensive. Just extremely silly, as sabre fights make way to horseback chases, the King’s daughter Henriette, the King himself (Louis XV), romantic trysts and honestly, I sort of lost track about two-thirds of the way in.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Christian-Jaque; Writers René Wheeler, René Fallet, Christian-Jaque and Henri Jeanson; Cinematographer Christian Matras; Starring Gérard Philippe, Gina Lollobrigida, Olivier Hussenot, Noël Roquevert; Length 99 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Tuesday 27 July 2021.

Criterion Sunday 445: Madame de… (The Earrings of Madame de…, 1953)

It feels a little as if historically this penultimate film by Max Ophüls has been somewhat undervalued due to its focus on jewellery, dancing, grandiose set design and its melodramatic storyline, but of course I think we can all rate it as one of his finest achievements now. Truly, his visual style reaches its apotheosis in his last few films, with the famed sequence of ballroom dances over time to convey the development of a romantic relationship just being one of the great sequences that Ophüls devises for the camera of Christian Matras. It also has an intricate plot construction, with the final movement achieving a certain emotional pitch that feels satisfying even as events unravel for all our major characters. It’s a glorious piece of work.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Max Ophüls; Writers Marcel Achard, Ophüls and Annette Wademant (based on the novel by Louise Lévêque de Vilmorin); Cinematographer Christian Matras; Starring Danielle Darrieux, Charles Boyer, Vittorio De Sica; Length 100 minutes.

Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Sunday 16 July 2000 (earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, May 2000, and most recently on DVD at home, Wellington, Wednesday 30 June 2021).

Criterion Sunday 439: Trafic (1971)

Jacques Tati, in all his films but most notably his outings with his character of Mr Hulot, makes incredibly dense films that defy easy categorisation. They are comedies at a certain level, but they’re also performance pieces that could be video art in a contemporary art gallery. The way they take apart the space of the modern European city, radically decontextualise it, and then make fun of its inhabitants is awe-inspiring, if not always entertaining per se. However, the way he layers incident and movement within the frame is something he developed throughout his work but was especially evident in Play Time, and this subsequent film has a rigorousness to it that makes watching it almost superfluous; certainly I think you’d need to see it several times to pick up everything that’s going on. Right from the start, he sets up his style perfectly with an extreme long shot within an enormous and cavernous warehouse space where there are wires criss-crossing the floor. We can’t really see them, but we see these figures, engineers holding blueprints, moving around and carefully stepping over the wires with almost balletic precision, staged in several parts of the frame at the same time. It’s drolly amusing yet it’s somehow abstracted from humanity at the same time.

I can’t really explain as well as others the way Tati uses the frame of the film as much as anything within that frame: there’s his own physical presence of course, which recalls Keaton or Chaplin; technically, there’s a plot too (he’s transporting a prototype camping car from a factory near Paris to a car fair near Amsterdam) but it’s just a way of hanging on a series of set-pieces that advance a sense of farce more than story. Tati doesn’t hate humanity, and I’m not even sure he hates modernity, but his mission seems to be to find the ways in which this modern world (the one being constructed in the utopian 50s and 60s) resists human-shaped interactions. And in its saturated colours and hyper-stylised action it feels like what Godard was doing around the same time, but without the party politics, just the terror of the capitalist abyss.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The main extra on this disc, aside from a French trailer, is an episode of a British TV series (Omnibus), “Jacques Tati in Monsieur Hulot’s Work” (1976), which has critic Gavin Millar sit down with Jacques Tati to talk about his Hulot films and his idea of filmmaking. Millar starts out at the hotel where the first Hulot film was set back in 1952 and then moves to Tati’s office. He’s a genial presence, certainly very different from the character he portrays on-screen, who puts forward his ideas in fluent English, and even if Millar seems more interested in focusing in on specific gags as seen in the various films, there’s plenty there about what Tati was trying to do told in his own words, which makes it worth watching.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jacques Tati; Writers Tati, Jacques Lagrange and Bert Haanstra; Cinematographers Eduard van der Enden and Marcel Weiss; Starring Jacques Tati, Maria Kimberly; Length 97 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Tuesday 15 June 2021.

Criterion Sunday 434: Classe tous risques (aka The Big Risk, 1960)

If there’s one thing I can credit the Criterion Collection with introducing me to, it’s the whole gamut of French policiers and gangster films of the 1950s and 60s especially. Sure, I’d seen maybe a Melville, but now I feel like I’m starting to get through a lot of them, and this early feature by Claude Sautet, which has become somewhat overshadowed in film history by the contemporary work by the Nouvelle Vague, very much fits into the Melvillean tradition, if not being itself a source of influence for Melville as he went more abstractly noirish throughout the decade. It has the laconic soul of a western in the way this big guy gangster Abel (Lino Ventura) communicates through body language and scowls. He’s on the run for a heist that’s netted far less than expected, and the trail of cops leads to death, which is particularly difficult for Abel as he has two small kids to protect. There’s a whole world between these characters that we already have a sense of, even before they speak, and when a young kid helps Abel out (Belmondo, fresh from Breathless), there’s an extra frisson of concern because Abel doesn’t know him and worries he’s being set up. Of course there’s paranoia and fear, but mostly there’s just an easy sense of being amongst shifty guys all of whose futures are looking pretty bleak.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Claude Sautet; Writers Sautet, Pascal Jardin and José Giovanni (based on Giovanni’s novel); Cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet; Starring Lino Ventura, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Sandra Milo, Marcel Dalio, Claude Cerval, Michel Ardan; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 28 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 430: Le Feu follet (The Fire Within, 1963)

I think you could probably construct a small cinematic canon of works that deal with characters who are profoundly depressed and suicidal, but I don’t think there are a huge number which confront it head on. And by ‘head on’ I do mean that this is a film entirely about a man adrift. The protagonist moves around Paris, from a clinic in Versailles where he’s trying to clean up his alcoholism, into town where he tries — disconsolately, lackadaisically — to meet up with former friends and acquaintances. He seems to be seeking something, some connection that will convince him not to kill himself, but he’s also pretty set on not finding it, and that makes for uncomfortable watching. Don’t get me wrong, as played by Maurice Ronet, Alain Leroy is charismatic and can be good company, but it becomes increasingly clear that he is adrift and that things aren’t going to work out for him. The filmmaking matches his mental disarray at times, and underpins his emotions with the similarly desolate piano work of Erik Satie (which is too often misused in films in my opinion, but works rather well here).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Louis Malle (based on the novel [also translated as “Will O’ the Wisp”] by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle); Cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet; Starring Maurice Ronet; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 24 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 427: Muerte de un ciclista (Death of a Cyclist, 1955)

It’s natural to want to try and read films made under fairly repressive governments as being veiled criticism of that regime, but I’m not the person to try and do that with this film made during Franco’s Spain. It’s about collective guilt, about mistrust, and about the things that shame and the fear of being found out do to desperate people. Perhaps when you’ve killed once, even accidentally, and especially when it seems you’ve gotten away with it, it becomes easier to do it again, is at least one of the questions which is raised here. But there’s a lot going on in this tale of two lovers who, as the film begins, knock down a cyclist on a darkened street, apparently unseen, and quickly flee the site when it becomes clear to them that there’s nothing to be done, and the fact that they’re in an adulterous affair means they don’t want to be found out. Things spiral out from there, as the film has the feel of a film noir but filtered through the melodramatic framing of a film from the golden age of Mexican cinema. It has a certain European froideur to it, as these two navigate their own complicated feelings towards the accident as well as their behaviour, but it’s never less than stylish and beautifully composed in stringent monochrome.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Juan Antonio Bardem; Cinematographer Alfredo Fraile; Starring Lucia Bosè, Alberto Closas, Otello Toso, Carlos Casaravilla; Length 87 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 14 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 424: Mafioso (1962)

The tropes of the mafia film may have been largely set out a decade later for American viewers, but clearly by 1962 they were already familiar enough in Italy for this broadly comic take. Alberto Sordi plays Nino, a Sicilian man doing a dull factory job in Milan, in the north of Italy, who returns to his home village with his wife and finds himself sucked into nefarious activities on behalf of Don Vincenzo (Ugo Attanasio). Much of the film is interested in the set-up to this apparent inevitability, as his gregarious character (exemplified by his jaunty moustache) and his desperate need to be liked and respected makes him the natural mark for the Don; it hardly hurts either that he seems to be a really good shot at fairground attractions, and so eventually he finds himself unable to refuse a favour for the Don, which turns out to be in New York. In truth there’s not really a whole lot of plot, just this small town family drama along with a bit of local tension over his northern wife (Norma Bengeli), who’s perceived to be snobby, but Sordi’s deft character work makes the film zip by pretty quickly.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alberto Lattuada; Writers Rafael Azcona, Bruno Caruso, Marco Ferreri, Agenore Incrocci and Furio Scarpelli; Cinematographer Armando Nannuzzi; Starring Alberto Sordi, Norma Bengeli, Ugo Attanasio; Length 102 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 8 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 422: The Last Emperor (1987)

It’s odd now to think of that era (which I suppose has never really ended, though I hope is a little more circumspect these days) when a grand multinational epic of another country could be mounted by a largely Western creative team, in English, and win all the awards. It’s certainly very strange to me watching again now, though I can’t deny the artistry that director Bernardo Bertolucci and director of photography Vittorio Storaro manage to bring together to tell the story of Puyi, the titular character.

Puyi was deposed (or forced to abdicate, somewhat in his absence, and seemingly unknown to him) in 1912, the last of the Qing dynasty, but whose story hardly ends there and Bertolucci does honour the sweep of it, cutting between scenes in 1950 China, when Puyi is being held in an internment camp after an abortive attempt to start a new empire in Manchuria, with his childhood ascending to the throne and then the strange events that followed. We see much of it from his eyes, so the real power in the court is only passingly glimpsed (we barely see his mother, or his father, the rest of his family fade into the background, and the most prominent character seems to be his English tutor, played by Peter O’Toole). This also means that key historical events in Chinese 20th century history have to be relayed by people telling him what’s going on, or helpfully rehearsing the events for the benefit of the viewer, because the little Chinese we hear (and see) isn’t translated on-screen. It would also be impossible to capture the intricacies of this period (or indeed extended Chinese history) so it necessarily takes a fairly clipped view of events, but it does give at least some time to the more contested ones, the events that one imagines various regimes would wish to forget.

Ultimately, however, if this film is about the last emperor, it also feels like the last vestige of an older style of film, sumptuous and grand but rather exoticised, an exemplar of a taste that’s been largely superseded. For all its evident weaknesses or rather old-fashioned ways, there’s still something grand that comes through clearly in the imagery and the staging, a lost art perhaps, a vanishing history like the one being depicted.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Bernardo Bertolucci; Writers Mark Peploe and Bertolucci (based on the autobiography 我的前半生 From Emperor to Citizen by Puyi 溥儀); Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro; Starring John Lone 尊龙, Joan Chen 陳沖, Peter O’Toole; Length 160 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 1 May 2021 (and several decades before on VHS at home, Wellington, probably).