Criterion Sunday 253: A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

In my ongoing Criterion watching project, I stalled a bit before this film. I’d seen it before, and I’d rated it highly, but it’s one of those films that you need to take a big breath and a bit of time before you launch yourself into it because it is unrelenting. It’s not bleak exactly, but it’s exhausting because Gena Rowlands — who utterly dominates the film — just fills every empty space with her presence. She’s Mabel, the mother to three kids, and the wife to Peter Falk’s construction engineer Nick (or some kind of municipal worker), and if the way I’m defining her life seems a little regressive, well that’s the world of the film, and it’s strongly implied that part of her problem is the way that she has been pushed into this role, and the way she comes apart at the seams trying to live up to expectations made of her. That’s also partly why it’s so heartbreaking, because although she’s clearly become unhinged, it’s Nick who’s the bully and the bad person. He can be sweet and understanding at times, but every time he loses control of Mabel, he starts shouting and gets pushy and violent, and the kids, who are there most of the time, can’t do much about it. Cassavetes keeps the camera tight in on them for much of the film, only at the end disappearing behind a closed curtain as he leaves them. It’s a film of towering acting performances, not least from Rowlands, although Falk is also on brilliant form. There are these characters around the edges (parents, kids, co-workers of Nick’s), who feel almost like non-actors and perhaps they are, but for all its age, it feels continually fresh and perceptive about its characters, and about mental health.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer John Cassavetes; Cinematographers Al Ruban and Mitch Breit; Starring Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk; Length 147 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 12 May 2002 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, February 2000, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Thursday 4 July 2019).

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Two Films by Julio Bracho: Another Dawn (1943) and Twilight (1945)

We’re now deep into the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, though I can’t tell you much about the director himself. He was from a large family, was sister to Andrea Palma (seen in 1934’s The Woman of the Port and in Another Dawn below) and a cousin to Dolores del Río (whom we saw in La otra). He was involved with modern theatre in Mexico City in the 1930s and then moved into writing and directing between the 1940s-1970s, though he had trouble with the censors later in his career. He passed away in 1978.

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Women Filmmakers: Cécile Decugis

Cécile Decugis (1934-2017) has never really been a prominent film name, which is a shame. She may have only made a handful of short and medium-length films as director (which I like well enough), but she makes it to my Women Filmmakers’ feature for her more prominent work as a film editor. She worked on some of the most important French Nouvelle Vague films of the 1950s and 1960s, films which were known particularly for their innovative editing (usually ascribed to their more famous directors). These films include many of the works of Éric Rohmer (she worked with him through to the 1980s), as well as a few other minor works you may not have heard of like À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1959) and Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959, along with Marie-Josèphe Yoyotte, another editor, of Martinican heritage). Her activism on behalf of Algerian independence began in the late-1950s with her first short film, and ended up costing her two years in prison from 1960-62. Her own films were often about people in a certain existential confusion, it seems to me, and I got a chance to see them at the invaluable Il Cinema Ritrovato festival (though I only caught half of the full programme).

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Criterion Sunday 136: Spellbound (1945)

There’s no shortage of likeable hokum in this film, filled as it is with the excitable babble of newly-learned psychoanalytic jargon and dated jokes about mental health issues. Bergman is excellent, there’s that Dalí dream sequence, the gun boldly pointed at the screen. But gosh it doesn’t half seem a bit ludicrous, with all kinds of conveniently-remembered details to move the plot along, the redemptive power of believing in someone’s innocence because they’re pretty handsome (oh Gregory Peck), and so much condescending and mansplaining to the unfortunate Ingrid Bergman’s doctor, who to her credit largely shrugs it off. My favourite sequence is where the police connect the dots by drawing glasses on her glamour headshot to figure out she’s actually (gasp!) that educated woman they met once in a doctor’s office.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alfred Hitchcock; Writers Angus MacPhail and Ben Hecht (based on the novel The House of Dr. Edwardes by John Palmer and Hilary A. Saunders); Cinematographer George Barnes; Starring Ingrid Bergman, Gregory Peck; Length 111 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 4 December 2016.

Criterion Sunday 123: Grey Gardens (1975)

Clearly these two ageing women, scions of the Bouvier family (and hence related to Jackie O), make for great documentary subjects. They sit in their dilapidated Long Island home, bickering with one another in front of the camera. The mother Edith still seems like the sensible one and her daughter Edie flighty and irrepressible, prone to song and dance, improvising fashion including endless variations on headscarves to hide her greying hair, though wistful at the idea of living with so many cats and raccoons. Yet at the same time, it hovers on the edge of uncomfortable exploitation of what is clearly mental illness: Edie is very much aware of the camera and is equally clearly playing to it. She makes constant references to filmmakers David and Albert Maysles, flirting with them and at times opening up to them, and so their use of her at times feels like it could be stepping over a line. Of course, these two have wealth to continue being able to live like this, but there’s a basic dignity that’s not always evident and seems to me to push at the edge of documentary ethics.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer; Cinematographers Albert Maysles and David Maysles; Length 94 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 2 October 2016.

डियर ज़िन्दगी Dear Zindagi (2016)

This isn’t perfect as a film, far from it — our heroine (Kauri, or “Koko” for short, played by the lovely Alia Bhatt) spends much of the time acting like an entitled brat, for which there’s an explanatory backstory near the end which is far too neat and allows for a perfunctory ending that stretches credulity — but I really liked this film. It has its heart in the right place. Maybe it’s better to say what it’s not: it’s not a film in which a wayward heroine is cured by a hunky love interest (though the reliable Shah Rukh Khan does play a key role as a therapist, while the film at one point even suggests Kauri may be lesbian, and there’s a little coda that plays with gender identity); and it’s also not a film that stigmatises mental health issues (even if I don’t believe Khan’s therapy sessions at all). It has visual flair, and I really wished Kaira’s job as a cinematographer were more developed than the opening half hour, but it shows plenty of promise.

Dear Zindagi film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Gauri Shinde गौरी शिंदे; Cinematographer Laxman Utekar लक्ष्मण उतेकर; Starring Alia Bhatt आलिया भट्ट, Shah Rukh Khan शाहरुख़ ख़ान; Length 150 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld O2 Greenwich, London, Monday 28 November 2016.

Shoot the Messenger (2006)

A film made for TV in 2006 and rarely screened since, I saw this at a 10th anniversary show at the BFI (to tie in with their Black Star season focusing on black film talent), followed by a fascinating panel discussion afterwards which I think helped me appreciate it more by presenting a diverse range of responses and perspectives. It’s a film which sets up its unusual and challenging tone from the very opening shot of David Oyelowo’s character Joe stating direct to camera that all the problems he’s had in life are due to black people. It’s a deliberate provocation from a production with black writer, director and cast, and is said within a context of a drama which is hardly naturalistic — the film’s tone is much more black comedy or satire, even as it trades in some very harsh statements about systemic and ingrained racism within British society. Thus it’s made clear that Joe — a man who initially feels called upon to help improve the lives of minority ethnicities by becoming a teacher — is just the lightning rod for discussing these issues. From a stylistic perspective, the film also makes frequent use of direct-to-camera address from this unreliable protagonist — amplifying his voice and making it even more challenging — as he traverses a series of personal setbacks, all of which he pins to other black people. But the ostensible comedy in fact helps draw out all kinds of aspects of lived black experience — experiences within systems dedicated to education, mental health and employment, experiences with religion and the media, and within a society with deeply-ingrained messages around body shaming (specifically to do with hair, in this context). None of it feels like it should work — in some senses it comes across as quite a theatrical piece — but it’s in a great tradition of British television drama (I think back to the 1960s for the nearest comparisons, polemical films by directors like Alan Clarke). It’s rich in ideas, and Oyelowo is great in the lead.

CREDITS
Director Ngozi Onwurah; Writer Sharon Foster; Cinematographer David Katznelson; Starring David Oyelowo, Charles Mnene, Nikki Amuka-Bird; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Tuesday 15 November 2016.

Queen of Earth (2015)

Generally, I’m quite sceptical about films made by men about women’s experiences. There’s very much an arthouse tradition — perhaps going back to the Hollywood “women’s pictures” of the 1930s, but primarily derived from Ingmar Bergman — of this kind of tear-stained melodrama, of women pulling themselves and each other apart psychologically. Woody Allen took up that tradition in the 1970s, and this new film from young New York-based filmmaker Alex Ross Perry seem to take it up too. Indeed, in many ways, it comes across as almost a throwback to the 70s, with grainy stock, murky close-ups, and of course Bergman-esque psychological torment aplenty. With unadorned actors attacking the script, this is a different beast from the director’s earlier film Listen Up Philip (2014), even as it seems to be capturing the same kind of lost spirit of writer-director filmmaking. Nevertheless, whatever my reservations, Elisabeth Moss is undoubtedly terrific as Catherine, a woman coming apart at the seams — she may not be likeable, but you get the sense that she’s had a lot to deal with — not helped by her friend Ginny (played by Katherine Waterston). In its effect, it’s almost a psychological horror film, once you factor in the steady alienating thrum of the score, and it gives further evidence of Perry’s talent.

Queen of Earth film posterNEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Alex Ross Perry; Cinematographer Sean Price Williams; Starring Elisabeth Moss, Katherine Waterston; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Prince Charles Cinema, London, Thursday 7 July 2016.

Welcome to Me (2014)

Stories about characters with mental health issues crop up every so often, and I need to make it clear from the outset that I’m not one to judge how competent these films are with respect to the issues they raise. If for example Silver Linings Playbook seemed a bit cavalier with its characters — it seemed to me to have a propensity to treat them as adorably and irretrievably kooky — there are other voices who nevertheless adored it. I wouldn’t say quite the same about Welcome to Me (it seems less willing to laugh at its protagonist), but it does advance Kristen Wiig’s unlikely claim to be one of the most versatile actors currently working, or certainly one who’ll happily attach herself to outwardly uncommercial prospects (Kristens seem to make bold and unconventional choices, as her namesake Stewart is another I’d pick out in this category). Wiig plays Alice, a woman with a personality disorder who wins big on the lottery and uses it to realise her dream of a reality show on a local cable access network run by brothers Rich and Gabe (respectively James Marsden and Wes Bentley). Her flights of fancy become increasingly trying on the producers — one of whom is played by Joan Cusack, and indeed this is a film with many pleasing small roles for excellent actors — and on the brothers, but she garners a bit of cult success. Welcome to Me itself seems destined for cult status, and if it’s not always perfect, it does find a very interesting, blackly comedic tone in its awkward and stilted exchanges. Kristen Wiig is of course the glue that holds the whole thing together, and she shows great adeptness at the comedy, though this is perhaps unsurprising, given the overall sense that this film is like an extended final skit on Saturday Night Live (always the slot where the greatest weirdness is allowed to flourish).

Welcome to Me film posterCREDITS
Director Shira Piven; Writer Elliot Laurence; Cinematographer Eric Alan Edwards; Starring Kristen Wiig, Linda Cardellini, Wes Bentley, James Marsden, Joan Cusack; Length 87 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Wednesday 30 March 2016.

Min lilla syster (My Skinny Sister, 2015)

This well-meaning Swedish drama deals with two sisters, as you might expect from the title, one of whom has an eating disorder. However, rather than taking the more usual point-of-view of an authority figure like the parents (who here are clearly well out of their depth) or doctors, the film is told from the younger sister Stella’s viewpoint. Being around the age of 12, Stella has the curiosity of youth combined with a naïveté which actor Rebecka Josephson puts across quite well, as she is first perplexed by her sister Katja’s odd secretive habits and then starts to show more concern. Katja, an aspiring figure skater, is played by a Swedish pop singer (Amy Deasismont, who apparently performs under the name Amy Diamond), so just by the casting, the film is tying the story into a wider one of body image issues and creating a contrast betweeen the glamorous and apparently-confident older sister and the gawky younger one. There’s an underlying issue-film-of-the-week format lurking beneath the surface, which might have fitted it for a TV domain, but the filmmaking is too strong and the acting too interesting to totally fall into that kind of ghetto. There’s no glamorisation of the disease — it remains a nasty, pernicious thing — although perhaps the film suffers in comparison with the work of Catherine Breillat, whose masterpiece À ma sœur (2001) comes to mind when the initial sisterly drama is set up (of course the two films are ultimately doing different things, but there’s something of a physical resemblance to the leads). Whether Katja can break out of this eating disorder remains uncertain — as it should given the nature of the disease — but this is a worthwhile attempt to get inside the way this kind of illness can affect a family.

My Skinny Sister film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Sanna Lenken; Cinematographer Moritz Schultheiß; Starring Rebecka Josephson, Amy Deasismont; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Thursday 3 December 2015.