La Femme au couteau (The Woman with the Knife, 1969)

I have taken up doing themed weeks on my blog, and this week it’s all about African cinema, one of the least represented and worst preserved continents for film history. Although I touched on North African cinema in my recent week of Arabic language films, this week will be all about sub-Saharan Africa. Filmmaking on the continent stretches back through various colonial administrations (British, Belgian and French amongst others), but I want to start in the post-colonial era, rooted in the idea and dream of pan-Africanism that was celebrated by Ouagadougou’s FESPACO film festival, which started in 1969 and where this local Ivoirian film was shown (if not premiered). Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato festival has been involved in restorations of notable films for the past few years, and this year they had a strand dedicated to FESPACO and some highlights of its programme over the years.


Despite screening at the very first FESPACO festival, this Ivoirian film is certainly not currently prominent in cinematic discourse, as I can barely find an image of it online. I know there’s a poster because in another film screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato (Med Hondo’s excoriating Les Bicots-nègres, vos voisins of 1974) it appears in the background of one sequence as an example of African cinema made for Africans. In any case, the film has been newly restored so with any luck it will regain some of its place in the history books.

The film deals with a man whose mind and existence seem to be fractured, apparently a result of his time in Europe. Played by the director (Timité Bassori), he is seen both as a young man and as an older one in black tie, possibly the same character at different times in his life, who imagines a woman with a knife trying to kill him and spends much of the film trying to get to the heart of his issues with women. The meeting between Africa and Europe becomes part of a dense psychoanalytic framework, and leads to a sort of double-consciousness from which the character may or may not fully recover, but it inhibits his socialisation into his own society. There are frequent repeated shots of him walking down roads, cast out and wandering, from rich streets to poorer ones, in his home town of Abidjan. Other elements of the film bring into focus his double life — the music moves from jazz to drums, the apartments we see have both high Western culture (shelves of books on French artists for example) as well as indigenous instruments and artwork — and if the film feels at times rather difficult and opaque, it is also brimful of ideas.

CREDITS
Director/Writer Timité Bassori; Cinematographer Ivan Baguinoff; Starring Timité Bassori, Marie Vieyra, Danielle Alloh; Length 77 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Friday 28 June 2019.

Advertisements

Criterion Sunday 255: Opening Night (1977)

Coming the year after The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, this could be construed as another film about Cassavetes’ relationship to art and artistic practice — and that is certainly a major element in it — but after the very masculine energy of the previous film, this one refocuses the story once again on Gena Rowlands and becomes about her character Myrtle’s (not-entirely-)self-destruction. By that I mean that she, as a celebrated theatre actor, has the adulation and the awards, but she also has a coterie of people around her who are only too happy to enable her in her downward spiral, just so long as they can make some money off her along the way. Her trajectory is triggered by the death of a young fan, whose presence comes back to haunt her throughout, which gets her to contemplating her own mortality and ageing, and perhaps it’s also a little to do with having to perform boring bourgeois plays about families and relationships (which she doesn’t really have in the same way). Maybe that last one is my misreading, but Myrtle’s erratic behaviour (brought on by the way she’s constantly pushed by those around her) leads her to ditch much of the text of the play she’s in, during its small-town off-Broadway run, such that by the Broadway opening night of the title she and Cassavetes are riffing on something completely different (to the irritation of the playwright, the legendary Joan Blondell). This sequence is largely improvised, and it’s unclear to me whether we’re supposed to take it as a swipe at how theatre audiences will laugh at any old nonsense, or about how much the actors react against the original text, or just about a person breaking down and opening themselves up, but in any case it’s a potent story about the price of art.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Ben Gazzara speaks to Gena Rowlands at her home in the mid-2000s, discussing the film’s themes, the other actors, how it was made, and how annoyed Cassavetes got at being called an auteur. There’s another short piece where DoP/producer Al Ruban speaks about making the film and the way he talks about Cassavetes does sort of fit that description, but then there’s a lot about the way he specifically collaborated on his creations.
  • There are two fairly straightforward trailers that lean heavily on footage from the final performance of the play-within-the-film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer John Cassavetes; Cinematographer Al Ruban; Starring Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazzara, Joan Blondell, John Cassavetes; Length 144 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 15 May 2002 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, August 2001, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Friday 12 July 2019).

Three Films by Lee Man-hee: The Marines Who Never Returned (1963), A Day Off (1968) and Assassin (1969)

These three films all feature on a box set put out by the Korean Film Archive, though many of their film restorations (not just these three, but many others) are available to view for free on an official website and a YouTube channel, which I’d recommend checking out if you want to follow up on classic Korean cinema. As for the director, I can’t give you much information. His name is sometimes transliterated as Lee Man-hui, and he was born in Seoul in 1931 and studied there too. He started out in the industry as an actor in the 50s, but had graduated to directing in 1961 and as a director had a prodigious output for much of the 1960s, making up to 10 films in a single year (1967 seems to have been his most prolific). He died at the age of 43 from liver cancer, in 1975.

Continue reading “Three Films by Lee Man-hee: The Marines Who Never Returned (1963), A Day Off (1968) and Assassin (1969)”

Criterion Sunday 230: 3 Women (1977)

While I like a lot of what Ingmar Bergman has created (and feel equally frustrated by a lot of what’s within his work), I do not like his influence in cinema, which seemed particularly prevalent amongst American filmmakers in the 1970s. Bergman, it seems to me, was every bit as patchy as Robert Altman has been in his career, and this film — an avowedly dream-based rendering of relationships amongst three women (well, primarily two really: Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall) seemingly inspired by some kind of Bergmanesque mood of Scandinavian disaffection, as well as psychoanalytic ideas — feels like a copy. A lot of people seem to love it, but I can’t find much to love really, but they seem to be tapping into an emotional range that I think would take me more processing to grasp. The performances are great, but the core relationships seem indebted to over-familiar mother/whore dichotomies, and the alienating score is (perhaps appropriately, of course) suffocating.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Robert Altman; Cinematographer Chuck Roscher; Starring Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Janice Rule; Length 124 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 11 November 2018.

Criterion Sunday 210: Nattvardsgästerna (Winter Light, 1963)

The second of Bergman’s loosely-defined faith trilogy, I do much prefer Winter Light to Through a Glass Darkly, though obviously they share a number of threads — the idea of God as a spider, a questioning attitude to the divine presence, many of the same actors and Sven Nykvist’s extraordinary camera. This film has a lugubrious pace, but also, at times, touches of what seem like humour (much the way I find humour in Bresson too: utterly po-faced, but yet somehow not without mischief). Its central character, a priest (Gunnar Björnstrand), is unable to reach God, feels himself a failure, and watches as his congregation dwindles. The film’s title in Swedish is “The Communicants” and there’s a sense in which each character in the film is trying to somehow commune with God. If the previous film posits Love as the connecting force, this seems far more tenuous here, though perhaps there’s something there, like an empathy which Björnstrand’s character so abjectly fails to achieve. One of Bergman’s better works, I think.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman; Cinematographer Sven Nykvist; Starring Gunnar Björnstrand, Ingrid Thulin, Max von Sydow, Gunnel Lindblom; Length 81 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Thursday 5 April 2018.

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)

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.


NEW 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).


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
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

Criterion Sunday 60: Höstsonaten (Autumn Sonata, 1978)

The two (unrelated) Bergmans — director Ingmar and film star Ingrid — brought together at last, the advertising copy no doubt blared. However, in terms of thematics, this is firmly within Ingmar’s frostier territory, as mother and daughter psychologically battle it out in a confined chamber drama. Ingmar was always feted for his ‘women’s pictures’, though the women are invariably under some kind of terrifying emotional onslaught, in this case Liv Ullmann’s Eva coming to terms with abandonment by her internationally-famous concert pianist mother Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman). Perhaps there’s an underlying angst of Ingmar’s relationship with his home country of Sweden (he’d been in exile in West Germany for a decade or so), but in any case nobody really comes out particularly well, especially once the red wine — and the accusations — starts flowing. There’s something that seems peculiarly 70s about having a disabled character as little more than a metaphor for the disfiguring effect of emotional dishonesty (or whatever), so this daughter Helena’s periodic appearance remains unsettling, but for the most part the film’s moody melodrama is well-handled and ends with a hope of some forgiveness in the offing.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman | Cinematographer Sven Nykvist | Starring Ingrid Bergman, Liv Ullmann | Length 99 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 1 November 2015

Criterion Sunday 44: The Red Shoes (1948)

Powell and Pressburger’s classic fairy tale adaptation of a ballerina pushed to breaking point by a possessed red pair of shoes is a film I’ve taken quite some time to warm up to. It’s certainly easy to appreciate the spectacular Technicolor framing of master cinematographer Jack Cardiff, not to mention the resplendent set and wardrobe design, which along with the exotic locales must have seemed all the more luxurious in post-war England. However, it’s that melodrama at the film’s heart — the battle of its protagonist Vicky (former ballet dancer Moira Shearer of the beauteous red locks) to dance her way to success in life and love, putting herself in conflict with two powerful men, the composer Julian (Marius Goring) and impresario Boris (Anton Walbrook) — that has been difficult for me to appreciate fully. For Vicky is, like her character in the ballet-within-a-film, a pawn to forces which she cannot control, making her story a tragic and saddening one. Yet, thinking about the way The Red Shoes sets it up, these forces are explicitly patriarchal. One is tempted to cheer the love that blossoms between Vicky and Julian, yet from the start it’s clear that falling for him will destroy her by putting her on a collision course with her boss and patron Boris. As cruel and controlling as Boris may be, his demands are never unclear, meaning it’s Julian who ends up being the chief villain of the piece for the unfair burden he places on Vicky to subordinate her desires to his own career. Much of this only comes out in the film’s denouement, meaning the bulk of the film is about Vicky’s slow rise to fame, and there’s much to enjoy in the staging and the performances, particularly of Walbrook as the nominal stage villain, not to mention the extended ballet sequence at the film’s heart, which in some ways decisively changes the destinies of all the characters within the film.

Criterion Extras: Martin Scorsese has filmed a brief introduction to the film and particularly its restoration, presenting comparisons of how the film was beforehand (rather patchy) and afterwards. It’s this stunningly restored print that forms the basis of the Criterion edition, and it really is beautiful to look at. Of course, Scorsese loves the film. He loves it more than I ever will, and probably more than you. In fact, his personal memorabilia is also presented in another extra, a series of photographs, which also includes lobby cards, posters and stills from the production. There’s a short documentary made by British TV which features interviews with the (at that time) surviving personnel like cinematographer Jack Cardiff and his assistant Chris Challis, which is intermittently interesting, as well as a fawning interview with Powell’s widow Thelma Schoonmaker. There’s also a commentary, which takes the form more of an essay about the film by Ian Christie, intersplicing commentary from the ubiquitous Scorsese as well as from Shearer, Goring and Cardiff again (who despite his age at the time sounds in good health and is sharp about his artistry on the film). Finally, there are storyboards of the ballet sequence, and a reading from the original fairy tale by Jeremy Irons (which is an alternate soundtrack to the film, so it’s quite long).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors/Writers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (based on the fairy tale De røde sko by Hans Christian Andersen) | Cinematographer Jack Cardiff | Starring Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring | Length 133 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 12 April 2014 (and more recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 19 July 2015, not to mention years earlier on VHS)