Criterion Sunday 394: 砂の女 Suna no Onna (Woman in the Dunes aka Woman of the Dunes, 1964)

It’s remarkable to me that this film resulted in two Oscar nominations, given the kind of pabulum that usually translates to success in the mainstream awards shows. Still, perhaps it just jelled with something in the era that was looking for works of art that expanded the mind and challenged one’s consciousness of how things are. In part I suspect the film’s success is to do with how fruitful and open the metaphorical and allegorical readings can be, given the film’s minimalism in terms of plot. Even at two-and-a-half hours, there’s very little to recount at that level: a man who is a schoolteacher in Tokyo (Eiji Okada, his character unnamed until the very end of the film) takes a few days’ off to go looking for rare insects out by the sea, but finds himself kidnapped by villagers who put him down a big hole in the sand dunes to help a woman living there alone (Kyoko Kishida, also unnamed). Her only activity seems to be digging out the sand that builds up every single day and which threatens her home and her life, an evidently Sisyphean task with no apparent end. For his part he goes through all the stages of dealing with his situation, eventually sort of settling into some rationalised existence.

Now, whether you want to see this as a metaphor for post-war Japanese society, or indeed for the human condition in some more vaguer sense, or for the exploitation of human resources under capital (there’s also a side-plot about the sand being used as cheap and illegal building materials in the outside world), or perhaps you can see the hole as being a sort of feminine lair, or about traditional folk wisdom versus the rigorous scientific approach of the man — all these readings seem to be in there. The film is filled with beautiful shimmering monochrome surfaces, capturing sand implacable in its movement, bodies moving with a sort of eroticism under the grains of sand, sweat and fear moving towards a calmer zen. It also seems to me to be something of a horror film, with the woman as a wraith-like figure, possibly supernatural, and again there are shots and suggestions that seem to support that too. In any case, it’s a masterful film that derives much of its power from its simple and charged set-up, so endlessly reconfigurable.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Hiroshi Teshigahara 勅使河原宏; Writer Kobo Abe 安部公房 (based on his novel); Cinematographer Hiroshi Segawa 瀬川浩; Starring Eiji Okada 岡田英次, Kyoko Kishida 岸田今日子; Length 147 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 26 May 1999 (and most recently on DVD at home, Wellington, Thursday 28 January 2021).

Mouthpiece (2018)

Of course I suppose if you look at the date (a 2018 film based on a 2015 stage play), this wouldn’t count as ‘new’ exactly, but these days sometimes you have to wait years to see things, ironic perhaps in an age of streaming media. I’m still waiting for 2019 films by some of my favourite filmmakers, so two years is hardly unusual. In the end, I watched this for free as part of a digital release by the Seventh Row website, who have all kinds of supplementary materials, and it’s a film that’s worth thinking about.


There’s something underlying this drama that definitely feels theatrical, and given its roots in a play that makes sense. Still, for all that, it feels cinematic in the way it’s told, with expressive use of light and colours and of staged sequences (somewhere between hallucinations and dreams, or perhaps fantasies, being the inner life of the central character). The theme is familiar, dealing with the relationship between a grown woman and her mother, who at the start of the film has just died unexpectedly, leaving a certain amount of mourning and then a reentanglement with her legacy by the central character Cassandra. The twist is that Cassandra is played by two different actors, standing side by side in each scene, wearing the same (or similar) clothes and making the same gestures. After that initial period of discombobulation (where one wonders if they’re in a relationship, which of course they are, after a fashion), it settles down to being a very effective way to hint at the internal conflicts she’s going through without resorting to a voiceover or some other stilted technique. And the performances by both actors (also the writers of the original play, and collaborators on this screenplay) are excellent, which is crucial in making it work of course.

Mouthpiece film posterCREDITS
Director Patricia Rozema; Writers Rozema, Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava (based on the play by Nostbakken and Sadava); Cinematographer Catherine Lutes; Starring Amy Nostbakken, Norah Sadava; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at home (Vimeo streaming), London, Sunday 4 October 2020.

LFF 2020: Shirley (2020)

The director of Madeline’s Madeline, one of my favourite films of a couple years ago, is back with another film, this time about the horror author Shirley Jackson, with a bravura performance from Elisabeth Moss. Hopefully this means it gets a bit more widespread acclaim, because I think it deserves it, not that it’s always easy to watch, given the mind games going on amongst the protagonists.


Director Josephine Decker has made some of my favourite films of recent years, developing a distinctive, corporeal and impressionistic aesthetic. It feels a little different here, presumably because she’s working with a different cinematographer from her earlier works, and so this feels a little more classical than her erstwhile experiments in trying to get directly inside someone’s head. It’s still stylish in evoking a mid-20th century New England setting, and comes across at times a little like Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, and while that film had its psychosexual overtones, Shirley really pushes hard into some dark territory in essaying the relationship between the titular writer and a young woman whom she at first fears her flirtatious and philandering academic husband has his sights set on. Things develop into a four-way entanglement between these two couples, all of which is brought out ultimately by the committed performances of the ever-mercurial Elisabeth Moss as Shirley and Australian actor Odessa Young as her protegee of sorts (plus of course Michael Stuhlbarg, who really makes the most of his beard and his paunch to create a memorable professor).

CREDITS
Director Josephine Decker; Writer Sarah Gubbins (based on the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell); Cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen; Starring Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Odessa Young, Logan Lerman; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player streaming), London, Friday 9 October 2020.

LFF 2020: El prófugo (The Intruder, 2020)

The final LFF film I had a chance to watch before getting on a plane to the literal opposite side of the world was this horror chiller from Argentine director Natalia Meta, and it’s pretty effective at what it does.


I remember watching the director Natalia Meta’s first feature Death in Buenos Aires (2014) on a whim on Netflix a few years’ back and I think it’s generally underrated. She shows terrific flair at times in this new film, a dark psychological horror, following Inés (Érica Rivas), a woman who works as a film dubbing artist and who starts to get hallucinations and be driven a little bit insane by people who may be living in her mind, or may not be. It’s not perfect, and I think it meanders a little at times, but when it hits it’s really effective at creating suspenseful shivers. There’s enough really bravura filmmaking and control of tension to make it a really interesting watch.

The Intruder film posterCREDITS
Director Natalia Meta; Writers Meta and Leonel D’Agostino (based on the novel El mal menor “The Lesser Evil” by C.E. Feiling); Cinematographer Bárbara Álvarez; Starring Érica Rivas; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player streaming), London, Monday 12 October 2020.

Global Cinema 22: Bosnia and Herzegovina – Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams (2006)

I am currently in the process of moving halfway around the world, so some of my regularly scheduled reviews may be a little delayed, and that’s also the reason I haven’t been running my theme weeks. I’ll get back up to speed soon enough I’m sure, when I have better access to films and places to watch them. In the meantime, here’s an older review (and a rather short one) for a Bosnian film, as we’ve reached that country, which has gone through a tumultuous recent history, and emerged as its own sovereign state in recent years.


Bosnian and Herzegovinian flagBosnia and Herzegovina (Bosna i Hercegovina)
population 3,301,000 | capital Sarajevo (276k) | largest cities Sarajevo, Banja Luka (185k), Tuzla (110.9k), Zenica (110.6k), Bijeljina (108k) | area 51,129 km2 | religion Islam (51%), Christianity (46%) | official language Bosnian (bosanski), Serbian (srpski) and Croatian (hrvatski) | major ethnicity Bosniaks (50%), Serbs (31%), Croats (15%) | currency Convertible mark (konvertibilna marka) (KM) [BAM] | internet .ba

A Balkan country in southeast Europe, with a mountainous interior, flatlands in the northeast, and a Mediterranean climate in the southern (Herzegovina) region, and only 20km coastline on the Adriatic. The name can be traced back to the Byzantine emperor Constantine VII in the 10th century, who wrote of “Bosona”, deriving from the river Bosna, ultimately from Proto-Indo-European for “running water”; Herzegovina meanwhile derives from the German word for “duke” (herzog), in reference to a Mediaeval ruler. Settlement in the region can be traced back to the Upper Paleolithic era (late Stone Age), and has had permanent settlements since the Neolithic. Illyrian and Celtic people gave way to South Slavic, and the earliest existence of Bosnia as a polity was in the 7th century CE. The Banate of Bosnia was established in the C12th followed by the Kingdom in the C14th, then taken up as part of the Ottoman Empire until the 19th century, which is how Islam was introduced. After a brief period as part of Austria-Hungary, it became part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia following World War I, and gained full republic status after WW2. Independence was proclaimed on 1 March 1992, leading to a civil war with Bosnian Serbs that lasted until 1995, ended by the Dayton Agreement that year. The country is largely divided into two as a result (the Federation of B&H and Republika Srpska), with a three member presidency for its three main ethnic groups (Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats), among whom leadership rotates, a democractically-elected parliament, with oversight provided by an external High Representative (required under the terms of the Dayton Agreement to ensure that peace is kept).

The country’s film heritage goes back to its time as part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, with notable Bosnian film figures like Danis Tanović, Emir Kusturica and the director of the film I’ve reviewed below. The Sarajevo Film Festival was established in 1995 and continues to be a prominent part of film culture in the region.


Grbavica (Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams, aka Esma’s Secret, 2006)

Made over a decade after a bitter civil war, the effects of it are still powerfully felt in this Bosnian drama. It’s called Esma’s Secret in the UK, though quite what is that secret never really feels surprising, as the truth is always so painfully near the surface. The source of her trauma, rooted in the civil war, really radiates out from the lead actor’s eyes (Mirjana Karanović), her hollow expressiveness, and it affects particularly her relations with even ostensibly friendly men.

Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams film posterCREDITS
Director Jasmila Žbanić; Writers Žbanić and Barbara Albert; Cinematographer Christine A. Maier; Starring Mirjana Karanović, Luna Mijović; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 26 November 2016.

Criterion Sunday 358: Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box, 1929)

Pandora’s Box is a fantastic film and an enduring screen classic largely for Louise Brooks, who is — and this is a term which may be over-used but is, for once, fairly accurate — iconic here: beautiful, transfixing, making the film twice as good as it already is. She plays Lulu, a woman who uses her abundant charms to win over people but who finds herself nevertheless on the back foot thanks to the constant, overbearing demands made on her by the patriarchal systems of control within her society. It looks gorgeous and it’s never less than engrossing, as she gets into all kinds of trouble, largely coming from her lack of money and education — the film is very pointed about class — and tries desperately, yet with effortless grace, to move away from those forces of capital and control that hold her down.

(Written on 19 November 2017.)


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director G.W. Pabst; Writers Pabst and Ladislaus Vajda (based on the plays Die Büsche der Pandora and Erdgeist by Frank Wedekind); Cinematographer Günther Krampf; Starring Louise Brooks, Fritz Körtner, Francis Lederer, Carl Goetz, Alice Roberts; Length 133 minutes.

Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Sunday 19 November 2017 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, January 1998).

Two Early Films by Jessica Hausner: Lovely Rita (2001) and Hotel (2004)

I’m building up to another entry of my Global Cinema series on Saturday, one which focuses on Austria, and so I’m doing a themed week around German-language films directed by women. One of my favourite Austrian filmmakers has been Jessica Hausner, who probably had her breakthrough with her third feature-length film, Lourdes (2009), a film about a young woman with MS in search of a miracle in the pilgrimage site of the title, and one I saw when it came out in cinemas. However, it was her follow-up Amour Fou (2014) which really captured my attention. I think her most recent film, the English-language Little Joe (2019) which premiered at last year’s London Film Festival, is probably a little underrated as a result of the language, but it maintains a really consistently creepy tone, which her first two films indicate is something she has always been skilful at.


It’s interesting, after seeing Hausner’s later films, to watch her feature debut and identify some stylistic continuities. There’s a stillness to the way scenes play out, an affectless quality to the acting, and underlying it all, something utterly morbid. Here though there’s an ugly visual texture which may be due to financial constraints but which is completely embraced and even feels right for the story — little tics like the quick zooms and the self-conscious acting which suggest dated and cheesy TV soaps. It makes the way the actions of the title character unfold that much more surprising, even shocking. It’s an interesting debut in any case.

Hausner’s second feature, Hotel (2004), manages to sustain — without anything graphic happening — a creepy atmosphere of dark portent, although the remote hotel setting helps with that, as does the largely still camerawork. Shots recede into darkness and corridors lead out of sight as our heroine is frequently seen disappearing into the frame (somewhat as the poster suggests). It’s all very studied, but it does work quite effectively.

Lovely Rita film posterLovely Rita [classification 15]
Director/Writer Jessica Hausner; Cinematographer Martin Gschlacht; Starring Barbara Osika, Christoph Bauer; Length 79 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 16 May 2016.

Hotel film posterHotel (2004) [classification 12]
Director/Writer Jessica Hausner; Cinematographer Martin Gschlacht; Starring Franziska Weisz, Birgit Minichmayr; Length 83 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 10 July 2016.

Mi amiga del parque (My Friend from the Park, 2015)

It feels like since the arrival of Lucrecia Martel in the new millennium, there’s been a flourishing of women directors in Argentine and South American cinema, covering a range of genres. Looking at her filmography, Ana Katz, an actor and director who emerged around the same time, has tended towards more populist forms like comedy, though this one sits much more in one character’s head, as a sort of psychological horror film of sorts.


An odd film which starts in the park of the title, then the comfortable apartment of lone mother Liz (Julieta Zylberberg), whose husband is off overseas working, and seems to be telling a story of a middle-class woman’s struggle to parent her baby by herself. It then sets up a meeting with another single mother, Rosa (played by the director, Ana Katz), an older woman who is clearly less well-off, in that park and starts to veer into psychological terror territory. It continues to flirt with playing out Liz’s increasingly paranoid fantasies, stopping just short of that, but nevertheless says something about the incipient terror of motherhood, not to mention being a story of the way class relations play out, as it maintains a constantly uneasy tone in the friendship between the two women.

My Friend from the Park film posterCREDITS
Director Ana Katz; Writers Inés Bortagaray and Katz; Cinematographer Guillermo Nieto [as “Bill Nieto”]; Starring Julieta Zylberberg, Ana Katz, Maricel Álvarez; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Tuesday 3 April 2018.

Honey Boy (2019)

The Israeli director who made Bombay Beach and LoveTrue — both of which I admired and both of which lurk uncomfortably somewhere between documentary and staged drama — gets an ostensibly fiction feature with this one written by its star Shia LeBeouf. However, it turns out to occupy a similar territory adjacent to Shia’s own lived experience, and tells a fairly traumatic story in an engaging and visually inventive way.


Shia LaBeouf is one of those actors I’ve always wanted to like — perhaps because some of the media excoriation of him has been so very ad hominem for so long — but finally this is a performance of his I can really get behind. He plays a fictionalised (only lightly, I gather) version of his own father in a screenplay he wrote and it very much puts him in the same territory that Joaquin Phoenix has been going over for years. It gets big and ugly at times, proper emotional turmoil, but it’s all underpinned by a deep vein of tenderness. That’s helped along significantly by Noah Jupe, who plays the younger version of himself, and very much holds his own in what is essentially a two-hander between the two actors (there are also some scenes with an older version of Shia, played by Lucas Hedges, but the dynamic between father and son remains similar). Director Alma Har’el has made a number of fine films in the past decade, which at least ostensibly have been documentaries, although these have always had a strong sense of performance at play — as if finding the characters at the heart of real people — so perhaps this step into fiction (but fiction based on reality) is a natural progression for her. In any case, she makes films with verve, humour and warmth, and that’s always evident.

Honey Boy film posterCREDITS
Director Alma Har’el עלמה הראל; Writer Shia LeBeouf; Cinematographer Natasha Braier; Starring Shia LeBeouf, Noah Jupe, Lucas Hedges, FKA Twigs; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Friday 6 December 2019.

Criterion Sunday 310: 上意討ち 拝領妻始末 Joi-uchi: Hairyo Tsuma Shimatsu (Samurai Rebellion, 1967)

I’ve recently been watching quite a run of quiet little domestic dramas from the 1930s directed by Mikio Naruse, which I liked well enough, yet I feel a little conflicted I’m giving the best review now that I’m back on the rather more familiar cinematic terrain of the chanbara (samurai film) and jidaigeki (period drama, in this case the mid-18th century). That said, Masaki Kobayashi is one of the real ones in Japanese cinema; after all, he made the equally brilliant Harakiri (1962) and Kwaidan (1964). He’s possibly an even greater stylist in some ways than Kurosawa, whose mythos he’s obviously building on by using the same screenwriter as wrote Seven Samurai, and by casting Toshiro Mifune only a few years after Yojimbo and Sanjuro as Isaburo, the ageing vassal to a local clan warlord (daimyo). He’s also cast Tatsuya Nakadai as Isaburo’s closest compatriot, each of them competing to be the greatest swordsman in their territory — a detail set up in the opening scene that will, of course, come back into play at the end.

Kobayashi knows brilliantly how to frame and cut shots, and there’s an architectural sense of space amongst these formal indoor settings, with careful use of dollies and zooms to move around the rooms, until of course the walls of the house are removed to help aid the upcoming battle. All details point towards a final showdown, as the moral drama unfolds, in which Isaburo’s family become embroiled in a struggle over a woman — indeed, the Japanese title more straightforwardly frames the story as being one focused on a traded wife, a pawn in a struggle between clan chief and his vassal. While there’s no overt conflict until very near the end, the film methodically moves towards this outcome, ratcheting up tension with the aforementioned technical skills, not to mention a brace of fine performances, not least from Yoko Tsukasa as the traded wife Ichi, and Go Kato as Isaburo’s son Yogoro whose wife Ichi becomes.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Relatively sparse extras include a three-minute segment of a 1993 interview Kobayashi did with Masahiro Shinoda (who directed Double Suicide), in which he offers a few reflections on this film, notably that Mifune was not focused on it at all, somewhat coasting through the project, though of course still acting effortlessly well.
  • The only other extra is the Japanese trailer, which cuts together most of the film, including the final confrontation.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Masaki Kobayashi 小林正樹; Writer Shinobu Hashimoto 橋本忍 (based on the novel 拝領妻始末 Hairyo Tsuma Shimatsu by Yasuhiko Takiguchi 滝口康彦); Cinematographer Kazuo Yamada 山田一夫; Starring Toshiro Mifune 三船敏郎, Go Kato 加藤剛, Yoko Tsukasa 司葉子, Tatsuya Nakadai 仲代達矢; Length 121 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 16 April 2020.