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 at home, Wellington).

Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (2014)

I mentioned a certain psychosexual element to Josephine Decker’s earlier film Butter on the Latch, and that’s a quality which is decisively extended with this film. The setting is now entirely rural, at a small farm where Akin (improv indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg) has been hired for the summer to help out Jeremiah and his daughter Sarah (Sophie Traub) with their work herding and milking the cows. Akin seems fairly straightforward — he’s a quiet man, married with a child, though he has been trying to hide this fact — but it’s Sarah who’s at the heart of the piece. She’s a complex character, at once ingenuous and manipulative, who apparently fits into a certain bucolic ideal of untainted femininity, but who has a much more earthy connection to nature and, more particularly, to her sexual desires. So naturally things get complicated when Akin arrives. Once again Decker’s filmic style has an elusive, oneiric and even spiritual quality, poetic in its use of out-of-focus shots and off-centre framings, but no mere pastiche of, say, Terrence Malick (go search out Ain’t Them Bodies Saints if that’s what you’re looking for). This all renders the latter part of the film a sort of nightmarish phantasmagoria, or perhaps it’s just a descent into familiar generic tropes, but I don’t think the film is quite that straightforward. It may even be a stronger work than Latch, because it’s in some ways even more challenging — if not necessarily at a formal level, certainly to the idea of male patriarchal violence that is encoded into its setting and which seems to dictate its denouement. Whatever one’s opinion, though, Decker is certainly a filmmaker to watch (which is another way of saying, I need to go back and see this film again).

Thou Wast Mild and Lovely film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Josephine Decker; Cinematographer Ashley Connor; Starring Sophie Traub, Joe Swanberg; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 1 August 2015.

Butter on the Latch (2013)

I’ve spent my year watching female written/directed films at the cinema, and one of the things that’s becoming most clear is that women’s voices are not well represented via traditional modes of distribution (get an official release slot, arrange exhibitors, organise marketing, posters, promos, et al.). Some of the best work, some of the strongest and most interesting work, can only be seen at festivals or via alternative modes of distribution, with one of the most prominent of these in recent years being the value-added practice of appending Q&A sessions to touring (or live-streamed) programmes of small, independent films. This is the way that US director Josephine Decker’s two recent features have been packaged for the UK, doing a tour of receptive cinemas during early-August.

Butter on the Latch, to be fair, is probably a hard sell. It focuses on a couple of New York women (Sarah Small and Isolde Chae-Lawrence playing characters with their own first names) attending a musical camp/retreat out in the woods, and whose friendship is ultimately tested. But a recounting of the plot would only tell you so much, and would need to be hedged around with all kinds of qualifications, because the style of the film suggests something so much more volatile and evanescent. It has a sort of dreamlike fragmentary quality, leaning heavily on decentred close-up framings of women’s faces, often shot from behind, claustrophobic in its affect, and frequently out-of-focus. This disconnect feels of a piece with the emotional terrain, which I’d describe as being somewhat psychosexual — not perhaps to the extent of Decker’s follow-up film Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, but with strong hints at various dynamics at play between the two friends, as well as a man who is also attending the music camp. However, the febrile style seems to allow for all the possibilities to be in play simultaneously; indeed it would seem almost reductive to speak of events in the film at all except insofar as they reflect an underlying unease between the two women, in which the male character becomes almost fodder. There’s plenty of mystery underlying it all, and if the style can be challenging and even at times frustrating, it also holds things together with a really fascinating creative tension.

Butter on the Latch film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Josephine Decker; Cinematographer Ashley Connor; Starring Sarah Small, Isolde Chae-Lawrence; Length 72 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 1 August 2015.

A Vida Invisível (The Invisible Life, 2013)

I don’t imagine much of Portuguese cinema is strange, oblique and dark, but if you’re judging on the basis of what gets released over here, particularly the efforts of Pedro Costa, then you may come to that conclusion. This film fits into that terrain, and is directed by Vítor Gonçalves, on whose first (and only previous) film Costa was an assistant almost 30 years ago. Well, I’ve not seen that film (nor even heard of it), so the narrative of ‘cult filmmaker returns after long gap’ didn’t make much impression on me, but The Invisible Life is certainly not a film that makes anything in the way of compromise with the audience. It is largely the interiorised struggle of one man with his own vanishing aspirations, as he witnesses the lingering death of a colleague (who might as well be himself in 30 years’ time). I can’t say I followed every twist, especially not as I nodded off a few times early in the film (busy week at work is my excuse, even if the dully bureaucratic surrounds of our protagonist here make all other offices seem lively in contrast), but it impressed me with its single-mindedness.

The Invisible Life film posterCREDITS
Director Vítor Gonçalves; Writers Gonçalves, Mónica Santana Baptista and Jorge Braz Santos; Cinematographer Leonardo Simões; Starring Filipe Duarte; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 23 April 2015.

The Voices (2014)

This is a very strange film, but watching it I am reminded of Compliance. In many ways The Voices is totally unlike that film — for a start, it’s pitched as a black comedy set in a small town with a hyper-stylised saturated colour aesthetic — but that’s the film I find myself thinking about (and not just because I confused Jacki Weaver and Ann Dowd playing similar authority roles in each). In both cases, I feel like the filmmakers are trying to make serious points about alienation and modern society, but in both my personal reaction has been closer to one of revulsion at a level of exploitation of delicate issues (however intentionally and meaningfully these might be deployed). Here, we have Jerry (Ryan Reynolds), a workman in a bathroom factory, who hears voices and is seeing Dr Warren (Weaver) to deal with these issues. The voices manifest in the form of his (sweary Scottish) cat and (affectionate drawling) dog, and that domestic madness aspect of the film is indeed very funny. It’s just that the film starts to walk a very fine balancing line between psychological drama and stylised black comedy when it shows him killing off the secretarial staff at his factory (among whom number a feisty Gemma Arterton as Fiona, and a winsome Anna Kendrick as Lisa). I suppose different viewers will have their own take on this — there are quite a few fairly positive reviews out there — but my own is that it is a misjudgement, and that the film’s tone (its horror-comedy balance) goes seriously awry, especially with the first murder and subsequent dismembering of Fiona. The thing is, there’s a delightful, luridly coloured and light-hearted dance sequence in the end credits featuring all the film’s by-this-point dead characters (I shan’t say which ones here), and I just wish the rest of the film had been closer to the tone of that.

The Voices film posterCREDITS
Director Marjane Satrapi مرجان ساتراپی; Writer Michael R. Perry; Cinematographer Maxime Alexandre; Starring Ryan Reynolds, Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick, Jacki Weaver; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wandsworth, London, Saturday 21 March 2015.

The Falling (2014)

Films set at girls’ schools form a fairly distinct ‘coming of age’ subgenre by this point, many of them distinguished by their undertow of the uncanny. I’m drawn back to Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Innocence (2004), ten years ago now but still provoking indelibly eerie memories, so the fact that The Falling even comes close to the power exerted by that film is, I’d say, a good thing. It too is shot by a French woman (Agnès Godard, frequent collaborator of Claire Denis) and like that earlier film, the rites of adolescence are intricately bound up with mystery and death. Set in 1969, it centres on two young women, Lydia (Maisie Williams) and the free-spirited Abbie (Florence Pugh), but mainly within the context of their time at school, as they and their classmates share experiences and set themselves against the brusque Miss Mantel (Greta Scacchi) and the airily unconcerned headmistress. What’s interesting is not so much what happens, as in the languorous atmosphere, in which significant events are revealed in an almost off-handed way at times. The camera frequently returns to a sylvan scene of trees looming over a small pond, often empty shots of threatening portent, as if summoning some Pre-Raphaelite vision of drowned maidens, and it certainly adds to the general sense of uneasiness. By the end, things get pretty charged in ways that I’m really hoping function as allegory (in a live Q&A the director was keen to stress that at least some of it wasn’t autobiographical), but as a piece it is stylish, and carried by some excellent acting.

The Falling film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Carol Morley; Cinematographer Agnès Godard; Starring Maisie Williams, Maxine Peake, Florence Pugh, Greta Scacchi; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Monday 13 October 2014.

Welcome to New York (2014)

The films of Abel Ferrara are a bit of a challenge it must be said: aggressively confrontational and fascinated by the sordid depredations of fleshy corporeality. I haven’t seen his Bad Lieutenant (1993) for years, but this new film feels of a piece, being about a corrupt (and corrupted) public official, unafraid to let it all hang out and to flirt with a sense of quotidian ennui. On the first point, there’s the ageing Gérard Depardieu playing Georges Devereaux, a French bureaucrat heading an international financial organisation in New York, a man whose carnal tastes are pursued not only behind hotel room doors, but even in his office (after the credits, the film gets straight into a rather awkward business meeting). On the second point is the way all this is presented, at length and with the camera often uncomfortably close-in to proceedings — lengthy (and rather tedious) orgy scenes kick things off, but later, after Devereaux’s predictable fall from grace, there are similarly lengthy procedural scenes following him through the justice system to home imprisonment.

The story is a thinly-veiled rendering of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn abuse case (he was alleged to have sexually assaulted a hotel maid, but was never convicted). The film, though, maintains a self-conscious charade of fiction with habitual playful references to its own constructedness (a pre-credits sequence of Depardieu being interviewed about the role, and occasional breaking of the fourth wall by having him address the camera directly). All this is necessary because the character of Devereaux is never presented as anything less than fully culpable for his actions. The film thus becomes a character study of a bitterly pathetic man, one apparently at war with himself and with those around him. Following his arrest, his New York-born wife Simone (Jacqueline Bisset) enters the fray, a woman with the self-interested ambitions her husband lacks, and very unwilling to continue putting up with his behaviour. Like much of Ferrara’s work, it feels a bit like car-crash cinema at times: a film about repellent people presented in an at-times rather sleazy way, and yet it’s fascinating.

Welcome to New York film posterCREDITS
Director Abel Ferrara; Writers Ferrara and Christ Zois; Cinematographer Ken Kelsch; Starring Gérard Depardieu, Jacqueline Bisset; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Sunday 10 August 2014.

Kapringen (A Hijacking, 2012)

With this little Danish film about piracy in the Indian Ocean, the natural point of comparison is last year’s Captain Phillips (which of course came out afterwards, but such being the way of these things, I saw it first). There’s no doubt they cover a similar subject, but for various rather obvious reasons the way they go about it is quite different. Where the bigger budget film uses spectacular shots of the container ship’s crews fighting off the pirates and then the struggle for power onboard, this film is more about the way that the hijacking situation affects a couple of characters. One is the ship’s cook, a young man with a wife and child back home, and the other is the CEO of the shipping company in Denmark.

The settings are the staff quarters of the ship where the cook (Pilou Asbæk) and his colleagues are being held, and the boardroom of the offices where the CEO works (Søren Malling), and the drama largely unfolds in crackling telephone communications between the CEO and the pirates’ negotiator (he gets rather aggrieved when identified as one of the pirates), Omar. The film interests itself in the subtly shifting power dynamics amongst these groups, as well as within them — between the CEO and his second-in-command, between the CEO and Omar, and between Omar and the cook. Some of this is done so subtly that it’s not even clear the power has shifted, and certainly the advice the CEO gets from hijacking experts is to draw things out and grind the pirates down over time. This of course, though it may be good for the company by minimising any financial loss, has its own set of effects both on public opinion (towards which the company’s board are rather sensitive) and to the captives who find themselves at sea for many gruelling months.

The camera holds close to the two main characters, with some handheld work but not too immersively queasy (this is no Breaking the Waves). It’s a character study more than anything else, and it wants to draw out how the drama on the high seas reaches into the personal life of a relatively entitled and protected man. The CEO is seen negotiating a financial deal at the start for vastly more money than the pirates demand, and if it’s a rather obvious parallelism, it never feels too hamfisted because it’s not overemphasised. There are certainly places where you feel that maybe the writing could be a bit less subtle, but it’s staking out a different emotional terrain. In any case, the excellent, naturalistic acting grounds the film and makes it easy to get wrapped up in.

A Hijacking film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Tobias Lindholm; Cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck; Starring Pilou Asbæk, Søren Malling; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 18 February 2014.

Psy-Warriors (1981)

This screening was presented as part of a series dedicated to the visual spaces of television, alongside a shorter work called “The Saliva Milkshake” (reviewed below). The image is a screen capture of the film’s title card. Both were originally shown on the BBC, with the feature originally aired on 12 May 1981 as part of the “Play for Today” series, and the shorter work on 6 January 1975 in the “Centre Play” series.


Psy-Warriors (1981)

I feel as though I preface a lot of my reviews by claiming I’m no expert on what I’m about to write about, but I must at least be honest. This is going to occur fairly frequently when one dips into areas of filmmaking that are strange or unusual or otherwise outside the mainstream, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. In this case, the format of the standalone television drama (whether a half-hour segment or a feature-length presentation) is one that has been particularly ill-served by advances in distribution over the last few decades. There are still huge numbers of TV shows languishing in archives (or entirely wiped from them) that get very little airing nowadays. They may have garnered larger viewerships than many cinema-distributed films at the time, but for only one or two airings many decades ago. It’s this context in which I come to this film I’m reviewing now, a fascinating document of a past era (albeit tackling themes still very much relevant now), which I saw in a one-off archival screening at the British Film Institute.

In Britain, many of our most well-regarded directors came from a background in TV drama, and specifically the television play, a rather more cerebral and stagy sub-genre of the format which flourished from the late-1950s through to the 1980s, and which reserved their most prominent credits for the writer (whose name would often be seen on the title card or immediately following it, like David Leland’s here) rather than the director. Nevertheless, many of these works showed a strong directorial hand, and trying to see many of those early films of, say, Ken Loach or Stephen Frears or Mike Leigh can be particularly difficult. Perhaps my favourite British director — and one who stayed true to the TV play format, making relatively few films which gained cinematic distribution — is Alan Clarke. Even now, there are extensive swathes of his TV output which are very difficult to see in any form, and Psy-Warriors is one such work. It deals with military psychological operations, or brainwashing and psychological torture to put it rather more crudely. One can trace a very direct line from what we see on screen here to what continues to be done as a matter of course in such environments as Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

There are certain thematic ideas which run throughout many of the films which Clarke chose to direct. Generally, his films would deal with marginalised communities (the poor and the working classes, soldiers and criminals), and the way in which their lives are shaped by the State and its forces of oppression, often expressed via violence. Psy-Warriors is no different, though the twist is that the three jailed captives — whom we at first assume are terrorists — turn out to be volunteers from within the ranks of the military, looking to advance their careers as well as patriotically help out their government with perfecting its methods of interrogation and deprogramming. Despite this, the way they are treated removes their humanity and pushes them to the edge of their tolerance. The methods are presented unflinchingly, with the male suspects (John Duttine’s Stone and Derrick O’Connor’s Richards) seen stripped naked, with bags placed over their heads, and strung up in uncomfortable positions for long periods of time. They are shown detained in cages (the third prisoner is a woman, Rosalind Ayres’s Turner), sleeping under bright lights or with grating white noise constantly playing, woken up by random intrusions from unremittingly brutal guards (the most prominent here played by the stalwart Warren Clarke), and fed a poor diet and even then only habitually. All these, of course, being techniques increasingly familiar to outraged readers of journalistic accounts of human rights abuses in modern detention facilities, and which must have been even more confrontational to television viewers of over 30 years ago.

The film’s style is striking, even if like many other films in this genre, it is necessarily curtailed by its stage-bound origins and limited budget. One expects in the television play to see a frontal staging on black cube sets resembling a theatre space, as well as long stretches of dialogue in place of action, and this is all here. However, Clarke and his collaborators are resourceful in using the bars of the cages as a recurring visual motif, filming many scenes through them, which have the effect of sometimes concealing the characters’ eyes or mouths and further impairing any easy identification. (It was in many respects unsurprising that Clarke went on to direct a Bertolt Brecht adaptation with Baal the following year, and his films throughout the 1980s increasingly become stripped down, notably Contact and Christine.) The camera also moves around the space, avoiding a slavish adherence to a fixed frontal view that would be all too easy given the film’s basis in a stage play, though the stage-bound form is appropriate to a story about people set apart from society and experimented upon.

If ultimately this isn’t either director Clarke’s or writer Leland’s strongest work, it’s still fascinating in its play on ideas that haven’t much diminished in importance in the intervening time. The acting, especially from the authority figures (Clarke and Colin Blakely’s psychologist), is imposing and the staging is striking. At times the expository talkiness of the dialogue can overwhelm the dramatic movement, but the line between authorities and terrorists is blurred, and the state’s culpability is questioned, in ways that remain somewhat unsettling even today.

Psy-WarriorsCREDITS
Director Alan Clarke; Writer David Leland; Cinematographer Ken Westbury [as film cameraman]; Starring Rosalind Ayres, John Duttine, Derrick O’Connor, Warren Clarke, Colin Blakely; Length 73 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Monday 24 February 2014.

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Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

I’ve left it a little too long since I saw this film to write an effective review, but if there’s anything I want to get across it’s how I really liked the way the atmosphere is handled by first-time director Sean Durkin. In fact, both the director and his lead actor, Elizabeth Olsen, are new to me and they certainly make their presence welcome. The film deals with rather fragile themes: a woman struggles away from a wilderness encampment to call her sister, and it slowly unfolds that she’d been inducted into a cult and must deal with years of conditioning that have removed certain inhibitions just as they’ve implanted paranoid suspicion. The title reinforces this in so far as Olsen is playing a young woman named Martha, who has been given the name Marcy May by the cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes), and who further subsumes her identity — as do all the female members of the cult — into that of ‘Marlene’ so far as the outside world is concerned.

Olsen brilliantly handles the fraught range of emotions her character Martha must go through, both in the framing story of her relations with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her sister’s husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), and in flashback scenes set at the cult. John Hawkes, too, is a wonderfully underrated actor who makes a real mark here as a very subtly creepy and controlling presence, and Hawkes is one of those rare actors whom I’ve seen do both extremes of good-guy and bad-guy characters and pull them off with equal conviction, which is possibly the best kind of background to have to really convince as someone whose shadiness must be tempered with some believable charisma.

The filmmaking heightens a slow-building tension through making good use of long shots in the scenes at Lucy’s secluded home, which open up the landscape around Martha and place her as often a small figure against the wilderness where the threat from the cult still lurks for her (and still casts an odd attraction). The flashback scenes also hint at some of the controlling methods used by Patrick and the group over the women, and combine with Martha’s actions when back in the care of her sister, to suggest a much darker and more disturbing life that she has escaped. Whether she really gets free of these influences is never quite resolved by the film, leaving the question of her rehabilitation hanging.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a very confidently crafted film that introduces a number of excellent new filmmakers. It fits in the same kind of darkly ambiguous psychological territory as Night Moves (indeed, as many of Kelly Reichardt’s films), so I can only look forward to further films from Durkin (as director) and Olsen (as actor).

Martha Marcy May Marlene film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Sean Durkin; Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes; Starring Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Thursday 28 November 2013.