Criterion Sunday 459: El ángel exterminador (The Exterminating Angel, 1962)

It’s difficult to imagine from the plot summary how this is going to play out, given the set-up is fairly thin: a bourgeois group of high society socialities go for a slap-up dinner after the opera and find themselves unable to leave the home they’re in. But Buñuel, of course, knows what he’s doing, and mixes jabs at the aristocrats, at complacent bourgeois values, and at the church itself (the ending is bitterly directed and something he developed further in Simon of the Desert and Viridiana, amongst other works). It’s a psychological horror of sorts, at least in the way its structured: there’s an invisible force seeming to prevent them from leaving, but this seems to be a deeply-ingrained sense of decorum. At the end it feels like they are able to leave when the correct formula of words is uttered: the entrapment is very much a social one, as everyone is constrained by their own sense of what’s allowed, what’s considered polite, and it’s that in the end which is their tragedy, the pathetic sadness of this entire class of people. It’s all beautifully acted and staged, and ends up — in a low-key way — being perhaps Buñuel’s strongest film.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Luis Buñuel; Cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa; Starring Silvia Pinal, Enrique Rambal; Length 93 minutes.

Seen at the National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 18 August 1999 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, April 1999, and most recently on YouTube streaming at home, Wellington, Sunday 12 September 2021).

Criterion Sunday 453: Chung Hing sam lam (Chungking Express, 1994)

Thinking back on it, it’s difficult to sum up what the plot of this film is exactly, but made in a break from filming his grandiose epic folly Ashes of Time, it’s fair to say that Wong Kar-wai is going for a looser feel here, two stories of people passing by one another in a busy city, barely enough time to make a connection that’s lasting. Thinking back to when I saw it several decades ago, my abiding memory is its heavy use of the song “California Dreamin'” but watching again it’s not in it all that much and just in the second story, certainly not to Godardian levels of replaying snippets of music, though you get the sense that Godard’s New Wave work is one of Wong’s touchstones. But there’s both a denseness to the imagery — of a crowded city, of colourful lights and rain-slicked streets, of bustling shopping streets and little food stands — but also a lightness to the tone, with two flirtatious stories that touch on crime (because in the first, Brigitte Lin is engaged in drug dealing and kills those who double-crossed her, though the second just features Tony Leung as a cop stopping by for food on his downtime near where he lives) but really are about the feelings of the central characters in each, Takeshi Kaneshiro (also apparently a cop though we don’t see him in uniform like Leung) and the mesmeric Faye Wong who takes a job at a snack bar and, yes, plays that Mamas and the Papas song a lot. There’s an oneiric sense to Chris Doyle’s camerawork and a sense of fleetingness to each story, as if these characters will soon disappear into Hong Kong’s bustle never to be seen again, and indeed they seem to do that. It’s a very film-y film ultimately, but grounded in a very specific place and time — in many ways, to me, it is the apex of 90s filmmaking.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Wong Kar-wai 王家衛; Cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Andrew Lau 劉偉強; Starring Faye Wong 王菲, Tony Leung [Chiu-Wai] 梁朝偉, Takeshi Kaneshiro 金城武, Brigitte Lin 林青霞; Length 102 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Wednesday 11 August 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, December 1997).

Criterion Sunday 446: 秋刀魚の味 Sanma no Aji (An Autumn Afternoon, 1962)

I’ve just watched this film for the first time, Ozu’s final film as a director, and like a lot of final works, it’s probably one that I need to sit with for a long time in order to understand it fully. Ostensibly, it’s not particularly bleak, but it follows a familiar late Ozu pattern of having his lead actor Chishu Ryu play a lonely elderly character, and the movement of the plot is towards his eldest daughter (Shima Iwashita) being married off and leaving the family home, where she cares for him. However even this plot is hardly the centre of the film’s narrative momentum; Ryu’s Shuhei is a company man who still has friends. His old teacher (Eijiro Tono) is still alive too, though he’s a drunkard and a source of barely-disguised pity for his former students due to that and his fall in status to a (not even very good) noodle joint owner. But for all that, Shuhei is looking at a life on his own, as his family move away. There’s a generational gulf too evident in all the talk, both at home and in workplaces, of women getting married, questions about when they’re getting married, and constant reminders of this patriarchal expectation hanging over everyone in their 20s. Meanwhile the older characters reminisce about the war and get nostalgic for old military marches; this is a society that has definitively moved on (shots framed by new buildings, English language signage, old and new facing off), populated by people who haven’t. Ozu’s characters (and perhaps the director himself, too) feel out of step with this changing world, and that suffuses the film throughout, in elegantly framed set-ups that leave our protagonist isolated from others, blankly nodding and smiling into a quieter future.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Yasujiro Ozu 小津安二郎; Writers Kogo Noda 野田高梧 and Ozu; Cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta 厚田雄春; Starring Chishu Ryu, 笠智衆, Shima Iwashita 篠田志麻, Nobuo Nakamura 中村伸郎, Eijiro Tono 東野英治郎, Haruko Sugimura 杉村春子; Length 113 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 23 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 437: Vampyr – Der Traum des Allan Gray (Vampyr, 1932)

I can imagine this film at the time seeming quite quaint and old-fashioned. It very much still feels like a silent film: most of the exposition is done via text-heavy images of book pages like a silent film’s intertitles and there’s very little in the way of spoken dialogue. It also, even for the period, feels rather slow with a minimum of plot drama; much of the film revolves around the atmospherics that Dreyer and his production designer and cinematographer are able to evoke. It is the very cinematic expression of the uncanny/unheimlich, as many of the images are filmed with a heavy grain, almost washed out and shot through veils, like the title character’s dream (which is after all the subtitle of the full German original title). It’s a morbid, imagistic and fantastic dream or nightmare, a reverie of the waking dead, and vampirism just seems like part of the heavy folk stylistics being conjured here, only added to by the heavy somnabulistic movements of the amateur aristocratic socialite (Nicolas de Gunzberg, credited as Julian West) in the lead role. Certainly the vampirism doesn’t seem to connote the blood-sucking of capitalists as it can in more modern interpretations, but instead evokes the sense of an ancient rural curse and restless vengeful spirits. It’s all very mysterious and beautiful, whatever inspires the horror, and while it doesn’t conjure the same kind of frightfulness as modern works, it has its own sense of the uncanny.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Carl Theodor Dreyer; Writers Christen Jul and Dreyer (based on the collection of short stories In a Glass Darkly by Sheridan Le Fanu); Cinematographer Rudolph Maté; Starring Nicolas de Gunzberg [as “Julian West”], Maurice Schutz, Sybille Schmitz, Rena Mandel; Length 73 minutes.

Seen at the Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Sunday 29 June 2003 and at the BFI Southbank, London, Monday 19 March 2012 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Sunday 13 June 2021).

Criterion Sunday 421: Pierrot le Fou (1965)

I’ve always had this film pinned in my head — having seen it a couple of times 20 years ago — as one that’s fun, and rewatching it again, it is, mostly. I feel like I should mention right up-front that there’s a rather hideously racist interlude with Anna Karina in a painted yellow face making some mock-Vietnamese noises, and even if it’s intended to be part of an anti-American satirical rehashing of the conflict in Vietnam, it can’t help but disrupt the film’s tone. Which is otherwise, as mentioned above, pretty playful. It builds on the saturated sun-drenched coastal resort colours of Le Mépris, and sets up some of the apocalyptic imagery that was to come in Godard’s career (in Week End, most notably), as his two criminal-lovers on the run rehearse a sort of Bonnie & Clyde script with a metatextual commentary and little asides to camera, but Godard never repeats the same trick twice, making it feel even a little exhausting at times, as things head towards their colourfully bleak ending. The deeper socio-political dimensions are more evident in some of his other films, but Godard was always most playful about genre and film itself, creating his own playbook of self-referentiality, than about empathy for people’s lives in the world (which may explain the yellowface). Certainly these characters never quite feel like much more than an author’s conceits, but Anna Karina (and Belmondo too, in his way) has an ever-likeable charm that suggests more than the film sometimes does.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard; Cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina; Length 110 minutes.

Seen at City Gallery, Wellington, Friday 10 September 1999 (before that on VHS at the university, Wellington, February 1999, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Wednesday 28 April 2021).

Criterion Sunday 414: Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

I mean, clearly this cult 70s road movie is divisive but I can’t really see how it would be otherwise. Like Zabriskie Point the year before, it starts with a narrative and then just sort of breaks it open, exposing the existentialism just beneath the surface. Here, we quickly get the setup of James Taylor’s “Driver” and Dennis Wilson’s “Engineer” driving across the States, picking up drag races for money, who challenge Warren Oates’ “GTO” to a race for car ownership. But almost as soon as that idea is introduced, it sort of goes by the wayside, and they end up travelling together, helping one another out after a fashion, and competing (in their minds at least, if not hers) over the “girl” (Laurie Bird). Part of what I like about the film is this bold way with de-centring the narrative expectations, so eventually it becomes a rather more pure film about the landscape, the road, and the endless deferment of resolution in the characters’ lives. Road movies are always about the journey rather than the destination, but this really is literally just the journey and nothing else.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Monte Hellman; Writers Rudolph Wurlitzer and Will Corry; Cinematographer Jack Deerson; Starring James Taylor, Dennis Wilson, Laurie Bird, Warren Oates; Length 103 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Friday 9 April 2021 (and originally on VHS at home, Wellington, June 2000).

Criterion Sunday 411: Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)

Not really sure where to start with this one, but of course it must be understood that it’s a TV series, not a movie; it’s not designed to be watched as a single unit, and indeed I watched it in five sittings over the past week and a half. That said, it feels like a full expression of director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s vision, with the carnivalesque, the nasty and bitter, the rank misogyny of desperate men, and the endless forbearance of easily discarded women.

Its setting is late-20s Berlin, and though the rise of the Nazi Party is somewhere in the background and is rarely far from the viewer’s mind (not least because the entire enterprise is sort of a state of the diseased nation piece in allegorical miniature), it’s rarely explicitly mentioned in the film. The set design drips with brown sepia tones, mostly being set in a series of slummy apartments and a bar where recently-released criminal Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht) consorts with odious types like Gottfried John’s Reinhold and Frank Buchrieser’s Meck. For the first half he avers the criminal life, trying on a series of ‘respectable’ professions like selling shoelaces or hawking newspapers (albeit the Völkischer Beobachtung, the Nazi paper), until eventually he is ground down enough by fate to find himself pulled back into the work of the criminals he’s surrounded by — that much is hardly a surprise. He remains, however absurdly it may seem, attractive to women and a number of them (the actors all familiar from Fassbinder’s other films) move through his life, as we learn of the reason he was in prison in the first place, and the repeated insistence on his crime (the murder of an earlier girlfriend), makes it clear that he is not only no saint, but also that part of this world is a toxic misogyny that is normalised as part of the operation of society. That doesn’t exactly make it easy to watch, though, however much it may be clear this is Fassbinder’s point (and presumably of Döblin, the original author).

Visually, though, it’s quite something. Aside from the set design, there are many bravura pieces of filmmaking, long takes choreographing actors entering and exiting the frame almost balletically, or shots through cages and tracking around subterranean settings. It sweeps you up in this bitter, nasty world very easily and pulls you through what amounts to almost 15 hours of a descent into madness, made literal in the final epilogue episode, as all the incipient drama in Franz’s life become a whirling mess of hallucinatory drama soundtracked by fragments of music from across the canon (from Leonard Cohen and Kraftwerk to snatches of opera). It’s certainly an achievement of sorts, however little it feels like something I’d want to revisit in a hurry, and it’s worth the time.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Rainer Werner Fassbinder (based on the novel by Alfred Döblin); Cinematographer Xaver Schwarzenberger; Starring Günter Lamprecht, Gottfried John, Franz Buchrieser, Barbara Sukowa, Hanna Schygulla, Brigitte Mira; Length 902 minutes (in 14 episodes).

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Thursday 4 March [episodes 1-2], Friday 5 March [episodes 3-6] and Thursday 11 March [episodes 7-9], and at a friend’s home (YouTube streaming), Friday 12 March [episodes 10-12] and Sunday 14 March 2021 [episodes 13-14].

Criterion Sunday 409: Days of Heaven (1978)

I’m hardly a Terrence Malick fanboy (at least, not based on his output over the last decade or so) but one or two of his films really get to me, and this is one. You can see a lot of the aspects of his style that he would develop further in his 21st century work — for example, a focus on nature and wind sweeping through grass, or a propensity for the camera to drift off and focus on some still life little image in microcosm rather than dwell on plot or melodrama, as well as a largely unspoken Christian underpinning to the broad sweep of the film and its themes. The Criterion Collection’s previous release was Breathless and, for all the enormous difference in setting and feel (Malick’s film is set in 1916 Texas), there are some genetic similarities to that, like the occasional handheld shots, location shooting with natural lighting, not to mention a plot in which the lead character’s murder of an authority figure is pushed far into the background, and quite often the plot doesn’t even feel that important. Days of Heaven is a film composed of feeling above all: the dappled colours of the ‘golden hour’ (the time of day after the sun has set, and still the most well-known thing about this film, even though there’s plenty that’s shot during the morning and night as well); the poetic voiceover by Linda Manz; and the meandering sense that this isn’t about what happens in the end but about the beauty we’ve witnessed along the way. Luckily this kind of visual cinema is what appeals to me.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Aside from a commentary, the extras are four short piece split into two headings, “Actors” and “Camera”. For the actors section, there’s an audio interview with Richard Gere and a video one with Sam Shepard, both of whom recall Malick’s methods for eliciting a performance and his shy self-effacing way on set.
  • The “Camera” interviews are with the camera operator John Bailey as well as with Haskell Wexler, who took over from Almendros when the latter had to leave the project to go do a Truffaut film. Legend says that Wexler was miffed at not receiving a full credit, but he concedes in retrospect that he was just continuing the work set in place by Almendros. Either way, what a visual achievement.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Terrence Malick; Cinematographer Néstor Almendros; Starring Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard, Linda Manz; Length 94 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Thursday 14 May 1998, and at BFI Southbank, London, Sunday 11 September 2011 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Saturday 20 March 2021).

Criterion Sunday 408: À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960)

I’m sure we’ve all seen Breathless a lot of times (I’ve already reviewed it at greater length on this blog). Sometimes it feels like — though it’s not — the first truly modern film, mainly because of its place at the head of the French New Wave, one that may not have even created that template (improvisational, street shooting, up-front love for American genre cinema), but certainly popularised it and had the most cool of those early works (works by Varda, Chabrol and Truffaut have better claims to being earlier). Watching it for the nth time (maybe the fifth, maybe the eighth, I’m not sure), it strikes me that I don’t remember a lot of the shots and the scenes because it’s very much not about plot. It’s about attitude and style, about the jump cuts, and the posing that Belmondo does at the shrine of Bogart and the other tough guys of cinema (also, er, Debbie Reynolds it seems, with those exaggerated facial gestures she does in Singin’ in the Rain), echoing this bravado with hollow quips about women’s fecklessness — even though he’s the one that can’t stay still or keep any money on him. So all these guys with European names who drift through, details about a crime (he’s on the run for killing a cop), just become background to a rehearsal of celebrity by Belmondo and Seberg, looking glamorous and catching the camera’s light as they try to out-run the plot’s machinations.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s a series of five contemporary interviews from French TV, a couple with Godard, and one each with Belmondo, Seberg and Jean-Pierre Melville. It’s striking how much more confrontational the one with Seberg is, as the interviewer constantly harps on at her career ups and downs, at a period in rehab, and just keeps on having a go at her, which seems unfair. Belmondo weirdly does his surrounded by sculptures, while Godard dons his customary sunglasses.
  • A more recent interview from 2007 with assistant director Pierre Rissient, and the DoP Raoul Coutard, as well as another with Donn Pennebaker, who talks about working with Godard himself later in the 60s, as well as the impact of Breathless. All add a little to an understanding of quite how Godard’s working processes were, and how they were so different from what was accepted as usual at the time.
  • Mark Rappaport contributes a 20-minute piece about Jean Seberg. He made his own feature-length biopic, From the Journals of Jean Seberg, so he has plenty of research to draw on. She had a fascinating life, truly, which accounts for the several films that exist about her, but it seems like her early experiences with Otto Preminger weren’t the most positive, and may have been a bad way to start out.
  • One of the many extras is a 10 minute visual essay written (but not spoken) by Jonathan Rosenbaum which picks up on just a few of the visual cues and links this work in with his earlier writing as a critic. For some reason the voiceover guy insists on saying “Irish shots” instead of “iris shots” or maybe I’m just mishearing him? Anyway, that’s what I took from it.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jean-Luc Godard; Writers Godard and François Truffaut; Cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Friday 19 March 2021 (and several times before, first on VHS at home, Wellington, August 1997 and at university, Wellington, May 1998, and later on Blu-ray at home, London, Tuesday 27 August 2013).