Criterion Sunday 580: Le Beau Serge (1958)

Claimed by some to be the first film in French nouvelle vague, I think there are enough caveats to make that debatable — Varda made her debut a few years earlier, albeit that it was barely screened at the time — and stylistically this is still only moving towards what Godard and Truffaut would do a year later with their debuts. However, in applying some of the feeling of Italian neorealism to a story of ordinary people filmed on location in a small village, there’s certainly something of that incipient film movement in Chabrol’s debut feature. It concerns François (Jean-Claude Brialy), who’s returned to the small village where he grew up after a few years of study in the metropolitan centre, to find that his titular former best friend (Gérard Blain) has become an alcoholic layabout. The film is filled with darkness in its exploration of relationships (especially with Bernadette Lafont’s teenage Marie) and homecoming, almost judgemental in the way it makes out French provincial life and with a heavy sort of cynicism in its key relationships, which can make it all a bit of a slog.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Claude Chabrol; Cinematographer Henri Decaë; Starring Jean-Claude Brialy, Gérard Blain, Michèle Méritz, Bernadette Lafont; Length 99 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Tuesday 18 October 2022.

Criterion Sunday 561: Kes (1969)

The UK seems like a pretty horrible place to be right now — reading the news, there seems to be a lot of intolerance and judgment, and it primarily seems to flow from the top down (you just have to look at the current Prime Minister and those people vying to take over from him). Turns out none of this is new and you can hear this strain of small-minded authority figures lecturing down to poor working-class kids here too, in a film made at the tail end of the 1960s, in a mining community where young Billy doesn’t want to follow his family down the pit. There’s a lot of bleakness to this quiet story of childhood desperation, and then there’s the eponymous bird (a kestrel, of course) which seems to signify so much more potential to Billy’s world. I think Loach keeps this all in nice balance — the metaphors of freedom and the bleak reality of constraint — and though the grim constant grind that Billy lives under, the abuse of the school teachers (except for the one kind soul who encourages him towards the end), and his horrible brother, loom large they never quite become the whole story. Perhaps there’s hope, perhaps there’s not, you can read the film how you want to.

NB: This is listed as 1970 by the Criterion Collection, though it was screened at the 1969 London Film Festival.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ken Loach; Writers Barry Hines, Loach and Tony Garnett (based on Hines’s novel A Kestrel for a Knave); Cinematographer Chris Menges; Starring David Bradley, Freddie Fletcher, Colin Welland; Length 99 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 20 August 2022 (and earlier, probably on VHS in the 1990s).

Criterion Sunday 549: The Last Picture Show (1971)

A classic, if not the defining, film of the sad people in a sad small town feeling sad at the fleetingness of all things and at their sad, uneventful futures in the dead end of the American Dream genre, which to be fair is a reasonably well-worn one. But I’d not seen this film before, and director Peter Bogdanovich is sensible to keep his focus on the actors and on Larry McMurtry’s script (based on his own youthful experiences I gather, and shot in the small Texas town he grew up in). All these different actors, whether new youthful faces like Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd and Timothy Bottoms (and even Randy Quaid) all hit their marks perfectly, but in a sense this is even more a film for Eileen Brennan and Ellen Burstyn and Cloris Leachman and Ben Johnson, as the older generation who have clearly already lived the lives these teenage kids are going through and who convey an immense amount of pathos. The script is certainly on point with its metaphors, but it wouldn’t matter much were it not for the tightly controlled performances of the leads, underscored by the monochrome cinematography and crumbling small town set design.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Peter Bogdanovich; Writers Larry McMurtry and Bogdanovich (based on McMurtry’s novel); Cinematographer Robert Surtees; Starring Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Cloris Leachman, Ellen Burstyn, Ben Johnson, Eileen Brennan; Length 126 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 2 July 2022.

Criterion Sunday 515: The Fugitive Kind (1960)

Initially there’s plenty to really dig here, not least the moody, highly-contrasted black-and-white cinematography, little shards of light illuminating faces as Brando’s rebellious kid trying to go straight in his 30s comes up against the usual kinds of corrupt Southern lawmakers who just want him out of their town. That’s in truth where the film starts to drag a bit, as the melodrama builds to a pitch and Joanne Woodward’s drunken girl gets into scrapes while Anna Magnani suffers her brutal bed-ridden husband’s anger with stoic suffering. There are a lot of clichés of the Southern gothic genre being bandied around here, and they could lend a hothouse atmosphere if you’re in the mood for that, but by the film’s end they seemed a little wearying, as if working against the film’s better senses. The stage origins are clear and so too are the classical metaphors, as a bunch of characters all play around in the apparent Hades that is the Jim Crow South, including a magical African-American character to silently observe the goings on.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Sidney Lumet; Writers Meade Roberts and Tennessee Williams (based on Williams’s play Orpheus Descending); Cinematographer Boris Kaufman Бори́с Ка́уфман; Starring Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani, Joanne Woodward, Victor Jory, Maureen Stapleton; Length 121 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 6 March 2022.

NZIFF 2021: Разжимая кулаки Razzhimaya Kulaki (Unclenching the Fists, 2021)

This tough little Russian film screening at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival won a prize at Cannes thanks to Andrea Arnold’s jury, and I think there’s a lot to commend it, even if I didn’t fully connect with it. I think there’s a lot going on that could resonate pretty powerfully for those who tune into its specific vibe — though it’s a fairly bleak one.


The more I think about this film in retrospect the more I have some respect for what it’s trying to do, but certainly while it was playing out, I found it quite a tough watch. This is not so much because of what we see on screen, but the fact that it centres on Ada, a character who is largely hollowed out by childhood trauma. As the source of this pain becomes clearer (and I gather from other reviews that this is much less oblique to native audiences, who will be more aware of the Beslan school siege of 2004), it also makes the behaviour of other characters a little more explicable, like her controlling dad (Alik Karayev) or her hyperactive younger brother (Soslan Khugayev). But it doesn’t change the fact that the lead actor (Milana Aguzarova) has to convey a character who is withdrawn from the world and often frustratingly passive in her dealings with other people, meaning there’s not much for a viewer to latch onto and so this story set in an impoverished part of North Ossetia just ended up washing over me. However, as I said, I do think the story its telling is quite complex and interesting and may work better on a second viewing.

Razzhimaya Kulaki (2021) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Kira Kovalenko Киры Коваленко; Cinematographer Pavel Fomintsev; Starring Milana Aguzarova Милана Агузарова, Alik Karayev Алик Караев, Soslan Khogayev Сослан Хугаев; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at the Roxy, Wellington, Wednesday 17 November 2021.

James & Isey (2021)

Continuing with recent films, here’s another documentary, this time set in New Zealand and about a family relationship. Through charting the life of a centenarian, it also sheds some light onto historical traumas around the indigenous Māori people of New Zealand and the way they have been treated, but this is a wide-ranging film, perhaps too much so at times.


There’s something very sweet, very earnest and also rather unfocused about this film, but I think the sense of randomness (tied loosely together with the countdown format to Isey’s 100th birthday) ties in well with the charm of the couple at the film’s centre, Isey and her son James, who lives with her but hesitates to call himself her carer. It’s a portrait of familial relations which has a serious underpinning, which is the way that Māori culture and language had been eroded so much by the time of Isey’s birth in 1919 that she was never taught the language and forced to conform to pākehā beliefs, a situation that has only seen some correction in the past few decades. In that respect it’s worth mentioning that the title isn’t misleading: this is a film as much about James as it is about the 100-year-old Isey (she’s 102 now), and James has a collaborative co-creator role within the project. The film endeavours to show how he has taken on, later in life, a spiritual role within his community as a tohunga (which he translates, presumably loosely, as “shaman” at one point). However, there’s relatively little context for understanding this and so although I think the film is respectful to his practices, it’s still participating in a filmic lineage, elsewhere using still-life images that are set against the soundtrack or the on-screen text, that evoke a sort of deadpan humour. This then makes James’s genuine spiritual earnestness — the rituals, the use of language (a form of ‘speaking in tongues’ as I take it from the film, but I suspect there’s more to it than that), the dress and demeanour of James and other participants in it — come across as potentially absurdist, which I don’t think they are intended to be at all. But that’s a small point in a film that has a whole lot of feeling for its subjects, including Isey, very much pushing against the trend for films about older people to be films about dementia or other such conditions, when she is clearly still living her best life.

James & Isey (2021)CREDITS
Director/Cinematographer Florian Habicht; Writers James Cross and Habicht; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Wednesday 12 May 2021.

First Cow (2019)

I have been holding out for this particular film since I first heard about it after it screened at the 2019 New York Film Festival. That was even before there was a pandemic, and needless to say I’m extremely glad it’s finally been screened in NZ, because it’s clearly not the most commercial of pictures. Perhaps some of the director’s previous excellent works got it that slot, or maybe it’s because there was less of a glut of Hollywood nonsense clogging up the screens, but either way I’m glad! It’s great! I saw it twice.


Director Kelly Reichardt’s style by now is pretty evolved, and there’s a gentleness to the pacing that belies some of the emotional stakes. Because at core this is a film about capitalism and exploitation even in the supposed freedom of the frontier, out west in early-19th century Oregon. It couldn’t be more different tonally (and in Academy-ratio colour rather than black-and-white) but I kept thinking of the similar backdrop to Dead Man and how differently the two films handle this land and the characters who are out here forging a life (the kind of loud-mouthed military man played by Ewen Bremner is far more cut from that generic cloth than the two leads, the kinds of people you just don’t usually see in Westerns, being quiet and humble and self-effacing). However, having the comparison in mind already meant it didn’t feel like much of a surprise when Gary Farmer showed up in a small role towards the end. At a narrative level, though, what surprised me is that this is essentially the story of the first hipster food stall in Oregon (of course I jest, it’s so much more than that) but also that suggests an underlying comedy that might easily be missed by focusing on the harsh frontier lives or the pathos of this single cow out there on a rich man’s land.

First Cow (2019)CREDITS
Director Kelly Reichardt; Writers Jonathan Raymond and Reichardt (based on Raymond’s novel The Half Life); Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt; Starring John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, Ewen Bremner, Scott Shepherd, Gary Farmer; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Friday 30 April 2021 and Wednesday 5 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 419: La Pointe-Courte (1955)

Varda’s debut is this strikingly prescient film suggesting a lot of threads of European art cinema throughout the middle of the 20th century, the alienation of the central couple, the almost documentary-like depiction of this poor fishing community, the constant counterpoint provided by the melancholy musical score, and plenty else besides. There is a sense in which, being her first feature, there’s a slightly mannered mise en scène, with shots of the couple rigorously symmetrical, or strikingly framed against the landscape in ways that suggest the eye of a photographer, which would make way to the more lyrical feeling of her masterpiece, Cléo from 5 to 7. Still, this is a gorgeous film for its low-budget origins, and gains hugely from the location footage of the locals, not to mention the plentiful roaming cats.

Rewatching this a few years after my first viewing reinforces what a striking film debut this is, and formally rather interesting even if it somehow feels a little bit stilted. Set against the documentary depiction of the fishing village there is a mannered and very French story of lovers (the only real actors in the film, Philippe Noiret and Silvia Monfort) who speak in a poetic philosophical register as they grapple with their fading romance. The two strands are almost separate and seem set against each other, but there’s a beautiful sense of place to the film in its depiction of this village and the sturdy people who live there, who seem to find the lovers’ struggles almost absurd.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are two interviews with the director about the film, one in which she invites over Mathieu Amalric to talk about his debut film, although obviously the bulk of the discussion is about hers (she whips out some nice framed photos of her on set), while the other is direct to camera talking about the making of the film. She mentions The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner as a touchstone for the narrative style, in the sense of interleaving two unrelated storylines. She also mentions the copious help she received and the sheer luck that was required to make the film, her being so young and inexperienced, as well as the help given her by the editor, Alain Resnais.
  • Another extra is an eight-minute excerpt from a 1964 episode of Cinéastes de notre temps, in which a young and very serious Varda (quite different from the playful persona she would come to cultivate) talks about her work up to that point (just before Le Bonheur).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Agnès Varda; Cinematographers Paul Soulignac and Louis Stein; Starring Silvia Monfort, Philippe Noiret; Length 80 minutes.

Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, 13 August 2018 (and on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Sunday 25 April 2021).

Global Cinema 28: Burundi – Nothing’s the Same (2008)

I’ve put this entry off for quite a while now, but then again there aren’t, to be fair, a huge range of Burundian films to choose from when one’s looking for something from this country. If you speak French there are one or two features online, but there are also a handful of short films from the Burundi Film Center, of which this is one.


Burundian flagRepublic of Burundi (Republika y’Uburundi)
population 11,866,000 | capital Gitega (42k) | largest cities Bujumbura (497k), Gitega, Ngozi (40k), Rumonge (36k), Cibitoke (24k) | area 27,834 km2 | religion Christianity (92%) | official language Kirundi, French (français) | major ethnicity Hutu (85%), Tutsi (14%) | currency Burundian franc (FBu) [BIF] | internet .bi

A landlocked country in the Great Rift Valley, part of the African Great Lakes region (with Lake Tanganyika along its southwestern border), its former capital is Bujumbura, now the economic capital to Gitega’s political capital. The name derives from the Kingdom of Burundi and possibly ultimately from the Ha people. This kingdom is also the earliest evidence of a state with these borders, dating to the late-16th century, with a distinction between Hutu and Tutsi not just on ethnic but also socio-cultural lines (with the Tutsi being the ruling class). The area was annexed by Germany in 1881 as part of German East Africa, and ceded to Belgium as Ruanda-Urundi after World War I. It gained its independence on 1 July 1962, instituting elections still under a constitutional monarchy. A 1966 coup deposing the king in favour of his teenage son then led to another coup later that year deposing the monarchy itself and declaring the country a republic (albeit essentially a dictatorship by Michel Micombero). A civil war and genocide in 1972 of Hutus led to another coup in 1976, then again in 1987, followed by another civil war and genocide in 1993 (this time of Tutsis). The first democratic election was in 1993 leading to a 12-year civil war, though sporadic unrest continues. The government is led by a President, also head of state.

Burundi is one of the poorest countries in the world, and given the ongoing civil unrest and human rights abuses, does not have a well-developed media infrastructure, and needless to say very few films are made there.


Le Tournant d’une vie (Nothing’s the Same, 2008)

This short film deals with a pretty heavy subject — the pre-marital rape of a devoutly Christian young woman (Ginette Mahoro), who has to deal with the fallout from this and how it affects her relationship — and there’s really no way to do that in a satisfying way within 10 minutes, it turns out. The actors are called on to go through such a huge journey in this time that even the finest and most well-trained would be hard-pushed to pull it off. Still, it’s all played with earnest emotions and even if it feels all too easily wrapped up, it’s certainly a good sign of some film talent in the country.

CREDITS
Director Linda Kamuntu; Writer Lyse Elsie Hakizimana; Cinematographer Emmanuel Heri; Starring Ginette Mahoro; Length 11 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), Wellington, Tuesday 23 February 2021.

Criterion Sunday 396: Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival, 1951)

I’m sitting here, late at night, trying to figure out what to write because I have a bit of a blind spot for classic era Hollywood films of the past (even the slight failures, as this one was, at least commercially, though I gather contemporary critics didn’t much like it either). Billy Wilder is very much a great Hollywood director, particularly known for his comedies, and while this does function somewhat as satire, it can also be nasty and manipulative when it needs to be, because it’s about cynical people gaming a system that is, sadly, very much still in place. In fact the idea of reporters twisting the truth to make newspapers (or the media in general) more saleable to the public is pretty much the dominant paradigm now, and though this film would have us believe there were honourable men (they’re always men) in positions of power, I’m not quite sure that’s ever been the case, which probably makes me even more cynical than the film. Kirk Douglas plays Charles Tatum, who is very clearly a Bad Guy, but he’s charismatic and, though not likeable particularly, gets results because he’s pushy and persistent. Generally I think the film hits a lot of targets, and does so very capably, but it can be hard going perhaps precisely because of how well it captures a media circus, even a hard-boiled film noir 1950s one.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Billy Wilder; Writers Walter Newman, Lesser Samuels and Wilder; Cinematographer Charles Lang; Starring Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Robert Arthur, Porter Hall; Length 111 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 7 February 2021).