Criterion Sunday 359: La Double vie de Véronique (The Double Life of Véronique, 1991)

The Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski, with his much-vaunted Three Colours trilogy (1993-94) was probably my entry into that nebulous category of ‘world cinema’, and for that I cannot underestimate his contribution to film culture. Yet in many ways this earlier film, his first made outside his native Poland, is probably my favourite of his works. It has a lot of the quasi-spiritual themes of identity he liked so much, as well as those imprecisely specific moments of transcendence — ways of looking at the world which seem like they must be metaphors for something grander, perhaps (coming from that culture of communist-era dissent) specifically political, but which Kieślowski insisted were not. For in fact in many ways he’d moved away from the political, just as our title character Weronika remains blissfully ignorant of the protest happening around her when she spies her French doppelgänger Véronique. It’s difficult to put what I mean into words precisely, but I’m thinking of when the camera pans down to see Véronique’s scarf trailing along the ground, or when she moves to the foreground to press her face against the glass, or in some of cinematographer Sławomir Idziak’s experimentation with filming through a plastic bouncy ball to invert the image. Indeed the film starts with an upside-down shot of the night sky, suggesting the film’s doubling at a visual level. There’s a lot of that kind of thing in the imagery, often just brief flashes, like the view from the train window warped by imperfections in the glass, but at a wider level dominating the whole feel of the film, which is shot through a sort of yellow-green filter. In conjunction with composer Zbigniew Preisner’s haunting orchestral score and operatic snippets, it adds up to a sort of melancholy love poem to identity and belonging. Part of its strength is that it never clearly states anything (even in the shots its producer insisted upon for the US market, available as a bonus feature), but trades instead in the kinds of intangible feelings aroused by a piece of music or a striking image. I imagine this could be frustrating for literal-minded viewers, but for me it makes the film all the more enjoyable when returning to it periodically.

(Written on 25 December 2014.)

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Krzysztof Kieślowski; Writers Krzysztof Piesiewicz and Kieślowski; Cinematographer Sławomir Idziak; Starring Irène Jacob; Length 98 minutes.

Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, June 1997 (and at home many times subsequently, most recently on Blu-ray, London, Wednesday 24 December 2014).

بابا عزیز Bab’Aziz (2005)

The Tunisian director Nacer Khemir made this film, the third in his so-called ‘Desert Trilogy’ made over three decades, in both Tunisia and Iran, so it’s both a North African and a Middle Eastern film at the same time, in Arabic and Farsi. It tells a sort of pan-Islamic tale of mysticism, but it harks back to a storytelling tradition that’s based more on the journey and the details than on any particular destination.

This isn’t a period film (there are cars and roads and signs of modernity), but then again it also feels really unmoored from any specific time, or even place — some characters speak in Farsi, some reply in Arabic, and that’s just how it is, a sort of pan-Islamic world utopian vision of deserts and dervishes. It functions, then, less as a film about the world as a film of a spiritual journey or quest — if I knew more about Sufism (a sort of ecstatic, dance-focused branch of Islam), I might be able to pick up on more specific reference points. An old dervish (the father Aziz of the title, played by Parviz Shahinkhou) and his young granddaughter (Maryam Hamid) trek across a desert in search of a gathering of other dervishes (those practising Sufism), while he tells a story of a Narcissus-like prince. Gradually other people they meet add in their own stories, and by the end you realise that in fact nothing very much has really happened at a plot level, but it’s all in the telling. However, it’s a beautiful rendering of this environment, with many sweeping, gorgeous shots of the desert, rich colours and expressive performances. Plot, sometimes, really is a very minor consideration.

Bab'Aziz film posterCREDITS
Director Nacer Khemir ناصر خمير‎; Writers Tonino Guerra and Khemir; Cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari محمود کلاری; Starring Parviz Shahinkhou پرویز شاهین‌خو, Maryam Hamid مریم حمید, Golshifteh Farahani گلشیفته فراهانی‎; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 26 March 2018.

Criterion Sunday 126: Ordet (aka The Word, 1955)

I’m never quite sure how to respond to the characters in this film, though over time I’ve come to accept it as a great and profound work (on my first viewing, in my early-20s, I was distinctly unimpressed, and it took seeing it on the cinema screen to appreciate its artistry). Everyone acts at times like a fool, at times with grace and acceptance; it’s religious, not in a simple way, but at a fundamental level — Ordet (which when translated means “the word”) seems hardly about creed so much as the underlying belief in the value and beauty of all life. And on the evidence here, Dreyer is surely, too, one of the greatest directors for use of lighting, somehow too coordinating effects of nature into his mise en scene.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Carl Theodor Dreyer (based on the play by Kaj Munk); Cinematographer Henning Bendtsen; Starring Preben Lerdorff Rye, Henrik Malberg, Birgitte Federspiel, Emil Hass Christensen; Length 126 minutes.

Seen at the Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Friday 4 July 2003 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, August 1999, and most recently on DVD at home, London, Saturday 3 December 2016).

The Razor’s Edge (1946)

This screening was selected by the actor Terence Stamp as part of the BFI’s ‘Screen Epiphanies’ strand, whereby prominent figures from the worlds of film and the arts are asked to select an important film for them personally. In his introduction, Stamp spoke warmly about his early filmgoing experiences in Plaistow, East London (where he first saw this film), about his own encounter with Eastern enlightenment and mysticism in the 1970s, and about the quality of the actors in this particular film, especially the luminescent Gene Tierney (on whom he had a boyhood crush) and the resonant voice of Herbert Marshall.

As a film which pushes into melodramatic territory bordering on kitsch, and as a classic example of a “woman’s picture” of the era, this adaptation of the Somerset Maugham novel is apt to be written off too easily by critics. It possesses in Tyrone Power (PS his real name) an apparently bland lead actor perhaps more valued for his matinee idol appearance than his acting ability (an apt modern comparison might be Zac Efron, likewise undervalued as an actor). It’s also somewhat uneven in tone over its extended running time, and turns on some rather hokey religious transcendence. However, despite these flaws, it’s a ravishingly expressive film.

Nominally, the story is one of Tyrone Power’s airman, Larry, who is engaged to Isabel (played by Gene Tierney) but, as the film opens, he has returned from the First World War seeking meaning in his life. Yet Larry’s story never really feels like what the film is interested in; his quest is as vacuous as his empty stare, and, like that piercing gaze so often directed at some distant point off camera, he never really seems to change. Where a man’s ‘dropping out’ of the rat race to ‘find himself’ would later (in the era of the Beats) come to be a hackneyed trope of American pop culture, one gets a vague sense of cynical unease from these post-war (European) filmmakers faced with telling the story of an (American) airman looking to the Old World of Europe and the even older world of the Near East for divine inspiration and guidance. The central section where he meets with the sage in India (a guru I suppose, though one espousing explicitly Christian theology) and then finds God in the mountains is scarcely played straight: there are few more natural responses than laughter to Power exiting a cave in a sumptuously painted mountaintop scene to a rising crescendo of music as the sun peeks over the lowering clouds, effulgent with divine light.

These scenes in the Indian mountains mark a fulcrum point for the narrative, for I would argue that the film is primarily about the characters around Larry and how they react to his period of disappearance and return — especially Gene Tierney as the mercurial Isabel. There is, it seems to me, a marked change not just in the characters but in the language of the film itself between these two halves. The constants that unify the film are Larry’s searching gaze, and the impassive mien of Somerset Maugham (played by Herbert Marshall), a character here as he is in the novel, bringing others together and eliciting confessions.

As the film opens on a society gathering in Chicago, it is to Maugham (and to us the viewers) that all the major characters are introduced. Aside from Larry and Isabel, these include Larry’s childhood friend Sophie (played by Anne Baxter) and her cheerful husband Bob, Isabel’s insufferably bitter uncle Elliott (Clifton Webb, on wonderfully catty form), and the rich stockbroker Gray whom the status-obsessed Elliott prefers as a match for Isabel. Goulding’s camera glides and insinuates itself in masterfully-controlled long takes amongst the guests of the party. In this as in other early scenes, the camera is at times lost trying to find the characters, picking them out from the throngs of people, constantly moving over them, around them and between them, reframing them in different groupings just as their relationships are constantly redrawn throughout the film. These youthful characters are all uncertain of their direction in life, just as the camera has trouble keeping up with them, and when they do pause, they seem lost among the elaborately rococo over-decoration of Isabel’s apartment in Paris, or in front of the shimmering ocean receding emptily to the horizon. This is a world of beautiful surfaces gorgeously captured in black-and-white, in which Isabel doesn’t want to be tied down by Larry’s small inheritance, so breaks it off with him to pursue a life of apparent ease with the stockbroker Gray.

The latter part of the film is set some years later, after the Wall Street crash of 1929. Thanks to the stockmarkets, life has taken a turn for the worse for Isabel and Gray and they have relocated to Paris to live with Elliott. Relations are strained between them, and it’s at this point that Larry returns from India to re-enter their lives. Isabel’s attitude has moved from mercurial to imperious (never more so than in a chilling scene between her and Sophie in her apartment), and the acting not only by Tierney but by the other central cast members is forced into ever greater heights of melodramatic stylisation. The earlier restless camera has settled down to shot-reverse shot compositions, taking in the various confrontations as the previously fluid relationships between the characters start to inexorably break apart.

It was Anne Baxter as Sophie who won an Academy Award for her work (which in unchanging Oscars™ fashion involves teary emotional jags and crippling circumstances, in this case a decline into alcoholism), but in many ways it’s Tierney who excels as the brutal emotional core of the piece. Power meanwhile drifts through as a tabula rasa, provoking her lust, scorn, pity and envy; it’s not that he’s a bad actor (far from it), it’s that his character is so nebulous. The Razor’s Edge may not be a perfect film — it may reach for more than it can really grasp — but it is an incredible example of the power of classical Hollywood to create and populate a world, filmed with immense inventiveness, and featuring some superb performances.

Director Edmund Goulding; Writer Lamar Trotti (based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham); Cinematographer Arthur C. Miller; Starring Gene Tierney, Tyrone Power, Herbert Marshall, Anne Baxter, Clifton Webb; Length 145 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Thursday 9 May 2013.