Criterion Sunday 139: Smultronstället (Wild Strawberries, 1957)

Another one of those classics that always crops up on lists (I’ve been watching a few of them recently, not least on the Criterion Collection) but it succeeds on the basis of Victor Sjöström’s performance as the old professor close to death. He’s looking back on his life, often watching scenes from 50-60 years earlier, and seeing — as we are — what a difficult man he’s been and how he needs to open up. There’s heavy-handed use of the various women he meets (and has known) to drive the point home, which works if you accept this is very much told not just about him, but from his point of view.

Criterion Extras: There’s a commentary track by Stephen Prince, who covers many of the themes, although I am not such a huge fan of his style, though he appears on plenty of Criterion’s Bergman releases. There’s also an introduction by Bergman, which I gather is an outtake from one of the many documentaries about his life and work.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman | Cinematographer Gunnar Fischer | Starring Victor Sjöström, Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin | Length 91 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 8 January 2017

Criterion Sunday 134: Häxan (aka Witchcraft Through the Ages, 1922)

As a key text in the development of the horror film (not to mention the pseudo-documentary), I found this all a bit underwhelming really, even once you get past the early PowerPoint presentation section about the history of witchcraft. There’s some gorgeous stuff in it, and a sequence with a penitent elderly lady was clearly cribbed by Dreyer for his The Passion of Joan of Arc. But as a film it’s text-heavy and didactic while also never really getting particularly insightful about the underlying context for all of it (the patriarchal structures oppressing women in the mediæval era). Still, the director does have a coda linking these mediæval methods of control to his own times (“in 1921!” an aside says, as if the modern world could never countenance such superstition), and he essays a pretty camp tongue-flicking Satan.

Criterion Extras: Aside from the original version and its commentary, there’s a shorter 1968 re-edit narrated by William S. Burroughs with a jazz score. In another short piece, the director Benjamin Christensen introduces his film for a 1941 re-release, addressed to camera in a stentorian manner while wearing a white lab coat, in passing explaining the magic of silent over sound cinema. There are a few outtakes from the filming, more notes towards the finished project rather than actual scenes that have been excised. Finally, there’s a gallery of images from the film as well as the sources for Christensen’s own slideshow.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Benjamin Christensen | Cinematographer Johan Ankerstjerne | Starring Benjamin Christensen | Length 107 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Wednesday 2 November 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, February 1998)

Heremias: Unang aklat — Ang alamat ng prinsesang bayawak (Heremias: Book One — The Legend of the Lizard Princess, 2006)

Right, you probably all know this film is long: it’s Lav Diaz, and events will unfold as they will. Once you get over that — and the title which playfully suggests some kind of mystical/fantasy epic poem — the movement of time isn’t really an issue, and there’s necessarily a sort of documentary effect to the extreme length, as we watch our titular protagonist (Ronnie Lazaro) trudge along endless roads with a group of vendors selling their wares from ox-drawn carts. Heremias at length peels off on his own, and, at length, gets caught in a typhoon, from which he takes shelter. When he wakes, his cow has gone and his cart is burnt. By this point, we’re at around hour four and this is the mysterious crime he’s trying to unravel (after a fashion), but things go off track again and there’s a criminal conspiracy which reveals the limits of power in an autocratic society. So there are political themes (present in much of Diaz’s work that I’ve seen), and then there’s the repeated motif of roads stretching off across the landscape, into which (or from the horizon of which) Heremias trudges, seemingly endlessly. At great, great length.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: Lav Diaz Journeys retrospective
Director/Writer Lav Diaz | Cinematographer Tamara Benitez | Starring Ronnie Lazaro, Sid Lucero | Length 510 minutes || Seen at London Gallery West, London, Friday 3 February 2017

Pojkarna (Girls Lost, 2016)

At one level this is a Swedish coming of age film, with intolerant school bullies picking on young women, who look to each other for love and support. However, it quickly becomes evident that one of them, Kim (Tuva Jagell), feels uncomfortable with her gender identity, while Momo (Louise Nyvall) has feelings for Kim. Via a fantasy expedient of a magical plant, the film allows the young women to transform Cinderella-like into men for a night, thereby experiencing facets of privilege and masculinist behaviour, in their interactions with a group of rebellious boys who go to their school. It’s actually done really well, at least from my admittedly gender-normative point of view. There’s a delicate artistry to the transformation sequences and it makes tangible, via its magical premise, some of the identity fluidity that’s (I think) natural when you’re growing up.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Alexandra-Therese Keining (based on the novel by Jessica Schiefauer) | Cinematographer Ragna Jorming | Starring Tuva Jagell, Louise Nyvall, Wilma Holmén | Length 106 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Thursday 10 November 2016

Criterion Sunday 101: Viskningar och rop (Cries and Whispers, 1972)

The experience of working through the Criterion Collection is one of having a slightly patchwork introduction to the ‘great directors’. We’ve had a few Fellinis, a bunch of Kurosawas and a clutch of Bergmans, amongst smatterings of Hitchcock and Powell/Pressburger, so I’m by no means an expert on these grand old men of the artform. However, my feeling is that for Ingmar Bergman, having largely moved on from his early, funny stuff (and I’m a fan of his 50s comedies like Smiles of a Summer Night and The Seventh Seal), he went through a more bleak period of introspective psychodramas, and amongst these Cries and Whispers is perhaps a good — if not the archetypal — example. It’s a chamber film, largely set in a single home in the late-19th century, as two sisters, Maria (Liv Ullmann) and Karin (Ingrid Thulin), take care of their dying third sister Agnes (Harriet Andersson), with the help of the family’s maidservant Anna (Kari Sylwan). No one really has much love for anyone else, save for Anna’s love and affection towards Agnes, as we learn in flashbacks. These depict each of the four struggling with earlier relationships, such as that of Karin with her husband, or Maria with a young doctor, and each is bookmarked by a brief image of the woman’s face in close-up, looming out of a red-filtered darkness. Indeed, red is a key colour in the film: formally, Bergman employs frequent fades to red to mark scene transitions, and in terms of the set design, one of the room’s in the home is the “red room” — truly a vision of bourgeois hell, though at least each of the sisters makes sure to wear white when they’re in there. It’s hardly genteel either, as under this etiquette-ridden formally-dressed exterior are all kinds of roiling emotions, expressed most forcefully by one scene of Karin’s self-mutilation in order to escape her husband’s attentions (which I’m sure didn’t escape Michael Haneke either). It has a certain cumulative force to it, though whether you love it depends on how you respond to Bergman’s moralistic hand-wringing.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman | Cinematographer Sven Nykvist | Starring Liv Ullmann, Ingrid Thulin, Kari Sylwan, Harriet Andersson | Length 91 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 12 June 2016

Criterion Sunday 80: The Element of Crime (aka Forbrydelsens element, 1984)

I’ve never been a huge fan of Danish cinematic bad boy Lars von Trier, but this, his first feature film, is certainly made with a fair amount of energy and a bold (if dark) cinematic vision, taking its apparent cue from film noir thrillers, not to mention recycling some of Tarkovksy’s imagery. Stylistically, though, my overall feeling is that it’s more akin to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil of the following year, with all those fussy, busy details in all corners of the frame. The plot is in a sense fairly straightforward, as Detective Fisher (gruff-voiced Michael Elphick) is tracking down a serial killer using the methods of his mentor Osborne (Esmond Knight), in which he is aided by prostitute Kim (Meme Lai). Yet this plot is nested within layers of memory and obfuscation, attaining something of a dream-like trance state, emphasised by the line delivery of the actors, who move around almost as if underwater. The chief cue to this altered consciousness is the visual style, which is almost monochrome in its (usually red-tinged) intensity, like something Guy Maddin might make, tipping its hat at one level to silent film, but creating its own world of grainy distanciation — the characters may not actually be underwater, but they are certainly submerged in this grimy dark monochrome world. I can’t say it ever really coheres for me (and Meme Lai’s role requires little more than that she hang around and take off her clothes occasionally, though it’s a small part in any case), but there’s plenty here of interest to those who like an arty thriller with pretensions.

Criterion Extras: Aside from the trailer, the main extra of interest is the medium-length documentary Tranceformer: A Portrait of Lars von Trier (1997), directed by Stig Björkman (with help from Fredrik von Krusenstjerna), filmed around the time of von Trier’s The Kingdom (1994) and Breaking the Waves (1996). It’s rather an amusing jaunt through (von) Trier’s life from his upbringing by lefty liberal parents to his early schoolboy filmmaking attempts, through film school and his early film work, along the way self-aggrandisingly awarding himself the aristocratic ‘von’. The film features behind the scenes footage of his directing the two films (which has its own fascination), as well as talking head interviews with his colleagues and actors (and it’s particularly nice to see Katrin Cartlidge, who sadly died far too young), giving an impression of him as a man with plenty of phobias and quirks such that it’s surprising he can get any films made at all. Von Trier pops up periodically to talk us through his life and foibles, and there’s a warmth to the film’s portrait of him, so he never comes off too badly, beyond what he says about himself.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Lars von Trier | Writers Lars von Trier and Niels Vørsel | Cinematographer Tom Elling | Starring Michael Elphick, Esmond Knight, Meme Lai, Jerold Wells | Length 103 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 14 February 2016

Criterion Sunday 71: Trollflöjten (The Magic Flute, 1975)

© The Criterion Collection

This is a slight oddity in Ingmar Bergman’s filmography, being essentially a film version of a staged opera, albeit one staged specifically to be filmed for television. Therefore, it largely works on the quality of the staging (of Mozart’s 1791 opera) and the singing, which is in the Swedish language but by trained opera singers (about whose performances I am in no position to critique). It’s all very colourful as one might expect given the fantastical and ridiculous plot (pretty much a standard feature of any opera in my experience). Small directorial flourishes can be detected around the edges, like the scenes during the overture of the audience watching (including Bergman’s daughter, to whom the camera returns periodically throughout the film), and referential nods towards other inspirations, such as one of the characters reading a script for Parsifal in a backstage intermission moment. However, for the most part this is just straight opera, and can be enjoyed easily on that level.

Criterion Extras: Given the box rhapsodises over the transfer’s colours and its stereo score as bonus features, we can safely conclude there is nothing beyond the presentation of the film, aside from the liner notes. A bare bones release.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ingmar Bergman | Writers Emanuel Schikaneder, Alf Henrikson and Ingmar Bergman (based on the opera Die Zauberflöte by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Emanuel Schikaneder) | Cinematographer Sven Nykvist | Starring Josef Köstlinger, Håkan Hagegård, Birgit Nordin | Length 135 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Wednesday 30 December 2015

Criterion Sunday 60: Höstsonaten (Autumn Sonata, 1978)

The two (unrelated) Bergmans — director Ingmar and film star Ingrid — brought together at last, the advertising copy no doubt blared. However, in terms of thematics, this is firmly within Ingmar’s frostier territory, as mother and daughter psychologically battle it out in a confined chamber drama. Ingmar was always feted for his ‘women’s pictures’, though the women are invariably under some kind of terrifying emotional onslaught, in this case Liv Ullmann’s Eva coming to terms with abandonment by her internationally-famous concert pianist mother Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman). Perhaps there’s an underlying angst of Ingmar’s relationship with his home country of Sweden (he’d been in exile in West Germany for a decade or so), but in any case nobody really comes out particularly well, especially once the red wine — and the accusations — starts flowing. There’s something that seems peculiarly 70s about having a disabled character as little more than a metaphor for the disfiguring effect of emotional dishonesty (or whatever), so this daughter Helena’s periodic appearance remains unsettling, but for the most part the film’s moody melodrama is well-handled and ends with a hope of some forgiveness in the offing.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman | Cinematographer Sven Nykvist | Starring Ingrid Bergman, Liv Ullmann | Length 99 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 1 November 2015

Min lilla syster (My Skinny Sister, 2015)

This well-meaning Swedish drama deals with two sisters, as you might expect from the title, one of whom has an eating disorder. However, rather than taking the more usual point-of-view of an authority figure like the parents (who here are clearly well out of their depth) or doctors, the film is told from the younger sister Stella’s viewpoint. Being around the age of 12, Stella has the curiosity of youth combined with a naïveté which actor Rebecka Josephson puts across quite well, as she is first perplexed by her sister Katja’s odd secretive habits and then starts to show more concern. Katja, an aspiring figure skater, is played by a Swedish pop singer (Amy Deasismont, who apparently performs under the name Amy Diamond), so just by the casting, the film is tying the story into a wider one of body image issues and creating a contrast betweeen the glamorous and apparently-confident older sister and the gawky younger one. There’s an underlying issue-film-of-the-week format lurking beneath the surface, which might have fitted it for a TV domain, but the filmmaking is too strong and the acting too interesting to totally fall into that kind of ghetto. There’s no glamorisation of the disease — it remains a nasty, pernicious thing — although perhaps the film suffers in comparison with the work of Catherine Breillat, whose masterpiece À ma sœur (2001) comes to mind when the initial sisterly drama is set up (of course the two films are ultimately doing different things, but there’s something of a physical resemblance to the leads). Whether Katja can break out of this eating disorder remains uncertain — as it should given the nature of the disease — but this is a worthwhile attempt to get inside the way this kind of illness can affect a family.


© Tangy

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
|| Director/Writer Sanna Lenken | Cinematographer Moritz Schultheiß | Starring Rebecka Josephson, Amy Deasismont | Length 95 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Thursday 3 December 2015

LFF: Flocken (Flocking, 2015)

BFI London Film Festival This film was presented at the London Film Festival. There was no introduction, so I presume there was also no Q&A afterwards.


I think it’s reasonable to say that many films in recent years have been concerned with the impact of technology and changing patterns of communication on societies, particularly young people (it was a central theme of the first film I saw at the Film Festival as well, Mountains May Depart). So it is with this story, based loosely on real events I understand — and sadly, all too believable — about a young woman, Jennifer (Fatime Azemi), who speaks out about her experience of rape by fellow classmate Alexander (John Risto). She is quickly shunned by her classmates and her family ostracised by their small rural community, as nobody is willing to believe the truth of what she says, while her attacker, without his saying very much at all (either affirming or against the allegations), finds himself protected by his family and all the town’s institutions. There’s a strong suggestion that the allegations have divided the town along class lines — Jennifer and her family seem to be viewed as somehow lesser than golden boy Alexander — but it’s all presented very understatedly. Indeed, the film’s style is beautifully controlled, the tension in the script cued up right away with a brief scene of Jennifer and two of her classmates doing little more than carrying a cake at a wedding, while the images have a glacially toned palette and there’s plenty of artfully shallow focus. There’s relatively little overt nastiness on display amongst the characters — the most unpleasant exchanges are presented as captioned text conversations that unfurl over subtly disturbing static shots — and while it’s fair to say it’s hardly cheery, it also feels less emotionally exploitative than your typical Haneke film. There’s a lot to unpack going on here, but Flocking is a useful and timely reminder of the toxic effects of modern rape culture as expressed via anonymised social media.


FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival
Director Beata Gårdeler | Writer Emma Broström | Cinematographer Gösta Reiland | Starring Fatime Azemi, John Risto | Length 110 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank, London, Monday 12 October 2015