There’s a lot of great Japanese cinema of the past and most of the famous names kept up a prodigious output of films, of which only a handful of ‘masterworks’ tend to get any kind of release (at least in the West). The great director Mikio Naruse, for example, has one film in the Criterion collection (1960’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs) as well as an Eclipse boxset of his four surviving silent films from the early-1930s, but otherwise is only known for a few 1950s films like Sound of the Mountain and Floating Clouds. However, given he made around 3-5 films every year, as you can see on his filmography, there’s a lot to watch and very few places to do so. Luckily, some kind soul has thought to upload a number of them to YouTube, albeit in fairly poor video quality (presumably from VHS rips), of which I’ve already reviewed one film, the biopic Tochuken Kumoemon (1936). I would love to see Naruse’s work on the big screen in a retrospective, but even Kurosawa rarely gets this kind of treatment so I suspect my chance to do so will be a long time coming (if I haven’t missed it already). In the meantime, here are a few of those 1930s sound films.
I’m pretty sure you can throw around the word “masterpiece” about any of Bresson’s films, if you are someone who likes and appreciates his style (and it’s not for everyone). Important scenes are sometimes broken down synecdochally such that we only see an extreme close-up of someone’s hand or legs as a stand-in for them, and these brief snippets of action are used to convey some dramatic or uncomfortable event (a rape, say). It’s certainly effective if you are attuned to what Bresson is doing, and lends an almost spiritually ascetic quality to the proceedings. This isn’t my favourite of his films, and in some ways it’s a rather melodramatic story of a young woman and her donkey, as well as the many men who mistreat both of them. Their suffering is reminiscent of The Passion of Joan of Arc, silent and with a sense of grace, part of which comes from the very specific acting method he encourages, which minimises any kind of externalisation of suffering in expressive movement or facial responses. Still, this film no less than Bresson’s others, is beautifully controlled and enunciated in a very specifically visual film language.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Robert Bresson; Cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet; Starring Anne Wiazemsky, François Lafarge, Walter Green, Jean-Claude Guilbert; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at National Library, Wellington, Tuesday 19 June 2001 (also earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, March 1999, and most recently on Blu-ray home, London, Saturday 15 February 2020).
My first day of four films was day five of the festival, which I started with an archive screening of a new restoration of Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity, with an alternative ending sequence thrown in at the end (wisely ditched from the original film in my opinion), then a new British film introduced by its director, a Tunisian-French co-production with a star more familiar with French cinema, and finally the last screening of Rose Plays Julie, part of the official competition, and a striking Irish film which bristles with technical sophistication.
Maybe I’m missing the emotionally devastating power of this film (or at least, that’s the kind of description I imagine was applied to it when it was first released), or perhaps it just doesn’t stand up over time particularly well, or maybe I’m the wrong generation to appreciate it properly. I really don’t know what explains it, but for me, this handsomely-mounted, big-budget Hollywood epic of the 1980s with some pretty big name stars (at least by today’s standards; Day-Lewis and Binoche were still early in their careers back then) doesn’t seem to connect with its characters. To an extent changes in filmmaking taste may be a factor: hearing these actors from a range of European countries (England, France and Sweden for the central trio) affect Czech accents can seem a little jarring to today’s tastes, perhaps. But there’s also a sort of studied artfulness to the sex scenes: it has an 18 certificate, but you wonder if it would still merit that nowadays. There’s nothing particularly explicit or shocking: Day-Lewis and Olin play characters who live bohemian lives (it is Prague, after all), whose sexual libertinism swiftly comes into conflict with the new Soviet-imposed Communist ideals, as the tanks roll in to crush their freedom. Still, as shot by Bergman’s frequent cinematographer Sven Nykvist, it is beautiful to look at — it’s difficult to imagine Prague or the Czech countryside being difficult to imbue with charm, but Nykvist succeeds admirably well. I haven’t read the novel, but one imagines the idea that life and sex are fleeting pleasures that must be embraced and enjoyed — seemingly the meaning of the ‘lightness’ in the title — may work work better on the page. Certainly there the characters benefit from not having belaboured accents, though I will at least own that we’d miss the shaggy charm of their dog, Karenin.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Philip Kaufman; Writers Jean-Claude Carrière and Kaufman (based on the novel Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí by Milan Kundera); Cinematographer Sven Nykvist; Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Juliette Binoche, Lena Olin; Length 171 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 20 September 2015.
It’s impossible to watch this adaptation of August Strindberg’s 1888 play without being aware of its stage-bound origins. There’s something very theatrical about its presentation, including that it has only three actors in it (other people are heard but never seen), and yet it’s never less than gorgeous to look at. There’s a classical simplicity to the framings that gives maximum exposure to the acting, and all of the actors do some of their finest screen work (though quite whether Colin Farrell will ever win me over, I’m not sure). That said, it’s a pretty exhausting watch, perhaps because of Strindberg’s writing, which immures the characters in a deadening and dreadful inevitability, as they — well, certainly the women (Jessica Chastain as the title character, and Samantha Morton as her household’s cook, Kathleen) — struggle towards self-destruction, helped along by the conniving of Farrell’s aspirational servant John. I suppose it all must reveal something about a certain pathology on the part of Strindberg and his era that he seems to will his female characters towards death (I understand it was inspired by Darwinism), but then he loops in the toxic effects of class stratification — Kathleen and John are a couple, both in the employ of the Count and his daughter Julie, in whose presence John becomes a shuffling, obsequious servant — and perhaps, after all, there’s something more to it. I suspect it will play well to those who are already great fans of the play, and even as I write this I can’t help but wonder if the elements that conspire to make it a tough watch couldn’t in fact be construed in its favour? Chacun à son goût.
Director/Writer Liv Ullmann (based on the play Fröken Julie by August Strindberg); Cinematographer Mikhail Krichman; Starring Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Wednesday 9 September 2015.
I’m a sucker for a good film set in London, and as someone who’s lived in Brixton earlier in my life, I found this story (which is set there) fascinating. That said, I don’t think its appeal is just to locals. Its themes are familiar: it’s a fish out of water story (our heroine Layla, played by the wonderful Jessica Sula) has just arrived in London from Trinidad; it’s a coming of age (she’s 15 and falling in love); and it deals with disaffected gangs of urban youth. Yet the film is careful not to just play on some sense of a threatening racialised Other — this is a community, and if Layla’s mother is wary and stand-offish, there’s a sense of bonding amongst the teenagers. And while their environment may be one of post-war council estates, these aren’t shown as dangerous concreted wastelands, but simply as the homes they were built to be. The film follows Layla, and the central drama is between her and two boys: the no-good yet effortlessly cool rapper Troy (Lucien Laviscount), and her friendly classmate Shaun (Ntonga Mwanza). The antagonism between the boys, as well as Troy’s behaviour when he’s around his male friends and their casual sexism, is conveyed very well, and while Layla is in many ways strong-willed, she finds it difficult all the same to avoid the trap of a bad relationship, which is the tragedy the film moves towards. Stylistically, the film leans heavily on an elegiac aesthetic, with plentiful use of orchestral music to replace diegetic sound, not to mention slow-motion filming, which perhaps takes away some of the visceral sting from the characters’ actions at times, but gives the film a polished sheen. This is definitely a filmmaker worth keeping an eye on. Rebecca Johnson is in excellent control of her young actors and the way that the drama unfolds on screen, and Honeytrap suggests the possibilities still inherent in local stories.
Director/Writer Rebecca Johnson; Cinematographer Annemarie Lean-Vercoe; Starring Jessica Sula, Lucien Laviscount, Ntonga Mwanza; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at Brixton Ritzy, London, Sunday 10 May 2015.
Back when I was first learning about the cinema of Russia and the Soviet Union, watching those early great films by pioneers like Eisenstein and Kuleshov at university, there was a term that came up occasionally known as the “Russian ending”, generally contrasted to the “Hollywood ending”. Well, this new film, which has won a fair few prizes at various film festivals (including London last month), is Russian. It could, of course, be set in any society where bureaucratic corruption festers, but it mines quite a rich seam of humour at the expense of its vodka-drinking local functionaries, while hardly covering modern Russian society in any particular glory. The humour is bleak, though, and the grand movement of the film is to slowly reveal the extent of the societal cogs (government, bureaucracy, religious orthodoxy) which are turning to crush its hero Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov), who has a younger wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and a son from an earlier marriage, and who is being helped by a handsome Moscow lawyer (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) to pursue a case against the local mayor involving his isolated family home.
I’d stop short of calling it bleak, though it certainly isn’t bereft of such detail: the title recalls the foundational work of Western political governance by Thomas Hobbes, even as one suspects the film isn’t quite as enamoured of the role of government in lifting humanity from its “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” natural state. There’s also the remains of a literal leviathan in the film, which looms along this windswept coastline like the grand metaphor it is, tantalisingly introduced after a primal transgression pushes Kolya’s son to his limits. But the film finds more ground with its Biblical antecedents, such as the Book of Job, quoted at a drunken, enraged Kolya by a local priest. For all this, I’ve never viewed the so-called “Russian ending” as a necessarily bleak one. In a sense it brings things to the kind of conclusion grounded in comedy — in other words, one that finally levels its protagonists, like the punchline at the end of Barry Lyndon: “It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.” It’s just that while the film is running, some characters are more equal than others, and you can be sad, or angry, or just laugh. This film lets you do all those things.
Director Andrey Zvyagintsev Андре́й Звя́гинцев; Writer Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin Олег Негин; Cinematographer Mikhail Krichman Михаи́л Кри́чман; Starring Aleksei Serebryakov Алексе́й Серебряко́в, Elena Lyadova Еле́на Ля́дова, Vladimir Vdovichenkov Влади́мир Вдовиче́нков; Length 140 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 20 November 2014.
A note on the title: The title card of the film is in Thai, subtitled into English. None of the online sources give me a transliteration of this title, but if I were following the rather pedantic rules I’ve been using on this blog, I would give the title in Thai.
There are undeniably words and ideas that, if you read (or indeed write) a lot of film/literary criticism, you find yourself coming across more often than one might expect in the real world. It often comes down to finding an apt adjective to try and grasp a sense of a film’s style or mood, and if any ever film was reliant on style and mood then it’s this one. And the chief adjective that comes into my addled brain is “oneiric”.
I think it’s worth leading with that because when I start getting into a plot summary it will sound all so very banal, that I must stress that when it’s playing out it owes far more of a debt to European art cinema (and you can see from all the co-production credits that it quite literally has plenty of that) not to mention the more dream-like passages of David Lynch. But I like the word ‘oneiric’ because of its Ancient Greek derivation, and if there’s any story that has inspired Only God Forgives, it must surely be that of Oedipus; plenty of what happens in the film only really makes sense if you’re attuned to the mythic archetypes that Refn is fixated upon.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The protagonist of the piece is the laconic Julian (Ryan Gosling), the owner of a Muay Thai (kickboxing) gym, whose twisted brother gets himself killed. Their mother (a steely and platinum blonde Kristin Scott Thomas) demands vengeance, and things start getting messy, particularly when police lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) and his samurai-like blade gets involved. But if Gosling and Scott Thomas ethnocentrically head the credits list, it is in fact Pansringarm who carries the film, his implacable middle-aged detective, moving slowly and with great deliberation, functioning as the sort of avenging angel for these errant Westerners.
Other reviewers have done much better at unpicking some of the implications of cultural tourism in having a Danish director and US stars in the Thai setting (and I would point you to this piece on The Hooded Utilitarian I found while trying to Google the film’s correct Thai title). In short, though, these are interlopers in a culture they don’t fully understand and Refn isn’t interested in the usual narrative structures — famous (white) lead actor gets one over on the violently foolish locals. There’s quite a different story happening here, and it’s one with no clear winners.
If the film steers clear of the standard revenge film clichés, it comes a lot closer to being a risible arthouse exercise in style over substance — at times it’s like a pure channelling of the violent physicality and alienation of, say, Gaspar Noé (who is thanked in the credits). Certainly, Cliff Martinez’s droning score only seems to heighten the disconnect between the ravishing imagery and any emotional affect. Still, as you’ll see by the rating I’ve given the film, I don’t think it quite succumbs to the weight of all that portentous imagery, if only by the very vigour with which it is embraced. Almost every shot is saturated in neon reds and blues, as Julian drifts impassively through a seedy underworld of brothels, fight clubs and karaoke bars, presided over by the ever-watchful eyes of various monsters (the huge iconic demon on the wall at the boxing club, or the martial statue that haunts Julian’s dreams/waking life). Several of the conversations between the protagonist and his mother (not to mention a particularly grisly scene near the end) exist mostly in order to deepen the play of signifiers that Refn is so invested in: phallocentrism, castration complexes, the interplays between sex, birth and death — stuff that easily drifts into the pretentious.
What I’ve been trying to get across here, however inadequately, is that I would quite understand if other viewers were to find an arid, pretentious vision of revenge and parental attachment issues. I think the film can easily be taken that way, from its violent imagery, its hyperstylised colours and its almost narcoleptic forward momentum. And yet, if it perches on the edge of this very fine line, I prefer to think that it succeeds, compellingly pushing at the boundaries of morality in showing an impassive man who appears to have resigned responsibility for his life being confronted by an embodiment of divine judgement, retribution and maybe even forgiveness, though of all the divine qualities, that one is the most tenuous here.
Director/Writer Nicolas Winding Refn; Cinematographer Larry Smith; Starring Ryan Gosling, Vithaya Pansringarm, Kristin Scott Thomas; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Friday 2 August 2013.
Are silent films now a thing that people do? Is it a trend? Technically pre-dating the Oscars™ success of The Artist (2012) is this Spanish film, now on general release in the UK after some festival appearances, which to my mind is a far more nuanced and interesting take on the silent film form, though certainly darker in tone than that other famous recent silent. It’s also a more sympathetic pastiche (for a start, there’s no diegetic sound), yet swiftly moves beyond mere slavish hommage in crafting a rounded film that plays to all the strengths of this antique form.
Of course, over the 80 or so years since sound film came to pre-eminence, there have been periodic throwbacks to the specially-moving qualities of the silent film form. There are those which reference the era within otherwise mainstream (sound) films like Singin’ in the Rain (1952), and then there are those which imitate the style, like the fantasias of Guy Maddin or the overly-grim lugubriousness of Aki Kaurismäki’s Juha (1999), amongst several others, most rather more experimental in form. So, whether these recent few films constitute a real trend is up for debate.
If there’s more interest in silent cinema now — and, from a capital city perspective, my friend Pam’s Silent London site is some small evidence of that (there are plenty of other silent-film-specific blogs to suit your tastes) — I don’t think a handful of films really does constitute a trend exactly. However, it’s nevertheless pleasing to see filmmakers (and audiences, since these films would hardly exist if there weren’t an audience for them) respond to the peculiar joys of voiceless cinematic art. I say ‘voiceless’ of course, since as we all know now, these films are not really silent: there’s a lot that can be done with a good score and expressive acting. For Blancanieves, Alfonso de Vilallonga provides the music; he’s not a name I’m familiar with, but his score leans heavily on traditions of silent-film accompaniment that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen a live screening.
The gorgeous contrasty black-and-white photography emphasises faces — extreme close-ups in a nod to old Soviet silents — though with a slightly more emphatic montage style than you’d see even in those films, belying its minimal budget. However, the faces glow with that peculiar radiance that silent films have always imparted at their best. Divorced from the prosaic limitations of the voice, we have the soulful eyes of both the heroine Carmen (played as an adult by Macarena García and by Sofía Oria as a child) — who with her cropped hair at times recalls even Renée Falconetti’s suffering as Joan of Arc — and the evil stepmother Encarna (Maribel Verdú, every bit the campy stage villain). In fact, this is a film of uncommonly strong women: there’s also a role for veteran actress Ángela Molina as Carmen’s flamenco-dancing grandmother. The men in the film are no match for these women, being either literally smaller (the dwarfs who take Carmen in when she’s been forsaken by her stepmother) or symbolically so (her wheelchair-bound father, the former torero Antonio, who is effectively imprisoned by Encarna upon the death of his first wife, Carmen’s mother).
For a country which gave us the word “macho”, it is perhaps not surprising that strong women have been a feature of many classic Spanish films, as have young girls who are exposed to the allegorical horrors of a patriarchal world, which is the most pertinent point of comparison — whether the poetic rural fantasies of El espíritu de la colmena (The Spirit of the Beehive, 1973) or El laberinto del fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth, 2006) more recently. In this case it’s bullfighting which is at the symbolic heart of the tale: Carmen’s attempted mastery over a bull in the stadium where her father was gored, and where her mother died giving birth to her, is what the film’s narrative is working towards. However, it hardly seems accidental that this most clichéd of Spanish pursuits should be emphasised, given we also see plenty of flamenco dancing — both being entrenched traditional arts renewed with nationalist fervour by the Francoist regime. Given that horror at Franco’s Spain is very much at the forefront of both the films I mentioned above, I suspect the inclusion of these art forms is more than mere window-dressing to make the film marketable to an international audience. The nostalgia inherent in the silent form is politicised by these allusions to the later fascist regime; Blancanieves does not present the comfortable past of the heritage film, whatever its silver-screen trappings might be.
I think that’s the key for me, that this isn’t some comfortable exercise in Roaring Twenties nostalgia, but a way of using the form in such a way as to undermine viewer assumptions. The resulting fairytale is thus returned to its complex psychological roots, and with Spain’s traumatic 20th century history still menacingly in the future, we are left uncertain as to whether ‘Snow White’ even should awake from her sleep. Thus does the film’s conclusion feel exactly right.
Director/Writer Pablo Berger (based on the fairytale Schneewittchen “Snow White” by the Brothers Grimm); Cinematographer Kiko de la Rica; Starring Maribel Verdú, Macarena García, Ángela Molina; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Renoir, London, Sunday 14 July 2013.