Criterion Sunday 503: Lola Montès (1955)

This is one of those grand European follies (like Les Amants du Pont-Neuf in more recent times, perhaps) which burned up money in its production and then failed spectacularly at the box office, but it’s the last film by the great director Max Ophüls and if it’s a failure, it’s a spectacular and beautiful one, immaculately staged and choreographed. Of course, as a film, it’s not a failure at all, but perhaps it just didn’t suit the tastes of the mid-1950s audience. It’s set a hundred years earlier, around the time of the revolutions of 1848, and tells a story of a courtesan and (apparently fairly indifferent) dancer known primarily for her liaisons with rich and powerful men, such is the way of that era’s stardom. Martine Carol in the title role is a glamorous presence but, when seen from the vantage point of her later years performing in a circus, a curiously voiceless one, as the ringmaster Peter Ustinov puts most of her words into her mouth. I don’t think that’s a failure of acting, though: if she feels underwhelming, it’s because her life has pushed her to this, and the flashbacks in which her story is told find her with more agency and a more vibrant presence. But acting aside this is a film peculiarly constructed in the staging and shooting, as beautifully framed widescreen images are composed, and the emotional movement of the story is as evident from the camerawork as from the screenplay or acting. Undoubtedly a film to lose oneself in on the big screen, it’s one of cinema’s great films by one of the medium’s finest directors.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Max Ophüls; Writers Ophüls and Annette Wademant (based on the novel La Vie extraordinaire de Lola Montès by Cécil Saint-Laurent); Cinematographer Christian Matras; Starring Martine Carol, Peter Ustinov, Anton Walbrook, Will Quadflieg, Oskar Werner; Length 115 minutes.

Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Sunday 30 July 2000 (as well as earlier on laserdisc at the university, Wellington, April 1998, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Friday 7 January 2022).

Criterion Sunday 501: Paris, Texas (1984)

The Criterion Collection had just released Wim Wenders’s other big 1980s feature film Wings of Desire before this one, and though Wenders had garnered a fair amount of attention for his 1970s German road movies, I think it’s Paris, Texas that remains his most well-loved. And it would be easy for me to try and dismiss this as I wanted to dismiss Wings of Desire but both have a depth and complexity that is more than their slightly sentimental stories of family and healing might on the surface suggest. Here we have the poise and emptiness of the desert setting, the mysterious entrance of Harry Dean Stanton’s Travis and the unfolding of his story. Familial love is important here — the love of his brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) for Travis, the love of Travis for his son Hunter (Hunter Carson, the screenwriter’s son), and even the love he seems to have, however fleetingly, for his ex-partner Jane (played by the much younger Nastassja Kinski). The relationship they had is only really ever hinted at — and it seems like it must have been a strange, strained one, possibly one rooted in drugs and nihilism — but the story becomes far more one about the child they had together and what is best for that child, and this is the moral quandary that Travis is dealing with. Wenders of course, along with cinematographer Robby Müller, do a beautiful job of framing this quest, and a climactic scene is almost perfectly blocked between Stanton and Kinski. But beyond the technical credits the acting is exactly right for the setting, and so the film remains iconic almost 40 years on.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Wim Wenders; Writers L. K. Kit Carson and Sam Shepard; Cinematographer Robby Müller; Starring Harry Dean Stanton, Dean Stockwell, Hunter Carson, Nastassja Kinski, Aurore Clément; Length 147 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 30 January 2022 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, December 2000).

Criterion Sunday 490: Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire, 1987)

I find it easy to resist this film, its blend of poetic voiceover, impressionist use of colour and black-and-white, and reflections on the nature of freedom in a still-divided Berlin. But watching it after so many years since having last seen it, I am still forcefully struck with the underlying melancholy. Bruno Ganz is one of a number of angels who seem to be assigned to shadow a handful of people in the city of Berlin; we see (and hear the thoughts of) those he follows, but we also see his fellow angels standing imperceptibly and calmly over the shoulders of others he passes. This all seems to stand in as a conceit by which to evoke Berlin itself, and the film is in a lineage of city symphonies (that prominently includes, of course, Walter Ruttmann’s 1927 silent one about the same city), but it’s a powerful one, suggesting a higher purpose that has been severed somehow. Broken people shuffle amongst ruins and building sites, and there’s a provisional nature to what everyone is doing, a holding pattern. That’s all in the atmosphere, and is barely even expressed, but we have Peter Falk playing himself after a fashion as an actor, grounded and gruff, while Solveig Dommartin is a French trapeze artist, flying lightly through the air, and these seem to be like poles within which Bruno Ganz’s Dammiel tries to make his way. There’s a choice, and a movement towards the end, which promises a sequel (there is one; I’ve not ever seen it), and I’m not sure how substantial it all is really, but it feels somehow defining of an era and remains a beautiful film — and it seems appropriate that it was shot by the cinematographer of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast — however much I try to cynically resist it.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Wim Wenders; Writers Wenders, Peter Handke and Richard Reitinger; Cinematographer Henri Alekan; Starring Bruno Ganz, Otto Sander, Solveig Dommartin, Peter Falk, Curt Bois; Length 127 minutes.

Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, April 1998 and again at home (Kanopy streaming), Wellington, Sunday 26 December 2021.

Criterion Sunday 464: Danton (1983)

I certainly don’t mean to be reductive about what is clearly a grand effort at staging a historical spectacle, but this very much seems to fall into the ‘sweaty men shouting at each other in antique rooms’ sub-genre of historical film. It’s not that any of them is specifically a bad actor — although the dubbing into French of the many Polish actors is a bit off-putting at times — but it is rather reliant on the conflict of men (the few women involved are reduced very much to side figures, a little unfair I think in the case of Camille Desmoulins’ wife Lucile at least, who was a prominent diarist and journalist).

Danton, of course, has the more heroic character in this rendering of history — the film is named for him after all, and is played with all the charismatic charm that Depardieu can bring — but he’s still more talked about than seen. The film focuses far more on his chief antagonist, Maximilien Robespierre (played by a Polish actor, Wojciech Pszoniak), a shrinking and rather pathetic figure here. Patrice Chéreau matches Depardieu for sweaty outrage as Desmoulins but doesn’t get too much time to shine (though his presence reminds me of Chéreau’s own grand historical drama from the following decade, La Reine Margot, an older bit of history but rendered much more lustily and effectively than here). So in a sense the period costuming and other effects — the sweat, the blood, the crumbling architecture — stands just as strongly in for the drama as the actors themselves, which may owe a little to Rossellini’s history films. Rossellini’s films may have a calmer demeanour, but Wajda’s protagonists really like to get stuck in. It doesn’t always serve the film best, but it’s not too dull.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Andrzej Wajda; Writers Jean-Claude Carrière, Wajda, Agnieszka Holland, Bolesław Michałek and Jacek Gąsiorowski (based on the play Sprawa Dantona “The Danton Case” by Stanisława Przybyszewska); Cinematographer Igor Luther; Starring Wojciech Pszoniak, Gérard Depardieu, Patrice Chéreau; Length 136 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 24 September 2021.

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 402: La Voie lactée (The Milky Way, 1969)

In his long career, Buñuel hardly shied away from the merciless mockery of religious hypocrisy, and that’s sort of the entire point of this film. It is essentially a kind of episodic comedy with a series of vignettes serving to set up a series of situations in which people argue on points of religious schisms, which when set out in this way can’t help but seem utterly absurd and futile. The plot, such as it is, hangs around a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela being undertaken by two men (Paul Frankeur and Laurent Terzieff), though they seem pretty happy to hop in a car when it suits them, and they don’t seem particularly committed to the more spiritual aspects of the journey, which don’t just travel through space but also just as often through time as well. Still, the director has his customary fun with Jesus (Bernard Verley), priests, monks and other holy men, and those who aspire to holiness, and I can’t deny its at times anarchic humour.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luis Buñuel; Writers Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière; Cinematographer Christian Matras; Starring Paul Frankeur, Laurent Terzieff, Édith Scob, Bernard Verley, Alain Cuny; Length 101 minutes.

Seen at home (Google Play Movies streaming), Wellington, Thursday 25 February 2021.

Criterion Sunday 400: Stranger Than Paradise (1984)

This isn’t New York filmmaker Jim Jarmusch’s debut feature film (that would be 1980’s Permanent Vacation), but already there’s a strong sense of what would be his signature style during the 1980s, the deadpan delivery, single shot long takes, the grungy (yet oddly beautiful) black-and-white cinematography of these interchangeable American locales. The opening shots see Eszter Balint’s youthful Eva wandering the streets of what looks like New Jersey from the street signs, though she eventually finds her way to stay with her cousin in Brooklyn (John Lurie). She’s from Hungary and her cousin was too, where he was Bela, but now goes by Willie and is trying hard to put the immigrant identity behind him. His friend Eddie (Richard Edson) stops by and the film… well, “gets going” doesn’t seem quite right, but all the characters are now in place. Ultimately it’s not about what they do (they hang out, they get on the road to Cleveland, they mooch about some more), but about this sense of America as a place where identity can be subsumed. Willie’s aunt tries desperately to cling to the old ways and refuses to speak English to him, but there’s little that identifies her home as different from anywhere else the trio go; even Florida has the same sense of gloomy dereliction at the end. It’s a film in which the characters move around a lot but ultimately don’t seem to do anything.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Chief among the extras is a West German documentary, Kino ’84: The Making of Jim Jarmusch (1984, dir. Martina Müller), which catches up with him during the making of Stranger Than Paradise after it seems his 1980 debut Permanent Vacation had gained him something of a profile in that country, and so features interviews with that latter film’s star Chris Parker, as well as his DP Tom DiCillo — whose lack of interest in continuing in this job prompts Jarmusch to suggest some cinematographers he’d like to work with (including the one he did). There are also shorter bits with Lurie, Edson and Balint, as well as the brief appearance of Sara Driver. It’s good to see how Jarmusch was working back then.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jim Jarmusch; Cinematographer Tom DiCillo; Starring John Lurie, Eszter Balint, Richard Edson; Length 89 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 20 February 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, February 1998).

Criterion Sunday 390: Sweet Movie (1974)

This may well be a masterpiece of piercing bourgeois complacency and for some people it clearly is, but I think I just have trouble connecting with the carnivalesque sense of polymorphous perversity. It almost feels more coherent than his 1971 W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism, though it’s still a blend of elements (including some very unsettling footage of WW2 atrocities being uncovered, although ones committed by the Soviet forces being brought to light by Nazis). The rest of the film involves a lot of people debasing themselves for various causes, and surely that’s the point of the film — starting with the valorisation of virginity presented as an American style talent contest, and moving through both women and men debasing themselves, being humiliated, acting out and generally being pariahs, and all in the name of the film’s satirical targets. I find it wearying where others revel in its warped sensibilities, though I imagine that making the likes of me feel a bit worn out is probably an achievement the film should be perfectly happy with.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Dušan Makavejev; Cinematographer Pierre Lhomme; Starring Carole Laure, Anna Prucnal, Pierre Clémenti; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 17 January 2021.

Criterion Sunday 389: W.R. – Misterije organizma (W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism, 1971)

I’m very amenable to those critics calling this a masterpiece, but I fear that perhaps when I look at it, I find it difficult to perceive the depths that others do. It’s an assemblage of narrative fictional material — a Yugoslav woman (Milena Dravić) preaching free love who seduces a Russian ice-skating comrade hero (Ivica Vidović), only to lose her head — along with archival sources, an old Soviet propaganda film, and documentary elements dealing with the later life and research of controversial psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. Indeed, for much of the early portion it seems like a straight documentary, in so far as anything about Reich could be called straight. His theories deal with the orgasm and sexual potential, and other segments (like Nancy, the “Plaster Caster”, making a mould of the Screw editor’s penis, or the hippie, Tuli Kupferberg, who stalks through New York masturbating his toy rifle and menacing the bourgeoisie) sort of develop these themes in relation to capitalism and the West, while the propaganda footage suggests a misunderstood sexual dimension to Soviet Communism. It’s all pretty feverish and clearly you may love it, but while I certainly wasn’t bored, I guess I didn’t really connect at the level the film was aiming for.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Dušan Makavejev; Cinematographers Aleksandar Petković and Pega Popović; Starring Milena Dravić, Ivica Vidović, Jagoda Kaloper, Tuli Kupferberg; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 16 January 2021 (and a long time before that on VHS at home, Wellington).

In der Dämmerstunde Berlin de l’aube à la nuit (1980)

As part of my Belgian week, which has quickly become more about Belgian co-productions made and set in other countries, we move to Berlin in the late-1970s with this strange document of a vanished era, not widely available (screened in 16mm at the Deptford Cinema when I saw it), but capturing a real feeling for a place. The bilingual title hints at its dual origins, and the filmmaker is Belgian, which gives it that outsider’s-view feel.


This strange piece of celluloid feels like a time capsule from a different place, an irretrievable time, the alien landscape of Berlin in the late-1970s, with the Wall very much in evidence, train journeys that just end abruptly even as we see the track stretching out ahead of the camera, and little walks around town that the filmmaker takes (the back of her head becomes very familiar), what I suppose we would today call psychogeography. Occasionally we hear voices from those talking about post-war Germany, from a Jewish bookseller determined to return to the country which treated him so badly, and from old ladies talking about Hitler. But for the most part this is a densely-textured journey film, broken up by quotes and snatches of opera, and the presence of a clanking 16mm cinema projector at the back of the room where I saw it, seemed to lend it an almost spiritual quality, of a black-and-white document stolen from history.

CREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Annik Leroy; Length 67 minutes.
Seen at Deptford Cinema, London, Saturday 23 March 2019.