Criterion Sunday 330: Au revoir les enfants (1987)

The title is taken from the final words of the priest, Father Jean, headmaster of the Catholic boarding school to which its protagonists are sent from Paris at the height of World War II, but it could as easily be bidding goodbye to them from where they live with their parents, or indeed to their innocence of course. The film builds up its picture of these wartime kids leaving the city, and shows the mysterious appearance of a few more kids to their classes early on, one of whom, Jean Bonnet (Raphaël Fejtö), sits next to our main protagonist, Julien (Gaspard Manesse), who can be taken as something of a stand-in for the director, given this story is based on his own experiences. It soon enough becomes clear that these new kids are Jewish, and so the tension builds and remains through otherwise quotidian scenes of playing with the class, or eating food together. Characters who seem to be on their side are revealed to have secret collaborationist tendencies, and even refined upper-class spaces seethe with barely-hidden prejudice. However, it’s all handled in a way that allows us as audience to come to that realisation with Julien, without overburdening the narrative, and the acting is naturalistic. The film is shot by Renato Berta, who worked with Straub/Huillet, and brings a certain starkness to the imagery, avoiding sentimentality. This is a very fine film about a bleak period in history.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Extras which had been on a supplementary disc as part of the original box set are included on the Blu-ray reissue, most notably the Charlie Chaplin short The Immigrant (1917), which is seen being screened to the kids within the film, with musical accompaniment from Irène Jacob in her first film role. I’m hardly a connoisseur of Chaplin’s films (I’ve only seen a small handful), but you can see a certain virtuosity in the staging of this, in which Chaplin’s familiar “Tramp” character is an immigrant on a ship bound for New York. We’re introduced to him leaning over the side while the ship rolls dramatically, suggesting he’s heaving his guts out, but the first gag reveals no, he’s just catching a fish. This continues with all kinds of physical comedy — there’s a particularly nice scene in the mess hall, where food slides between the immigrants — and a sweet bit where he anonymously helps out a young woman (Edna Purviance) who’s had her money stolen by a gambler whom he’s won it off. The ending with Purviance is rather abrupt, but it caps a film with a number of solid comedy setpieces.
  • Another extra is a five-minute visual essay about one of the more troublesome characters, an outcast named Joseph, trying to locate and understand what drives him, and the difficulties that drive him to his final decisive action in the film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Louis Malle; Cinematographer Renato Berta; Starring Gaspard Manesse, Raphaël Fejtö, Francine Racette; Length 104 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 28 June 2020.

Criterion Sunday 329: Lacombe Lucien (Lacombe, Lucien, 1974)

This World War II-era film about the young Frenchman of the title (non-professional actor Pierre Blaise) working on a rural farm who throws his lot in with the local Gestapo because he just wants to get a bit of respect from the locals still feels relevant, strangely enough. I’m pretty sure that the kind of impulses this film covers are still around today, albeit not so much directed towards collaborating with Nazis (except for those who are still drawn to that). But it covers well Lucien’s lack of imagination, combined with the lure of a bit of unearned power and a general contempt for everyone around him, as he moves first from asking about joining the Resistance to instead trying out the Nazi thugs, whose first step is to fit him up with a suit — from a local, only lightly tolerated, Jewish tailor, whose daughter (Aurore Clément) Lucien falls for. The moral quandaries that Lucien stumbles blank-faced through, never apparently altering his uncomprehending sneer and doughy teenage face, pile on as he navigates the complexities of wartime life, apparently oblivious to his own idiocy. It’s not just about French collaboration, which was a controversial topic at the time of course and continues to resonate (the idea that there were plenty of people perfectly happy to help the Nazis), but really it’s about teenage misdirection and the stupid decisions one can be led to make at that age, suggesting a lot of the hate that passes for discourse in the modern world too.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • All the extras are on a supplementary disc, which I shall comment on in the post for the box set.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Louis Malle; Writers Malle and Patrick Modiano; Cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli; Starring Pierre Blaise, Aurore Clément, Holger Löwenadler; Length 138 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 26 June 2020.

Two 2018 Films by Sergei Loznitsa: Victory Day and The Trial

For my history themed week, I’m focusing on a couple more films which are somewhat tangential to history, both made by a Ukrainian filmmaker. The Trial takes footage from the 1930s and uses it to make a point about the way that events are manipulated by the (state-controlled) media, whereas Victory Day is about the way that history informs the present, specifically World War II, taking a celebration of Soviet victory over Germany, but as it unfolds at a monument in Berlin itself. These are slow, self-effacing documentaries that nonetheless reveal something fairly interesting about the ways we relate to history, and the way it can be used.

Continue reading “Two 2018 Films by Sergei Loznitsa: Victory Day and The Trial”

A Hidden Life (2019)

A discussion that has cropped up once again in political and media circles has been around “antifa”, and every time it happens a lot of people with the same wearied tone have to explain it’s not an organisation, it’s an ethos, a motivating ideal, a praxis and a shared struggle: it is just short for “anti-fascist”. Such struggles can take an explosive, active form, and there are no shortage of World War II movies to illustrate that (though most are Hollywood stories of heroism against the odds). Terrence Malick’s most recent film instead deals with the internal contortions, of morality and faith competing with self-preservation, and the way that just these simple acts of resistance can carry their own dangers. The only thing that “antifa”, such as it is, calls us to do is to resist fascism. All that I can hope is that to continue to do so is something which does not lead to the outcome in today’s film, but as some of the world’s largest countries have taken an active turn towards demagoguery and fascism, that is starting to seem rather more perilous.


I haven’t really connected with many of Malick’s films since The Thin Red Line (and certainly not the last few), as he’s progressively loosened his narrative focus in preference for impressionistic movements. However, with A Hidden Life, he seems to have reined this extravagance in a bit (though the stylistic tics are still very much evident), not to mention choosing a setting and theme that seems more fitting to his particular style. Of course, there’s still plenty of voiceover, used more as another layer of sound than to convey any specific information, and he takes the interesting decision to have the film in English except where perhaps the words are less important — background chatter, bureaucratic invective, in which case it’s in German.

It’s an odd film, though, that bathes this story — of Franz (August Diehl), an Austrian peasant in the early-1940s, who grimly resolves (with an at times wavering, but nevertheless increasingly bitterly held, sense of moral clarity) to defy military tribunals and not speak the ‘Hitler oath’ — in a certain sort of beatific calm, which makes sense given he was after all beatified not so long ago. There’s little sense of the actual war, and perhaps in 1940-1943 (when the film is set), it hasn’t particularly reached the alpine Austrian setting of St Radegund or even the Berlin prison he’s shipped off to later. There’s one chilling scene where the village’s mayor inveighs against the dangers of immigrants and foreigners, despite clearly having none in his midst, which obviously remains current, but otherwise this is very much focused on Franz and (almost equally) his wife Franziska, grounding their story in the community and (as you might expect from a Malick film) the glory of the natural world. It’s not even quite as overtly spiritual as some of his more recent films have been, though given Franz’s Catholic faith and his later beatification, it is obviously imbued with that throughout.

I liked it, and didn’t even feel the running time once the movie started to hold me. It’s shot with some oddly distorting lenses, and the camera operators must all have been children given how close to the ground the camera seems to be most of the time, but Malick’s impressionist excesses aren’t so much on show or are perhaps less jarring when not juxtaposed against Hollywood or indie music backgrounds.

A Hidden Life film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Terrence Malick; Cinematographer Jörg Widmer; Starring August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Michael Nyqvist, Jürgen Prochnow, Matthias Schoenaerts, Bruno Ganz; Length 174 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Friday 17 January 2020.

Criterion Sunday 318: Jeux interdits (Forbidden Games, 1952)

Nowadays this seems to rather divide the critics I follow, though this was hugely lauded on its release (at least internationally), and so I wonder if this plays differently with parents. It certainly fits into the sort of faux-rustic and hazily sentimentalised vision of traditional values that’s always played well to a certain strain of middlebrow filmgoers, at least when it’s in French (and not everything derided by the New Wave as cinéma du papa was bad, but there hasn’t been any shortage of these kinds of titles in all the years since then). Perhaps I’m just betraying some kind of inner cynicism, but this feels too calculated to be effective. The rough, rude peasantry — whether the poor couple seen right at the start who barely give a thought to the bereaved kid, the farmer family who take in Paulette (quite against their instincts), their bitter rivals in the village — all seem to exist solely to contrast with the innocence of the two children. There are also the bookended titles, further pulling this away into the realm of the cozily fabulistic, though the film’s opening minutes have a simple, vicious intensity that is never quite matched for the rest of the running time. Together the two kids make a little graveyard in a derelict mill to all the dead animals they find, starting with Paulette’s beloved dog, getting themselves into trouble with the local priest as the boy starts grabbing all the crosses he can find. I don’t mean to be too down on it, though, because there’s still plenty to commend it, particularly in terms of the expressive acting of these kids. Let’s just say this isn’t to my taste and leave it at that, because it’s certainly brought plenty of others joy.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The disc presents the alternative opening and ending for the film (all that remains in the finished film is the credits written on the pages of a book), but it explicitly has the two kids living happily, hardly peasants any more, and playing by a big pond, where the boy tells the little girl a story about children very much like them. It’s a framing that puts the horrifying context of the film safely in the past, and it’s surely to the film’s credit that they didn’t end up using these sequences.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director René Clément; Writers Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost (based on the novel by François Boyer); Cinematographer Robert Juillard; Starring Brigitte Fossey, Georges Poujouly; Length 86 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 17 May 2020.

火垂るの墓 Hotaru no Haka (Grave of the Fireflies, 1988)

As my Japan-themed week goes on, I need to be careful not to just review films nobody’s seen and can’t easily watch, so I’m turning to one of the major Studio Ghibli films, albeit one directed by its less-famous partner, Isao Takahata, who nevertheless is responsible for many of its great works like The Tale of the Princess Kaguya and My Neighbours the Yamadas. It’s a World War II-set film, and given it’s Japanese, you can imagine it’s hardly triumphal; in fact, it’s one of the more heart-wrenching animated films you can watch.


I put this on at home, more or less without thinking, after returning from a screening of A Hidden Life (2019) and it strikes me that they make a sort of thematic double-bill, both being stories from World War II that find empathy amongst the defeated peoples in that conflict. Nobody really wins in war, to a certain extent, but it’s very clear from this story of Seita and his sister Setsuko that it’s particularly difficult trying to survive near the end of the war, when resources and empathy are scarce. Of course, the elegiac, mournful aspect is set up right from the very outset, as this is a film narrated by a dead body, but even so it wrings out enormous amounts of pathos from its story, in which the fireflies of the title become a beautiful visual metaphor for a certain sort of transcendence that perhaps the two find which eluded them in life. It’s grim, of course, but suffused with light and joy and hope — and a keen graphic stylishness — even in its darkest moments.

Grave of the Fireflies film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Isao Takahata 高畑勲 (based on the short story by Akiyuki Nosaka 野坂昭如); Starring Tsutomu Tatsumi 辰巳努, Ayano Shiraishi 白石綾乃; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 17 January 2020.

Criterion Sunday 299: 春婦伝 Shunpuden (Story of a Prostitute, 1965)

Suzuki has a masterful sense of constructing an image, which you might expect given his intensive record of filmmaking throughout the 60s resulting in some of the most eye-catching set design and at times dabbling in pop art iconography. This one sticks to black-and-white for its World War II-period story about a young woman who is pressed into ‘service’ on the frontlines in China, where she falls for the eager young Private Mikami (Tamio Kawachi) who serves under a rather more brutal superior officer (Isao Tamagawa). Along with her story (and the actor Yumiko Nogawa is excellent, really tearing into the material with gusto), the film also takes aim at Japanese military policy and the dehumanising nature of warfare, as the private finds himself on trial for being captured by the enemy (despite being unconscious at the time). It’s a fascinating film and one made with Suzuki’s usual flair.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Seijun Suzuki 鈴木清順; Writer Hajime Takaiwa 高岩肇 (based on the novel by Tajiro Tamura 田村泰次郎); Cinematographer Kazue Nagatsuka 永塚一栄; Starring Yumiko Nogawa 野川由美子, Tamio Kawachi 川地民夫, Isao Tamagawa 玉川伊佐男; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 15 March 2020.

Criterion Sunday 298: 肉体の門 Nijukai no Mon (Gate of Flesh, 1964)

Seijun Suzuki certainly made a surfeit of luridly-coloured borderline-exploitation films during the 1960s, directed with evident panache and a certain gonzo charm. The opening sequences of this particular film hurtle through at a breakneck pace, leaving scant moments for pause or reflection (whether on the part of the characters or the audience). The film is set in the post-war ruins of Tokyo, expressively evoked by a soundstage set that, with its saturated colours, at time suggests Fassbinder’s later Querelle — in its psycho-sexual undertones, if not quite to the homoerotic degree that Fassbinder takes it (though we get our share of Joe Shishido’s sweat-drenched naked body). If the events are lurid — about a band of tough prostitutes working amongst this post-war detritus, trying to eke out a living while flagrantly punishing any of their peers who breaks their code — they suggest a certain moral grey area that existed at the time. Many shots centre the US flag of occupation, and the presence of American military police is constant, as they patrol and are frequently mocked and physically abused and attacked by people who have very little food and few opportunities to get ahead, though already we see gangsters making a space for themselves in this uncertain economy. Scenes of sexual torture push it in darker directions, but the focus remains on the vicissitudes of difficult lives at a transitional moment in Japanese history.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Seijun Suzuki 鈴木清順; Writers Tajiro Tamura 田村泰次郎 and Goro Tanada 棚田吾郎; Cinematographer Shigeyoshi Mine 峰重義; Starring Yumiko Nogawa 野川由美子, Joe Shishido 宍戸錠, Tomiko Ishii 石井トミコ, Kayo Matsuo 松尾嘉代; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 18 February 2020.

Three Films by Taika Waititi: Boy (2010), Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) and Jojo Rabbit (2019)

As far as the international reach of New Zealand cinema goes, I would guess that Taika Waititi is probably the most successful export of this decade. He made his directing debut with the quirky Eagle vs Shark (2007), starring Jemaine Clement from the Flight of the Conchords, which I somewhat liked if not quite as much as some people did. His next film was Boy, which took its time to find international audiences (it didn’t get a release in the UK until many years later) but is generally regarded as one of his finest works, and he followed it up with the low-budget Wellington vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows (2014), which I’ve reviewed elsewhere on this site. After the success of Hunt for the Wilderpeople his following films have had a far more international flavour, without entirely losing his distinctive voice (given he does like to cast himself in his projects). The film I’ve omitted below is Thor: Ragnarok (2017), which as Marvel superhero movie, can’t quite be fit into the same category, though it retains plenty of his humour and is one of the better titles in that seemingly endless run of superhero films.

Continue reading “Three Films by Taika Waititi: Boy (2010), Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) and Jojo Rabbit (2019)”

Mr. Jones (2019)

Today the fearsome British costume drama industry unleashes yet another adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma upon us all. Last week my Polish themed week led up to the release of Agnieszka Holland’s latest film, but it can probably be considered as much a British film as a Polish one, especially as it deals with a British subject. It has the big old handsome period details you expect from such films, but it tells a slightly different story once it gets to the USSR, and perhaps that sets it apart from the usual run of such things, but I think there’s a lot to like.


This film sets itself against the backdrop of the “Holodomor” in the Ukraine — a famine during the 1930s largely engineered by the Soviet leadership, which killed millions of peasants — but really it’s about the way that these kinds of stories are treated by the media, about how the media is in the pocket of business and government interests. And so our crusading Welshman Gareth Jones (played by James Norton, the same actor who most recently was seen as Mr Brooke in Little Women) campaigns to bring to light this atrocity at a time when Western powers were more interested in alliances with the USSR and so not well-disposed to such revelations (and the media, as ever, reliable lapdogs to the powerful). The acting is all pretty solid (even Vanessa Kirby in a rather token role as the only apparently non-historical figure), and it’s directed capably by Agnieszka Holland albeit with some little expressionist touches. However, there’s plenty about this movie which rather too on the nose, seeming to ask us “do you see??” as it’s waving its arms to make clear what its teachable moments are. For example, and perhaps most clunkily, there’s the framing device of George Orwell writing Animal Farm, which we gather might have been a rather anodyne book about animals being mean to one another until our titular hero impresses upon Orwell exactly what the Soviets are really doing, at which point his faith in the Revolution starts to waver. Sadly, then, the film never quite lifts the way it needs to, but it’s worth watching all the same.

Mr. Jones film posterCREDITS
Director Agnieszka Holland; Writer Andrea Chalupa; Cinematographer Tomasz Naumiuk; Starring James Norton, Peter Sarsgaard, Vanessa Kirby; Length 119 minutes (originally 141 minutes).
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Friday 7 February 2020.