Criterion Sunday 467: 愛の亡霊 Ai no Borei (Empire of Passion, 1978)

This ghost story doesn’t have the frisson of controversy that many of Oshima’s other films (it immediately follows his most sensational, In the Realm of the Senses, and has a similar title in the original), but it certainly does look gorgeous. It’s ostensibly a story about a man wronged (Takahiro Tamura) who returns to haunt his wife (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) and her lover (Tatsuya Fuji), but really it is much more about the wife and the way that she is first assaulted by and then lured into a love tryst with a disreputable young man (though the actors aren’t so far apart in their actual age) in 1890s Japan. There’s a fundamental unhappiness at the heart of all their actions, but then again they live a meagre life, he a rickshaw puller and her making ends meet as a lowly servant to a grand home. Like a lot of ghost stories, there’s a great deal of expressive use of the dark, and plenty of grime and filth too, though it’s not exactly scary. It’s more about internal strife and an inchoate desire for something else, some other way of living, some kind of connection with emotion that seems to motivate the woman, and the film’s central tragedy.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Nagisa Oshima 大島渚; Writers Oshima and Itoko Nakamura 中村糸子; Cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima 宮島義勇; Starring Tatsuya Fuji 藤竜也, Kazuko Yoshiyuki 吉行和子, Takahiro Tamura 吉行和子; Length 105 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 13 September 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 462: Le Dernier Métro (The Last Metro, 1980)

There are two stories here and I’m not convinced they are always in sync with one another. There’s the story of occupied France in the early-1940s, under Nazi control with people just doing what they can to make ends meet and escape the controlling boot of the occupying forces. And then there’s the theatre story, which is very much at the centre. It has all the feeling of Les Enfants du paradis but with opulent colour and set design and a bravura performance from Catherine Deneuve as a woman whose Jewish theatre director husband (Heinz Bennent) she says has escaped Paris but is actually secretly hiding out in the cellar. So you’ve got this behind-the-scenes story of a theatre troupe rehearsing for a new production, a bit of three-way love action courtesy of a handsome leading actor (Gérard Depardieu), and then you have Nazis. I suppose that puts it somewhat in the camp of Cabaret except with less, er, camp. It’s gorgeously shot and mounted, with some tense set-pieces involving the Germans, but in keeping its focus on the theatrical setting over the horrors of the era, it feels far more like a throwback to a classic era of French filmmaking, and that’s not a bad thing.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director François Truffaut; Writers Truffaut and Suzanne Schiffman; Cinematographer Néstor Almendros; Starring Catherine Deneuve, Gérard Depardieu, Jean Poiret, Heinz Bennent, Sabine Haudepin, Jean-Louis Richard; Length 131 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Wednesday 15 September 2021.

Criterion Sunday 458: El Norte (1983)

I didn’t really expect much going into this, perhaps something a bit well-meaning and earnest, like contemporary Costa-Gavras films or those of John Sayles — which to be fair, is really quite deeply unfair to the latter’s work, but I’m trying to convey that sense of slightly po-faced political dramas about ordinary people in challenging times. In a sense, cinema since then hasn’t really grappled with those topics so much, but in relation specifically to the Anglophone cinema of Latin-American politics that I’m most familiar with, Gregory Nava’s feature has a more poetic register. This isn’t magical realism, though, it’s a poetic realism more akin to the Italian Neorealists, I think, but imbued with a lived sense of how America treats its Latin-American citizens. The central characters are indigenous people, from a small Guatemalan village, who journey to the North because of conditions back home, and who have to endure a lot to get to the very bottom of the ladder in the US. It’s not straightforwardly for or against anything though — their lives in the US do have some benefits compared to the past, but oppression comes in many guises and for all that they do see some material changes to their position, in other ways they are made to feel very much an underclass, not least in terms of the bureaucracy of immigration (and not much has changed there in almost 40 years one suspects). It’s a film that is as concretely about the conditions of work and life as anything else of the decade, but one imbued with a sense of almost mystical dread, that can be at times overwhelming but equally quite beautiful and resonant.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Gregory Nava; Writers Nava and Anna Thomas; Cinematographer James Glennon; Starring David Villalpando, Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez; Length 140 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 3 September 2021.

Criterion Sunday 457: Magnificent Obsession (1954)

I don’t know enough about the career of German expatriate director Douglas Sirk to be certain, but this feels like the first film of his imperial phase of filmmaking, or at least an important milestone in defining that peculiar style of gaudily-coloured, stylistically heightened melodramas of the late-50s, often produced by Ross Hunter and starring Rock Hudson. It’s not to my mind the equal of All That Heaven Allows or Written on the Wind (or the monochrome Tarnished Angels) but it orchestrates a thrillingly tangled web of obsessions pretty well.

Jane Wyman plays Helen (or Mrs Phillips), a woman indirectly widowed due to wealthy playboy Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson)’s misadventures, which prompts him to reform himself and, via a series of ridiculous plot contortions, win the love of Helen (sure) and restore her eyesight (don’t ask) by becoming a world-leading surgeon (look, okay, yes). To say that last half hour is a rush of absurdity heaped upon absurdity is hardly to deny the central power of the film as a full-throated melodrama, and indeed Sirk is attentive to the power differentials between characters (even if Helen’s eventual acceptance of her feelings toward Bob — who initially rather dubiously romances her under a different name while she’s blind — feels a little bit perfunctory). Still, if you like Sirk’s style, it’s all done with an assertive sense of style.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The main extra is the bonus disc dedicated to a presentation of John M. Stahl’s original 1935 adaptation of the same book (written by Sarah Y. Mason, Victor Heerman and George O’Neil, cinematography John J. Mescall, starring Robert Taylor and Irene Dunne). I’ve seen a few of Stahl’s films as director (mostly at Il Cinema Ritrovato) but still don’t feel I really have a grasp on him. That a handful of his films, like this one, were remade by Douglas Sirk is probably unfortunate to Stahl’s own standing but I just wonder if these early melodramas would ever make quite the same impression as Sirk’s gloriously overwrought 50s pieces. I’m certainly surprised at how much is similar in both, mostly all the ridiculous plot twists, but while this is a fine Irene Dunne performance, I am nevertheless somewhat underwhelmed by the sneering arrogant Bob Merrick of Robert Taylor, the poor man’s James Stewart as far as I can tell (both started around this time, so maybe 30s Hollywood just liked that look). Where Sirk brought the saturated colour and equally saturated string section, this plays a little more austerely, largely as a morality play of Taylor grappling with his conscience over the way things have played out and resolving to become a better man. A likeable film without the obvious hooks of Sirk’s but probably that’s down to me.
  • There are a couple of short ten-minute pieces paying tribute to this film (and Sirk) by Allison Anders and Kathryn Bigelow, both of which are effusive in their praise and interesting in terms of each’s own filmmaking, even if neither strikes one as particularly Sirkian.
  • The screenwriter Robert Blees also speaks a bit about his work on the film as the primary writer (there are a lot of credits, including the writers on Stahl’s own film) but clearly Blees was more attuned to what Sirk and his producer Ross Hunter wanted.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Douglas Sirk; Writers Robert Blees and Wells Root (based on the screenplay by Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman, itself based on the novel by Lloyd C. Douglas); Cinematographer Russell Metty; Starring Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson, Barbara Rush, Agnes Moorehead; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Sunday 1 August 1999 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Monday 30 August 2021).

Antoinette dans les Cévennes (Antoinette in the Cévennes aka My Donkey, My Lover & I, 2020)

Finishing off my week of films I saw at Wellington’s recent French Film Festival is this recent release, which went swiftly into the cinemas and I think has probably done quite well, presumably based on the lead actor’s profile in Call My Agent! (which is certainly where I know her from). I hadn’t realised Robert Louis Stevenson had been a pioneer of hiking, or had links with this area of France, but that was one of the things I learned from this otherwise rather silly (but fun) movie.


Did Balthazar truly die so that Patrick could take a walk with Laure Calamy in the Cévennes? I was all ready to be snarky and dismissive along those lines, but actually this is quite a sweet and even rather funny film in which Calamy basically reprises her role as Noémie in the TV show Call My Agent! but as the titular Antoinette, lovestruck over a married man and barely holding herself together at times, but finding through her journey an inner resilience (nurtured by a growing bond with Patrick the donkey, etc. etc.). I mean, it should all be unwatchable really, but Calamy (a bit like Jane Krakowski on US TV shows like 30 Rock) has a gift at imbuing what seem like shallow caricatures with an inner humanity. She’s introduced as a teacher changing at the back of her classroom into a spangly dress to lead her kids in a rendition of a thematically very inappropriate and slightly gothy song to a group of parents, while winking at what we all assume is her boyfriend, but turns out to be the (married) parent of one of her children, and when he heads off for a holiday with his family, foolishly decides to secretly stalk him. It’s the pure sociopathic stuff of romcoms, but as ever is negotiated largely through having such a likeable lead. Basically, it shouldn’t really work, but it does.

Antoinette dans les Cévennes (Antoinette in the Cévennes aka My Donkey, My Lover & I, 2020)CREDITS
Director/Writer Caroline Vignal (based on the book Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes by Robert Louis Stevenson); Cinematographer Simon Beaufils; Starring Laure Calamy, Benjamin Lavernhe, Olivia Côte; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Tuesday 15 June 2021.

Aline (2020)

I was uncertain about whether to even go to this film in our local French film festival (I’ve barely engaged with Céline Dion’s music, though I greatly enjoyed Carl Wilson’s 33 1/3 book Let’s Talk about Love), but it turned out to be a highlight. It’s bonkers, let’s be clear, it is a gonzo piece of filmmaking, largely due to the writer/director’s casting of herself, starting with playing Dion in childhood (no younger stand-ins for this biopic). It’s also fictionalised, as I can’t imagine Dion ever giving her blessing to a film about her, certainly not this one, but it feels consistent with Dion’s own persona to be this far out. It’s good fun, though I can easily imagine someone hating it as much as I enjoyed it.


There is something self-indulgent about directing and writing a film about a Canadian pop culture icon and then casting yourself as the lead, but I have to applaud it. The move of then having you, a fully middle-aged woman, playing her as a child as well is the stuff of nightmares, but luckily that section only lasts a short while. Given the (lightly fictionalised) biopic nature of this — Aline Dieu is actually a stand-in for Céline Dion, as is clear from the very opening credits — it has a slightly episodic feel to it, as her life and career is rushed through. Nonetheless, it manages to hit all the requisite emotional crescendos, particularly around her large but supportive family (particularly her doting mother and father), her relationship with her much older manager, and her rather quirky looks — a sort of unkempt gawkiness that the actor/director/writer Valérie Lemercier captures well, without quite looking like the original (but that’s fine; it’s fictionalised after all). I’ve come across Dion in a number of pop cultural contexts, and she always comes across as an appealing personality to me, including in this film, so I really should actually engage with her music at some point in my life. In the meantime, for those of you who don’t really know her songs at all (like me), I can say that the film affected me despite that.

Aline (2020)CREDITS
Director Valérie Lemercier; Writers Brigitte Buc and Lemercier; Cinematographer Laurent Dailland; Starring Valérie Lemercier, Sylvain Marcel, Danielle Fichaud; Length 128 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Sunday 20 June 2021.

Sous le ciel d’Alice (Skies of Lebanon, 2020)

Moving on in my week of French Film Festival picks from this year is this quirky and odd drama with more than a hint of slapstick comedy about a relationship set against the outbreak of Lebanon’s civil war in the mid-1970s. It’s as much about the characters as it is about Beirut, I feel, and about the relationship we have to history as those who have been scarred by it.


I feel like a see a lot of very middling dramas in various film festivals, that are competent and about people dealing with stuff but don’t really bring anything particularly new to the screen either formally or in content. This film deals with the past, and it’s really focused on a relationship between two characters — Alba Rohrwacher’s Alice, a Swiss au pair who goes to help out a Lebanese family and for whom the film is named in the original French, and a Lebanese scientist Joseph (Wajdi Mouawad), and the life they have in Beirut together. But it’s also sub rosa about the relationship we have to Beirut’s past, largely lost in a destructive Civil War that started in the mid-70s and against the backdrop of which this plays out. The film is inventive in its formal strategies to depict this sense of displacement, but mounting scenes against a green screen with old photos of Beirut used as the backdrop, or just by occluding certain sights that characters are looking at, or by staging factional fighting using a few characters in masks on what looks like a soundstage, all of which imparts a heightened sense of loss of the past and adds a certain extra melancholy element to the film, which is otherwise rather brightly and quirkily set designed. It doesn’t work in every detail, but its distinctively different from most films set in the past, and Rohrwacher is herself always such an interesting screen presence, that I really liked this film.

Sous le ciel d'Alice (Skies of Lebanon, 2020)CREDITS
Director Chloé Mazlo; Writers Yacine Badday and Mazlo; Cinematographer Hélène Louvart; Starring Alba Rohrwacher, Wajdi Mouawad وجدي معوض; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Saturday 19 June 2021.

Police (Night Shift, 2020)

Like any town with more than a handful of cinemas (though barely more than a handful), there are a range of smaller film festivals being organised to show films that otherwise wouldn’t make it to a big screen, and such is the way in Wellington, where recently there was a French Film Festival. It showed a handful of classics (like Breathless) but most of the programme was dedicated to recent films, and I saw a few so that’s what I’ll be focusing on this week. I’ll start with the latest film de Anne Fontaine, the Luxembourger who’s not my favourite filmmaker but who does solid work.


This film is called Police in the original, but the title is shown reflected from right to left, and that very much cues you up to what to expect: it’s about the police, sure, but… are they the good guys? The title is a bold move, though, given there’s a Pialat film of the same name, and, look, I’ve been guilty in the past of seeing that Anne Fontaine directorial credit and being a bit dismissive, but I’ve never really hated any of her films I’ve seen (even Adore aka Perfect Mothers), and I appreciate her spin on fairly well-worn tropes, even if ultimately it all ends up feeling just a little… off somehow. Still, she’s assembled a fine cast of big names. Efira! Sy! Another couple of guys, who feel pretty honest to their characters, and she’s telling a story of morality intersecting with one’s work. It goes where it goes, and it doesn’t explain everything for the viewer; certain outcomes are hinted at, but there’s no expectation of change and I’m not sure Fontaine is even trying to redeem these guys, just give some perspective. I’m not suddenly, as a result, going to start loving cops as film subjects, but this feels like solid character work.

Police (Night Shift, 2020)CREDITS
Director Anne Fontaine; Writers Claire Barré and Fontaine (based on the novel by Hugo Boris); Cinematographer Yves Angelo; Starring Virginie Efira, Omar Sy, Gregory Gadebois; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Wednesday 16 June 2021.

Criterion Sunday 445: Madame de… (The Earrings of Madame de…, 1953)

It feels a little as if historically this penultimate film by Max Ophüls has been somewhat undervalued due to its focus on jewellery, dancing, grandiose set design and its melodramatic storyline, but of course I think we can all rate it as one of his finest achievements now. Truly, his visual style reaches its apotheosis in his last few films, with the famed sequence of ballroom dances over time to convey the development of a romantic relationship just being one of the great sequences that Ophüls devises for the camera of Christian Matras. It also has an intricate plot construction, with the final movement achieving a certain emotional pitch that feels satisfying even as events unravel for all our major characters. It’s a glorious piece of work.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Max Ophüls; Writers Marcel Achard, Ophüls and Annette Wademant (based on the novel by Louise Lévêque de Vilmorin); Cinematographer Christian Matras; Starring Danielle Darrieux, Charles Boyer, Vittorio De Sica; Length 100 minutes.

Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Sunday 16 July 2000 (earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, May 2000, and most recently on DVD at home, Wellington, Wednesday 30 June 2021).