Wednesday, October 31, 2012


Dario Argento followed up his eerie, beautiful masterpiece Suspiria with something of a sequel, Inferno, which expands on the previous film's mythology about witches and evil forces, focusing on another member of a trio of sinister "mothers" who are spread out across the world. Like its predecessor, though, Inferno is more concerned with atmosphere and a general mood of dread and terror than it is with narrative sense; this film is even less coherent than Suspiria, its plot laughably fragmented and bizarre, placing the emphasis entirely on Argento's typically chilling set pieces, his gorgeous lighting schemes and cinematography.

Inferno never even quite settles on a central protagonist: instead, a number of people begin investigating strange occurrences in both Rome and New York, including Rose (Irene Miracle), her brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey), and Mark's classmate Sara (Eleonora Giorgi). Argento jumps back and forth between multiple potential protagonists, but few of them stick around for long, except for Mark, who's a curiously passive character, plagued by fits and ailments that prevent him from doing much more than stumble aimlessly and ineffectually through the film, following a strange and unsettling trail of clues to the film's fiery climax.

The emphasis here is not on the plot or the disposable characters, but on the beautifully disturbing imagery that Argento (in collaboration with his mentor Mario Bava, who crafted many of the film's optical effects and set designs) applies to the film's series of creepy murders. There's an almost surreal sensibility to the film at times. At one point, as a prelude to a murder, Argento cuts in a never-explained series of shots — a lizard eating a moth, gloved hands cutting the heads off paper cutouts, and a woman being hanged — that suggest the violence to come but are otherwise all but non-sequiturs.

This nonsensical strangeness reaches its apex with a grisly, torturously prolonged sequence late in the film, when a man is attacked by rats at a pond in Central Park, the rats swarming over him and gnawing at him as he splashes about in the water. Argento allows this grisly death scene to stretch out for a long time, until a nearby hot dog vendor suddenly hears the man's screams and goes running towards (and then, magically, across) the pond, seemingly to save the floundering victim — until he pulls out a massive butcher knife and begins hacking at the man's neck instead. It's darkly comic and utterly unexplained, beyond the fact that the malevolent "mothers" can apparently possess and control anything and anyone, from rats to people to the cats that tear apart another of the film's victims.

This was a troubled production for Argento, who fell ill during filming and was not even on-set for some scenes, turning parts of the film over to assistants (apparently including Bava). And yet the film is unmistakeably steeped in the same aesthetic that drove Suspiria, associating death and terror with the distinctive red and blue colored lights that bathe so many of Argento's sets, even when it makes no conceivable sense — when Mark pries up the floorboards of his sister's apartment, he climbs down into a crawlspace that is, unaccountably, lit with that same eerie, striking primary color palette. The film's opening scenes, in which Rose prowls through the dilapidated basement beneath her towering, gothic apartment building, memorably evoke the same slowly accumulating tension as Suspiria, with the wide-eyed heroine stalking through pools of shadow and colored light.

The sequence climaxes with a stunning underwater scene (apparently not even directed by the ailing Argento) in which Rose descends into what looks like a little puddle of water but opens up into an entire underwater room. Like a lot of things about this movie, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense, except as a dreamlike passage from ordinary life into the unsettling other world that lies beyond our own. Something as prosaic as dropping one's keys leads to an eerie encounter with death, and the heroine can step into a puddle and emerge into a submerged chamber, a remnant of another time, offering grim portents of the fate awaiting her if she continues her investigation. The sequence has the slow, dreamy quality of an underwater ballet, the fear and tension of the sequence eroticized by the way the woman's clothes cling wetly to her body, her skirt billowing up around her, her lithe form diving and slashing through the water as the suspense builds and builds. There's an almost fetishistic quality to the scene, which is also embodied in the way that Argento abstractly associates injuries to the hand with impending doom — for no apparent reason, throughout the film, seemingly innocuous hand injuries almost always precede death and terror.

Inferno is a worthy follow-up to Suspiria. It is even more reliant on atmospheric imagery than its predecessor. It's a pure mood piece that's all about its lurid lighting, crisp sound design (including a score, by progressive rock legend Keith Emerson, that builds to operatic prog-metal bombast at the film's climax) and grotesque set pieces. Argento, in these films, is abstracting horror until the silly, hole-ridden plot is irrelevant, and all that matters is the eerie beauty with which the film presents its suspense and its bursts of violence.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Red and the White

Whoever says, with François Truffaut, that there's no such thing as a true anti-war film, has clearly never seen Miklós Jancsó's The Red and the White, a brilliant, harrowing war film that never even remotely falls into the familiar trap of glorifying war in the process of critiquing it. Set in 1919, in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution, the film depicts a series of skirmishes between Hungarian Communists, aiding the Bolsheviks, and the remnants of the Tsarist White Russian troops. These specific politics are hardly relevant to the film, however, because Jancsó seems far more interested in war as an abstract, in the absurdity and wastefulness of war. The film doesn't have a central presence, a protagonist or protagonists who the camera follows through their adventures; Jancsó doesn't even remain with one side or the other, instead fluidly shifting from one potential protagonist to the next, hardly even bothering to keep straight who's on which side as a series of bizarre, almost surreal vignettes create an atmosphere of confusion and pointlessness.

Jancsó's camera tracks smoothly across stark widescreen vistas, its movements suggesting the fluid way in which fortunes are reversed in the chaos of battle. The soldiers on both sides alternately charge and retreat, take prisoners and are taken prisoner, as the camera tracks this way and that. Prisoners are ordered to and fro, ordered to strip, to run, to line up, to line up again somewhere else. Some are killed, some are forced into games of sport, subject to the whims of sadistic commanders, others are stripped and told that they can leave; sometimes they're genuinely set free, and other times supposed freedom just leads into another game, another trap. There's no logic to all this, only the absurd rigor of military discipline, constantly arranging people into abstract groups, regimenting their lives and their deaths. People are picked at random to live or to die, most of them seemingly dying not in the heat of battle — which is rare and brief — but when they're toyed with, in post-battle boredom, by the victors.

Every victory is momentary, too, as Jancsó keeps underlining by constantly shifting from one side to the other. Sometimes the Reds seem to be winning, taking the White soldiers prisoner, but it's seldom long before more Whites will show up to turn the tide of battle yet again. To the people of the countryside, it hardly matters who's ascendant at any given moment, because no matter which side is dominant, the innocent civilians are subject to constant searches and harassment, the women always threatened with rape and assault, their only hope that there will be a stray honorable officer here and there among the troops.

Jancsó captures the fragmentation and absurdity of war in every moment of his film, alternating between long periods of stasis and confused bursts of violence in which it's seldom clear which side is which or who's winning. The countryside in which these battles are taking place seems largely empty, with big open fields dotted with farms and small wooden homes. The wide frame de-emphasizes any individuals: there are very few characters who survive more than a few minutes onscreen, and even when one of the soldiers momentarily steps into the foreground of the frame for an ad-hoc closeup, inevitably he's dead or melted back into the general clamor a few moments later. The closest the film comes to a conventional narrative is when Jancsó lingers for a somewhat longer stretch at a small hospital where a group of nurses shelter some fleeing Communists, refusing to divulge to the White soldiers who's who among the patients. One of the nurses (Tatyana Konyukhova) defiantly tells the commander, "there are no Reds or Whites here, only patients," a bold and rare expression of honor amidst all this vile pointlessness. Another nurse (Krystyna Mikolajewska) entertains a fling with one of the Reds — she doesn't need love, she says, seemingly just hungry for any human, sensual connection — but this brief hint of a conventional wartime romantic narrative is abruptly cut short by the arrival of the Whites, the abortive romance extinguished in the cruelest possible way, with Jancsó's camera remaining at an aloof distance from the violence, capturing the raw emotion of the moment from a slight remove. (Later, the Reds, oblivious to this cruelty, perpetrate a further injustice on the same woman.)

The war's absurdity is memorably captured in a surreal sequence where the Whites round up a group of nurses and bring them to a clearing in a nearby forest. The threat of violence hangs over the scene, but instead of shooting or raping the women, the soldiers bring out a band and order the women to dance together in the clearing, wearing fancy dresses provided by the soldiers, until finally sending them all home unharmed. There's no sense here, only inexplicable events and actions, outlandish expressions of war's total ridiculousness. Towards the end of the film, a group of Red soldiers strip off their uniforms and march, singing, towards a superior force of White soldiers, arrayed like human dominoes in neat rows on the field below. The men below remain static, allowing the charging enemy to pick off some of their number, the dead men falling and leaving gaps in the neat structure of the front line, before finally the surviving dominoes mow down all the approaching soldiers with a barrage of rifle fire. Jancsó observes this pointless exchange of deaths from above, peering down the hill from a distance so that the individual men are nothing but abstract shapes, identified only by the colors of their uniforms, part of a human formation, a human machine in which the individual parts are always expendable.

That shot, in which the opposing formations are clearly visible in relation to one another, is an exception here. Jancsó's framing often accentuates the confusion of war by shooting battle scenes so that the two sides are not in the same frame, and death enters unexpectedly from offscreen. The camera will often focus momentarily on a soldier only to have him suddenly die, with the opposing troops then entering from offscreen, the camera tracking over to accomodate the shift in perspective from one side to the other. There's no logic here, no strategy, and battles are often over as soon as they've begun, with one side being taken by surprise and slaughtered by the other, often while in the middle of the seemingly endless process of sorting out prisoners and enacting punishments and vengeance. The soldiers spend more time with that kind of administration than they do fighting. Both sides are constantly sorting out Hungarians from Russians, trying to identify who belongs to which nationality within the prisoners, but there's no consistency in how the two groups are treated, and the prisoners can't be sure if it's a death sentence to identify as Russian, as Hungarian, or, as often seems to be the case, if it doesn't really matter and they'll all be dying one way or another. In one early scene, the Whites sort out their prisoners in this way and then send the Hungarians home, which prompts one Hungarian who hadn't identified himself — presumably afraid of what it would mean to speak up — to belatedly come forward. By then, the Whites don't care, they tell him it's too late and herd him in with the Russian prisoners, who are then sent off to a cruel game that turns into a manhunt.

There's a clear sense here that these divisions — Red or White, Russian or Hungarian, citizen or soldier — are ultimately arbitrary and meaningless, as everyone is chewed up by the cruel anti-logic of the war. That's what makes The Red and the White such a bold war film, such a powerful statement. It's not tied to any ideology or any particular war, instead depicting the nonsensical wasteland into which war inevitably transforms any landscape, grinding up anyone in its path. The film follows the trail of death and destruction from one man to the next, allowing each man in turn to be the victor and the loser, the tormenter and the victim, the killer and the killed. Only rarely in all this is there any sense of right and wrong, of anyone able to maintain a strong moral center in the face of the absurdity and randomness that is war.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Swimming Pool

The Swimming Pool is an almost stereotypically French, stereotypically 1960s kind of movie. Directed by Jacques Deray, this languid thriller is centered around the titular pool at a Riviera villa where the settled, seemingly happy couple of Jean-Paul (Alain Delon) and Marianne (Romy Schneider) are spending a summer holiday. The film opens with an evocative, lazily sexy atmosphere of sun and water, the couple lounging their tanned bodies by the pool, wrestling poolside and passionately pawing and clawing one another. The film simmers and seethes with sex, Deray's camera sensuously drifting across the naked or near-naked bodies of the stars, capturing the clingy, sticky sensuality of these lazy summer days, their bodies warmed by the sun and sliding through the clear blue reflective water of the pool. The stars are beautiful, the scenery is beautiful, and the film has an almost savage, intense sexuality to it.

In the opening scenes, Marianne steps out of the water, sleek and dripping, and strolls around the pool to stand suggestively over Jean-Paul's reclining form, her legs slightly apart, her feet on either side of her head, so that he's staring up at her crotch. She then lays down with him and climbs on top of him, his hands scratching at her back, their bodies pressed tightly together. There's a desperate sexuality to their relationship, a raw physicality that's even more potently expressed in the somewhat later scene where Jean-Paul strips off Marianne's top and runs a tree branch across her bare skin, first gently and then whipping her with it like a lash, as though he's trying to both turn her on and to punish her, though for what it's not yet clear. When Marianne invites her former lover Harry (Maurice Ronet) and his daughter Penelope (Jane Birkin) to stay at the villa with them, the couple's seemingly happy, fulfilled relationship begins to strain, with Marianne's attraction to Harry rekindling while Jean-Paul finds his eye wandering to the coltish young body of Harry's daughter.

For a while, this simmering sexuality is enough, and the film gets by on the sexiness of its stars and the languidly beautiful imagery of their lazy summer idyll. Eventually, though, the film becomes slack, as lazy as its characters, content to set up this romantic and sexual tension without delving beyond the surface. Once Deray, working from a script co-written with Jean-Claude Carrière, sets up the basic premise of these criss-crossing desires and jealousies, the film stagnates, the tension simmering quietly but never really progressing beyond the charged exchange of glances and suggestive hints of infidelity. Even the violent climax is emotionally flat, and doesn't do nearly enough to shake up the characters.

That said, Deray provides some interest through the formal rigor with which he films this unfortunately static drama. This is a film in which nearly everything that happens can be boiled down to looks, glances, and Deray has a habit of honing in on the staring eyes of his protagonists, the camera slowly tracking in, the cuts drawing connections between one look and another. At one point, Penelope and Jean-Paul have been left alone at the villa while Marianne and Harry went out shopping together. Penelope finds Jean-Paul upstairs and stares nervously at his back, seemingly anticipating his seduction of her, and when he abruptly turns to face her, Deray captures him in closeup, his cool blue eyes taking her in, an unreadable expression on Delon's typically stoical face. At this point, Deray cuts away, not back to Penelope, but to Marianne, staring off into space, briefly distracted from her shopping by something, as though she could feel Jean-Paul's gaze, as though he were looking at her rather than the younger girl. The edit connects them even though they're apart, pairing off with others, starting to drift apart.

In another scene, later in the film, the camera tracks slowly across the couch where Jean-Paul and Penelope are sitting close together, watching a silent comedy on TV, and then begins crossing a gap that separates them from Marianne, sitting apart from them, the camera suddenly jumping and speeding up its movement as it approaches her to signify the disconnect between her and this newly forming couple. Deray also makes good use of window frames, which segment images of Penelope and Marianne in particular, the two women partioned behind glass, divided up by the games of jealousy and conquest that the men, former friends and rivals, seem to be playing here. The pool itself similarly distorts and reflects the action at the villa, creating wavery reflections in which everything is upside-down and elongated.

Deray's chilly, formally precise aesthetic makes for some striking, suggestive compositions, but one is still left with the impression that all this silent staring and affectless introspection doesn't add up to very much in the end. At its best, The Swimming Pool is sexy and sensuous, but its sexiness can only take it so far, and it's very difficult to locate the heart or the brain behind that sexy, fleshy surface.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

City Girl

F.W. Murnau's City Girl is something of a response to and a reconfiguration of the director's earlier Sunrise, returning to that film's theme of the opposition of rural and urban values. Lem (Charles Farrell) is a farmer's son, heading to the big city to make a deal for his family's impending wheat harvest. While he's there, he isn't able to make quite the deal that his stern father (David Torrence) had been counting on, but he does meet the waitress Kate (Mary Duncan), so when he returns to the family farm, it's with a girl from the big city as his new wife. Naturally, this sets up a country/city divide, but not in the expected ways, and Murnau purposefully hints at his earlier film as a way of contrasting it against this one. At the beginning of the film, while Lem is taking the train to the city, he's sized up by a gold-digging woman who takes interest once she notices the wad of bills he's carrying. She's a callback to the vile city vamp of Sunrise, but Murnau swiftly foils her plans; thankfully, this isn't a story about the city girl corrupting the wholesome and innocent country boy, but something much more complex.

In fact, this is a film about love transcending that kind of shallow distinction between city and country. It's also about replacing romantic and artificial notions about rural purity and urban corruption with a more pragmatic and balanced view of humanity as a whole. Kate herself, unhappy in the city, romanticizes the country, looking longingly at posters of a wheat field and a pond with a couple rowing across it — an image that's not nearly as romantic as it seems to her, with Sunrise's iconic and rather grim boat ride in mind. Murnau sets the film up as though it is going to be steeped in romantic pastoralism, in shallow contrasts between city and country. "Give us this day our daily bread," the farmer says as he prepares to eat, and Murnau cuts from him slicing off a large slice of bread from a loaf to a diner in the city, where tiny slices of processed white bread roll off a conveyer belt for a waitress to serve. Lem is also something of a caricatured rural good boy, which is partly what attracts Kate to him in the first place. In a crowded, fast-paced urban restaurant where most of the guys just want to leer at her, Lem stands out as the guy who prays before he eats and writes out postcards expressing his love for his kindly mother (Edith Yorke).

It's when the couple arrives in the country that the trouble starts, though not quite immediately. Their arrival at Lem's family farm is exuberant and kinetic, Murnau's camera tracking along with the couple as they run and twirl through the fields of wheat, pausing to hold and kiss one another, excited and in love. The farmhouse in the distance, its chimney billowing smoke, promises the welcoming comfort of home and hearth. The reality, of course, is not quite as idyllic: Lem's father, with his own received ideas about the differences between city and country, views this woman as an interloper, a bad girl, a vamp who's just using his son in some way.

Once she moves to the country, Kate soon learns that it's not what she thought it would be, and that there's cruelty and nastiness everywhere, that there are even men here just as mean and manipulative as her grabby diner customers, like the harvest foreman Mac (Richard Alexander), who tries to exploit the tension between her and Lem to break them apart. Kate had gone to the country thinking that she'd be escaping the urban grind and the soul-numbing artificiality of the city. In her cramped city apartment, billboards had provided her only window into natural vistas, and she tried to approximate the allure of the natural world with a wind-up mechanical bird kept in a cage, a toy that she then brings with her to the country, where it in turn provides a connection back to the city.

Murnau, even while critiquing simplistic dichotomies between city and country, still captures the moody beauty of the countryside, the lure of the open fields, the sensuous gloom of a dark night with a pale moon hanging low in the sky above the farmhouse. The film's gorgeous imagery is especially mesmerizing during the stunning, incredibly tense climax, in which the family and their hired hands must rush to bring in the harvest before a threatening hailstorm blows in and destroys the crops. While the wind kicks into a frenzy and the men labor outside, the brewing trouble between Lem and Kate comes to a head as Mac stirs up a confrontation with Lem's father. The stormy, foreboding atmosphere constantly threatens to explode in various ways, and the tension builds with the increasingly intense wind outside. Murnau's images are loaded with drama, particularly in the way in which he frames taut two-shots in which the characters' poses are infused with their conflicted emotions. The images of Kate and Lem together, especially, are charged with their new, passionate, but fractured relationship — their postures simultaneously suggest intimacy and disconnection, as though they're both desperately pushing towards each other and pulling away, their intimacy polluted by the differences in their backgrounds and origins.

This is one of Murnau's very best films, a deeply moving and passionate film, a poignant romance that's tested but ultimately strengthened by the film's clearheaded skewering of the idealization that often goes along with such romances.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Lips of Blood

[This piece was previously posted as a guest review at Jeremy Richey's blog Fascination: The Jean Rollin Experience, one of the Internet's very best resources on Rollin.]

Jean Rollin's best films use B-movie horror plots and low-budget production values as portholes into an eerie, unsettling dream world that ultimately has little to do with typical blood-and-gore horror movies. This is especially true of Lips of Blood, one of the director's finest works, and one of his most dreamlike and abstract. The film is a slow, sensuous study of the power of memory and the lure of childhood fantasies, a feverish dream of a film that chronicles a quest that's as much mental as physical.

Frederic (Jean-Loup Philippe) is at a party when he sees a photograph of a ruined castle that triggers a previously suppressed childhood memory or dream. He comes to believe that he's been to this castle as a boy, and that he's forgotten it for some reason; his childhood is a blur to him, and he's long felt disconnected from the stories that his mother (Natalie Perrey) has told him about his forgotten boyhood. The photograph instantly opens a path into his memories, stirring up images of a dreamlike night that he spent in the castle, watched over by a beautiful young girl (Annie Belle) dressed in white. He'd repressed the memories of the castle and the girl, but now that they've entered his mind again, he becomes obsessed, fixated on discovering the castle's whereabouts and trying to locate the girl.

Frederic is haunted by this dreamlike memory, and the film is all about the power that this fixation has over him. At the party at the beginning of the film, he compliments a girl on her perfume, prompting her to pointedly respond, "scents are like memories; the person evaporates but the memory remains." In Frederic's case, the memory too had evaporated for twenty years, but now it's wafted back up into his senses, and he begins seeing the mysterious girl from the castle everywhere. He goes to see a movie — the poster outside is for Rollin's The Nude Vampire, but the theater's actually showing The Shiver of the Vampires, suggesting how intimately connected all these gothic vampire fantasies are — and the girl appears in the theater, beckoning him to follow her. She leads him to a crypt, where Frederic unwittingly releases a quartet of creepy vampire girls (Catherine and Marie-Pierre Castel, Anita Berglund, and Hélène Maguin) who shadow him throughout the rest of the film, continually intervening to rescue him from the mysterious forces that seem intent on stopping him from locating the castle or the girl who dwelled within it.

The film moves at a typically lethargic, dreamlike pace, blending gothic horror imagery — bats and graveyards and vampire girls clad in gauzy robes — with a weird conspiracy thriller vibe. A photographer (Martine Grimaud) who tries to tell Frederic about the castle winds up dead, another woman poses, unconvincingly, as the girl from the castle, and a mysterious assassin tracks Frederic through the night, while the vampires stalk around the fringes of the plot, fading out of the shadows. Rollin's films have often been comparable to the surreal quest narratives of his contemporary Jacques Rivette, with worse acting and more nudity, and nowhere is that comparison more relevant than here. Rollin renders the city as a quiet, nearly unpopulated stage, pools of colored light highlighted in the darkness, shadows cast large and threatening on stone walls as Frederic wanders around the city, searching for answers and chasing phantoms through the streets.

The film feels like a loosely connected series of set pieces, with Frederic's frazzled state of mind creating the sense of disorientation and confusion that dominates his increasingly desperate journey. He begins to doubt his own sanity: the girl from his memory, or his dream, pops into being and blinks out of existence just as suddenly, leading him through the night, eventually guiding him directly to the answer he seeks, the location of the castle from the photo. Meanwhile, the vampires attack and kill random people, baring their uncomfortable-looking fangs and bloodying their mouths on the necks of their victims. At one point, the Castel sisters disguise themselves as nurses in order to rescue Frederic from the mental hospital where he's been locked up by his mother, who seems to know something about all these secrets and mysteries.

Indeed, Frederic's mother provides the obligatory burst of exposition that suddenly explains the story towards the end of the film, setting up the fantastic final act in which Frederic confronts the true nature of his reawakened memories. He's found what he's been searching for, and in the final ten minutes of the film Rollin adopts a tone of lunatic celebration, reveling in the embrace of the supernatural and the bloody. The supernatural is rarely to be feared in Rollin's work. The supernatural is, instead, erotic, alluring, haunting, beautiful, a fixation for Rollin just as the castle becomes for Frederic. There is thus an air of real melancholy in the final act's confrontations between vampires and vampire hunters; Rollin's sympathies are obviously not with the men with their stakes, menacing these girls, but with the vampires themselves, so young and lovely and sensual, retreating in fear before the men. The vampires are the real victims, not to be feared or hated but desired, respected, adored, just as Frederic desires the girl from his memory, who is, of course, also a vampiress, using her power to lure him back to her, to get him to set her free.

Rollin makes the embrace of the supernatural a cause for celebration here, particularly in the ecstatic coda, in which the long-imprisoned vampire relishes her newfound freedom, taking pleasure in the sensuality of nature. Together, Frederic and his vampire love run along the striking, apocalyptic, by now very familiar beach that so often symbolizes the pathway between worlds in Rollin's work. It's here that Frederic embraces his fate and is reborn, and in the finale — at once gloriously silly and wonderfully romantic — the lovers sail off together in a coffin, heading off into a new undead existence together.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Parson's Widow

Comedy is one of the last things one would expect from Carl Theodor Dreyer, but his second feature, The Parson's Widow, is in fact a gentle rural comedy. Of course, it's a comedy as directed by Dreyer, which means that it's a curiously slow and lethargic comedy, a moody and patiently paced tale of sexual frustration, poverty and religion. That is to say, it's not exactly a laugh-a-minute comedy, though its somber pace and austere visual style only makes its occasional bursts of goofy humor all the more bracing and startling.

The film's story is extremely old-fashioned, and must have been even when it was made in 1920. It's rooted in rural values and the power of tradition. The poor young man Söfren (Einar Röd) has traveled to a small village to try out for the position of village parson. He wants the post because then he'll be able to marry his sweetheart Mari (Greta Almroth), but in a cruelly ironic twist, he gets the job only to find out that by local tradition he'll have to marry the elderly widow (Hildur Carlberg) of the previous parson. He marries the old woman, partially tricked into it by drunkeness and, perhaps, an enchanted piece of herring, and passes Mari off as his sister, biding his time for the old woman to die so that he'll be able to marry his lover instead.

Dreyer exploits the scenario for some broad comic set pieces, the tone of which jars against the film's general melancholy. Söfren's attempts to evade the widow and get some time alone with his real beloved are comically satisfying, especially when he continually thinks he's flirting with his lover when actually he's accidentally making loving gestures at the widow's equally ancient servant. Also very funny is the early sequence in which Söfren observes two stuffy rivals who are trying out for the parson's job; he sabotages one of them by sticking a feather on his head so that his preaching inspires only laughter from the parishioners. The strangest moment, though, is the scene where Söfren dresses up as the devil, presumably to scare his elderly bride, wearing a sheet painted with a frightening face, with horns and big flopping ears.

Despite the many comic moments, the overall tone of the film is grim and melancholy. Dreyer portrays the widow mostly as a foreboding, exaggeratedly dour presence, her face heavily lined, her mouth permanently twisted into a scowl, captured in numerous closeups of her looking disapprovingly at her unhappy husband. Towards the end of the film, though, the treatment of the widow abruptly shifts to a much more sentimental depiction, pretty much without warning: at one moment Dreyer portrays her as a witch and a harridan, and the next he's suddenly treating her much more warmly, fleshing out the tragic details of her past and making her a much more sympathetic character. The shift to sentimental romanticism is clumsily handled, perhaps, but it makes the film's ending movingly poetic, unexpectedly exploring the pathos of the widow's situation rather than just using her attachment to Söfren as a source of comic relief.

At its best, The Parson's Widow is a tribute to rural tradition, capturing the feel of this small and tight-knit community where old ways are still dominant and life paths are decided by customs passed down through the generations. Dreyer shot on location in the countryside, and this lends the film a grounded, clear-eyed realism, with ascetically beautiful natural landscapes, billowing waterfalls, fields of waving grassy stalks. The locals dance and celebrate, and Dreyer shows real affection for these rural rituals, rooted as they are in ancient traditions and made necessary by poverty and limited means. This is an interesting early film from the future master, a comedy that neatly balances its humor with the darker emotions at its core.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Le Doulos

Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Doulos is a bleak, twisty crime film in which no one is what they seem to be, and loyalty and friendship can never be taken for granted. Moody and brilliantly shot, it's a powerful examination of betrayal and the twisted concept of honor among thieves. Style is everything for Melville: his crooks and criminals prowl around and scheme against one another in a perpetually foggy, dimly lit night that seldom gives way to day or sunlight. Men in trenchcoats and fedoras stalk through the shadows, visible only as silhouettes through windows, staring at their fragmented reflections in mirrors as cracked as their souls. Pistol shots sound as loud bangs in the night, and the bodies pile up as these criminals kill one another in the name of revenge, greed, friendship, and a warped concept of justice.

Maurice (Serge Reggiani) has just been released from prison, but he's already getting tangled up again with his old associates and his familiar criminal schemes. He's tying up loose ends, exacting revenge on a former friend in the opening scenes and then planning his next heist. When his plan goes wrong, he blames his friend Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo), who everyone has always said was a snitch and an informer, so it shouldn't have been any surprise to Maurice if his friend turned on him. It's expected, so much so that it almost seems as though Maurice wants the job to go badly, wants to get caught or killed by the cops: he's repeatedly told that he's going to be informed on, and he suspects that it's all "too easy" and could be a trap like the job that sent him to prison years ago, and yet he does the job anyway. There's a sense of fatalism in Maurice, a resignation to things going bad, and he's not the least bit surprised when he sees the cops closing in on him just minutes into this job.

Things aren't always what they seem to be, however, and after this point Melville centers the narrative on the supposed snitch Silien, who's involved in a complicated and twisty scheme, the final purpose of which is anything but clear. Melville methodically, rigorously lays out Silien's plans and actions, watching as he seems to be playing everyone against one another, juggling multiple plots and pointing various players from among both the police and the criminals at one another. Throughout it all, his motivations remain cloudy, which is what makes the film so compelling and ambiguous. Is he helping a friend? Is he maneuvering to make a big score for himself? Is he aiding the cops or simply manipulating them into position for whatever his larger plan is? Melville, through Silien, finally lays it all out in a series of explanatory flashbacks towards the end of the film, and the narrative puzzle falls into place with the satisfying click of a well-constructed mystery.

What's interesting is that the mystery here is not a whodunnit but a whydunnit: everything that happens is utterly clear, though a few missing scenes are slotted in by the flashbacks at the end. What's up for dispute, for the most part, is motivation, the unseen thought processes behind the mysterious actions of this ambiguous antihero. It's a mystery of the mind, focusing on the ephemeral nature of loyalty and friendship: there's no way of knowing what's going on in the minds of those who claim to be friends, no way of knowing who's plotting betrayal and who's genuine. This is especially true for these underworld figures, who can trust no one, and for whom lifelong friendships often end in bloody murder — as evidenced, of course, by the opening scenes, in which it seems as though Maurice is betraying his own friend. Of course, nothing is as it seems here, and even that seemingly straightforward action is complicated by certain revelations later in the film.

Melville's high-contrast noir-influenced style adds to this sense of instability and shadowy motivations. Killers are always lurking in the shadows, holding pistols, their faces obscured beneath the brims of their omnipresent fedoras. The streets seem to be empty of anyone other than cops and criminals, which may be why there are never any witnesses to the film's many crimes, only people who say they saw someone, a vague silhouette perhaps, their accounts never lining up to the reality. As a result, the cops have to count on informers, as one detective complains during the stunning sequence where he pumps Silien for information, a scene that Melville stages in a single nearly ten-minute take, the camera restlessly circling the room as cop and criminal try to outmaneuver one another.

This is a man's world that Melville is documenting here. The women, like Maurice's girl Thérèse (Monique Hennessy) and Silien's girl Fabienne (Fabienne Dali), are simply used and abused by the men, manipulated as pawns in these games of betrayal and scheming. Though Silien is planning to run off with Fabienne, to get out of this criminal life and live a quiet life with her, everything he does is centered around Maurice; it's for the sake of masculine friendship, not love, that he does everything he does. Le Doulos is a stylish, compelling noir in which those bonds of male friendship are repeatedly strained, tested, and interrogated.

Monday, October 15, 2012

A Matter of Life and Death

A Matter of Life and Death is an utterly charming fantasy of mortality and the afterlife, as well as a cross-Atlantic romance that considers the essence of Britishness as juxtaposed with and contrasted against the essence of Americanness. This collaboration between Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the Archers, is a moving, inventive surrealist love story that, as the introductory voiceover announces, has its feet firmly in two worlds, poised between life and death. Set during World War II, the film concerns a mistake on the balance sheets of Heaven, involving the RAF pilot Peter Carter (David Niven), whose plane is destroyed and his parachute shredded, his crew ejecting at his orders, leaving him behind to bail out without a chute, seemingly to certain death.

The opening scenes, in which Peter shares his presumptive last words over the radio with the American dispatcher June (Kim Hunter), are remarkable and affecting, with Powell and Pressburger cutting back and forth between the faces of June and Peter as they bond in the final moments before the pilot bails out. June, bathed in shadows and red light, tries to keep from breaking up as she realizes what's happening, her voice thick with emotion. On the other end of the line, Peter's face is lit by the glow of the flames consuming his plane, his face black with grease, but his bravado unaffected, his face illuminated by a charming grin. Their words fly back and forth in a rapid patter, Peter displaying an unflappable grace under pressure, a willingness to go his death with a smile on his face and a few flirtatious words going out over the wire to the American girl. This scene sets the tone for the whole picture, establishing a cavalier, flippant attitude towards the end, a stiff-upper-lip bravery that doesn't allow for any tears, any sadness, not from Peter at least, who prepares for his presumably fatal leap without the least bit of sentiment. Those moodily lit, sensuous closeups connect these two people at a crucial moment, and the unforgettable effect of this scene lingers over the entirety of the film.

Peter makes his leap into the choppy ocean below, but as it turns out, he doesn't die: the heavenly conductor (Marius Goring) meant to usher him into the afterlife loses him in the thick British fog, and Peter washes up on shore, briefly believing that he's actually dead, that he's woken up on a heavenly shore. Instead, he's washed up near the country house where June is staying, and they meet for the first time, instantly falling in love, their emotions primed by their deeply affecting radio contact. This creates something of a problem when the conductor finally tracks Peter down, since now Peter, who had been prepared to go to his death with a quip and a smile just hours before, has something to tie him to Earth, something to live for. Peter, suffering from headaches and other signs of a concussion, struggles in two worlds, facing an appeal for his life in a heavenly court as well as preparing for a brain operation under the worldly care of Dr. Frank Reeves (Roger Livesey).

The film alternates between these two worlds, with the earthly scenes shot in sumptuous, brightly colored Technicolor and the surreal heavenly scenes in stark, plain black-and-white, which has the effect of rendering the real world vivid and sensuous, while Heaven has a no-nonsense logic to its management of souls — there's even a massive data center, managed by angelic clerks, with files on the living and the dead. Jack Cardiff's cinematography is gorgeous throughout, and the transitions between realms are handled with slow fades, color slowing returning to the world of the living as Peter funnels from life into the land of the dead and then back again. The imagery consistently reflects the ideas of two worlds that can interact. Dr. Reeves even has a camera obscura, a glowing oval in the darkness that he pans across the village as though watching a movie, gazing down from a heavenly perspective, providing a running commentary on everything he sees. When he opens his doors to let June in, the oval goes blank and a yellow light is cast over the room; light, as always in Powell and Pressburger's films, is used like paint.

At the crux of the film is the "special relationship" between America and Britain, one-time enemies who had become allies, an alliance particularly tested during the war that had just ended when this film was released. Powell and Pressburger don't miss an opportunity to tweak the cultural connections and differences between the two countries, as in the scene where a group of American servicemen with thick New York accents act out Shakespeare's A Midsummer's Night Dream, getting into their parts despite the accent disconnect. Peter's trial becomes a British versus American conflict, as his prosecutor is Abraham Farlan (Raymond Massey), the first American killed by the British during the American revolution. Hilariously, Farlan holds up a sleepy-sounding British cricket announcer as evidence of British cultural bankruptcy, while Reeves, acting as Peter's defense, counters with American jazz to demonstrate how out-of-touch Farlan is with what's currently happening in the world, and to show that the two countries are simply speaking different languages, culturally speaking, though they're unified in other ways. Reeves chooses a jury made up entirely of Americans, which turns out to be embodied as a series of stereotypes, demonstrating the melting pot of American culture. And the push/pull nature of American/British relations is encapsulated in the small touches too, like the way that, after Reeves cites the possibility of a British serviceman falling in love with an American girl, an American GI in the audience looks over at the rows of British nurses nearby and wistfully adds, "or vice versa." The film pokes fun at various cultural stereotypes — the lugubriousness of the British radio announcer, the gangster-type mannerisms of the Americans reciting Shakespeare, the series of multicultural clichés on the jury — in order to suggest that cultural differences and historical grievances can be set aside, both for the sake of true love, and on a larger scale in forming new national alliances that draw together countries that had started out being at odds with one another.

This is an utterly charming, whimsical film that's also infused with the complex emotions of a romance that's on the verge of being torn apart from the moment it begins. The film's melancholy, sumptuous beauty is perhaps best embodied in the poetic image of one of June's tears, preserved as a ripe dew-drop on the petal of a flower as prospective evidence in Peter's heavenly trial. Powell and Pressburger expertly weave this kind of sentiment together with the film's occasionally goofy comedic sensibility and the fantasy aesthetic of the Heaven sequences. The result is a bittersweet comedy with an overriding feeling of impending loss balancing its charm and its humor.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Bicycle Thieves

Bicycle Thieves is a deserved classic of the Italian neorealist movement. Made just a few years after World War II, Vittorio De Sica's melancholy masterpiece starkly captures the poverty and desperation of the post-war years. The film is all about the lack of jobs and money that afflicted so many working class families during the long, slow years of post-war recovery, with Europe in ruins, its economy struggling to rebuild and leaving many people floundering. Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) is one of these struggling men, out of work and unable to provide for his wife Maria (Lianelli Carell), their son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) and a baby. When he does stumble into a job, it comes with the caveat that he needs a bicycle, and he pawned his bicycle long before to get food for his family. He buys the bike back and is excited to finally be working again, but on his first day on the job, the bike is stolen and his hopes are dashed.

De Sica quickly establishes just how vital this bicycle is to this family's future, to Antonio's ability to provide for his family. The bicycle, which had been hocked to pay for food, is bought back by selling the sheets off their bed; every one of their meager possessions can potentially be traded to feed the family. A job is a near-miraculous stroke of luck, since the work is handed out by lottery with just a few jobs randomly distributed among eager crowds of men waiting for their chance to work.

Since the bicycle is necessary for this job, it is absolutely essential to the family, and De Sica creates nearly overwhelming tension in the scenes after they've retrieved the bike, simply by tracking and zooming so that the bicycle inches out of the frame, its form cut off as the camera moves. Every time the bike is out of view, one expects it to vanish for good, that the next time the camera tracks back to where it was, it will be gone. It's unnerving, this subtle formal play with the boundaries of the frame, because the bike has become a symbol of the family's economic stability, and its absence from the frame provokes an almost unbearable tension, particularly when Antonio leaves it sitting against a building, guarded only by some kids playing in the street, and walks inside. When Antonio comes back out again, De Sica frames the shot of him descending the stairs tightly, so that it seems as though the bike is no longer sitting in the doorway where he'd left it, until the camera pulls back a little and the frame expands so that the bike's handlebars poke into the shot at the bottom edge.

When the bike is stolen later, Antonio and Bruno head out into the city in a nearly hopeless attempt to find it. De Sica uses this very simple story, this desperate search for the bicycle, as a way of exploring the poverty and desperation of working class families in Italy. The film's cinematography is stark and bleak, suggesting the dreary existence of these people, most of whom have no steady work, no security or stability. De Sica frequently places Antonio and Bruno in long shots where they blend into the crowds in open-air markets or on streets crowded with laborers riding bikes to work. There's nothing exceptional about their lives, they don't stand out, and their search for the bicycle is no different from the desperation experienced by so many other families. In some ways, they're not even the worst off, as evidenced by the scene in which Antonio pursues an old man (who he thinks knows the thief) into a religious shelter for the extremely poor, where the mostly old residents are locked inside to attend mass before they can get some free soup.

De Sica's compositions are bleakly realistic, but they're also formally rigorous, with a striking sense of framing that's especially obvious in the way he explores the widening divide between father and son as they search together for the stolen bike. Bruno frequently trails behind his father, ignored as Antonio remains focused solely on the search. The irony is that he needs the bicycle, and the job, so much because they will allow him to provide for his family, but in his singleminded obsession with the search he loses track of his son again and again. In De Sica's wide shots, the boy is often separated from Antonio by a broad gulf of empty space, Bruno falling in the rainy gutter or nearly getting run over by traffic without his father seeing a thing. The desperation and poverty of their situation is creating this disconnection between them, making the father/son relationship secondary to the necessities of struggling for food and shelter and money.

That fractured paternal relationship is the film's real tragedy. Bruno is the film's most sentimental, moving figure, and the film's only source of sporadic comic relief, as when he opens up a confessional's curtain and gets smacked on the head by the angry priest inside. Just as often, though, his innocent face is clouded with melancholy, as in the heartbreaking scene where his father takes him to a restaurant and he looks jealously at an upper-class boy whose family is eagerly eating many dishes and courses, while Bruno feels guilty about wasting their scant money on a small order of bread with cheese. His touching, naturalistic performance is especially startling since Staiola, like the rest of the cast, was an amateur who had never appeared in a movie before. Bracing, beautiful, and almost unbearably sad, Bicycle Thieves is a moving portrait of the desperate, narrowly focused struggle that life is reduced to when abject poverty is so omnipresent and so difficult to escape.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Sex Is Comedy

In Sex Is Comedy, Catherine Breillat lays bare the essence of her cinema in an especially direct way, making a metafictional, quasi-autobiographical film about a director making a film. Jeanne (Anne Parillaud) is a director very much like Breillat, a director whose work deals candidly with the antagonistic, push/pull, love/hate nature of male/female dynamics. Her latest film builds up to a scene of a young girl losing her virginity, but to capture onscreen the complicated emotions of this moment, she must overcome the resistance of her unreliable actors, who are never named but only called, somewhat pompously, the Actor (Grégoire Colin) and the Actress (Roxane Mesquida). As with much of Breillat's work, it's all too obvious that she's laying out a thesis and singlemindedly setting out to prove it.

It should come as no surprise to anyone who's seen the director's other films precisely what that thesis is. For Breillat, sex is a power struggle, love is a power struggle, virtually any relationship between a man and a woman can be boiled down to a power struggle. It's all a vicious game, which is why sex is comedy, although "sex is tragedy" would be equally apt. Jeanne, standing in for Breillat, stages love scenes like a war, and the behind-the-scenes glimpses this film provides into Breillat's working methods — the film is supposedly based particularly on her experiences while making Fat Girl — are fascinating. She's constantly looking for tension, for anxiety, arranging the actors into uncomfortable postures, the girl's elbow digging into the guy's ribs, or the girl putting her arm around his neck in a pose that's more like a wrestling headlock than an embrace. Jeanne is alternately tyrannical and tender on the set, and she has almost intimate, sexually suggestive relationships with both the actor and her assistant Léo (Ashley Wanninger), mirroring the relationship in the film she's making.

Unsurprisingly, Breillat finds, on the set, a neat parallel for romantic relationships in the power struggle between actor and director, each of them pushing at and pulling on one another by turns, fighting for control and dominance, arguing over every petty detail, like whether the actor will take his socks off or not for one scene. She recreates, with him, precisely the uncertain, will-she-or-won't-she vibe that she's trying to capture onscreen, and it's unclear if this relationship with the actor is "real" or simply a game, a way of getting the performance she wants out of him by keeping him destabilized even between takes.

That's one constant thread running through the film, a suggestion that this film's portrayal of faked intimacy between actors can be seen as a parallel for the games and power struggles that also go on in real relationships. The film's title encourages the comparison: sex is comedy, not only on a film set, but in the real world as well, where these same struggles and masquerades and fakeries go on without being acknowledged as explicitly as they are here.

Much of the film is dedicated to constant introspective meta dialogues, with everyone debating the nature of acting, the struggles of translating one's vision into cinema, the difficulties of filmmaking. It often feels as though Breillat is giving an interview, speaking through her characters about her own filmmaking process and her own ideas. It's interminably interesting and frustrating, and it exists mainly as a commentary on Breillat's other films, to the point where it's difficult to separate it from the rest of her oeuvre. It's a film where a director employs sexual manipulation in order to convey sexual manipulation onscreen, a tricky paradox that might just signify Breillat addressing or acknowledging the critics who have accused her of making exploitation films.

It all builds up to the moment when the actors finally perform their big love scene, and after some false starts they infuse the scene with genuine, harrowing emotion, particularly Mesquida, who's shivering and spasming and crying as Colin coaxes her character into letting him take her from behind. The scene is intense and shattering, though it doesn't even remotely capture the conflicted, complex layers of desire and reluctance that Jeanne had claimed to want from the scene — instead, typically of Breillat, the sex just looks unpleasant, like a rape or a near-rape, forced upon the unwilling girl by the insistence of the guy. It's strange that Jeanne is so insistent that girls both desire sex and are scared of, but all that comes across, here as in many of Breillat's films, is the fear, the pain, the unpleasantness, and none of the supposed desire. (One of the reasons that Breillat's more recent fairy tale films have been her best work yet is that they do embody the contradictory dichotomy that's only given lip service here.)

When the scene is over, the actress is still sobbing, and Jeanne, her own eyes red and her face overcome with emotion, embraces her and comforts her. The extra level comes from the awareness that Mesquida is playing an actress overcome by her part, leaving one to wonder how much of this is genuine, how much acted, and how closely the film within a film mirrors the film that Breillat actually made. In any event, it's a complex ending to a film that is otherwise only intermittently engaging for much of its length, even if it does add some crucial context to an understanding of Breillat's work.

Monday, October 8, 2012


Joon-ho Bong's Mother is an extraordinary character study of a woman who will do anything for her son, a film that's full of surprises, narratively and tonally, and yet always remains rooted in its intense study of the titular mother (Hye-ja Kim) and her mentally handicapped son Do-joon (Bin Won). As with Bong's previous film, The Host, Mother skillfully balances multiple tones, shifting seamlessly from oddball comedy to melodrama to mystery to a rather strange kind of psychological thriller. The shifting tones and the instability of the narrative — much of which is built around Do-joon's unreliable memory — contribute to the sense that anything can happen at any moment, that the film is constantly in a state of flux, even as it revolves unceasingly around the warped mother/son relationship at its center.

The film's brilliant opening credit sequence establishes this sense of disorientation almost immediately. The film's first image is the mother walking slowly across a large field of wheat, looking downtrodden until she climbs up a hill to approach the camera, at which point she begins swaying rhythmically and dancing, languidly and deliberately, theatrically smiling and then covering her grin with her hand. This remarkable sequence, already jarring and oddly funny, is followed by a dramatic, foreboding image of this woman bathed in shadow, staring down the camera as the film's title appears onscreen. Already, Bong seems to be announcing that this will be an unconventional film, as unattached to any single genre as Bong's ostensible monster movie The Host was.

The film's drama emerges when the amiable, slow-witted Do-joon is accused of the murder of a schoolgirl after a drunken night when he followed the girl to an abandoned house, where she was found dead the next morning. Do-joon is a somewhat goofy, innocent soul who's constantly led into trouble by his friend Jin-tae (Ku Jin). At the beginning of the film, these two chase down a group of rich professors driving a Mercedes Benz that nearly hits Do-joon and his dog. Do-joon and Jin-tae chase the car to a golf course, where they hilariously get their revenge, with Jin-tae kicking off one of the car's rearview mirrors and Do-joon flying through the air in a failed martial arts move, crashing into the pavement without connecting with the car at all. The confrontation then degenerates into a comical, absurd wrestling match in a sand trap.

The film's tone shifts once Do-joon is arrested, as he signs a confession under pressure from the police, seemingly not even fully understanding what he's signing. His mother hires a high-priced lawyer who probably costs more than she can really afford, but the lawyer, who says he's so busy that he never sits down, never seems to have much interest in Do-joon or his mother. In one hilarious sequence, he summons the mother for a conference and delivers his recommendation at a bar, surrounded by his two passed-out friends and the giggling prostitutes they've hired, who clap politely as the lawyer delivers his advice to his client. Bong continually offers up these tonally destabilizing moments that undercut the drama of the situation with bizarre comedic asides.

He also ventures at times into an eerie murder mystery as Do-joon's mother investigates the crime, since the police have closed the case after arresting her son. To aid in her investigative efforts, she enlists Jin-tae, who at times comes across as a creepy suspect himself, particularly in a tense sequence where the mother hides in Jin-tae's closet, believing that she's found evidence that he was the killer, having to sneak out of his house while he's asleep. Bong enhances the tension by emphasizing the obstacle course of trash that the mother has to gingerly step around as she sneaks out, finally knocking over a bottle of water. Bong then cuts to a taut closeup of Jin-tae's fingers dangling close to the floor, the puddle of water slowly spreading towards his hand. Even after he's seemingly exonerated as the killer, Jin-tae maintains a creepy edge, as he becomes a bad cop to the mother's good cop, tracking down kids who knew the murdered girl and beating evidence out of them, culminating in a grisly sequence in which he traps one kid in a disused ferris wheel and kicks his teeth out.

The film's uneasy tonal balance is further disrupted by the fact that, the more the mother investigates and prods at Do-joon's memory, the more unsettling facts come to life, particularly about the relationship between mother and son. Even before Do-joon's arrest, there were intimations of a strange codependency between them; they slept together in the same bed every night, and when Do-joon stumbles in drunk late one night, he collapses onto the bed and instinctively, casually cups his hand on his mother's breast as he stretches out next to her wearing only his boxers. Eventually, even more troubling revelations come to light about their past, revealing just how twisted this woman is, revealing that there's something deeply warped in her affection and protectiveness for her son.

The film's harrowing, powerful final act goes even further, taking a mother's willingness to do anything for her son to its extreme. The film's unsettlingly cheery conclusion, in which the mother takes a "thank you mothers" bus ride given to her as a gift by Do-joon, builds on the film's theme of memory. The mother, who practices acupuncture illegally, says that she knows of a special pressure point on the thigh that eases the pain of memories, allowing one to forget about the past and move on. Much of the movie rests on her trying to get Do-joon to remember, to recall details about the night of the murder that might help prove his innocence, but in the end she decides that she doesn't want all these memories stirred to the surface after all, that it's better to forget, to ease the pain with a needle and then carry on as though nothing has happened. In the film's final image, she performs this procedure and, putting her pain behind her, she stands up with the other loving mothers on the bus and begins dancing, echoing the opening credits sequence, in an image that is at once ecstatic — with the sun shining through the bus' dirty windows, flaring at the camera — and bittersweet, since it represents the triumph of repression, denial, violence and lies.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Man Who Loved Women

François Truffaut's The Man Who Loved Women is a retrospective look at the life and many affairs of an unrepetant womanizer, a man who can't resist chasing after one woman after another, never settling for any one woman for very long. But Truffaut's film, unfortunately, is nearly as shallow as its protagonist, Bertrand Morane (Charles Denner), who flits around after all these women, waxing poetic about their charms, the beauty of their bodies, and making his pursuit of them seem like an art, an expression of his philosophy about the world. Bertrand pours that philosophy out into the pages of the book he's writing, and it's around that book that Truffaut structures the film, relating anecdotes from Bertrand's past through the stories he writes in his lightly fictionalized novel.

This is, despite its potentially lurid subject matter, a curiously flat and dry affair, simply relating one interchangeable affair after another, as Bertrand serially seduces women he meets at random and women who he goes through elaborate machinations to encounter. As a comedy, it's not especially humorous, and as a character portrait it skates along the surface except for a few moments when the script (by Truffaut, Michel Fermaud and Suzanne Schiffman) delves into Bertrand's psychology only to come up with some trite rationalizations for his behavior. It's hard to know what's more disappointing, the fact that the film spends most of its time observing this man's surface presentation of himself, or the fact that when it does dig deeper, it comes up with only clichéd mommy issues and a failed romance that seemingly set him upon his current path.

Truffaut spends much of the film on the surface of Bertrand's life, but these glimpses into his formative experiences suggest a very simplistic psychology at the core of the film. Bertrand is copying the behaviors of his mother (Marie-Jeanne Montfajon), who was a promiscuous lover who didn't want a child to change her life, so she simply ignored her son as much as she possibly could. So Bertrand's desire to "collect" women is both an imitation of his mother and a kneejerk response to her neglect, causing him to be desperate for women's affection and attention. Or else Bertrand was deeply wounded by Véra (Leslie Caron), who appears late in the film, when it had seemed like Bertrand was incapable of a truly substantial relationship with a woman, to describe a time when he did have what could have been a real, significant love if he hadn't screwed it up. Both of these possibilities are floated as possible psychological explanations for Bertrand's attitude towards women, which reduces this character to little more than a collection of well-worn clichés.

At one point, Truffaut seems to anticipate the potential criticisms of his film and tries to duck around them with a scene where Bertrand sends his manuscript to some publishers. At a meeting regarding the manuscript at one of these publishing houses, none of the readers like the book except for Geneviève (Brigitte Fossey), who defends Bertrand's book against the criticisms of the others. Most of the critics' complaints about the book could just as easily apply to Truffaut's film — that its protagonist is too self-aggrandizing, that the psychology of it is uninteresting — but Geneviève deftly overturns their objections, thus defending the film as well, making these seem like both a preemptive defense and a self-congratulatory assertion of the film's success. She claims that Bertrand's story is simply full of "the contradictions of life," that the writer is actually self-aware about his own womanizing, which he is to some extent, but the implication that Truffaut's film is so dramatically unsatisfying because it's about reality is hard to take. This isn't reality but a flat, overly literary bundle of character types and shallow characterization.

There are, nevertheless, some nice moments here, scenes and performances that hint at a potentially more satisfying movie that Truffaut could have made. Denner's performance as the titular womanizer is mostly fine, projecting some of the charm and elegance that make this otherwise unremarkable-looking man so irresistible to so many women. But it's the women who really shine, and it's to Truffaut's credit that he populates the film with so many lively, winning performances from women, so that Bertrand's conquests become as much a tribute to the loveliness and appeal of all these actresses as they are a more general poem to the lure of women. Especially compelling is Nathalie Baye as a woman who Bertrand goes to great lengths to meet, only to find out that she's not the woman he thought she was. Baye's appearance, towards the beginning of the film, provides a tantalizing glimpse of a path not taken for Bertrand. Once he finds out that she's not actually the woman he'd glimpsed on the street one day and tracked down so relentlessly, he leaves, but Baye's shy smiles and straightforward manner make her a compelling presence, lingering past Bertrand's loss of interest, implicitly condemning his shallow fixations.

Many of the film's other women are equally compelling — Nelly Borgeaud as an unhappy housewife who gets off on danger, Valérie Bonnier as a girlfriend who eventually decides she needs more from a relationship than the cool Bertrand can offer — but by necessity none of these characters stick around very long or are developed beyond a few scenes. Truffaut's film ultimately just provides a mirror for Bertrand's life: shallow, self-absorbed, displaying a stereotypical masculinity and flitting from one moment to the next without ever spending too long with any one person or thinking too hard about the meaning of it all.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012


Claude Chabrol's Betty is a devastating, moving, extraordinarily acted portrait of a lost soul whose drinking and sexual promiscuity isolate her from the bourgeois family she's married into, and from which she's eventually ejected entirely. Based on a novel by Georges Simenon, the film is a deeply affecting study of addiction and disconnection. Marie Trintignant delivers an astonishing performance as the title character, exploring the confusion, depression, and fragility of this aimless young woman — as well as the undercurrent of emotional coldness and cruelty that perhaps lies beneath her surface frailty.

The film opens with a sequence that suggests a familiar Chabrol thriller in the offing. Betty is picked up by a twitchy, increasingly creepy man who claims he's a doctor, and goes with him to a club called Le Trou, a reference perhaps to the Jacques Becker classic as well as an indication that the people inhabiting this bar have reached the bottom, that they've sunk so low they're underground and desperately trying to tunnel out. As Betty swigs glass after glass of whiskey, the doctor begins exhibiting increasingly disturbing signs that he's no more stable than the woman he picked up. His patter becomes chilling, even vaguely threatening, as he talks about dead animals and gets noticeably sweaty, not that Betty, immersed in her drinks, seems to care about her companion's unhinged demeanor. The scene seems to be building to an apex of sinister violence, particularly when the doctor, his sweaty visage framed in profile against the cool blue of a fish tank in the background, tells Betty that she has worms underneath her skin, and that he'll dig them out for her with a needle he keeps handy.

Chabrol is offering up a red herring here, setting up what seems to be a thriller of predation and violence, when in fact this is a very different kind of movie, and the encounter with the doctor is soon defused by the arrival of the kindly bar owner Mario (Jean-François Garreaud) and his lover, Laure (Stéphane Audran), who explains that the doctor is a drug addict. Far from being a violent thriller, this is a quietly intense character study, an intimate portrait of a woman who, like everyone else in Le Trou, has sunk to her seeming low point, fallen as far as she can.

Betty is taken in by Laure, a woman of the upper-class who's rejected society after the death of her husband, retreating to a nice but isolated hotel and making nightly visits to Le Trou. As Laure helps Betty to recover from her desolation, Betty's story is doled out in fits and starts via flashbacks. She'd been married to Guy (Yves Lambrecht), the youngest son of a wealthy and prestigious bourgeois family, until Guy and his domineering mother (Christiane Minazzoli) had walked in on Betty having sex with one of the many lovers she'd taken to distract herself from a numbing, alienating existence. Betty was sleepwalking through life, and Chabrol, of course, is excellent at portraying the deadening effect of bourgeois home life. Betty felt detached even from her two daughters, who were so well-cared-for by a hired nurse that Betty was superfluous, a stranger to her own children, basically only interacting with them to give them a good-night kiss. She had a seemingly ideal life, on paper at least, but it never truly felt like her life, which is why she secretly drinks and arranges her constant affairs. When she gets caught, it seems like she wants to get caught, that she's secretly setting herself up for a confrontation, for something to shake her out of this dreadful nothingness.

Trintignant is exceptional here, plumbing the depths of this woman's misery and seemingly irresistible urge towards self-destruction. One of her lovers, a medical student (Thomas Chabrol) who loves to psychoanalyze her, asks her, "you know your problem?" Betty abruptly becomes serious, intent, flatly answering, "no, tell me," her desperate need to understand herself showing through what had otherwise been a somewhat casual conversation. The way she says it, it's obvious that she really wants to understand herself and her "problem," to pick apart why she is the way she is, even if this pretentious young man with his rote recitations of Freudian subtext doesn't actually have any of the answers. It's a small moment, the nuances of Trintignant's performance embodied in every little line like this, always communicating the submerged intensity of this sad woman.

Audran, in her last role in a Chabrol film, is equally remarkable, as a woman who is in her way every bit as damaged as Betty is, but has managed to recover, to carve out a small and comfortable life for herself as a balm for her loss and sadness. She is a glimpse of a possible future for Betty, and perhaps Betty herself also sees it, because in the film's devastating and unexpected finale, Betty, selfishly rejecting the possibility of growth or true healing, simply grasps for what her friend has and takes it. Betty, beneath her hurt and her victimhood, has a cold and calculating side to her as well, a darkness that prevents her from seeing a less destructive route out of her rut. The coda, which chronicles the minimal effect of all this emotion and self-destructiveness on the chilly, perpetually polite world of the bourgeois — the world that both Laure and Betty had fled for different reasons — adds a final ironic twist to the film's bleak picture. It's a powerful and intense film that is unsparing in its depiction of the central character's weaknesses, as well as her surprising and cruel strengths.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Deep Red

Dario Argento's Deep Red is the predecessor of the director's unsettling Suspiria, sharing with that film a bright, colorful aesthetic, here with a particular emphasis on the red of the title. At times meandering and oddly paced — after a riveting opening, the film wanders aimlessly for quite a bit of its length — Deep Red is nevertheless dotted with enough striking, brilliantly composed images and chilling set pieces to make it compelling and often creepy.

Certainly, the film starts incredibly strong, doling out a few mysterious images — like a child's stockinged feet approaching a bloody knife on Christmas morning — during the credits, establishing the primal scene of violence that will drive the rest of the film. The film's best sequence is the extended opening featuring the psychic Helga (Macha Meril), who, during a demonstration of her powers, is suddenly assaulted by violent thoughts from someone in the audience. Argento stages this stunning sequence on a dramatic stage decorated with red-on-red: the dais at which the psychic sits is draped in a red cloth, and the curtains behind her are also red, so that she's surrounded by bright, bloody red as she writhes and cries out, overcome by the darkness and malevolence she unexpectedly finds drifting into her mind from somebody in the audience.

Argento's camera, taking on the point-of-view of this mysterious evil presence, shakes and jitters as the killer retreats from the theater. Throughout the film, Argento several times indicates the killer's perspective with this kind of handheld camera, most unsettlingly in the subsequent scene where Helga leaves the now-empty theater, still sensing the presence of those horrible thoughts, as the camera peeks out at her from behind a nearby pillar. The camera seems to be shaking with the killer's excited heavy breathing, with the thrill of the chase, establishing a voyeuristic perspective that aligns the camera, and the watching audience, with the hidden killer's vantage point. Soon, Helga is a victim, her gruesome murder witnessed by her neighbor Marc (David Hemmings), who begins investigating the killer while the body count, predictably, keeps getting higher and higher.

Argento's visual inventiveness is at its peak during the film's gory murder sequences, each of them a taut and unsettling set piece that's perfectly designed. In one scene, the killer's presence in a dark closet is indicated by a single eye suddenly opening in the darkness, at which point Argento's camera zooms in to capture that one eye staring out of the surrounding blackness. In another scene, for some reason the killer's appearance is preceded by an utterly creepy doll that jauntily jogs towards the terrified victim, cackling and waving its motorized arms in front of it. The doll's appearance is made even more unsettling by the casual way that Argento frames it, initially in a long shot in which the doll's unnatural movement is very disturbing, before cutting in for the obligatory closeup of its grinning plastic face.

These eerie scenes are spaced out through the film, providing periodic bursts of insane imagery and bright red blood that looks like paint. Much of the film is dedicated to Marc's slow, hesitant investigation, assisted by the reporter Gianna (Daria Nicolodi), and there's something of a disconnect between the baroque scenes of violence and the surrounding ordinariness of the rest of the movie. The film sometimes feels a little slack whenever the killer's not around, though the oddball humor and quirky fringe characters help to liven things up whenever the tension dissipates. There's a subtext of sexual insecurity in Marc, who's beaten at arm-wrestling by Gianna, and feels cramped and claustrophobic in her car, sitting significantly lower than her in the broken passenger seat, making him look very foolish next to her. Later, he visits his friend Carlo (Gabriele Lavia) and discovers that Carlo is gay, staying with a feminine man who might pass for a woman if not for his peach-fuzz mustache.

Much of the film's comic relief, especially the bizarre scenes featuring Carlo's mother (Clara Calamai), winds up tying into the film's twisty ending, but before this, the comic tone and alternation of suspense with the meandering investigative scenes gives the film a strange, disjointed feeling. The jangly, chiming prog rock soundtrack by Goblin (who'd go on to top themselves with their even better score for Suspiria) adds to the film's strangeness, the music resonating with the childlike melody that serves as the killer's trademark and connects these crimes to some sort of traumatic childhood incident. Deep Red is ultimately a very strange movie, its rambling pace spiked with scenes of violence that are made almost beautiful through the filter of Argento's aesthetic.