Monday, February 25, 2013

It (1927)

Roaring Twenties sex symbol Clara Bow has always been most associated with It, the film from which she earned her most enduring nickname, as Hollywood's "It Girl." It's the film she's most remembered for today, though Bow's presence in it and its role in defining her fame are its primary points of interest. It's a slick, shallow, flimsy movie derived from the Elinor Glyn story that defined "it" as an alluring, magnetic, hard-to-pin-down quality that emanates from certain people. The film bears little relation to Glyn's story beyond that fascination with the elusive quality of "it," though it keeps referring to Glyn in a metafictional way, even having the author herself show up at one point in a hilariously clumsy promotional appearance to explain the concept of "it" to one of the characters.

The plot is beyond fluffy, with Bow playing the shopgirl Betty Lou, who falls in love with her boss Cyrus Waltham (Antonio Moreno) and doggedly pursues him, with some mishaps and misunderstandings artificially keeping the couple from truly connecting until the inevitable happy ending. It's a rather typical romantic comedy in every way, closely following a template that's become tiredly familiar, and must have been anything but fresh even when the film was new. It's all just a vague showcase for Bow, a love letter to her charms.

There's definitely something about her that could be "it." She's cute and perky, a lively if maybe over-eager screen presence whose every closeup, every winking flirtation with the camera, seems to come with an implied, "aren't I adorable?" Her cutesy mugging can be aggravating rather than endearing at times, and it's funny that part of the film's definition of "it" is a lack of self-consciousness, because Bow seems constantly self-conscious, very aware of her cuteness and her appeal, so that it often feels like she's trying way too hard to impress.

The most interesting thing about her, arguably, is her working class persona, derived from the actress' own troubled life and modest upbringing: she plays an unapologetically low-class girl who lives in a cramped apartment with an unmarried mother friend who she's helping. There's no glamour in her, except an accidental glamour arising from her natural beauty. She's also unapologetic about playing games, making love a contest of wits, flirting and pursuing the man she wants but then slapping him when she finally gets his attention and he dares to kiss her. She's flighty, silly, both fun and infuriating, in more or less equal measures. It's easy to see why she made an impact, and why this film in particular stuck as her defining moment, as she embodies a character who's a bundle of contradictions, a haphazard catalogue of feminine stereotypes: fiercely loyal to her friends, calculating in her seduction of men, dazzled by riches but offended when a man implies that's all she's after, resourceful and committed, above all, to simply having fun.

Director Clarence Badger brings an efficient, mostly straightforward aesthetic to this Cinderella fable. There are a few nice flourishes here, including, in the first shot, one of the very earliest appearances of a zoom lens, which at the time was a clunky and impractical invention that wouldn't become widely used until decades later. In another shot, Betty Lou looks around a crowded dining room for the man she's interested in, and when she finds him, the camera rushes towards him, signalling the rapturous focusing of her interest on this one point in the crowd. For the most part, though, Badger's style is unobtrusive, giving Bow lots of closeups in which to smile and bat her eyes, letting the magnetic starlet display her "it" without much interference. Josef von Sternberg, then still early in a slow-starting Hollywood career, was the assistant director and is sometimes identified as directing parts of the film uncredited, but there's little to no trace of von Sternberg's expressionist aesthetic or his sensual celebration of his leading ladies.

It is still remembered today for its association with its era and the heroine's sex symbol status, so closely tied to this film. Besides that historical interest, though, it's a pretty slight work, a curiosity that, when it doesn't feel like a barely disguised advertisement for Glyn's writing and Cosmopolitan magazine, is simply a vehicle for highlighting Bow's charisma and attractiveness. It's fluffy, but criminally for a romantic comedy, neither especially funny nor especially romantic.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Anatomy of Hell

Catherine Breillat has never exactly been a subtle filmmaker, or a particularly easy one to grapple with. Her films are often bluntly provocative and polemical, using in-your-face, sexually explicit allegories to deliver her ideas about the essential antagonism between men and women. Anatomy of Hell is probably the ultimate Breillat film in many ways, a purely symbolic and abstracted confrontation between unnamed incarnations of female carnality and male brutality. It is also one of the director's worst films, a vile and simplistic work that wallows in its visceral images while advancing a rather nasty, limiting ideology that casts all men as vicious brutes, suggesting that while women are founts of life, men provide only death. It's familiar feminist rhetoric, here delivered in such exaggerated fashion that it seems grotesque, totally removed from anything that might shed real light on the nature of male/female dynamics.

Breillat, never one to shy away from provocative imagery, has still never seemed so eager to offend as she does here, piling on so many calculatedly confrontational images that the effect is numbing rather than challenging. The film's allegorical structure focuses on the relationship between a young woman (Amira Casar) and a gay man (Rocco Siffredi), who finds her cutting her wrists in the bathroom of a gay club. When he asks her why, she responds, "because I'm a woman," which is a pretty good indication of the level of discourse Breillat is working with here. Casar represents the eternally suffering woman, subject to the hatred and disdain of men, which leads her to hate herself, to hate and deny her body. In order to deal with these feelings, she makes a deal with Siffredi: she'll pay him to come to her house, where he'll look at her naked body and talk about women.

At the root of the film is the idea that men hate women, and that perhaps gay men hate women most of all — that last being an especially repulsive concept, suggesting that gay men wouldn't be gay if only they didn't hate women so much, if only they weren't so disgusted by what's between a woman's legs. The man is gay, Breillat theorizes, because as a boy he once killed a bird, in innocent cruelty, and now he permanently associates female genitalia with the slippery guts of the bird, spilling out beneath his sneaker. He finds women disgusting, intuitively linking sex and death, and linking womanhood with his own boyhood shame and disgust — disgust with himself, and with the little pink crushed bird who'd died. Breillat seemingly extrapolates from this situation to all men, suggesting that the straight man's contempt for women is simply a less extreme version of the gay man's total disengagement from female sexuality. Breillat often locates the formation of sexuality in childhood, although not always in such a crude, blunt way. But then this film is Breillat at her crudest and most blunt, pouring out a really quite remarkable stream of outrageous ideas in between visceral scenes of sex, closeups of a bloody vagina, and other scenes carefully calibrated to offend and shock.

The film suggests that the essence of male/female relationships is hatred and self-hate, disgust and violence. Casar says she knows that Siffredi wanted to kill her during the course of one night — when he'd stood over her threateningly with a gardening implement before turning it around and sticking its blunt end inside her instead, leaving it hanging out of her at a jaunty angle. According to her, and presumably according to Breillat as well, the desire to kill a woman is "an urge all men have, that's how they are."

Breillat is dealing with all this at such a simplistic level that she winds up simply repeating clichés and stereotypes about both men and women rather than really interrogating or overturning those kinds of received ideas. Her most overt provocations — like having Siffredi and Casar share a glass of water mixed with menstrual blood from a tampon — come across as almost comically overwrought, and there's also some (presumably unintentional) comedy to be found in Siffredi's wooden line readings. Since Siffredi seems to get the bulk of the film's most torturously overwritten philosophical observations, his stiff acting — he spends much of the film staring blankly into space — only makes the film even harder to take seriously. (There's probably a joke about "stiffness" to be made here.)

With Anatomy of Hell, Breillat sets out to deconstruct misogyny, to confront it head-on. Obviously, the intent behind the film's overt presentation of a woman's body, without eroticism, is to challenge and subvert the disgust that men supposedly feel at the idea of women's body hair and menstruation. Breillat seeks simultaneously to disgust and to suggest that what she's showing is not disgusting, a contradictory dual purpose that sabotages the film; she really achieves neither aim. Breillat has, in recent years, moved away from the overt provocation represented by films like this and Romance, instead crafting increasingly nuanced works that explore her familiar themes without relying so heavily on viscera and excess. Anatomy of Hell was her last film to date in this vein, and it's the grimy, ugly bottoming-out of this approach. There was no further, or lower, to go after this, and perhaps this film's slate-clearing vitriol is what made it possible for Breillat, in the years since, to move so decisively beyond this kind of shallow provocation to the genuinely fascinating, intellectually rigorous work she's been making ever since.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Law

Jules Dassin's The Law is a very strange, disjointed movie. A Franco-Italian co-production, set in a small Italian fishing village and starring mostly Italian actors, it is nevertheless dubbed into French, which gives one some idea of the rather odd sensibility at work here. Dassin, exiled from Hollywood after the Communist witch hunts of the 1950s, was just a few years past his first French film, the masterpiece Rififi, but The Law has little in common with that film or the tense noirs of his Hollywood period beyond a rigorous, visually sharp sensibility.

Here, Dassin applies that sensibility to a soapy melodrama adapted from a Roger Vailland novel, resulting in an uneven, tonally varied, sporadically engaging work that bounces unpredictably from cynical satire to fluffy sex comedy to over-the-top melodrama. The film is concerned with power and authority, focused on the passing of the old guard, represented by the ailing gangster boss Don Cesare (Pierre Brasseur), and the arrival of a new guard, as represented by both the would-be new boss Matteo Brigante (Yves Montand) and the government land surveyor Enrico Tosso (Marcello Mastroianni). This struggle is represented in terms of power, control, wealth and respect, but also sexuality, in the battle for the affections of Marietta (Gina Lollobrigida), the vivacious, voluptuous local beauty who all the men want.

Unsurprisingly, Lollobrigida's Marietta is the focus of the film even though there are so many subplots and intrigues going on among the other characters. Everyone seems to be engaged in clandestine amorous meetings and conspiracies, but despite the sprawling cast and meandering narrative flow, the sensual, provocative Marietta always feels like the center of it all. Lollobrigida gives a lively, spirited performance, and even the dubbing of her voice doesn't really matter, because it's a physical performance first and foremost, a performance of the body. She projects raw sexuality, and Dassin's camera obviously loves her curvy form, her cleavage-baring dresses, and the vibrant, emotionally tumultuous personality that mirrors her unbelievable form. In many ways, the film is a typical sex comedy vehicle for the considerable charms of the lead actress, who naturally steals all attention like a magnet whenever she's onscreen.

This obvious reveling in Lollobrigida's sexiness aside, there's more to the film than just another sex farce. Dassin's aesthetic is as well-defined as ever, and his probing camera swoops and glides around this small town, uncovering all the corruption and adultery that seem to be hiding in every dark corner and behind every slatted window. As Dassin's camera tracks from one window to the next in an apartment building at the beginning of the film, there's a noirish atmosphere to the rigidly posed, shadowy dioramas of distrust and discontent found behind each window. Every marriage here is unhappy, especially the one between the local judge and his wife Lucrezia (Dassin's future wife Melina Mercouri), who are seen behind slatted shutters that cast their room in barred, segmented darkness like they're locked in one of the cells in the prison just next door. There are surreptitious romantic meetings in stairwells ringed by twisted, jagged metal rails, and everything is rendered in hard lines.

The frame is constantly being segmented in this fashion: when Lucretia goes to see her young lover Francesco (Raf Mattioli), he's working on a fishing rig that criss-crosses the frame with complex patterns of lines from all the wires and beams running across the structure. This noir visual aesthetic is very well suited to portraying the cynical obsession with power in this town where they play a gambling game called "the law" that's built around humiliation and using one's (temporary) power within the game as a weapon against everyone else.

The film's grittier moments are counterbalanced by a goofy musical number in which a gang of local kids serenades Brigante with a tribute to his toughness and power. In another scene, Marietta and Enrico frolic in the water together, a scene that might've been sexy — and still kind of is — but is rendered hilarious by the presence of a flock of sheep who are also bathing all around the young lovers. It might say something that this is their best scene together: their relationship is never especially credible, and Mastroianni is wasted in general, given an underdeveloped character whose place in this narrative is never clearly defined. It's frequently obvious, at times like this, that Dassin is adapting a novel and trying to cram in too much of its text, so various threads within the story are left dangling. The film's a bit of a mess all around, but despite the stereotyped characters and tonal inconsistency, it's worth seeing for Lollobrigida's sexy mugging and the visual rigor with which Dassin traces the film's sexual and political power struggles.

Monday, February 4, 2013


Ousmane Sembene's Xala is a sharp, bitter satire of Senegalese independence, lampooning the corruption and incompetence of the sham self-government of Sembene's home country, comparing the new black leaders' shameful failings to sexual impotence. One of these new leaders is El Hadji (Thierno Leye), a wealthy and well-respected businessman who is about to marry his third wife. On his wedding night, however, he is unable to consummate his marriage to his beautiful young wife; he has been cursed with a "xala" that renders him impotent. This impotence in the bedroom mirrors the impotence of Hadji and the other corrupt black businessmen and politicians of the new supposedly independent government, because while triumphantly claiming to have taken Senegal away from white European colonialists, this new government is deeply in the pocket of the colonialists, who still wield their power in fact if not in title.

In the opening scenes, the French are kicked out of the Chamber of Commerce, their statues and other paraphernalia left outside on the steps of the chamber as a symbol of the change in government. But the change is not as dramatic as it initially seems: by the time the new black council has met for the first time, they've shed their African garb for Western tuxedos, and the former white rulers are still in the room, now handing out suitcases full of money to the new black ministers. The changes are purely cosmetic. The French art has been replaced with a photograph of the new black president, and black men now sit around the conference table, but they are puppets of the old white rulers, who now adopt a subservient pose while still controlling everything from behind the scenes. Sembene stages this all methodically: the changeover from the whites to the blacks is orderly, as is the smooth process by which the white bankers and politicians sneak back into the governing room. It's like a revolving door by which the whites are kicked out, without fanfare, and re-enter the chambers of power just as easily.

Sembene is relentlessly parodying this state of affairs, and the humiliation of Hadji is a kind of symbolic revenge against all the leaders of his type, who claim to represent the people but only work to enrich themselves. Throughout the film, more and more ugly revelations about Hadji slowly come out, as his life crumbles around him under the curse of the xala. He's involved in numerous corrupt, under-the-table deals, accepting cash to sell off reserves of badly needed food intended for poor regions afflicted with droughts. Hadji and his friends are remote from those struggles. While the mass of his country's people starves to death, Hadji buys TVs and cars for his third wife, using the money from European bribes and his own corrupt deals to pay for the luxuries of his wives.

Some of the film's most powerful scenes focus not on Hadji but on the vast lower classes of the country who he ignores in his own quest for personal enrichment. El Hadji's sexual plight is juxtaposed against the genuine suffering of the crippled beggars and poverty-stricken villagers who Hadji and his fellow ministers refer to as "human rubbish." The ministers supposedly represent the people, but it's obvious that they only represent themselves, that they're out of touch with the way real people live their lives in this poor, drought-plagued country. One man comes to the city hoping to buy food for his poor village with the scant money the villagers have scraped together, but his funds are stolen and he's left to live with the other beggars. Another man sells a political newspaper that he brags is the only Wolof-language journal in the country, a sign of how marginalized African culture has become in a country where the ruling classes, black or white, speak French. Hadji's politicized daughter Rama (Myriam Niang) refuses to speak French, infuriating her father by answering him in Wolof even though he speaks to her in French, and she also refuses to drink the bottled Evian water that's such a prominent status symbol for the black ministers and upper class.

The black ministers try to separate themselves from African culture, decrying the superstitions of tradition and religion in their efforts to assimilate with the Europeans. (Of course, virtually the only tradition the male ministers don't reject is the traditional ability to marry more than one woman.) Thus the "xala" that afflicts Hadji is an expression of the Africanness that he rejects, and his increasingly desperate efforts to overturn the curse bring him into contact with precisely the superstitions and traditional beliefs that his Eurocentric attitudes oppose. Sembene is symbolically forcing the black ruling class with their European pretensions to "lower" themselves back to the level of the rest of the people: one village witch doctor tells Hadji that he has to crawl towards his wife on hands and knees, a charm clenched between his teeth.

The film is at times savagely funny in its mockery of Hadji and his friends, and there's a great deal of anger in Sembene's outrage at the ways in which these business and governmental leaders have simply acted as puppets for a de facto French regime. In one scene, Sembene even gives Hadji himself a speech decrying the hypocrisy of his fellow ministers, who eventually turn their backs on Hadji, essentially for getting caught committing the same crimes that they've all committed. The ending, especially, is seething with rage, as Sembene makes Hadji an effigy for the entire corrupt ruling establishment. Xala balances this righteous anger with its humanist, realist depictions of the poor and the maimed, the people suffering from poverty and hunger while men like Hadji exploit the country and the people, only pretending to represent black revolution and black self-government.