Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Last Command

The Last Command is a remarkably clever and poignant Hollywood story, a moving tale of war, doomed love, and the ways in which Hollywood's dream factory can resonate with reality. The exiled Russian Sergius Alexander (Emil Jannings) comes to America as a poor, haunted old man, his head involuntarily shaking, reflecting an old mental trauma. Struggling to survive and make some money, he takes a job as a Hollywood extra, one of countless small-timers waiting in crowds for the chance to be a fleetingly glimpsed face on the silver screen. The irony is that, in Russia, he was a general, a cousin of the Czar himself, until the 1917 Russian Revolution toppled the czarist regime in the name of the Bolsheviks (here referred to as "revolutionists").

Josef von Sternberg infuses this tragic, melancholy story with a beautifully hazy soft-focus aesthetic, honing in on Jannings' heartbreaking performance in sensuous closeups that capture the nuances of the actor's embodiment of this crushed, broken man. Jannings delivers a real tour de force performance, his body shaking uncontrollably, haunted by the war and his humiliation, his face retaining just a trace of his former haughty grandeur in the extra's shuffling walk and heavy-lidded eyes. Then, when the film leaps into a flashback to 1917, in the days leading up to the general's downfall, he seems to be swelled with life and vibrancy, a man of pride and honor, by turns vivacious and intimidating. It's such a great performance because the shell of this man is already apparent in his shattered present-day self.

The flashback reveals how Alexander is outdone by the foolish decisions of the Czar — who seems as out-of-touch as the Bolsheviks claim, unworthy of the service of a truly honorable man like Alexander — and by the plots of the revolutionaries Lev Andreyev (William Powell) and Natalie Dabrova (Evelyn Brent). Later, in 1920s Hollywood, Andreyev has emigrated as well, serving as a director; it's Andreyev who casts Alexander as a Russian general, recreating their real life conflict, a twist that's either utterly cruel or a grand tribute to their rivalry.

The lengthy flashback sequence is especially compelling, as Alexander falls in love with Natalie, even while knowing that she's his enemy and could betray him at any moment. In one fantastic scene, he visits her in her room and notices the handle of a pistol sticking out from under her pillow, but he remains quiet, doing nothing about it, fatalistically waiting for whatever's going to happen. It's doomed romance at its best, embodied in Natalie's sad glances at this man she's growing to respect and maybe even love, while he looks at her with adoration, blinded by her dark beauty and danger. Von Sternberg has a feel for this kind of potent romantic melodrama, highlighting the tiny snub-nosed gun in a charged closeup, and then of course, instead of shooting, the woman throws herself down, her head in her arms. "From now on you are my prisoner of war," Alexander says in a title card, "and my prisoner of love."

The film reaches its climax with the tragic end of the flashback and a return to the Hollywood backlot, where Alexander is preparing to reprise his historical role in a Hollywood production that Andreyev obviously intends as a propaganda piece for the Bolsheviks. Instead, it becomes Alexander's last chance to shine, his last chance to inhabit the grand role of the heroic general, his face framed against a billowing czarist flag, his eyes wild and wide, losing himself in the past. It's a great moment, the movies providing a kind of tragic closure for this man's sad life, art imitating life in every way. He's still being manipulated and defeated by his enemy Andreyev, in a way, but he's also breaking free, refusing to be confined by the movie's boundaries, briefly making it seem as though he's back at the front, rallying his troops to battle. And then he collapses, and gets a typically Hollywood epitaph from a bystander: "too bad — that guy was a great actor."

That tragicomic send-off suggests that The Last Command is a sly commentary on Hollywood's glossy approach to reality, subtly satirizing the ways in which film's power can deceive as much as inform, reducing the emotional complexity of history as it's lived to extras running around the trenches. But at the same time the movies do have great power, and Alexander's brief moment of fantasy glory suggests that this power is the power to dream, to remake reality, to transform tragedy into a profound aesthetic triumph.

Monday, June 25, 2012


Claude Chabrol's Violette is a fascinating, ambiguous study of a young woman who might be a sociopath, a victim, or both. Based on the real case of Violette Nozière (Isabelle Huppert), who poisoned her parents in 1930s Paris, the film is curiously ambivalent about its titular anti-heroine. Huppert's Violette is impenetrable and deliberately contradictory. Sexy, desperate for attention and affection, disturbingly cool about her crimes and her violence, she's an intriguing character who's all but unknowable in the end. Violette is a willful girl who presents a charming, innocuous demeanor to her rather gullible parents, who buy her repeated and flimsy lies without much debate, while outside of the home she prostitutes herself — while vociferously resisting the label of a "whore" — and steals and lies habitually.

Violette switches between two very different looks throughout the film, embodying her contradictions in her appearance. At home with her parents, she wears no makeup and dresses in demure, youthful clothing. But once out of the view of her parents, she immediately puts on heavy makeup, coating her lips with bright red lipstick and painting her nails red as well. Her age is ambiguous, just like everything about her, since her childish clothes sometimes make her look like a little girl — albeit one with Huppert's already-world-weary face — while when she's made up she looks like she could be anywhere between twenty or thirty years old. The effect is especially disorienting when Chabrol cuts in flashbacks to Violette's childhood in which Huppert is made to look even younger, the effect somewhat disturbing and disorienting, a grown woman playing a child, as though even as a girl she was older than her age.

Outside the house, Violette dresses all in black, with a very distinctive look, a hat perched at an angle atop her curls, often all but obscuring her eyes so that only the red smirk of her mouth peeks out from beneath the shadowy brim. With her black furs wrapped tightly around her, her collar high around her face, she's often reduced to a few cartoonish features: the black-rimmed eyes, the bright lips, the rouged cheeks, a caricature of threatening beauty, the ultimate femme fatale, her sexiness infused with a sense of danger and darkness.

She's like a black widow, but there's also a sense of vulnerability in her, a closely guarded secret hurt. She accuses her father (Jean Carmet) of abusing her, but Chabrol makes it very ambiguous whether Violette was lying or not. In Violette's flashbacks, she remembers strange scenes from her youth that suggest her disconnection from her parents, and in one of these flashbacks her father is bouncing her on his knee, an innocent fatherly gesture made sinister by Violette's accusations. There does seem to be more than a hint of inappropriate desire between father and daughter, especially when he watches her bathing herself topless in the bathroom, just a thin, gauzy curtain separating them and failing to obscure her body from the eyes of her father. This incestual subtext is counterbalanced by some seemingly idyllic flashbacks to Violette's childhood, in which she fondly remembers her father as a shouting, waving figure flying by on the locomotive he drives, yelling out her name as he passes, his face stained with grease. At what point did Violette's life go wrong, at what point did this sweet girl, so excited to see her father, become the chilly, money-obsessed monster she is when she's older? By having Huppert play Violette even in these childhood flashbacks, rather than substituting a child actress, Chabrol adds a weird, unsettling vibe to the girl's memories that suggests something dark lurking unseen in her past.

Other than these hints and insinuations, however, Violette mostly just seems like an ordinary young girl with an ordinarily overbearing family. Her father is clueless and dotes on her, while her mother (Stéphane Audran) snoops through Violette's things and treats her with cynical suspicion. Violette is also involved with the handsome young Jean (Jean-François Garreaud), who she clings to desperately as her ideal man for undefined reasons, even though all he does is pump her for money and skips out on her at any opportunity. Violette seems desperate for affection, desperate for some kind of life outside her home and her family, and despite her superficially cool demeanor she's very clingy with the distant, obviously manipulative Jean.

Chabrol is gradually building towards the especially unsettling conclusion, which does little to clear up Violette's character, while setting her alongside a prison cell mate played by Bernadette Lafont, who'd been the sexy bad girl at the center of some of Chabrol's earliest films. The film's final narration, recounting Violette's eventual redemption, accompanies a shot of the girl staring blankly back at the camera, as though daring the viewers to judge her, to try to understand her, to probe the darkness and strangeness lurking behind those glassy, black-rimmed eyes.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Straight Shooting

Straight Shooting was John Ford's first feature, and that's the primary reason this straightforward, even prosaic Western is still worth seeing. It's a solid, if rather unoriginal, hour-long Western actioner in which the villainous outlaw Thunder Flint (Duke Lee) steals the water rights to an area, trying to scare off the local farmers. When the stubborn old farmer Sweet Water Sims (George Berrell) refuses to give in to Flint, the outlaws kill Sims' son and send the vicious killer Cheyenne Harry (Harry Carey) to kill Sims as well. Instead, Harry, witnessing Sims and his daughter Joan (Molly Malone) grieving by the dead boy's fresh grave, abruptly decides to go straight and fight for the farmers.

This was one of many films Ford would make in his early years with Harry Carey, who with his craggy, eagle-like face and hooded, deep-set eyes, brings an intense, glowering presence to this film as the outlaw who redeems himself for the sake of a woman. Ford obviously recognizes these qualities in the actor — who fills the place John Wayne would someday come to occupy in the director's work — and gives Carey many striking closeups. Carey's at his best projecting raw anger, but he also gets some nice low-key comic moments here, like a scene in which he drunkenly lounges around a bar with some other outlaws, staggering and swaying as he shows off his toughness and his quickness with a gun.

There are some nice action set pieces here, notably a tense showdown on a deserted, dusty street, with Harry facing off against another man, both of them carrying rifles. The staging is inventive, drawing out the tension as the two men approach each other from opposite sides of the street, and then suddenly defusing the showdown for a moment as the men pass each other and face off from around the corners of a nearby shack instead. There are also some typically nice Fordian landscape shots, particularly of a location that appears several times, a narrow valley between two cliffs, often with riders standing watch atop the rocky outcroppings at the top of the frame.

The young Ford also does a good job with some scenes set on a rainy night in a small Western town, a dense downpour soaking the cowboys who wander into town and race immediately for the tavern. The film's plot is predictable and typical of countless Westerns from the same era, but even here, in this very basic and pedestrian Western, his first feature, Ford provides some interest. The action sequences towards the end of the film are satisfying, certainly, with a ragged quality to the scenes of the farmstead being besieged by outlaw riders, kicking up dust, framed between low-hanging trees and arcs of foliage that provide a proscenium for the action.

Throughout the film, there are several occurrences of the through-the-doorway shot that would become a Fordian trademark, made especially famous by its use in The Searchers. Notably, Ford uses the shots in similar ways even here, at the beginning of his career: the doorway's passageway between inside and outside becomes a resonant symbol for the transition from domesticity to wilderness, from the comforts of home and hearth to the dusty, lonely trails. It's always the family that's inside, while the outlaw or cowboy is outside, separated from them, and when the door closes on Ethan Edwards at the end of The Searchers, it's closing on any possibility of familial happiness for that irredeemable outcast. In Straight Shooting, Ford's hero still hadn't fallen that low, hadn't quite lost all hope of being able to step inside. This film hints at a similar ending to The Searchers, with the outlaw leaving the family behind after having done his work to save them, but ultimately there's a far more romantic resolution in store for him here. The Fordian hero, still young, not yet so set in his ways, could still be redeemed and step across the threshold.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Shiver of the Vampires

Jean Rollin's The Shiver of the Vampires is a wonderfully strange, clever piece of B-movie trash/art, a film that revels in its nakedly exploitative eroticism and lurid atmosphere. Set in the modern day, the film nevertheless swaddles most of its characters in clothes that evoke both old-fashioned fancy dress and hippie attire, which gives the film a very strange feel in terms of period, as though it's outside of time, somewhere that the modern era hasn't truly touched. Indeed, its foggy graveyards and crumbling, towering stone castles feel like remnants of an earlier time, and when the newlyweds Antoine (Jean-Marie Durand) and Isle (Sandra Julien) first appear driving a car, it feels like a radical intrusion into the film's strange period vibe. It's a sublimely ridiculous movie that tweaks its voyeuristic perspective by having its hapless hero, Antoine suffer through a baffling sequence of encoded sexual humiliations at the hands of his beautiful new bride.

For some reason, Isle decides that the creepy old castle owned by her strange cousins (Jacques Robiolles and Michael Delahaye) is the perfect honeymoon destination. That's only the beginning of the couple's troubles, as Isle repeatedly pushes Antoine away, refusing to consummate their marriage. Isle, it turns out, is much more interested in the erotic pleasures offered by the emaciated vampiress Isolde (Dominique), who appears to the virginal bride by popping out of a grandfather clock or leaping dramatically out from the curtains behind Isle's bed — this is a vampire who really knows how to make an entrance. After one night with Isolde, the next night Isle again turns her husband away, banishing him from the bedroom, then excitedly strips down and goes looking for the vampire. When she doesn't find her undead lover, Isle embraces the clock instead, languidly wrapping her naked body around its cold wood, so like a coffin, as a stand-in for the chilly body of the lesbian vampire.

The film is devilishly clever in its examination of sexual frustration, as poor Antoine is continually blocked from access to his new bride, who apparently prefers a feminine touch. When Antoine spends his wedding night alone, while Isle is seduced by Isolde, he lays in bed with a large phallic torch hilariously standing in for his erection, angled up from between his legs. Later, the castle's two sexy sapphic servants (Marie-Pierre Castel and Kuelan Herce) stand over him and argue about which one of them will slip into bed with him; giggling, they decide they both will, but as soon as he wakes up, exaggeratedly rubbing his eyes as if convinced he's still dreaming, they jump out of bed and run naked and laughing out of the room, disappearing so quickly that he's convinced he might not have seen a thing. Meanwhile, the two fey vampire cousins have been having their way with a local girl, and gang up to rape the man-hating Isolde, while the servants writhe around naked in bed together: everyone but Antoine is getting some action, as he's left out of both the nocturnal supernatural conspiracy and the sexual games that accompany it.

Rollin's visual aesthetic renders this supernatural fantasy/nightmare in bright, unreal colors — the castle itself is often shown in cutaway shots where it's bathed in rainbow hues as though there are unseen spotlights shining up on it from the grounds — and shadowy, foggy haziness. The narrative is reduced to almost nothing: the newlyweds arrive at the castle, witness strange occurrences, wander through the moldy halls and decaying grounds, and Antoine occasionally makes half-hearted attempts to escape. It's a narrative perpetually suspended, and the whole thing has the texture of a dream, complete with its own loaded symbology. At one point, Antoine and Isle are strolling around the paths surrounding the castle, when Antoine abruptly shoots a dove. Isle, already transitioning into vampirism, is drawn to the dead bird and repeatedly brings it to her lips, finally resting its white body on the coffin of Isolde as an offering, bright red blood dripping over the wood.

This dreamlike film drifts along in this way, its images sensuous and erotically charged, really selling the draw of the undead, making the ease with which Isle is seduced away from her husband very understandable. There's a darkly comic vibe to the film, as well, particularly in the characters of the vampire cousins, who several times discourse in alternating lines on the history of their family, spouting pseudo-philosophical nonsense while trading lines, each one thrusting his head into the frame in turn. This film is a celebration of the surreal, the strange, the sexually polymorphous, as opposed to heteronormative marriage as represented, increasingly, by Antoine alone, without even his wife to support him. Even the servants, humans enslaved by the vampires, don't return to the normal, physical world after their joyful victory over the vampires: instead, in an extraordinary shot, Rollin holds a static view as the girls kiss and go dancing off in spiraling circles, disappearing into the darkness in the distance, their diaphanous gowns twirling around them, making them seem like spirits swallowed up by the night.

The climax is a showdown between Antoine and the vampire cousins, returning to the same bleak, apocalyptic beach that served as an otherdimensional realm at the end of Rollin's previous film, The Nude Vampire. Here, the beach, with the waves breaking against the rocky shore, serves as a grim backdrop for an anticlimactic conclusion in which Isle makes her choice and Antoine must watch as his wife engages in a suicidal, incestuous menage a trois with her cousins, while all he can do is impotently fire his pistol in the air, having no effect on these supernatural beings. The allure of the grave and of death ultimately wins out over the possibility of normality, marriage, a return to the ordinary world. Those things no longer hold any appeal for Isle; Antoine is the film's sole representative of normality, which is why in the end he's left alone and unfulfilled, shut out of the sensual, appealingly weird world of death and undeath. It's a neat trick that Rollin pulls off here: although humanity technically wins in the end, it's obvious that gay vampires just have so much more fun.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Battling Butler

Battling Butler follows a familiar template for many of Buster Keaton's features, with Keaton's character starting out inept and gradually gaining in proficiency so he can get the girl. This is one of his features that actually has a bit more of a plot, with Keaton playing Alfred Butler, a snooty society heir with more than a little similarity to his hapless rich kid in The Navigator. When his parents want to toughen up the spoiled brat, they send him out into the woods for a camping trip, accompanied by a manservant (the always funny Snitz Edwards) who makes the trip anything but roughing it.

The camping scenes provide a barrage of great gags, many of them about all the amenities that Butler has lugged with him into the wilderness. But the best moment is Butler's hilarious attempt at fishing, which then leads into an equally inept attempt to shoot a duck with a shotgun while balancing, standing up, on a tiny boat. Then Butler meets a country girl (Sally O'Neil), and again as in The Navigator, immediately decides to get married. In order to impress her tough-guy family, though, he has to pose as his namesake, the boxer "Battling" Butler, which ignites the series of misidentifications and misunderstandings that drive the rest of the film.

The scenes of Butler training so that he can go through with his ruse are typically inspired, with Keaton's agility and deadpan unflappability adding to the slapstick joys of these scenes. There's lots of fun with the ropes of the boxing ring, with Keaton bouncing off and around them, ducking under, getting tangled in them or literally tied to them, sliding around on the floor, all in a desperate attempt to get into the ring — followed quickly by a series of even more desperate attempts to get back out of the ring. It's not quite the most madcap or energetic of Keaton's physical performances, but it's a typically satisfying sequence of gags as the inept trainee leaps fearfully into the arms of his trainer, gets pounded, runs around the ring and keeps throwing wild punches while keeping his gaze locked, not on his opponent, but on the trainer who's trying to instruct him.

There are a few nice moments here where Keaton uses frames within the frame to highlight the separation between Butler and the girl he's married but has to continue lying to. Right after their wedding, he has to rush off to pretend to train for a fight, and as he drives away from her, the girl's face is framed in the oval back window of the car, receding into the distance as the car pulls out. Later, when she unexpectedly shows up at a training session, Butler sees her face framed in the crook of his sparring partner's arm. In the next shot, Keaton reverses the perspective so that Butler is framed in the same angular hole between the other boxer's body and arm. It's a great diptych, which visually encapsulates the idea that Butler's boxing ruse is keeping the couple apart, literally standing between them so that they can only see one another framed by a boxer's arm.

Battling Butler isn't one of Keaton's best works, and its climax is somewhat lacking in the charm and humor of the rest of the film, as well as the usual high-energy hijinks that so often erupt in the last reel of his films — though the last shot, of Keaton walking arm-in-arm with his gal while wearing a top hat, boxing trunks and gloves, is a great final image. This is mid-level Keaton, which of course means that it's still very funny, packed with fantastic set pieces and visual/physical humor.

Thursday, June 7, 2012


Vampyr was Carl Theodor Dreyer's first sound film, a hypnotic and dreamlike horror movie, a chilling masterpiece whose hazy, fuzzy beauty has only been enhanced by decades of wear and tear, by the degraded, scratchy quality of the surviving prints. A film that started out vague and blurry — much of it was shot with a filter in front of the camera lens to give it a distant, gauzy look — has only become more faded, more eerily unclear, over the years, its beauty and strangeness enhanced rather than hurt by its imperfections. It's a surreal and haunting experience, a rather indirect horror movie in which its atmosphere of fear arises from what's not seen rather than what's seen.

The handsome but abstracted everyman hero, Allan Grey (Julien West), is pursuing evidence of the supernatural for vaguely defined reasons, and he finds what he's been seeking in a sparsely populated small town. Grey's wanderings through the town have a feeling of surreal disconnection as he seems to be passing from the material world into a place of shadows and illusions, a world where the concrete fades into the immaterial. A farmer with a scythe rings a bell, an ominous tolling that seems to forebode grave events in the offing. Shadows are disconnected from any physical bodies, passing along walls without any sign of who might be casting the shadow. A reflection of a child runs, upside-down, along the surface of a pond, with no corresponding figure upon the shore who could be creating this reflection. A man's shadow shovels in reverse, the dirt seeming to leap from a pile on the ground to his shovel. Other shadows dance upon the walls to a sprightly tune, echoes or memories of previous eras, ghosts haunting a place where they'd once danced and played.

This imagery is creepy and somberly beautiful, and Grey is getting sucked into this strange dreamworld along with the audience. Dreyer's camera drifts and tracks behind the protagonist, following him on his wanderings, suggesting that the audience is his unseen companion on his quest. Indeed, Grey himself is mostly an observer, stumbling into the middle of a haunting horror tale that he watches play out around him like an audience member wandering in a daze through the middle of a supernatural play. Grey follows the shadows to a country estate where an old man (Maurice Schutz) and his daughters (Rena Mandel and Sybille Schmitz) are plagued by the vampire's curse. The old man is killed by a shadow soon after Grey's arrival, and then one of the daughters is attacked as well, infected with the vampire's bloodlust, grinning madly at her sister with a thirst for blood.

While all this is going on, Grey observes with mild detachment, and after each incident he returns to reading a book about vampires given to him by the old man, reading passages that both explain the action and foreshadow future developments. Interestingly, although this was a sound movie, it still feels like a silent film most of the time, and the extensive use of text contributes to that impression. There are poetic intertitles that punctuate the film early on, describing Grey's journey and mental state, eliminating the need for any expository dialogue whatsoever. As a result, Dreyer can reduce the spoken dialogue to a bare minimum, allowing most scenes to play out wordlessly, accompanied only by the expressive orchestral score. At times, even the score drops out or is reduced to a minimal murmur, exposing the hollowed-out silence of this village that seems to be populated almost entirely by shadows and ghosts. When there is sound, it's often strange and disconnected, due to the movie's post-dubbed soundtrack: people wander through the fog, their calls for their missing loved ones muted and echoey, and occasionally the silence is pierced by the clatter of horse's hooves or the somber chiming of church bells.

Dreyer also uses the vampire book similarly to silent movie title cards, interspersing excerpts from the book throughout the scenes at the mansion. The way in which Grey keeps returning to the book, as though he's more drawn to its text than to the very strange happenings all around him, contributes to the film's eerily affectless tone. Even the protagonist seems disconnected from what's going on, easily distracted by this text, immersed in reading rather than truly interacting with the sinister goings-on. Soon after, Grey becomes disembodied, his self splitting apart as his non-corporeal form has an out-of-body experience, wandering into the lair of the vampire's creepy associates, and the film's dreamlike atmosphere is especially pronounced here. Dreyer again toys with the audience's point-of-view, this time by shooting from the perspective of a body laying in a coffin, staring up at the sky and the looming buildings of the town as this coffin is carried away.

Vampyr is an unforgettably haunting experience, unsettling more for its shadowy, foggy atmosphere than for anything that happens in its minimalist narrative. Dreyer makes the vampire legend an abstracted nightmare, a journey into a strange, unstable world of shades and spirits that might just be the mind itself.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Young Girls of Rochefort

Jacques Demy followed up his musical masterpiece The Umbrellas of Cherbourg with a second Catherine Deneuve musical, The Young Girls of Rochefort, a delightful companion piece that continues the throughline of Demy's sustained examination of love, longing, and separation, a thematic current that extends back not only to Umbrellas but to Demy's debut feature Lola. This is a more conventional musical than Umbrellas; not all of the dialogue is sung, and the song-and-dance numbers here are overt breaks in the diegesis as they are in most musicals, and as they weren't in Umbrellas, where the music was smoothly incorporated into the quotidian so that everything was transmuted into song. Despite the differences, Demy, again working with composer Michel Legrand, has concocted another marvelous tribute to the Hollywood musical form, with bright, popping colors, energetic choreography, and musical numbers that burst out of ordinary reality with all the force and beauty of a dream, elegant movements that become dances, open expressions of emotion poured out through song. It's dazzling, colorful, and romantic, and though it's not quite as bittersweet or near-tragic as Umbrellas, that undercurrent of melancholy still drifts just below the surface vibrancy.

This is an exuberant fantasy of love and separation, a film in which nearly everyone has an ideal love, someone they may not even have met, or who they only glimpsed briefly, but who is clearly meant for them, destined to be the great love of their lives. The plot is thus a tightly constructed framework of missed connections and improbable coincidences, constant chance meetings and chance misses in which these would-be lovers careen around Rochefort, searching for love and sometimes colliding with it, or nearly colliding with it and passing by none the wiser. There's very nearly no plot beyond this maze of love and desire, the connections between the characters defined by who loves or lusts for whom, who's destined for whom. At the center of the maze are the twin sisters Delphine (Deneuve) and Solange (Françoise Dorléac) and their mother Yvonne (Danielle Darrieux, the only performer in the film whose voice isn't dubbed for songs). The sisters each have an ideal man who they're searching for without having met him; love for them, as for most of these characters, is an idea before it's a reality, a very romantic Hollywood musical concept. They know exactly what the man they love will be like, and they're simply waiting for their dreams to take shape in reality.

For Delphine, her ideal man will be a sensitive, poetic artist and intellectual, which perfectly describes the sailor/painter Maxence (Jacques Perrin), who just so happens to have painted a portrait of his own ideal woman who looks exactly like Delphine. Throughout the film, these two never meet, though Demy has great fun arranging near-collisions and coincidences that place them just seconds apart, their meeting always imminent — a word that Maxence turns into a pun that he delights in trying out on everyone he meets — without ever actually taking place. That's one source of the film's melancholy, this sense that there's a great love out there for everyone, a soul mate, but that their meeting might not be fated, that in fact fate and chance might conspire to keep them apart rather than bring them together, the precise opposite of the meet-cute conventions of the movie romance.

There's a remarkable shot that prefigures the melancholy of Delphine's story, suggesting that her tale will be streaked with sadness even before she's properly introduced. At the beginning of the film, a carnival is setting up in the main square, the carnies dancing through their preparations, turning their work into choreography. As this number comes to an end, a plaintive, minor-key piano motif slowly replaces the more upbeat tune that had accompanied the choreographed carnies. As the piano melody takes over, the camera begins swooningly drifting upwards, following a few of the carnies as they walk away from the fair ground, and the camera tracks away from them and up towards a window where little girls can be seen practicing ballet. The camera floats through the window and into the studio, where Solange plays the piano while Delphine gracefully strolls between the dancers, instructing them. The combination of the melancholy piano music with that evocatively graceful shot immediately communicates a sense of deep emotions being stirred up, and even though the sisters soon launch into their charmingly upbeat signature tune, that plaintive tune still lingers over them.

That's not the only darkness drifting through the film. As in many of Demy's other films, sailors and soldiers are important figures because war is constantly lurking in the background; as Yvonne says while reading the newspaper, "trouble is everywhere," suggesting the outbreak of war and violence, likely in Algeria, which had so poignantly haunted Umbrellas as well. A café patron says that the soldiers who march in rigorous formation through the streets would "shoot us like rabbits," a rather morbid thought that's contradicted by the presence of the sensitive sailor Maxence, who's consumed by his poetry and his paintings and indifferent to the military maneuvers, simply counting the days until he can return to civilian life. He clearly doesn't belong in the Navy, and one fears for him, fears that he won't be able to escape unscathed.

The many stories of lost loves, missed connections and aborted affairs here are darkly mirrored in the story of an ax murderer who killed a woman he'd loved and longed for many years, suggesting one much more grisly possible outcome for these tragicomic love stories. There's also more than a hint of violence in Delphine's affair with the gallery owner Guillaume (Jacques Riberolles), who tries to force her to marry him even though she says she doesn't love him. Guillaume sinisterly makes his abstract, Pollock-like paintings by shooting at bags of paint dangling over a canvas — when Delphine breaks up with him, he suggestively fires at the black bag — and at one point he turns his pistol on Maxence's Delphine-like portrait of the "feminine ideal." It's easy to imagine Guillaume one day moving beyond such symbolic violence and enacting another variation on the ax murderer's revenge for his jilted love.

Despite this undercurrent of violence and ugliness, the film remains relentlessly bright and sunny, its colors unreally bright and clean, this town a place where even an ordinary stroll down the street becomes a lighter-than-air dance for these hazy-eyed romantics. Solange's destined true love is the composer Andy (Gene Kelly), who she meets on the street by chance, holding a loving glance for a few moments before they separate. Kelly's presence here is the surest sign of Demy's love and respect for the Hollywood musical, and he gives the American actor and dancer two of the film's most dazzling dance numbers, which together encompass the full circle of the film's rapturous approach to love. In the first, after meeting Solange for the first time, Andy is so excited that he spontaneously erupts into an exuberant song-and-dance number, skipping through the streets, engaging in impromptu choreography with passersby, and leaping up onto his car — a white convertible like the one in Lola, since Andy is this film's version of a beloved Demy trope, the masculine presence who's intrinsically linked to his car. It's an exhilarating performance, pure emotion translated into motion and music, the essence of the movie musical. At the conclusion of the film, when he's finally reunited with Solange, their love again takes the form of a dance, a graceful and fluid interplay of separation and togetherness that teases the embrace, the kiss, that finally marks the conclusion of this courting dance, before the couple walks away wrapped in each other's arms.

Fittingly for such a romantic, emotional film, it closes with a happy ending several times over, even if it never quite delivers on the inevitable union of one of its potential couples, just dangling the possibility, tantalizing with it, hinting at it several times before coming just close enough to the actuality of it that the mere continued possibility is exciting in itself. It's a wonderful film, bursting with life and joy, tempering the bittersweet emotions of Demy's previous Umbrellas of Cherbourg with the pleasures of love in its anticipation and its fulfillment.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Image in the Snow/The Plague Summer/The Voices

Image in the Snow is Willard Maas' moody, densely symbolic examination of a young man's journey through an increasingly grim and dilapidated cityscape, culminating in a despairing collapse at a snowy cemetery, amidst the foreboding stone statues of crosses and angels. The young hero (Hunter Jones) is an aimless drifter who might stand in for Maas himself in what seems to be a very personal film. The hero is besieged by various visions of homoerotic sexuality, as well as women who represent mythical princesses or mothers, embodiments of eternal, symbolic femininity as a contrast against the lushly sensual depictions of the male body. As the hero wanders around a rooftop, a male bodybuilder appears beside him, flexing his muscles and posing; while the hero remains in focus, the half-naked man is out-of-focus until Maas cuts in for a closeup that starts at the man's crotch, admiring the bulge in his underwear before panning up his torso. Soon after, a male dancer twists and pirouettes across the rooftop, his body gracefully contorting in dreamlike slow motion.

These images, so provocative and overtly sensual, are juxtaposed against a much more matronly depiction of womanhood. Notably, Maas' own wife, the remarkable filmmaker Marie Menken, appears as the hero's mother — a casting decision fraught with Freudian psychological implications, that — and the hero also has a brief encounter with a "princess" (Ellen McCool) which is simultaneously sexual and violent, a scene that's broken off almost as soon as it begins.

The film opens with a few minutes of narration over a black screen, and this portentous, purplish poetry continues throughout, full of overblown imagery and heavyhanded symbolism, intoned with a homilistic lilt by Ben Moore. The narration's best moment comes towards the end of the film, when Moore begins singing, in a sweet, wavering voice, some childhood religious hymns, lullabies that resonate against the image of the hero in a cemetery, peering into a locked crypt filled with Christian icons. This eerie, suggestive juxtaposition validates the film's voiceover, even though much of the rest of the poetry that accompanies the film is bland and extraneous in comparison to the low-budget beauty of the imagery.

Indeed, the film would probably work better silent, or accompanied only by Ben Weber's effectively dramatic string score. Maas' imagery has a gritty elegance that suggests a number of symbols and associations without being as literal as the narration sometimes is. The film provides a tour of an urban environment from the point of view of a young man overwhelmed by sensual stimulation and confused by his own alternately desperate and melancholy emotions. As he wanders, the city increasingly becomes desolate, its buildings ruined, and he climbs over piles of concrete debris and junk, walking down unpopulated streets, surrounded on all sides by tall, blank buildings that betray no evidence of their purpose or their occupants. Best of all is the film's haunting climax, with the snow wafting constantly across the frame, the hero buffeted by gusts of wind that blow cloud puffs across his path, the stone relics of the graveyard rising up around him on all sides, often filmed from below to lend them even more imposing grandeur. This gorgeous imagery proves that the film doesn't truly needs its overly wordy narration, which is only rarely as effective as the wordless suggestiveness of Maas' cinematography.

The Plague Summer is Chester Kessler's adaptation of the poet Kenneth Patchen's avant-garde novel The Journal of Albion Moonlight, a surreal and unsettling parable of war and social breakdown. Kessler's adaptation sets deadpan narration of excerpts from the novel against a series of crude pencil drawings, mostly static with no attempt at animation. The narration in itself is compelling, and Patchen's surreal stream of disconnected scenes and descriptions presents an eerie, absurdist vision of war's destabilizing effect. The narrator's bland, affectless voice recounts members of a small group of people disappearing in the night, raped and beheaded or stabbed and drowned, while wild dogs follow them everywhere. An account of a battle describes how the two opposing sides halt every so often so that the men can switch uniforms with the opposing army before the fighting resumes, now with the interchangeable foot soldiers swapped around.

It's obvious that Patchen has some interesting ideas and a bleakly compelling style, but Kessler's minimalist illustrations do little for the story. The childlike drawings are mostly static, and only very rarely does Kessler try to animate multiple drawings in sequence. Mostly, he just illustrates Patchen's words with a rather disappointingly literal-minded sensibility, so that the images and the words are redundant with one another — and Patchen's prose is certainly the more stylish and enduring presentation of these ideas. The best and most cinematic moment comes when the narrator describes the films of a land he's passing through, where all their movies consist only of photographers pointing cameras at other photographers with cameras in a never-ending recursive loop. Kessler illustrates this with a choppy montage of cameras in different locations within the frame, suggesting the meta content of these imagined movies.

For the most part, though, Kessler's drawings don't reveal that much imagination in interpreting Patchen's prose. One spot where, presumably, he does show some imagination is in depicting the character of "the murderer" as a burly, bare-chested black man in a top hat, carrying a gun, an illustration which, if it isn't derived from Patchen's original, is a bit of racist stereotyping that severely undermines the film's supposedly leftist political message. But even aside from such missteps, The Plague Summer is a mostly uninteresting slog that does very little compelling with Patchen's ideas and writing.

John E. Schmitz was a little-known filmmaker associated with Kenneth Anger, and his film The Voices is best known for being seized by authorities as part of the same raid that targeted Anger's seminal Fireworks. The Voices is a noirish psychodrama in which a young man struggles with his sexuality in a dream state. The short concerns a fitfully sleeping youth who has an eerie dream of wandering like a ghost through a world of shadow and darkness, an abstracted void in which everything around him is utterly swallowed up by the black. He walks through the darkness with hand outstretched, holding a cross, then comes upon a reflection or doppelganger of himself and admires his own handsome, square-jawed face and muscular body — and then, he reaches offscreen and grabs a knife, caressing it as well, as though its sharp blade is an extension of his body, another fine form to admire. (It replaces the cross as his object of protection, substituting violence for religion or maybe suggesting that they're one and the same, that to worship one is to worship the other.)

Soon he's wandering an urban space that's initially brighter, more well-defined and naturalistically shot, but then once again gets reduced to a minimalist wasteland of crisscrossing shadows, where the young man arrives at a window, a solitary source of pale light in the darkness, and voyeuristically peers in at a woman undressing for bed. When she gets naked, he clutches at his heart, as though in pain, and afterwards he flees the darkness into a washed-out bright white light, holding his cross aloft once again as he marches to drown in a lake.

Though it's never explicit as such, it's obvious that, like Maas' Image in the Snow, this film is dealing with repressed homosexual feelings, or at least uncertainty about sexual identity: the man is attracted in turn to his own mirrored form and a naked woman. Schmitz's elliptical, dreamlike imagery suggests multiple symbolic interpretations, as this confused young man grapples with religion, guilt, desire, voyeurism and angry violent impulses, all of it swathed in the deep black shadows of a noir thriller. This is a thriller that takes place entirely in the mind, though, and even if its imagery sometimes verges on the clichéd, it's an interesting and hauntingly shot film.