Monday, May 6, 2013

Inspector Bellamy

Claude Chabrol's final film, Inspector Bellamy, begins with a dedication and ends with a quote, and in between is one of the French master's most confounding, beguiling and deeply personal films, a morally engaged and somehow almost spiritual study of guilt, blame, and what it means to be "a decent guy." The film's opening dedication is to the "memory of the two Georges," meaning the mystery writer Georges Simenon, whose novels Chabrol has adapted before and whose famous Commissaire Maigret is one obvious inspiration for this film's title character, and Georges Brassens, the singer/songwriter whose music and gravesite haunt this film. The quote at the end is even more telling, a terse sign-off provided by W.H. Auden — "there is always another story, there is more than meets the eye" — that serves as a goodbye and a final statement of purpose from Chabrol himself.

The film is an ambling, lazily paced, darkly comic anti-thriller in which the vacationing famous detective Paul Bellamy (Gérard Depardieu), in the country with his wife Françoise (Marie Bunel), stumbles into a strange mystery. A former insurance agent, Leullet (Jacques Gamblin), contacts Bellamy, eager to confess that he killed a man — actually, that he wanted to kill a man, but it turned out that the man (a bum also played by Gamblin) wanted to die, so he simply allowed the bum to commit suicide. Now it's a high profile case, all over the news, but while the police (including a bumbling inspector who's much discussed but never seen) are busily hunting down Leullet, Bellamy quietly, casually investigates on his own, in his free time, between dinners with his wife and their gay friends and arguments with his resentful, no-good drunkard of a half-brother, Jacques (Clovis Cornillac).

The Leullet case is full of twists and turns and red herrings, and there's a mostly unspoken suggestion, buttressed by that Auden quote, that there's one more devilishly clever twist hidden within the film, eluding even the dogged Inspector Bellamy. Despite this, the film is not really a mystery or a thriller but a character study, using the Leullet case and Bellamy's deceptively casual pursuit of the facts to probe the character of this seemingly likable bear of a man. Depardieu, always something of a big lug, has aged into a veritable mountain, lumbering across the screen, out of breath after ascending a flight of stairs — at times he seems to be collaborating in Chabrol's gentle mockery of the actor's bulk, though he also has a sense of dignity and self-assurance that prevents the film from ever seeming mean-spirited at his expense.

Bellamy, the character, is also dignified and self-assured, or at least he seems to be, though there are periodic cracks in his friendly surface façade. He's haunted by something, some mystery hidden behind his broad, amiable face and his charmingly dogged investigative methods. There are intimations that he has at times been a drunk like his brother, and Jacques' presence causes him to reach for the bottle more frequently again. He's constantly battling with Jacques, although moments later the two very different men — bulky, aging Paul and squat, muscular young Jacques — will laugh, with only traces of bitterness, over some shared and unspoken inside joke. There's also tremendous tension with Françoise, who's sending very mixed signals: she's openly contemptuous of Jacques while urging her husband to be nicer to his brother, and in private moments there's a taut sexual chemistry between Jacques and Françoise that may or may not be a sign of an actual affair. Certainly, the lithe, maturely sexy Françoise is an awkward match for her husband, and his constant affectionate pawing of her body is deliberately silly-looking, though she mostly doesn't seem to mind.

Much as Bellamy hides darker emotions behind a benign exterior, Chabrol's film is about anything but what it seems to be about on its surface. The inspector's involvement in the Leullet case stirs up something in Bellamy regarding his fractious relationship with his self-destructive brother. It's no mistake that the film's first shot and its last shot are mirror images of one another, linking Bellamy's policework with his private, personal traumas. The film is packed with doubles and mirrors, and Bellamy begins seeing himself in his suspect. At one point, the inspector wakes up screaming in the middle of the night, yelling out, "I'm a bastard." Moments later, Chabrol cuts to the inspector (initially blurry, until the image snaps into focus) listening to Leullet say the same thing, but it doesn't seem to be a flashback — the possible murderer is echoing the cop, rather than the other way around, suggesting that Bellamy's not just haunted by his case, but has some guilt of his own weighing on him. Later, that formulation is reversed when Leullet's insistence that he wants to be "a decent guy" prompts Bellamy to ask his wife if he's a decent guy, his uncertainty very obvious. Of course, he's looking in a mirror as he asks the question.

Bellamy is a sharp detective, but not necessarily in his private life. In one great scene, right as he says, "because I happen to face reality from time to time," he stumbles unseeingly towards an open manhole cover and nearly falls in, a strikingly obvious authorial intrusion that contradicts Bellamy's self-assurance, his conviction in his own decency. He's not facing reality; he doesn't even see what's right in front of him, and only his wife stops him from falling into the hole. The symbolism is crushingly obvious, and would seem heavy-handed if not for the dark humor with which Chabrol skewers this big lug's obliviousness.

Implicit in the film is the weight of guilt, and the difficulty of facing death, whether one's own or a loved one's. Death threads through the film right from the opening credits sequence, which weaves through a graveyard — with someone whistling a Brassens tune, off-camera, another clue to unraveling the Laullet mystery — before nudging off a nearby cliffside to take in a car wreck and the grisly, burnt body next to it. The film's final shot mirrors this one with another car wreck before panning up and away to gaze wistfully at the horizon instead, a simple final shot that takes on special significance as the last image of Chabrol's career.

All of this adds up to a typically dense and complex film that might just be the best film of the director's final decade. Witty, twisty, and deceptively casual in its plotting, beneath its surface, Inspector Bellamy is emotionally bracing and morally inquisitive, as surprisingly layered at its protagonist. "There is more than meets the eye," indeed.

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Golem (1920)

The Golem is one of the classics of German expressionist horror. Released the same year as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, it's neither as famous nor as great as that genre-defining landmark, but it's still an interesting film with a striking visual style. Directed by Carl Boese and Paul Wegener, and shot by the always fantastic Karl Freund, The Golem has a moody gothic style and some rudimentary but nonetheless creepy special effects. The film's sets aren't as stylized or twisted as the famously angular designs for Caligari, but this tale of a Jewish rabbi creating a monstrous servant made of clay takes place in a Polish ghetto the design of which is balanced neatly between realism and expressionism. The sets seem more solid and historically grounded than in Caligari, but there are still unmotivated, spiky shadows stretched across the walls and angular design flourishes everywhere. In one of the most compelling flourishes, the centerpiece of the rabbi's home is a twisting spiral staircase that looks oddly like the fleshy folds of a human ear.

The story, derived from Jewish mysticism, is familiar: a venerable rabbi (Albert Steinrück) conjures a Golem (Wegener), a man shaped out of clay who comes to life to serve as a stoical servant and protector of the ghetto. Obviously, any pre-World War II German film dealing with Jewish religion and ethnicity is going to be automatically interesting for reasons having little to do with the film, and this one is especially fascinating in its contradictions. It is ostensibly a story that portrays the mistreatment of Jews sympathetically, though the film's message is ultimately more tangled than that. Towards the beginning of the film, the Jews in the ghetto receive a chilling edict from the emperor that orders them to evacuate, that they are being kicked out of their homes, a reflection of the pogroms and abuses endured by the Jewish people in Europe even before the Nazis came to power. This is a reflection of the historical roots of Nazism in deeply engrained anti-Semitism, and yet the film itself doesn't avoid these stereotypes and prejudices, either.

Notably, the emperor's edict lists among the Jews' crimes participating in "the black arts," and indeed the film itself passes that stereotype along rather than denying it. True, the story of the Golem is rooted in Jewish mysticism, but the film presents the Jewish elders as a cross between wizards and mad scientists, participating in the dark arts and summoning demons to do their bidding. In one of the creepiest scenes, the rabbi performs a ritual — later echoed by F.W. Murnau in Faust — to summon a demon, who appears as a disembodied head floating in the darkness, smoke pouring from his gaping maw. The Jewish temple is rendered as a place of mysticism where the worshippers ritually bow and sway while the rabbi, dramatically posed in front of a row of gleaming candles, exhorts them from above. The film's presentation of Judaism is unavoidably tangled in myth, empathizing with the ghettoization and punishment of Jews while also revelling in familiar stereotypes and libels about demon worship and dark magic.

That contradictory subtext aside, the film is mostly compelling but tonally imbalanced. The true creepy horror moments are few, and for most of the film the Golem is less a threatening monster than a curiously practical servant who's used to fetch groceries and fetch wood, scenes that are played for deadpan humor as much as anything. There's also a wan subplot with the rabbi's daughter Miriam (Lyda Salmonova) being wooed by the non-Jewish knight Florian (Lothar Müthel), a romance that's surprising in its sexual frankness — Florian places his hand on Miriam's breast and at one point wakes up by her bedside, both of them half-dressed — but otherwise serves simply to set up an expected tragic conclusion.

Not surprisingly, the most memorable scenes are those in which the film's expressionist horror gets free rein. Wegener's lumbering Golem was an obvious visual reference point for James Whale's Frankenstein, with his bulky, awkward form and the sentimental emotionality lurking beneath the monster's horrific visage. For a man made of clay, Wegener's Golem is very expressive, even hammy, always glancing around with an ironically arched eyebrow, gritting his teeth and widening his eyes to convey anger, his mouth horribly twisted into a hybrid of a grimace and a grin. He's undone, ultimately, by his sentimentality: like Frankenstein's monster after him, he's capable of love and warm feelings, and when he's moved by the sight of a little girl, she's able to innocently, playfully remove the amulet that gives him life.

The Golem, with its plodding pace and contradictory ideas about its Jewish subject, hasn't dated as well as some of its more famous contemporaries from the German silent era. But it's still a fascinating, visually striking film that, like Caligari, was a major influence on the horror films that would follow it.

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Night of the Hunted

Jean Rollin's The Night of the Hunted is a typically moody, abstractly haunting film from the idiosyncratic horror auteur. More even than most of his work, this film dispenses with any actual concrete horror in favor of a vague sense of disquiet that's almost entirely psychological and mental. This is a haunting study of the nature of memory and its linkage to identity and human consciousness, and the fear here arises almost entirely from the loss of memory, from the feeling of one's sense of self slipping away with one's memory. It's about fear of the loss of self, making this an entirely existential horror film.

The film opens in the fashion of Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly: a young woman (Brigitte Lahaie), dressed only in a filmy nightie, runs out of the dark forest one night and into the path of a car driven by Robert (Alain Duclos). She tells him that her name is Elisabeth, and she's running in terror of something, but she doesn't remember what — moments later, she doesn't even remember that her name is Elisabeth. Her memories keep slipping away from her; it's not just amnesia, but the slippage of even short-term memory, so that if Robert were to be out of her sight for just a few minutes she'd forget him too. Naturally, she clings to him desperately, and he takes this confused, frightened girl back to his apartment, where he comforts her and they soon have sex, in a scene of cheesy, gratuitous softcore of the kind that Rollin almost always slotted into his films, and yet here the sex is tinged with desperation and a genuine thirst for connection. Elisabeth lives only in the present moment, she says, and she clings to each moment like a precious raft in a sea of nothingness, because each present moment is all she has to hang onto. She urges him on, demanding that he stay with her, that he not let her forget; her intense desire for a memory to cling to makes what could otherwise have been a rote, porny sex scene surprisingly poignant, both passionate and deeply sad.

Apparently, though, this whole situation doesn't leave enough of an impression on Robert, who, hapless as most male Rollin heroes, soon goes off to work, leaving Elisabeth alone to forget him, and herself, all over again. She's quickly found by the doctors she'd apparently been fleeing at the beginning of the film, and they take her to an apartment building that houses other patients, like her, whose memories are continually erased. Most of Rollin's previous work was set in the majestically ruined countryside, in crumbling ancient castles and disused graveyards, but The Night of the Hunted is an urban film, with a very different aesthetic. Rollin's haunted rural castles and fields had always been both creepy and beautiful, mingling fear and foreboding with the strange allure of death and the supernatural. In this film, though, the sinisterly blank apartment towers and concrete wastelands of the city are merely creepy, the building's surfaces and interiors as blank as the minds of the inhabitants. The building, obviously an abandoned office tower, is nearly undecorated, its walls stark white or black, and the patients, with their missing memories, wander aimlessly through these blank, sterile spaces, the austerity of their surroundings reflecting the emptiness of their lives.

It's a haunting, disturbingly poetic film, especially in its first half, before a series of pointless sex scenes and pseudo-scientific exposition dumps disrupt the poetic vibe. At the apartment, Elisabeth meets two other women who are afflicted as she is: Catherine (Cathy Stewart), whose memory is so bad that she can't even remember how to eat, and Véronique (Dominique Journet), who Elisabeth seems to vaguely remember from her previous life. The scenes between these women are evocative and poignant, as they struggle from moment to moment to remember something, to hold onto some memory, some experience, some person who means something to them. They invent stories and memories for each other. Catherine and Elisabeth pretend that they were childhood friends, though like everything else that game too soon slips away from them. Later, they encounter a woman who's constantly searching for her lost child: she remembers, or thinks she remembers, that she once had a child, but not the child's name or even its gender.

Rollin is delving into the nature of memory and what it means to the construction of one's identity: without memory these people are nothing, no one, barely even alive, their very selves erased along with their pasts. These scenes are deeply emotional, infused with tenderness and sadness, the film's opening already forgotten because these mysteriously afflicted people truly live exclusively in the present tense. In her previous collaborations with Rollin, The Grapes of Death and Fascination, Lehaie, who started her career as a porn actress, projected a fierce carnality, a feral, sexualized violence that made her the ultimate femme fatale. She seems like almost a different actress here, her intensity transmuted into vulnerability, melancholy, a sense of loss that seems to infuse her every gesture, her every fragile, innocent expression.

The film falls apart a bit at around the halfway point, replacing this moody exploration of loss and mental anguish with a number of gratuitous scenes of violence-tinged eroticism, which seem to have come from an entirely different film. Robert also returns towards the end, and the plot is needlessly explained in multiple exposition-laden speeches delivered by the sinister doctor. But the film's final image, which compares the memory-less Elisabeth to the shambling walking dead of a zombie film, provides an effective, eerily romantic finale for a strange, and strangely affecting, film. The Night of the Hunted is ultimately uneven and flawed, only sporadically delivering on its promise and its evocative study of memory and identity. At its best, though, the film achieves the haunting quality of Rollin's other films without any of the supernatural or horror elements that generally characterized his other work.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Comedy of Power

Claude Chabrol's Comedy of Power is somewhat ironically titled, and knowingly so, because there's little that's funny about this deadpan chronicle of an investigation into the abuses of various politically connected businessmen and corrupt politicians. The film opens, disingenuously, with the usual disclaimer about the film's fictional nature, any resemblance to real people being a coincidence, and so on, when of course this film is thoroughly grounded in real world analogues. These corrupt businessmen are extremely recognizable from any number of real scandals, these men (always men, of course) who line their pockets, lavish company funds on their mistresses, funnel money off into foreign bank accounts, dodge taxes and bribe anyone who could potentially stand in their way.

Investigating one of these scandals is Jeanne Charmant-Killman (Isabelle Huppert), a powerful judge who deposes various high-ranking corporate officers and political functionaries in an effort to trace a web of corruption and graft through the chambers of power, as high and as far as it goes. She starts with Humeau (François Berléand), the former chairman of a politically connected organization that operates in foreign countries, and she begins working up from him to more important figures in what seems to be a tremendous network of rich, powerful men. The film is very simple in form, consisting mostly of a series of conversations between Jeanne and her subjects, shot in intimate closeups that capture her brisk efficiency and their nervous, almost self-consciously boyish embarrassment at getting caught. Humeau is a mess, constantly scratching at his nervous skin condition, leaving splotchy red marks on his face as he withers under Jeanne's relentless questioning. Later, the smoother Boldi (Jean-François Balmer) confesses, chuckling shyly, that he's not used to squealing.

All these good old boys, these powerful men with their expensive lifestyles and mistresses and palatial homes, are being brought down and humbled by a petite, unassuming woman. As in many of Chabrol's late films, he's dealing with female archetypes and clichés: the victim (A Girl Cut In Two), the femme fatale (The Bridesmaid) and, here, the frigid career woman. Jeanne is a wiry bundle of nervous energy, seldom sleeping through the night, always getting up to check on some facts or think about her work. Her husband (Robin Renucci) is quietly detached from her, their marriage passionless. During interviews at work, she projects smug professionalism, asking sarcastically loaded questions and flashing quick, strained smiles that convey anything but mirth.

Jeanne is a bit of a stereotype, the cooly ambitious ladder-climbing bitch, but then the men she's opposing are every bit as stereotyped, because Chabrol is deconstructing this familiar male/female power dynamic, examining the ways in which male power is assumed and engrained in the very structure of society, while female power like Jeanne's is more ephemeral, requiring constant hard work to maintain, demanding every moment of her attention, and even then it can be taken away without warning at any time because she's not truly in power. The real power brokers meet in office suites with majestic views, smoking huge cigars, discussing their next move while Chabrol playfully accompanies their chats with outrageously sinister music, telegraphing their status as stereotypical big business movie villains.

Throughout the film, no matter how far Jeanne digs into these conspiracies and scandals, the business goes on as usual, the real powers untouched as the underlings and public figures take the fall and are seamlessly replaced by new, equally malleable figureheads. Towards the end of the film, these fat cats meet to analyze the damage done to their work by Jeanne's investigation and arrests, and they merely conclude, "the system held up well," that the overall structure remains intact no matter how many pawns are taken. Chabrol is powerfully conveying a sense of the fruitlessness of fighting against this kind of power from within: Jeanne dedicates her life to her work, to her sense of justice and her pride in her own competence, sacrificing private and familial happiness in the process, but what she ultimately accomplishes is a flashy show that does nothing to get to the core of the problem.

The real issue is international, and involves Western governments and businesses meddling in the Third World, as hinted at in the scene where several of these men meet with an African leader. Considering the real global stakes and the governmentally sanctioned exploitation of, as Jeanne says, countries where people routinely die of curable diseases, Jeanne's exposé of businessmen with mistresses and personal extravagances charged to corporate credit cards begins to seem petty and beside the point. If this is a "comedy of power," then the joke is on Jeanne, and it's probably being told in a smoke-filled private club by one of these untouchably powerful men.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Unconscious London Strata/The Mammals of Victoria

Unconscious London Strata is one of Stan Brakhage's gloriously abstract studies of light and color, with virtually no grounding in concrete forms. The film consists of a rapidly edited montage of blurred, vague images in which any physical context has been smeared away, leaving behind only layered, overlapping colors and bursts of brilliant light. The effect is beautiful and sensual, and in this case Brakhage's layered forms specifically recall the canvasses of Mark Rothko, with sedimentary layers of colors stacked on top of one another in fuzzy strata. As the title suggests, these images are often striated, colors abutting one another in hazy proximity, those beautifully grainy color fields that convey a spiritual, moving quality remarkably similar to the effect produced by Rothko's paintings.

Only towards the end of the film do these abstract fields start to cohere, at least slightly and sporadically, into recognizable images of a building, possibly (and appropriately) a cathedral. Even here, the images are by no means concrete, and the building's form is still abstracted, split apart into momentary flashes of an angled corner or a spire turned upside down. Occasionally, the flickering, shaking images resolve into a second or two of a silhouetted skyline, blocky buildings lined up along a horizon of golden light, but that image too is illusory, gone in a moment.

For the most part, Brakhage refrains from even that much of a hint of physicality. Like his even more sensuous and beautiful light study The Text of Light, this film treats light and color as absolutes, pure visual phenomena without reference or connection to the tangible sources from which these lights emanate. As with Rothko, the effect is both utterly simple and utterly breathtaking.

In The Mammals of Victoria, Stan Brakhage focuses mainly on images of the sea. This is the second part of a four-part series based on the life of Brakhage's wife Marilyn, but there's very little human — or, indeed, mammalian — presence here. Instead, the film is full of images of water in its many forms: rippling blue waves, a black nighttime ocean with speckles of light shimmering across its surface, little wavelets lapping up against a muddy outcropping in the shallows by the shore. Brakhage returns several times to that image of mud piles sticking up out of the water, at one point showing the mud crumbling as the water licks at it, slowly eroding and erasing it. The film's contemplation of nature, with humanity at most a peripheral presence, emphasizes each individual's brief span of life when compared against the rolling, unceasing rhythms of the waves and the tides, the ancient perpetual motion machines of the natural world.

Towards the end of the film, Brakhage includes a pair of evocative, mysterious shots that appear to have been taken from a moving car. In the first, two other cars speed by, their headlights briefly flaring at the camera before whipping around the curve of the road and out of the corner of the frame. The car that the camera is in then continues along the road, turning into the sun, which cuts through the trees and washes out the image in a haze of white light. In the second, simpler shot, the camera simply gazes out of the car as it approaches a modestly sloping hill in the road, approaching this point on the horizon beyond which the road can no longer be seen. The hazy, sun-dazed shot suggests the slow progress into the unknown, a graceful glide up and over a slope into the unknown world beyond. These two images add a subtle narrative component to the film, a hint of action and agency, just as the shots of people playing in the waves, which also don't appear until late in the film, belatedly introduce characters. Before this, for much of the film there's little indication of human presence at all, only an occasional blurry, blink-and-it's-gone shot of somebody wading through the water.

Brakhage is also exploring different forms of distortion: the wavery quality of an image seen from beneath a film of water, the static and flickering of a TV set, the grainy haze of low-quality film stock. Brakhage seems to be using several different types of film, contrasting the clarity of an image of rocks jutting out of the water against blurry, nearly impenetrable landscape shots. The different film stocks contribute to the film's eclectic visual style, which explores textures both smooth and rough, as well as stitching in a few short painted segments. The painted sequences flicker by quickly, and are mostly pretty routine, not at all the best examples of Brakhage's hand-painting. (An exception is a flurry of cosmic star fields and swirling galaxy-like forms that appears towards the end of the film.) The painting in this film mostly seems like a placeholder, a brief visual palette cleanser connecting photographed images, often segueing seamlessly into an out-of-focus image of lights hovering in a dark field, drawing a connection between Brakhage's photographic abstractions of the world and his painted abstractions.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Dark Habits

Pedro Almodóvar's fourth feature, Dark Habits, was also his first commercially produced film after a few independent works. The film has a campy, absurdist premise — a nightclub singer hides out from the police at a convent with a group of very strange nuns — that it never quite lives up to. Yolanda (Cristina Sánchez Pascuel) flees when her boyfriend dies from heroin that had been laced with strychnine, and she remembers some nuns who run a refuge for prostitutes and drug addicts. She goes to stay with them but finds that the place is a rather unconventional convent, struggling and in danger of closing, with nuns who all have their personal vices and idiosyncrasies. The Mother Superior (Julieta Serrano) is a lesbian who adores Yolanda and shoots up heroin, plying her new charge with drugs as well. Another nun trips on acid (which Almodóvar represents through point-of-view shots with garish colors). Another secretly writes trashy romance novels, and another raises a full-grown tiger in the yard, playing bongo drums for it and feeding it chunks of raw meat.

With all this weirdness, gay desire and drugs in a convent, it's hard to imagine how Almodóvar managed to make a boring movie, but somehow he did. This is a dull and unevenly acted movie in which Almodóvar seems desperate to be wild and crazy, but the whole thing just plays out as flat. Most of the performances are sadly lacking in charisma, especially Pascuel, who seems to simply drift aimlessly through the film. There's not much of a plot to speak of, either: the convent is in danger of closing, and Yolanda has to hide out, but for most of the movie nothing much happens, and these conflicts are only developed sporadically and lazily. It's a weirdly inert and unsatisfying film that's lacking in the spirited, lively humor that always flows through Almodóvar's best work.

There are scattered enjoyable moments, though, especially centering on the relationship between the Mother Superior and Yolanda, which is hardly developed at all, unfortunately. In two separate scenes, Yolanda sings a song directly to the nun, and Almodóvar switches between closeups of them; the nun's beatific smile and tranquil expression is very moving in these scenes, a lovely expression of desire and contentment. Following the second of these scenes, after Yolanda has performed a song at a convent party, singing directly at the Mother Superior the whole time, the nun gushes to her that she was "so obscene." The nun then lingers in the room a moment while Yolanda, her back turned, strips off her dress, turning and revealing a single bare breast, a shocking moment of sexuality for the lovelorn nun. Even funnier is the blasphemous moment when the nun places a towel over the singer's face, taking an imprint of her like the Turin Shroud; when she pulls the towel away, it is coated with a delicate painting of the singer, a ludicrous secular, and sensual, miracle.

Indeed, the film's final act offers up a few sudden resolutions that are fairly satisfying even if the rest of the film doesn't build up to them in any real way. One of the nuns has been nursing an unspoken desire for the parish priest, and at the end of the film they decide to run away together and forsake their vows, adopting the tiger as their "son" to form a happy nuclear family. The nun compares her love for the priest to the tiger, growing unseen and unsuspected, but dangerous, within the supposedly safe walls of the convent. The final scene, in which the Mother Superior finds out that Yolanda has left and screams in anguish, is also affecting, perhaps because Serrano delivers the best performance in the whole cast. In the final shot, Almodóvar pulls away from the Mother Superior being embraced by another nun, the camera floating out the window to observe the scene from a distance, framed through a window.

Also compelling is a scene where Yolanda, going through drug withdrawal, spends a restless few days haunted by religious images, which Almodóvar superimposes over closeups of a haggard-looking Yolanda. At one point, a statue is being lowered into position with a rope around its neck, like a noose, and it twirls in the air, so that whenever it faces towards the camera its face is juxtaposed with Yolanda's, briefly superimposing the blank, at-peace expression of the religious figure with the tortured face of the drug addict.

Such moments hint at the visual imagination and feel for expressive, bold images that Almodóvar would develop much further in his later work. Even just a few years later he'd be making uneven but undeniably potent camp melodramas like Matador and Law of Desire, but here he still seems tentative. The nuns-doing-drugs-and-having-sex material is curiously restrained for a director who usually has no fear of pushing beyond the boundaries of good taste, and it hurts the film, making it seem as though it wants to hint at offensive content without actually doing much to offend anyone.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Three Kurt Kren shorts, 1969-1982

[This is part of a sporadic series in which I explore the work of the Austrian DVD label Index DVD. This company has released a great deal of valuable European experimental cinema onto DVD, naturally focusing on the Austrian underground but occasionally branching out as well. Index's DVDs are distributed in the US by Erstwhile Records, so anyone intrigued by Index's catalog should take a look and support the fine work both these companies are doing for obscure and avant-garde cinema. The three films reviewed here appear on the Kurt Kren collection Which Way To CA?.]

Underground Explosion is Kurt Kren's approximation of the feeling of being frazzled and high at a rock concert. Kren was recording a performance by Krautrock band Amon Düül II at a 1969 underground music festival, but the recording is anything but a straightforward documentation. Instead, the frenzied, fragmentary nature of the film captures the drug-fueled, hazy nature of the music itself, communicating the confused, confusing sensation of this music and these kinds of experimental 60s festivals. The images are shaky and rapidly collaged together so that the action is often unclear: lights, mobs of people, a stage full of musicians, men slow-dancing with one another, performers stripping down at the microphone, a guitar, someone singing. Only sporadically does the frantic flow of images slow down, and then as often as not it's only to photograph some near-empty corner of the auditorium, the camera not settling down on anything in particular. The jagged pace of the editing is what really counts, the shapes and colors that go flying by, rather than the actual content.

Similarly, the soundtrack seldom provides much of a clue as to what the band actually sounds like, their spiky, dissonant rock jams only occasionally coming through clearly. Most of the time, the sound is as unpredictable as the images, giving the impression not of listening to a rock band but of listening to their bassy, distorted pulses through thick walls in a room next door to where they're actually playing. The soundtrack is muted, distorted, sometimes seemingly even reversed and manipulated, the sound occasionally fading out almost entirely to a dull headache-like throb at the edges of awareness.

Like Andy Warhol's famous deconstructive portrait of the Velvet Underground, this film is unsatisfying as a concrete document of a performance, but very satisfying indeed as a blurry, subjective suggestion of the feeling of being there.

Auf der Pfaueninsel is a devilishly simple conceptual joke told with Kurt Kren's characteristic deadpan wit. The film is a minute and 21 seconds long, which consists of a solid minute of methodically displayed credits followed by a few short snippets of "home movies" showing members of the Vienna Aktionists and family members at leisure. The joke is one of expectation, as Kren's opening credits lists the names of Günter Brus and the other Aktionists who will appear in the film. One expects something like Kren's other Aktionist films, a frantic collage of horrifying excerpts from the group's scatological, provocative performances.

Instead, Kren shows the provocateurs offstage, outside of the theater, as family and friends. They're taking a walk, visiting the zoo, goofing around a bit. Brus sees a van with some writing on the side and uses his hands to cover up some of the letters so that it spells "Brus," the kind of goofy, self-conscious joke that anyone would do in a home movie made while hanging around with friends. The other shots in this quick flash of footage are even more mundane, showing the members of the performance art troupe standing around looking at zoo enclosures or just walking along; most of the people named in the credits are never even seen clearly, just appearing from behind as they stroll with their family and friends. It's a very simple gag but a very clever one as well, a way of interrogating the public/private divide. Just because this is a film introduced with a cast list, does that make it every bit as much a performance or a piece of art as the Aktionists' usual displays? Or is it merely a "home movie" like any other?

Getting Warm was the third and best of the three self-described "bad home movies" that Kurt Kren made on a 1981-82 trip to the United States (the other two films in this trilogy of three-minute shorts were Which Way To CA? and Breakfast im Grauen). Shot in New England and Austin, Texas, this is the only one of the three films to be in color, and the change in film stock makes a big difference, giving the film a sensual, evocative quality very different from the dull, quotidian, washed-out grays of the other two films. Kren has said that these films are purposefully more amateurish than real amateur movies, the joke of the "bad home movie" description being that even amateur home documentarians usually edit their tapes a little, whereas Kren leaves in everything he shot. All the banal moments are left in, creating a home movie that simply captures a string of disconnected, soundless, usually quite unassuming moments. At one point, Kren even leaves in a shot in a room where it's too dark to see anything, and the frame goes entirely black for a few moments, the darkness too a document of something that happened, something seen and experienced and captured for posterity on film.

At another point, Kren cuts from night to day and back to night again, with three consecutive shots of a Safeway sign, glowing an eerie neon blue in the darkness, one of the only points of light, but rendered ordinary and unremarkable again in the light of day, in the daytime shot sandwiched in between those two quick slices of neon-lit night. Similarly, a television set flickers and glows, sometimes a square of light surrounded by black, sometimes just a focal point for the bored gaze of a reclining man on the nearby bed. Kren cuts in different views, different times of day and different lightings, to show how ordinary objects can shift and change depending on context, sometimes acquiring a weird prosaic kind of beauty for a few brief moments before a cut.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Hell Bent

Hell Bent is a rare early John Ford Western, once thought lost, one of the director's many collaborations with the actor Harry Carey, with whom Ford made a total of 25 Westerns in the early part of his career. Carey plays a signature character called Cheyenne Harry, inevitably a no-good, low-level crook who's redeemed by the love of a good woman; that general narrative runs through both this film and the earlier Straight Shooting from the previous year. Carey is simultaneously anti-hero, hero, and comic buffoon, balancing his heroism with the rougher aspects of his persona, which often play out in comic drunkenness and general shiftlessness.

Even early in his career, Ford was already interested in combining comedy and drama in his films. Harry is introduced, in a way, while he's offscreen: the first evidence Ford shows of his presence is a saloon in shambles from a raucous fight over a card game, with Harry, accused of cheating, already having fled the scene. When the film finally catches up to him, he's manically pulling cards out of his sleeves and pockets, throwing away the evidence of his misbehavior. He's no good, a cheat and a brawler, and he promptly spends his winnings on alcohol, stumbling drunkenly through a series of comic showdowns with Cimmaron Bill (Duke R. Lee), which eventually lead to the two men bonding and becoming friends over a drunken singalong.

Naturally, Harry has to be tamed by the moderating influence of a woman, in this case Bess (Neva Gerber), who tames Harry so thoroughly that he's soon giving her a cuddly little puppy as a present. When Bess' brother Jack (Vester Pegg) gets mixed up with the outlaw Beau Ross (Joseph Harris), of course it's Harry who has to defend the girl and defeat the crooks, redeeming himself from his own less-than-legal ways and becoming the hero that, as the lead, he had to become. Interestingly, the film's framing device acknowledges Harry's status as a fictional archetype, opening with an author receiving a letter requesting a hero who's an ordinary man, "as bad as he is good." The novelist, musing on this request, walks over to Frederic Remington's painting A Misdeal, which Ford then restages as the aftermath of Harry's violent card game.

Also already apparent at this early stage of Ford's career is the director's penchant for striking natural vistas. The scenes of outlaws and posses scrambling through the rocky terrain have a casual splendor, with the emphasis always placed on the landscapes rather than the men and horses racing through this rugged territory. Criminals ride up into the foreground and raise rifles over their heads, signaling to the rest of their gang, while the hills stretch off into the distance behind them. Ford has a real feel for the landscapes of the West, and the exterior scenes here are uniformly stunning in composition and natural beauty: narrow canyons running down the center of the frame, tall hills that push the riding figures all the way to the top of the frame, big empty skies that tower above the land, pregnant with clouds.

Especially striking is the climactic sequence in which Harry chases Ross into the desert, a bleak expanse of nothingness where the hero and the villain are reduced to black specks against the large swaths of white sand. Their shootout is staged in a long shot, the two men stumbling towards one another in the wasteland, firing their guns and falling to their knees in the sand. The subsequent sequence in which they struggle to make it back to civilization without a horse similarly makes compelling use of the sparse surroundings, capturing the emptiness and desperation of this journey across the desert, culminating in mirages shimmering into view in the wastes and a sand storm that buries the two rivals.

Hell Bent isn't Ford's best collaboration with Carey, nor is it among the best of his early Westerns, but like the other surviving Ford/Carey movies, it's a spirited and well-crafted Western. Ford's visual sensibility, though still mostly static here, is already striking and promising.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Battle of the River Plate

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Battle of the River Plate is a scrupulously authentic film about a real World War II battle, in which a trio of British cruisers pursued a German battleship that had been sinking ships along British supply lines. It's a tense, well-crafted war movie that uses real World War II era ships — including at least some of the ships that were actually involved in this encounter — to recreate this intense naval battle and its aftermath along the coast of Uruguay.

The film opens by humanizing the German Captain of the Graf Spee, Langsdorff (Peter Finch), who takes aboard the British Captain Dove (Bernard Lee), the skipper of the Graf Spee's latest victim. The two captains, from opposite sides of the war, nevertheless immediately strike up a gentlemanly repartee based on mutual respect and rivalry. Later, after the battle, Langsdorff expresses awed admiration for the cruisers that had attacked him and sent him into retreat. Seemingly stunned by the way the battle had occurred, he is shocked that the three smaller ships had charged directly at him as though they were much bigger; so great was their bravery, he says, that he was convinced they were actually trying to drive him towards an unseen fleet of much bigger ships, which in fact did not exist. Langsdorff is obviously an honorable man: when, during the post-battle diplomatic negotiations, the propagandistic Nazi reports about the battle are read aloud, Langsdorff paces anxiously back and forth, bristling at this distortion of the battle, which minimizes the bravery of the British sailors and the damage taken by the Graf Spee.

The film is steeped in the value of coolness under fire, valorizing the British officers and sailors who always maintain their gentlemanly reserve and their dry wit in the face of battle and death. The captain of one ship, under heavy fire, is injured in his legs and spends the rest of the battle dispensing commands while a medical orderly applies bandages and stitches to his wounded legs; when the captain notices that the doctor is applying bandages to his left leg as well as his right, he remarks that he hadn't even noticed that both legs were wounded. The same valor is displayed by the lower-ranking sailors as well. When the gunnery station of one ship is blown apart by shells, the wounded and bleeding men struggle to maintain their stations, asking only that doctors are sent down below to tend to them while they prepare to fire again. One of the men, when asked how he is, remarks only that it's "a bit drafty" with all the jagged holes in the hull.

At the height of the battle, Powell and Pressburger cut back and forth between the three British ships and the captured British officers imprisoned in the hold of the Graf Spee. They're in a tough position, cheering on the British navy even though they know that a direct hit on the enemy means their own deaths, that they'll likely go down with the German ship if their own side wins this battle. The heroic sailors cheer on the pursuing British cruisers anyway, speaking as though they're with the British: "we're on their trail," they cheer, even though in fact they're in the heart of the German ship, awaiting destruction at the hands of their own side.

Powell and Pressburger create a moody, potent nighttime atmosphere in scenes of British ships drifting through the night, hunting the Graf Spee with a red-tinged night sky hanging overhead. The nights are eerily quiet, the ships cutting through the water with the dull murmur of their engines and the water lapping at their bows. The images have a sightly unreal magic hour beauty, the red glow in the sky setting the bulky silhouettes of the ships off from the glistening water. Later in the film, Powell and Pressburger's depiction of the harbor of Montevideo, where the Graf Spee takes shelter after the battle, is equally compelling, as the film shifts from the claustrophobic intensity of the naval war sequences to the tense diplomacy and negotiations that take place over the German battleship in this neutral country. The atmosphere of this small harbor, now flooded with journalists, sailors and diplomats, is rowdy and colorful, with much of the action here centered in a small bar where an American reporter (Lionel Murton) sends out breathless dispatches on the struggle over the Graf Spee.

This is a film all about the glory of war, about the nobility of the men who face death so bravely and stoically, whichever side they fight for. It's an almost romantic film, with its depictions of calm battles where no one seems especially ruffled even when men are dying all around them, and images of war ships smoothly gliding through the water beneath dramatically lit skies. The film's climax occurs right at twilight — "the twilight of the gods," one observer in Montevideo remarks dramatically — as the long-awaited showdown between the Graf Spee and the ships amassing to prevent its escape occurs against a blackening sky, the flames of an exploding ship lighting up the night while red and purple hues fill the sky above.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Bridesmaid

The Bridesmaid is a somewhat typical film for Claude Chabrol, a chilly, unsettling, at times darkly humorous movie that's nominally a thriller but doesn't put much emphasis at all on plot or mystery or even suspense. Philippe (Benoît Magimel) is a serious young man who falls in love with Senta (Laura Smet), a bridesmaid at his sister's wedding, a cousin of the groom. Senta, unfortunately, turns out to be utterly crazy, a lunatic femme fatale who says that the couple are fated to be together, and whose declarations of love are from the very beginning tinged with more than a hint of obsession. Philippe, who must be somewhat crazy himself, just can't stay away, even when she demands that he kill for her, and he keeps convincing himself that her crazier moments are playful performances — she's an actress, she says, who's had roles with Woody Allen and John Malkovich — rather than genuine expressions of the deeper malaise lurking behind her placid face.

Smet gives a fine, subtly creepy performance here, projecting a mild, blank exterior with an occasional slyly upturned smile, her very tranquility what makes her so unnerving. Magimel is playing a role very similar to his part in Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher: a handsome, ambitious, slightly smug young man who gets way over his head in a relationship with stakes he doesn't fully understand. Not that Philippe is entirely normal, and there's an aura of sexual dysfunction throughout the film that feeds into the passionate affair between Philippe and Senta.

There's some awkward sexual tension between Philippe and his mother, Christine (Aurore Clément), in the opening scenes, some ambiguity in their relationship which is then transmuted into the stone carving of a woman's head that the family has dubbed Flora. Christine's boyfriend says that the statue looks like her, and when Philippe first sees Senta, he says that she looks like Flora, whereupon the camera pans over to the now-empty pedestal where the head had once sat, since they'd given it as a gift to Christine's boyfriend. Philippe steals it back and keeps it illicitly in his room, taking it out to admire when no one is around, as though it's a pornographic secret that he can only appreciate in private. This stone head is a locus of complex, unstated feelings, a surrogate for Senta with her blank, unreadable expressions, and Philippe frequently sleeps with the stone head curled up in his arms as though he's embracing a lover with an invisible body. At one point, he even holds the head tenderly and kisses Flora on the lips, kissing both his mom and his lover through this unfeeling stone, an uncomplicated stand-in for the flesh-and-blood women in his life.

Chabrol was, of course, always a big admirer of Alfred Hitchcock, whose thrillers provided something of a structuring principle for Chabrol's entire career, a central influence that he was continually mining and circling around. This is especially true here, and The Bridesmaid is built around a warped version of the murder-exchange deal from Strangers on a Train, with Senta asking Philippe to commit a murder for him, and she'll do the same for him, as a way of proving their love for one another. Chabrol doesn't delve into the suspense of the situation, since it's obvious from almost the moment she's introduced that Senta is disturbed, so the only real questions in the film arise from various misunderstandings and coincidences, with the "wrong" men being murdered. Chabrol then ends the film with a not-so-shocking but still satisfying revelation, unveiling a dessicated corpse with all the flair of Hitchcock's shot of Norman Bates' mother in Psycho — though of course Chabrol, never terribly interested in pat psychology or definitive explanations, ends the film there rather than dealing with the psychoanalytical aftermath.

There's some chilling material here, hinted at by the opening scenes in which Philippe and his family watch a TV report about a missing girl, which Chabrol uses as an opportunity to mock the exploitative, grisly sensationalism of TV news reports of violence, projecting these spectacles of suffering into meticulously decorated suburban living rooms. But the film is also darkly funny, with a subtle undercurrent of humor that tweaks the thriller and murder mystery conventions of the story; this is best seen in the moment when a police detective, tailing Philippe through a park, walks across the frame and steps in a big pile of dog shit, wiping his heel on the ground as he continues to follow his target. It's this kind of deadpan humor that cleverly shows Chabrol's slightly tongue-in-cheek perspective on this otherwise serious psychosexual thriller.

There's also a rich vein of sexual humor, since it's sex that blinds Philippe to the danger of his lover; he's having so much fun in bed that he manages to overlook the girl's obsession with murder and her strange, contradictory stories about a globe-trotting past of acting and prostitution. At one point, Philippe is talking on the phone about his home decoration job, discussing "pipework" with an elderly woman while Senta puts her hand between his legs and lowers herself to her knees in front of him. Everything becomes sexual, charged with eroticism, with passion in the bedroom tangled up with the violent passions broadcast over the TV and published in newspapers.

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.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Wild Reeds

In Wild Reeds, director André Téchiné dramatizes the moment right on the cusp between adolescence and adulthood, right at the moment when teens are struggling to define themselves, to cope with burgeoning sexual desires and decide what they want from life, where they're heading and what they'll be doing in the future. The film sets this awakening against the backdrop of the Algerian War, as so many French films have, juxtaposing the passage into adulthood with the loss of innocence represented by the violence and political turmoil of Algeria.

Téchiné renders this story with a wan and somewhat faded color palette, like an old photograph, worn and frayed by the nostalgia accrued in the decades between this 1962 summer and the film's production. Téchiné himself would have been 19 in the year the film is set, suggesting that he's drawing on his own experiences, his own memories of the discomfiting intimacy between his own adolescence and the background of war and confusion against which it occurred.

The film is elegant and delicate, the camera gently tracking around the quartet of teenagers at the story's core. There's François (Gaël Morel), who's starting to realize that he's gay, nursing an intense desire for his schoolmate Serge (Stéphane Rideau). François is also the platonic kind-of boyfriend of Maïté (Élodie Bouchez); they've been friends since childhood and are thought of as though they're dating even though nothing has ever happened between them. This neat triangle — Serge desires Maïté, who says she doesn't care about François' sudden realizations about himself, even though she's clearly shocked — is complicated by the presence of Henri (Frédéric Gorny), an arrogant and elitist youth who's immersed in the news from Algeria, where he lived until just recently.

Algeria and the politics surrounding it haunt the film, and political convictions are one of the things that these young people must come to grips with as they try to decide who they are. Henri is a far-right partisan of the French nationalist terrorist group the O.A.S., whose activities are mentioned frequently on the radio news reports that Henri's always listening to. Maïté, like her mother (Michèle Moretti), is a Communist, though one senses that she doesn't share her mother's absolutist conviction in the cause. Maïté's mother, a schoolteacher, is such a partisan that she hands out grades in her English class based on the political ideas expressed in papers, and there are references to Maïté's father leaving them because she was immersed in her cause to the exclusion of all else.

The film's dominant composition is the two-shot, as the young people pair off into different couplings, different combinations, as though experimenting to see what works. Téchiné captures them in intimate two-shots, their faces overlapping and close together, electric tension suspended in the scant space between them, their uncertainty and confusion passing between them in the glances they give each other, the hesitant intimacy of their dawning desires. For most of the film, Téchiné never even brings all of the characters together, restricting them to these alternating pairs and quasi-couples. Occasionally, Henri tries to horn in on the furtive intimacy between Serge and François, but not until the very end of the film do all the characters come together, first as a cheerful threesome that recalls Band of Outsiders or Jules and Jim, and then as a full quartet — though they quickly pair off again before the finale suggests that they're all heading in separate directions anyway.

The film is all about the contrasts and resonances between their fresh young faces. Serge, befriending François, tells him that they'll go well together because they're such different "types," and indeed they are, François delicate and boyish in contrast to the broad, tanned working class face of the farmer Serge. The sensuality between them is enhanced by the differences in their types, which is a way of saying the differences in their backgrounds, the differences in their economic class — and thus the differences in their likely futures, as Serge ultimately decides that all he wants is to stay on his family's farm, while François seems bound to graduate and head off to more intellectual pursuits.

This uncertainty about the future is what makes the film so poignant, so gently moving. It's a touching, emotionally complex film with a real sensitivity to nuance: in one scene, the confused François pays a visit to the only gay man he knows, the owner of the town's shoe store, and though the man seems uncomfortable talking about his sexuality and can't help François, Téchiné grants the man a parting closeup that is searing in its directness, capturing the expression of yearning, confusion, and recognition on his face as he watches François walk away. That shot makes it clear that the man desperately wants or needs to talk to someone, but can't find the words any more than François can.

Téchiné treats his themes with delicacy and grace, never forcing an epiphany or trying too hard to resolve the ambiguity of these relationships. Instead, the film is warm and sensuous, capturing with precision and understated emotion the time in life when everything seems hazy, when political convictions and sexual desires and ambitions about life and love and work are all up in the air, and anything might still be possible. The film, though, is about the closing of those horizons, the narrowing down of all possibilities to those few that seem appealing and likely.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Just Pals

Just Pals is a warm, pleasant, low-key early silent from John Ford, a simple and rather loose film about a town bum and the young rail-riding kid who he befriends. Bim (Buck Jones) is a layabout, reviled all around town as a good-for-nothing bum who will never trouble himself to do a bit of work that he doesn't have to do. In one nice shot early on, Ford shows Bim lounging around in a hayloft while, in the deep focus background, laborers work hard down below. Bim shouts out to them, in a title card, that even just watching them work is too much work for him, and that sums up his character pretty well. But his restlessness, shifting around trying to get comfortable after seeing the workers, suggests that maybe he isn't as content with his shiftless reputation and laziness as he tries to pretend he is.

Bim soon makes friends with a young kid named Bill (George Stone), who, like most other kids and no adults, instantly likes the laidback Bim. They have a warm friendship that Ford depicts in a few scenes — most humorously, a great scene when Bim tries to give the resisting kid a bath by dangling him from a barn rafter with a rope tied around his midsection — before the film ambles on to something else. The plot's surprisingly overstuffed for a film that's not even an hour long, and the second half builds much of the action around a crooked accountant (William Buckley) who gets his sweet schoolteacher girlfriend Mary (Helen Ferguson) in trouble by "borrowing" money from her. The film also crams in a suicide attempt, a bank robbery, a child kidnapping, a lynch mob, and some frenzied action scenes.

This means that the film switches tones every five or ten minutes, sometimes pitched as a light humanist comedy (in tone, anyway; there aren't many actual jokes), sometimes as a Western actioner with Bim trying to foil a gang of bank robbers, sometimes as a melodrama with the schoolteacher suffering for the crimes of her no-good boyfriend and Bim trying to save her from harm. The one throughline is the very Fordian Western theme that the lazy bum turns out to be a noble, decent man while the seemingly sophisticated businessman is actually a crooked scoundrel who reveals his true colors in the finale. It's a version of the noble-country-versus-corrupt-city dichotomy of many old-school Westerns — Ford's own Bucking Broadway included — even if here all the characters belong, geographically if not spiritually, to the country.

There are some excellent scenes along the way, too. In one scene, seemingly disconnected from the rest of the narrative, a young boy is supposed to throw a bag full of kittens into the river, but he can't go through with it, and he just dumps the cats out in the grass instead. Mary looks on in horror, instinctively turning her face away and covering her mouth, and in the next scene the town is abuzz because she's thrown herself in the river, distraught over the scandal in which she's stuck. The connection between the kid's act of mercy and Mary's suicide attempt is ambiguous but very resonant.

Later, during the bank robbery, Ford employs Griffith-like crosscutting to enhance the building tension as the robbers blow the vault, Bim races to save the day, and in the church, the rest of the townsfolk are totally oblivious. That includes the clueless sheriff (Duke R. Lee), the broadest comic caricature here, a gnarly old man who, when the collection box comes around in church, flashes his badge as though that exempts him from donating. At the very end of the film, he disrupts the romanticism of the finale with an almost surreal flourish when he pokes his head out of a hole in a tree like a cartoon animal.

This is a rather strange little film, and a very enjoyable one as well. Its arc of redemption is predictable, but still poignant, and Jones' heartfelt performance makes it especially easy to feel the heartbreaking regret that the seemingly easygoing Bim actually feels about his his lowly place within this town. And the film is just packed with so much, offering some lush melodrama one moment, a gang of thieves riding into town, kicking up dust, the next. Throughout his career, Ford would always combine genres and tones like this, often more smoothly than here, but Just Pals already shows the director deftly juggling comedy and drama, equally interested in tugging heartstrings and delivering brawling pile-ups and gunfights.