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Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film
Debut feature film of: Terence Young, director
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Back in November 2008, Rod posted a “Famous First” on Dr. No (1962), which marked the first screen appearance of the James Bond character. The director of Dr. No was Terence Young, and so it is with some sense of continuity that I write about the first of many films in the long and successful career of this underrated British director who peaked in the 1960s with the Bond films From Russia with Love (1963) and Thunderball (1965), as well as The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders (1965), Wait Until Dark (1967), and Mayerling (1968).
Young began his film career as a screenwriter, most notably penning the scripts for On the Night of the Fire (1939), Dangerous Moonlight (1941), A Letter From Ulster (1942), and Theirs Is the Glory (1946), which were directed by his good friend, the Belfast-born director Brian Desmond Hurst. On the Night of the Fire is often considered a good example of early British noir, and this film may have given Young a few ideas about the look he wanted when it came his turn to direct. Shot in Paris, Corridor of Mirrors has the moody shadows and skewed camera angles of a proper film noir. However, it offers a story reminiscent of the horror/thriller Vertigo (1958) of a man searching for a lost love and creating a living woman in her image. Further, there may have been something lingering in the air from the fantasy films the French were forced to make when the Germans occupied their country during World War II. Corridor of Mirrors is a dreamy, gorgeous film that, whether Young intended it or not, rips the veil off the nightmare of the Occupation that the subjugated French were required to banish from their filmmaking, making it something much closer to a gothic horror film than a noir.
The film starts with the noirish voiceover of our female protagonist, Mifanwy Conway (Edana Romney), a half Italian-half Welsh country wife and mother who tells us that she is hiding a dark secret that puts a lie to her respectability—she is leaving them both for a few days to meet her lover, who has been writing to her persistently for the past few months. Her rendezvous is to take place at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in the creepy chamber of the notorious that contains lifelike French nobility having their heads lopped off during the Reign of Terror. We look around for her lover and are surprised when she reaches up to take the hand of a wax figure. His is the likeness of Paul Mangin (Eric Portman). We won’t learn what he did to earn a place at the wax museum until much later, once Mifanwy finishes her reminiscence of the strange and intense affair that began in a nightclub, when she first saw his fascinating face and determined that she had to get to know him.
Paul is fabulously wealthy and lives in an enormous and opulent mansion, surrounding himself with rare and beautiful items. His particular passion is for 15th-century Venice, and he preserves all the courtly charms of that bygone era. He drives Mifanwy to his home in a hansom cab and compliments her unconventional dress as being in keeping with his own anachronistic tastes—but he can’t abide her cigarette habit. She returns several times to his home, and one day finds herself alone in it, save for the discreetly hidden servants, and invited by note to have a look around. She discovers a corridor of mirrored doors, behind which are lavish period dresses and jewelry. Unable to resist, she tries one on and is admiring herself when Paul comes up behind her and finishes the look with the necklace and tiara that accompany it. He has had all of these costumes made for the day the woman of his dreams appears; of course, that woman is Mifanwy, the spitting image of the Italian spitfire who made his life a living hell when they both lived previous lives in Renaissance Venice.
This twist definitely tips Corridor of Mirrors into the horror category, with Paul offering a strong model for the genteel type of Dracula that would become a staple of England’s Hammer Studios, a strangely apt approach considering that this marked Christopher Lee’s big-screen debut, as a party-hearty companion of Mifanwy and her night-clubbing friends. Further, we have a Renfield character in the form of Edgar Orsen (Alan Wheatley), the designer of those fabulous garments who hates Paul for dallying with his lover, Caroline (Joan Hart), but remains chained to his generous patronage. We’re even offered a crazy housekeeper (Barbara Mullen) for the purposes of plot and added menace.
French cinematographer André Thomas is really the making of the film, setting up a genuine air of romance and dread that carries it through to its somewhat ridiculous conclusion. The first dance between Mifanwy and Paul is a whirl, like a spider slipping a very delicate web around its prey. Who is the predator and who is the prey doesn’t really seem to matter as both people look equally in thrall. The benign first scene in the corridor of mirrors gives way to fear and confusion as Mifanwy’s panic at Paul’s delusions about past lives and worries about his stability have her running through the corridor anxiously looking for the door that will aid her escape, but being confronted by blank-faced mannequins at every turn and reflections of madness. She learns her laugh disturbs Paul, and the sound design of her echoing laugh in Paul’s head matches the multitude of mirror images Thomas captures.
The script, partially written by Romney, is kind of a mess when it comes to her own character. We are supposed to think Mifanwy is a modern girl who is simply intrigued by Paul’s world and whose cruelty matches that of the ancient Italian she resembles down to the last detail, signalled by her attraction to a poison bottle a la Lucrezia Borgia in Paul’s display case. The switch is neither well-planned nor well-executed, and the consequences of her rejection don’t strike the tragic note they probably should have—and certainly not with the grotesque happy ending the film has in store for us.
If this and other implausible plot twists are redeemed at all, it is because Eric Portman is such a magnetic and pleasant character to spend 90 or so minutes with. The lavish costume ball he throws to celebrate the rediscovery of his lost love is absolutely enchanting, and Young and company achieve that difficult task of making us feel as though we have really entered another time occurring within our own, as opposed to watching a straight period piece that can be viewed more dispassionately. Thomas and Portman pay close attention to the faces of the players, a handsome and exotic bounty that does much more to put the story across than the expensive-looking sets. All in all, Corridor of Mirrors casts a rather intoxicating spell that fans of classic and horror films should find worthwhile.
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Director: Bill Forsyth
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In the early years of Ebertfest, I never missed making the trip down to Champaign, Illinois, and the Virginia Theatre. Some of the great films I saw were Jan Troell’s 1996 film Hamsun, Bertrand Tavernier’s L.627 (1992), David Gordon Green’s George Washington (2000), and Wu Tian-Ming’s King of Masks (1996). I could never attend the entire festival, as I worked on the weekdays during which it opened each year in April, and one film I missed at the 2008 Ebertfest was Bill Forsyth’s Housekeeping. As a fan of the Scottish director’s comedy charmers Gregory’s Girl (1981), Local Hero (1983), and Comfort and Joy (1984), I made special note of Housekeeping as one to watch for. But I never did catch up with it, that is, not until this past week when the Northwest Chicago Film Society projected a vintage 35mm print of the film.
The love this film has engendered in those who have seen it approaches religious devotion. The catch in the throats of the audience members who spoke excitedly about this opportunity to see the film had me intrigued. Then, Chicago-based filmmaker Stephen Cone (The Wise Kids  and Black Box ), who provided the prescreening introduction, said over and over how much he loves the film and the book by Marilynne Robinson and Marilynne Robinson herself. Predisposed to like the film based on Forsyth’s other films, I started to grow both enthusiastic and nervous at this adulation, particularly when Cone asked us to turn off our critical faculties and just let ourselves go with the film. I had been asked by a filmmaker to do that once before, with rewarding results. Did Housekeeping live up to the hype? Yes, it mostly did.
The film centers on a highly impractical woman, Sylvie Fisher (Christine Lahti), the unconventional aunt of Ruthie (Sara Walker) and Lucille (Andrea Burchill), sisters whose father ran off long ago and whose mother, Sylvie’s sister Helen (Margot Pinvidic), drove them from their home in Seattle, dropped them at the isolated home of their grandmother (Georgie Collins) in Fingerbone, Idaho, and then drove herself off a cliff. The young girls were cared for by their grandmother until her death when the girls were in their teens. Their great-aunts Nona (Barbara Reese) and Lily (Anne Pitoniak) moved in to care for them—narrator Ruthie is convinced it was to save on rent and groceries—but could not accustom themselves to the cold and rugged living conditions. Thus, they tracked down the itinerant Sylvie and beckoned her back to her childhood home to look after the girls. Sylvie’s eccentricities enchant Ruthie but repel Lucille, who is very self-conscious about being ridiculed and only wants to fit in. The clash Lucille precipitates between Sylvie and the upstanding citizens of Fingerbone will end in a kind of reckoning no one anticipated.
Housekeeping strikes as delicate a balance in its storytelling as Sylvie maintains in her restless, preoccupied mind. While fashioning a rather clichéd story of conventionality versus free-spiritedness, Forsyth and his appealing and talented cast offer something more akin to fable. First, there is the remoteness of the time and setting—a small town in a mountainous region in the 1950s. Going even farther back in time is the legend of Ruthie and Lucille’s grandfather, a self-taught artist from the flatlands of Iowa whose enchantment with mountains compelled his geographic move and his fixation on painting them. His family’s notoriety in Fingerbone, however, centers on his being on a train that shot off the trestle above a frozen lake and plunged into the water, leaving nothing but a hole in the ice and a handful of personal effects that floated to the surface. The event shook the sleepy town with excitement, spawning winter picnics on the ice and legends about the snakelike train of the deep.
It’s hard to know whether the loss of her father caused Sylvie’s instability and her sister’s eventual suicide after living a fairly conventional life. But his loss, his absence is only one of the absences that inflect the characters in this film and set the stage for the imagination to move in both delightful and sinister ways, filling the screen with the kind of fanciful images and occurrences for which Forsyth is known, though laden with a good deal of pain and bewilderment along with comedy and celebration.
A sense of foreboding is cast from the very first, as Helen drives through rain and mist to her childhood home, her sing-a-long as the radio plays “Good Night, Irene” (“Sometimes I take a great notion to jump in the river and drown.”) a chilling secret she has kept to herself. The hole she creates in her daughters’ lives is every bit as dramatic and fathomless as the one created by the unfortunate train. Sylvie’s appearance gives them their first opportunity to try to learn about their mother and the man she married, though the sisters’ long separation gives Sylvie precious little to tell them. Like them, she can only look to her long-gone childhood for evidence of her life before she started to wander in body and mind; like many who have unstable lives, she gathers objects around her—piles of newspapers, cans, and eventually, cats—creating more unease as her absent-mindedness starts to shade with madness.
Yet, Sylvie’s seems like a divine madness to the lonely, awkward Ruthie. When Sylvie “borrows” a rowboat, outrunning the furious fisherman who owns it and keeps trying to hide it from her, she takes Ruthie to a wreck of a homestead in an unlikely spot in the foothills that is covered in frost all year long because of the lack of sunlight. Sylvie is sure she has seen children there, and has even set marshmallows on twigs to draw them out. Ruthie says she sees them, too, and is more than happy to sleep in the leaky boat with Sylvie under the train trestle, a glowing moon diffuse off the misty lake. There’s no question that this world seems enchanted, a place for pixies and elves and other supernatural beings who rule the natural world, and Sylvie is the siren who is pulling Ruthie into her orbit of restless wandering, riding the rails, and camping with hobos.
The clash of these two worlds can be quite funny, as when representatives of the ladies’ aid society (Betty Phillips, Karen Elizabeth Austin, and Dolores Drake) come to the door to determine whether Ruthie should be removed from the home for her own safety. They try to find suitable seating, but must move newspapers and even a pine cone, which one lady holds carefully on her lap. These women are not made into uncaring monsters, but their discomfort mixed with Sylvie’s nervous, Sunday manners makes for an awkwardly fun time. By contrast, the snub Lucille gives Ruthie at school and her eventual departure from the house to stay with some people in town reduce her sister to miserable tears of dejected abandonment. Another hole has opened up in her life and swallowed her closest friend up with it.
Most remarkable of all is the almost total absence of men in this film. The few who have speaking parts tend to cause trouble, however well-intentioned they may be: three boys free Helen’s car from the mud, only to watch her drive to her death; the sheriff (Bill Smillie) calls the ladies who will put Sylvie and Ruthie’s living arrangement at risk; and the school principal (Wayne Robson) catches up with the girls’ chronic truancy only when they are half-a-year behind. For better or worse, Housekeeping concentrates on the ways and means of women, eschewing cheap sentiment or pop psychology to show the multifaceted ways women and girls conduct their lives and dream their dreams.
All of the performances in the film are wonderful, but I hold particular affection for Walker and Burchill, who create characters of real complexity despite their youth. Their closeness and eventual estrangement feel bone deep and are very affecting. The hardness Burchill eventually adopts seems right for someone whose world was turned upside down three times in her short life. Walker’s painful shyness shows another path girls take in response to disruption.
Christine Lahti creates a very particular spine for Sylvie, with her deliberate, long walk and open arms that embrace the music of the spheres whether floating in a boat or standing on a trestle hoping to feel vibrations through the timbers. In a spectacular set-piece, the town is all but flooded out by four days of rain falling on frozen ground. Sylvie and the girls slosh through the foot of water in their home, rescuing half-drowned mice and trying to carry on with everyday life; Sylvie couldn’t be happier to welcome the water into her home, dancing with Ruthie with a big smile on her face. This joyful spirit is seductive, but is as lulling to the audience as it is to Ruthie as to the danger she poses. For example, the thought of disease never enters her mind, though sanitation and drinking water are at risk.
Not everything in this film works. At one point, Sylvie starts removing the labels from and washing the cans she has left all over the house. The gold and silver cans look just too clean and perfect, just as the piles of newspaper look too carefully placed, and the appearance of cats in the house crosses the border into cliché. One supposes that the inheritance from Sylvie’s mother is keeping the family afloat, but beautiful new clothes for Lucille appear as if from nowhere. Yes, this is a fable, but Forsyth’s habit of ignoring details of everyday life cheapens the film ever so slightly.
Nonetheless, there’s not much wrong with this film, and the finale is a bonafide work of genius. When her panic at the thought of losing Ruthie makes her as crazy as we’ll ever see her, Sylvie commits an irrational act as though it were the most normal thing in the world. She and Ruthie steal off into the night, a pied piper making off with at least one child down a treacherous causeway and into the night’s fathomless vanishing point.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Edward Yang
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The immigrant experience has been fertile ground for many and sundry films throughout the decades, from David Butler’s Delicious (1931) and George Stevens’ I Remember Mama (1948), to Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans (1992) and James Gray’s The Immigrant (2014). Of course, the seminal immigrant film, especially with regard to young people, is West Side Story (1961). The parallels between the disaffected, semi-rootless youths from barely established immigrant families in New York and their Taiwanese counterparts in A Brighter Summer Day are very striking, indicating the universal problem of trying to adapt to an alien world. Where director Edward Yang’s first masterpiece differs from West Side Story is in its broad, intricate consideration of entire families of mainland Chinese uprooted by the ascendency of Mao Tse-tung and its examination of the transition from one set of cultural values—respect for authority and one’s elders—to another—Western individualism, emancipated youth, and possession-oriented consumerism. In addition, although there is a central love story of a sort in this film, it is not the enmity of gangs that pulls the lovers apart, but rather their conflicting values adrift in an unsettled and unsettling land.
The action revolves primarily around two rival gangs, the Little Park gang and the 217 gang; 14-year-old student Zhang Zhen, nicknamed Xiao (“little”) Si’r (Chen Chang), his parents, and four siblings; and Ming (Lisa Yang), a beautiful 13-year-old girl whose boyfriend and leader of the Little Parks, Honey (Hung-Ming Lin), has run off. The film takes place in 1960, a mere decade after Si’r’s family fled Shanghai in 1949. The Zhangs and other immigrants like them are still looking for a secure foothold in their new country. Mrs. Zhang (Elaine Jin), though a fully qualified university instructor in Shanghai, cannot seem to get certified in Taipei. Mr. Zhang (Kuo-Chu Chang) is a civil servant with a going-nowhere career. Their finances are shaky: they buy their groceries on credit from Uncle Fat (Zhuo Ming), who periodically goes on the warpath to collect what he’s owed, and treasure little but Mrs. Zhang’s good watch and the promises of one of Zhang’s colleagues that he can get them the good jobs they need to really feel secure. The Zhangs, of course, are not alone in their insecurity; Ming’s single mother (Ying-chen Chang) suffers from asthma and has lost at least one position, as well as a place to stay, because of her inability to do her housekeeping job. Their parents’ provisional status and free-floating anxiety has their children looking for a sense of belonging and status as gang members.
The film opens at night with the Little Park gang being trounced on their turf by the 217s. Holed up in a darkened school corridor, the gang discusses Honey’s abandonment and their vulnerability without him. Two of the gang members bring forward a captured 217 member. Honey’s brother Deuce (Wang Zongzheng) picks up a thick, wooden block and offers it to two younger boys to prove they are ready to run with the big boys. When they refuse to take the block, Deuce raises it and slams it hard against the captured boy’s head, knocking him unconscious and sending the young wannabes running. When the boy comes to, Deuce sends him back to his gang with a warning that the Little Park gang will avenge themselves. This sudden brutality is characteristic of what is to come, a sharp contrast with West Side Story’s poetic and relatively infrequent violence.
The main story centers on Si’r and his developing crush and eventual romance with Ming. He spies one night—and the vast majority of this film takes place at night—Sly (Hung-Yu Chen) making out with a girl who turns out to be Ming. Si’r keeps Ming’s secret, even naming another girl as the one he saw, because he knows she pines for Honey. Ming drops her guard with Si’r, seeing him as different from all the other guys who come sniffing around her, and their playful interactions form most of what little daytime activity there is. When Honey returns, Si’r gallantly steps aside like the honorable person his father has tried to teach him to be, even though he is already fairly obsessed with Ming. Time away from her is just filling time at the loathed night school where he talks back to and swears at his teachers and the administrators for their unjust treatment of him, flirting with expulsion.
Like most of the gang members, Si’r has a temper. The importance of saving face and the allure of weapons are all too common maladies of these teens and preteens. Living in houses abandoned by the Japanese, the boys regularly find knives, guns, and even a samurai sword hidden in the rafters—another culture’s detritus waiting for assimilation by these new Taiwanese. A young would-be singer, Cat (Chi-tsan Wang), croons transliterated American pop songs, especially those of Elvis Presley. Cat even receives an answer to a letter and tape he sent to The King saying how gratified he is that his music is so popular in such an isolated, unknown country.
Elvis might never have heard of Taiwan, but it’s clear that for Cat and his friends, the country is also largely hidden, a blank slate onto which they try to graft whatever identity they can. Wang accentuates the unknown, possibly unknowable Taiwanese culture though his almost exclusive use of medium shots and unusual framings, showing people and places half-hidden by window and door jambs, objects emerging from total darkness like ghostly manifestations, shadows of warriors slashing at their rivals in near-total darkness, empty rooms save for one honest soul bewildered to be incarcerated during the Kuomintang “White Terror” to root out Communist enemies of the Nationalist state.
Wang’s interest in this subculture was wide and deep, almost as though he was still trying to understand the place even 40 years after emigrating from Shanghai to Taiwan, a place he left and to which he finally returned. His four-hour film teems with more than 100 characters with speaking parts, including school administrators and teachers, a film crew and actors in a soundstage adjacent to where Si’r attends school, shopkeepers and restauranteurs, police interrogators, doctors and nurses, and many gang members with nicknames like Airplane, Diaper, Threads, and Baldie. Within the drama of the central story are incidents great and small that flesh out this marginal area of Little Park, Taipei. A young Little Park gang member is teased about consuming porn, which he denies reading; he is later seen trying to buy some at a street stall, but runs when he sees Ming and Si’r coming toward him. After they pass by, he goes right back to the stall to finish what he started. In another incident, the director of the film, who has been arguing with its tempermental star, sees Ming and invites her for a screen test—after all she’s a teenager who would fit the part of the young girl better than the actress who “doesn’t look a day under 40!”
Most poignant is the struggle of Mr. Zhang to maintain his beliefs. He blames himself for earning Si’r a major demerit by arguing with the school administrators about punishing Si’r unfairly. He truly believes in being a civil servant and that, in strangely American fashion, one can succeed through hard work and individual initiative. The heart-to-heart talks he has with Si’r every time they walk back from a disciplinary conference at school seem to me like the little Dutch boy trying to hold back the flood of social pressure he sees hovering over his son’s head. The tragedy of this family is that they have tried to be honest without realizing how unimportant in the grand scheme of things honesty truly is. Indeed, why not join a gang when the Communist leadership and the Kuomintang have them.
The notorious climax of the film extends the confusion of youth and the chasm that divides East and West. Si’r tries to please his father by studying to get into day school, and worries about the honor of all those he loves, especially Ming. Ming, on the other hand, runs toward Western values of self-determination. Despite the incongruously demure school uniform she wears throughout the film, she bounces from one boy to another and even tries to seduce her engaged doctor. Furious with Si’r’s jealousy and talk about her honor, she dismisses him as just another boy who wants to change her. At an age when girls often start to go underground under social pressure, she is wise to realize that when you are caught between two worlds, the only hope of survival is to cling stubbornly to your sense of self. Si’r’s answer to her self-assertion is as shattering as it is inevitable, a cry in the dark to the film’s title theme “Are You Lonesome Tonight.”
Previously unavailable for decades, A Brighter Summer Day has been restored by the World Cinema Foundation. It has been rumored that it will be released on the Criterion label and air on TCM on September 6 in the wee hours of the morning. Check your local listings to confirm.
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Director: Bill Condon
By Marilyn Ferdinand
I’ve been lately reading the works of Jonathan Swift and commentary thereon, a man whose self-written epitaph (“Here is laid the Body of Jonathan Swift … where fierce Indignation can no longer injure the Heart.”) proclaimed his vigorous engagement with human suffering. A Protestant minister and dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, Ireland, Swift’s works cannot be fully understood without an appreciation of his belief in the doctrine of original sin, which was weakened by the growing ascendancy of Protestant rationalism, and his attempt to restore through his writings a vision of human nature as corrupt, licentious, and irrational, and in need of religious instruction and redemption.
Now having viewed Mr. Holmes, I am tempted to think that Mitch Cullin, the writer of the novel on which it is based, may be a revivalist, though of a much milder temperament, in the Swiftian mold. He chose Sherlock Holmes, the proto-machine man representing the triumph of the just-completed Industrial Revolution and embellished upon thereafter to reach the near-android superman we see in many depictions today, to spin an emotional tale of human flaw, guilt, and redemption. Despite the current, apparent return of preindustrial religion, deities and their emissaries are decidedly out of fashion in pop culture as redeemers. Instead, it is women who die for men’s sins. So it is even for Sherlock Holmes, a man who needs women like a fish needs a bicycle.
Machines, even well-built, reliable ones, need maintenance and invariably break down after long years of service. Thus, the Mr. Holmes in this emotion-laden story set in 1947 must needs be old, indeed, 93 years old to malfunction in the manner required by the story. But before we can prepare ourselves for his diminished capacity, we must know that we really are dealing with Sherlock Holmes. We first meet him (Ian McKellen) on a train clutching a furoshiki-wrapped box from his recent trip to Japan. A lad is watching an insect buzzing near the window and is just about to rap on the glass when Holmes tells him not to. Like all those stunned by Holmes’ prescient abilities, the boy asks how Holmes knew he was going to do that. The boy’s mother interjects rather unhelpfully, “He loves bees.” Holmes replies scornfully, “It’s not a bee, it’s a wasp. Entirely different thing.”
As later Holmes scribe H.F. Heard envisioned, Holmes, no longer a sherlock, lives in quiet isolation near the White Cliffs of Dover, where he tends bees. He is tended to by the latest in a series of housekeepers, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), a war widow, and her 10-year-old son Roger (Milo Parker). He greets his bees, disturbed to note that some are dead, and tells Mrs. Munro that he wants her to put a tincture of prickly ash—the contents of his box—in his food. Having found royal jelly unable to restore his seriously faulty memory, he has brought the plant back from Japan in hopes that it will do the trick. Indeed, he has written a monograph on the two substances, which we see in flashback handed to him by his host in Japan, Tamiki Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada), for his autograph.
The more important flashback Holmes seeks is to his last case, the one that caused him to retire 30 years earlier. The now-dead Dr. Watson wrote it up as “The Lady in Grey,” but Holmes is convinced that John got it wrong. He decides to write his own account of the case to set the record straight and set his mind at ease, but that is easier said than done. In dreams and free associations, bits and pieces of the case come back to him, but large chunks remain utter blanks. Roger, his own memories of his father manufactured by photos of them together when he was a toddler, joins Holmes on his quest to save the bees and finish his story.
We are told again and again that the Sherlock Holmes of fame and fortune bears little resemblance to the real man; he never wore a deerstalker, avoids smoking a pipe because it would be unseemly for the real Holmes to seem to be “dressing up” as the fictional Holmes, and lived at another Baker St. address. Presumably, the image of him as an emotionless deducer of facts is incorrect as well, because McKellen’s Holmes is very grandfatherly toward Roger, a bright child Holmes begins instructing in the ways of bees and deductive reasoning, and feeling a vague guilt about his last case that he needs to resolve before he dies.
The only problem with recreating a fictional character, especially one as iconic as Sherlock Holmes, is that there is no real Holmes at all to provide with a “corrective.” It all becomes so meta—and Mr. Holmes takes this to the nth degree by showing Holmes attending a hokey movie version of “The Lady in Grey” and laughing at the movie Holmes, played by Nicholas Rowe, star of Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)—that our impulse is to reject this latest iteration, however more realistic it may be to the life of a very elderly, well-off man. Do any of us really want a touchy-feely Holmes?
Condon and his cadre of screenwriters, including Cullin, do what they can to offer us helpings of the investigative Holmes, but they aren’t very nourishing. We guess that Holmes suspects something is not right with Mr. Umezaki when Condon’s camera lingers on the monograph’s inside cover just a little too long. Dips into the past, as the last case slowly rises from the fog of memory, show Holmes merely following the lady in grey, Ann Kelmot (Hattie Morahan), around until he easily deduces from the information he obtained from his client, her husband Thomas (Patrick Kennedy), what she’s up to. At the same time, it should not have been hard for Holmes to figure out what was happening to the bees, and the fact that he doesn’t opens the door for a melodramatic crisis that would not have been out of place in the movie’s version of “The Lady in Grey,” giving McKellen’s Holmes a chance to get overwrought and Linney to scream “I’m his mother!” at the childless, wifeless old coot.
It was a nice touch to walk Holmes around postwar Japan, with its mix of G.I.s and women in Western and traditional garb alike. A visit to the charred remains of Hiroshima, where Umezaki found the prickly ash, is too conveniently and offensively set up as another marker of Holmes’ personal growth. Holmes’ harshness with Umezaki is much more in character and forms one of the more effective scenes in the film. In addition, charred Hiroshima, like the rest of the film, looks simply too calculatedly designed to attract rather than repel. The film is altogether too pretty, evoking a tasteful Masterpiece Theatre bauble for transfer to the small screen that one of its coproducers, BBC Films, no doubt intends.
Parker, as a pint-size sidekick, is pretty appealing as he absorbs everything this old genius has to offer and becomes a bit too full of himself in the process. McKellen produces an indelible portrait of a man on the brink of death, his infirmities etched in painful detail, aided by some exquisitely realistic age make-up, though I was distracted trying to decide if the liver spots on his scalp were real. Alas, Linney’s role is pallid, and even her considerable skills cannot make a silk purse out of it. Poor Frances de la Tour has to play the standard-issue gypsy role of Madame Schirmer, who teaches the exotically outdated glass harmonica. Only Morahan is able to infuse her Christlike character with some complexity, making it almost believable that Holmes would carry an odd mix of eros and moral culpability around with him for so long. Sadly, Mr. Holmes has taken a powerfully evocative character and neutered him in an attempt to show that men are people, too. Mr. Swift would not have approved.
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Director/Screenwriter: Erich von Stroheim
By Roderick Heath
Amongst the giants of silent cinema, Erich von Stroheim looms very large, but not so much for his work, vital as it is, but for his legend, his persona. Von Stroheim all but created the iconography of the larger-than-life, dictatorial, obsessively visionary filmmaker that has echoed in many dimensions through the history of cinema. In his repeated, ultimately degrading clashes with movie chiefs who literally cut several of his great labours to pieces, he helped define two mirroring clichés of studio cinema: the great genius cut down by vulgar moneymen and the egomaniacal poseur incinerating cash to make extravagant follies. Stroheim, son of middle-class Austrian-Jewish parents, carved himself a place in the United States by affecting the style of an strident, Germanic aristocrat and aesthete. He developed a persona in his acting work that played exactly to a certain brand of New World perception of an Old World nabob, a corrupting and depraved roué under a surface of martial rigour and gilded pretence. Stroheim played on the blend of fascination and distaste for such a persona in the American psyche as it entered the First World War, when it wanted to be accepted as a grown-up superpower yearning for the dauntingly elevated aura symbolised by European culture whilst quietly longing to prove native strengths. Stroheim understood this dualism perfectly well, because he was in thrall to it, too, both assimilating himself into the allure of classes to which he didn’t belong and appropriating their glamour whilst relentlessly subverting and despoiling them with an immigrant outsider’s vitriol.
Stroheim found fame as an actor, his turns as German officers in wartime films earning him the immortal tag of “The Man You Love to Hate,” including his infamous turn in The Heart of Humanity (1918), where his embodiment of the most unrestrained propaganda poster’s idea of a villainous Hun, killing babies and ravishing nurses, enthralled viewers in a manner not dissimilar to later iconic bad guys like Darth Vader and Hannibal Lecter. He simultaneously gained filmmaking experience working for D.W. Griffith, and quickly parlayed his fame and clout into a directing career. That career was relatively brief, but it swung through poles of great success and total ignominy with such force and clamour in the young industry that it still echoes with ring of myth.
Stroheim repeatedly went all-in on a bet that later seemed like the essence of uncommercial imprudence, but wasn’t actually so unreasonable at the time, that Hollywood could support a wing of ambition similar to the burgeoning European film scene. There, in the early ’20s, it wasn’t uncommon for respected master filmmakers like Abel Gance and Fritz Lang to make multi-episode films that attracted crowds of people willing and ready to be immersed in grand acts of creation. That cultural model was completely opposed to Hollywood’s self-image as a stud farm turning out well-shod, successful sprinters, the model that would win out. Stroheim also sensed that cinema was a drug of allure as well as reflection, a place people went to be delivered from the ordinary, and like Cecil B. DeMille, knew a dialogue of idealism and indulged depravity was part of the appeal, and so at least at first, Stroheim was happy to extend his established persona in his first two films, Blind Husbands (1919) and Foolish Wives (1922). (With Greed (1924), Stroheim would reveal his deepest, most adamant artistic convictions, and paid a heavy price for them: the scornful drollery Stroheim exhibited as a director at first was scratched to reveal a much more properly dark and rigorous interest in human degradation viewed through art’s transformative prisms.) Foolish Wives was brutally cut down from the epic Stroheim proposed and was the subject of boardroom arguments with young, newly installed executive Irving Thalberg over its grossly inflated cost, mostly stemming from Stroheim’s fanatical attention to detail. Naturally, however, the off-screen controversy was transmuted into gleeful marketing, with the poster declaring that this was the first “million dollar movie”: Stroheim sold the lifestyle of the rich as the stuff of silver screen dreams, and for a long time afterward, however ruefully, Hollywood played along.
Foolish Wives is much stranger and denser than its sexy melodrama essentials suggest, as Stroheim’s pitch-black humour and fascination with transgressive urges constantly eat at the frame. The filmmaker toys with artistic ideas that still had no name at the time, signalled most unmistakably when, within a film called Foolish Wives by Erich von Stroheim, a character reads a book called Foolish Wives by Erich von Stroheim. Stroheim uses this device to suggest levels of reality in his work, even perhaps to indict it as something the eponymous imprudent hausfraus might hallucinate in the sun after a full day sipping cocktails and thumbing romance novels, their own gleeful vision of depravity on the sunny shores of the Cote d’Azur. Or is it Stroheim molesting those daydreams? He uses this device to insert commentaries that have overt, proto-Brechtian quotation marks around them, highlighting them as distinct from the texture of the work and yet part of them.
From the opening iris shot, the film has the quality of the dark fairytale it is, depicting as it does two relatively innocent characters taking a path into a shady stretch of the forest in search of experience and encountering imps who live off fat American babes in the woods—except that Stroheim prefers the perspective of his imps, casting himself as Count Wladislaw Sergius Karamzin, supposedly a White Russian aristocrat exiled in Monaco. Stroheim never quite elucidates whether or not Karamzin is a phony,that is, a man born to be a user of other people or a convert to the creed, but his so-called cousins “Princess” Vera (Mae Busch) and “Her Highness” Olga Petchnikoff (Maud George) are his mistresses and confederates in maintaining their lavish lifestyle through con artistry backed up by bogus cash supplied to them by counterfeiter Cesare Ventucci (Cesare Gravina).
Stroheim introduces this coterie of reprobates in his opening scene, a sudden plunge into a little world at the Villa Amorosa, where the perverse is instantly rendered cozy, as Stroheim notes the two women taking their place at the breakfast table with their light, jockeying bitchiness, whilst Karamzin is out performing his morning exercise of target-shooting at bottles by the sea. He returns to his villa and indulges what the intertitles call his “cereal” and “coffee,” that is, caviar and ox blood. Ventucci arrives to dole out more of his counterfeit cash, with his feeble-minded but fully-grown daughter Marietta (Malvina Polo) in tow. Olga tells off servant Maruschka (Dale Fuller) by grasping and viciously twisting the flesh of her arm. Karamzin greedily eyes doll-clutching, goggle-eyed Marietta and gives her a bottle of his aftershave as a bauble to remember him by (or whatever it is: Karamzin dabs some of it behind his ears and then tastes it for good measure). This gaudy little crew operate through two-pronged attacks, zeroing in on wealthy, naïve couples, with Karamzin going after the wife and his “cousins” the husband as prelude to seducing and fleecing them. The newspapers announce the arrival of a seemingly perfect mark: the new U.S. Commissioner Plenipotentiary to Monaco Andrew J. Hughes (Rudolph Christians) and his wife Helen (Miss DuPont). The lucky couple are brought into town on a U.S. cruiser and greeted on arrival by Prince Albert I (C.J. Allen). Watching from afar, Karamzin formulates his battle plan, and arranges to meet Helen in an outdoor café where she sits reading (yes, Foolish Wives), paying a busboy to page him and make him seem like a big shot. Karamzin swoops in for the chance to do a gallant turn in rescuing one of Helen’s wind-stirred gloves, to which Helen turns up her nose. A French officer and friend of the Hughes’ gives the pair a proper introduction, and soon he is fully accepted as a friend of the new arrivals, albeit with Andrew’s slightly sceptical regard.
From the start of Foolish Wives, however, the clock is ticking for Karamzin and company, as their many sins gallop to catch up with them. The most pathetic character is Maruschka, but she is also the one holding unrealised power. Karamzin had made her another of his household concubines on a promise to marry her, a promise he, of course, perpetually wriggles out of. “I am, as they say, free, white, and twenty-one,” Helen declares to her husband at one point, making remarkably plain her nascent determination to get a little adventure. Andrew wryly retorts with a salute before slinking off to his separate bedroom: “Well, I’m married—sunburned—and forty-one…but—my eyes are pretty good yet.” Much of the narrative (reminiscent of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa Harlowe) is built around whether Helen will be seduced by Karamzin into giving him her money, body, or both, willingly or unwillingly, but Stroheim plies no sense of endangered innocence. A glimpse of Stroheim’s “book” in the film offers a diegetic comment that Americans’ obsession with making money leaves them uninterested in the social games that obsess Europeans, which could be seen as the director finding an ingenious way to insult his audience but is also a spur to Helen’s adventuring as she reads the book over and over again; by the finale, it gives a sop that contradicts this possible slight, as Andrew stands up for his moral code and Karamzin’s adherence proves utterly hollow. A wry, slightly horrifying sequence sees Karamzin at the height of his bantam cock parading wowing Helen and a crowd in a sport-shooting contest using live pigeons released from boxes, leaving little doubt about Karamzin’s ability to shoot down anything not likely to shoot back. Once he’s ingratiated himself sufficiently into the Hughes’ company, he contrives to drag Helen off with him to the Hotel des Rêves, a small, out-of-the-way rendezvous.
Stroheim’s acid wit is apparent from the outset in Foolish Wives, and the film often has the tone of an extended dirty joke, a semi-Sadean comedy of manners and immorality. The overtones of cruelty and phoniness intimated in the opening scene at the Villa Amorosa (that name a sarcasm that grows ever more vicious as the film goes on) and the vivid strangeness of the characters border on surreal; Karamzin and the Ventuccis seem to have crawled out of some Gogol-esque fantasia. Stroheim intercuts Andrew being received by Prince Albert with Helen’s introduction to Karamzin, both meeting figures who exemplify the local society and creed, the cockroach scuttling under the gilt. The core sequence when Karamzin takes Helen for a day out in the country becomes an epic burlesque of Victorian romantic fiction. The “hotel of dreams” is a waystation engineered for an adventure into pastoral territory that Karamzin knows so well he “was soon able to get himself — ‘hopelessly lost!’” Weather aids Karamzin’s schemes, as a powerful storm blows in whilst he and Helen are struggling through marshy reeds on the edge of a stream. Lightning shatters the footbridge over the waterway, and Karamzin tries to transport them over in a rowboat, only for it to spring a leak and sink. He plucks Helen up and carries her to shore, transformed into exactly the sort of gallant cavalier he strives so assiduously to look like whilst never actually giving a damn for it. They take refuge in an old woman’s cabin, one that Karamzin has used so often for this sort of thing Olga calls it “Mother Garoupe’s Hotel,” a den of picturesque crudity and pastoral filth. Karamzin hovers while Helen dries off and is installed in the owner’s bed. What should be the moment of irrepressible passion is instead a drooling conman waiting for his chance to leap in between the sheets with the blowsy Yankee lady.
Just as he gets his chance, however (in a scene blurred almost to incoherence to avoid censor furore, but critics still rose to the bait in calling the film as a whole a “slur on American womanhood”), a monk caught in the storm comes looking for shelter: pokes his head through the window and eyes the scene suspiciously. The monk enters and settles down for the night, forcing Karamzin to bitterly nurse a serious case of blue balls in the armchair by the fire until dawn. Throughout this sequence, Stroheim is merciless in mocking not just romantic fancy, but also the kind of idealised rustic melodrama that most other filmmakers, including even Murnau five years later with Sunrise (1927), would ply with ripe sentiment. Olga covers for the duo by phoning the ambassador from the Hotel des Rêves, and once returned to her apartment in the morning, Helen sneaks back into her bedroom. Andrew had responded to her absence the night before with a weirdly patient grin anyway, as if ruefully testing his own limits of tolerance. Stroheim’s reputation as an obsessive craftsman of authenticity has somewhat obscured his great, influential visual talent, though that effort certainly pays off in depicting the teeming street life hovering on the streets of Monaco, brass bands and horse guards turning out to greet the new ambassador amidst gawking tourists, and the central, mammoth recreation of the Monte Carlo Grand Casino. Stroheim’s realistic method represented an alternate tack from the emerging German approach of expressionism, and today might seem to anticipate such later, rigorous, maximalist filmmakers as Kubrick, Leone, or Cimino.
Stroheim’s often vertiginously geometric graphics, seen at their strongest in the opening and in studying the humans with godlike disdain inside the casino, anticipate Orson Welles at his most baroque and invoke Stroheim’s recurring obsession with humans in relation to one another—class, broadly, but also invoking other forms of power and subordination. Stroheim alternates such shots with densely tangled mural-like framings, with faces, flowers, rococo architecture and stray dust specks all privileged to the point of animation, pointing on to the shot-by-shot deliberation, densely illustrative, of Greed. Yet, the photography of Foolish Wives is as vividly chiaroscuro and drenched in inky murk as anything the expressionists were doing, and Stroheim’s filmmaking often seems as fervently mythological as Lang’s Die Nibelungen, complete with his mock fairytale castle consumed by flames, the rustic hovel a den of stygian lightplay, and a character’s suicide filmed as a towering shadowplay against the rising sun on the sea. A scene in which Ventucci ushers Karamzin into his daughter’s bedroom as she lies sleeping is shot as a peak moment of visual beauty. Beams of light slanting through the room’s shutters illuminate dust teeming in the air, suggesting something at once unkempt and numinous about the abode and the way Ventucci enshrines the girl he promises to defend at all costs. Ventucci unfolds a knife and jabs neurotically at the air, miming for Karamzin’s edification and perhaps warning. Stroheim was a realist in the same way Dostoyevsky, Dickens, and Zola were, providing a fervent, boiling mass of magnified human strangeness emerging from vividly depicted backdrops. Stroheim is often regarded as a filmmaker who tried to force more mature artistic values in American cinema. Here this pretence manifests as literary awareness, both in the nascent modernist joke of the meta-narrative and also in the weird, fragmented intertitles that appear throughout the film, written with a quality close to stream-of-consciousness. These titles provide a witty approximation of some imagined, talented, poet-layabout expatriate steeped in the local habitués and muttering acerbically beautiful notes (perhaps the “Erich von Stroheim” who wrote the book Foolish Wives): “Mondaine — Cocotta — Kings and Crooks — Amoura! Amoura! — And Suicides!” or “Again morning — sun-draped terrace — Sapphire sea — all the world on a holiday — Rifle Fire — Brooding doves — Brutality of man — and still the sun.”
Karamzin’s success in assaulting Helen’s reputation and good sense on their rural exploit and failure to actually get what he’s after proves a turning point, after which Karamzin’s decline begins. Karamzin’s hunger for erotic satisfaction constantly exceeds his interest in his other projects, whilst his use of other people purely to meet his own desires reaches a hyperbolic point when he manipulates Maruschka into giving him her life savings—a paltry amount by his usual standards, but enough to get him through a night at the gaming tables. Karamzin is at his most entertaining the worse he gets, as when he drips wine on a tablecloth to make Maruschka think he’s crying. Stroheim wasn’t anyone’s idea of a matinee idol, and yet he inhabits his character with such outsized swagger and charisma that he pulls off his own charade of devastating gigolo, his bulbous head, flaring nostrils, and rubbery, sensuous lips like some caricaturist’s attempt to sketch lust, the deadly sin personified—which indeed they often did on film posters. Stroheim plays his role as Stroheim with a glee that’s striking, and hard to find a likeness for in later cinema: he’s just as egotistically masochistic as the wave of Method stars like Brando that would come up much later, always hungry to be nailed up on their crosses, but so willing to play the fiend without a hint of sympathy for the devil, in a drama that takes Mephistopheles from supporting character to centre frame. Obsessed with amorality as it is, though, Foolish Wives is no monument to it—far from it. Stroheim is equally gleeful in tracking his bad characters to ignominious ends and depicting the moments when the worms turn. Actually, Stroheim’s moral compass was rigorous, and to a certain extent, his films boil down to simple lessons—greed is bad, stick with your spouse, marry for love and not gain, etc.—made rich by his realisation, his feel for the contradictory impulses that consume people and poison societies.
Most crucial and disturbing is his feel for how people often subordinate themselves to characters like Karamzin in their desire for him to give them something they lack—here, sexual pleasure and social status—and the way people like him exploit others endlessly. Stroheim would later take up the theme of sexuality coupled with avarice most intensely in Greed, but inverted; there repression fuels the hunger for money as a malformed need. An earlier vignette of an American soldier who failed to rescue the glove Karamzin retrieved is taken up later when the same man neglects to hold the casino door for her; she rears on him irritably, only to realise the veteran has lost his arms. Stroheim’s irony about appearances and the real nature of soldierly duty is obvious, but serves the purpose of radically shifting the film’s tone. Stroheim takes it a step further as Helen wraps herself in the man’s limp jacket arms and weeps on his shoulder. This scene becomes at once a perverse approximation of a lover’s tryst and a sentimental paean that mirrors the emotional amputees seen everywhere else in the film; it is even shot through an undercurrent of morbid eroticism.
Stroheim sarcastically restages the Russian Revolution in miniature as domestic-erotic revolt, as Karamzin’s insults to the desperate, fraying Maruschka, drive the servant to lunacy and revenge. This pivotal moment comes as Stroheim depicts her weeping on her bed in her dingy servant’s room, and then zooms in to capture the moment when infernal inspiration takes hold. This camera move was one of Stroheim’s signature touches, the closing in of the camera’s gaze mimicking entrance into the private emotional experience of his characters, and here, coupled with Fuller’s performance, the effect is electrifying. Karamzin pushes his plan closer to fruition during a night on the town, as he has his “cousins” cordon off Andrew at the casino tables whilst he gambles with Helen: she wins a huge wad of cash, and Karamzin coaxes Helen to the villa, where he lays on her basically the same sob story he told Maruschka to get her winnings. Maruschka, however, her wits snapped, sets fire to the villa, entrapping the couple on a high floor.
The fire department rushes to the scene, along with a mass of rubberneckers, whereupon Karamzin jumps into the waiting canvas ahead of Helen. Sarcastically asked by his soldier friends about town why he did this, he replies coolly that he had to show Helen it was safe. But Andrew, discovering the note Karamzin sent Helen to get her there in the first place, confronts him in the casino. Once Karamzin removes his monocle at his request and tells him, “Go to hell!”, Andrew wallops him so hard he crashes to the floor. During the film’s production, Allen died suddenly, and rather than reshoot his scenes with another actor, Stroheim instead employed a body double. That’s not surprising, as Allen’s performance, subtly comic and intelligent, is excellent. Karmazin tries to brush off Andrew’s humiliation of him, but is left to wander the streets alone at night, disgraced and essentially penniless and homeless, whilst his mistresses quickly pack up their belongings in the villa and flee. Justice, when it comes, is deserved, but merciless: the two women are picked up by fraud police who have been tracking them, stripped of their blonde flapper wigs to reveal the coal-coloured bobs beneath.
Karamzin, on the hunt for some sort of satisfaction, steals into Marietta’s bedroom in Ventucci’s house. Here, the punitive editing the film was subjected to most clearly affected Stroheim’s concluding ironies and epiphanies. Karamzin’s sexual assault on Mariette was cut, as was Ventucci’s vengeful killing of him: the incident is instead merely suggested as Ventucci is depicted dragging Karamzin’s corpse down to dump in a sewer. The point remains, however muted: Karamzin’s gross rapacity finally destroyed him, and his journey to the bottom is completed in the most undignified way possible, anticipating the gangster antiheroes of the early ’30s and their sticky ends. Stroheim also intended to depict Karamzin’s departure as the rhyme to the reconciliation of the Hughes and Helen giving birth, suggesting the cyclical nature of life. This denouement, like much of Stroheim’s oeuvre, is lost to time and rumour. What’s left of Foolish Wives testifies to a great cinematic talent clearing his throat just in time to have it cut.
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Directors/Screenwriters: Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In 2014, with the release of Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, a truly great family trilogy entered the cinematic canon. As heartbreaking as Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy and more violent in its own way than Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films, the Amsalem Trilogy spins an emotionally savage tale of human unhappiness as seen mainly through the character of Viviane Amsalem (Ronit Elkabetz), a Jewish wife and mother of four trapped in a miserable marriage to a man who refuses to give her a divorce.
This trilogy is something of a landmark in Israeli cinema. Formerly dominated by tales of the sabra/Ashkenazi Jewish experience, the country’s cinematic culture is starting to feel the influence of new waves of Jewish immigrants to Israel. The powerhouse sister/brother team of Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz conceived the trilogy to tell their story—the story of the Mizrahi Jews of North Africa and the Middle East forced by war to emigrate to Israel. The siblings also dared to do what no other filmmakers have done—expose the scandal of Israeli divorce.
The first film, To Take a Wife, opens on an extreme close-up of Viviane, who is being entreated in the wee hours of the morning by four of her seven brothers to make peace with her husband of 20 years, Eliyahu (Simon Abkarian). The brothers can’t understand how a pious man who makes a good living and never raises his hand to her could make Viviane so unhappy. She can’t explain how she feels and what exactly Eliyahu does that torments her. She simply chain-smokes and wears herself and everyone else out. Finally, she agrees to see Eliyahu, who has been sitting in their living room during the negotiations, and eventually gives him a peck on the cheek, signaling that everyone can go home until the next meltdown. Like the Elkabetzes’ parents, Viviane is a hairdresser and casually observant Jew, and Eliyahu is a postal worker and very active in the religious community. They moved to Kiryat Yam—the town where the Elkabetzes grew up—along with Viviane’s very large family, the Ohayons, from Morocco, and are just as likely to speak French as Hebrew.
The second film, Shiva, opens in a graveyard as the camera, shooting at ground level, records the Ohayons, led by matriarch Hanina (Sulika Kadosh), crying and wailing as dirt is shoveled into an open grave. One of Viviane’s brothers, Maurice, has died from a stroke, and the family sets up in his widow Ilana’s (Keren Mor) large house to observe shiva, the traditional seven days of mourning. Blood relatives may not leave the house once shiva has started, must receive all visitors paying their respects, and are to refrain from any activities but thinking about, talking about, and praying for the deceased. Creature comforts, like sitting in an easy chair or sleeping on a bed, are dispensed with as all of the mourners sit and sleep communally on the floor. Into this hothouse of raw emotion comes Eliyahu. He and Viviane have been separated for three years, and he uses the opportunity of paying his respects to try to talk to her.
The final film echoes the first by opening on an extreme close-up of Viviane as others talk about her and details of her marriage from offscreen. She is in rabbinical court struggling to get a gett, a religious divorce, from Eliyahu. Because there is no civil marriage or divorce in Israel, obtaining a gett is an absolute necessity if either party wishes to date without scandal or remarry. Unfortunately, unless the court can find grounds for divorce—and the grounds that would allow the court to compel the husband are very limited—it is strictly up to the husband whether to allow his wife to go free. It is not uncommon for an observant Jewish woman, no matter where in the world she lives, to be stuck in a marriage forever regardless of whether she is living with her husband because he refuses her a gett.
The Elkabetzes are unabashedly political and appropriately follow the second-wave feminist rallying cry that the personal is political by using this family saga to suggest the larger contexts in which these people operate, specifically, the Mizrahi immigrant experience and the suffocating religious dicta that offer little room for movement, especially to women. We see the seeds of Viviane’s discontent with her marriage in the rule-bound attitude of her husband. He and Viviane have different ideas about parenting and religious observance. In To Take a Wife, Viviane gives her young son Lior (Yam Eitan) some milk after he has eaten chicken to calm his stomach even though it breaks kosher dietary law and excuses her willful oldest son Eviatar (Kobi Regev) from accompanying Eliyahu to synagogue, a refusal that fills Eliyahu with shame. In Shiva, he polices the mourning, pronouncing what is and is not customary and correct, scolding the mourners for not focusing on Maurice, yet behaving hypocritically by using the occasion to try to persuade Viviane’s oldest brother Meir (Albert Iluz) to coerce her to return home.
The women we meet have little role other than as homemakers and mothers, with Viviane a glaring exception for running her own business. Families hold each other close—too close in many cases—and the shooting style of the trilogy exacerbates this closed familial and religious community by confining the action largely to single locations: the Amsalem apartment, the shiva house, and the rabbinical court. Indeed, the closed proceedings surrounding divorce are so secretive in Israel that Gett created a controversy on its debut for exposing the protracted, unfair process that gives all power to the judges and, ultimately, to the husband. Gett is an ordeal not only for Viviane, but also for the audiences who watch court sessions demarcated by title cards informing us how many months have passed as the court tries to force the marriage back together. After 5 years, the court negotiates a gett between the couple, only to have Eliyahu renege on his promise to go through with it. His stubborn refusal to give Viviane a divorce, though perhaps driven by a terror of losing her, represents his ultimate assertion of control, one that extends past the end of Gett.
Shiva concerns itself with family politics and nods at global politics as well. The Gulf War is raging, and all of the mourners carry gas masks wherever they go. The gallows humor of the Elkabetzes is on full display when an air raid siren sounds, and all the mourners at Maurice’s grave don their masks and continue to recite prayers at graveside. The war comes closer during the mourning period when a bomb falls close enough to the shiva house to nearly blow through a sheet of plastic covering an incomplete wall. The war has all but ruined the manufacturing business Haim Ohayon (Moshe Igvy) owns and runs, and the brothers who work there discuss their obligation or lack thereof to help Haim out. Haim’s rich wife Ita (Hana Laslo) represents the established generation of Ashkenazim. Her German uncle invested in Haim’s plant from Holocaust reparations he received from the German government, and she wields his family’s martyrdom as a weapon against the interests of her Mizrahi in-laws.
The films are not devoid of humor, particularly Shiva, which offers the widest cast of characters, displaying to one degree or another peculiar Jewish types. For example, a pair of old yentes watch as Meir frets about the quality of the posters he has ordered for his bid to become mayor of Kiryat Yam. One says his election will create a lot of financial opportunities for his family, perhaps unaware of how bad that sounds, while the other says it’s bad luck to talk about it. Offended that her friend has accused her of putting the evil eye on Meir and his family, she says, “OK, I’ll keep quiet,” a promise she’ll never be able to keep. In another scene, the mourners argue about whether they can eat the gizzard meat on their plates. Apparently, Iraqi Jews can, but Moroccan Jews can’t. Ever-correct Eliyahu wins the day, and one of the women removes the meat, one by one, from the mourners’ plates as Ilana reminisces about how much Maurice loved organ meat, naming each organ like the names of the Egyptian plagues recited at Passover.
Nonetheless, despite some liberal helpings of humor in both Shiva and Gett, all the films are most memorable for the frightening intensity of the animosity their characters show toward each other. In To Take a Wife, Viviane and Eliyahu have a fight that borders on madness. Viviane, warmed by her reminiscences of her romance with Albert (Gilbert Melki), the lover she had in Morocco before the move to Israel, can only spit venom at Eliyahu’s lack of affection toward her, his thoughtlessness and disregard for her as a woman. He, in turn, accuses her of being a drama queen and failing to appreciate how hard he works, even coming home every day to cook lunch for the family. Their fighting becomes so loud and vicious, we cringe in fear and sadness along with the children in their rooms at how two people who never should have gotten married can tear each other apart for their poor judgment. A similar explosion, which Viviane instigates among her brothers and sisters, occurs in Shiva. All the enforced closeness begun in good humor gives way to simmering resentments, jealousies, and physical confrontations. Saddest of all is watching Hanina cry miserably at the spectacle of her children pouring their disappointments, betrayals, and hates onto each other on the heels of the death of her son Maurice.
Elkabetz is an actress whose immersive approach to the roles she inhabits lays all of her emotions bare. I am still haunted by her unvarnished portrayal of a needy, careless prostitute in Or (2004), and with her decade-long portrayal of Viviane, she takes her all-in commitment as far as it can go. Viviane is passionate and emotional, almost incestuously affectionate with Eviatar, and catnip to the men who mewl around her: Albert, who comes to visit her and apologize for not leaving his wife when Viviane was ready to give everything up for him, only to be written off as untrustworthy and an insufficiently committed romantic for the volcanic Viviane; Ben Lulu (Gil Frank), an unmarried family friend who barely notices the awkward ministrations of spinster Evelyne (Evelin Hagoel) at the shiva house as he tries to sneak a moment alone with Viviane, stealing a kiss, but seemingly merely a placeholder for the lonely woman; and finally, Eliyahu, deeply in love with his wife but far too rigid in his religious orthodoxy and intimidated masculinity to allow her to be herself. Whether she is having a tooth-and-nail confrontation with Eliyahu or a mournful reunion with her lost love, Elkabetz simmers with love, hate, and love-hate that overwhelm with their force. When Viviane is all but gagged during the gett proceedings, one sees the masculine fear of female self-determination that leads to such repression and the kind of woman who elicits it most strongly.
Abkarian is an excellent match for Elkabetz, his charisma and masculine certitude offering a hint of why Viviane was drawn to him in the first place. He is certainly not without feeling for her, and his pain and bewilderment at the breakdown of his marriage are almost too excruciating to watch. In To Take a Wife, he is reciting a passage from the Torah at synagogue about a wife’s return and is overcome with emotion and unable to continue. Again, an overwhelming sadness floods the screen, a paean to human misery that culminates in the chain he clamps on Viviane in his vindictiveness and hurt pride.
Carrying a project like this through over the course of a decade allowed Abkarian and Elkabetz to age and reflect with veracity the long separations of Viviane and Eliyahu. Elkabetz is an extremely attractive woman, but in Gett, she looks rather haggard and faded. Eliyahu has gone gray, but not in a “distinguished” way. In the end, like the country in which they live, their war has been too long and too damaging to continue, but peace remains elusive.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Abel Ferrara
By Roderick Heath
Note: This review is of the 125-minute version.
Abel Ferrara has been one of American cinema’s lawless heroes since his feature debut in 1979 with the punk-slasher-art film The Driller Killer (1979). Born in the Bronx, Ferrara negotiated film school and the hard-knock college that was the arty bohemia of 1970s New York, complete with early ventures into porn, before his erstwhile breakthrough became a centrepiece of the “video nasty” debate in Britain and marked Ferrara in many minds as a sleaze merchant. His follow-up, Ms. 45 (1980), stirred polemical debate with its portrait of a young rape victim going on a misandrist killing spree, but also caught many film critics’ attention for its jarring and vigorous blend of raw immediacy and high style. Ferrara’s work superficially evoked Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma: he shared the former’s feel for New York, the latter’s sense of spectacle, and both men’s fascination for violence and contemporary degenerateness conflicting with flailing moral scruples. Ferrara, however, spurned the relieving dollops of playful cinephilia those directors usually offer, hewing closer to the scruffy Catholic-schooled atheist cinema of Pier Paolo Pasolini and pushing his themes to extremes that always seemed to have one foot planted in the old Times Square grindhouses and the other in a seminary library. After spending the ’80s directing punchy, wilfully grunged-up B-movies like Fear City (1984) and China Girl (1987), Ferrara dabbled with the mainstream for a time, directing episodes of “Miami Vice” and a studio remake of Jack Finney’s Body Snatchers (1991). But he also built up a head of auteurist steam that gained him acclaim as a wild talent with works like King of New York (1990) and Bad Lieutenant (1992). The acclaim of the latter film promised big things, but the mid-’90s instead saw Ferrara’s career go awry with increasingly demanding, uncommercial films like The Addiction (1995), and for the last decade or more, his work has generally landed straight on DVD.
With Welcome to New York, Ferrara’s gall proves still copious and potent, as he tries his hand at that old ploy of the professional muckraker, the fictionalised, torn-from-the-headlines, true-crime melodrama—in this case, the matter of Dominique Strauss-Khan, the French head of the World Bank whose stature and political intentions were toppled by accusations he molested an African immigrant working as a hotel maid in the Sofitel New York Hotel in 2011. The case was such a perfect triangulation of contemporary concerns, invoking a swathe of opine-fit topics, from rape culture to colonial fallout to one-percenter arrogance, that if a dramatist written them they might have been dismissed as a corny attempt at being edgy. Ferrara’s film has no pretence to being docudrama or reportage, and the pileup of issue-isms finds him largely uninterested: it’s easy to imagine one of his characters noting the essential feeling that innocent victims are boring. Welcome to New York is, rather, an attempt to digest the myth of the event and translate it back as purposefully rude art for the audience.
The attraction of the material lies in Ferrara’s lifelong fascination with transgression and sin, suffering and sensual greed, base impulse and transcendent yearning. The film’s title alone presents a flotilla of sarcasm, taken from the sign that hangs over JFK Airport’s exit: for Ferrara, who’s been exiled from his native stomping grounds for a time, it’s a homecoming just as much as it’s a romp in a foreign land for his Strauss-Khan avatar, Devereaux (Gerard Depardieu). Ferrara playing the impresario of forbidden delights and damnations has an ironic edge at first, considering this new New York he surveys could barely be more different to the place he filmed in the ’70s and ’80s. That place had its id on full display, and the underworld more visibly met the elite out on 42nd Street. Now, Ferrara kicks off with an interview that deliberately blurs the lines between the famously difficult, ornery actor and his character before leading in with a montage of money printing and shots of grandiose financial institutions around New York, promising that some cheesy Michael Moore or Oliver Stone-ish agitprop is on the way. But whilst the power of capital is certainly one of Ferrara’s targets here, there’s another joke in play, as he suggests the old traffic of New York, both fiscal and flesh, has simply shifted indoors and gone upmarket.
Consequently, much of the first half-hour or more of Welcome to New York is a depiction of the sustained orgy that is Devereaux’s life. Our introduction to this bacchanal comes when an advisor, Roullot (Ronald Guttman), visits his office to warn him about some of the problems about to beset him as a potential French presidential candidate whilst Devereaux’s collection of female employees-cum-concubines try to ply him with creature comforts and oral sex. Devereaux heads over to New York for a getaway and books into a swanky hotel, where he invites the attractive concierge (Ilinca Kiss) to join in his depravities, an offer she politely turns down. His pals and procurers, Pierre (Ferrara regular Paul Calderon) and Guy (Paul Hipp, who also sings the mournful version of “America the Brave” heard at the outset), bring hookers quite literally in shifts to keep the wealthy, perpetually horny plutocrat serviced, and they join him for a sex party where Pierre mixes up milkshakes and pours the froth over the women.
Pierre and Guy leave satiated, but before going, Guy brings in two more prostitutes, and Devereaux starts all over again into an extended threesome. When the two hookers leave, they pause to make out in the hallway before ducking out giggling after a family with kids stray into view, whilst Devereaux looks on from his room door. The spectacle of real desire between the two women but excluding him, their paying squire, seems to sit uneasily with him, stoking him to an even more bullish and intransigent state. In the morning, a maid (Pamela Afesi) comes into his room to clean up, and Devereaux grabs her and rubs her face in his crotch against her frightened protests until she bites him and flees. Devereaux dresses, packs, and heads to the airport. But the maid has reported the incident and two cops, Landano (Louis Zaneri) and Fitzgerald (James Heaphy), cook up a way of extricating him from the plane to arrest him. Devereaux soon begins a journey through the gullet of the New York justice system.
Much like Scorsese’s more overtly charismatic, but also more easefully entertaining The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), Ferrara is starting with an obvious point—that one great spur to acquire riches is to indulge one’s various appetites to the extreme. He invites the audience to share both jealousy and disdain for this fat, aging, rich, white man as he uses other people, particularly women, as existing to gratify his tastes, and then walks the stereotype into contradictions. Ferrara has often played about with medieval concepts and ethics of clan, overlordship, gladiatorial strength, even vampirism, lurking within the modern body politic, and like the eponymous King of New York, Devereaux goes a step further, setting himself up as a barbarian ruler with a harem and pleasure garden within the anodyne gloss of the hermetic one-percenter life. Like the protagonist of Bad Lieutenant, Ferrara seems to feel for his protagonist even more keenly and become all the more determined to penetrate to the root of his soul the worse he acts. Both Scorsese’s take on Jordan Belfort and Ferrara’s take on Strauss-Khan confront characters whose drives spin out of control and become self-destructive in part because they can’t live by the petty hypocrisies and arbitrary boundaries others, including even most other rich people, honour or are seen appearing to honour. As Welcome to New York unfolds, it gradually becomes clear that Devereaux is actually on the run from something in his life and taking refuge in conspicuous consumption. His comeuppance, the subject of the film’s middle third as he’s hauled over the coals by system and family, could even have been invited, or is at least the logical fate Devereaux has charged at like a wounded bull even as he rants about how everyone who judges him can go fuck themselves.
Ferrara is one of the few directors standing who has passed through just about every level of American filmmaking save the blockbuster, having started off in the lowliest precincts of the industry imaginable. Part of the charge of his cinema lies in the way he’s never entirely shaken off the grindhouse ethic of raw effect and played at getting respectable even as he become an ever-more individual and fearless artist. Ferrara digs the pornographic fantasia Devereaux drapes himself in, and has no problem showing it or twisting it around on itself, as young, naked courtesans give way to old, naked Depardieu. Ferrara’s dead-eyed portrait of Devereaux as he’s swept up by the cops, charged, jammed into a holding cell, transferred to a prison to await a bail hearing, and submitted to all of the procedures and petty humiliations imposed on a detainee recalls Alfred Hitchcock’s similarly stringent interest in criminal procedure in The Wrong Man (1956). The motive is the same: both films track a man whose interests the justice system is designed to defend being submitted to its dehumanising indignities, except that where Hitchcock deliberately portrayed an innocent man and scratched at the edges of his sense of bewildered innocence, Ferrara allows no illusions about Devereaux’s status as a creep, but still insists on immersing the audience alongside him in his travails. “Do you know who I am?” Devereaux demands of the maid as he advances on him, and, as the line’s use as its poster tagline confirms, it’s the shibboleth to the whole affair, the slipstream of wealth, repute, and power Devereaux is used to easing his path.
The world Ferrara creates is entirely impersonal. The halls of JFK, the tasteful, deadening minimalism of the hotel, rolling surveys of lingerie-clad bottoms, the grey halls of justice, and the $60,000-a-month house Devereaux’s wife rents for him to wait out the subsequent legal proceedings are all filmed in the same tones and hues and with scarcely a skerrick of personality or individuality. Everything is commoditized in the bubble in which Devereaux lives, and it’s that bubble Ferrara is fascinated by and wants to explore. Whilst he never suggests apologia for Devereaux (or Strauss-Khan), Ferrara insists on travelling with Devereaux on his journey so that the weird logic in his actions is laid bare: in a drug-addled, sex-frenzied state in a world where everything’s offered up to him, he sees the latest woman to stray into his room as just another flower to be plucked. (Ferrara’s anger at the film’s edited and reshuffled U.S. cut is entirely understandable in this light: he wants us to ponder Devereaux with the ironic distance of people who know he’s guilty rather than excited by a preoccupation with the question.) Ferrara does not, in the end, try to pass Devereaux off as Strauss-Khan unalloyed, but as his idea of a man passing through similar situations. Devereaux contains evident aspects of both Depardieu—an idea Ferrara warns the audience about right at the outset with that interview—as well as Ferrara. The way Devereaux acts in his holding cell, pacing back and forth, snorting through his nose and bewildering his fellow prisoners, suggests it’s not the first time he’s experienced such a moment, and perhaps Ferrara means to suggest that like Depardieu and himself, Devereaux may be a long-coddled celebrity, but still carries the streets of his youth tattooed on his corpuscles. This becomes more possible as aspects of Devereaux’s character and history leak out, lending the film, however vivid and straightforward it is in most ways, a quality of performance-art provocation.
When Devereaux is arrested, the cops don’t quite know “who” they’re dealing with and take some quiet delight in degrading his type for a change, making jibes about his weight and leading up to a lengthy sequence where he’s submitted to a strip search, a vision unlikely to make it into the annals of popular internet nude scenes and yet Depardieu offers something majestic in his nakedness with his grandiose paunch and refusal to be cowered. Rescue, if temporary, comes in the form of his wife Simone (Jacqueline Bisset), on whom he uses his one phone call to fetch from the midst of a banquet (being given in her honour for her support for Israel, no less). Devereaux’s odd family life has already been suggested when, just before his arrest, he has lunch with his daughter Sophie (Marie Mouté) and her Canadian preppie boyfriend Josh (JD Taylor) and insists in shocking him, in a way with which Sophie seems familiar, by asking him with salubrious gusto how their sex life is. Simone, an heiress with a colossal family fortune at her back who wants to play kingmaker, is also very familiar with her husband’s proclivities. Her entrance into the film turns it into a study in marital perversity as Simone’s loyalty to her husband and readiness to bail him out is matched only by her fierce anger and frustration that he’s completely pissed away his shot at being president—an ambition she imposed on him, he says, to satisfy her own ego, but which she argues was his great chance to make good on his talents with her family fortune at her back. Devereaux finds the whole business, and that family fortune, an onerous thing. His intransigent wilfulness and reflexive ass-covering surge to the fore as Simone call him to account: “I didn’t do it!” he repeatedly bleats, meaning he didn’t rape the maid, before explaining with ferocious miming just what he did actually do.
Crucially, Devereaux debases himself in such moments as he debases others, as Welcome to New York is in part a document of the man who, stripped not just of illusion but also of pretence, attempts to be honest with himself and others, and is taught in the course of the exterior drama that there’s a terrible price to be paid for being honest when it collides with the laws of society. His need to defend himself demands he put a temporary damper on his rawness for Simone, the media, and the forces of the law, and this necessity infuriates him more than anything else as partly the appalling gall of a man who’s let his soul turn septic and is willing to blame others for it, and partly a spoilt child dedicated to its appetites and reflexes and chucking a tantrum when denied. But it’s also something subtler and less easily and comfortably assimilated by witnesses: a crisis of spirit that’s left his sense of common humanity in a yawning void. This has turned Devereaux into an existential shark, out of a wilful, almost philosophical choice dictated by his realisation there’s nothing else that means anything to him, and his own discomfort with playing roles vividly contrasts with the way he can make others play them. “I wish I could have helped you stop,” Sophie tells her father as they talk after his travails have destroyed her relationship with Josh. “I didn’t want to,” he replies, and then, after a moment’s contemplation, adds: “Correction— I don’t want to.” He wants to keep living large in a manner that seems like a 17-year-old boy’s dream of the high life. Just because he’s in trouble doesn’t mean he’s finished with a drama that started long before the film starts and won’t finish until long after.
To illustrate this, Ferrara stages two scenes late in the film in pointed contrast that almost seem intended specifically to bait the audience into blind alleys of understanding about Devereaux. First, attending a ritzy reception at an art gallery, he displays his beguiling side as he extemporises on a painting to the fascination of gathering ladies, including a beautiful young French-African woman named Marie (Nneoma Nkuku), a law student who wants to work for the International Criminal Court: the two slip into flirtation that segues into a night of easy lovemaking. Devereaux is debonair, romantic, still able to use his natural gifts rather than money to get laid, passionate and genuine with his lover. That Marie’s black and a young, spunky idealist seems to speak to something in Devereaux, because it’s the first time Devereaux is seen at his best. Perhaps it’s the last tiny fragment of his youth we’re seeing him use up here. Ferrara seems at his most casual, almost careless in framing this sequence at this point in the film, but in fact, his sly and ruthless wit is working most concertedly under the surface to subvert, if briefly, the rhetoric of race and history surrounding the Strauss-Khan case that buzzed on the airwaves and internet, giving us instead dashing leftist hero and lover. So, of course, Ferrara follows it with Devereaux at his worst: when he tries the moves on a young journalist who comes to the rented house to interview him, he offers compliments on her book as a down-payment for nooky. She turns him down, so he begins trying to strip her naked against her frantic protests, until she finally breaks free and dashes out without her blouse. Ferrara leans in like a romantic only to pour a vial of acid in our laps, reducing Devereaux to greedy, bratty, brutal lecher.
Devereaux’s duality, and beyond that, everyone’s duality, connects with one of Ferrara’s singular recurring themes of people dragged between extremes of transcendence and debasement. So, too, is the theme of the good person worn down by the world’s evil and embarking on a journey through their own underworld, a notion that connects most of his work, and here most particularly recalling Lili Taylor’s distraught humanist turned bloodsucking monster in The Addiction, whose idealistic impulses readily transform into corrosive nihilism and hungry exploitation. A similar process has beset Devereaux when the pricy defence team Simone hires sends him to be evaluated by a psychiatrist, a process he describes in contemptuous terms to Simone. But later, Devereaux wanders the streets at night, with his unleashed confession to the shrink heard as ethereal voiceover, a meditative description of his pathos. Declaring himself an atheist, but “When I die, I will kiss god’s ass forever,” he describes the process that took him from brave, young crusader who signed up to battle the world’s poverty, which slowly and insidiously overwhelmed him by its scale, to wanting to squeeze every last drop of sensual gratification from his own life as he runs from success, from fear of aging, and from his wife’s plans and political ambitions.
Simone’s labours work, naturally: the case against Devereaux collapses for unstated reasons, and there’s nothing left then but Devereaux’s smug smile and Simone frustration at his seeming belief that some sort of natural justice has won out. “The other side of love is not hate—it’s indifference,” Simone mournfully tells her husband even as she proposes they return to France determined to maintain their best face, whilst he turns to the household maid and asks what she thinks of him. She says he seems nice. Why seek blessing when you can buy it? Welcome to New York doesn’t quite have the ferocity of Ferrara’s best work, but it’s still a major film by a highly undervalued filmmaker, and Depardieu and Bisset offer performances amongst the finest of their careers.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Brett Haley
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Media are very big on groups. Every generation has to have a name—the newest one is Generation Z (posing the question of what to do about alphabet names now that the end has been reached, and quickly). My generation, the Baby Boomers, has been moving into retirement for the past several years, and even though moviemakers have never gotten along that well with elderly subjects, because we are just about the last large group that attended movie theatres regularly, it makes sense that exhibitors would be interested in programming new films about our time of life. We’ve had everything from Alzheimer’s movies like Away from Her (2007) and Still Alice (2014) to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) and its sequel The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2015). You’ll forgive me if I don’t jump for joy at these choices—vital women vanishing into a vast blankness and quirky Brits doddering about being cranky and precious. The few films of substance about old age, such as Time to Die (2007), A Simple Life (2011), and Amour (2012)—all foreign films—also seem to care more about our deaths (with dignity!) than our lives.
I’ll See You in My Dreams is that rare film that takes an interest in the lives of retired Baby Boomers, a new breed of youthful elderly, with a particular emphasis on one woman, Carol Petersen (Blythe Danner), and the fabric of her life lived outside the mainstream. Carol received a large life insurance payout when her lawyer husband died in a plane crash when she was about 50. Not enjoying her career teaching reading and “subjects no one else wanted,” she decided to opt out of the rat race. Now 70, she lives in comfort with her dog Hazel in an attractive, but relatively modest Southern California house with a pool, waking up to a 6 a.m. alarm, taking her morning pills, reading the paper edition of The New York Times with her coffee, and playing cards and golf with her friends Sally (Rhea Perlman), Rona (Mary Kay Place), and Georgina (June Squibb), who live in a retirement community. Throughout, she drinks a lot of very good chardonnay and never has more than a couple of items on the “to do” whiteboard in her kitchen.
Although Carol’s husband died long ago, the film reminds us that death is part of the soundtrack of even comfortable, active people after they have entered the red zone of the life cycle. Before we have a chance to get to know Hazel, Carol must have him euthanized. Only a small comment to him at the very beginning of the film—“Did you have a good night?”—lets on that he has been unwell, and then only in retrospect. The film spares us nothing of this sad duty, as Carol sits next to her companion while the vet (Aarti Mann) administers a sedative and then the drug that will “stop his heart.” Director Haley moves his camera outside the procedure room, observing Carol’s grief from a discreet distance through a window.
In the wake of this fresh loss, Carol’s life is primed for a change. A new employee of her pool service, Lloyd (Martin Starr), shows up to clean her pool, and after an awkward beginning, the two begin a tentative friendship. Lloyd tells Carol he lives with his mother after finding that the only use he has been able to find for his degree in poetry is writing lyrics for songs he likely will never record. He notices a photo of Carol singing in a group. She says she gave it up long ago when she got married and had a daughter. He wonders how she could give up something that has the ability to make everything fall away—having a peak experience, living in the moment, these are the things Lloyd hopes to achieve. Carol knows better—such moments are elusive, even illusory, and not worth throwing a life away to experience. It’s hard to know if Carol is truly bitter about giving up performing or whether she’s trying to slap some sense into a young man whose life could pass him by if he keeps running after something so insubstantial. In turn, his very interest in her—and it truly is exceptional that a 30-year-old would choose to spend time with a retiree, even one as attractive as Blythe Danner—awakens her to possibilities for her own life, including a romance with Bill (Sam Elliott), a handsome new resident of the retirement community.
In other hands, the above scenario would make for a light, possibly distasteful romcom about a cougar who finds happiness with an age-appropriate man and passes her younger man off to her daughter. Fortunately, this is not that movie. Blythe Danner is the glowing core of this expectation-defying film, and the mere casting of her in this knockout role comments on the fact that she had a career before she became “Gwyneth Paltrow’s mom.” Her every instinct seems sharper than ever—a tearful, but dignified farewell to her beloved pet, stammering incredulousness at the spectacle of speed dating, the sparkle at seeing Bill having lunch at a table across from hers and her matter-of-fact acquiescence to his very forward invitation to dinner. She’s a no-nonsense person, a bit cold for having put herself on autopilot for so many years, but clearly engaged with her friends and open to offering up details of her life if asked. When she accompanies Lloyd to a karaoke night and sings “Cry Me a River,” the audience on screen and off are astonished by her lovely voice and able interpretation. Who knew? Who indeed. Carol’s like a lot of older folks—we’re eager to share our lives and talents with others, but have a hard time finding people who are interested.
In this regard, Lloyd is a very refreshing creation played with open sincerity by Starr. He isn’t practical or driven. He knows he’s a little too old to believe in the endless possibilities most young people think will be open to them forever, but he can’t quite let go of his romantic ideals and so avoids getting a job with a future. He may be self-deprecating and a bit of a slacker, but he has a genuine humanity. In Carol, he recognizes what he thinks is a kindred spirit and someone who needs rescuing just as much as he does. She drinks, after all, and invites a pool boy into her house, though not into her bed—another cliché that never happens in this movie; indeed, the movie upends that cliché by having Lloyd appear at Carol’s door one morning, only to find Bill there having breakfast after a night of lovemaking. Lloyd appears disappointed, perhaps romantically, but more likely because he realizes Carol won’t have time for him.
Beyond the basics, we don’t really learn very much about anyone in this film other than Carol. This is a bit of a weakness considering the incredible cast at Haley’s disposal, but Place, Perlman, Squibb, and Elliott offer perfect sketches of their characters’ personalities and how they all fit together. The scenes in which the women are together playing cards, having lunch, getting high on medical marijuana, and deciding to go to Iceland because they can are very true to how long-term friends accept each other’s differences and hold each other up in the face of life’s travails. Sexy Bill is a character that would be dodgy if he and Carol were 20 or 30 years younger. I’d say Bill was giving her the bum’s rush, but they aren’t young, and time won’t wait for them to get to know each other properly before they decide that they are compatible and could be happy together. The conditioning of a lifetime kicks in very quickly, and they start thinking about a future together after only a couple of dates.
The final act of the film becomes a reckoning for Carol. Her daughter (Malin Akerman) comes to visit, and it is then that Carol acknowledges freely what was most important to her in her life. It wasn’t what Lloyd wanted for her or what her friends and Bill tried to push on her. It was her daughter and the love she had for her husband. Old age involves many diminishments, but it’s a time when we can finally be honest with others and ourselves. Danner, whose husband of 33 years, Bruce Paltrow, died in 2002 (family photos on the mantel of Carol’s home are shots of Danner and Paltrow), brings her understanding of love and loss in its many facets to this film. Her bravery and commitment provide an unforgettable portrait of a woman both older and wiser who surprises herself and us with the largeness of her heart.
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Directors: Joseph Green and Konrad Tom
By Marilyn Ferdinand
When moviegoers think about Jews in the movies, portly studio moguls, skeletal victims of the Holocaust, or nebbishy, neurotic New Yorkers are the images that may spring immediately to mind. Fortunately, the steady stream of historic Jewish-themed and Yiddish-language films coming back into the world via the fine rescue and restoration work of the National Center for Jewish Film (NCJF) is offering a larger sense of the breadth and richness of Jewish life. The NCJF’s most recent restoration, now making its way around the world at festival screenings, is Mamele.
Mamele is a classic and important work for a number of reasons. It is the last Yiddish film shot in Poland, made just a year before the Nazis occupied Poland and began the destruction of the way of life depicted in the film. Mamele also stars “Queen of the Yiddish Musical” Molly Picon, a first-generation American of Polish immigrant parents who started in vaudeville at age 6, launching a highly successful 70-year career during which she would be nominated for a Golden Globe award for her portrayal of an Italian mother in Come Blow Your Horn (1963) and create an indelible Yente the Matchmaker in Norman Jewison’s Fiddler on the Roof (1971). Additionally, it preserves Picon’s trademark musical number “Abi Gezunt” (“As Long As You’re Healthy”) for posterity.
The film, set in the industrial town of Lodz, concerns the Samed family—father Berel (Max Bozyk), plain oldest sister Yetka (Ola Shlifko), attractive middle sister Berta (Gertrude Bullman), good-hearted youngest sister Havche (Picon), unemployed oldest brother Duvid (Max Pearlman), apprentice locksmith Zishe, and schoolboy Avremel. Mrs. Samed has been dead for three years, but she entrusted the welfare of the family to Havche, who gets her household money from the working members of the family to shop for the home. Her cooking, cleaning, sewing, errand-running, and maternal guidance are variously resented, ignored, or taken for granted, but her promise to her mother is sacred. Havche is lonely and abused—her father beat her when she was late bringing his coffee—but she finds solace in her friendship with Schlesinger (Edmund Zayenda), a promising musician who lives in an apartment across the courtyard.
Berta is romanced by Max Katz (Menasha Oppenheim), a slick thief who impresses her and Berel with his new car and ready cash. Katz will take what he can from Berta, but his real interest is to get Zishe to make a key to allow his partners in crime to get into a shop adjoining a bank, break through the wall, and rob the bank. An observant Havche follows Zishe and the men, accidentally brings a wall down on them, fishes Zishe out of the rubble, and forces Max to throw Berta over in a hilarious scene in which Havche tricks him into thinking she has a gun on him. However, a petty family argument finally pushes Havche over the edge, and she abandons the family to travel with the Schlesingers to the country. Romance blooms, the family realizes how lost they are without her, and Havche returns to her role of mamele (little mother), with Schlesinger joining the household as her husband.
Picon originally played the teenaged Havche the mamele on the stage when she was in her 20s. Although the actress was a tiny 4’11”, she was 40 and clearly a grown woman by the time she recreated the role on screen. The gross injustice of a child playing wife and mother to her ungrateful family thus is lost and her self-sacrifice more in keeping with the stereotype of mothers, in general, and Jewish mothers, in particular. Nonetheless, the fascinating cast of characters living modern lives in the big city alongside their religious observances make this film a lively affair. The wit and flair of the dialogue perfectly capture the Jewish personality. For example, a group of men are watching Berel play dominoes in a local hang-out. One asks another for a cigarette, then a match. The retort is, “What do you supply? The mouth?” The film shows a sukkot (temporary house) being built for the Festival of Sukkot, and the women serving food to the men inside. When a young boy asks why his mamma isn’t in the sukkot, his father replies “At Passover, you’ll ask questions…eat!”, a witticism referring to the four questions the youngest at the table always asks at every Passover seder.
Picon is a terrific and charismatic actress who initially was not a fluent Yiddish speaker. She eventually spoke like a native because Joseph Green, a Warsaw native who maintained a film production company in Poland, insisted she travel to Europe to learn the language and customs from the source. Picon shows off her musical chops not only with a clever rendition of “Abi Gezunt” sung as she prepares a meal, but especially in a vignette in which she talks to her grandmother’s photograph. Picon plays her grandmother as a young girl, a vibrant young woman, a plump matron, and a 78-year-old matriarch, singing about all the different ways she danced through her life. The sequence is well edited to mirror the reminiscences of an old woman, and Picon offers the right amount of comedy and pathos to the stand-out number. A nightclub sequence in which Bullman and Oppenheim offer a slice of contemporary nightlife balances out the more traditional, sentimental elements and opens this stagebound film up a bit.
While there’s no doubting the reality of situations like Havche’s, the film has a fairytale quality to it—a wisecracking Cinderella who gets her Prince Charming while checking to see that the soup is seasoned properly and her ketzele (kitten) gets a saucer of milk before she goes off to get married. I thoroughly enjoyed this showcase of talented performers putting over a classic of the Yiddish stage with just enough cinematic verve to please the discerning cinephile.
You can view before-and-after scenes of the restoration here.
Mamele screens Sunday, May 31, at the Spertus Institute, 610 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago. There will be a post-screening discussion with Lisa Rivo, codirector of The National Center for Jewish Film.
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Director: William Friedkin
By Roderick Heath
Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear, released in 1953, is one of those classics of non-English-language cinema that can easily transcend barriers and speak to just about any audience. That’s largely because of its subject, the lives of four working men so desperate to escape their circumstances that they take on the absurdly dangerous task of trucking loads of nitroglycerine along a crude road for a petroleum company: it is as precisely appealing to the first world’s labourer as to the third world’s, a Homeric effort attempted by ordinary guys capped by a blindsiding downer of an ending that still asserts its heroes’ liveliness as an overpowering force. Clouzot’s film, adapted from a short, but substantial, novel by Georges Arnaud, helped define a certain brand of modernist angst in its portrait of the men at such extremes, something that would soon look like a form of pop existentialism. It also probed a peculiarly French brand of blue-collar machismo, taking care to question ideas of what constitutes courage: the gutsiness of gangster Jo (Charles Vanet), so authoritative in intimidating his fellow men, is revealed as a sham in the face of a different kind of fear, one the experienced labourers who join him on the deadly mission take in their stride.
In the mid-1970s, William Friedkin, whose career was white-hot after the success of The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973), chose to remake Clouzot’s film as his next project, with a screenplay by Walon Green, who had penned Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969)—but something went badly wrong. Production in the Dominican Republic under Friedkin’s customarily gruelling and combative helming was drawn out and expensive. Critics skewered Friedkin and the film, released in the summer of 1977 with Star Wars and Saturday Night Fever, and Sorcerer proved to be the first of several major flops that would slowly end Hollywood’s interest in promoting director-stars. After directing the divisive Cruising (1980), Friedkin began a long career tailspin, yet, once again, time has proven kind, as Sorcerer has become an object of cult acclaim.
Both Sorcerer’s initial failure and slow rehabilitation probably stem equally from the film’s specific and spiky nature, a thrilling adventure film that is nonetheless notably defined by a downbeat attitude. The film’s political bite, a couple of years too late for the Watergate malaise, might not have helped its initial prospects. Like the original which was severely edited for U.S. release, Sorcerer reveals no love for the footprints left by first-world corporate interests in developing world zones, and explicitly defines the protagonists as pawns bribed with a larger-than-usual reward for a larger-than-usual risk that’s still the cheapest option for their paymasters. Moreover, Friedkin explicitly reordered and redesignated his main characters, who are no longer noble proletarians saddled with one gangster, but all men who have been driven to the edges of society by their criminal acts.
The early scenes of Sorcerer do precisely what Clouzot avoided, and depict the events that drive or contribute to each fated driver’s fall from grace, plotting a graph of types of crime and worldviews that are nullified outside of context by sending them all to the same void that is life in a Latin-American shithole called Porvenir. In Vera Cruz, Mexico, assassin Nilo (Francisco Rabal) enters the apartment of a man and guns him down. In Jerusalem, Palestinian radical Kassem (Amidou) bombs an Israeli police station with a cell of comrades, only to bring swift retribution as soldiers swoop down on their hideout; only Kassem slips the net. In Paris, Victor Manzon (Bruno Cremer) is forced to go on the lam after financial irregularities with the trading firm he runs bring on tragedy. In the New Jersey town of Elizabeth, a small gang of Irish-American hoods take a chance on robbing the profits of a church’s bingo game run by a priest whose brother is Mafia boss Carlo Ricci (Gus Allegretti). One member of the gang shoots the priest, and arguments between the thieves in the car whilst fleeing the scene cause the driver, Jackie Scanlon (Roy Scheider), to crash into a truck. Badly injured, Scanlon stumbles away from the scene, leaving behind his dead and mangled companions, but soon finds the mob are after him.
Friedkin opens the film with scarcely a line of relevant dialogue spoken for nearly 10 minutes, and nothing in English for nearly 20, grasping his viewers by the scruff of the neck and submerging them in visual storytelling. He references both the early scenes of The French Connection in opening with long shots scanning a city before zeroing in to depict a brutal killing, and of The Exorcist, in noting events in one part of the world that will conclude far away, conveyed with a sense of vibrating disquiet and enigmatic purpose. Nilo’s murder is the initial shock, but unlike the shooting of the informant at the start of The French Connection, Sorcerer never explains why it occurs: the reasons are much less important than the act in this consequential, even karmic universe. Friedkin is describing courses of action already reaching their climaxes, and then sending the protagonists on to fates that in many narratives would be left as a postscript.
The terrorist bombing is first an obscure bloom of flame in the back of a frame, and then a screen-filling deluge, churning the world into nihilistic furor. Tangerine Dream’s throbbing electronic scoring rises for the first time to accompany shots of armed vehicles stalking the streets and massive machine guns stabbing across the frame. Docudrama stylistics are in evidence. Faces in the crowd are plucked out and studied in their carefully nonchalant interest in the business of internecine warfare, and jerking, juddering, handheld shots made of soldiers launching into action, whilst the terrorists debate over what routes to take to leave the city, prefiguring a later choice of consequence in the very different drama Kassem will play a part in later. He escapes the raid, plunging into a disorienting camera whirl whilst dashing through a crowded market, and then is glimpsed as two frightened, pained eyes amidst the sea of jostling, impassioned faces, watching as his pals are loaded onto trucks and dragged away to prison.
Manzon’s situation couldn’t be more different, and Friedkin shoots these scenes more subtly, only cranking up his signature handheld camerawork as this tragic little movement climaxes. Beforehand, he emphasises the lush civility that is Manzon’s life with his wife, Blanche (Anne-Marie Deschodt), an aristocratic book editor. Ornate Old World interiors, the product of ages of successful colonialism, surround these prim, culturally ordained winners (at one point, Blanche puts down the “second-rate” lobsters from Vera Cruz), though it’s revealed Manzon is actually the son of a fisherman who, like The French Connection’s Charnier, has elevated himself by both talent and a willingness to break rules. Blanche is working on the memoir of a former soldier whom she describes as something of a philosopher, reading out to her husband a passage where he describes preparing to order a cannon barrage that will inevitably kill civilians, and pondering what hand of fate might be doing the same to him. Manzon listens whilst dressing and putting on his wife’s anniversary present, a watch carved with the words, “In the tenth year of Forever.” At a meeting with a state prosecutor, who believes Manzon misrepresented his firm’s collateral, Manzon manages to talk him into holding off preferring charges if he can cover the shortfall. Manzon’s secret weapons are his father-in-law and brother-in-law Pascal (Jean-Luc Bideau), a baron whom he hopes will forward the money to defend the family name and firm. But the baron won’t help, and Pascal shoots himself in his car outside a ritzy restaurant (a favourite Friedkin locale for depicting class distinctions, recalling Popeye Doyle glaring through the windows of a similarly expensive dining place at his nemeses). Manzon, cut off from the momentary indulgence by the ruling class of his ambition, is left utterly alone, unable to return to his wife inside or seek recourse, left only with the choice of imprisonment and disgrace or flight.
Scanlon’s lot is even less enviable, having been drawn into a seemingly easy robbery that turns disastrous thanks to unstable and violent partners. Broken time—the blurring of past, present, and future—is a repeating motif in the movie, and the moments of Scanlon’s crash and its aftermath, amidst jets of water from a busted hydrant, broken glass, and bright crimson blood caking his dead companions’ faces, recur in jagged, random fashion in Scanlon’s posttrauma daze and his wrestling with his very sanity and mortality in the jungle. Tellingly, apart from the mysterious motives of Nilo, the drivers all have been pursuing some ideal or dream that’s gone agonisingly sour, which allows Nilo to take the same place as Jo in The Wages of Fear, distinct from his companions. But unlike the otherwise essentially ordinary men of Clouzot’s film, these guys are all exiled and faced with no future: it’s heavily implied they have entered a worldly limbo and that this is the tale of a “voyage of the damned.”
Each man is eking out a living and an identity, and taken a Latino pseudonym. Scanlon is “Dominguez,” Kassem is ”Martinou,” and Manzon is “Serrano,” whilst Nilo, the latest arrival, bribes his way through customs. Kassem and Manzon work for the oil company laying pipe, whilst Scanlon load and unloads cargo at the airport. This is a tide pool of misery: the manager of the local bar and flophouse, “Carlos” (grand old character actor Fredrick Ledebur in his last role), is a former Nazi Reichsmarschal, and Kassem’s contact “Marquez” (Karl John) is another German fugitive. Friedkin emphasises political oppression as a personal experience, as the local cops take delight in shaking down and humiliating undocumented, obviously troubled aliens, particularly Scanlon, a defenceless Yankee, to grind under their heels just as the American oil company is exploiting the local workers and landscape.
An explosion at a well drilling in the distant mountains kills several labourers and destroys the infrastructure; the wounded and the dead are trucked back to Porvenir. Corlette (Ramon Bieri), the local site manager for the oil company, is faced with the necessity of quickly and cheaply extinguishing the fire and getting the well producing or it could mean the company’s collapse: he and his advisor Del Rios (Chico Martinez) decide to risk blowing the fire out with explosives. The only nearby supply of gelignite is dangerously degraded and sweating, and so Corlette decides to hire drivers to take the chance of transporting it to the fire site. In a late scene of The Wages of Fear, Jo and Mario (Yves Montand) chat about high old fence both remember from the old neighbourhood in Paris: the dying Jo is shocked to learn from Mario that the fence only concealed a vacant lot, and his last words, “There’s nothing there!”, point to the realisation that there is nothing waiting on the other side of death, bringing the film’s existential edge to the foreground. The note of spiritual menace and oblivion inherent in this moment briefly concerns Clouzot in the midst of a drama that is otherwise tethered entirely to a highly physical, entirely material sensibility. For Friedkin, on the other hand, this moment informed his annexation of the material and gave space to escape the shadow of Clouzot’s work with an individual artistic vision. Most remakes dally with minor, ineffectual reshufflings of plot and incident to justify themselves, but Friedkin, like John Carpenter using the shape-shifting motif of “Who Goes There?” to similarly distinguish his take on The Thing (1981), found a way to make a vibrantly different experience out of the same stuff. Friedkin turns the unfolding drama into a teeming, even grimier, more physically evocative and hallucinatory dive into the heart of darkness.
Sorcerer becomes a spiritual sequel to both The French Connection and The Exorcist in contemplating its heroes as bodies of both good and evil, with porous identities, a notion Friedkin had pushed to even more stygian extremes with Cruising. Clouzot’s film had already been remade, uncredited, as Howard W. Koch’s Violent Road and strongly influenced Cy Endfield’s Hell Drivers (both 1958), and would later influence a generation of flashier thrillers with similar plot gimmicks, including Jan De Bont’s Speed (1994) and Martin Campbell’s Vertical Limit (2000): the latter paid homage by recreating one of Clouzot’s most famous shots—loose tobacco being blown off a cigarette paper from the shockwave sent out by an explosion well before the sound is heard. Clouzot’s own influences include the romantic fatalism of prewar French Poetic Realist cinema, mixed with tough plebeian melodramas like Raoul Walsh’s They Drive By Night (1940) and John Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) (Friedkin costumed Scheider after Humphrey Bogart in Huston’s film), with dashes of Anthony Mann’s hard-boiled noirs added for flavour. The inimitable tractor sequence of Mann’s Border Incident (1949) prefigures Clouzot’s gruelling sequence in which Mario is forced to drive over the top of Jo, evoked here, too. Sorcerer’s visual textures, replete with fetid colours and underexposed graininess, recall some then-recent Hollywood films with similar ideas and settings including John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972) and Franklin J. Schaffner’s Papillon (1973), a semblance Friedkin tweaks with a sensibility that recalls and anticipates some of Werner Herzog, most evident in his eerily detached helicopter shots discovering surreal blazes in the middle of the jungle.
Sorcerer is also filled with curious anticipations of stylistic cues that would define later cinema, like a fascination with the play of light on surfaces and the effects of backlighting, and using the ground-breaking electronic score to give his work an aural texture at once intensifying and defamiliarising that looks forward to the work of Ridley Scott and Michael Mann. Mann took much from Friedkin, an influence particularly evident during the lengthy montage depicting the men reconstructing vehicles with a sense of tactile, even anthropomorphic synergy between man and machine that Mann would remix in his debut film Thief (1981). Friedkin would then ironically and problematically return the compliment with To Live and Die in LA (1986).
Clouzot suggested alternatives for his men, particularly Mario, who had the beautiful Linda (Vera Clouzot) begging him not to risk his life. He pushed her out of his truck in part because he wanted to live up to his own masculine ideals. Friedkin strips away alternatives: his men are trapped in every conceivable way, and the only woman seen in Porvenir is the old, sagely mocking barmaid in Carlos’s tavern, who also may be the local shamanka overseeing life and death. The men are forced to move forward constantly like sharks, and prey on each other to get their chance, but are eventually forced to work together as their problems pile up. Whereas in The Wages of Fear, Jo may have been involved in the suicide of a driver chosen ahead of him or killed him to gain his spot, here Nilo does the same thing, less ambiguously: Kassem wants to kill him, but Scanlon decides they need the fourth driver more than revenge. Friedkin again recalls The Exorcist, and he notes stone-carved idols leering at them from the roadside, but whereas Friedkin conveyed religious-accented forces from beyond in his adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s tale, his horror-movie-accented take on Arnaud and Clouzot suggests more an attempt to dig into the irrational centres of the human mind and its problematic place in the face of a creation that produced it but doesn’t care for it. The greed and violence of modern society is merely a projection of the primal self found in the jungle, and each man falls from civilisation into the wild to battle more directly the forces of evil with which they’ve made compacts.
Friedkin illustrates his ideas too stridently at points, like emphasising the church as a money-making operation fraternal to the Mob, and zeroing in on sights like one of Scanlon’s companions covered in blood and water with bank notes he robbed sticking to his clothes and the bride at a wedding sporting a big blotchy shiner. It could also be argued that the essentials of the plot were looking dated in the mid-’70s setting, where it would surely have been an easier, safer, and possibly cheaper option to use the oil company’s helicopter to fly in some fresh explosives. But the film’s quality of indictment, whilst pungent, is not oversimplified. “No one is ‘just’ anything,” Blanche admonishes her husband early on when he dismisses the author of the book she’s editing as “just a soldier” because he did not allow his humane scruples to interrupt his duty. This notion of necessity overpowering will is a constant throughout the film, as well as the fine line between life and death. Bieri’s Corlette is characterised as much the same working stiff as those he hires for a deadly job, rather than a caricatured corporate type, and his hard, cynical edge shown when he sets the men on the mission reveals the impulsive strength of a survivor that has elevated him slightly: life in the world often demands indifference to its cruelties. Similarly, Sorcerer forces the viewer to temper identification with the heroes, who are all various forms of lowlife but who also all have their reasons, ranging from political idealism to a mere hope for a better life, and noting how their individual crimes are woven into a landscape of such crimes committed by people better at covering their asses. Friedkin’s prognosticating gifts pushed him to make one of his quartet a felonious banker and a terrorist, who in the context of today stand in many minds as the twin existential threats of the current age.
Friedkin depicts the rage of the locals as a truckload of their dead is brought into town, gruesomely charred and ruined, sparking a riot even soldiers can’t quell. Later, Friedkin interestingly contrasts the Conradian presumptions of the story’s concept of inherent brutalism with a tribal man who walks the highway and happily teases Scanlon by running alongside and in front of his truck, oblivious to Scanlon’s alarm at the potential danger he’s causing in his gleeful attitude. Meanwhile Corlette learns the ubiquitous El Presidente, whose image stares out from the many political posters plastered about Porvenir, fancies himself too much of a liberal to shut down the protests and aid the company. Another original touch of Green’s script was to make the explosion that devastates the oil well in the first place an act of sabotage, committed by a guerrilla army haunting the forests. When the drivers later encounter a band of the guerrillas, they prove uninterested in the lives of the kinds of people they should theoretically be fighting for, planning only to rob and kill them and forcing Scanlon and Nilo to fight for their lives. But just as the drivers piece together two working vehicles out of a range of abandoned company vehicles, the men are given new life by their desperate chance, and Manzon shows the skills that elevated him as he coolly presents their case to Corlette for more money and for identity proofs that will give them status. The four anxious, untrusting, antagonistic men are forced to band together and find something like comradeship as they take on the obstacles fate places in their way. They name their trucks “Lazaro” and “Sorcerer”—tilts at fate evoking powers over life and death—and let others cover them with magic symbols.
Once the trucks hit the road, Sorcerer unveils its full, hypnotic power as its assailed protagonists traverse narrow mountain roads and plunge through dark, enclosing jungle, photographed with astonishing verve by fired first cinematographer Dick Bush and his replacement John M. Stephens. A storm rises, churning the world into a maelstrom of blinding water. When Scanlon and Nilo reach an almost metaphysically charged fork in the road, they find the direction sign toppled. When they ask an old man for directions to the town of Poza Rica, he answers, “Poza Rica is dead,” invoking the old meaning of the lyrics of the song “Loch Lomond,” where the low road means death. The film’s justifiably most famous sequence is an epic passage where both trucks are forced to cross an aged, crumbling suspension bridge made from rope and wooden planks. The spectacle of the heavy, grunting trucks trying to cross this rickety structure resembles a hippopotamus trying to tightrope walk, the threat of every jolt nauseating. The drenching rain, swirling waters, and sickening swaying of the bridge make it seem as if the whole earth has come alive to try to shake these persistent fools off its shoulder. The feeling becomes all the stronger when a broken tree branch suddenly crashes into the bridge and rips into Manzon’s body like some suddenly rearing witch’s claws; Kassem barely manages to hang onto the bridge as he falls through a gap whilst directing Manzon across. The bridge gives way literally at the last second, and Freidkin jump cuts to the following day, the fate of the duo momentarily ambiguous until they pull in behind Scanlon and Nilo’s truck, which has been halted by a less intimidating, but even more problematic barrier: a gigantic felled tree lying across the road.
Nilo laughs in hearty hopelessness whilst Scanlon furiously, hysterically tries to chop a new path. Kassem, however, has the idea to rig up a device to set off one of the dynamite boxes and blow the tree to matchsticks, the apotheosis of the four men’s assertion of their intelligence and teamwork. Fate, however, is a real bitch: as they bond over the sentimental value of Manzon’s watch, the keepsake of another life, Manzon and Kassem are blown to smithereens when their truck busts a tyre and careens off the road, setting off their load. The guerrillas, attracted by the blast, hold up Scanlon and Nilo. Scanlon bluffs for time, pretending they carry supplies, whilst Nilo pretends to be sick, whilst nursing his revolver. Nilo guns down several soldiers whilst Scanlon bashes another to death with a shovel, only for Nilo to get a bullet in his own gut for his pains. Nilo slowly bleeds to death on the floor of the cab as Scanlon traverses the remaining distance to the well: the two men, each bitterly aware of the other’s hostility at the outset, rave about their intention to take their newfound riches to Managua and shack up with whores, but Nilo dies, leaving Scanlon alone. Although less spectacular than the bridge sequence, the film’s most stunning moments come as Scanlon drives the last few lonely miles, and has an agonisingly surreal freak-out at the very outer limits of liminal experience. Scanlon’s psyche disintegrates as he drives saddled with a corpse and a load of death across high mountain reaches, a lunarlike plane of perverse rock forms and spectral white dust in sickly blue moonlight.
The flurrying edits here negate time and space, fragments of memory and hallucination blending in chaotic dialogue. Double-exposures render Scanlon a ghost in his own life, dissolving into the lightning boiling in a cloud as if about to join the natural elements, or into the perverse forms of rock around him, as if exploring an alien planet. Blood gushes over Manzon’s watch in the rubble of his death site in rhyme with his dead criminal partners under the rain of the busted fire hydrant. Nilo’s wretched laugh echoes over shots of his dead white face. Finally Scanlon runs out of petrol short of his goal, and so makes the rest of the distance carrying a box of the gelignite in his hand, collapsing like a puppet once he reaches the glow of the firelight, the blazing well a squiggle of infernal power leading him on. Scanlon has made it, but the victory has cost him too much.
Clouzot was reputed for his unexpected and often jarringly bleak endings, and The Wages of Fear came readymade with one. Mario, driving home in triumph, swerves his truck on the road as if dancing in joy, only to lose control and crash off the road. Friedkin and Green’s take on the same ending is quieter and, in some ways, even darker, though possibly also less shocking and wrenching in its inferences as a result. As Scanlon sits in the bar in Porvenir with Corlette, rich with the shares of his dead fellows and armed with a local passport, a taxi pulls up outside bringing the assassins hired by Ricci to extract his debt. Clouzot’s last image was of Mario’s bloodied hand, still gripping his ticket from the Paris Metro line: he at least died with the future still before him. Friedkin slowly zooms in on Scanlon’s face as he realises forlornly that all his efforts have not bought him a new beginning after all—and stands to start a sadly dignifying dance with the withered barmaid. The arrival of death at the door only confirms what he knows: Scanlon has realised that for all his triumph, he still has nowhere to go.
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Director: Luchino Visconti
By Roderick Heath
Luchino Visconti was a singular and contradictory figure in just about any context. Visconti’s background was dauntingly aristocratic: his father belonged to a branch of the once very powerful Visconti family of Milan, whilst his mother was heiress to a cosmetics fortune. In the midst of Fascist Italy’s halcyon days, however, Visconti stood as a committed Marxist and out homosexual. Raised as an aesthete, he staged lush grand operas whilst directing films that helped define that most stringent and fundamental of film styles, neorealism. The disparities of Visconti’s experience and perspective armed him with a fearsome artistic arsenal, the intellectual and aesthetic reach to encompass the extremities of his age. Visconti started his film career working as an assistant director for Jean Renoir. When he returned home at the start of World War II, Visconti, like everyone else who wanted to work in the Italian film industry, had to labour under the auspices of the state, joining a unit under Benito Mussolini’s son Vittorio that also included Federico Fellini. Visconti gave neorealism its first, vital gambit with Ossessione (1942), and the movement soon bloomed, flourished, and peaked amidst the rubble and poverty of the postwar state, as Visconti was joined by Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica as the triumvirate of major neorealist directors. As the country and its film industry got back on their feet and the filmmakers who had become famous through the movement felt the changing tides of art and industry, neorealism began to evolve. Some saw this evolution as an inherent betrayal of neorealism’s early purity, given the political ideals the movement strove to express. Visconti seemed to be drifting farthest away from his early brief, as his work became increasingly formalistic, his subject matter leaned toward the historical and the literary, and his productions became increasingly international.
But the underpinnings of neorealism, with its sociological fascination for ways of life and lucidly detached method of storytelling, continued to be the lifeblood of much Italian cinema for years afterward. Visconti began with Senso (1954) to effect a complex blending of the opposing facets of his artistic persona—the florid and rigorous, the ironic and the fulsome—that took his old style to new places. Senso sketched much of what The Leopard would later develop, depicting the largeness of history in sarcastic contrast with the smallness of people caught up in it and evoking a classically romantic melodrama only to subvert and degrade it, alternating breathlessly florid staging and coolly choreographed, dissembling camerawork. The quietly radical Senso was viewed as a problematic work on first release, but Visconti rebounded with La Notte Bianche (1957) and Rocco and his Brothers (1960), the latter a soaring epic that sought to invest a tale of everyday calamity with the outsized intensity of a Verdi opera. Visconti’s next project was The Leopard, a deliberate antistrophe from the previous film’s focus and tone. The Leopard took on a then-recent cause célèbre, adapting a novel by Sicilian aristocrat Giuseppe di Lampedusa, who had died before his book’s publication. Lampedusa’s material was his own family history tracking back to the days of Garibaldi and the Risorgimento, blended with his own feelings of antagonism and displacement in the 20th century. Visconti surely felt sympathetic with the novel’s sad, dislocated view of the decline of his class’s influence, and also its vein of unsentimental clarity, its finite blend of tragically inflected romantic nostalgia and biting commentary. Much like Renoir’s The Grand Illusion (1938), The Leopard is partly an expression of regret at the loss of the best qualities of an age in the face of a ruder, cruder time.
Finding an actor to play Lampedusa’s hero, Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, wasn’t the smallest of Visconti’s challenges. Eventually Burt Lancaster was pressed on Visconti by his producers, whilst Visconti retained Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale, who had gained major career boosts in Rocco and His Brothers. Lancaster’s stern height and leonine visage proved to be crucial, for the part required an actor with great talent and presence, whilst the realities of the production demanded a big star. Visconti’s opening scene is a particularly dense series of signs, most of which are conveyed not through dialogue but through visuals and non-specific sounds: the camera closes in on the palazzo of the Corberas like a visitor stealing in through the orchards and craning an ear to tune in the sound, eventually entering the house to find the family and household at their Sunday prayers administered by the estate’s resident priest Father Pirrone (Romolo Valli). The chants and catechisms of the prayers evoke a ritual probably unchanged in the 400 years the Corberas have been in Sicily and before, but now is interrupted all too tellingly by the sounds of a commotion outside: the dead body of a soldier has been found on the estate. The soldier’s garb marks him as a follower of Garibaldi, who has just landed his part of volunteers in Sicily to wage a campaign to unify the country under the House of Savoy, signalling the commencement of a civil war. The careful colour composition turns the sight of the soldier’s grim death into a pietà depicting devoted sacrifice, clawing at the red earth of the Corbera estate as a last gesture of trying to claim it for the cause.
This touch echoes the opening sequences of Senso, where a similarly orchestrated use of colour coding announced political events. This breaking of the peace terrifies some, including the Prince’s high-strung wife, Princess Stella (Rina Morelli), but Fabrizio immediately announces his intention to go into Palermo to find out what’s going on and invites Pirrone to accompany him: Pirrone knows perfectly well that the Prince is actually using the event as an excuse to visit his favourite prostitute. Quickly, both the surfaces and contradictions of this little world have been confirmed, the tight intertwining of role and individuality, state and religion, officious idealism and carefully cultivated hypocrisy, and the way great public events become excuses for personal escapades. After the Prince’s nocturnal adventuring, Pirrone and Fabrizio carefully quarrel as the priest presses the Prince to confess his sins and Fabrizio defends himself as having made the best of a terrible marriage. This shades into a political argument in which Pirrone admonishes the Prince for even giving slight contemplation to a future settlement with the revolutionaries, concerned that the new regime will surely set out to break the church’s power and sell off its land. Their arguments are laced with concessions to different kinds of power, moral versus temporal and fiscal, as the Priest holds off from admonishing the Prince too sternly because he knows which side his bread’s buttered on, whilst Fabrizio feels the bite of Pirrone’s conviction nonetheless.
The crucial moment of the film’s first half comes when Fabrizio is having his morning shave after his return, and his nephew, Tancredi Falconeri (Delon), enters the room: Visconti carefully frames the entrance so that Tancredi’s face is caught in Fabrizio’s shaving mirror, capturing him just for a moment as the image of Fabrizio’s own sense of youth. Tancredi announces his intention to join up with Garibaldi’s Redshirt volunteers, distressing the Prince at first, but Tancredi argues that Garibaldi’s mission is preferable to a republican alternative that will completely strip the waning aristocracy of its influence, and delivers a shibboleth of import: “For things to stay the same, things will have to change.” Fabrizio comprehends Tancredi and sends him on his way in a swooningly romantic vision of youthful mission, Tancredi riding away from the palazzo to battle amidst Nino Rota’s swelling music, leaving behind relatives who, apart from the Prince, barely seem to know anything’s happening. Visconti stages a cold cut from Fabrizio and Pirrone’s argument to the midst of a street battle as the Redshirts fight Bourbon troops for control of Palermo. Visconti shoots this vignette of violent spectacle, the one traditional moment of epic largesse in the film, largely in long shots that study the masses of fighters rather than individuals, as contrasts of energy and poise, with the Garibaldi supporters swarming in masses of roiling, messy numbers, countered by crisp, neatly advancing lines of the royalist soldiers (a touch mimicked by fan Martin Scorsese in the climax of his Gangs of New York, 2002).
Amidst the fighting, Visconti picks out a gruesome, antiheroic study in oppression and reaction, as a suited bureaucrat oversees the execution of several revolutionaries, only to be chased down himself by an enraged plebeian citizenry who lynch him in a public square. This vignette is probably the moment most reminiscent of classic neorealist technique in the film, recalling Rossellini’s Rome: Open City (1945) and evoking the landscape of vicious civic coercion and reprisal that led to Mussolini’s hanging before a crowd. Visconti obviously intends a likeness here, but not just the usual vague connection of the historical made relevant one finds in historical films; here is a thesis in miniature, the essence of Visconti’s political and personal theme of cycles. Visconti films the hapless bureaucrat’s pursuit via a long telephoto shot, the hose-piping effect emphasising the scrambling motions and desperate entrapment. Finally, amidst all the impersonal clashing and communal violence, Visconti locates Tancredi and his fellow aristocrat-adventurer Count Cavriaghi (Mario Girotti, who would later rechristen himself Terence Hill to become a popular spaghetti western star), who remain only part of this swarming crowd of humanity fighting and falling. Tancredi is wounded by a shell splinter, and he and his men dash to take shelter in a neighbouring building.
Visconti dissolves from the midst of this tumult and slaughter to the sight of the Prince’s family and entourage travelling across the countryside. Tancredi, looking all the more dashing with his face bandaged, barges his way through a Redshirt cordon on the road with a mixture of comradely appeal (“I fought with you in Palermo!”) and hereditary prerogative. Earlier, Fabrizio’s face was enough to get him through a checkpoint, but now that political strength has passed to Tancredi. Visconti makes the direct transition to capture this point, and then interpolates, during the rest of the journey, the minor, but significant events that followed Fabrizio’s return to the fold via flashback, forging links between the family and the new regime. The family is making its way to the heartland of their influence, the regional town of Donnafugata, to sit out what’s left of the upheaval. On the way, picnics by the roadside evoke an age of graciousness all too easy to romanticise; Visconti notes wryly the work of the servants required to make it happen for the family, whilst Tancredi casually, half-unwittingly charms Fabrizio’s eldest daughter Concetta (Lucilla Morlacchi). They arrive in Donnafugata to the excited greeting of their tenants and the local bourgeoisie, all dues apparently unchanged, but with quiet expectations underlying: some of the locals have done well out of supporting the Savoyards, and Fabrizio is well aware he must build bridges with them. When the family takes their place in their ornately carved special pew in the cathedral, they’re like a collection of dolls slotted back into place: Visconti rolls his camera past them one by one, finding them bleary and covered in dust from travel, like neglected museum pieces—one of the saddest, most acerbic, concise camera movements in any film.
The Prince, partly out of a sense of clannish responsibility and partly with the pride of a frustrated father who finds his nephew a preferable avatar to any of his actual children, who are generally as dull and conservative as their mother, decides to take a hand in securing Tancredi’s future. The young man’s family fortune has been squandered, but the Prince knows now Tancredi’s charm and social cunning could gain him a truly important future if well-financed. The new lie of the land must be acknowledged and used to advantage: knowing Italy is being reconstructed to give greater power to a wealthy bourgeoisie who, in turn, are anxious to share the prestige of the old aristocracy, Fabrizio considers making Tancredi a match with an eligible daughter of the new, prosperous middle class. Soon, the perfect candidate presents herself: Angelica Sedara (Cardinale), daughter of Don Calogero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa), Fabrizio’s steward and now the Mayor of Donnafugata, who’s become rich carefully embezzling some of the Prince’s estate profits, and has used it to make himself a major landowner.
Angelica proves to be an astonishing beauty who makes the violation of class barrier all too easy for Tancredi. Only Concetta is infuriated by this potential match, appalled when Tancredi tells an embellished, suggestive tale about his wartime adventures as a naked play for Angelica’s attention. Tancredi’s attempt to help Cavriaghi supplant himself in Concetta’s affections is met with her uninterest. Although initially stricken by scruples at the thought of making a connection with Calogero, an ignoble type in both senses of the word, Fabrizio nonetheless supports Tancredi’s courtship of Angelica, and begins investigating her mystery, prying fact and legend out of his friend, the organist in the city church Don “Ciccio” Tumeo (Serge Reggiani). Ciccio tells the Prince that Calogero discovered Angelica’s mother in a peasant hovel, a fluke of nature given impossible beautiful, but utterly animalistic in nature, one Calogero snapped up and now keeps under wraps in his villa, let out only for early morning prayers. Such is the strange path of genetic luck from the very bottom to the top of society.
Carefully entwined with the political and social ruminations in The Leopard is a far more personal and intimate story, a confrontation with the strange ramifications that assail us in mortality, in a world and time carefully designed to keep careful checks and balances on such primal forces. Visconti and his post-neorealist followers, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Bernardo Bertolucci, were fascinated by the juncture of personal proclivity and social constructs, and Visconti wrestled with this nexus in many of his films. His most easily recognisable theme, that of family as a troubling embrace, is counterbalanced by this figuration, the eternal solitude of the unsatisfied being, and he eventually resolved it through taboo in his lunatic self-satire The Damned (1969). Here Prince Fabrizio’s physical lustiness is a part of him, an aspect he feels driven by but cannot express in his all-too-proper marriage—hence his irritable refusal to confess to Pirrone—and also plainly explains some of his fascination with Angelica. Yet this is also bound to a subtler sense of emotional frustration, which slowly emerges as Fabrizio lives to a certain extent vicariously in setting up the perfect match of Tancredi and Angelica, a union that comes to symbolise for him the ideal consummation of a new era as well as a dream of cavalier romanticism that he yearns to make real. Visconti underlines this by removing one significant aspect of the novel, where Concetta was doomed late in life to realise Tancredi always loved her; besides, Delon and Cardinale look too good to buy anything else. This is not to say Visconti idealises the young couple’s union himself: the degree to which the film plays up Tancredi’s dash and beauty only makes the sting of realising that in many ways he’s a callow and facetious figure all the more disturbing. Although Fabrizio is resolutely heterosexual, Visconti still finds definable queer self-expression through him as a figure wrestling with desires in secret (he even baits Pirrone with a dash of homoerotic humour to dry him after a bath).
Fabrizio’s hopes for Tancredi’s great career also reflects another kind of frustration, that of wasted capacities: class is a trap for its highest levels as well as its lowest. Fabrizio’s reputation is that of a gentleman scientist—he’s an astronomer who takes comfort in the serene peregrinations of the stars—but the Risorgimento brings the tormenting possibility of new uses of his gifts. A representative of the new state, Cavalier Chevalley (Leslie French), comes to Donnafugata to ask Fabrizio to become a senator, claiming his famous intellect and nobility are just the qualities the new country needs to help the great project of overcoming the awful stagnation that has gripped Italy in general and Sicily in particular. Fabrizio is polite with the bureaucrat, but turns him down, offering as an explanation his individual hesitations—his lack of real political and legislative knowledge for one, and, more importantly, his lack of the kind of blended sentiment and self-interest he thinks necessary for a politician—and also his social ones. His explanations frustrate Chevalley, for they contain a poeticism that eludes the technocratic progressivism of the bureaucrat, conceiving of Sicily as a place of people longing desperately for a long rest after centuries of being buffeted politically and socially by invaders and imposed cultures, full of raw humans who think themselves kings of the earth precisely because they remain so close to the earth, and so will resist being transformed into the kind of bourgeois moderns Chevalley means to make of them.
Fabrizio instead recommends Calogero, exemplar of a new breed of “jackals and hyenas” he sees supplanting the old lions and leopards of the aristocracy. This sequence transliterates much of Lampedusa’s prose into dialogue, but avoids becoming didactic by depicting Fabrizio’s attempt to articulate things he sees as true in a way he never has before with an intellectual force he’s too used to rounding off for less inquiring ears. Fabrizio remains something of a snob in spite of himself, but his snobbery has its uses, as it sensitises him to commonplace habits of democratic states: obfuscation, indulgence, self-promotion, and hypocrisy, whilst he knows his privilege has insulated him from any need to adopt such necessary skills. Visconti offers a great philosopher-hero but one who feels himself bound to what we call today the wrong side of history, even as he tries to give the right side a push.
The Leopard’s historical thesis is ambivalent in a manner that makes particular sense in contemplating Italian history, and the source of that ambivalence lies in the simultaneous closeness of Visconti and Lampedusa in their emotional intuition, and the disparity of their politics. Lampedusa was expressing, in part, his anguish with the state of his nation circa 1945 by trying to locate the crucial moment in the past that set it on this path. Visconti, for his part, has a prosecutorial eye for the same notion. His film depicts the advent of a new age, but finds it an unfinished revolution that left the nation with a fractured pseudo-democracy defined by the self-interested coalition that eventually augured in Fascism when its interests were threatened by post-World War I socialists. The vignette of the lynched official and its crucial parallel with the collapse of the Fascist regime points to a sense of inevitable repetition, the growth of corruption and oppression that will grip the state again and again just as men are born, grow old, and die—again twinning the personal and the political. The Prince’s contemplation of his mortality and inevitable decline mimics the wane of his class and his time.
The film’s funniest vignette depicts the events swirling around a plebiscite that will give the stamp of approval to the new state. Fabrizio, despite having championed the pro-unification vote, puts up with cheeky quips from some whilst being feted with scrupulous toadying by Calogero. Later, Calogero reads out the results of the election before an assembly of townsfolk, constantly cut off by an excitable brass band, much to Fabrizio’s entertainment. Eventually, Calogero manages to announce the results, a unanimous “yes” vote. Fabrizio later questions Ciccio, who angrily rants that he voted “no” because he still felt grateful to the former Bourbon Royal Family for financial aid, confirming what Fabrizio had already realised: the vote had been tampered with. Underneath the surface buffoonery and enthusiasm, the well was being poisoned. Democracy had already been subverted at the very moment of its inception.
Visconti, who hadn’t yet seen some of Lancaster’s more ambitious performances, initially decried being saddled with a cowboy (watching Judgment at Nuremberg, 1961, changed his mind), but this was actually one of the specific strengths Lancaster brought to the role (tellingly, his first choice for the part was Nikolai Cherkasov, who had played Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible for Eisenstein). For from being some effete relic, Lancaster’s height and strength imbue the Prince with a sense of physical power, harking back to some distant ancestor’s more direct use of such endowments to win the power his family is about to lose. Fabrizio literally towers above most of the rest of the cast, and casually picks up both Ciccio and Calogero. The bite of Fabrizio’s sense of impending mortality gains power precisely because he has such strength, evoking a classical sense of tragedy as life and death extract their price from everyone, even the titanic. When Pirrone makes him aware that Concetta has a crush on Tancredi, Fabrizio reacts angrily and then admits that realising his children are old enough for love has pushed old age on him suddenly.
Visconti’s sarcasm is deftly wound into the solemnity of the material, contemplating the exhaustion of the Prince’s interest in life not in the face of great trials or wrenching losses of more familiar epic fashion, but through a hundred petty annoyances and glimpses of unbearably paltry pathos. He’s not the only one: Visconti’s irony reaches a peak of quiet agony when he surveys the glumly doomed courtship of Cavriaghi and Concetta and then pans away to look over Donnafugata’s rooftops, Rota’s music rising to sublime raptures even as he contemplates the barrenness of the duo’s mismatched hopes (the moment also suggests Visconti annexing the dumbstruck distancing of Michelangelo Antonioni). Meanwhile Tancredi and Angelica stalk each other playfully in a grand old house Calogero has given them as part of a grand dowry, a cavernous space for foreplay littered with dusty paintings, leftovers of another age: decay is already overcoming the aristocracy, its wares already falling into the hands of the Calogeros of the world, and the old is repurposed for the newly ascendant. The temptation to ecstatic physical consummation grips Tancredi and Angelica, but he resists taking her virginity: Tancredi, ever the strategist, knows their game should be played by perfect rules for maximum effect.
The film’s famous, lengthy, deceptively detached finale depicts the new settlement through social ritual. The grasping bourgeoisie are introduced to the fusty aristocracy on the dance floor. The soldier who has defeated Garibaldi in the field is feted as the man defending the new reasonableness. The well-matched young lovers enjoy their moment in the sun of society. The middle-aged Prince shows off his famous dancing skills and everyone is delighted he hasn’t lost his zest. Yet the sequence enfolds a series of quiet epiphanies defacing the surface glamour, as Fabrizio experiences a dark night of the soul in a bright, gay salon. He regrets having come to the party as soon as he arrives but knows he can’t leave now until early morning, and doomed to wander from station of private cross to station, contemplates his own inevitable demise and the banality of the world about him. Contemplating a room full of excitable daughters of the inbred nobility reminds him of a gang of monkeys. The Prince takes a verbal swipe at Garibaldi’s conqueror for his hypocritical declamations about defeating the General and then genuflecting to him, not understanding the political game that must now be honoured: Garibaldi has become a national hero, but the movement he led must now be suppressed. A painting on the wall depicting a patriarch’s death fascinates him far more than the party, noting such morbid details as the deathbed sheets in the painting being too clean. Angelica and Tancredi swoop in to rescue him in a moment laced with evanescent, mysterious cues of unspoken understandings and concessions admitted amidst the trio. This leads to Fabrizio and Angelica performing a waltz before the assembled partygoers, an islet of perfect courtly grace and mutual admiration between the man and woman, new and old, kept in hypnotic motion as long as the dance goes on.
The deliberate tone of this sequence and its underlying mournfulness clearly anticipates the same mood in Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971), though Fabrizio’s anxiety is more ephemeral. The waltz gives way to the prancing jollity of a conga line, evoking, like the similar use of it in the finale of Fellini’s 8½ the same year, the ongoing absurdity and heedless motion of society. But whereas Fellini had his hero join in, Fabrizio remains detached. His daughter Concetta is revealed to be just as tragic a figure, upbraiding Tancredi not just for ignoring her, but also for revealing his smooth, smug acquiescence to the Way Things Are by approving of the upcoming execution of some revolutionaries. This last touch is one of Visconti’s more precise and caustic revisions of Lampedusa to set the seal on his parable as well as contrast the Prince’s musings. Whereas in the book the sight of slaughtered animals reminded Fabrizio all too keenly of the gross side of mortality, here the his long night reaches its end when he starts to walk home and hears gunshots signalling the executions. Meanwhile Tancredi grips Angelica all the tighter as they ride away in a carriage, and Calogero yawns and pronounces it a good thing. Fabrizio kneels down at the toll of Vespers and recalls Ciccio’s tale about the mysterious morning appearances of Angelica’s mother, and then whispers a questioning prayer to the stars, wondering when he might die and join them in their certitude. The film’s ultimate irony is the bitterest—the awareness that seemingly resilient, contemplative, complacent Prince is actually the frustrated dreamer of this crowd who have been busy arranging the world to suit themselves.
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Director/Screenwriter: Simo Halinen
18th Annual European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Among the more difficult challenges to empathy I have personally faced is trying to understand the mindset and choices of transgender individuals. I know and consider one transgender woman a friend and colleague, and I accept unconditionally that she is a woman. Yet it’s hard for me to understand how a mind and body can be so at odds that one would literally undergo the pain of surgery and hormone injections required for gender reassignment. That is why I very much looked forward to seeing Open Up to Me, a new Finnish film that puts a transgender woman at the center of its story.
The film opens during a therapy session, the last one Maarit (Leea Klemola) will have with her therapist. Maarit, a former school counselor, puts her underemployment as a cleaner with a janitorial service down to her honesty. She fears she will never have a relationship with her daughter Pinja (Emmi Nivala) because of her ex’s hostility, and she admits she would like to have a relationship with a man but worries that the exceptional individual who would accept her may be too hard to find. Her therapist leaves her with the final thought that it’s no longer necessary to hide away from other people and that Maarit must try to get the things she wants out of life.
On one cleaning job at the home office of a psychotherapist who is leaving town for two weeks, Maarit is given the keys to lock up. She explores the woman’s bedroom, trying on her lipstick and putting on one of her outfits. The doorbell rings, and not sure what else to do, she opens it. Sami (Peter Franzén), an attractive high school teacher and soccer coach about the same age as Maarit, asks if the therapist is in and learns she has just left town. Sami assumes Maarit is her work colleague and asks if she can talk to him. His marriage is in crisis, and he fears it will fall apart imminently if he doesn’t do something. Maarit, a trained social worker, agrees, and learns and is touched by Sami’s innermost feelings about sex and love. Just as he leaves, his wife Julia (Ria Kataja) arrives looking for the therapist, whom she has begged Sami to see to no avail. Again, Maarit agrees to speak with Julia, and gives her some advice that makes the couple’s evening at home the best they’ve had in ages. Unfortunately, Maarit has developed a crush on Sami and pursues him to the affair that was almost inevitable from the moment they met. Maarit, it seems, will now learn what it’s like to be the other woman.
The script for Open Up to Me is a mass of ’80s tropes and techniques, like an abundance of annoying lens flares, the dress-up/mistaken identity set-up from the Melanie Griffith-Harrison Ford vehicle Working Girl (1988), and a horny high school student with a lot of screen time, Teo (Alex Anton), who only seemed to be in the film to channel Tom Hanks’ manchild from Big (1988). Nonetheless, I had no trouble overlooking these recycled plot devices and some pretty schematic coincidences. This film gets my full endorsement for the riveting central performance by Leea Klemola.
Klemola makes Maarit’s sometimes self-sabotaging honesty the hallmark of her character, and suggests some of the masculine habits she has retained post-transition, like pursuing Sami and coming on strong, that make her performance as a transgender female so believable. (A review of the film by one transgender woman confirms that her performance was very convincing.) When she tells Sami what it was like to go on her journey, one that started at the age of five, I felt I got a bit of insight into the flash of awareness many of us have at that age about who we are as a discrete person, separate from our parents and surroundings. Maarit’s attempts to deny her gender identity by becoming an athlete, husband, and father and keeping her secret self well hidden make perfect sense. As with any soul-denying lie, however, the truth will out eventually, and the collateral damage to her daughter and wife a lasting regret she will have to learn to live with.
The women in this film are more courageous than its men. Pinja is harassed at school when a suicide inquiry brings Maarit back to town under suspicion of child abuse. Pinja, however, stands up to the ridicule and fights back to restore her father’s good name. Julia, though she hasn’t much screen time, comes off first as a bigot when she learns what kind of person her husband chose to cheat on her with and then as someone relieved not to have to pretend to be happy anymore. Sami is kind of a mess of a character, seemingly not concerned with Maarit’s physical change, but eventually uncomfortable in her world. I pegged him as a curious man who never intended for the affair to be more than a dalliance and who becomes furious with Maarit for her characteristic honesty when she unexpectedly runs into Julia. He’s a weak, entitled man who doesn’t deserve Maarit, as she learns rather quickly.
Although this is a film that will draw attention because of its unique central character, the real takeaway is that honesty, no matter what its cost, is the most rewarding approach to life and that eventually those we love can learn to live with the truth. In the film’s best moment, Pinja and an emotionally overcome Maarit are reunited. Pinja’s matter-of-fact last line is, “Dad, your make-up is running.”
Open Up to Me is showing Friday, March 27 at 8:00 p.m. and Tuesday, March 31 at 6:00 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Ivano De Matteo
18th Annual European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
One of the most popular writers in Europe is Herman Koch. The sometime actor published his first book, a collection of short stories, in 1985 and has produced eight novels to date. He hit big with his sixth novel, Het diner (The Dinner), a best seller that has been translated into 21 languages, spawned a 2012 film of the same name in his native country of The Netherlands, and reportedly will receive an English-language film treatment with Cate Blanchett at the helm in her directorial debut. The story, one of feuding brothers and family crime, proved irresistible to Italian director Ivano De Matteo as well. His version takes liberties with the novel that open the action beyond a single dinner conversation, giving context to the hard choices at the heart of the drama.
The film opens with two drivers exchanging heated words when one of them blows a red light because he is talking on his cellphone. As tempers flare, the offended driver stops his car, pulls out a baseball bat, and goes after the cellphone user. The driver’s side window shatters, but not from the bat—the driver is a police officer, and he fires a fatal shot into the man in self-defense. The bullet passes through the man and strikes his 10-year-old son Stefano (Lupo De Matteo), who is sitting in the passenger seat and was pleading with his father to stop arguing. This incident brings the two brothers at the heart of the story, Massimo (Alessandro Gassman) and Paolo (Luigi Lo Cascio), together, the former a lawyer defending the shooter and the latter a physician treating the injured boy.
The solidly middle-class Paolo and his wife Clara (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) have one son, the sullen, acne-scarred Michele (Jacopo Olmo Antinori), who hangs out with his older cousin Benedetta (Rosabell Laurenti Sellers) watching embarrassing and violent videos on TV and YouTube. Benny’s father, Massimo, is a wealthy widower who is on his second marriage to Sofia (Barbora Bobulova), who has recently given birth to a daughter. Clara hates Sofia, and Paolo has some long-standing enmity toward his brother, but like clockwork, the two couples meet at Massimo’s favorite restaurant once a month.
Michele has been doing poorly in school, and Paolo wants to keep him from going with Benny to a party. Clara, not wanting him to miss something he has been looking forward to, gets Paolo to relent. At the party, Michele is hopelessly out of place among the college-age crowd and ends up getting very drunk. He decides to leave, and Benny trails awkwardly after him in her high heels. The teens are uncommunicative the next day, but when Clara watches an Italian version of “Crimestoppers,” she sees a video of two people beating and kicking a homeless woman and dragging her along the street. Clara views the video again on her son’s laptop the next day after he goes to school, gets up shakily and walks to the kitchen, only to have her knees go out from under her, shocked to confirm her fear that the pair may be Benny and Michele. Later, Benny pumps her father for legal information about the crime, which she claims her friends committed; Massimo goes to an unsuspecting Paolo and says he suspects that their children were responsible. Angry at Clara for keeping him in the dark, Paolo forces the truth out of Michele. It is then up to the families to decide whether to cover for their children or turn them in.
The theme of The Dinner is similar to that of another EU festival film, Magical Girl (2014), that is, the human struggle between emotion and reason. Clara and Paolo are horrified that Massimo can defend the policeman who left a family man dead and his son temporarily paralyzed, but Massimo believes that everyone deserves a defense. This is the kind of rational thinking one needs and expects from a lawyer. Paolo is overcome with horror at what his son and niece have done, yelling at Massimo, Clara, and Sofia for talking about the best way to keep them from paying for their crime. Paolo’s conflict is enormous, flipping constantly between love for his son and his belief in justice, challenging his kneejerk liberal philosophy. Clara shows herself to be a hypocrite, watching her “Crimestoppers” show to see whether justice will be served, yet choosing to believe the lies of her son until he is forced into confessing and then actively seeking to keep the truth from getting out. Sofia is more dispassionate, as Benny is not her natural daughter, but she will do whatever Massimo believes is right.
The film remains blessedly neutral about technology. Just when we think the film will blame Benny and Michele’s actions on their consumption of violent videos, we see that a security camera is instrumental in uncovering their crime. De Matteo rightly lays the blame directly where it belongs—on human nature, on people driven to violence by thoughtlessness or the view that some people’s lives are worthless. Envy certainly plays a role in how Paolo and Clara regard Massimo and Sofia and their luxurious lifestyle. Our sympathies are constantly shifting, and our beliefs about the characters reinforced and challenged again and again.
The naturalistic film style and the mesmerizing performances, especially by Lo Cascio and Mezzogiorno, take this film and its somewhat familiar theme to some interesting places. It is, however, hard to get a toehold on the film because we are catching these characters at a stressful moment in time; without a thorough grounding in character, the film sometimes tips into melodrama. Whereas the first half of the film contains only diagetic music, the introduction of an emotional score in the second half amps the melodrama rather unnecessarily.
The tack De Matteo takes to this story recalls the amorality of privilege and the immorality of envy found in The Bling Ring (2013), suggesting that Gen X filmmakers (De Matteo is 49) are acutely aware of the worm riddling our new Gilded Age and are seeking to examine and expose it. While The Dinner perhaps needed a more full-bodied script to draw out more nuance to the situation, this film is well worth a look.
The Dinner is showing Thursday, March 26 at 8:15 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago.
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Director/Screenwriter: Olivier Assayas
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers.
Olivier Assayas’ career is littered with films studying the cross-pollinating perversities of art and life and contemplations of art as life itself—as hobby, business, mirror, catalyst, passion, refuge. Key to much of Assayas’ cinema is a belief that performance is a kind of life and that all life is a kind of performance. This notion becomes an ever more enveloping truism as new portals of reality are opened by technology and our increasingly narcissistic gaze. Assayas has tackled this obsessive theme from many different angles in his career. Even his discursions into genre and reportage, like Boarding Gate (2008) and Carlos (2011), hinge on the spectacle of individuals trying to reinvent themselves according to a self-concept: the former film’s protagonist, forced to survive conspiracies of power and the brutal results of her own extreme emotions, became something like the science fiction heroine she had once written about, whilst the latter espoused the idea that Carlos the Jackal was essentially a man who fell in love with playing the radical titan and made his life match the image. Assayas’ international breakthrough, Irma Vep (1996), depicted a film shoot as intersection of cultures, peoples, epochs, and modes of artistry, recognising and disassembling all the grand and inane things that go into creating a popular artwork. Clouds of Sils Maria inevitably evokes that movie in constructing a similar fablelike exploration of the tensions between player and play, a cotillion of ideas and impulses dancing around the subject of art in the modern world itself, and also just as fascinated with the iconography of the great female performer. That iconography has clearly often tantalised and tormented Assayas, as he documented in his works with ex-wife Maggie Cheung, Irma Vep and Clean (2004).
Clouds of Sils Maria belongs to a small battery of recent films that have tackled the same theme, including most prominently Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s Oscar-winning Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) and Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur (both 2014), all of which meditate fixedly on the process of actors creating new realities as they wrestle with the purity of the text and the complexity of existence. The corollary to his recurring theme is that Assayas knows that however much artists might wish it and be facilely in love with the notion of art and life conjoining, it never does, or at least not in the neat manner most takes on the idea suggest. Assayas maintains tension is his variations on this theme by keeping the audience guessing as to where he will draw the line.
Crucial to both the intent and the effect of Clouds of Sils Maria is the presence of Juliette Binoche, whose own aura of matured excellence as a performer and invocation of a specific kind of European chic is crucial for the attitude the audience is encouraged to take toward her character, Maria Enders, and that of Kristen Stewart, playing Maria’s personal assistant Valentine. At the outset, tellingly, Maria and Valentine are travelling, between stages of life. Maria seems at first to be on a kind of cultural victory lap, heading to Switzerland for a film festival where she is to accept an award on behalf of publicity-averse playwright and filmmaker William Melchior. Melchior wrote the play that gave Maria her big break, “The Maloja Snake,” a tragic tale of a widowed, middle-age businesswoman, Helena, who falls in love with younger female employee, Sigrid, only to be cruelly used, discarded, and driven to suicide. Melchior later adapted the play into the movie that made her an international star.
Maria is now just coming off a stint playing an X-Men character in Hollywood, the pinnacle of that career in terms of fame and financial reward. Soon it becomes plain that Maria is actually beating a retreat, turning her back not just on such pay-cheque work but also on new horizons in a changed cultural zeitgeist, and also fleeing the fallout of her ongoing, acrimonious divorce. On the train taking them through the Alps, Maria reads Val her acceptance speech on behalf of Melchior, whilst Val drip-feeds her interesting offers, information titbits, internet gossip, and relevant bulletins that come to her through copious cell phone calls. One call brings genuinely startling and shocking news: Melchior has just been found dead near his home in the mountain village of Sils Maria. Later, Melchior’s widow Rosa (Angela Winkler) tells Maria that he was fatally ill and took a graceful self-administered exit in his favourite spot, high above the lake of Sils.
The festival award turns into testimonial event, and Maria is faced with some less agreeable aspects of her shared past with Melchior, as his other favourite actor, Henryk Wald (Hanns Zischler), comes to get in on the act. Maria is still deeply contemptuous of Henryk after he seduced her, forgot her, and got interested in her again once she hit the big time. Reluctantly, Maria meets with Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger), a new hotshot theatre director who wants to cast Maria in a revival of “The Maloja Snake.” Whereas Maria made her name as the young character in the play, whom she played with a precise relish for callow, egocentric cruelty, Maria is now to take the role of the older, waning, doomed Helena.
Maria is initially seduced into this potentially facetious piece of backtracking by Klaus’s theory that Helena and Sigrid are essentially portraits of the same person at different stages in life and thus a predominantly psychological work, whilst Henryk describes it as a simple and relentless portrait in the pathetic subordination of a weaker person by a dominant one, and thus about the power dynamics of interpersonal society. When Rosa decides to leave the house she and Melchior shared, she offers it to Maria as a place to rehearse the play and commune with the essence and inspiration of Melchior’s art. Maria and Val move in for the duration, and begin the heady work of finding an access point into the play’s theatre of pathos.
The title of both Assayas’ film and the play within it refer to a strange weather phenomenon in the region—a snakelike ribbon of cloud that creeps up through the mountains and over the lake at Sils Maria whose exact cause is unknown. This mystery is correlated with the enigma of desire and the wilful self-immolation of Helena depicted in Melchior’s play, which concerns both the consumption and supplanting of the old by the young, but also with the impulses that still burn within us as we age and the overpowering force of repressed, asocial wont. The invented play that serves as linchpin for Assayas’ dramatic enquiries was inspired by Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1970), a work Fassbinder likewise translated from stage to screen. Although Assayas has been prone to fetishizing lipstick lesbianism in the past, the status of Fassbinder’s works as singular classics of the burgeoning age of outright queer art concern Assayas less than using them as template for fabricating an exemplar of ruthlessly psychological, selectively realistic, serious-minded modernist art. Likewise, the film’s allusions to Ingmar Bergman’s films, particularly Persona (1966) and Hour of the Wolf (1968), annex the aura of intense worthiness still retained by that grand, but fading era. Simultaneously, the way Fassbinder used gay coupling with cunning alacrity to render the power dynamics in all relationships bare in deadly contrast is also vital to Assayas’ plan.
Assayas can then toss such high-falutin’ fare playfully against the seeming frivolousness of much contemporary big-budget cinema. Rather than merely exploiting the dissonance to better affirm the aspirations of the would-be artist in the face of sell-out self-loathing, as Birdman was rewarded for depicting, Assayas is a postmodernist, knowing all too well that the divisions between high and low art are often illusory, but also he is determined not to pander. He wants to know why metaphorical studies in human nature, which can be at once simplistically minor and mythically large, have stolen so much thunder from the integrity of such grand art. “The Maloja Snake” is supposed to be the kind of work artists and scholars can get lost in for years trying to plumb its subtleties and evocations of seldom-explored corners of the psyche, and the way each person engaging with the text transforms it via their own experience and intent.
Maria trips up on her own evolving and altering reading of the work, which she once understood on the level of pure instinct in channelling her own ruthless, youthful drive into the figure of Sigrid. This must now be subordinated to the far more painful process of reconciling her own fear of aging with the terrible description of Hanna’s disintegration, but also on the level of raw theatrical craft, stumbling over lines that once seemed abstractly forceful and now only ring as clunky and didactic. Appropriately for the theatrical dimensions of his inquiries, Assayas structures his film in three acts: a first part, a second part, and an epilogue. But he also subdivides the film with a classic cinematic device—fading to black as the punctuation of most scenes rather than the direct leaps favoured by most modern editors, emphasising, rather than sublimating, the passage of time, giving the film a mood of somnolent, yet wiry expectation.
By most standards, not much actually happens in Clouds of Sils Maria. Assayas gives the bulk of the screen time to Maria and Val shacked up in Melchior’s house, arguing approaches to the play in specific and the business of performing art in general in a manner that takes near-unseemly delight in the mere display of actors verbalising with all their wily talent, as if taking a calculated tilt at the dogma of modern filmmaking, to avoid devolution into mere talk. Assayas quietly undercuts cliché in making the older European actress more emotional and quicksilver in her reactions and creative yearnings and the younger American taciturn in her emotional life and more overtly intellectual and theoretical in her explorations, albeit in such a way that often conflicts with Maria’s sense of worthy art, talking up the necessity of committed acting even in light fantasies. The association between the two women seems workaday, but steadily unveils itself as a complex and loaded mesh of mutual requirement as Maria and Val are bound together by shared intelligence and passion for the creative life, albeit a passion that the younger woman must subordinate to the elder as the successful professional. Val functions as sounding board, mental fencing opponent, grease trap keeping distractions and time suckers at bay, and avatar out in the world of youthful desire. The project of restaging “The Maloja Snake” is both expedited and complicated by the other side of the casting equation. Klaus tells Maria he’s secured Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), a rising starlet who’s a big enough fan of Maria’s to have dropped other commitments for the chance to play opposite her, news that helps lures Maria on board with the appeal to vanity, though Maria has never heard of Jo-Ann.
Val, in another of her functions—translator for the vagaries of the internet age for Maria—is able to dish all the dirt: Jo-Ann is infamous for her spacy, spiky interviews and You Tube-enshrined freak-outs. Like Maria, she’s just come off a big-budget scifi movie, cueing a sequence when Maria and Val go to see the film, donning 3D glasses for the privilege. In the brief glimpse of the movie, Jo-Ann’s character is a mutant walking out on her fellowship of good guys, revealing herself to be a traitor who’s in love with the bad guy before exterminating her mutant friend (Nora von Waldstätten). Val vocally admires Jo-Ann’s talent and encourages Maria to work with her, even take some inspiration from her. After the movie, the pair argue over what they’ve just seen. Maria dismisses the pop psychology and what she sees as inherent ludicrousness of the material, but Val argues passionately for Jo-Ann’s transcendent dedication to the part and the force of feeling underneath the generic metaphors. Maria laughs heartily with a hint of wilful contempt, whilst Val continues to argue with frustration, but they patch it up when Val dismisses the film’s villain. This sequence binds together much that’s essential about both the film and Assayas’ recurring peccadilloes, not least of which is the spectacle of cinephilia itself, the critical dissection of clashing artistic concepts and world views, and Assayas’ adoration for louche glamazons in tight outfits, an adoration he always treats with wry awareness, harking back to Irma Vep’s PVC fantasias and the confused invocations of Catwoman as inferior descendant.
As a mimicry of Hollywood blockbuster style, the movie-within-a-movie misses the mark, probably deliberately. The wigs and costuming recall a different brand of comic-book-inspired pop cinema from the ’60s and ’70s with a hint of retro camp, whilst the overt discussion of emotion in the dialogue cuts against the grain of the current superhero genre’s pre-adolescent distrust of such things. In this aspect, Assayas is clearly more definitely referencing the Twilight series, setting up Val’s passionate defence of the kinds of role and performing that gave Stewart her own fame and fortune. There is another message in the mutant movie that has warnings for the two ladies: one mutant kills off the friend who tries to council her wisely but against the flow of her tumultuous feelings. When Maria and Val meet Jo-Ann, she and her boyfriend (Johnny Flynn) are listening to Handel in an upscale hotel. Jo-Ann seems to be a calm, cool, generous young woman light years removed from the half-mad or druggy tyro the internet records. Jo-Ann charms Maria by copiously praising her and explaining the roots of her adolescent obsession with acting as being rooted in seeing Maria live on stage. Only when Maria and Val return to Sils Maria can Val explain the tabloid storm waiting to happen they were just privy to, because Val recognised Jo-Ann’s boyfriend as Christopher Giles, a hot young writer who’s married to a prize-winning German artist. At first, Assayas seems to be constructing an obvious point here, decrying the way celebrity’s worst moments can be captured and turned into permanent, inescapable representations, and that Jo-Ann is just a young talent who indulges, but isn’t defined by her appetites. But another facet suggests itself, that Jo-Ann is a consummate performer in life as well as on screen, becoming whatever she thinks is needed of her in a given moment.
Assayas, who started as a film critic and then turned to screenwriting, penned the script for one of Binoche’s important early films, Andre Techince’s Rendez-vous (1985), and he all but invites the viewer to go right ahead and conflate the various players on and off screen with the characters in the film, with himself cast sarcastically as Melchior, ghostly, pointedly absent but still the puppet master, and Binoche and Stewart playing versions of themselves. Assayas certainly mines the ironies of the two actresses’ careers with assiduous skill, playing off the oppositions they seemingly invoke—European/American, maturity/youth, high art/pop culture, and on and on—whilst also collapsing and undermining those divisions. Mostly this feels like a sarcastic dare for the audience to make such an ill-advised leap: Assayas is ahead of the game. Binoche’s own recent, too-brief part in Godzilla (2014) was an interesting discursion for a hugely admired performer who nonetheless has had a frustrating time of it in English-language cinema, whilst Stewart, an actress with an impressive resume of film performances under her belt in small and independent films, is still currently defined for most by the Twilight franchise, which made her name the easiest of cheap-shot targets, whilst Jo-Ann’s transgressive romance with Giles evokes Stewart’s own tabloid crash-landing.
Of course, there’s nothing terribly uncommon about either actress’s career pattern either, and it’s this very commonality of experience that intrigues Assayas, trying to turn the mixture of specificity and universality that’s supposed to make for great art inside out. Like fellow ’90s French auteur-star François Ozon, Assayas is fascinated by characters who indulge in role-playing and try to actualise their internal dialogues, but he’s careful not to stoop to an overt a trick like Ozon did with Swimming Pool (2003) and have his characters prove to be literal, obvious projections of a creator’s thought process. Instead, Assayas reroutes his awareness that all characters are essentially fragments of the author’s (his) mind, whilst purporting to make them radial extensions of Maria herself, commenting on past, present, and future, as Val, Jo-Ann, Klaus, and Henryk all present dimensions of Maria’s ambitions and anxieties in obedience to the common pattern of function in drama.
At the same time, all of them are struggling for autonomy, for their own justifications and arcs: actors’ egoverse couples folding themselves into every other person around them with the eternal fear that others will erase them. Maria and Val’s life together in Henryk’s house quickly starts to feel like a kind of sexless marriage, especially as Maria relies on Val to give her juice and morale, but she also resents it when Val’s admiration goes to anyone else, like Henryk and Jo-Ann. Maria’s feelings about other actors are coloured by the way they interact with her life experience, whilst Val assesses them purely with the gaze of an intelligent fan. Jo-Ann comes to represent the unalloyed force and ambition of the young actor as opposed to the toey criticality of Maria as the weathered artist.
Maria stores up Val’s implied criticisms and veiled warnings and then ambushes her with their implications at random moments, whilst the two women begin to bicker and butt heads with greater frequency. Their adventures in the surrounding landscape mark stages in the decay of the partnership, from casually stripping off and diving into the lake to getting lost and wandering in the descending murk after arguing aesthetic quandaries until they literally can’t find their way home. Val strikes up a romantic liaison with a photographer, Berndt (Benoit Peverelli), who shoots Maria for the festival promos: Val amusingly introduces him to Maria as the man who took “those really trashy photos of Lindsay Lohan.” Val leaves Maria to meet up with Berndt a few times, but after one excursion, she is depicted driving back through the mountains in the fog, the film’s sole moment of showy filmmaking: Assayas double-exposes the image, so that the road continuing to twist and bend from a driver’s perspective even as Val stops the car to vomit by the side of the road, expertly visualising Val’s physical state of head-swimming nausea and her tumultuous, disoriented emotional state of things having gone bitterly wrong. Eventually, she asks Maria if she wants her to leave after a particularly gruelling rehearsal session, feeling that her ideas are only confusing Maria, but Maria asks her with disarming directness to stay and embraces her.
The mountainous setting is replete with otherworldly evocations, a Wagnerian landscape for communing with gods, and the Maloja Snake itself, which took on a spiritual significance for Melchior. Maria and Val try repeatedly to grasp that meaning by hoping to see it, whilst Val herself gets lost in the churn of lesser atmospherics. Early in the film, Rosa shows them a film of the event, taken by German filmmaker Arnold Fanck (codirector of The White Hell of Piz Palü, 1929). In the film’s provocative, initially bewildering pivotal moment, Maria and Val try to catch sight of the Maloja Snake on a foggy morning. On the way, the duo argues about the play’s ambiguous ending, which implies but does not show Helena’s suicide. Val points out that it’s hardly conclusive and that it might in fact support the theory that the play is actually about Helena wilfully throwing off the vestiges of her life en route to rebirth. Maria barks irritably at Val that she’s trying to make the play the opposite of what it was supposed to be. Moments later Assayas observes the duo descending a hillside, and Maria reappears on the reverse slope, but without Val behind her. Maria reaches the peak and sees the Snake forming, but when she looks back, she sees no sign of Val. Maria searches with increasing frenzy, but turns up no sign of her companion. Assayas fades out and returns weeks later, with Maria in London with a completely new PA and the restaging of “The Maloja Snake” now in final rehearsals.
What the hell has happened? Maria doesn’t seem disturbed or unhappy, so it’s unlikely Val has met a sticky end accidentally or deliberately. More likely she simply gave up, walked back to the house, packed her bags and left her job. But there is no certainty. At first it seems like a mischievous diegetic joke, Val making a point about the ambiguity of the text’s conclusion to taunt Maria. It’s also possible to take it to mean that Val never was, that she was just a projection of Maria’s self, a facet of her personality she now no longer needs as creative quandary gives way to hard career choices (this does seem unlikely, however). As the film’s metatextual humour has constantly threatened, this proves to be rather Assayas’ act of narrative self-sabotage, highlighting the very point that was just being argued about: he quite deliberately erases all sign of what’s happened, and the audience must decide for itself. Val vanishes as the Maloja Snake appears, and Assayas mediates dreamily on the mountains engulfed by cloud, Handel sawing away on the soundtrack.
The unanswered mystery of the sudden disappearance calls back to another icon of mid-20th century art film, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960), but where Antonioni was evoking the mystery inherent in much of life, Assayas undermines the very structure of his art to reaffirm it. The notion of a character suddenly absented from a story and thus from existence is another of Assayas’ fixations, from the fraying New Wave director in Irma Vep who seems to vanish into the experimental movie he leaves behind to the antiheroine of demonlover being abducted into the black zones of the internet and the protagonist of Boarding Gate retreating from revenge to be lost in the great mass of humanity. The tale of Val and Maria seemed to demand a conclusion, a grand gesture—that they split, become lovers, destroy each other—but Assayas simply avoids it. Whatever Val has done has been aimed at hurting Maria and perhaps herself, and more importantly, she’s hurt the narrative and broken free. The rest of the film plays out normally. Maria has a new assistant (Claire Tran), who has Val’s confidence but nothing like her bohemian edge. Whilst Maria and Klaus have dinner, the director pensive about his project, news comes of Giles and Jo-Ann’s affair: Giles’ wife has attempted suicide, and the shit is about to hit the tabloid fan.
Jo-Ann coolly invites the tabloid blame for the tragedy to shield Giles, revealing an almost saintly side, but as she and Maria rehearse and Maria tries to sensitise her to the dramatic value of evoking pity for Helena, Jo-Ann dismisses the point, stating that the audience is now entirely bound up in Sigrid—in short, she’s taking charge now and fuck the older woman, Maria and Helena both. Helena accepts this without demure, and meets with Piers Roaldson (Brady Corbet), a young, first-time filmmaker far less slick and self-assured than Klaus who wants her to play another mutant in a low-budget scifi film he’s about to shoot in Ukraine. Ironically, Piers has contempt for this very thing Maria’s been struggling to accept and adapt to, as well as for Maria’s concerns about her age. “She’s outside of time,” Piers tells Maria of the character he’s written for her, a creature who does not age normally. The likeness is obvious, to the image of the eternal actress, frozen at a phase in life by the movie camera, exempted from the petty cares of life. By inference Maria has finally reached a point where she, too, has transcended time. To reach this point, Maria has essentially been stripped of her illusions, her airs, and her beliefs. There is nothing now but the job itself, but that is a form of freedom. Assayas fades out on the image of her ensconced in Helena’s place, smiling with wry expectation to herself, aware that on one level Val was correct, that Helena’s self-destruction is as much a journey of wilful disassembling as it is one of tragic succumbing, an expression of desire to find what else there is life—and that Maria doesn’t have to follow it to the same end.
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Director/Screenwriter: Carlos Vermut
18th Annual European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Midway through Spanish filmmaker Carlos Vermut’s mordant sophomore feature Magical Girl, Bárbara (Bárbara Lennie), a former prostitute in the S&M scene around whom much of the action centers, meets Oliver Zoco (Miquel Insua), a wealthy paraplegic who runs a brothel for sadists. Married to a psychiatrist who keeps her on a short leash and desperate for $7,000 to pay off a blackmailer, Bárbara has agreed to a one-off session with one of Zoco’s clients. Zoco asks her if she likes bullfighting, and they agree that neither of them has a taste for it. Zoco then offers the following analysis of the place of bullfighting in Spain.
It is curious that Spain is the country where bullfighting is most popular. Do you know why Spain is a country in eternal conflict? Because we are not sure if we are a rational or an emotional country. Nordic people, for example, act in accordance with their brains. However, the Arabs or Latinos have accepted their passionate side without blame. Both, they know which are their strong points. Spaniards are balanced right in the middle. That’s the way we are. And what is bullfighting? The representation of the struggle between instinct and technique, between emotion and reason. We have to accept our instincts and learn to deal with them as if they were a bull, trying not to be destroyed by them.
This speech is the key to the quietly savage tale Vermut has put on the screen for our amusement and horror.
In sadomasochistic relations, it is the submissive who controls the action. Magical Girl shows just how much two seemingly vulnerable and submissive females control and bring about the ruin of the men in their lives. One of them is the picture of innocence—Alicia (Lucía Pollán), the 12-year-old, leukemia-stricken daughter of unemployed literature teacher and single father Luis (Luis Bermejo). The close, loving relationship between them is evident in his loving names for her, the games they play, and his parental concern over Alicia’s request to spend the night with some girlfriends watching Japanese anime. Her favorite anime is Magical Girl Yukiko, and her fondest wishes are to possess the costume Yukiko wears and to live to be 13. When her father discovers her laying in her room unconscious and rushes her to the hospital, he learns that her second wish likely will not come true. He decides he will grant her first wish, even though the designer outfit costs nearly $7,000.
The second submissive is Bárbara. The opening scene of the film shows a young Bárbara (Marina Andruix) turn the tables on her math teacher Damián (José Sacristán) when he forces her to read aloud a note she was passing in class. The note reveals that she thinks “Cabbage Face” is pathetic, and when he demands the note from her, she makes it disappear through sleight of hand. The adult Bárbara is kept in luxurious bondage by her husband Alfredo (Israel Elejalde), who shoves an antipsychotic or antidepressant down her throat, checking to see if she has swallowed it, even sweeping his finger around the inside of her mouth to be sure. The depth of her disturbance shows when they go to visit friends, and after being forced to hold the friends’ new baby, Bárbara starts to laugh. Compelled, like Damián compelled her so long ago, to reveal what she was thinking, she says she was imagining what everyone’s faces would look like if she tossed the baby out the window.
At home, Alfredo forces Bárbara to take a sleeping pill, and when she awakens in the middle of the night, she finds only empty hangers in his clothes closet. She downs the bottle of sleeping pills, only to vomit them out the window and right onto Luis, who is standing in front of a jewelry store ready to smash and grab the valuable contents in the window to finance the Yukiko costume. Bárbara takes him in, washes his clothes, and while they are drying, seduces Luis, thus leaving herself open to the blackmail he sees as the only way to get the money he needs.
Both Alicia and Bárbara depend on others to take care of them. Both are sick and find ways to use that sickness to get what they want. The frivolousness of Luis’ mission forms a dead-on critique of affirmative parenting. Luis may be delusional about Alicia’s real needs—as a friend from whom he tries to borrow money says, Alicia just wants to spend time with him—but when he presents her with the dress, her reaction is underwhelming. When she starts looking through the box, he realizes he missed something—the $20,000 magic wand accessory—and is forced to extend his blackmail demand. Alicia is indeed a very entitled child who elicits our sympathy and scorn at the same time.
Bárbara finds a way to embarrass Alfredo for making her go out when she didn’t want to, and though he tries to leave her that same night, he returns the next day with an ultimatum I suspect would vanish into thin air if Bárbara ever called him on it. That she doesn’t, and indeed, pursues increasingly more dangerous sexual activities to deal with her blackmailer suggests to me that she’s trying to have her cake and eat it.
As with any good bullfight, Vermut waves his red cape and punctuates these fairly straightforward, intertwined stories like a picador with some lacerating scenes of seriocomedy, as when Bárbara splits her forehead open when she head-butts a mirror or Alicia dances in manic delight to some Japanese music, clutches her side and suddenly collapses out of the frame. The undercurrent of economic crisis in Spain adds an air of desperation, and Luis’ instruction to Bárbara to put the money in a copy of the Spanish constitution held at a public library because “nobody will read it” offers a sardonic commentary on the state of neoliberal policies in Spain. His men—all educated intellectuals—often have the mere illusion of control, but when they succumb to their emotions, their ferocity is something to behold.
Vermut offers some interesting set-ups to suggest character, and even cinematic parody. When Bárbara enters Zoco’s mansion, the formality of the setting and faux gentility of the characters echo the sleazy sophisticates of Eyes Wide Shut (1999), and the addition of the black lizard room, with this animal silouette hanging portentously over the door, is the kind of sly joke one would expect from the likes of Luis Buñuel. Revelation of the scars criss-crossing Bárbara’s body brings out the Spanish sense of morbidity (and incidentally, offers more erotic menace than a “sensation” like Fifty Shades of Gray  could begin to think of) and the pallor of death that permeates so many film from that country. In other instances, an overhead shot of Damián’s desk, with every object regimentally aligned with geometric preciseness, is a perfect snapshot of a man desperately trying to keep the bull locked in its pen, and the small hand reaching toward him holding the key to the gate.
When Vermut pulls his sword out from behind his cape to go in for the kill, the change is as unexpectedly thrilling as it would be in a real bullfight. Damián is the sleeper character in this film, and his obsession with Bárbara the driving force in a truly unsettling tale of revenge. Like the Spanish, Vermut moves us slyly between the poles of reason and passion. The final victory, perhaps unsurprisingly, goes to the bull.
Magical Girl is showing Saturday, March 28 at 3:00 p.m. and Wednesday, April 1 at 7:30 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago. The Wednesday screening will be introduced by Steven Marsh, associate professor of Spanish film and cultural studies at the University of Illinois Chicago.
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Director: Christian Schwochow
18th Annual European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
On October 3, 1990, East and West Germany were officially reunified, and Germans in both halves of the country looked forward to better times for the entire country. The hardships under which the East Germans lived for decades, however, did not vanish overnight, and integration of the two populations was fraught in many ways. Christian Schwochow, who was born and grew up in East Germany, has begun to examine this past. His 2012 miniseries The Tower dealt with the crumbling of communist rule in East Germany, observing life in the former Soviet bloc country near the final approach of reunification. West takes a step back to the 1970s for a look at life for East Germans who were granted permission to emigrate to the west.
The film opens with our main characters, Nelly Senff (Jördis Triebel) and her son Alexej (Tristan Göbel) bidding a loving farewell to the man of the house, Wassilij (Carlo Ljubek), who is leaving on a trip. The context of the trip is vague, and when he says that he will see them in a week, the furtiveness of the exchange made me wonder whether they were all going to try to escape to the west. Flash forward three years, and a worried-looking Nelly is indeed making for the border with Alexej to start a new life—but with the government’s blessings. Nelly, jittery that something will foul up the plan, tries to keep Alexej from the leaving the car to use the rest room. This action ironically arouses suspicions, and Nelly is asked to submit to questioning. Although her papers are in order, East Germany reserves one final indignity for her before she leaves—she is made to strip, jewelry and all, for a cavity search before she is released to West Berlin’s Marienfelde Refugee Center.
Mother and son are given room and board, and Alexej is enrolled in the local school. They are given a card that will need 12 stamps from various officials before they can leave the center and find a job and a place of their own. Slowly, Nelly begins to make friends, and Alexej latches onto a long-time resident of the center, Hans Pischke (Alexander Scheer), who distracts him when the boy witnesses a hanging suicide. Nelly, initially furious that Hans seems to be playing father to Alexej, relaxes when he tells her why and begins to trust him. Sadly, an American official, John Bird, (Jacky Ido) who refuses to stamp her card because he believes Wassilij was a Soviet courier who is still alive, derails her plan to get on with her life and stokes her paranoia to the point that she begins to suspect Hans of being a Stasi spy.
West is a film that cuts a lot of narrative corners and provides so little backstory on any of its characters that it’s hard to register them as anything but types. This sketchiness may be deliberate, as it helps us to identify somewhat with Nelly’s dislocation and distrust. Nonetheless, because we are shown things Nelly is not—Hans taking Alexej away from the scene of the suicide, Alexej buying flowers for his mother that he leaves as a surprise for her in their room—her anger and paranoia seem quite unreasonable. Schwochow further plays with our sense of reality by giving us a few brief glimpses of Wassilij, sometimes as Nelly’s delusions and then perhaps as a real person. He offers an American paranoic, a fairly predictable, but perhaps accurate touch, but puts Nelly in the position of using sex to find out what he knows about Wassilij; adding this cloak-and-dagger element and setting up the stereotype of the German woman desiring an African-American cheapens an already unflattering portrait of an intelligent, professional woman (a chemist) defined by her lover and mother roles.
Nonetheless, looking past the narrative weaknesses, West is a riveting experience thanks to the mesmerizing performances of Triebel and Göbel. Triebel won best actress awards at the 2014 German Film Awards and 2013 Montreal World Film Festival and was a best actress nominee of the German Film Critics Association in 2015 and the 2014 Seattle International Film Festival. Triebel is on camera almost constantly, and her intense, full-bodied performance makes up for the sometimes weak dialogue with which screenwriter Heide Schwochow, the director’s mother, saddled her. So focused is she that looking at screencaps for this film, I was extremely surprised how much her character smokes in the film—I just never noticed. At the same time that I felt her full-bore seductiveness toward Bird and deep love for Wassilij in their one brief scene together, there was a certain containedness that felt absolutely right for someone who lived under an oppressive, vigilant regime.
Göbel’s open face and innocence stand in contrast to his costar’s suspicions and fear. Alexej misses his father, a fact he and Nelly talk about openly. At the same time, his inability to deal honestly with his mother, standing bewildered, unable to say the flowers are his gift to her when she snatches them out of their vase and smashes them in a trashcan, rings painfully true. His relationship with Hans is wonderfully warm, untainted by the suspicions of others; we’re grateful he has Hans to turn to when the West German boys start to pick on him and break his glasses. Frankly, I could have looked at him the entire film and not have been bored at all.
Alexander Scheer has a tricky balancing act. Hans must be normally friendly but seem abnormally so to Nelly. He doesn’t quite pull it off, but I give him full marks for convincing me that he had been tortured by the Stasi and emotionally crippled as a result. It is important to realize that not everyone can be strong and put the past behind them.
Schwochow’s handheld work, getting right into the faces of his characters, creates an intimacy that draws us into the story, even as his muted, cool colors suggest the gray area between imprisonment and freedom. When Nelly’s world gradually starts to open up, it is a joyful relief, a reminder that despite its imperfections, unification made life better for a lot of people.
West is showing Saturday, March 21 at 5:00 p.m. and Wednesday, March 25 at 6:00 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago.
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Director/Screenwriter: Jessica Hausner
18th Annual European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Austrian director/screenwriter Jessica Hausner is one of the most unique voices in European cinema today. Her particular concern with the intertwining dance of love and illness made her film Lourdes arguably the best film of 2009. Amour Fou, her first film in five years, forwards that concern and suggests by its title that Hausner will present a comedy about the folly of love. Indeed, Hausner’s film offers an amusing look at the petty passions of the haute bourgeoisie, but as she did with Lourdes, Hausner builds a sense of horror that mirrors the rising passions of a world in flux.
The film takes place in Berlin in 1811. Friedrich Vogel (Stephan Grossman), a tax official with the Prussian government, and his wife of 12 years, Henriette (Birte Schnoeink) live a comfortable life with their 9-year-old daughter Pauline (Paraschiva Dragus). They are attended to by servants and attend musical evenings and balls among their social peers. Henriette is a compliant wife who considers herself her husband’s property, remarking that she has no desire for the freedom her companions are afraid will infect the common classes as French revolutionary ideas spread through Europe. A poet she admires, Heinrich (Christian Friedel), responds that it is better to die free than to be bound to an unhappy, conventional life.
Heinrich, in fact, longs for death, saying that he has no talent for living and suffers constantly due to his sensitive nature. Further, his romantic nature requires him to find a woman who will die with him out of love for him. Unfortunately, the woman with whom he has been involved, his cousin Marie (Sandra Hüller), refuses to enter into a suicide pact with him. Thus spurned, Heinrich believes that Henriette, who was attracted to the tragic heroine in his most recent poem, may be an acceptable substitute.
Amour Fou is as droll a film as one can imagine. The actors all underplay their scenes, a parody of the polite society to which their characters belong. Their homes and clothes tend to bright colors, thus saving them the inconvenience of donning rose-colored glasses. The scene in which Heinrich implores Marie to die with him is worthy of Mike Nichols and Elaine May, an earnest Heinrich (“You would make me very, very happy.”) met with Marie doing a double-take and dismissing the idea with an incredulous laugh. And Hausner gives the Vogels a Weimaraner, indelible to me as the quintessential absurdist dog because of the photos of William Wegman.
But Hausner tends to trap her characters at the bottom of frames, inside window panes, and below heavy, sashed curtains, similar to how she seemed to crush Christine, her pilgrim with multiple sclerosis in Lourdes, by filming her through a small slit between enormous church pillars. None of these wealthy bourgeois are truly free, though they scarcely seem to notice. Their self-dramatization—the aristocrats whining about having to pay taxes, their loathing of equality and their fear of a Jacobin terror, the poet for whom death seems the only answer to his roaring mediocrity and dependence on his relatives for a living—is laughable, but given the social and economic terrors of our modern world, all too familiar and deadly serious.
Heinrich’s courtship moves in fits and starts, with a selfish cruelty Henriette recognizes but is helpless to resist. He insists that she is lonely, a misfit, unloved and unloving, despite all appearances to the contrary. Henriette begins to have fainting spells and spasms, which are initially diagnosed as a nervous disorder, but later determined to be the result of a large tumor or ulcer that will kill her in a matter of months. Given her diagnosis, Henriette’s attitude toward Heinrich’s proposal changes, but in his simpering egotism, he only wants her to die for love of him, not to forestall her own suffering.
Hausner’s linking of love and illness is an interesting one. In Lourdes, Christine’s attraction to a man and determination to compete for his affections with a pretty nurse seem to banish her disease—making her a shoe-in for the best pilgrim of the trip award—though she is only in remission. Henriette, on the other hand, falls ill when faced with Heinrich’s “mad love”—not a true romantic love, as he clearly says he’s still in love with Marie, but one based on a platonic ideal not unlike the kind of love desperate pilgrims seek from Our Lady of Lourdes.
Looking at her own mediocrity—her skill on the pianoforte is hardly better than her daughter’s and her singing a crow’s caw when she renders a song she heard an opera singer perform at the gathering that opens the film—and her pending mortality, Heinrich’s proposal seems a way to fulfill her desire to make a mark, to become mythic through an act of extreme romanticism. This is the age that birthed Richard Wagner, after all. How else can one explain her rejection of her life, of a daughter and husband who clearly love her? Indeed, Friedrich travels through the conflict-torn countryside to reach a specialist in Paris and returns with the news that Henriette might still be cured.
The careful framing, gorgeous period settings, brilliantly orchestrated set-pieces like a ball with period dancing, and vibrant colors of this film are a feast for the eyes, and I admired the subtle performances of this uniformly fine cast. Schnoeink especially initially emerges as a shallow hausfrau without a thought in her head that her husband and acquaintances haven’t put there. As her situation grows more dire and her choices narrow, our laughter gives way to concern and a contemplation of what we owe to society and what we owe to ourselves. There is a shocking ambiguity to her actions and a genuine poignancy to her growing attraction to the eternal, but is she the victim of yet another man dumping his desires into her empty cranium? Trapped between two equally distressing outcomes from the audience’s point of view, we wait anxiously for Henriette to make her choice.
Amour Fou screens Monday, March 9, at 6:00 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago.
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Director/Screenwriter: Jean-Luc Godard
By Marilyn Ferdinand
You know why I quit playing ballads? Cause I love playing ballads. —Miles Davis
The above quote by jazz great Miles Davis has always stuck in my mind. Why would someone give up on something they love? Why would they push themselves to the edges of their chosen form with sounds that couldn’t be more different from a ballad? Miles was frank about his reasons: “”You should never be comfortable, man. Being comfortable fouled up a lot of musicians.” Comfort has fouled up a lot of other people, too. Just see what some writers about movies have to say about the National Society of Film Critics’ choice for best picture of 2014—“…as stupid & self-congratulatory a choice NSFC could make” (David Poland, Movie City News); “snobbish and elitist” (Scott Feinberg, Hollywood Reporter). In an age of punditry, not being utterly accessible for critical parsing or two-line synopsizing is perhaps the greatest offense a film could make.
I, for one, congratulate the NSFC for their choice and wholeheartedly agree with it. Goodbye to Language is a joy, not least because the 84-year-old dean of French cinema, Jean-Luc Godard, continues to embrace new challenges and humbly said to the NSFC in a thank-you missive that he is “still learning.” Nobody insisted he keep making movies, and at his age, he would be forgiven for retiring on his laurels to write full time or tend his garden. Instead, while other directors have approached 3D technology timidly or in the pursuit of butts in seats just like its original aim in the 1950s, Godard has, like Roberto Benigni, chosen to “lie down in the firmament making love to everyone” with his warm and ground-breaking embrace of 3D cinematography.
There are many knowledgeable Godardians who have done a far better job than I could of analyzing the content and technical aspects of his latest effort and contextualizing it within his oeuvre. Indeed, the excited discourse among Godardians is a juggernaut of its own, with the endless possibilities of Godard’s intentions being picked over like the booty in a dragon’s treasure chamber. For me, such detailed intellectual exercises are for the young. As an older film enthusiast who craves the immediacy of experience, I prefer to bask in the absolute beauty of Goodbye to Language.
If I can be so presumptuous, it seems that Godard is a little tired of these mental roundelays as well. Goodbye to Language seems more like a repository of impressions, inspirations, even questions. While he drops a few references, images, and actions into the film regarding Africa and violence, his oft-repeated refrain, “There is no why!” challenges his seriousness of purpose in raising these subjects. For me, the film is a valentine to all the things Godard loves—nature, dogs (particularly his dog, Roxy), art, film, language, and his partner in life, Anne-Marie Miéville. As though to confirm that assertion, one enterprising writer at MUBI has catalogued many of the literary, visual, and musical quotes Godard incorporated into the film, and the range of his influences, from Derrida to Anouihl to Ezra Pound, reveals Godard’s far-ranging intellectual and cultural engagement that makes the title of his film all but impossible to take seriously. At the same time, Godard is dipping several toes into the media of today, commenting on and making use of the renaissance in 3D filmmaking and smartphone videography, the former with wild abandon, the latter with more petulant reservations.
Goodbye to Language concerns itself with nature and metaphor in four alternating parts, preceded by an introductory scene at a book stand near Usine a Gaz, a cultural center in Nyon, Switzerland. Most amusing of the goings-on in this section is a professor named Davidson (Christian Gregori) looking at a copy of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago and telling a young woman not to look the writer up on Google. Godard juxtaposes book readers with smartphone readers and eventually shows a smartphone with a headshot of Solzhenitsyn on the screen. I laughed out loud at the futility of Davidson’s plea and at the way a man of towering importance concerned with the worst in state oppression in his writings could be reduced to a selfie by proxy.
Godard uses two couples who strongly resemble each other to play almost identical scenes in parts 1 and 2, in what seemed to me to be an homage to his New Wave compatriot and former film editor Jackie Raynal, particularly her film Deux Fois (Two Times, 1968), in which she says goodbye not to language, but to meaning. At the same time, by using different actors, he is illustrating a very literal interpretation of the word “metaphor,” that is, a comparison of two unlike things that share something important—and no matter how much the pairs of actors (Héloïse Godet [Josette] and Kamel Abdelli [Gédéon]/Zoé Bruneau [Ivitch] and Richard Chevallier [Marcus]) resemble each other, they are not the same.
Godard varies the scenes in ways that modulate the amount of alienation between the two couples. In a pierside scene, Josette is looking forlornly at the clouded sky from behind a set of bars when a man’s hand moves tentatively into the frame, but remains far from Josette’s hand. In the replayed scene, Marcus’ hand moves much closer to Ivitch’s. Josette and Gédéon are filmed in an apartment. Both are nude, but unlike Ivitch in the later sequence, Josette is conspicuous in her nakedness, putting a trench coat on at one point but allowing it to flap open. Gédéon says with disgust that there is no Nobel Prize for art, which must be his profession, and his unease spills through the scene. The couple’s unhappiness crystallized for me when Josette sits naked next to a vase of flowers, more subjugated objects for a painting than real and relatable. A shower scene shows Josette from behind, standing in the bathroom doorway urging Gédéon to finish so she can use the shower. The second couple tussle in the glassed-in shower, a scary scene considering that they could break through the glass, but at least they are showering together.
Godard also offers sequences of violence (an apparent murder, water running in a blood-filled sink) and of low comedy (the men farting on a toilet while their women try to talk to them). Throughout, scenes from films appear as short snippets or on a large TV in the couples’ bedroom, drawing the eye away from the foreground. And that is literal, as Godard’s use of 3D allows us to separate the planes of background, foreground, and subtitles. The viewer has the freedom to close one eye or the other to get different angles and colors, reminiscent of the open-source films like Sita Sings the Blues (2008) that allow viewers to embellish and change the basic film.
Godard even seems to send up his own rebellion against France’s so-called quality films and Oscar-bait period films by inserting an interlude of Mary Shelley with Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron as she pens Frankenstein. At the same time, he seems to suggest that the act of creation is a terrible beauty and that technology can unleash forces that can subvert our humanity. Is Godard a hypocrite, decrying smartphones while playing with 3D? I say we all draw our lines, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
He saves his most dazzlingly colorful scenes for the nature sequences that feature his dog Roxy, which may be a proxy for Godard himself. Roxy is a philosopher queen in her natural world of trees, grass, and flowers ruminating on what the river knows, immediately putting me in mind of “Ole Man River” from Show Boat (1936/1951). Roxy is rejected by one couple, left standing on a pier while they go off in a boat; they may even have tossed her in the rapids. The other couple adopts her and takes her everywhere with them. Dogs, we are told in voiceover, are the only creatures that love others more than themselves, making them superior to human beings in their capacity for empathy and sacrifice. Godard, the old dog learning new tricks, may be wondering whether he will be accepted or rejected and signals in what I believe to be an almost total lack of ego that he really does what he does for us, not himself. The ungenerous criticisms flung at this sweet film show us to be the lesser—again.
To quote from Miles Davis again: “If you understood everything I say, you’d be me!” It’s time to stop our own ego trips, give up on finding new ways to reduce his vision to a few paragraphs, and offer this consummate artist our sincere thanks for never giving up on us.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
By Roderick Heath
Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan has steadily gained a select and growing circle of international film devotees since his debut in 1998 with Small Town. His last four films have won prizes in the Cannes Film Festival, 2011’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia brought him a far wider level of acclaim, and this year’s Winter Sleep captured the Palme d’Or, cementing his reputation as one of the age’s major filmmakers. For fans of Anatolia, Winter Sleep may prove to be a subtly dissonant experience. Extreme length and a vivid mood connect them, and yet where Anatolia was a stark, eerie work where conversation and human connection were as scarce as houses in the blasted plains of central Turkey essayed through a rarefied mix of utter realism and poetic contemplation, Winter Sleep calls back to Ceylan’s earlier efforts as a novelistic work where the loquacity of the characters pointedly contrasts the taciturn men of the previous film. That’s not so much a criticism as a point of reference, for Ceylan’s gift for situating stories in very specific climes that are nonetheless readily recognisable, universal portraits of humanity is still palpable, and he captures that specific sense of place with longing and desolate romanticism. Whereas Anatolia was a film about exposure, as its policeman and functionary protagonists wandered the vast plains searching for a dead body, Winter Sleep is a tale of homes and refuges, albeit one that notes how a bedroom can become as wintry and alienating as King Lear’s blasted heath.
Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) is a middle-aged former actor who now runs a hotel in the rocky region of Cappodocia, a tourist hot spot in the summer because of its spectacular scenery and the fascinating local tradition of building houses into the rocks. But it is also a place of chilly, oppressive winters and depressed conditions for many of the inhabitants who aren’t benefiting from the economics of tourism. The film opens in the last wane of the tourist season, and the only guests now at the hotel are a Japanese couple and a motorcycle-riding wanderer, Timur (Mehmet Ali Nuroglu), who’s interested in the possibility of riding a horse whilst staying at the hotel, as promised by pictures on the website. Aydin apologetically explains that the pictures were just for visual impact, but then he does discuss obtaining a horse for the hotel guests to ride and hires a wrangler who promises to capture one of the wild horses that live in the valley below. Aydin’s energies are scarcely demanded by all of his interests, delegating them to assistants and family, giving him considerable time to pursue a significant project in his mind, a history of the Turkish theatre. But he procrastinates with a sideline he loves, writing “The Voice of the Steppes,” a column for a regional newspaper in which he can pontificate on any subject he desires. Aydin lives with both his sister Necla (Demet Akbag), who’s recently divorced her alcoholic husband, and his wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen), who, being much younger than her husband, is beset by the boredom and isolation of the hotel and has made herself useful running campaigns and soliciting donations to improve the local schools.
Besides the hotel, Aydin is a landlord, owning many houses in the nearby town of Garip. Aydin’s troubles begin when a stone crashes into the passenger side window of his jeep when he’s being driven through the town by his manager Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan). The rock was thrown by a kid, Ilyas (Emirhan Doruktutan), who runs off but falls in a pond. Hidayet fishes him out, and he and Aydin take Ilyas back to his father, Ismail (Nejat Isler), who is one of Aydin’s tenants. Ismail is unemployed after a spell in jail, and is now well behind on his rent. Aydin’s agents had seized some of their property as payment, including their refrigerator and television, and also possibly manhandled Ismail in the process. Ismail slaps his son in the face for his act, but then punches in one of his own house’s windows, and almost attacks Hidayet in a fury, held back only by his brother, Hamdi (Serhat Mustafa Kiliç). Hamdi is an imam, amiable and personable–perhaps a little too much so. He tries to act as interlocutor with Aydin and broker an arrangement to keep the peace, but he proves hapless as he offers to pay for the repair of the car window, only to learn it’s excruciatingly expensive for his poor family’s finances. To even make such an approach, Hamdi has to walk the 10 kilometres from town. Aydin, for his part, rather than being pleased or understanding about such efforts, takes veiled potshots at Hamdi in his column, complaining about badly dressed, rundown imams who stick their nose in other people’s business.
Like Asghar Farhadi from Iran, another paragon of the new Middle Eastern cinema, Ceylan tips his hat to artistic traditions of Europe and Russia as well more parochial ones, and makes a very literate, not merely literal movie. The great Russian authors of the 19th century are clearly a major influence on this work, particularly Anton Chekhov, whose wryly observed, ultimately tragic tales of ordinary oppressions and disappointments are an official inspiration, as well as Ceylan’s favourite film masters, including Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson, with whom he shares an unfashionable yet powerful fondness for deep, meditative tales digging into psychological and sociological matters. Aydin is the kind of character Chekhov and Ibsen particularly enjoyed, if that’s the word—a pompous, self-appointed master of the world who quietly grinds down the people around him, though Aydin isn’t quite such a pillar of monstrous egocentrism as some of those writers’ protagonists are. Initially, Aydin seems like a quietly industrious, but world-weary, henpecked intellectual whose prosperity is merely resented, but we get an eyeful of just what a shit he can be when Hamdi brings Ilyas to see him and apologise, as with smarmy delight, Aydin holds out his hand for Ilyas to kiss. Ceylan’s portraits of contemporary society out in the Turkish boondocks do indeed seem to justify the likeness to Victorian Russia, glimpsing a country riddled with uncomfortable extremes, where a prosperous urban class has partly annexed remnants of power and position and expected deference once reserved for the aristocracy, cheek-by-jowl with people trying to subsist.
Ceylan’s eye for physical context and cinematic atmosphere, which dominated in Anatolia, is more muted here, but just as crucial. He introduces Aydin wandering in the dawn light amongst the crags of the landscape, and returns to the motif, viewing Aydin ironically and consistently as a man exiled from his own home in spite of his nominal security and mastery. This impression is made literal when Nihal asks him to leave whilst she holds a private meeting of donors and interested parties to her school project, leaving Aydin wandering without, gazing in pained jealous at the warmth of the interior and the place Nihal has gained for herself in a niche that doesn’t involve him. Early in the film, the wrangler Aydin hires captures a wild horse, which stumbles into a canal and has to be hauled out in a gruelling sequence. The animal is stowed in a cave near the hotel, where Aydin visits it in the darkness of early dawn, the animal a boding presence of shackled, incomprehensible wildness under his house, encapsulating all the violently contradictory feelings starting to burst forth in Aydin’s little world. At first, this seething seems aimed at Aydin from out in the world, crashing in very solid form as Ilyas’ rock against his car, but soon becomes palpable in his house.
A revealing early scene sees Aydin consulting with one of his friends, the bearded and contemplative Suavi (Tamer Levent), and calls in Nihal to give her two cents as well, on the subject of an email he’s received asking for his help lobbying for a specially built sewing hutch for local women. Nihal reacts with scarcely concealed contempt and anger that Aydin hasn’t done a damn thing to help with the local schools that badly need upkeep, but responds to a flattering email into helping with a scarcely necessary project. What gives Winter Sleep it subtle propulsion is the way each scene opens a gate into the next, as this scene presages Aydin’s subsequent encounters with Necla and Nihal, which reveal the household to be no paragon of domestic tranquillity. Early on, Necla mentions to Aydin that she liked his latest column, but as he begins to expound on subjects beyond his usual ken, and particularly as he indulges critical pot shots at Hamdi, Nacla chafes. Finally, during their familiar evening scene when she reclines on a lounge behind him in his office, she unloads, pouring suspicion and scorn on his pretences to punditry and suggests he takes stances he thinks will make him popular or save him from really taking a position: as she notes, he pours scorn on the faithful for their naiveté and distrusts the irreligious for their lack of commitment. Aydin fires back that he understands why she got divorced; clearly her husband couldn’t take her venomous tongue anymore. Indeed, Necla does seem to be taking her feelings out on Aydin a little, in part because earlier he sceptically responded to her wistful thesis of shaming wrongdoers into right action by asking for their forgiveness, an assumption of sin and mode of passive resistance.
Later, Aydin intrudes upon a meeting of Nihal’s school donors and encounters Levent (Nadir Saribacak), a teacher with a wry streak who enters murmuring that he’s just visited the local army base: “These military types pretend to love their wives in public,” Levent notes, “But if they had the chance they’d put them in sacks and dump them in the river.” Aydin is quietly ruffled as Nihal tends solicitously to Levent, and then goes morose when Nihal asks him to leave. Aydin retreats to his office where, in a droll jump cut, he’s pictured sitting at his computer with a long-nosed mask on, a vision of sullen rejection. After Nihal’s meeting is over, he makes a play of concern about the state of her records of the donations she’s received and the trustworthiness of the donors, stating that any scandal might affect his own good name, but actually, obviously just trying to insert himself into her business. “Your altruism moves me to tears,” Nihal comments acidly, and it becomes clear that their marriage has only been technically sustained for a couple of years now by his promise to let her have this salving venture to herself. The film’s centrepiece arrives in a chain of epic, melancholy exchanges between husband and wife, in the classically Bergman-esque mode of tearful truth-telling by wintry firelight a la Hour of the Wolf (1968). Nihal condemns Aydin for his intrusive egotism but also herself for her cowardice in remaining married to him to avoid the cruelty of surviving alone in the big world. Aydin goes through a big show of collecting up Nihal’s records and papers to inspect, retreats to his office and, realising he’s made a major tactical error, returns them, confessing he’s too lazy.
One of the best qualities of Winter Sleep is its sensitive mixture of the utterly humdrum with the majestic, the slow-burning intensity of its humans turning minor bugbears and petty conflicts into spurs for major crises, and their tethering to a landscape that both ignores them and inflicts realities upon them. Where Anatolia depicted the aftermath of murder, the heat of the moment long left behind and only the chill of a dead body and destroyed lives noted, Winter Sleep avoids even that much melodramatic cue. People in this film are smouldering, cramped, and aching with mostly self-imposed frustration and anger and sorrow. Aydin’s lack of interest in the property that sustains his situation is indicted as part of the problem rather; he has scarcely any concept of how enforcement of his proprietorial interest has left the already desperate and disenfranchised Ismail even worse off—and of course, this is the sort of iniquity that happens every day anywhere. However, Ceylan and his coscreenwriter, his wife Ebru, are careful not to make Aydin a monster; although his thoughtlessness and position of economic power are definitely destructive, he is just as hapless as the people who would like to blame him for all their problems. Aydin, aging and greyed, seems to yearn to dissolve into the landscape at some points, and his pretences hide his anxiety over the final wane of the abilities and attributes that have allowed him to make his life. Not that the Ceylans indulge his self-pity either or the usual shallow psychology of suffering: during his argument with Nihal, when he begins a spiel about his upbringing in a poor town without electricity, Nihal interrupts him by telling him he’s not playing a role anymore.
Winter Sleep is a highly verbal experience in many respects, sustaining dramatic engagement almost purely through the conversation between its characters at many points, though just as often defined by the silences between them. Many of the characters uphold, or try to uphold, a distinct philosophical viewpoint, but for the Ceylans, this is not so much philosophical work as a depiction of characters wrestling with the gap between their gift for reason–that is, their humanness–and their inability to make it work in their lives. Some have criticised this aspect of the film, and yet the discussions reminded me acutely of real-life versions I’ve engaged in, stews of words and impulses mixed together in yearning toward a coherent sense of meaning, inflected with the peccadilloes, humour, and competitive spirit of the people engaging in them. Necla and Aydin’s argument over her ethical ideas lays down a basic dichotomy, with Necla upholding a vision of forgiveness and accepting responsibility for another’s faults that could create a firmer connection of common feeling and thus perhaps heal, whilst Aydin ripostes with questioning whether the victims of Nazis should therefore have apologised to their persecutors. Necla never gets around to trying to put her thought into action, but is clearly tormented by the idea that in leaving her husband, she abandoned him to worsening alcoholism.
Aydin doesn’t have an actual intellectual or ideological position. The Ceylans cunningly use him to exemplify something all too common in the contemporary world, a person with pretences to being a thinker who nonetheless has only a series of ideas he’s rejected, bugbears to expound on, and fashionable causes rather than an actual set of concepts and ideals to be coherently expounded. Indeed, the figure of a blowhard pontificating on the internet is hardly relevant only to Turkey. Finally, Nihal is the one who actually tries to put an ideal into practice, but this works out in a different manner to how she expects. “A life that’s all mapped out isn’t real,” the motorcyclist states simply but with unshakeable authority, though his way is pointedly lonely, an existential cowboy passing through the lives of these domesticated ethicists. Aydin finally begins to look like an avatar for the divided state of modern Turkey, an urbane pseudo-intellectual in a country that stretches between Europe and Asia, modernity and history, his real past rooted in the hardscrabble soil of the national past but turned into self-dramatizing present, making him expansive and parsimonious, yearning and defensive, sceptical and sentimental all at once.
Gökhan Tiryaki’s cinematography is one of Ceylan’s great weapons in sustaining his films, with his capacity for finding a line of beauty in landscapes that offer no focal point, and capturing a sense of physical opposition, interior lights smeared in honeyed warmth and exteriors of sharp, yet bleary space. The drama of big egos and small towns could be played out just about anywhere, but Ceylan is keen to the specific nature of the environment he depicts, a place of history deep, dense, and boding, inflecting casual actions with an awareness that Ceylan articulates as a mood of haunting. Aydin often seems poised as if straining to hear something just beyond the frequency of human ears, the hum of the ghosts that inhabit these ancient hills. But Ceylan also notes the modernity infusing this landscape, the laptops and mobile phones, the presence of interloping tourists and the necessity of bilingualism (Aydin chats amiably with his Japanese tourists in English), things that define a borderless world, the sophisticated as opposed to the parochial. But it’s the parochial that’s inescapable once the tourists have fled the winter snows that will enclose everyone and force them to sit and stew in their thoughts. One wry scene shows Aydin and Hidayet skipping across the hotel’s muddy forecourt. When Hidayet asks why Aydin doesn’t pave it or cover it with gravel, Aydin retorts that if he did, his authenticity-craving clientele would be disappointed.
After the excoriating argument with Nihal, where Aydin’s bullying fails and forces him to try and save face in utter defeat, he announces he’s decided to decamp to Istanbul for a while to work on his book. But faced with a wait for a train and tramping around the cheerless, snow-clad expanse of the railway station, Aydin instead decides to go to Suavi’s house and hide out with him for a while. This amusing, pathetic discursion sees him getting drunk and gabbling with his friend and Levent, who’s also a pal of Suavi’s. Here the film becomes a gruesomely funny portrait of middle-aged men drinking in their underwear until they recite Shakespeare and then vomit on the floor. Understandably, Aydin is ultimately chastened by the experience. The trio then go out to stalk the hills and hunt, with Aydin cast as bandy-legged Hercules, managing to plug a rabbit after glancing around to see if there’s anyone else to do it for him. This funny antiheroic passage is contrasted by Nihal’s attempt to do a good deed and expiate Aydin’s excruciating patronisation of her moral intelligence. Just before he left, Aydin give her an envelope filled with cash to put towards the school fund, but Nihal knows all too well it’s essentially a bribe to make her think he’s a generous person after all.
Instead, Nihal resolves to give this money to Ismail’s family to help them out of trouble, and she treks to their house, where she chats with the stunned Hamdi, before Ismail enters, in a moment Ceylan shoots with sly operatic intensity, Ismail’s shadow falling on the floor just before he’s seen, looming like the tragic hero of some Wagnerian extravaganza. And indeed, he does suddenly possess such stature. Where most of Winter Sleep shows its kinship to the Chekhov of “Uncle Vanya” or “The Cherry Orchard,” here Ceylan, who had suggested the influence of Dostoyevsky in Anatolia, tips his hat more definitely to that Russian master. The subplot of Ismail and Ilyas proves to be a variation on that of Snegiryov and Ilyusha (note the similarity of the names of the boys) in “The Brothers Karamazov,” the tormented and fallen father triumphing before his son in his refusal to put money before pride, whilst also calling out to “The Idiot,,” in a rejection of Nihal’s efforts that nonetheless proves cathartic in a distressing way for her. From Hidayet’s jeep Aydin glimpses the town of Garip and transforms it into a raft of humanity afloat on the elements, a promise of shifting perspectives and epiphanies that offers the climactic scenes a hint of awakening even in the midst of the winter snows that drown time and sound, and narcotise the will.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu
By Roderick Heath
Most filmmakers portion out what talent they have in small, polite courses. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu throws messy, teetering banquets every time. Since his debut with 2000’s Amores Perros, Iñárritu has made technically bravura, deeply felt and seriously intended works that push at the edges of narrative cinema, sometimes to the limits of credulity and patience. His second film, 21 Grams (2003), was radically told soap opera. His Oscar-nominated Babel (2006) displayed all of his best and worst traits—intense and vibrant portraiture of characters and the worlds they live in, conveyed with powerhouse cinema, tied together with threadbare contrivances and inchoate emotional connections and impulses. Iñárritu has been quiet for some time since his bruising break-up with his screenwriting collaborator Guillermo Arriaga—only the exhausting, Spanish-made drug-addiction drama Biutiful (2010) was released in the interval. Now he’s come roaring back to prestige-clad attention again with Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), a film that seems intended to give Iñárritu’s rival in the Latin-American wunderkind stakes, Alfonso Cuaron, some more competition. Following Cuaron’s showy technical extravaganza Gravity (2013), with its epic-length shots and special effects, Iñárritu ripostes with a more earthbound drama that nonetheless one-ups Cuaron by offering a film that affects to be composed of one, constant, driving shot.
Iñárritu uses this device to illustrate the drowning wave of anxiety and detail that threatens to swamp his protagonist, actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), who’s directing and starring in his own adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Riggan is a former movie star, famed for his part in the “Birdman” franchise of nearly 20 years earlier, and he feels like he sacrificed too much of his credibility and talent for a paycheque. Now he is dogged by the alter ego by which too much of the public knows him, constantly hearing a droning, mordant voice mocking his efforts to reinvent himself as an artist, his Birdman characterisation become his personal daemon.
Riggan has managed to pull together the theatrical production and steered it to the very threshold of opening in the St. James Theatre on Broadway, but has just realised how bad his supporting male star Ralph (Jeremy Shamos) is. By serendipitous fortune, or perhaps contrivance, a lighting rig falls on Ralph’s head during a rehearsal, badly injuring him. Riggan has to find another actor quickly. He consults with his lawyer and confidant Jake (Zach Galifianakis) and rattles off a list of potentials, like Woody Harrelson and Jeremy Renner (“Who?”), but they’re all busy playing the current wave of superhero films. Costar Lesley (Naomi Watts) suggests her boyfriend, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), an actor of the stage who has great critical favour and a reputation for uncompromising artistry—that is, he’s a pain in the ass.
Because he knows Riggan’s play inside out from helping Lesley rehearse, Mike is able not just to slip quickly into the role, but also immediately coax Riggan to make improvements. Riggan is delighted at first with his new costar, but soon Mike’s loose-cannon ethic starts to make Riggan’s situation feel even more nightmarish. Iñárritu has described himself as a frustrated musician, and he once composed scores for Mexican films before he broke through as a director. The intimate flow and relentless tug of music is clearly what he’s after here, translated into visual terms. The constant sense of headlong movement created by his tracking shots is matched to a syncopated jazz drum beat, lending a neurotically arrhythmic yet propelling heartbeat—at one point, the drummer is even glimpsed as a busker outside the theatre and then, later, inside, playing merrily in the theatre’s kitchen. The cumulative effect of this scoring suggests just such a nerveless, neurotic beat has invaded Riggan’s ear and won’t leave it. Iñárritu’s camera aims to transform his chosen setting into a multi-levelled, pan-dimensional stage, sweeping up and down stairwells, in and out of the most cramped confines of the theatre, and out into the expanse of the Manhattan night where crowds reel and neon blazes.
Iñárritu records the teeming, electrified ambience of this location in a way that few recent films have managed, recalling classic works whose grungy-glamorous portraits of urban gods captured both the city’s boiling, stygian ferocity and vigour, a crucible of possibility—movies like Sweet Smell of Success (1957), as well as the specific canon of Broadway films like A Double Life (1947), All About Eve (1950), and The Country Girl (1956). In Birdman, powerful theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan) sits in a solitary vigil with pusillanimous pen poised for takedowns in a nearby bar, recalling Sweet Smell’s savage columnist J. J. Hunsecker, whilst Riggan seems to be threatened with a schizoid breakdown along the fault lines of the real and fictional persona like Ronald Colman’s Anthony John in A Double Life. Riggan keeps moving because, like a shark, he’ll die if he stops—he’s invested all his money into the production. His actors share and amplify his brittle, egocentric, dedicated gusto, particularly Laura (Andrea Riseborough), who’s also his girlfriend. He recounts to Mike his “origin story” and its connection to this obsessive venture: as a young performer in a school play, Riggan impressed Raymond Carver, who sent a congratulatory message backstage to him written on a bar coaster, inspiring Riggan to choose acting as his career. Mike ripostes by noting this clearly indicates Carver was drunk at the time.
Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone), a recovering drug addict who’s just of out of rehab and is working as Riggan’s PA, stands outside of the stream. She’s angry at her father for his false promises as a parent and has been inoculated with a raw and cynical understanding of this niche world, plainly contemptuous of her father’s hoped-for redemption via art in a scene that’s scarcely relevant beyond a few city blocks. She lets loose this contempt on Riggan after he confronts her about smoking dope. Mike, on the other hand, is deeply impressed with his own integrity as anointed artist-hero who brings edge and danger to the stage, and constantly tests the limits of Stanislavskian realism. He erupts in a fury during a preview performance when the real liquor he’s been drinking proves to have been replaced with water. During another preview, when he and Lesley are being wheeled on stage in a prop bed, Mike, in the thrill of imminent performance and momentarily overcoming the impotence that’s been besetting him, attempts to ravage Lesley there and then. Lesley, appalled and infuriated, promptly breaks up with him, and when Laura consoles her, they lock lips, caught up in the whirl of passion. Mike further antagonises Riggan by giving an interview where he steals Riggan’s Carver anecdote, and postures as the saviour of the show.
Mike is often insufferable in this manner, but also candid and committed in his bullshit artiste way. He tries to warn Riggan that he’s headed for a fall, locked on the wrong side of a perceived opposition between artist and mere celebrity. Mike reveals a far less aggravating side as he forms a bond with Sam, whom he encounters at her favourite hideaway, perched on the edge of a balcony high above Broadway, ironically calling to mind the similarly poised, detached yet omnipotent Batman that Keaton played a quarter-century ago. Mike is drawn to the damaged and sceptical young woman, and seems almost like a different person when calmly admitting his fears and faults to her, though his attempts to convince her of her worth are met with good-humoured derision. Nonetheless, the sideways-glimpsed romance between Mike and his daughter adds another worry to Riggan’s already overloaded psyche. Riggan is having semi-hallucinatory experiences, introduced at the start when we see him floating like a bodhisattva in his dressing room, and then seeming to use superpowers to move objects and, eventually, trash that dressing room—except that when the camera steps back and takes on a more objective viewpoint, he’s revealed to be smashing things the old-fashioned way. Finally, the mocking voice is revealed to be Riggan in his Birdman guise, sweeping down through the city streets to preach like Mephistopheles the gospel of entertainment and the security of low expectations with high pay.
Casting Keaton as Riggan was a coup of uncommon fortune for Iñárritu, giving him as it does a legitimate hinge not just of performing ability but potential satiric and thematic impact. Keaton’s stint as Batman was his apotheosis as a movie star and also the start of a long wane, though he’s long been a difficult actor to contain, too impish and odd to make a standard leading man, too self-contained and nonchalant to behave as comic fount. In a similar way, Iñárritu’s other actors are cast to play off associated roles; Watts’ pash with Riseborough clearly is a skit based on Watts’ breakthrough role in Mulholland Drive (2000), whilst Norton plays a variation on his public persona. Such conceits are entirely understandable in a film that is both about theatricality and possessed by it. The way Iñárritu films his actors and lets them combust in big, showy spiels and set-piece rants may only indulge rather than critique that theatricality, but there’s nothing much wrong with that, especially as it all contributes to the hothouse atmosphere and, moreover, delights in acting, raw and untrammelled, as the ultimate source of spectacle, both on stage and screen. Iñárritu lets his actors go wild with their tools just as he’s doing with his camera.
Meanwhile, Iñárritu manages a cunning and sinuous control of tonal shifts whilst never seeming to demarcate his moves officially, leading from farce to drama to elegy through virtuoso manipulation of elements and the connective sinew of Antonio Sánchez’s score. Riggan’s encounter with a hot-to-trot Laura in the lowest hallways of the theatre sees her transformed by lighting into a sultry and beckoning sylph in the labyrinth, then the camera follows her up to the stage, segueing into the first preview performance where a tone of elegy dominates, the tone Riggan wants for it, until Mike suddenly violates the mood with an outburst. Iñárritu cues a shift from hyped-up intensity to punch-drunk eeriness after the dispiriting impact of Sam’s excoriation of her father and his bleary, defeated suck on her worn reefer: the camera slides out and across the stage in the midst of dry ice and blue light, picking out Laura as a ghostly figure in mid-flight of elegiac speech in one of Riggan’s stylised dream sequences. A trip out the door of the theatre plunges first from exhausting claustrophobia to the mad tumult of the street to the shadowy and sheltering refuge of the bar. A quick recourse to a salving cigarette shimmers with a sense of relief and relaxation. Mike and Sam making love on a catwalk high above the stage sees camera hover and then float out above the actors at work below with swooning romanticism falling into gentle diminuendo. Iñárritu almost wills style into substance in such pirouettes, lending his vision of this hothouse of creation the quicksilver changeableness of creative vision and dramatic mood.
As a statement about the soul of the actor and the eternally tendentious nature of creative endeavour, Birdman works best through such epiphanies and flourishes of stagecraft, transforming mundane realities into mimetic canvas where Riggan’s terrors and inspirations collide and crossbreed. The problem here is that when one examines each facet, the film seems composed of a great mass of clichés. The washed-up star striving for a second chance. The sassy, irate, burn-out celebrity’s daughter. The young tyro prick. The nutty, oversexed actress. The vituperative critic who has appointed herself as guardian of culture determined to cut down our hero. It’s worth noting that 2014 has seen a small glut of films that seem like obvious metaphors for their makers’ troubled relationship with the business of art, the demands of family, and the pundits who approve or dismiss their work; there’s a strong undercurrent of this in Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, John Carney’s Begin Again, and Jon Favreau’s lightly comic Chef, which strained to transfer the theme onto the world of celebrity cooking. Birdman shares with the last two films the figure of the unruly, ageing male talent and his efforts to balance a relationship with a child against renewing artistic success. Yet Chef was more sophisticated and accepting than any of the more self-righteous and noisy versions, particular when it came to the hero’s relationship with his critic-antagonist, who curiously pointed out that their battles on Twitter were “theatre.” Iñárritu, bluntly and ridiculously, portrays Dickinson as an outright creep who announces her intention to destroy Riggan’s project for even daring to try.
The best defence one can offer is that Birdman is an exercise in cut-up aesthetics, an extended jazzlike improvisation based in stirring, familiar melodies and refrains that reflect the distorting intensity of such a feat as Riggan is intending. We could accept the film’s stereotypes and cornball ideas as mere extensions of his enthused, but not terribly original mind—and I would, except Iñárritu’s technique, wonderful as it is, subtly foils his excuse, as he readily leaves behind Riggan’s viewpoint when he feels like it. This isn’t exactly a deal breaker in terms of the film’s worth, especially as Iñárritu and his cast make the characters vibrate with such energy and offer many segues of contradiction and surprise. More problematic is the film’s approach to the art it portrays. Unlike the makers of such stalwart works of artist-meltdown portraiture as 8½ (1963) and All That Jazz (1979), Iñárritu doesn’t suggest much deep knowledge or interest in the art form he’s portraying, and scarce interest in whether Riggan’s boondoggle project is worthwhile; reasonable questions about just how worthwhile this project is are subordinated to an imposed desire to see Riggan win through. The snatches we see and hear of Riggan’s adaptation may strike one as effectively stylised and lyrical or stilted and graven, and there are dancing reindeer in his dream sequences, which, in spite of what Laura says, isn’t a good idea.
In terms of artistic commentary and perspective, Birdman poses as specially relevant to the moment: it mentions superhero movies. But its cultural presumptions are actually passé. Iñárritu’s idea of cutting-edge satire of actor vanity is to show Riggan pulling off his wig. Appearing in superhero movies might have hurt the careers of some actors in the past, but the idea that it’s some sort of ticket to serious career oblivion is dated. Perhaps if Iñárritu had cast a more obviously limited actor than Keaton, some classically bland leading man crumpled by time and anxiety, his points might have landed with more urgency and specificity. When Tim Burton cast Keaton as Batman, he did so precisely to avoid cliché about square-jawed heroes, a subtlety that seems lost on Iñárritu, who plays up the presumed entrenched dichotomy between capital-A Art and lowbrow fantasy with thudding simplicity as food for the sorts of self-congratulatory pseuds Riggan’s supposed to be battling. Theatre critics line up to bathe in the aura of celebrity like everybody else these days, and Hollywood stars regularly use the Great White Way to give their careers a retooling.
Iñárritu does fruitfully use his dichotomy at one interval, when Riggan’s Birdman alter ego finally appears and unleashes a wave of blockbuster destruction, offering the balm of such regressive but buoyant destruction fantasy as a cure for the terror of “seriousness,” an eruption of Michael Bayisms that scarcely feel out of place in this work’s sturm und drang. Riggan responds with his own, stripped-back fantasy of flight, evoking Marcello Mastroianni’s escapades as a kite in 8½. Birdman needed to embrace its inner Robert Altman film more, given flesh to the potential in Riseborough and Watts’ characters, and kept the film a grand extravaganza of comic types crashing against one another. Because Birdman steadily loses steam in spite of its propulsive method, as the conflicts of ego and temperament that pop and fizz so well in the first half give way to more sustained contemplation of Riggan’s hapless state. This doesn’t work very well as Riggan isn’t that detailed or empathetic a protagonist: there’s no sense of who Riggan was before Birdman—did anyone ever take him seriously as an actor?—and his major failings, including infidelities and neglecting of Sam and his warily understanding ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan), are all safely vague and past. Also bordering on inane is the subplot where one of Riggan’s antics makes him an online superstar, with Sam translating and exploiting for the social media sceptic the power he doesn’t yet understand. This element feels shoehorned in (again, Chef actually did this better), perhaps to make sure we know the film is set in the present rather than in 1965.
The constantly unstable sense of reality certainly invokes the Latin-American traditions of magic-realism, with which Iñárritu, a fan of Borges and Cortazar, is clearly conversant: most every moment tingles with the mysterious, transformative energy of the imagination, or maybe lunacy. Time folds in upon itself, reality bends to one’s will, invented personae torment their creators, and dream states infuse and upend all certainty. But Birdman may be viewed best as a screwball farce, as much a lampoon on the idea of artistic endeavour as anything else, sharing more in common with the Marx Brothers of A Night at the Opera (1935) and Room Service (1938), the early scenes of Some Like It Hot (1959), and Looney Tunes than Fellini or those old Broadway films. The script is littered with good lines, like Riggan’s furious self-description as Birdman prods him to return to the cape: “I look like a turkey with leukaemia!” Even if Iñárritu isn’t a comic filmmaker of great finesse or originality yet, he still manages to pay off with some sequences of slapstick zest as well done as anything I can think of recently, particularly when the infuriated Riggan drags the supposedly ascetic Mike out of his sunbed in a rage over the newspaper interview and starts a fight. Norton reveals surprising comic grace as Mike scrambles and flails like Jerry Lewis cast as hapless henchman. One sustained sequence varies a very old bit of comic business, as Riggan steps outside of the theatre’s rear entrance for a smoke during his break, only for the door to swing shut and catch his bathrobe: Riggan is stranded outside, and forced to dash in his underwear through Times Square and back in through the front entrance of the theatre, with enthused tourists and gabby New Yorkers taking photos of him all the way. Inside, he has to dodge Ralph and his lawyer who have come to try and squeeze money out of him, and once he gets back into the theatre, has to start acting a scene from the aisle, a disaster that becomes gold as the audience is wowed by the unique staging and Riggan’s seemingly raw and risky playing.
Fittingly, the film’s climax is based on another old showbiz joke, one memorably used by the Looney Tunes cartoon “Show Biz Bugs,” with its immortal punch line “I can only do it once!” as the artist self-conflagrates on stage, totally breaking down the barrier between act and deed. Frustratingly, though, Iñárritu can’t quite commit to the joke and its black comedy triumph and gives a coda that offers instead triumph through going above and beyond in a not-too-costly fashion. In a crowning visual joke, Riggan, masked by dressings that resemble his Birdman guise, has become the hero at last, but only in the most ironic and self-punishing of fashions. Although farce is the official frame here, on another level none of this is a joke, but rather an attempt to articulate flurrying artistic worry and ecstasy with deadly, transcendental seriousness. Riggan’s climactic gesture is offered as an ingenious as well as tragicomic solution to his quandary, an act of daring that can wow even the most jaded or hateful. Except that it would fairly be taken as a sign of deep mental illness in real life, and indeed Riggan may well be ill. Either way, Birdman‘s very end obfuscates too much. The film’s weak and shop-worn ideas can’t be entirely forgiven when it yearns so badly to say something of substance. Yet Birdman still counts as a major work of cinema purely because it loves cinema so much, and evokes that line of Orson Welles’ about a movie studio being the greatest toy train set a kid ever had.
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