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Director/Screenwriter: Jim Jarmusch
By Roderick Heath
Jim Jarmusch’s career seems as intimately connected with the evolution of American independent film as Pablo Picasso’s was to modernism in painting: he helped to give birth to it, he gave it much of its aesthetic and thematic lexicon, but then he remained happy in his niche and left it for everyone else to accept or reject what they liked in their own attempts to reforge the art form. Similarities between Jarmusch and Picasso end there, of course. Jarmusch’s calm, wry, gentle style subtly evolved from his early work, though it remained defined by a resolute minimalism and lack of interest in cinematic flash that only partly hides a New Age take on an old Hollywood value, one that holds films are no more interesting than the people in front of the camera and what they’re saying. Jarmusch was one filmmaker who seemed to arrive with the phrase “cult following” already attached to his name, and he continued on that way, though that following has diminished a little in recent years. It’s odd indeed to think of a filmmaker like Jarmusch in an age increasingly detached from the kinds of small, arty movie theatres in bohemian neighbourhoods and video store back shelves that fostered his following. Only Lovers Left Alive signals Jarmusch’s awareness of this, as it provides an aging retronaut’s statement of fetishistic revelry in all that is arcane and eternal in the midst of yet another paradigm shift. Jarmusch’s one concession to a zeitgeist is his story, which depicts that much-beloved and abused figure of crepuscular romanticism, the vampire.
This is a vampire movie as only Jarmusch could make it—except perhaps for Amy Heckerling, whose Vamps (2012) was completely different in tone and yet dealt in almost exactly the same ideas and concerns. Jarmusch’s vampires are undying hipsters, as their creator aligns the outsider status of the artist: the sun-shy, attention-wary bohemians who create for the pure love of creation and expression of innermost emotions, and subsist in fear of a world that will surely misunderstand, if not fear them. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a wan, rake-thin composer who’s walled himself up in a house in the midst of Detroit’s blasted suburbs. Adam has a contracted gopher, Ian (Anton Yelchin), to dig up anything he asks for, from an array of vintage guitars to a hardwood bullet in a working .38 shell casing he claims to need for an “art project.” Adam’s elegantly dishevelled home is crammed with LPs and amusingly jerry-rigged technology. Amongst the talents he’s developed in his hundreds of years on earth is a gift for zany electrical engineering: not surprisingly, Nikolai Tesla is one of his heroes, like Jack White was in Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes (2003). His house runs on a generator that absorbs atmospheric energy, and he’s linked his laptop up to an old TV so he can see anyone he’s Skyping with on a decent-sized screen. But Adam’s real metier is musician, one he’s been following for centuries. He once let Schubert claim a piece of his “just to get it out there,” and now composes droning, spacey Shoegaze-ish pics he describes as funeral music. He has let some of his new compositions leak out to test their mettle and has become an underground music hero, a problematic achievement as now bands of young fans are trolling the streets of Detroit in search of the elusive master’s home.
Adam’s life partner, or more accurately undead partner, is the inevitably named Eve (Tilda Swinton), who resides in Algiers, the couple well used to both times of togetherness and separation, a quirky habit that has undoubtedly fostered their centuries-long affair’s steadfast ardour. Eve chums about with aged fellow vampire Kit (John Hurt), another reclusive artist: he used to be Christopher Marlowe, no less, and is still irritated by being forced into hiding because of his supposed murder and that his “illiterate zombie” front Shakespeare gets all the credit for the plays he wrote afterwards. Kit, who’s become old and incapacitated, has been adopted by a café owner and literary protégé, Bilal (Slimane Dazi). Adam, Eve, and Kit don’t drink human blood direct from the source anymore, more out of respect and caution for their own health than for people because of the amount of “contamination” out there these days. Besides, it’s hard to dispose of the victims for things have changed, as Eve notes, from “the old days when we could just chuck them in the Thames alongside all the other tubercular floaters.” The sensible, modern vampire prefers to procure nicely purified and bottled supplies from clinicians and blood banks: Kit gets his from “a lovely French doctor” and passes some on to Eve. Adam buys his from a physician in a Detroit hospital, Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright), whom he meets late at night with menacing silence wearing a surgical mask, lab coat, an antiquated stethoscope, and a nametag that reads Dr. Faust, and pays off with huge rolls of cash. Getting their blood offers a sublime, druglike pleasure for the vampires. But Adam seems to be in a particularly dark and downbeat mood of late: his wooden bullet is actually a suicide option, and his distress signals reach the intuitively understanding Eve. She grumpily prepares to travel to him, packing her only necessities—her favourite books.
Only Lovers Left Alive plainly deals with matters that have long fascinated Jarmusch, in particular, cultural memory in the context of the New World’s determined lack of it. The fetishism for the detritus of recent pasts and the mystique of cool evokes a constant thread in his films, whilst the film’s closest immediate analogue is probably Mystery Train (1991), his ghost-riddled, wry comedy that used Memphis rather than Detroit as his blasted avatar of Americana, whilst the central couple have similarities to the Japanese cool cats who traversed that city and declared preference for Carl Perkins over Elvis Presley in the pantheon of hip. The travelling, eye-caressing surveys of nocturnal cities, splendid in their desertion and decay, immediately evoke Jarmusch’s early works, like Down by Law (1986) and Night on Earth (1991). The literary nom-de-plumes and hints of blurred identity and life-after-death journeying recalls Dead Man (1996). Jarmusch’s style, verging on an antistyle and influenced by such great stripped-down cinematic mechanics as Ozu and Dreyer, is so spare as to be hard to spot variations in, but some of Jarmusch’s later works, like Broken Flowers (2006), certainly started to feel hermetic in their outlook and references as well as method. That film’s hero and his habit of driving while listening to his mix CDs, in careful excision of anything unwantedly messy or edgy, contrasts Jarmusch’s early works, which were like toggling between late-night radio stations, taking in a panoramic sample of the cultural landscape and its otherworldly wells. But Only Lovers Left Alive reveals a real artist’s capacity for self-awareness and even self-satire: Jarmusch has made his own dismay at time’s relentless advance and its impact on the institutions of artistic meaning he treasures part of the film’s texture, whilst also noting that what could be taken by the jaded as inevitable repetition might also be fecund revivalism, reinvention, even rebirth.
Some might find it odd that Jarmusch has made a film that could be called the black bible of the current crop of hipsters and trendies in its celebration of the fashionably arcane, bygone maxims of style and authority. But, of course, mix-and-match delight in the ephemera of the past and present is hardly a recent invention, and has been a secret tool of bohemia in contention with industrial society’s chop-chop insistence as far back as the pre-Raphaelites and neoclassicists. Nothing was as cheap and ephemeral as an 8-inch single record was in 1960, but now it’s an artefact, a lodestone and repository. Jarmusch starts the film with a sequence that stands amongst his best, his camera moving in a swooning circle in mistimed mimicry of such a record spinning on a player: Wanda Jackson’s “Funnel of Love” played at the wrong speed turning into a druggy anthem for its pair of separated lovers, who both recline in their dreamy, separate but connected anomie. Jarmusch might move his camera more in this film than he did in his first three films put together, if still sparingly, creating a sense much like being sucked into a whirlpool in a lake of tar, a slow and slurping decline. Jarmusch repeats the motif later as he intercuts between Adam, Eve, and Kit sinking into ecstasy as they have their taste of blood. The correlation of vampiric activity and junkie habitudes isn’t a new one: Paul Morrissey’s Blood for Dracula (1973) mooted it a long time ago, and Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction (1995) put it front and centre for a far more lacerating approach to the idea of contemporary vampire life than this one seeks to be. But Jarmusch’s take is original insofar as he equates it with the experiential, potentially communal thrill of lotus eating, absinthe drinking, LSD, and MDMA, as well as the solitary corrosion of heroin.
Jarmusch’s attitude to his antiheroes is wry and exacting even as he makes it plain he’s on their side, sharing their quirks, their fears, and their loves. They snobbishly refer to ordinary people as “zombies,” and Adam reveals he’s contemplating self-annihilation because he’s fed up with their “fear of their own imaginations.” Jarmusch confirms his antennae certainly haven’t weakened, as he articulates the feeling that’s been prevalent amidst sectors of the educated culturati in the increasingly messy state of contemporary democracy of increasingly blinding, fraught despair at the reactionary impulses apparent in modern society. Jarmusch satirizes the attitude a little bit, too, not letting his undying cool folk off the hook by reminding us forcefully by the end that they participate in the roundelay of consumption, too, and that their pretences require somebody’s sacrifice. One of the key conceits and driving jokes of the film is that the actually cool and creative will always recognise their kind: Adam and Eve have shifted with the evolution of culture from baroque to romanticism to Motown (“I’m more of a Stax girl myself,” Eve admits), obeying the necessity of changing modes of expression whilst recognising unchanging fixtures and standards. Adam’s stringy-haired gloominess, so readily identifiable in the age of Emo, was imbued, Eve argues, by his association with Byron and Shelley. Adam has a wall filled with privileged heroes (and of course, he says repeatedly “I don’t have heroes”) including Buster Keaton, Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka, Mark Twain, and Rodney Dangerfield.
The film is textured by allusions. These run from small, jokey ones, like the encounter between Dr. Faust and Dr. Watson, to larger, more expansive rhymes, like linking the dying industrial mecca of Detroit with a traditional vampire’s castle, comprehending the similarity of the movements that eroded both feudal aristocracy and Western industrial capitalism, and the narrative’s refrains to Algiers, hang-out of escapee nonconformists from Delacroix to William Burroughs. Drug dealers constantly try to entice Eve from the alleys of the Casbah, an ironic touch as Eve is certainly on the hunt for her fix, but not that kind: her good stuff is far more difficult to acquire and more acute in its representation of life bartered. Jarmusch unfolds many scenes in successions of dreamy dissolves and repeated framings that infer the connectedness of Adam and Eve even in separate places, and finally portrays them both naked and in bed, lounging in a slight asymmetry that captures both their definite sexuality and their faint androgyny.
The couple’s eventualmeeting, clearly the first time they’ve come back together in ages, is one of two superbly affecting moments: centuries of gathered affectations and borrowed trappings the two lovers wear like costumes suddenly fall away, and they are again a courtly gentleman and his lady, Adam stripping off Eve’s glove and kissing her palm with all the tortured and fulsome passion of some De Laclos characters. The second comes as Adam gives Eve tours of his midnight world, showing her his ingenious power supply when it breaks down and driving her around Detroit with its endless razed blocks and tomblike warehouses and factories, pointing out the old Packard plant, “where they once built the most beautiful cars in the world—finished.” Eve confidently anticipates Detroit’s rebirth in the future when “the cities of the south are burning.” Adam takes Eve inside the Michigan Theatre, a beautiful manmade cavern with decayed remnants of glorious ambition and soaring craftsmanship, now used as a car park and recognised as itself only by the two exiles. Jarmusch’s camera floats rapturously, scanning the ceiling and his two lovers back to back as they crane their heads up and their bodies spin upon the dusty floor.
Jarmusch blends his fictional conceit cleverly with a realistic basis that’s sneakily exact and detailed, a method that defines most well-thought-through fantasies. Adam and Eve are a sophisticated, unconventional couple, only slightly exaggerated, with deftly recorded rhythms of behaviour, from Eve picking up on Adam’s distress signals to the eternal bugbear that is Eve’s sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska). Ava has warned both of them that she’s likely to turn up in their lives by psychic means, projecting herself into their dreams, and she does arrive at Adam’s house when Eve’s only been there for three days. The way the couple refer to her makes one perhaps expect a darker, deadlier, more traditional version of the vampire, but, in fact, Ava’s a carefree, self-indulgent, ageless teenager, dangerous to them not because she’s more wicked but because, like so many teens, she has much less idea of consequences and no interest in their adult fussiness. Her affectations, like polka-dotted stockings and faux-fur coats, mark her as an interminable scenester and low-rent party girl, the embarrassing sibling who’s been dogging the couple for ages and making them cringe a little for offering pose without style. She flops on Adam’s couch, drinks up his blood supply like it’s going out of fashion, puts on his new recordings to listen to, and airily informs him she’s heard some of his stuff in an underground club in Los Angeles. “Zombie central,” Adam contemptuously describes that city. The closeness of Eve and Ava’s sisterly relationship is swiftly, casually noted as they mirror each others’ pose and actions in stripping off gloves and reclining on the sofa, leaving Adam cut off and glowering in the reverse shot. “Are you still upset about the thing in Paris?” Ava questions. “It’s been 87 years,” Eve does admit.
Adam’s misgivings about having her around prove well-founded however. When she talks the couple into exploring the city’s nightlife with her, Adam gets Ian to guide them. He takes them to an agreeably grimy nightspot where a quality punk band grinds out music, and Adam hears his own droning sounds piped during the break. When the quartet return to Adam’s house at dawn, he and Eve retreat to bed, leaving Ava and Ian together. In the evening, Eve is shocked to find Ava has killed Ian, a moment of weakness that’s left her in discomfort from imbibing his polluted blood. Adam and Eve’s patience snaps: they throw Ava out on the street, and she shambles off into the night yelling insults. The couple quickly rid themselves of the immediate problem by taking Ian’s corpse to an abandoned factory and tossing it into a sunken pit filled with some nasty substance: “Don’t ask,” Adam warns Eve, and when the body lands in it, the flesh is immediately eaten away. Eve recoils, and mutters, “Well, that was visual,” in a wry punch line that feels like a jab back at the way Jarmusch has been criticised for rarely indulging visual qualities. Realising that they still face investigation because Ian had been seen with them in public, Adam agrees to accompany Eve back to Algiers. They fast through the flight in anticipation of some of Kit’s quality blood stash, but the pair finds Kit is dying, tended to by a distraught Bilal, from blood that was badly contaminated. Thus, the pair is left not just distraught by the fading of their friend and fellow true believer, but also starving.
For all its blackly humorous morbidity, invocations of collapse and melancholia, and permanent nocturnal atmosphere that resolves in a restaging-cum-parody of a strung-out junkie-lovers drama like Panic in Needle Park (1971), Only Lovers Left Alive is a work of peculiar grace and good humour, even in its darker refrains. The title’s implicit message (borrowed from a scifi novel that inspired a punk rock album) speaks of romanticism undying and captures the peculiar faith upheld by everyone who treasures a work of art, even in an age that wants to transduce it all into a cloud of bits somewhere. Adam mocks Ava for enjoying something on You Tube (admittedly, only a schlocky piece of Euro dance music with a video featuring a joke shop Dracula and go-go dancers) and ignoring the grand cornucopia such phenomena provide, the ready, but not tactile connection with a vast scheme of invention.
Only Lovers Left Alive is a stand for the tactile connection, albeit one whose mood is ethereal. Adam and Eve inherit the dreams and achievements of a culture that has so little use for them. Adam is given renewed zest and will to fight for his survival in a new and alienating place when he sees a young female singer, Yasmine (Yasmine Hamdan), performing in café, a vision of leather-clad beauty and talent suggesting that Adam’s ever-renewing search for quality and cool has found a new, embryonic zone for experiment and distillation—a new zeitgeist to be absorbed by. His next phase, and Eve’s, too, can only be achieved, however, through an act of calculated parasitism. The couple put it off as long as possible, but when presented by an opportunity—a young couple making out in a deserted courtyard—they move upon them with impunity, bearing their fangs before the film blacks out in an unnerving and bleakly funny last glimpse. Even the biggest dreamer amongst us is still just another animal.
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Directors: Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast/Luchino Visconti
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It’s fascinating how a single story can be bent almost infinitely to suit the imagination and purposes of individual creatives. I recently had a chance to view two rare films that riff off the same basic plot—a grindingly poor, but attractive woman marries a wealthy older man for security and faces the dilemma of whether to leave him to be with the penniless man she loves. Both films were shot during difficult times in their respective countries: Laughter premiered just after the 1929 stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression, and Obsessione was shown as Mussolini’s fascist government was headed toward oblivion, with a feeling of defeat and waste settling over the Italian population. Yet, one film is the prototype of the screwball comedy, and the other a noir tragedy and the second film version of James M. Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Laughter opens on a downbeat note, as Ralph la Sainte (Glenn Enders), an artist in love with our heroine, former chorus girl Peggy Gibson (Nancy Carroll), seeks her in vain at the mansion she shares with her stockbroker husband Mortimer (Frank Morgan). He leaves her a desperate note and returns to his garret on the wrong side of town, a side she called home before Mortimer plucked her out of the chorus line. Enter financially struggling composer/musician Paul Lockridge (Frederic March), fresh from Paris and looking to renew his love affair with pretty Peggy. The butler (Leonard Carey) who repeatedly asks for his card to present to Mrs. Gibson becomes the billboard on which the pair communicate, with Paul writing a message on his starched shirt front, and Peggy replying in kind that she is not at home, exclamation point! Paul brings Peggy youth, laughter, and love, whereas Mortimer can only clamp one jeweled bracelet after another around her wrist, thrilling to the ticker that tells him he has made more than $6 million that day rather than enjoying an impromptu vaudeville routine by Peggy and her friends in his drawing room. Circumstances will conspire to put Peggy in the same room with Ralph, ending in a tragedy that has Peggy reconsidering her priorities.
Obsessione begins in much more prosaic fashion, as a wheat-bearing truck stops at a roadside trattoria to gas up and dislodge Gino Costa (Massimo Girotti), a filthy, but handsome tramp who hitched a ride in the flatbed. He charms a meal out of Giovanna Bragana (Carla Calamai), the beautiful, young wife of the trattoria owner, Giuseppe Bragana (Juan de Landa), a fat, old man who treats her like a servant and possession. The attraction between Gino and Giovanna is as strong as her hatred of her husband, and she contrives to keep Gino around by having him pay for his meal with work. Giuseppe takes a liking to Gino and offers him a permanent job, but the lovers become impatient with Giuseppe constantly underfoot and start to run away together. After walking a while in high heels down a dirt road, Giovanna, tired and unhappy about her future prospects with her impoverished lover, turns back. However, their paths cross again, and fate moves them toward a murderous and tragic end.
Although Laughter and Obsessione take their shared plot in decidedly different directions, each manages to break new ground while providing commentary on the societies from which they emerged. Laughter may seem to have passed its moment in history by not depicting the ruin that befell people like Mortimer Gibson, but it foreshadows the desperation of the Depression while offering an escapist resolution to the love triangle that would become de rigueur in the 1930s. La Sainte represents the disillusionment of the age, a struggling artist whose failures in love and life lead to despair and tragedy. Although not specifically stated, it would be reasonable to assume that Peggy’s rejection of Paul and marriage to Mortimer were prompted at least in part by the decline of vaudeville and a tawdry future in burlesque and prostitution that sometimes awaited chorines like her. Obsessione makes this fate explicit in the character of Anita (Dhia Cristiani), an attractive woman who meets Gino in a park and tells him that she’s a dancer in a show—even challenges him to check her story out—but starts to remove her sweater the moment she discovers him in her one-room apartment hiding from the police.
In its own way, Obsessione offers a carefree escape for ordinary Italians through Visconti’s Neorealist approach to filming his story on the Italian streets. After Gino leaves the Braganas, he meets an itinerant carnival worker nicknamed “The Spaniard” (Elio Marcuzzo), who pays Gino’s train fare to Ancona, shares a room with him, and puts him to work advertising his street performance by wearing a sandwich board. Ancona is a lively place where people come to vacation, enjoy street fairs and carnival rides, and gather together communally to eat, drink, and participate in contests and games. Giuseppe and Giovanna run into Gino on their way to a singing contest at a large trattoria, and the jovial Giuseppe invites Gino to come. Giuseppe, justly proud of his fine singing voice, earns our sympathy with his innocent enthusiasm and friendship. The entire scene in Ancona, and later, in the Bragana trattoria, where Giovanna has increased business tremendously by introducing music and dancing to the restaurant, show the sweet life in the midst of tremendous hardship and sorrow, thus lifting the film to a more complex and affecting level.
Laughter, a product of Hollywood, can’t offer the same verisimilitude, but snappy dialogue cowritten by director d’Abbadie d’Arrast, energetic action, and some lovely comic set-pieces evoke the anything-goes attitude of the recently remembered Roaring ’20s. When Peggy meets Mortimer’s grown daughter Marjorie (Diane Ellis), their arch references to each other as “Mother” and Daughter” signal the unconventional sophistication of their social set. Further, Peggy and Paul think nothing of going off together for a drive in the country without a word to her husband. When Paul conveniently runs out of gas and they get caught in the rain, they break into a conveniently empty house and crawl inside two bearskin rugs for a bit of whimsical playacting that defines a screwball romp. When they are arrested for breaking and entering, Mortimer comes in handy to secure their release—they even rate a police escort back to New York.
In both films, the romantic pairs’ yearning for love and happiness drive the action. Peggy decides that love is more important than money after seeing someone die for love of her. When she leaves her marriage, which even Mortimer acknowledges is not based on love, the audience gets an emotionally satisfying ending, with the attractive couple laughing gaily in a Parisian sidewalk café—not the Ritz, but certainly comfortable enough. Giuseppe knows the hard facts about his marriage of convenience, too, but he reckons that Giovanna will be rewarded soon enough—he is an old man and not likely to live much longer. Again, when Giovanna and Gino are eaten with guilt and eventually punished for their crime just when they seem to be headed for true happiness, audiences receive the emotional payoff righteousness demands. Both films are cruel to their aging patriarchs who, despite their cluelessness about how to treat a wife, had their redeeming qualities.
Film critic and educator Jonathan Rosenbaum chose Laughter as part of a film course he is teaching at the School of the Art Institute, “The Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S.,” and it’s easy to see how a film that treats love largely as an optional confection is a transgressive reflection of the social upheaval that occurred before and after 1930. Carroll and March are an extremely likeable and appealing couple whose antics would have been a balm to audiences while offering mild titillation that asks them to consider which is the greater sin—love without marriage or marriage without love. Carroll and March must have provided considerable inspiration to Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable in It Happened One Night (1934), which offers perhaps a naughtier view of an unmarried couple on the road despite its appearance during early enforcement of the Production Code.
Obsessione, an international example of film noir shown at Noir City Chicago this year, is less ambiguous about what love makes permissible, signaling the fate that awaits the adulterous murderers when an account of a man shot dead by a cuckolded husband reaches the patrons of the trattoria near the beginning of the film. Even Visconti’s camera blocking when the couple first meets, Gino’s body obscuring all but Giovanna’s legs, lets us know who will be erased by the end of the film. Visconti also inserts the suggestion of a gay subtext with The Spaniard, who behaves like Gino does toward Giovanna, following him back to the trattoria and getting into a fistfight with him in a subtly played jealous rage. Love is not a confection in this film, but a trap, particularly for its noir antihero, who chucked a happy life when he caught the disease; Calamai, a late replacement for a pregnant Anna Magnani, turns full femme fatale in Ancona to get what she wants. Transgressive in its own time, the film was banned after Mussolini’s son rejected it as not reflecting the reality of the Italian people, and Visconti was forced to turn over all prints and negatives for destruction. We only have this valuable document of wartime Italian filmmaking, as well as Visconti’s pungent directorial debut, because Visconti held back one negative; the film stands as a candidate ripe for restoration.
Two forms largely seen as products of 20th century American life—screwball comedy and noir—reflect the more Janus-faced aspects of common human experiences. Laughter and Obsessione offer the commonality of human emotion particularized by their respective places and moments in time.
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Director/Screenwriter: John Michael McDonagh
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers.
John Michael McDonagh debuted as a feature film director with 2011’s wry comedy-thriller The Guard, which became the most successful independent film ever made in Ireland and clearly established McDonagh as a major new talent in the national cinema. Like many of the new wave of Irish filmmakers, including his brother Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson, both of whom came from playwriting, and their forebear, novelist and poet Neil Jordan, John Michael’s talent has a highly literate, theatrical inflection that stands at odds with the mantras fed to modern film students. Calvary, his follow-up to The Guard, plainly declares itself to be no run-of-the-mill social-issues movie, even as it tackles some of the most pervasive and passion-stirring issues relevant to modern societies. Whilst the conventionally pretty cinematography drinks in the grandeur of Ireland’s rugged west coast, the drama is compact, even claustrophobic, befitting the film’s revision of an old and hoary theatrical event, one that used to tie together and define communities in festivals of religious fervour: the passion play. Brendan Gleeson, Irish film’s stocky Atlas since John Boorman made him a movie star in The General (1997), counters his lead role as the Falstaffian antihero of The Guard with a role here as Father James Lavelle, the priest of a small Catholic church in a coastal town. A cold opening sees Lavelle enter the confession box on Sunday as per his roster of duties. The man on the other side of the screen is silent for a moment, to the point where Lavelle is confused, but then the man says, “I first tasted semen when I was seven years old.”
Lavelle, startled, nonetheless utters the first in the film’s manifold self-referential quips: “Certainly a startling opening line.” The man querulously asks Lavelle what he means, and then informs him of his design. In revenge for the abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of priests, he intends to gain attention and make a statement by killing a cleric. Not a bad priest, mind, but a good one—Lavelle himself, whom he predicts will die by his hand on the beach in precisely one week’s time. Lavelle emerges from the confessional quietly shaken, but continues his holy duties without demur, alongside Father Leary (David Wilmot), a dim, rubbery poltroon of the faith. Lavelle reports the incident in abstract to his bishop, Garett Montgomery (David McSavage), and confirms he knows who the man is. The bishop tells Lavelle he’s free to go to the police because the man showed no sign of penitence and received no absolution, but Lavelle makes no move to do so. Instead, he picks up his daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly) from the train station. Sporting a bandaged cut on her wrist from a recent suicide attempt, Fiona has retreated from her London life to recover from the bleak depression that followed a break-up. Fiona has been in pain, however, since the death of her mother, the event that drove Lavelle into the priesthood, a move which Fiona felt was akin to being abandoned by him.
The week before the next, fateful Sunday thus sees Lavelle engaging not only with his wounded daughter, but also the denizens of the town, still hewing to an old-fashioned sense of the job as one demanding an active interest in their lives. Lavelle is not an old-fashioned priest, however. Thoroughly worldly and experienced in personal folly (he’s a recovering alcoholic), he’s up-to-date on all the modern perversities he and Leary hear about in the confessional (“Do you know what felching is?” “I do know what felching is, yeah.” “I had to look it up.”). This fillip of modern lifestyle was mentioned by one of their female congregants, Veronica Brennan (Orla O’Rourke), who’s recently left her husband, the town butcher Jack (Chris O’Dowd), in favour of pursuing erotic dalliances around town, particularly with Senegalese immigrant Simon (Isaach De Bankolé), a car mechanic. Because Veronica sported a black eye in church on Sunday, Lavelle sets out to find out who gave it to her. Jack blames it on Simon, and Simon takes umbrage to the point of flicking a cigar against Lavelle’s chest and threatening to beat him up for his unwelcome prying. Veronica herself tells him more politely to mind his own business.
Other people around town whom Lavelle ministers to, interacts with, or merely swaps jests and insults with, include Frank Harte (Aidan Gillen), a black-humoured, professionally cynical doctor who works in the local hospital emergency room, Mícheál (Mícheál Óg Lane), an altar boy who swipes communion wine and paints the coastline, and retired stock trader Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran), who’s bought a nearby mansion with an ill-gotten fortune and now is stewing in a solitary, alcoholic haze of bile and self-regard. Lavelle also ferries supplies to an elderly American writer (M. Emmett Walsh) who lives alone on a small island off the coast. The writer is aging and asks for Lavelle to find him a gun so he can end his days when the time comes. Lavelle does obtain a gun, from Police Inspector Stanton (Gary Lydon), who entertains a wise-cracking rent boy, Leo (Owen Sharpe). Does Lavelle intend the gun for the writer’s peace or for self-defence?
Ireland is a country wrapped up in a specific mythology that long since went international in fame and allure, one that’s both a blessing and burden for contemporary artists to work with. The last 20 years has seen both the boom of the “Celtic Tiger” and then the bust, and the ongoing exposure of the septic underbelly of the Catholic Church’s dominance of a society that might well be said to have swapped imperialism for theocracy in the 1920s, shaking up some of the most fetishized aspects of the Irish myth: poverty, religion, and detachment from modernity. Calvary’s essential conceit, mapped out by McDonagh in interviews, is the potent irony provided by setting up a good priest as the martyr for the bad ones in the context of an age when cumulative disgust can cause divorcement of the public at large from a once omnipresent institution. Calvary starts as a kind of deadpan situation comedy where the oddball assortment of characters and their helpful priest interact with barbed geniality. But as the film continues and deepens, jokey conversations quickly show real teeth, and Lavelle is quickly exposed to the level of real anger, contempt, and fear in the community, as cheeky humour gives way to purposeful mockeries and acts of licenced cruelty. Calvary’s title gives an immediate hint as to the oncoming stations-of-the-cross epic Lavelle is facing, his faith not so much tested as his commitment to his role in an age that doesn’t seem to care much for what he offers, even when he sees many proofs that his function is still needed, and especially when confronted by a seemingly imminent date with fate that demands affirmation of just how dedicated he is.
McDonagh bites off as much as any artist, literary or cinematic, could chew here. Indeed, the scope of his ambition almost feels anachronistic in an age of oblique independent films and buffed-down mainstream pseudo-dramas. McDonagh’s writing pitches itself on the outer verges of archness, as his carefully studied characters exchange knowing witticisms whilst not budging from their sharply drawn, almost caricatured postures—indeed, a couple of them, like Sharpe’s Leo and Milo (Killian Scott) never quite escape the realm of improv-theatre exercise. Milo is a young, bespectacled, bow-tie-sporting gent who’s considering joining the army to release sadistic fantasies provoked by his inability to get laid in his small and claustrophobic town. Lavelle derides his plan and suggests moving to a bigger city where “young women with loose morals” are in greater supply. The village is a stage that only offers a small roster of major players, each one charged with a certain relevance to Lavelle’s predicament. Those characters seem to be aware of the roles they are playing, inhabiting types they know are types. Harte, tiring of baiting Lavelle for a moment, mutters that “the atheistic doctor, it’s a clichéd part to play – there aren’t that many good lines.” “You really should talk you know,” Lavelle tells Fiona, “Let it all out.” To which she replies, “Like one of those shit plays at the Abbey?” McDonagh’s highlights his work’s postmodern, smart-ass tilt with a purpose that finally reveals itself by the climax, as the film reproduces with slippery awareness that way the characters hold life at arm’s length with humour and wryly stoic pith that the unknown nihilist seeks to violate with intimate anger.
Lavelle’s controlling viewpoint is a vital, subtle aspect of the film, as the increasing tension and darkness of his situation begins to colour every exchange, and every piss-take joke at his expense and provocation becomes more loaded. Historical abuses of the church, including Simon’s cool statement that “we’re not in the missions now,” are fired at him by several characters. Harte approaches him at the wrong moment with a bleak and horrifying anecdote about his early days doctoring in Dublin when he saw a kid left completely paralysed, blind, deaf, and dumb by an anaesthetist’s failure. The doctor suddenly plays the part of serpent in the garden, a satanic taunter armed with life’s dumb cruelty to goad Lavelle. The priest’s nerves have already been rubbed raw by a series of events, from finding his beloved pet dog with its throat cut to his and Leary’s church burning down. Whether these crimes were committed by his would-be murderer or others remains unclear, but it certainly seems that Lavelle recognises a common disdain for him. That disdain finds apogee when he encounters a small girl walking a laneway and chats amiably with her, only to have her father roar up in a car and furiously threaten him after bundling her away. Lavelle is confronted by the severed cords of trust and amity to which he’s supposed to be tied to his community, the assumption that he’s the force for good suddenly stricken and actively derided by Simon and publican Brendan Lynch (Pat Shortt). Lavelle responds by breaking his drinking ban, whereupon he gets pie-eyed and unleashes his own wrath on the publican by firing his gun off, shattering bottles. When he’s out of bullets, however, Lynch pulls out his own weapon, a baseball bat, and when next we see Lavelle, he’s washing a broken nose.
Calvary’s seriousness of intent reveals itself steadily, a palpable anger and mournfulness about the State of Things, but this is also a vitally funny film, with verbal comedy lethally sharp throughout. Lavelle’s conversations with his melancholic daughter are laced with a spiky, rhythmic style of humour that suggests their deep accord whilst also defining the toey, touchy space each maintains in their mutually therapeutic exchanges. The film’s comic highpoint comes when Lavelle goes to visit Fitzgerald at his house to discuss Fitzgerald’s proposed, large cash donation to the church for the hell of it: “That interests you doesn’t it? he asks, “It’s goin’ to be a black day altogether when the Catholic Church is no longer interested in money, huh?” Lavelle finds Fitzgerald, completely tanked, seemingly determined to make some sort of point to the priest as he waves airily at artworks that have cost him fortunes whilst decrying his wife, children, and servants, all of whom have quit him, and mentions his quasi-illegal financial dealings, which might be investigated but certainly won’t ever see him imprisoned. Finally, for a last piece of anarchic one-upmanship, Fitzgerald shows off his copy of Hans Holbein’s “The Ambassadors.” “I don’t know what it means, but I own it,” he notes, not recognising the weird smudge in the foreground of the frame is actually a carefully distorted skull that can only be seen through a special lens, a memento mori inserted into the original painting’s apparent celebration of lucid, scientific achievement. Lavelle finally loses patience with Fitzgerald and turns to go after berating him for inviting him over merely to tease him. Fitzgerald stalls his departure by saying he can piss on the masterwork he owns, and takes down the painting for that purpose. Lavelle retorts, “Why not? People like you have already pissed on everything else,” and departs as a stream of yellow fluid begins raining upon the masterpiece.
Whilst it could be said McDonagh’s epochal anger (albeit of a type many feel) is a bit obvious here, he’s made it, firstly, very funny and caustic, but also has contoured it into a drama that takes on a legitimate, even fundamental question facing most modern societies: as old faiths wane, what takes their place? In effect, who cares? What constructs tether a society together, beyond a mutually negative reaction? At its best, as McDonagh intends Lavelle to exemplify, the priest fulfils a holistic role that conjoins therapist, carer, interlocutor, concerned friend, public philosopher, and social worker, a contradiction to the modern world’s presumptions of specialisation that result in compartmentalisation. Harte can repair bodies, but has no feel for humanity; Fitzgerald is a member of a ruling class that no longer rules, but simply hoards and decays. Lavelle’s own outlook holds that his job is to provide “solace,” and later, at a crucial juncture, tells Fiona he thinks there’s far too much obsession with sin these days, and that forgiveness is underrated. This line isn’t given much weight but is very much the key to the film, and particularly the very final scene which portrays a stirring act of forgiveness and outreach that represents the triumph of Lavelle’s spirit. Lavelle reaches out to the cocky, provocative Leo, who cracks wise about his own sexual abuse by priests, having dealt with it in the utter reverse manner to the secret would-be murderer, by turning himself into an extroverted male prostitute.
Calvary has spiritual similarities with many studies of faith and commitment, particularly Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951), an evident influence on this film in the segmented vignettes of the torments and quandaries besetting both priest and flock. The film’s kin are also found in other studies in the martyr complex where the heroes find themselves faced with a choice between physical survival and moral success, from A Man for All Seasons (1966) to The Crucible (1996) and Hunger (2009). The latter film’s epic ethical argument between prisoner and priest in brusque, tart, Irish accents feels like close kin to McDonagh’s work, and though he lacks Steve McQueen’s gifts for alchemising his concerns into the raw expression of cinema yet, McDonagh remains clearer-headed about his hero’s confrontation with mortality. A sneaky piece of prefiguring sees Lavelle note two sketchy figures in Mícheál’s beach painting: Mícheál is bemused as to where they came from, suggesting they’re some kind of echo, but actually, of course, it’s presentiment. Otherwise, however, McDonagh steers far away from wrestling with the specifics of the material’s possible transcendental side. His concerns are worldly.
Calvary also resembles a thematic follow-up to Antonia Bird’s once-controversial Priest (1994), with its script by Liverpool Catholic writer Jimmy McGovern, which similarly set up a pair of committed, faithful, but unusual priests, one gay, the other a pulpit radical, to face the modern Pharisees. Calvary’s new prognostication of the ills the older films identified looks squarely at a time when doubt is a way of life, and presents the unusual notion of its protagonist as scapegoat and outcast in a society where he would once have been automatically venerated, or at least tolerated. McDonagh’s smart enough to understand why, too, whilst empathising squarely with his hero’s battered sense of commitment and humane interest.
McDonagh provides two deeply serious sequences that serve as pivotal moments, as Lavelle goes about the most important tasks before him as a priest and anchor the film and catalyse the darkening tone. The first comes with a very Dostoyevskian scene in which Lavelle goes to a prison to visit a former student of his, Freddie Joyce (Gleeson’s son Domhnall), who’s been imprisoned for life as a serial sex murderer. Joyce pathetically reports his desire to be hung in spite of the absence of a death penalty in Ireland, and speaks of fantasies about the afterlife when he’ll be reunited with his victims, purged of all his malicious urges, and begs of Lavelle an answer to the question of why, if God made him the way he is, he would not understand him. Lavelle answers with utmost consideration, “If God can’t understand you, no one can.” Later, he’s called to the hospital where Harte has lost his fight to save the life of a French tourist who was in a car crash. Lavelle sits with the tourist’s wife Teresa (Marie-Josée Croze) in a chapel, coaxing her through grief and doing his job’s ultimate function, acting as the midwife between states of existence, with unerring sensitivity. Lavelle encounters Teresa again at the point where his wavering resolve threatens to drive him from his town, and her deep gratitude and admiration arms him with new strength to return and face whatever fate has been allotted to him—to save a soul or give his life.
The way McDonagh’s distancing ironies and those of the characters’ are entangled might, with a less talented filmmaker, have caused too much friction against the material’s deadly earnest elements and considerations, but for the most part they work well in tandem, and with gathering power. McDonagh sharpens this to a beautifully nasty point when a man is shot after preaching detachment from the film’s vital central problem, followed by the shooter’s angry declaration, “Detach yourself from that!” The finale of Calvary is enormously powerful for precisely its invocation of this shedding of posture and confrontation with immediate reality, in terms of cause and consequence. More than that, it’s an unsparing climax that surprisingly validates not just the potential martyr’s feelings, but also those of the wrathful agent, who screams with a fury as natural and potent as the rolling storm swell crashing on the coast, “I was one of the lucky ones! There’s bodies buried back there!” McDonagh manages to complicate rather than polarise the morality inherent in the final confrontation, as the fury and pain of the would-be killer is depicted with such stirring force that it presents to the audience the possibility that not only Lavelle, but the audience itself is not so innocent, complicit if only by detachment from the evils that beset the world and dog others like demons. By meeting the challenges he sets himself with unremitting focus at last, McDonagh redeems his flaws and arrives at a genuinely compelling and relevant piece of cinema.
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Director: John Frankenheimer
By Roderick Heath
James Garner’s recent death came to a man of ripe, old age (86) with a rich, full life behind him. But it was still a stinging loss to movie and TV fans of multiple generations. Garner’s specific charm, masculine but tongue-in-cheek, breezy but subtly soulful, had invigorated pop culture for more than 50 years, from his quick breakthrough as a young actor in Sayonara (1957) through to his still-magnetic turn as the elderly version of Ryan Gosling in The Notebook (2004). In between came a lot of work which still defines an ideal of entertainment.
During the 1960s, Garner busted out of his status as a TV star after talking a walk from “Maverick” to become a movie star, and indeed, he probably did more than any other actor of the time to attack the strict status barrier between the two mediums. His work of the period included the clever, kinetic war films The Great Escape (1963) and 36 Hours (1964), the cynical satire The Americanisation of Emily (1964), before he returned to TV for his other great shows, “Nichols” (1971-72) and “The Rockford Files” (1974-1980). In the 1990s, he was still giving poised, flagrantly charismatic turns in the likes of the prototypical HBO telemovie Barbarians at the Gate (1993) and Twilight (1998), Robert Benton’s moody tribute to aging stars like Garner, Paul Newman, and Gene Hackman. Grand Prix, one of MGM’s super-sized productions designed to take advantage of the Cinerama format for narrative film, was one of the few blockbuster-grade productions Garner was called upon to anchor, though as in The Great Escape, he had to share the limelight with big-name international actors—Yves Montand and Toshiro Mifune, as well as would-be new stars Brian Bedford and Antonio Sabato.
Grand Prix was helmed by John Frankenheimer, who had debuted as a feature director nine years earlier after making a name for himself as a TV director. Frankenheimer’s early work was done mostly under the aegis of Burt Lancaster’s production company Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, formed to make substantive dramas that often touched upon social issues. Frankenheimer’s first four films, The Young Stranger (1957), The Young Savages (1961), All Fall Down (1962) and Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), certainly fit that bill as lightly poetic studies in alienated youth, misfits, and criminals, with only The Young Savages quite suggesting the oncoming potency of Frankenheimer’s vivid, Wellesian visual technique, which would flourish in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), his chief claim to cinematic immortality. Frankenheimer’s career remained prolific until his death in 2002 as he fought to remain an industry player, defined best by his run of important, vivid films made between The Manchurian Candidate and 1975’s French Connection II. He spent most of the ’80s making ambitious, but shaky B-movies. Ironically, a late-career return to making TV films revived his reputation and helped him round off his oeuvre with some variable high-profile films, the best of which was Ronin (1998). Grand Prix is a quintessential relic of both Frankenheimer’s early career and 1960s big-budget cinema, as the tyro filmmaker took advantage of the era’s stylistic openness and willingness to let cinematic language be stretched. He worked with Saul Bass, the innovative editor and title designer, and his technical team, incorporating ideas from New Wave filmmaking and TV sports coverage, to give the audience a new kind of epic cinema.
It’s easy to imagine screenwriter Robert Alan Aurthur’s screenplay handled in a completely different fashion, as the kind of spare, intimate drama Frankenheimer had done before. The film might be more appreciated if it had been. Grand Prix’s big, flashy surface seems to demand titanic gestures and heroes, but Aurthur’s downbeat script and Frankenheimer’s cool, dramatic style emphasise instead the fallible humanity of its protagonists who try, Achilles-like, to inscribe their names on history at the possible expense of a long life. As with many of Frankenheimer’s best works, the characters are obsessives seeking expression through action and release but shot through with neuroses that border on the maniacal. Grand Prix tries to walk a line, not always successfully, but with a certain honour, between pop-existential study loaded with fatalistic gravitas, and an Arthur Hailey-esque yarn of competitive alpha people living and loving in glamorous surrounds.
The film’s biggest drag is the chief concession to the latter quality—the beautiful-people romance of Sicilian motorcyclist-turned-Formula 1 driver Nino Barlini and his girlfriend, race timer Lisa. They’re supposed to be the eye candy and comic relief counterweight to the other protagonists, but the performances of Sabato and Françoise Hardy in the roles are stiff enough to be taken for Ikea furniture. Sabato’s weak grasp on English declamation retards his good-humour as the film’s breeziest figure, the poor kid who’s found success and become the type of randy, proletariat, “I’m so fucking good” character which today would inevitably be passed off onto a black actor: his complete lack of neurosis is expressed best when Lisa asks him if he’s worried about racing, and he answers, “I am immortal.”
The other three racing drivers Grand Prix depicts, Frenchman Jean-Pierre Sarti (Montand), American Pete Aron (Garner), and Brit Scott Stoddard (Brian Bedford), are very different. Sarti, a former champion, is recovering from a string of bad luck and now seems set to sweep all before him racing with Nino for Ferrari. Aron, a former Ferrari driver and a bullish, hard-driving competitor, is teammates with Stoddard for BRM at the outset. Stoddard’s chief competitor is his dead brother Roger, who died three years earlier after a triumphant career. Scott still keeps all his brother’s trophies and memorabilia as “something to shoot for.” Scott’s wife Pat (Jessica Walter) knows the cost of his compulsion; she’s introduced sleeping off a night boozing on Ouzo with some Greek guys the night before the Monaco Grand Prix, the kind of escapade she gets up to as she tries to avoid the spectacle of her husband lying in a cold sweat before a race.
The Monaco race, a set-piece that opens the film, sees Aron well outpaced by Sarti and Stoddard, with his car’s gearbox giving him trouble: the BRM manager Jeff Jordan (Jack Watson) doesn’t believe Aron when he reports the trouble, and Aron continues racing, though at the point of being lapped by Stoddard. Aron insists on racing Scott, to Jordan’s irritation, but when Aron finally gives up and waves Stoddard past, his brakes seize up, causing their vehicles to collide. Stoddard’s car careens into an embankment, badly injuring him, whilst Aron’s car flies into the harbour, from which he emerges uninjured. Aron is sacked by an irate Jordan and blamed by Stoddard, but Sarti, who wins the race, takes it all as part of their rough business and asks Aron if he ever gets tired of racing. Sarti’s tone that makes it clear Sarti himself is rapidly losing interest in the sport, but he’s still driven to push himself to the limit to retain his belief that he is the best.
During the race season, Sarti gravitates towards Louise Frederickson (Eva Marie Saint), a high-profile American magazine journalist who’s been assigned to cover the racing season but, in a manner that resembles Howard Hawks’ communal studies, remains puzzled by its subculture, one that parties after men have been seriously injured or even killed. Sarti himself, who confesses that when there’s a serious accident on the track, he speeds up because everybody else is slowing down, and that “there is no terrible way to win.” Although he sounds like a douchebag, Sarti is actually a calm, collected, serious man who’s separated from his wife Monique Delvaux-Sarti (Geneviève Page), the boss’s daughter he married before starting to race. Sarti and Louise’s gently mature romance is countered by the tormented relations Stoddard and Aron share with Pat, who leaves her husband when he’s lying a mangled wreck in his hospital because she’s knows full well that Scott will keep racing. Going to work for Louise as a model, Pat remains close to the race scene and drifts into an affair with momentarily exiled Aron. Such a rebound romance seems unlikely after Aron sourly blasts her for bullshitting about her marriage for a TV interview, but that proves instead overture to a coupling that has more than a hint of mutual masochism and self-castigation. Aron, forced to sit out the next race, the French Grand Prix, briefly takes a job as an interviewer for American sports TV. He leaps at an offer to race again from Japanese tycoon Izo Yamura (Mifune), whose racing team lacks a potential champion.
Grand Prix is rife with the kind of tarnished angel beloved of ’60s pop culture: none of the protagonists are angels, their veneers of professional commitment hiding turmoil and dilemma. The film sports many similarities to the same year’s fighter-pilot epic The Blue Max, which likewise focuses on an antihero laden with powerful class envy in control of fantastically liberating technology through which he tries to outgun competitors. But there are also strong reasons to empathise with Sarti, Aron, and Stoddard. Sarti is feeling his age but still driving with fixated determination because the speed and stature of driving allows him to forget the unpleasant facts of his failed marriage to Monique, which still persists because she won’t divorce him and his business interests demand its continuation. Sarti’s focus is shaken, perhaps irreparably, during the Belgian Grand Prix, at a rural race course where driving in rain is a constant hazard: during a shower that drenches the field, one of Sarti’s wheels comes lose and he crashes, killing two children. The kids’ father (Jean Michaud) assaults Sarti as he babbles technical details and plans for future races, trying to remain detached, whilst Eve hugs him in desperate anguish. A sense of entrapment begins to form around Sarti, whose subsequent weak racing performances result in the Ferrari boss, Agostini Manetta (Adolfo Celi), a smooth creep who dismissed Aron’s attempts to rejoin the team, now pressuring him for better results with tactics like withholding his replacement car until the last minute. Aron declares himself an “old-fashioned boy at heart,” so Pat takes care to assure him she’s getting a divorce before seducing him. Aron finds himself constantly demonised thanks to a series of events beyond his control, though he also repeatedly miscalculates, like still trying to race Stoddard when his car’s playing up.
Aron wins the Belgian race after Sarti’s crash, providing an immediate payoff for his pact with Yamura. But the real curveball in the championship is Stoddard’s determined leap back into racing: still bleeding from some of his wounds and keeping pain under control with strong drugs, Scott, running cold and fuelled by losses old and new, competes in the Dutch Grand Prix. He breaks records and quickly becomes a force to reckon with as he captures the New York Grand Prix. The moment he turns back up at the race scene, still on crutches, to confront his wife, leads to a marvellously uncomfortable scene where Aron politely excuses himself whilst Scott states his determination to win Pat back whilst maintaining his cool, self-deprecating sense of humour, and delivering the perhaps inevitable lament that humans can’t be stripped down and easily repaired like a race car can. Aurthur’s script often feels like reportage from the frontlines of mid-’60s gender relations, the uneasy ménage of Pat, Pete, and Scott testing new definitions and zones of tolerance in relationships, whilst Sarti is ironically trapped in an unhappy marriage whilst trying to romance feminist Louise. When Louise finally tells him, “I love you, Jean-Pierre,” he replies, “As I you—we have to discuss the consequences of those terrible words.”
Such touches indicate the surprisingly adult tenor of much of Grand Prix that is strengthened by the cast, including Montand, who blends of wry, yet sad-sack grace and terse, Gallic focus. The grown-up attitude of the film does, however, curiously work against the project’s nominal appeal, as Sarti’s toey romance with Louise never quite combusts and is certainly never as interesting as the weird triangle of Pete, Scott, and Pat, which is in turn too angst-ridden to be sexy, whilst Nino and Lisa might as well be Ken and Barbie dolls. Bedford is good as Scott, tossing off his barbed, blackly humorous self-deprecation and sarcasm and putting across the character’s odd mixture of dry cool and morbid obsession, but he also lacks charisma and warmth, one reason perhaps his film career didn’t amount to much after this. Walter’s role as Pat, superficially shallow and certainly life-hungry, but actually rather tormented, plays as both antithesis and anticipation of her famous part as the psycho stalker in Play Misty for Me (1970), a psychic grease trap for flawed macho men. She is, in many ways, the heart of the film. Garner is cast against type, playing the kind of cool, seemingly detached, but actually deeply fixated customer patented by Steve McQueen, who indeed had been the first choice for the role; McQueen signed up for a rival production instead.
Garner’s best scenes come opposite Mifune, who isn’t given that much to do really and whose impact is doubly hampered by a clumsy and wooden dub job by Paul Frees. But Mifune’s poise and thoughtfulness still come across, as the American hotshot and Japanese magnate find accord, even friendship, even as Yamura admits that he shot down 17 American planes during his stint as a WWII fighter pilot. Aron tells Yamura he likes him because he comes to the point, and Yamura confirms that’s why he chose Aron as his champion, because he races in the same fashion. Their accord is strained momentarily as Aron admits he makes more mistakes than the triumphant Scott, as Yamura subjects him to hours studying footage of his various stuff-ups. But the theme is ultimately a positive portrait of postwar reconciliation that fits in not just the film’s internationalist viewpoint, but also the romantic pairings, for everything in the film is viewed at some point in a cycle of integration and disintegration, fitting for a tale which revolves around systemic variations and the quest for infallible interactions of fickle parts. Frankenheimer constantly binds his four protagonists together in the filmmaking, visually and aurally counterpointing their actions and their perspectives before and during races, and more ominously, noting each man’s blood group medallion before the last race. Such motifs suggest Frankenheimer playing games with autonomy and identity in a much less direct manner than he did in The Manchurian Candidate and Seconds (1966), but still finding ways to express it as the racers adventure in extreme zones where they are only as good as their machines: they become something other than human in such zones.
Grand Prix is most famous for its technical achievements over and above its human side, and whilst as I’ve noted that’s not entirely justified, what is certain is that Frankenheimer’s work with Bass, supervising editor Frederic Steinkamp, and DP Lionel Lindon succeeded in creating a new kind of sports film. Whilst the film’s portrait of the sportsman as existential adventurer in search of perfection in the game but suffering in human interactions surely stands in the shadow of The Hustler (1961), its own immediate influence both stylistically and thematically is intrinsic in films like Downhill Racer (1969), Winning (1969), and Le Mans (1971), and stretching through to Chariots of Fire (1981) and Any Given Sunday (1999), before the more familiar style initiated by Rocky (1976) made the recent sports film a dance towards inevitable triumph.
Right from the opening frames, the stylistic boldness of Grand Prix is writ large and in many ways still unsurpassed, as the filmmakers assault the familiar limitations of the frame and big-cinema technique by strip-mining various mediums and approaches. The use of split-screen, an idea in mainstream filmmaking that perhaps hadn’t been seen since Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927), presents subdivisions that rapidly multiply and turn alternatively kaleidoscopic or analytical. Some shots invoke photo-essayistic technique, capturing detail and momentarily frozen or stuttering vignettes where physical time loses meaning and internal time screws in toward moments of decision and anticipation. One clever motif combines TV, documentary, and New Wave film style in journalistic interviews with the four drivers—their reporting on their personal motives, perspectives, and technical challenges in races are heard in the midst of already unfolding races, providing swift, intelligible exposition and characterisation amidst action.
Frankenheimer and Bass also took care to film none of the races in quite the same manner, varying rhythmically and visually. For example, the French Grand Prix sequence is rendered as a dreamy discursion, the cars dancing in blurs of motion, viewed obliquely through spring flowers, mimicking both Louise’s viewpoint, as she falls under the spell of both Sarti and his sport, and that of the crowd of Sunday folk out to watch the glamorous event. The Belgian race depicts the difficulty of powering along in clouds of flying water, made alarmingly clear by alternations of point-of-view shots from the cars shooting along the narrow roads (with real spectators captured sometimes in the act of dashing across in front of the cars) and high helicopter shots. The vertiginous car-mounted shots, some of which were captured by cameras fixed to Phil Hill’s car in real races, must have been dizzying on the Cinerama screen, and certainly communicate great velocity even on TV. Frankenheimer nixed any under-cranking to give the impression of speed, knowing full well audiences could spot that, and so everything was staged at high speed, though most of the cars in the film were actually Formula 3 racers made to look like Formula 1 cars.
In spite of the fancy visual language on display throughout, Grand Prix belongs to an age of cinema where the immediacy of spectacle entailed dazzling the audience with an overwhelming impression of real thrills with attendant risks. Whereas recent works in a similar vein like the Fast and Furious films or Rush (2013) drench the eye in furious cuts and wobbling camerawork to give the impression of speed and danger, Frankenheimer takes care to show his actors’s faces in cars moving at high speeds in elegant panning shots. This is more startling when you learn that among the actors, only Garner was actually an accomplished driver—in fact, he gained high praise from the Formula 1 aces who helped make the film. Amongst that roster of racers who helped make the film are names that still have the ring of legend for aficionados of the sport, including the aforementioned Phil Hill, Graham Hill, Jack Brabham, and Juan Manuel Fangio. The dramatic shape of Grand Prix emphasises that the drivers are, to a certain extent, interchangeable, and each man succeeds, fails, lives, or dies through complex collaborations. Each driver is victimised by bad luck and the tiny faults in their machines: Nino is the only one not to have mechanical trouble, which is why he’s in front in the overall championship by the last race.
The film contends with the notion that morbid delight in the spectacle of death is the great attraction of the sport, a notion Pat voices outright. The film’s bitter cynicism about the voyeuristic urge, especially those professional voyeurs, the press, is old hat these days, but was much less so at the time. Grand Prix interestingly suggests this is merely the dark side to the need of both audience and drivers to explore the grey zone between life and death and thus “know living more intensely,” as Aron describes it to Yamura. Louise herself tries to cheer up Sarti with this very idea, that he puts something in people’s lives they can’t find elsewhere, a truly invigorating spectacle of challenge where the result can never be entirely known. But Louise is forced to confront the dark side of this dialogue in the raw, hyperbolic instant when she holds up hands smeared in her lover’s blood to a gaggle of photographers, screaming “Is this what you want?”
The finale, the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, sees the drivers taking on a challenge long since banished from Formula 1 racing, as they venture onto dangerous banking that sends them careening at terrific speeds, constantly buffeted by slipstreams and the very road surface. Sarti’s number comes up, as seems curiously inevitable after his chilly encounters with both his wife and Manetta and his admission of love with Louise: a piece of tailpipe falling off Scott’s car causes Sarti’s vehicle to lose control and fly off the banking like a rocket, leaving him dangling bloody in a tree like some pagan animal sacrifice whilst his car explodes in a ball of fire. Manetta displays surprising decency by calling in Nino and surrendering the race to Pete and Scott, who then duke it out unaware of their friend’s death. Pete takes the race and the championship, and invites Scott to share the winner’s podium with him, but any sense of triumph is stymied by the realisation of Sarti’s death. The film leaves off with a poetic vignette of Aron long after the carnival has moved on walking alone around the starting grid at the Monza track, imagining the engine roar of the cars and the announcer naming his comrades, some now gone. It’s hard to imagine a film would be made today leaving off on such a wistful bummer of an ending. The reality around the film’s making bears out the truth of it, too: of the 32 drivers who helped to make the film, 10 would die in races within the next 12 years.
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Director: Anton Corbijn
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The entertainment world and fans of thoughtful, fine acting mourned mightily this past February when actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died of a heroin overdose at the age of 46. During a prolific career that encompassed small roles and large in crowd pleasers like Twister (1996) and Mission: Impossible III (2006), as well as serious-minded films like Capote (2005) and The Master (2012), Hoffman brought a complexity and intelligence to his creations that always made them memorable. A Most Wanted Man, his final film, was an apt one with which to end a career of great accomplishment thwarted by the weaknesses that flesh is heir to.
A Most Wanted Man promises an exciting story of international espionage from its opening sequence—a young, haggard-looking man dragging himself from the water at Hamburg, Germany and threading his way furtively through a lot of cars waiting overnight for the morning a ferry and finding one to sleep in. His entry into Germany has been observed by German intelligence and his identity confirmed as a Muslim rebel of Russian-Chechen background, Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin). What he is doing in Hamburg and how he will be dealt with becomes the concern of Günther Bachmann (Hoffman), the head of a small cell of intelligence operatives, whose low-key, painstaking tactics are at loggerheads with the punitive, action-oriented methods of Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bock), a heavy-handed colleague Günther openly ridicules. Günther’s approach wins out.
This development will be an enormous disappointment to the adrenalin junkies whose ideas about spy work have been shaped by the M:I, Bourne, and even James Bond franchises. However, fans of John le Carré, the author whose book formed the basis of this movie, will be right at home. Le Carré, the creator of George Smiley, a gray, anonymous member of Britain’s MI6, knows that spy work is more a drab waiting game than a thrill ride, a psychological gambit that preys insidiously on vulnerable informants and nervous targets. Although the powers that be—in this case, the Americans and Russians—have not abandoned brutal interrogation and imprisonment, Günther bucks the establishment to follow his leads upstream to what he hopes will be the heads of Islamist terrorist operations in the Middle East.
Günther and his team have gathered intelligence on a Muslim humanitarian named Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi) who appears to be using a shipping company to divert a portion of relief supplies to Islamist groups to sell to fund arms purchases. Günther learns that Karpov is the son of a Russian official notorious for his brutality and criminal activities, and that he has come to Hamburg to seek help from a banker named Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), whose father laundered money for the elder Karpov. Issa has a sizeable “inheritance” in Brue’s bank, but wants nothing to do with it—he only wants to be able to stay in the West and out of the reach of the Russians who tortured him. Günther uses his “friendly persuasion” to ensure Brue releases the money to Issa, who will then be persuaded by his attorney, Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), to transfer the money to Abdullah. Günther plans to seize Abdullah after the transaction and persuade him to reveal the Islamists to whom he has been diverting resources, but he must persuade skeptical German and American intelligence officials, led by American agent Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), to go along with his plan.
There is abundant, real-world evidence that “extraordinary rendition,” an extraordinarily obtuse term for government-sponsored kidnapping and torture, is highly ineffective in extracting useful information from suspected terrorists, and that Günther’s methodical approach—combining a mild threat with offers of help in exchange for cooperation—works. Günther knows how and how much pressure to bring to bear to get his reluctant informants to go along with his plans; he even manages to bring Abdullah’s son Jamal (Mehdi Debhi) into his network. But the violence of 9/11 and the racial and religious hatred that has only grown in the ensuing years has left the major powers with itchy trigger fingers. Sullivan has already blown Günther’s entire network in Beirut with her cowboy tactics, forcing his removal to Hamburg; Günther doesn’t want to trust her, but he really has no alternative.
A Most Wanted Man is slow and methodical, just like Günther and his team, making for a sometimes too sedate ride. Moments that could have been amped for more tension with music or quick cuts, like Annabel’s capture by Günther’s team, play out with a low unease. It’s true to life, which is its virtue, but rather undramatic. We’re not sure whether or not to root for Günther, who uses repugnant techniques like kidnapping, surveillance technology, and coercion to “make the world a safer place.” Yet, anyone who has watched “Law & Order” or any of its offshoots will recognize the same techniques and have to own up to the fact that we tend to sympathize with the cops because they are almost always on the side of the angels as those shows are written. The ambiguity of Günther’s position is that we see the seams of his good cop/bad cop routine, an act he shares with his civilian aide-de-camp Irna (the criminally underused Nina Hoss), and virtually all of the characters he is manipulating are fairly well-intentioned people who are completely out of their depth in the world of geopolitical espionage.
For example, Dobrygin plays Issa as a damaged, haunted man who took up the Chechen cause against Russia because of his father’s brutality to his Chechen mother and who, through Islam, has tried to find inner peace from his past and the horrible torture he endured. It would be tempting to think of him as another Raskolnikov, except that his crimes are those of a psychologically vulnerable freedom fighter, not a student with theories about human nature and moral relativism. Rachel McAdam is brilliant as an idealistic public-service attorney who goes above and beyond for Issa. Her attempts to assert her authority are as weak as her concern for Issa is strong and motherly, though she threatens to pull focus from the other characters simply because she’s so pretty and photogenic. Dafoe is his usual excellent self, creating a somewhat weak character who is trying to redeem his business from its nefarious past one client at a time.
Hoffman, playing an obese smoker and drinker, fits the mold of the intelligent outsider who blends into the background—the perfect guise for a spy. It is much to Hoffman’s credit that he manages to retain some of our sympathy while arousing a bit of our scorn. Hoffman keeps Günther’s motives somewhat obscure—is he just another kind of cop or is the spy game something that he does as a strange kind of sport? He takes incredible pride in his work, perhaps to the detriment of his cause when he openly insults people he believes to be his inferiors, and his belief in the rightness of his methods places a considerable blind spot in his way. When faced with Sullivan’s abrupt, cutting authority, he tries to work her the same way he does his informants by allying his interests with hers. Wright makes the most of this small, but crucial role, reviving the Ugly American in all its nasty glory. Yet it’s also easy to see that Sullivan and Günther are cut from the same cloth and know the same tricks—what separates them may be down to the very different roads Germany and the United States took with regard to the dignity of the individual over the last 30 or so years.
We see a bit of the Muslim community, and it is as work-a-day and ordinary as any other ethnic enclave. Abdullah is thought to be a good man with just a little bit of bad, enough for more radical Islamists to exploit. That, to Günther, makes him a useful side street to the center of terrorist activity. Abdullah’s sincere sympathy for Issa softens our hearts to these men who seek some kind of healing for their community, but are misguided in their methods. Dobrygin and Ershadi’s one significant scene together is perhaps the most moving of the film; only the horror of Issa’s badly scarred back—partial proof to Brue that he is who he says he is—is more moving.
The final scene of the film offers Hoffman the catharsis, the break from the even-toned professional, we knew was inevitable. He howls, hating his world. From that howl, we hear perhaps an echo of what drove him to his fatal addiction, a man too sensitive to face the world without a potent veil before his face.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Josef von Sternberg
By Roderick Heath
After the collapse of his partnership with Marlene Dietrich, Josef von Sternberg’s career, which had traced the upper limits of success as a film director, went into near-terminal arrest. The flagrantly sensual, imperious, outrageous expressionist of the silver screen was out of place in the aesthetically and morally leashed era ruled by the Production Code. Whilst Sternberg lost the big budgets and rapturous, unfettered stature he had in the early ’30s, his grip on sound cinema strengthened, and some of his final films, as patchy, brilliant, and forsaken as Orson Welles’ later work, stand amongst his best. He made a marvellous skid row version of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1935), but his involvement with Alexander Korda’s big-budget adaptation of Robert Graves’ “I, Claudius” proved a disaster when star Merle Oberon was injured in a car accident and Korda pulled financing. Sternberg kept making whatever films he could in the next 20 years, even travelling to Japan to make Anatahan (1953). The Shanghai Gesture, destined to be the last complete work he was able to make in Hollywood, remains one of his most obscure, but is also a prized cult object. The Shanghai Gesture was based on a play by John Colton, a property that several Hollywood big shots, including Cecil B. DeMille, had tried to film. But the potato was just too hot: a lurid, fetid moral melodrama about revenge and degradation set in a high-class brothel. The Hays Office ordered more than 30 revisions to the script before it was finally deemed acceptable, including a shift of setting from bawdyhouse to casino—even then, the potency of the piece was inescapable.
Sternberg proved the guy gutsy enough to do it, and legend has it he did it whilst lying on a couch all through the shoot. The resulting film is many things, amongst them Sternberg’s expression of enraged contempt for how clean and bogus the town had become. Even the film’s opening credits includes a jab at the hierarchism of the industry as it offers a page in praise of “Hollywood extras,” whose anonymous, massed contributions helped so many films. Another early title assures the viewer that this is a pre-War story, whilst Shanghai of the day was at the centre of an enormous tussle of civilisations, “its fate undecided.” But of course, Sternberg’s time and place is not the real Shanghai of the 1930s, but his imagination’s conjured nexus of mystique and depravity.
The linchpin of this mythic world is Mother Gin Sling’s gambling establishment in the heart of the old International Quarter. The Shanghai Gesture feels on some levels like the evil twin of Casablanca (1942), with which it shares the setting of a popular nightspot and gaming house at a world crossroads—with Marcel Dalio playing the overseer of games in both—where an old romance comes back to haunt the owner. But The Shanghai Gesture is the virtual negative image of the more famous film: the owner is a woman, and the old romance not only can’t be healed, but sparks a merciless vengeance the moment chance presents itself. For Sternberg, it was also a thematic return to the nature of rootlessness and the corrosive nature of erotic need, which tend in his films to lead directly in to one another, expressed through the exotica of unstable 1930s China in Shanghai Express (1932). But whereas that film emphasised mobility and hope, The Shanghai Gesture is again an inversion, a static, sucking whirlpool of evil.
The production design turns Mother Gin Sling’s into just such a maelstrom, the terraces of the casino interior evoking a tiered descent into Dante’s levelled hell where the roulette wheel spins on and on in the lowest circle, racking up cash and souls. “It smells so incredibly evil,” Victoria “Poppy” Charteris (Gene Tierney) murmurs in sublime delight shortly after arriving and surveying the motley denizens: “I didn’t think such a place existed except in my own imagination.” Sternberg immediately acknowledges through his as-yet innocent, yet already perverse anti-heroine that this is psychological wonderland and repainted reality, where the audience is encouraged to use their own imaginations to fill in the lurid details. Sternberg’s narrative enters Mother Gin Sling’s not with Poppy but with another young woman, an American former chorus girl and exiled chippie, Dixie Pomeroy (Phyllis Brooks), who’s introduced being shuffled down the street by an angry landlord and his comrades to a cop for failing to make the rent. Luck, or something like that, is on her side, as two of Mother Gin Sling’s cabal, “Doctor” Omar (Victor Mature) and gone-native English financier Percival Montgomery Hower (Clyde Fillmore) pass in a car and, taken by her looks, pay off her debt and take her to be assessed for a job as decorative furniture in the casino.
Mother Gin Sling’s hardly seems like a safe repose, however, as a player’s attempt to shoot himself is dismissed as “Saturday night.” This week’s would-be suicide is regular player Boris (Ivan Lebedeff). Gin Sling makes her first appearance after his failed attempt, chastising him: “I thought we were good friends. Why do you choose my place as a springboard to the upper air?” Gin Sling is the film’s fetishistic heart and villain, as archly formalised in her dragon lady affectations as Ming the Merciless, Darth Vader or any other pulp villain, whilst also recalling the icon of stylised femininity Sternberg always tried to turn Dietrich into. She treads the aisles and stairs of her palace with angular precision, a high-fashion Nosferatu in her rarefied castle. Poppy is brought to this establishment by an asinine guide to the lowlife (John Abbott) in search of cheap thrills, but it soon proves that Poppy has some yearnings to be a cheap thrill. Poppy swaps politely barbed words with Gin Sling when introduced: Poppy teases her about her unlikely name, and Gin Sling pleasantly insults her back by suggesting her name might have been something as generic as Poppy, with the suggestion that there’s scarcely a thing different about where each of them has come from and where they’re going.
Gin Sling learns from a circle of rich businessmen she counts amongst her regular customers, including Van Elst (Albert Bassermann), that her establishment is the target of strict new laws being imposed by corporate interests on Shanghai. “This is not a moral crusade, which might be easier for you to oppose than big business,” Van Elst warns Gin Sling, on giving her the news she has to clear out. “What do you call this?” ripostes Gin Sling’s bookkeeper (Eric Blore), referring to Mother Gin Sling’s. The herald of change is a newly arrived representative of the India-China Trading Company, Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston), who is also Poppy’s father. Gin Sling doesn’t recognise the name and is scarcely interested or concerned by this threat, until she finds that Dixie was a former girlfriend of the incoming plutocrat.
As Dixie describes one of his signature physical mannerisms, Gin Sling suddenly realises that she knows Charteris, and a look of lethal intent comes upon her. Her plot starts in encouraging Omar, her spruiker, pimp, and in-house gigolo, in his attentions towards Poppy, drawing the young woman, who’s fresh from a girls’ school in Switzerland, down to the roulette table, where she gambles with increasing fervor while spouting that eternal line of the neophyte, “I can stop anytime I want to.” But Gin Sling keeps her tethered to the tables by giving her a ready line of credit. Poppy’s real character begins to appear from behind the shield money and social insulation provide. She proves to be a spoilt, dictatorial brat with streaks of outsized carnal desire and contempt, and her jealousy is carefully stoked to a white heat by Omar’s simultaneous attentions to Dixie. Gin Sling barely bats an eye when Poppy is quickly reduced to a drunken harpy decorating her bar.
Whilst not as floridly stylised as Sternberg’s earlier works, like Shanghai Express, Docks of New York (1928) or The Scarlet Empress (1934), The Shanghai Gesture is just as hypnotic in its less shadowy, but equally artful images, where characters are turned into stylised types defined by physical attitudes and modes of dress. The visual style suggests a touch of Art Deco infused with Sternberg’s prior baroque sensibility, with more emphasis on flow and geometry as organising principle—planes, angular lines, elegant curves and circles explored with tracking and crane shots, particularly the grand, slow descent of the camera into Gin Sling’s casino pit. As opposed to the tangled, semi-surrealist forms of The Scarlet Empress that entangled the protagonists, here, the interiors are spare and spacious, yet just as organic and entrapping, the carefully constructed physical expression of Gin Sling’s understanding of the most putrid parts of her customers’ psyches. The wide shots offers mural-like studies in form and content, as rich and sprawling with detail as the decorative artwork that clads the walls of the casino and Gin Sling’s abode (notably, that artwork was provided by the Chinese-American actor Keye Luke). Close-ups reduce the actors, particularly Munson in Gin Sling’s finery, to kabuki masks of stylised affectation and the fanning shapes of her increasingly ornate pseudo-Mandarin hairdos. It’s easy to think of Dietrich in the part of Gin Sling (in fact, Munson, who’s probably best remembered as Belle Watling in Gone With the Wind, 1939, had, like Sternberg, been Dietrich’s lover in the ’30s), but Munson’s blend of icy malignance and an arch survivor’s cautious precision is excellent. The way Munson walks through Gin Sling’s joint, blind to the human cacophony about her as she contemplates her upcoming consummation with the gait of an empress walking a tightrope is sublime physical characterisation.
The Shanghai Gesture may represent one time when a censorious attitude from studios and the revisionist instincts of the director made for a work far superior to the source. Colston’s hysterical work was sordid and racist in the extreme, and like many such works (including another film starring Huston, 1932’s Kongo, which was a remake of Tod Browning’s silent film West of Zanzibar, 1927) offers insights into the hothouse nature of sexual fantasy in the Western mind of the era, channelling images of sexual sadomasochism and the simultaneous desire to protect and pillage virginal white femininity through racial Others. Sternberg’s reordered narrative and new characters constructed an infinitely more ironic piece of work. He added two significant characters, Dixie and Omar, to offer protagonists who are observers and alternate voices in the story. Dixie’s American garrulousness is present mostly to deflate the pretensions of the two versions of the Old World, Chinese and European. Her earthy, experienced sensibility directly contradicts the fetid sexual and racial politics at play in Gin Sling’s revenge on Charteris, and she retorts to a jealously bossy Poppy who’s accusing her of trying to steal Omar with a roaring putdown that notes that real character has nothing to do with birth or lot in life. In the finale, Dixie is the lone character who manages to detach herself from the awful spectacle of blackmail and cruelty with cheeky humour. Sternberg delights in throwaway character actions, from the Sikh policeman directing traffic with imperious elegance in the midst of urban chaos, Gin Sling’s accountant gleefully scooping out the night’s profits like a kid fondling his Halloween candy, or Dixie mucking about at a swanky dinner trying to leaven the oncoming mood of disaster.
Omar is Sternberg’s archest conceit, a character who fits neatly into the line of such Sternberg alter egos as Count Alexei in The Scarlet Empress, whilst painted interestingly as a corrupter who knows but doesn’t much care that he’s a zone of moral nullity because he’s a creation of multiple worlds, a misfit who’s found his place as an imp of Gin Sling’s Satan. A self-appointed doctor (or maybe not) and a self-described mutt of the East with part-French, part-Armenian heritage and Damascene birth, Omar is a conceited lothario who seems to think he’s Greek chorus to his own life. He’s given to perpetually reciting appropriate passages from Omar Khayyam (“If you wanna, you can listen to that Persian tripe, I’m goin’,” Dixie tells Poppy at one point.). He greets his weekly paycheck, dropped from the bookkeeper’s booth to him in the casino pit, with a sarcastic salaam and plays Gin Sling’s bait to get and keep Poppy on the hook. Mature, several years away from major stardom, is splendidly smug in his role as he wears his character’s bogus exoticism on his sleeve and slouches through the film with the lazy sensuality of an experienced libertine until the very finale reveals something more serious long dormant in him. Tierney, another soon-to-be star who would prove an uneven actor, capable of performances both refined and stiff, is equally fun here as the prim British fashion plate who steadily devolves into a neurotic addict and harridan, glimpsed in one marvellous moment seated on a bar top, whining for attention and satisfaction, delivering a backward kick of one foot like a stroppy yearling to a wine glass and sending it flying. Her behaviour wavers between poles like delirium, as she soaks Omar’s face with a G&T before pleading forgiveness in desperate erotic obeisance. Great touch here: Omar holds up his robe to hide their kiss from the room, perhaps less out of gentlemanly discretion than embarrassment to be seen kissing such a brat.
By comparison, Huston’s performance as Sir Guy, like Munson’s Gin Sling, seems to belong to another species: the world’s aristocrats, who specialise in much daintier cannibalism. Sir Guy is a suave man of the world who seems to have long burned out all his excess passions and now only has a measured solicitude to him. Gin Sling first tries to contact him when he’s in a meeting with the International Quarter’s bigwigs, and when told she plans to keep phoning until he answers, he simply unplugs the phone and gets on with his business. Gin Sling then sends a Russian coolie (Mike Mazurki) over to Charteris’ apartment block to fire a bullet through his window. A fascinated Sir Guy understands the implied message that the coolie will try to kill him if he doesn’t let the winds of arranged fate steer him towards Madame Gin Sling’s place.
Gin Sling invites Sir Guy and other doyens of Shanghai’s European community for a soiree on Chinese New Year. Gin Sling has some kind of hold on most of them, through threat of scandal or humiliation. She provides a dining table arrayed with little statuettes of each guest; the figurine of Poppy has its head strategically removed. An intervention by Omar, who sells a necklace Poppy pawned for gambling funds, alerts her father to her increasingly fraught, indebted nightlife. He calls her to his office where he announces he’s sending her out of the country. Poppy seems grateful, and Sir Guy sees her off on a plane, leaving him free to venture to Gin Sling’s lair and find out what she’s on about with maximum savoir faire.
Gin Sling’s Chinese New Year banquet proves to be rather a delirious theatre of cruelty, a banquet where revenge will be served at sub-Arctic temperature, a sequence of slow-uncoiling poison and suppressed hysteria, punctuated by nervously raucous laughs and Gin Sling’s potent, whiplash-like threats to keep her guests in their seats for the purpose of dealing up to Sir Guy a certified public scalding. The evening entertainment starts with a wild spectacle of women in cages being sold off to fishermen as sex slaves, angling just outside the window of the casino’s dining room, a show Gin Sling explains that has only been staged for her male guests’ edification.
Gin Sling assures her guests this is a show for the tourists only based on past practice, but the show looks frighteningly real, and soon Gin Sling has all but stated that once she was one of those girls, kept at bay by having the soles of her feet cut open and pebbles sewn inside to stop her running off. What exactly happened between Sir Guy and Gin Sling back when he was a young adventurer under a different name is only partly revealed in what follows, as Sir Guy certainly married her back when she was the daughter of a good family, and had a child whose apparent infant death sent Gin Sling running off in a wild grief. Now she believes Sir Guy abandoned her and stole her family’s wealth. Sir Guy is initially confounded as he realises who Gin Sling is, a possibility that seems impossible to him. Gin Sling’s neat line of recrimination is, however, disputed as he claims her family’s money is lodged in a bank even though he thought her dead.
Still, Gin Sling trots out the crown of her bitter banquet: Poppy, who returned to Shanghai on her own, now thrust into her father’s sight, poured into a glittering silver gown, bow-legged and tousled and swinish in mood and humour, clearly having been treated to every degradation under the sun by Gin Sling’s minions, and having enjoyed it. The tar-thick sense of evil eroticism lurking under the surface of the film finally oozes out here, and plays out in the exchange of close-ups of Huston and Munson, grim wounding and malicious pleasure underneath their studied surfaces. Sir Guy’s attempt to make a graceful exit is forestalled by Poppy herself. Wild-eyed in her drugged-up rage, Poppy has pretences to play the same bitch-queen as Gin Sling, only without the finesse or the smarts. She point a gun at Dixie, proposing to shoot her for presuming to attract Omar’s eye, and only Omar’s quick intervention stops her.
Meanwhile, Gin Sling unsheathes a peculiar kind of reverse-racism as she gloats in her triumph over Sir Guy and his weak genes, only for Sir Guy to reveal his own secret: Poppy is his and Gin Sling’s daughter, the child who didn’t die, and so she’s gone to great effort to reduce her own offspring to a wretch. Gin Sling’s attempt to intervene and restrain Poppy in her newfound aggression is met with utter contempt that only grows when Gin Sling tries to argue maternal right, cueing Poppy’s immortal line, “I have no more connection to you than with a toad out in the street!” Mother Gin Sling, her title all the more perverse now that it matches her status, reacts with less than restrained maternal chastisement, whilst Sir Guy, poised on the threshold between dreadful past and empty future, hears a gunshot. Omar has already delivered the epigraph earlier: “The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit, Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line.” “You likee Chinese New Year?” the Russian coolie asks, for one of the most casually, coldly sarcastic final lines in film history.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Jerzy Kawalerowicz
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Perhaps the last thing one would have expected from the director of Pharaoh (1966), a drama set among the elite of ancient Egypt in the expansive setting of the Sahara Desert, is an examination of the desperate lives of the professional and working classes of then-contemporary Poland set on the claustrophic confines of a train. Yet, despite leaps across time and space, Jerzy Kawalerowicz proved himself to be a master of the interior landscape of the human heart, a constant no matter what the setting. Night Train, an early, black-and-white effort from the director, offers Kawalerowicz’s and cinematographer Jan Laskowski’s exquisite eye for beautiful visual composition and interesting camera angles that set the physical and emotional spaces for a range of characters trapped by regret and need.
Much like the opening of Pharaoh, Night Train starts with an overhead shot of a Polish train yard bustling with people looking not unlike the dung beetles tumbling across the barren desert floor in Egypt. A middle-aged man (Leon Niemczyk) with sunglasses and a shock of gray hair at the temple hurries to board the train; he has no ticket, but buys both berths in a sleeper cabin because he wants to be alone. To his surprise, when he reaches his cabin, a beautiful blonde, who we much later learn is named Marta (Lucyna Winnicka), has moved in. She tells the overwhelmed train conductor (Helen Dabrowska) that she bought the ticket from a man, and though the conductor tells her it is a men’s only cabin, she refuses to leave. Wishing to avoid further unpleasantness, the man decides to let her stay. Nobody seems too bothered by strangers of the opposite sex sharing a cabin, except for a neighboring passenger (Teresa Szmigielówna) who is bored with her lawyer husband (Aleksander Sewruck) and hoping to have a fling with the man as she struts around him with her comely breasts pitched forward by a permanent arch in her back.
We learn very early in the film that a woman has been murdered and that her husband is being sought by the police. We are encouraged to believe that the curiously morose man who wants to be alone might be the murderer, and this planted idea seems designed to jack up the suspense of the film—particularly after Marta is alone with him in the cabin—if you judge by the advertising for the film that compares it to The Narrow Margin (1952). There is indeed a murderer on the train and a tense chase to apprehend him occurs, but the film is more interested in the secret pain and yearning of its characters than in being a thriller.
Marta is a woman haunted by a love affair gone wrong and a persistent admirer (Zbigniew Cybulski) who stalks her onto the train and rather violently insists that she not dispose of him after their two-week fling. The man is gentle and gentlemanly with Marta, surmising her unhappiness in love after seeing scars on her wrists. Her overall sadness, however, permeates her like a strong perfume, her mournful countenance visually caressed by her then-husband, director Kawalerowicz, as he peers at her reflection in a mirror, though a sliver from the top berth to the bottom berth where she lays, in her distant gaze out the open window suddenly exploded by the wind and noise of a train passing in the opposite direction.
The man, too, seems distracted and violently haunted when he shouts at Marta to kick the sheet covering her legs away. His explanation for his outburst is to ask her if she has ever seen a body in a morgue. I guessed that he was a doctor based on this detail, his reaction to her wrist scars, his comment about how much Marta smokes, and his ease spending money, but was kept in doubt about his profession until the end of the movie. Indeed, the movie does not seem anxious to give up its secrets—like any group of strangers sharing a space by necessity, no one is presented as an open book. All we get are impressions, bits of information. Kawalerowicz stamps this point on the film silently, as a young sailor in third class gazes fondly on a young girl, who shyly returns his regard—who they are and what will become of the flirtation is pure speculation, though the terminus of the train is a seaside resort where it appears the lawyer’s wife intends to tryst with whichever lover she lines up from the journey. Amusingly, her cuckold of a husband remains a disembodied voice for a good deal of the film until Kawalerowicz decides to let us sympathize with them both a bit by putting their mismatched temperaments together in their cabin as they bed down for the night.
Despite what Freud said about trains and sex, I was not expecting all the amorous goings-on on the train, but I have been informed that pociag means “train,” but it also means “attraction” or “desire,” a clear double entendre. The train appears to be a microcosm of the world, with cabins filled with religious pilgrims and holiday makers from every walk of life. Seeing people standing in the narrow passages in third class because there is no place to sit down reminded me of my work commute, people jostled and tired and bored, fitfully sleeping in the company of strangers and their cargo. So, too, does Kawalerowicz take on the issue of mob mentality. When the murderer pulls the emergency brake and jumps from the train ahead of the police, a number of passengers pursue him across a field in a scene that beautifully opens the film up to offer the great expanses Kawalerowicz handles expertly. Again we get an overhead shot after he is cornered and brought down, like a swarm of ants taking down a grasshopper. An earlier reveal of a man who can’t sleep in his cabin because the berths remind him of his four years in Buchenwald takes a poke at the rush to judgment and mob action that Kawalerowicz softly critiques in the murderer subplot.
In the end, the man and Marta have found some solace in each other’s company, though the painfully adrift Marta is disappointed that their association cannot last beyond the end of the line. Marta, still caught in her melancholy, alights on the seaside of the train and climbs awkwardly along the sandy shore, trapped at land’s end in the bright light of day.
This film, part of Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema, shows Tuesday, June 17, 6 p.m., at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: James Gray
By Marilyn Ferdinand
James Gray is a director who is slowly finding his voice. After creating three family-centered crime films (Little Odessa , The Yards , and We Own the Night ), Gray has moved on to more emotion-laden, personal films that may include crime, but only as one of several strategies to which their damaged and desperate characters cling to maintain their precarious existence. The Immigrant is simultaneously operatic in its grand canvas detailing the dislocation of large masses of humanity during World War I, and a chamber piece that looks at the dysfunctional dance of need between two desperate people. In the final analysis, the film has a metaphysical agenda that lifts it out of the tedium of survival and into a contemplation of the soul.
The year is 1917. An expansive, grainy, unusual view of the backside of the Statue of Liberty and the water leading into the open ocean—the view from Ellis Island—opens the film, followed by a look inside this gateway for immigrants hoping to make a new start to their lives in the United States. Polish refugee Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard) moves through the line of new arrivals, admonishing her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) to suppress her coughing and providing hopeful encouragement that they are almost at the end of their ordeal. Not quite. Magda is shunted off for a six-month hospital quarantine, with tuberculosis the likely diagnosis ahead of her, and Ewa is declared liable to become a state charge when she tells the immigration official that she has no money and gives him a letter from her sponsors—her Aunt Edyta (Maja Wampuszyc) and Uncle Wojtek (Ilia Volok)—with an address he says doesn’t exist. Further, he says there were reports from the ship that Ewa is a woman of low morals. Her immediate deportation seems likely.
Enter Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), an immigrant himself some 25 years before, who sees her among the other rejects and decides to help her. He bribes a guard to let her through to the ferry that will take them to Manhattan and gives her a place to stay in his apartment and a promise of work as a seamstress in his theatre. Ewa distrusts him, and grabs something that looks like an ice pick to put under her pillow as she sleeps. Thirteen hours later, she awakens, and Bruno takes her to the theatre where he and his “doves” put on a topless act for the rowdy, mostly male patrons, a prelude to selling their bodies. Rosie (Elena Solovey), the theatre owner, sees a gold mine in Ewa’s beauty, but Bruno says he has bigger plans for her. Nonetheless, in short order, Ewa’s first appearance on stage—ironically, as Lady Liberty—leads to her first night as a sex worker, deflowering a young man whose father has paid Bruno a large sum to make his son more manly.
Ewa is a survivor. She has seen her parents beheaded before her eyes, been raped on the ship to America, been rejected by her uncle because her shipboard “reputation” will damage his community standing and business, and fallen prey to a manipulative pimp who throws her concern for her sister and her need for his connections on Ellis Island at her every time he wants her to degrade herself. It takes money to free Magda and live in a country that prizes individual initiative above all else—her uncle’s concern for his reputation shows he’s well suited to the American Way, though he looks more like he plans to molest her the night she shows up on his doorstep after escaping from Bruno. Ewa does what she feels she has to do, but through her trapped suffering, she stirs an existential crisis in her hated benefactor, Bruno.
It would be easy to see this film primarily as a well-crafted melodrama, as well as a time machine that takes us back quite believably to the era to which many Americans, including myself, can trace our New World origins, filmed as it was at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens and all around the town, including on Ellis Island. Great care was taken to try to burrow under the daily lives of the characters in this film. For example, when Bruno first brings Ewa to his apartment, a young girl is sitting at the kitchen table, while her prostitute mother lies on the bed asleep. I don’t know what they were doing there, but the sequence shows that even whores have home lives. In addition, Bruno’s doves, displaced from the theatre after a brawl, do their parade under a viaduct in the park for men of even lesser means than the ones in the theatre, a poignant moment of practicality that rang true.
The street scenes and interiors had a lived in, authentic look, and the Ellis Island scenes were pitch-perfect in every regard. I especially enjoyed an opera reference that worked perfectly with the story: Ewa, caught by the police and returned to Ellis Island, goes to a performance put on for the detainees in hopes of seeing her sister in the audience. Enrico Caruso (Joseph Calleja), who actually did sing at Ellis Island, performs an aria from Puccini’s La Rondine, whose main female character is named Magda.
The Immigrant has its problems. Bruno’s cousin Emil (Jeremy Renner) is really rather superfluous as anything other than a plot motivator. While Renner gives a fine performance, full of the kind of charisma and social ease Bruno envies, the triangle he sets in place wasn’t really needed. In addition, making Emil a magician is a little too on the nose about his success with women, nor did I buy that he was a bigger attraction for the low-rent theatre crowd than Bruno’s topless chippies. The latter explanation for his return to the theatre was simply to get him in the same room with Ewa and Bruno. The sepia tone of the cinematography was a little annoying, as I didn’t really need it to know that we were looking at a faded time, and it distorted colors in some unfortunate ways: blood coming from Bruno’s nose looked like the chocolate syrup it probably was, and in close-up, it was very distracting.
A more serious flaw is Gray’s inspiration to shoot Ewa like Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). He concentrates a great deal on Cotillard’s face and expects her to put across Ewa’s complicated emotions, but he doesn’t seem to have the right touch to draw this performance out with any consistency. She comes nowhere near to suggesting the transcendence of Falconetti or Joan—she’s a pretty girl who remains a bit of a cipher except in her desire for money through at least half of the film, though her apparent mastery of Polish and ability to act in that language was brilliant. Happily, Gray eventually hits the right notes and takes us on a tour of the inner dimensions of the immigrant journey.
“Is it a sin to want to survive when I have done so many bad things?” This remark of Ewa’s is at the heart of what this film seems to want to say. It’s a somewhat controversial line in this age of discrimination, because, indeed Bruno, Ewa, and the other immigrants engage in pandering, prostitution, theft, and bribery—all actions that born Americans, particularly in 1917, would not welcome in the newly arrived. Yet, the film clearly illustrates that for many of the people we meet, these crimes are necessary because there is no other way to get by.
For all his seeming gallantry toward Ewa, Bruno has been hollowed out during his own life as an outcast, called a kike by the police who rob him and beat him to a pulp and unable to rise beyond the level of a pimp and fixer in part because of the psychological crippling of his lowly status. It makes sense that when Emil, the “pretty boy” who manages to get all the girls despite his lies and drinking, starts putting the moves on Ewa, Bruno goes crazy. The characters say that Bruno is madly in love with Ewa, but I think that’s a little too simple. She hasn’t escaped becoming his prostitute, after all, but she has something he desperately wants—love—something he has no power to give and no talent to inspire the way Emil does. Ewa clings to her quest to be reunited with her beloved sister, the person who has kept her going in their darkest hours, and eventually returns to the Catholic Church after what I imagine is a period of anger at God for the trials in her life. It is only after Bruno follows her to church and eavesdrops on her confession that he understands how much he has damaged her and makes a start at a redemption that Ewa herself is seeking from the priest (Patrick Husted). In their final scene together, Ewa finds her way to forgiving Bruno and giving him the affirmation he killed for, though it is more absolution for a dying man than a guiding light into the future, as Bruno is determined to pay for his crimes.
Phoenix, a Gray regular, offered up an interpretation of Bruno as a manipulator that Gray did not see when crafting the script, leading me to believe that Gray relies too heavily on his actors to bring their characters to life. Regardless, Phoenix’s choices are dead-on, offering a complicated view of a man who, perhaps, is the true title character of The Immigrant.
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Director: Andrjez Munk
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Andrzej Wajda is arguably Poland’s best-known director, the much-revered chronicler of Nazi- and Soviet-occupied Poland with an honorary Academy Award under his belt and a slew of other recognitions from Cannes, Britain, Italy, and other parts of the cinematic world. While Wajda claims Luis Buñuel as his earliest inspiration, it is easier to see a resemblance between the scathing satire of Buñuel’s films and those of Andrjez Munk, a filmmaker whose life-ending car accident at the age of 40 foreshortened his film legacy and cast him into the long shadow of Wajda, his contemporary. Now, Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema has brought Munk back into the spotlight with a new restoration of the director’s film in two movements: Eroica.
Riffing, no doubt, on Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the so-called “Eroica” (heroic) symphony in four movements, Munk’s two-movement “symphony” is only half as heroic: Scherzo alla polacca, referring to the brisk nature of the action, but also indicating, in a slang translation, “the Polish joke;” and Ostinato lugubre, indicating a persistent, mournful theme. Whatever heroism can be found in these two movements is strictly accidental, as the insanity of war is translated through the individual foibles of members of the Polish Uprising and Polish officers in a Nazi P.O.W. camp.
The main protagonist of the scherzo movement is Dzidzius Gorkiewicz (Edward Dziewonski), or “Babyface” to the women in his life. He is a member of the Uprising who might become an accidental hero near the end of WWII by sneaking in and out of Warsaw to try to broker a deal between the leaders of his organization and Hungarian forces who are willing to join with the rebels to drive the Germans out. Babyface’s first action, however, is to break from the ragtag group of volunteers flubbing their formations to call the drill sergeant’s attention to an aircraft descending to strafe them. When the clueless sergeant finally yells to his “troops” to take cover, Babyface walks off, unwilling to risk his life just to run inane drills. He heads for his home away from his abandoned apartment in Warsaw—a country house that he finds has been requisitioned by some Hungarian officers, one of whom (Tomasz Zaliwski) Babyface’s wife Zosia (Barbara Polomska) has given their room—though she continues to occupy the bed. The officer asks Babyface to accompany him outside, and fearing that he will be shot so that the officer can have Zosia, he runs into a curtain of clothes that hides a cannon. The officer offers to join with the uprising—cannons and all—if Babyface can square it with his superiors. Overjoyed that he is not to be shot, Babyface indulges in his favorite pastime—drinking with whomever is nearby. The scene ends with Babyface shoving a half-empty bottle of booze down the cannon barrel.
Walking through checkpoints, explosions, and gunfire with his off-white suit and glib excuses, Babyface seems a hapless freedom fighter indeed. He acts like someone who has been whisked from a vacation in Hawaii and dropped into a war zone: he keeps looking for the hula girls and the mai tais, and hopes to take advantage of every situation—drinking a case of booze he finds in a barn where his former sweetheart Jogodka (Zofia Czerwinska), codename “Blueberry,” is running a switchboard, trying to convince his fellows to take advantage of the Hungarian troops’ offer (“as long as they’re here”), and escaping from a group of townspeople being displaced while their German guards are chasing another escapee. The latter incident offers the movement’s most over-the-top burlesque, as Babyface, on orders from a Nazi officer, tries to carry an old woman’s (Eleonora Lorentz) bag, only to find it loaded down with heavy metal objects. As with most of the film, Dziewonski displays precise, comic movement as he buckles and weaves under the weight and then pays the old woman 5 rubles to leave it behind. Even more funny, she takes the money and then tries to lift the bag herself—as stubbornly unmovable as her bundle. If ever there was an illustration of “life goes on,” Babyface’s almost casual attitude to the insanity around him is it—ending with a decisive action of a personal nature that brings the battle of the sexes into the war.
The second movement is equally absurd, but more desperate in tone. The action begins with the arrival of a new group of captured Polish officers at a mountain P.O.W. camp. Lt. Kursawa (Józef Nowak), an amiable, gentle-looking officer of about 30 and Lt. Szpakowski (Roman Klosowski), a brash youngster who moved up the ranks as officers above him were killed, join a cell block with veteran officers who have been locked up for about five years. Space is available in the block because Lt. Zawistowski (Tadeusz Lomnicki) has become the only person to escape the camp in its history. Zawistowski is held up as a paragon of bravery and ingenuity by the men on the block, but only two of them know the truth: Zawistowki, learning that the Gestapo were about to get their hands on him, went into hiding in an empty boiler in the ceiling. Kursawa learns of their deception by accident, but joins in the effort to keep him alive and undetected while the lives of the other members of the block spiral into madness.
A fugitive from Grand Illusion, Lt. Krygier (Henryk Bak) is all about military protocol, wondering whether Szpakowski should be allowed to fraternize with officers and regurgitating the dictum that it is an officer’s duty to try to escape, something he and his toady, Lt. Dabecki (Bogumil Kobiela), have yet to attempt. He goads Lt. Zak (Józef Kostecki), half-mad at the impossibility of being alone in a quiet place, into attempting to escape. Zak successfully negotiates two rows of barbed wire in broad daylight while his fellow officers create a distraction, only to be grabbed by two women passing by the camp and returned to his hell hole. His failure seems to have been an inevitability for him, and he gives away the 1,000 cigarettes—valuable as barter currency—he won for completing the dare. He goes into a plywood box that looks like a half-finished latrine to retreat from his blockmates and slams the door, a tragicomic moment he repeats many times during the movement. As the curtain falls on this farce, Zak is the only officer who truly takes escape seriously.
Munk’s penetrating gaze sees the touching humor in the maze of human relationships that we all must negotiate, no matter the circumstance. The possibility that the Hungarian troops could join the Polish Uprising is quashed because the Russians moving into Poland won’t work with the Hungarians. Babyface is rueful about the weakness of flesh as he watches the woman he married out of lust be true to her nature; she’s a slut, says Babyface, but that’s her appeal. Zak, Zawistowki’s best friend, is kept in the dark about the deception because he’s too unstable—or perhaps he’d try to take Zawistowki’s place in the ceiling just to get away from the other men. Life goes on, Munk tells, us, but the things it does to us in its course will have us weeping through our laughter.
A word must be said about DP Jerzy Wójcik, whose widescreen work on Pharaoh (1966) was both epic in scope and yet quite intimate, a skill he certainly mastered with Eroica. I was enthralled by the way he filled the more traditional dimensions of this black-and-white film, creating a particular mise-en-scène that luxuriated in the stands of long grass as a fleeing man disappeared among the stalks, and communicated the cramped chaos of the cell block with bits of paper and clothes, objects crammed on ledges and hung on walls, and a small window with a sketch of the mountains framing it along the width of the room.
The performances of the ensemble casts were peerless. Dziewonski was a perfect everyman who certainly would have been a hippie if he had been in the right place at the right time. Kostecki had a Felix Ungerish prissiness to him, but underneath, his tormented, highly insulted soul gave him the kind of substance one needs from a tragic clown. Lomnicki, though he had only one real scene, gave a very moving description of his isolation—rather than complain about the physical challenges, he seemed more bothered by the darkness and loneliness, the inability to see his own face. He brought home the human toll of war economically and effectively.
Eroica is a black comedy that never forgets it’s also a war flick. It’s one of the best of its kind I’ve ever seen.
Eroica is showing at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Sunday, May 25, and Wednesday, May 28. It’s perfect for this Memorial Day weekend.
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Director/Screenwriter: Jean-Luc Godard
By Roderick Heath
One of the storied events of film history, Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960) swiftly gained a reputation as a revolutionary moment in how movies were watched and made. Released in close company with Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour (both 1959), Breathless surpassed them in establishing the New Wave as a radical aesthetic, a hip posture, an anti-cliché about to become a new norm. The New Wave directors became media darlings for a time, a perverse position for a bunch of young artists, mostly male, who had defined themselves through opposition to the status quo in art, politics, and commerce. Godard’s marriage to Anna Karina, a young actress, model, and singer he had elevated to movie stardom in his follow-up work, The Little Soldier (1960), even made the covers of celebrity magazines in France. Breathless was a deeply sarcastic take on the gangster film as ransacked by Godard’s peculiar aesthetic and intellectual sensibility, colliding genre motifs with pop art’s method of self-conscious quotation and ironically realistic contrasts. The Little Soldier essentially rewrote his debut in more immediate political terms, only to be banned and released well out of sequence in Godard’s development, and for critics at the time, it helped to muddy that development.
Une Femme est une Femme, Godard’s third work, was then released well before The Little Soldier. The film struck many as a comparatively messy and minor by-product of the director’s fearsomely intelligent, but contradictory impulses, with his habits of genre remixing and existential inquiry in full flower, as well as a sour auto-critique of the sudden, new-found stardom and opening doors for the movement. Certainly, as Breathless wrestles with the uneasy relationship between Godard’s love of film’s gaudy lies and his sense of life and honesty, Une Femme est une Femme explores the same territory, but more intimately: part send-up of Hollywood musicals, part valentine to them, with the flashy but distanced regard of pop art, it’s also a deeply personal and abrasive take on young love and a celebration of Godard’s fresh adoration of his leading lady, Anna Karina. Indeed, Une Femme est une Femme feels, even more than Breathless, like a film other directors tried to make dozens of times over in the following 10 years without quite getting the point. Godard litters the film with sight gags and bits of comic business that suggest he’s randomly spliced in scenes from silent slapstick films and random spritzers of Frank Tashlin, inventing an attitude of free-form zaniness which would define much Swinging ’60s cinema.
But Une Femme est une Femme is far more sardonic than its progeny, made clear enough from the opening minutes, as Karina’s character, Angela Récamier, stalks Parisian streets with Michel Legrand providing a floridly jaunty pseudo-Hollywood score, only for the music to cut out constantly, as if coming from a record player with a loose cable somewhere, leaving only casual street noise audible. This proves a boldly Brechtian touch, and Godard continues to work variations on this notion, having scenes unfold in everyday fashion and then suddenly rupturing the texture by having his characters break into bits of comic business—self-conscious absurdity alternating violently with kitchen-sink realism. The Paris on screen isn’t the pretty wonderland of An American in Paris (1951) or Can-Can (1958), even in this, Godard’s first colour film; shot in the Strasbourg–Saint Denis area, it is cramped, dirty, almost lugubrious, but also entirely alive, vibrantly organic, a place where people, not advertising placards live.
But Angela states her wish to act in a musical starring Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse, and she and her fellows constantly pose and playact as if about to turn their lives into one. Angela first appears strolling past shop windows in a blazing-red umbrella hat that looks just like a prop for a Technicolor musical. She walks into a café, plays Charles Aznavour on the jukebox as if to provide the scene with a ready-made score, then hurries off, delivering a quick wink to the camera, putting in play Godard’s subsequent, constant blows at the fourth wall.
Angela quickly runs into her boyfriend, Émile (Jean-Claude Brialy), in a news agency, where Émile amuses himself by recommending books to a couple of young boys, who scoff at his selection: “Have you got anything more . . . sexy?” they ask, summarising Godard’s wry understanding of popular audiences in one quip. Angela thumbs through a book on childbearing, and it becomes apparent that the couple are seeing each other for the first time after a row, and indeed, the film depicts one long period of turmoil in their lives, albeit turmoil they keep trying to turn into antics.
Angela next meets her and Émile’s mutual pal Alfred Lubitsch (Jean-Paul Belmondo), who has a crush on her and engages in constant, glib flirtation. Angela finally makes it to her job, which involves singing and dancing, but in a strip club: Raoul Coutard’s cinematography abruptly drops handheld camerawork for swooping, room-scanning tracking shots, gliding through this fleapit wonderland with romantic zest, noting sexy performers and grimy old cleaners equitably, with careful use of coloured costumes that shout out to Vincent Minnelli. A pianist seated in the corner sees Angela come in and strikes up an appropriate musical theme. Angela’s joie de vivre and a little tacky showbiz craft—she dons a sailor costume and bathes under three-colour light—turn the club into a cheery place of transformative energy. This, Godard’s cleanest and cleverest joke, is a mere set of cuts between Karina advancing on the camera as she commences her song just like a musical heroine, and then switching to her viewpoint, which reveals the grimy dive and its bemused and seedy patrons perceived in all their depressing smallness. “Works of art are the 40 days of Nature’s glorious existence,” one of Angela’s fellows quotes to her from the book she’s reading, and Angela shrugs, getting on with her own version of art as glorious existence, no matter how stymied.
New Wave icon Jacques Demy made his famous musicals in a key of earnest largesse with a subtle overtone of worldly realism, rather than the sarcasm Godard constantly wields here. He described his efforts as trying to create a “neorealist musical,” but Une Femme est une Femme never actually becomes the musical it threatens. Much of the film is actually devoted to a series of skittish, emotional engagements between Émile and Angela, something at which Godard, from the long bedroom chat in Breathless through to the epic freeze-out session in Le Mepris (1963), was proving himself a master, with Brialy’s sharply handsome, slightly hawkish face betraying Émile’s boding aggravation with his lover.
At their apartment, Émile finally learns what seems to be bugging his flighty mate: she wants a baby, “in the next 24 hours,” but he’s saving himself for a big bike race on the weekend. This comic explanation partly obscures Émile’s sexual detachment from Angela exactly when she’s feeling what seems, to the male viewpoint, an arbitrary yet overwhelming desire for a child, a desire from which Émile instinctively shrinks. The couple’s bickering becomes so critical that at one point they cease talking, and so begin conversing rather through the covers of books they pluck from their shelves. Finally, the couple only half-joke when they ask Alfred if he’ll do the work of impregnating her, whereupon he quips, “I don’t know if this is a comedy or a tragedy.” This is Godard’s second mission statement, as he seeks to muddy the waters of genre and reception: a variation on it is spoken later, this time amended to, “I don’t know if this is a comedy or a tragedy, but it is a masterpiece.”
Another of Godard’s overtly Brechtian stunts sees him pan his camera back in forth in a slow arc, surveying the apartment whilst Angela and Émile sit in an embrace during a lull in their storm, with words explaining the inner purpose of their actions and the nature of their predicament (“It’s because they love each other that things will go wrong for Émile and Angela.”) flashing on screen. This gives their motivations rather more depth than their picayune actions would indicate, absolving them of being mere stereotypes and rather suggesting their game is more dangerous emotionally than we think: each message confirms they love each other, whilst also warning that they’re excessively cocky in regards to each other because of that love. Godard’s strong romanticism is the secret lode of Une Femme est une Femme, coexisting with and battling his ruthless analysis and overpowering male gaze turned on Karina. “Men are such cowards,” one of Émile and Alfred’s female friends comments with jocular incision. “It makes up for the nastiness of women,” Alfred ripostes.
The film’s title is both leitmotif and punchline, harkening to a brand of gendered mod comedy popular around the time, reducing Karina’s “femaleness” to a series of pop art identifiers and then wringing them dry. Just as Alfred presents a potential third corner to the relationship of Angela and Émile, so his name suggests another intersecting cinema tradition—the light and deceptively frothy sex comedies of Ernst Lubitsch. In Lubitsch as well as in many musicals, the hope of the Shakespearean pastoral is raised, where relationships can begin, end, or transform according to natural whims in zones where social laws don’t much matter; Godard dangles this hope before his heroine even while suggesting the danger in the world she actually lives in.
Nonetheless, exasperated by Émile, she does finally turn to Alfred. Angela and Alfred’s hook-up is, nonetheless, a glum and cross-purposed meeting in a café, where Alfred tells a joke that comments on Angela’s imminent infidelity. They both descend into reverie whilst listening to another Charles Aznavour song, the usual kinetic rush of a musical sequence here turned into a static, eddying emotional impasse. “What must I do to prove I love you?” Alfred asks, and suggests banging his head against a wall; when Angela hesitates, he leaves the café, crosses the street, and does just that. Angela rushes off to make Émile’s lunch, but tells Alfred that she’ll signal to him by lowering their apartment’s external awnings whether she’ll be coming back to him or stick with Émile. Alfred waits outside, but sees the awnings slide up and down in confusion.
Godard sends Angela into her seemingly inevitable transgression with Alfred, whilst Émile angrily searches for her without success. When he finally gives up, he picks up a hooker to expiate his anger. Looking at the prostitute lolling in a shot patterned after Henri Matisse’s work (Matisse earlier is glimpsed in TV documentary Angela watches) of sensual beauty with enfolding reds and blues and converging, clashing patterns surround beautiful flesh, Émile has an epiphany, as he decides, “We’re intolerant, and we’re evil.” Thus, Godard sets up his narrative to end on a joke, as Émile can’t really get angry at Angela for sleeping with Alfred, and indeed her purposeful action finally forces him to cover up his lack and sleep with her, too, just to spiritually, if not literally, impregnate her. The film ends on a French, almost Serge Gainsbourg-esque pun as Émile mutters that Angela is “infâme” (vile), and she responds, whilst grinning at the camera, “no, I’m une femme.” It’s a calculated travesty of the leave-’em-laughing final note of many a buoyant comedy even as it mimics them and the film’s contrapuntal mood behind the official grins and hipster loucheness reveals it to be a contemplation of the sorts of stupid things young lovers do to each other. Godard also conducts an invasive enquiry into what exactly defines women, or rather, his woman: when Émile confronts Angela after her return from Alfred, Godard’s handheld camera becomes Émile, darting and looming as she’s interrogated, the camera gaze becoming the inescapable, probing perception of a man who can grasp everything but the essence of what he loves.
In spite of the serious underpinnings and the acerbity of the aesthetic, Une Femme est une Femme is perhaps Godard’s funniest film, with a wit and a sense of rubbery good humour throughout that’s light years away from the director’s subsequent shift into oft-didactic art. Sight gags and meta-humour abound throughout, most of it feeding into Godard’s overall approach, as Belmondo mentions his pal Burt Lancaster and chats with Jeanne Moreau in a bar, asking her how shooting on Jules et Jim is going. Karina chats with a friend played by Marie Dubois, star of Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960), who mentions she’s reading, yes, Shoot the Piano Player, but gives the title in charades rather than words, whilst Godard accompanies her gestures with sound effects.
Vivre sa Vie, Godard’s immediate follow-up, by contrast, couldn’t seem more different at first glance. Even shorter than Une Femme and shot in black and white, it is a spare, bleak, tough-minded portrait of a heroine making choices that will destroy her, almost entirely lacking humour. And yet, Vivre sa Vie has a similar metre and meaning to its title, stating its heroine’s wilful agency, even as it begins to interrogate it. The film also displays Godard’s continuing, transfixed interest in Karina, casting her again as a frustrated actress falling into seamy circumstance, this time as a prostitute. If there’s a sophomoric quality to Godard’s anarchism in Une Femme redeemed by his great skill, a similar pretence is detectable in Vivre sa Vie’s determinedly sober artistry, but again transfigured by Godard’s rapidly evolving cinematic sensibility.
Where the overt politics of The Little Soldier got Godard in trouble, in these two films he introduces such perspective almost randomly: Angela and Émile’s flat is suddenly searched by cops who object to their reading a leftist newspaper, and in Vivre sa Vie the heroine flees the scene of a gun battle between Algerian terrorists and authorities. Thus, violence and suspicion are backdrop to both dramas. Vivre sa Vie is divided into 12 episodes, each one preceded by a chapter title that announces the upcoming events in a manner reminiscent again of Brecht, but also harking back to the 18th-century novel. Such harkening formalism declares Godard’s shift into a new, more analytical form of drama, whilst the visual language shifts again, sometimes fragmenting into sharply edited, photo-essay-like compositions, or distanced cinema verite study.
The opening sequence, depicting the break-up of Nana Kleinfrankenheim (Karina) and Paul (André S. Labarthe), finds them seated at a bistro counter with their backs to the camera, faces only partly visible as they converse. The archness of the conceit is mitigated by the precision with which it depicts the alienation and anonymity of the two, and sharpening awareness of gestures, as when Nana touches Paul’s head in consolation. Nana (named for Emile Zola’s courtesan heroine) resents Paul’s indifference to her ambitions and inability to make her feel special, a need that simmers beneath Nana’s desire to become an actress. The two reach an impasse in conversation and so play the most forlorn game of pinball in cinema history, as Paul recounts the content of an essay written by a young student of his teacher father: “A bird is an animal with an inside and an outside. Remove the outside, there’s the inside. Remove the inside and you see the soul.” The peculiar, childish metaphysics of this tale echoes through the rest of the film as it strives to comprehend Nana’s soul via exteriors.
Nana leaves Paul and their young child and gets a job working in a record store, but finds supporting herself difficult—she’s locked out of her apartment and bundled away by pals of the landlady when she can’t pay her rent. The precision of baseline economics is portrayed as Nana’s rent problems are caused by the absence of a friend she loaned 2,000 francs to, and that she tries to borrow off another friend in a kind of perpetual displacement of debt. Godard signals his connection to, and perspective on, Nana when he shows her in a darkened movie theatre, wrapped up to the point of tears in watching Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). This scene works on several simultaneous levels. It’s Godard showing off his immediate inspiration and cinematic memory. It’s a depiction of Nana’s soul, inverted by becoming lost in an artwork, and a portrait of her desire to achieve the same transfixing power as Falconetti on the screen. It’s an auguring of Nana’s fate, confirmed as, late in the film, silent film titles like those in the Dreyer film begin to flash on screen in place of dialogue.
Nana hooks up with a publicist and a photographer who takes portfolio shots of her, both of whom essentially offer a cost-free bed for the night. Finally, she’s arrested after an altercation with a woman over some dropped money. This brush with criminality presages her slide into prostitution, communicated with brilliant concision as Godard moves from regarding prostitutes from the viewpoint of a “normal” person riding in a car, to Nana herself treading the footpath, hunched in pensive expectancy, designated by her dress as a low-rent streetwalker. Godard repeats the scanning shots of waiting hookers, but now from Nana’s closer perspective, every face a study in thwarted and damaged interiors via bored, lacquered, anticipating exteriors.
The telling contradiction of Vivre sa Vie is that it was Godard’s most coolly stylised and intensely composed film to that point, and also his most deeply felt, perhaps the most immediately emotional of his career. No accident, either, it was borne of the direct and painful tensions in Godard and Karina’s marriage, as she had almost left Godard after an affair with an actor and then purportedly attempted suicide after his stormy reaction. Godard’s vow to create a true tragic vehicle for her talents produced Vivre sa Vie, but it didn’t satisfy Karina’s desires. Indeed, it could be called an anti-tragedy, consciously cutting away catharsis and questioning the usual linkages that define the actions in tragedies. Transforming Karina from the iconic, wilful coquette of Une Femme into a tragedienne with a Louise Brooks bob, Godard is fetishizing his wife, but also trying, in that neurotic manner of men throughout history, to know his woman by looking to some primeval essence, and falling short. Thus, Une Femme and Vivre sa Vie are two sides of the same coin. Godard suggests Nana has a crisis of her interior life, and is attracted to the idea of being an actress to experience a multiplicity of identities and make up for the mundaneness of her actual being, whilst several characters remark on her propensity for parroting the statements of others. But she’s also convinced that action entails nature and self-direction, hence the title: “I turn my head, I am responsible…I forget I am responsible, but I am.” Godard casts sublime doubt on the notion, noting the random and externally imposed demands that force Nana’s hand, especially once she surrenders autonomy to inhabit the role of prostitute.
The film’s most discomforting scene comes when Nana picks up her first john: Godard nervelessly follows the pair as they get a room in a seamy hotel, negotiate price, and go through all the niceties, whereupon the client clasps Nana in an embrace and tries to kiss her, but she resists, her anguish plain amdist the man’s frenzied invasion of her being. Nana soon encounters Yvette (Guylaine Schlumberger), an old friend who also has become a prostitute after her husband’s impoverishment and imprisonment. Nana meets Yvette’s pimp, Raoul (Saddy Rebbot), and though Yvette gives Nana a contact to work in a decent brothel, Raoul convinces her to join his stable. Godard zeroes in on Raoul’s capacity to play proxy boyfriend as he depicts Nana watching Yvette and Raoul playing at the same pinball machine she and Paul were at earlier. Indeed, Nana half-consciously gives herself over to this idea, even after she’s seen Raoul’s ledger with each of his girls’ earnings laid out, in part because Raoul readily coddles her desire to be seen as special, even in this profession. Nana’s initiation into true professionalism, and Raoul’s confidence, is suggested obliquely during a montage showing Nana’s work, whilst Raoul answers her questions about the business with the dry data-recounting style of a documentary voiceover. Soon, Nana is confident in her role, even released, as she easily directs the men who come to her and adapts her act to the needs of the moment.
Godard opens the film rather differently to his usual pop-art, billboard-like flashes, photographing Karina’s face from shifting angles like a studious profiler. Throughout the rest of the film, however, her face is often obscured, sometimes in shadow, or with her head turned three-quarters away from the camera, reduced at times to a mere walking hairdo. Framings are often oblique, bodies and faces arranged at their edge—other actors are repeatedly subsumed in the same way. Only Karina is allowed to dominate any shot, to be the single face, except for the young man who is the object of her desire. People become abstractions or exiles in their own little spaces very easily in this cinematic lexicon. The early scene in the record store where Nana works is done in one long shot that continues well past when the nominal actions it describes ends, scanning the nondescript world beyond the shop whilst Nana listens to another shopgirl read a vivid piece of romantic schlock in a pop magazine full of dramatic epiphanies.
One long scene describes the limit of Nana’s new “success” as she wanders the halls of a hotel to find another hooker to join a threesome with a john in a bleak, miniature odyssey through vertiginous-walled corridors where anonymous faces disappear behind anonymous doors for carnal pleasures glimpsed as studied postures. In the end, she finds herself left out when she brings in the other girl, so settles down to smoke a cigarette and await the client’s pleasure. That Nana is still, in essence, a frustrated performer is made doubly clear as Raoul meets to talk with some business acquaintances in a pool room: bored and itching to be centre of attention, she prods the men, and one good-naturedly gets up to perform a piece of vaudevillian mimicry that gives her a laugh. She then starts dancing around the room, ostensibly trying to prompt a reaction from Raoul, but actually for the benefit of a good-looking young man (Peter Kassovitz) playing by himself at the pool tables. Nana is at once peculiarly transcendent here, painting the seedy place and circumstance with her joie de vivre, and also pathetic, using up her essence to be left floundering.
Nana encounters an aged philosopher in a café (played by Godard’s own intellectual mentor Brice Parain), who happily engages Nana in discussion about various existential quandaries. “Love is a solution—but only if it’s true,” he tells Nana, obliquely warning her to beware of convenient substitutes and untruths, after recounting Porthos’ demise from Dumas’ Twenty Years After, crushed by a weight after being paralysed by the sudden onset of self-awareness that severs his hitherto instinctual survival capacity. The implication of Parain’s quote for the drama as a whole is fascinating, as it suggests that mere survival, the business of getting through the day, is still what keeps most folks functioning. As long as Nana obeys that logic, she prospers. When she resists it, she comes to grief. Somewhere between Godard’s vignettes, the handsome young man becomes Nana’s lover and is rediscovered sitting about her apartment reading Poe to her, an excerpt from The Oval Portrait in which a man gazes longingly at a portrait with the fiendish need to get beyond the image’s taunting beauty. This is one of those classic moments of relevant irrelevance Godard was so fond of, where another variety of artwork is suddenly privileged in cinema’s usually remorseless love of itself, and provides self-commentary on Godard the portraitist, creating his artwork and destroying his love object.
Godard takes this likeness literally as he sets up Nana’s death. Raoul suddenly sells her to some gangsters in exchange for a sum of cash, his justification being that she’s been turning down too many clients. But the handover goes awry, as Raoul realises he’s been underpaid, whilst the gangsters seem fairly eager for a reason to gun him down. Nana is quite literally caught in the middle as Raoul uses her as a human shield: one of the gangsters’ bullets hits her, and then Raoul shoots her himself, seemingly deliberately, and flees, leaving her sprawled on the road. Coutard’s camera tilts down a bit, as if to register shock and desolation, and then cut to black: that’s a wrap. This end is both deeply distressing and blindingly fast, a terrible demise for a woman so full of “life to live,” brought low by her own supposed choices, but finally used up as a pawn. But there’s also Godard’s dispassionate disassembly of genre here, too. Having rejected the original ending he came up with as middling, he went for full-bore tragedy, but then subjected that idea to a radical shift: Nana’s death is almost offhand, the fate of a peasant and plaything, a victim of human commodification and her own sublimation of it. Godard creates his Joan of Arc, but rather than give her the glorious martyrdom of auto-da-fe, leaves her like rubbish in the street.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Jerzy Kawalerowicz
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema has come to Chicago. The Gene Siskel Film Center is presenting most of the 21 films, curated by Mr. Scorsese and restored with the help of his Film Foundation, now through July 3 as part of the traveling show that audiences in 18 lucky cities (so far) in the U.S. and Canada will have a chance to view. Pharaoh, an Academy Award nominee, is a film that, up to now, has been treated very poorly. The long, rather slow film has been available almost exclusively in truncated, dubbed, or faded versions and as hard to see, even in a bastardized version, in Poland as it has been in the rest of the world. The new DCP version reveals the majesty of this adaptation of Bolesław Prus’s late 19th-century novel about the fictional Ramses XIII at the fall of the 20th dynasty and New Kingdom of Egypt. Although I can’t be sure, the story appears to be based on the reign of Ramses VIII, a pharaoh who ruled for no more than two years and about whom almost nothing is known—the perfect blank canvas for a writer whose complaints about the authenticity of most historical novels allowed him to provide the best available information about ancient Egypt at the time without needing to worry in the least about being accurate about his characters.
In what is surely one of the best prologues to a film I’ve ever seen, the opening credits roll over a parched patch of earth as the clashing, atonal score of Adam Walachinski sounds. The portentousness of this introduction finally resolves as a pair of dung beetles push a round turd from one side of the screen to the other, battling to possess it. A functionary’s face rises into the frame, and he runs the length of several regiments to the high priest Herhor (Piotr Pawlowski) to inform him that the sacred scarabs are in the direct line of the advancing troops. Herhor orders the troops to go around the beetles to avoid trampling them, to the protests of Ramses (Jerzy Zelnik) and the despair of a Hebrew slave (Jerzy Block) who spent 10 years digging a canal that Herhor now tells the troops to fill in so that they can advance. This opening perfectly communicates on both symbolic and literal levels the clash between governmental and religious leaders, the latter a frequent whipping post for director Kawalerowicz, as well as the puniness of their struggle in the face of the vast, uncaring forces of nature and history.
Ramses is a young, ambitious man who craves his own military command and the chance to wrest control of Egypt from the priests who have both the confidence of his parents, Osiris-Ramses XII (Andrzej Girtler) and Nikotris (Wiesława Mazurkiewicz), and control of a vast cache of gold held in the temple labyrinth for a “time of great need.” Ramses has modern ideas, believing in science and in using the gold to better the lives of ordinary Egyptians and pay for a first-rate military force to help Egypt regain its stature and power on the world stage. Instead, he must go to Dagon (Edward Raczkowski), a sleazy Phoenician merchant, to borrow enough money to pay the soldiers to whom he rashly promised bonuses. Thus, when Ramses XII dies, the stage is set for a power struggle between the new pharaoh and the priests.
Pharaoh provides a heady mix of stunning visuals and set pieces that bring this ancient world of sand and superstition vividly to life, while at the same time concentrating on its intimate human drama with an expositional style that has much in common with Shakespeare’s works—indeed, the scene with Dagon seems almost directly lifted from The Merchant of Venice. Contrasting it with C.B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), which was reviewed below by Rod, is a useful exercise because Pharaoh actually conflates its story with the story of Passover while making obvious reference to the Nazi Holocaust to form a continuum of Jewish suffering that, while much more understated, actually packs a powerful punch.
Whereas DeMille, the grand showman, created a world so fantastical that his film is a legend in its own right, Kawalerowicz creates an almost alien and primitive world in which the power of myth and ritual is real and rather terrifying. The entrance of Ramses XII to court is handled with great chanting and solemnity, his every move as stiff and controlled as a hieroglyph. A complete believer in his own place in the divine line of Egyptian pharaohs and thus seeing the priests as enablers of his strength, he puts down young Ramses’ earthly concerns about being denied a military command with a simple, but crushing authority that the heir to the throne, no shrinking violet himself, cannot oppose. Ramses XII’s final ritual—his burial—is a dread affair, with female mourners leading the procession down a passageway to his tomb with wrenching wails, turning to face the walls to allow the funeral bier to pass them as a downward shot lends a claustrophobic angle to the scene; while we do not see these retainers locked in the tomb to serve their lord in the afterlife, the implication is there.
At the same time, Kawalerowicz takes pains to suggest that the priests are charlatans. After the opening scene, Ramses meets Sarah (Krystyna Mikolajewska), a beautiful Jewish slave who came out to the desert to see the army, and has her brought to the palace as his mistress. She gives birth to a son who, during Ramses’ absence, she names Isaac at the insistence of the priests. With this evidence of his son’s Jewishness, Ramses demotes Sarah to servant of Kama (Barbara Brylska), the priestess-mistress chosen for him by the priests, who seduced him in her temple by appearing and disappearing as if by magic (or, if you prefer, cinematic magic tricks).
Later, when the Egyptian people are induced by Ramses to storm the temple labyrinth, Pentuer (Leszek Herdegen), a prophet sympathetic to Ramses, tells him that an eclipse of the sun is about to occur. Herhor mounts the high wall of the temple labyrinth and stretches his arms to the sky, and the day goes dark. While the populace panic, screaming and running from the scene or digging in the sand to try to hide themselves, Ramses reminds himself to elevate the priests who study the sky to a higher position at court, deflating a dramatic moment with his modern mind. This eclipse, along with a bit of hyperbole from Nikotris that the water has turned to blood, as well as the murder of Sarah and her son, Ramses’ firstborn, echo the plagues visited upon the Egyptians by the god of the Hebrews that DeMille gave so much divine force.
The Hebrews themselves are hardly seen, apart from Sarah and the canal digger. The former seems much beloved of Ramses, but there is no salvation for her or her son inside the palace walls. The canal digger, told he and his family would be freed once the canal was finished, commits suicide following the order to fill it in. The echo of the slogan of Auschwitz, “Work Makes (You) Free,” certainly cannot be mistaken by a modern audience, and the image of the man hanging from a tree limb outstretched above the canal looks less like a suicide than a lynching—it is an image that comes to haunt Ramses, and with the counsel of Pentuer, a peasant elevated to priest, sets him on a course of public welfare that ensures his reign will be a short one.
There are moments that, in DeMille’s hands, would provide entertainment and thrills of the highest order. Sarah sings a Hebrew song to Ramses. Ramses drives his chariot through the desert. Ramses’ army attacks an Assyrian force many times its size and wins. Ramses and Hebron (Ewa Krzyzewska), the fiancée of Ramses’ right-hand man Tutmosis (Emir Buczacki), flirt while Tutmosis hovers nearby. Tutmosis, sent to arrest Herhor and Mephres (Stanislaw Milski), another high priest, is speared in the back by a traitor to Ramses. I can just hear the music punctuating each exciting moment, every footfall sure and rapid, a grin of pure abandon on Ramses face as he races to his destination. In Kawalerowicz’s film, however, each scene is as life itself. A scene of troops running up and down sand dunes shows it to be a slow, clumsy affair. Tutmosis doesn’t clutch himself and keel over as sinister music signals his death—he twists and squirms as his attacker continues to jab him, taking forever to succumb. Sarah sings a slow lament with her back to the audience, as though praying at the Wailing Wall. The complete lack of prudery in the film normalizes Ramses’ promiscuous sexual appetites and frees the other characters from jealousy. And driving a chariot takes concentration—it’s not a ’50s hot rod. Each of these scenes is beautifully realized by the stellar cast and DP Jerzy Wójcik, but we feel as though we are actually part of the scene rather than voyeurs looking for some thrills.
Kawalerowicz offers brutal reality on a personal level as opposed to mass slaughter. Ramses makes good on his vow to take 100,000 Assyrian hands, as baskets of severed hands from the fallen enemy soldiers are carried off the field of battle. A captured Assyrian horse becomes the target of one, then another, then another spear as Ramses gets his men into a fighting spirit. A confederate of Ramses who says he knows the path to the treasure chamber gets hopelessly lost in the labyrinth before taking poison upon his capture. Ramses shoots birds with arrows with the superstitious notion that if he hits each target, he will get what he wishes for. I can’t but think that this is how ancient Egyptians lived, and Kawalerowicz took great pains to stick as close to the historical record as possible, even building a boat for a scene on the Nile according to 4,000-year-old plans.
Kawalerowicz combined shooting at Łódź studios with location shooting in Uzbekistan and Egypt. The latter location provided him with some strangely poetic moments: Ramses laments that he will never build his own grand tomb to stand with the pharaohs of ages past as we look at the Great Pyramids, their outer skins ragged and time worn, a head of an ancient pharaoh toppled to the ground. These details make the story more lamentable, the greatness of this civilization—like all great civilizations—perishable. Even before his demise, Kawalerowicz seems to suggest, Ramses is already finished.
I was utterly captivated by the use of wigs in this film—Mazurkiewicz even went so far as to shave her head to wear one as it must have been worn in ancient times. Apart from the opening credits, music is only used diagetically, which cannily prevents us from soaring above the drama. The entire cast, led by a regal and rash Zelnik as the strong core of the film, is superb, communicating a great deal with a single look or movement. The villians, particularly Dagon and Kama, were a bit stereotypical, but not distractingly so, nor were Ramses and his compatriots glowing paragons of virtue. None of us will ever have the chance to experience life in ancient Egypt, but thanks to Pharaoh, we can at least imagine this remote time and its concerns. Moreover, Kawalerowicz has given us another approach to epic filmmaking that allows for our empathy and participation. With so few filmmakers working in this manner, the return of this film to its full glory is a welcome addition to the library of world cinema.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Darren Aronofsky
By Roderick Heath
The myth of the Great Flood is one of the most famed and ingrained in the modern world’s cultural inheritance. The tale was probably sourced in the ancient Mesopotamian tale of Gilgamesh, and spread along with cultural traffic to plant narrative seeds in Indian, Judaic, Arabic, Greek, and Christian traditions. But it also has doppelgangers in folk traditions the world over. The flood-prone nature of the Tigris-Euphrates region is often thought to have inspired the legend, but in contemplating just how widespread the story is, some have speculated whether the story doesn’t recall an oral tradition to the end of the last ice age. In the Western world, the version found in the Book of Genesis with its hero named Noah is, of course, the best known. The story contains within its brief narrative walls—about 2,700 words of Genesis—the demarcations of a profound cultural underpinning, the story of a simple, goodly patriarch who, blessed with divine mission, saves the natural world whilst the sinful are washed away in primeval retribution. What father has not seen himself at some point as steering family and charges through times of calamity, and what child doesn’t delight in the idea of the world’s creatures as private barnyard parade? It certainly stands with the most powerful tales in the Old Testament, including Moses as heroic liberator, David the giant-slayer, and Samson the sex-addled freedom fighter, all of whom take up Noah’s mantle to a degree as shepherd of the populace with differing degrees of success.
How one will respond to Darren Aronofsky’s retelling of this elemental tale will inevitably be coloured by personal scruple: many religious and irreligious folk alike will judge it both by its seriousness of intent and concordance with tradition, whilst others will look to it for much the opposite, insights that ransack that tradition and ask it to speak to different worldly concerns. Since he debuted with Pi (1997), Aronofsky has been one of the most visually and formally experimental of modern American directors, but also a violently awkward artist, one with little capacity to sort his best ideas from his worst ones. This has tended to make works like Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Fountain (2006), and Black Swan (2010) at once stirring and excessive, visionary and ungainly. Noah fits into this strand well in some respects: it’s an outsized work of great ambition, driving along in adherence only to its creator’s singular ideas no matter how batty they seem. Aronofsky’s chutzpah aims at zones not penetrated in the genre since Martin Scorsese studied The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Mythologies associated with living faiths are much more problematic to adapt than those springing from dead ones: no one minds Norse and Greek myths being remixed for big and noisy special-effects movies, as per recent Lord of the Rings and Clash of the Titans films, but Noah was the subject of studio angst as to how it would play to religious stalwarts and the crowd who lapped up The Passion of the Christ (2004), with its brutal and hypocritical take on Gospel.
In reaction to Mel Gibson’s paean to righteous suffering, Aronofsky offers parable laced with concepts imported broadly from extra-canonical Judaic lore, New Age spirituality and symbolism, deeply rigorous cultural enquiry, and CGI blockbuster cinema. His contemporary urges are pretty plain-spoken, making the flood an overt metaphor for climate change. Noah and his kin, descendants of Adam’s third son Seth, are all vegetarians eking out an existence in a world blasted by the rapaciousness of the descendants of Cain, who eat meat and have mastered technological arts. Such greenie fable-telling could have been a drag, but Aronofsky is at least restrained enough to let these elements speak for themselves. His real aim, it soon proves, is a rather more intimate contemplation of the impact of humanity’s capacity for both ferocity and creation. Noah (Dakota Goto) sees his father Lamech (Marton Csokas) murdered by Tubal-cain (Finn Wittrock), leaving Noah as the last Sethite. He grows to manhood in the shape of Russell Crowe, whose new-found capacity for biblical gravitas was well exploited in last year’s Man of Steel; here, he gets to do the real thing. He’s also reunited with his A Beautiful Mind (2001) co-star Jennifer Connolly, who plays Naameh, Noah’s wife. Noah, Naameh and their sons Shem (Gavin Casalegno) and Ham (Nolan Gross) maintain their foraging ways when Noah sees a flower bloom in an instant. An intimation of cosmic intent, this proves prelude to Noah’s dream of a world flooded over.
Sensing this is a prophecy sent by “the Creator” but unsure what it means, Noah sets out with his family across a cursed patch of land to reach the mountain where his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) lives. The family, pursued by Cainites, save a young girl, Ila (Skylar Burke), the lone survivor of a massacred tribe. They also encounter the strange inhabitants of this corner of Creation, the “Watchers” or Nephilim, angels who tried to aid Adam and Eve but were cursed by the Creator for their intransigence; their naturally radiant forms are now encased in hulking stone sporting pathetic, vestigial wings and glowing eyes. The Watchers detest humankind, whom they tried to help but who hunted and killed many of them, and propose abandoning Noah and his family to die in the wilderness. One of the Nephilim, Magog (Mark Margolis), decides to help them however, and when Noah reaches Methuselah, the ancient shaman gives him an incantatory brew so that he can see his dream completely. This helps Noah grasp that his mission is to build a craft that will weather the flood and contain animal life. Methuselah gives him the last seed saved from Eden, and, when planted, this seed causes water to spring from the earth and colossal forests to grow in minutes to provide a source of wood for the ark. Building the vessel takes years, long enough for Shem, Ham, and Ila to grow to adulthood (Douglas Booth, Logan Lerman, and Emma Watson), and for Noah and Naameh to have a third son, Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll).
Aronofsky’s script, written with Ari Handel, is fascinating and original in its willingness to encompass such figures as the Nephilim, described vaguely as “giants” in the Torah but in Apocrypha like the Book of Enoch (where they are called the Watchers) as the sons of human women and angels, and envisioning Methuselah as a massively powerful prophet-sorcerer who is the last keeper of Edenic lore. He is seen in flashback wielding a flaming sword, perhaps inspired by Genesis 3:24’s mention of this totem as God’s barrier to Eden, to defend the Nephilim against the Cainites, striking the ground and releasing concussive shockwaves of magic that drive the wicked men back. His gifts also provoke one of the narrative’s major crises as he works magic that promulgates fertility in true shamanic fashion. One reason texts featuring the Nephilim and other figures of the Apocrypha lore are excised from the Torah and Bible does seem to be because they represent a more superstitious, fantastical edge to the old faith, as well as a possible rival moral schema, a notion Aronofsky exploits to a certain degree. The Watchers, distorted and aggrieved, stand between Creator and Creation, resenting both but finally looking for redemption, and finding it in fighting for the ark. There’s richness and brilliance in incorporating them into this tale. This, however, makes how they’re animated and portrayed the most awkward aspect of Noah: they look and sound like lumpen monstrosities from dozens of other CGI fantasy fests, dragging the film perilously close to such territory.
Similarly intrepid, but logical, too, is how Aronofsky and Handel recast Tubal-cain as antagonist to Noah, leader of the rival tribe with arts of metal-working (biblically accurate) and concoctions close to gunpowder (not so much). Tubal-cain, played in hirsute and haggard middle-age by Ray Winstone, turns up with his followers as the ark nears completion, with an eye to getting aboard if the spreading rumour of impending apocalypse proves true. Noah has already been seen in combat, kicking ass for the Lord in righteous style but never taking a life, a stance that seems about to become impossible, especially as Noah sees his divinely inspired job as ensuring that none of the sinful survive. As the tale unfolds, indeed, Noah eventually admits to Naameh that as far as he can tell, the human race is meant to die out, with his children all dying in their allotted time and leaving the Earth cleansed. Noah’s certainty that the Creator is speaking to him is counterbalanced by the Watchers and Tubal-cain’s shared frustration at the lack of response: Tubal-cain prepares for war whilst quietly, but with the faintest tone of confused angst of an uncomprehending, rejected son, asking for such a sign as he bashes metal into shape. This, however, proves a double-edged sword, as Noah’s comprehension of his task transforms him from the most righteous man to an increasingly committed, fanatical, dark-eyed tool.
This touch is the most substantial amplification of the bare-bones tale: Noah, whose name means ease or comfort, is traditionally seen as the most beneficent of the Old Testament patriarchs. He’s not a character at all, really, not in the same way King David or Samson manage to be in their violently contradictory natures, but rather an emblem of a figure of grandfatherly shelter. Crowe’s more virile father is crossbred here with a later biblical figure, Abraham, as Aronofsky strikes deep at the heart of the patriarchal faith. Other films have depicted the Noah tale: Michael Curtiz’s 1929 version turned it into a parable for the Wall Street crash, whilst a more recent, godawful TV version featured Jon Voight speaking to a Jehovah who sounded like a TV sitcom dad. The best, and the one with which Aronofsky’s take feels in a dialectic, was John Huston’s The Bible…In the Beginning (1966). Huston, a rigorously nonreligious artist who emphasised the starkly symbolic and arcane virtues of Genesis, painted his Noah as a gently comedic figure and his story as colourful juvenilia before letting Lot and Abraham do the moral heavy lifting. Huston had his own parable for contemporary apocalyptic urges in mind: his Sodom was wiped out by a mushroom cloud and the intended sacrifice of Isaac takes place near the Hiroshima-like ruins of the city. Huston spread this notion out across most of the Genesis narrative, whereas Aronofsky packs it all into Noah’s, as his hero accepts his task and tries to carry it out, a burden Naameh tries mitigate, recognising the scale of guilt it imposes on her husband. However, even she threatens to abandon and curse him when he makes clear that he will follow through on his mission no matter how unpleasant it becomes.
Noah, then, is not just Aronofsky’s recapitulation of Old Testament wrath but an account of his active struggle with its meaning and intimations for a modern man, beggared by the scale of both offence given and taken apparent in the cause for the deluge. The wisdom of the patriarchs likewise is given a beady eye, as Noah’s cause sparks generational mistrust and war in his own family, a family he feels required to cheat of all future even as he saves them. Ila had been left barren by a wound as a girl, and as she grows and falls in love with Shem, she tearfully tells her adopted father that she doesn’t want to burden Shem with childlessness. But Naameh decides to help Ila by appealing to Methuselah in contravention of her husband’s word, and the old man agrees: he touches Ila’s belly, making her fertile again, and quickly she falls pregnant. Noah, outraged once he learns of this, howls that he’s now bound to kill her child if it proves to be a girl. Meanwhile Ham is pained by the sight of Shem and Ila’s physical intimacy, and sets out to try to extract a potential mate from the Cainite camp, which is in constant tumult from debauchery and violence. He tumbles into a pit and encounters a grotty, terrified girl, Na’el (Madison Davenport), and offers her a chance to flee with him to the ark. As they do so, however, the rains begin, and the Cainite horde makes for the ark. Noah ventures out to bring back Ham, but doesn’t try to help Na’el, who falls over and is crushed under the feet of the horde.
The first half of Noah is uneven and feels incomplete in that it could have yielded far more facets to its interesting elaborations and more insight into the tribal struggle. For instance, Aronofsky’s telling avoidance of the detail that in the Bible, Naameh was Tubal-cain’s sister and the sorts of loyalty conflict that might have stemmed from this, dismisses a potential source of strong drama. The flourishes of fantastic imagery, too, even if they disturb the faithful, beg for enlargement. Aronofsky is one of the few contemporary, mainstream directors with roots in experimental-edged filmmaking, and some of his most memorable and specific directorial flourishes here retain that edge, particularly in the stroboscopic edits of still pictures into a time-lapse effect depicting passing years via the flow of water out of Noah’s little Eden: here is a poetic charge of visual beauty and strangeness. Equally striking in execution is a similar sequence in which Noah recounts the history of the world to his children to illustrate the necessity of the Creator’s exterminating judgement. Aronofsky offers in super-speed the epochs of universal birth and expansion and earthly evolution equated with the six days of Creation, a state of balanced perfection despoiled by humankind’s peculiar gift for slaughter and calamity, with Aronofsky intercutting a silhouetted portrayal of Cain’s first murder with endless repetitions through the ages.
Aronofsky’s awesome craft in such moments is, however, contrasted with bluntness, like the witless, horror-movie flourishes in Black Swan. Biblical filmmaking works best when it’s allowed to boil down to powerful visual metaphors, such as DeMille’s collapsing temple in Samson and Delilah (1949) and parting Red Sea in The Ten Commandments (1956), or when it can possess a touch of the alien, such as Scorsese managed in The Last Temptation of Christ’s abstracted miracles and atavistic visions. Aronofsky’s conceptual imagination still seems limited in some regards: his canvases are huge and ripe, and yet his idea of spiritual imagery is, as in The Fountain, corny floods of CGI sunshine and rock-album-cover notions of fantastic landscapes. Occasionally, he still yields to plasticity, like in the instagrow Eden and firefly angels. The hordes of animals sweeping through the forest to take refuge in the ark are impressive but regulation special effects. Still, making a film as expensive as Noah demands concessions, and it seems Aronofsky was willing to make a trade-off to give his film appeal to a broad audience steeped in a more literal visual language of the fantastic.
Moreover, Aronofsky offers up many more powerful visualisations, like in a sequence that calls back to the orgy scene of Requiem for a Dream in which Noah visits the Cainite camp and perceives a morass of human depravity, filled with assault and rape, squirming acres of desperate flesh in the muck giving him a vision of degenerate humankind that bolsters his misanthropic interpretation of his mission. The igneous nature of the drama here suits Aronofsky’s sometimes reductive gift for portraying squalor on both physical and metaphysical levels. Aspects of Aronofsky’s stylisation blur the difference between distant past and distant future, with a hint of a science fiction to the alien-like Nephilim and Ouroboros-like rebooting of time represented by the Flood. Particularly in the bold and startling moment of Na’el’s death, the film clicks into a mode of sustained ferocity and genuinely powerful spectacle, kicking off a climactic sequence as the Watchers fight off the Cainites whilst Noah tries to seal the ark, the deluge starting as rain but soon giving way to colossal geysers. The Watchers, upon being felled by the humans, including Tubal-cain’s prototypical cannon, revert to angelic form and shoot back into the heavens. The brilliance of transcendence is painted in fiery colours and surges of mystical force amidst a struggle that remains one enacted in elements: flesh, blood, fire, water, and earth. There’s visual similarity here, indeed, to the similarly beautiful battle at the climax of Chris Weitz’s underrated The Golden Compass (2007). The actual flood is predictably colossal stuff.
Noah gains its greatest power as it sets up and marches towards a second, more intimate, but no less fractious climax, a difficult feat considering the seemingly inevitable and well-known resolution to the legend. The seeds of danger are sewn as Noah announces his intention to kill Ila’s daughters when she gives birth to twins, and sabotages her and Shem’s attempts to abandon the ark. Meanwhile Ham has smuggled the injured Tubal-cain aboard. The two older men begin to look increasingly similar, as the formerly warm and protective Noah becomes a hollow-eyed engine of merciless prosecution of his divinely appointed job, Naameh cracks and refuses to play along anymore, and Ham helps Tubal-cain recover and conspires to kill Noah, the young man receptive to Tubal-cain’s insinuating words in his fury at his father’s actions and intentions. Aronofsky is surely commenting on the ease with which zeal turns into fanaticism as he deconstructs the flat biblical hero and evokes real disquiet at the aspect rarely explored in versions of the arcane tales, the virulence in their images of sin and wrath, the pain facing individual men and women asked to accept or mete out cosmic force. This Noah is slowly destroyed by his task, as any decent man would be.
Aronofsky is deeply attentive, too, to the essential symbolism that drives the original tale, with its direct and unalloyed teaching tool portraying essential natural systems and physical and conceptual binaries sharing an enclosed space, the literal world in miniature, with male and female as breeding pairs as the essential truth, equated with human and animal, sin and redemption, disgrace and cleansing. Each binary is maintained and enlarged upon as Noah’s gift for interpreting prophecy is revealed to have failed in the clear presentation of twin daughters from Ila, giving each brother in the family a potential mate. There’s some humour in here, too, as Winstone, who’s been the go-to actor for plebeian bastardry since Nil By Mouth (1997), plays Tubal-cain as an earthy embodiment of humanity’s greed. When Ham catches him eating one of the ark’s animals, he protests, “There was only two of those!” to which Tubal-cain retorts calmly, “Yes but there’s only one of me.” The approaching climax threatens the collision of two programmes threatening intrafamilial homicide. Indeed, Aronofsky’s vision of the family is as a set of united, but finally individual viewpoints.
Aronofsky’s take on biblical drama is often infused with a rival, equally consuming mythos, that of classic American cinema: the inevitable three-way tussle of a son and two father figures recalls in a good way the similarly mythic climax of Return of the Jedi (1983), whilst the ultimate confrontation of Noah and Ila on the cusp of new worlds evokes John Ford’s The Searchers (1956). One knows the white dove with the sprig in its beak will turn up at a fortuitous moment, but just when Aronofsky has it fly in has its own subtle and telling resonances, arriving less as deus ex machine than confirmation of mercy’s necessity. Is Noah a work that our multitudinous contemporary cults, religious and otherwise, with their various viewpoints can sit down around and get something from? Probably not, but that’s a huge ask. This Noah is, finally, a strong, intelligently wrought and probing reaction to the present through the lens of the distant past/future, and an extremely impressive film with some significant flaws. It represents new ground for Aronofsky and the first work of his I’ve actually liked on a dramatic level as well as appreciated on formal grounds. He wrings great performances out of his cast in a genre not usually known for good acting: Crowe is excellent, and so is Connolly, whilst Watson follows up last year’s The Bling Ring in delivering a revelatory performance that finally ties all to the anguish of the individual young mother.
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Director: Martin Scorsese
By Roderick Heath
Martin Scorsese’s films that followed the heady, messy grandeur of Gangs of New York (2002) have all been enjoyable and beautifully made. Yet even the most ardent admirers, like me, could admit something was missing from them. That ornery, empirical attitude and fiery aesthetic edge that used to inflect and define Scorsese’s films was damped down in big, slick, good-looking entertainments like The Aviator (2004) and Hugo (2011), whilst The Departed (2006) and Shutter Island (2010) were genre exercises enlivened and enriched, but not transfigured by the director’s sense of style. The price Scorsese seemed to have paid for admission at last as a Hollywood grandee was to leave behind provocation. The Wolf of Wall Street is almost reassuring as it erupts in classic Scorsese curlicues of rocket-paced editing and rampant profanity, but to a degree that provokes caution about a director possibly moving into self-satire and playing to his fans’ affections, as he did with The Departed. But no, The Wolf of Wall Street is Scorsese’s most fearsome, powerful, specific film in over a decade, a thunder blast of black-witted absurdism, a portrait of a way of life as perceived by an individual whose distorting perspective exemplifies that world. Scorsese got in trouble in some quarters for allowing entrance into Travis Bickle’s point of view with Taxi Driver (1976), and now The Wolf of Wall Street has upset some by doing the same thing for Jordan Belfort, entrepreneur and criminal. This confirms that Scorsese is back doing his real job—directing films that discomfort as well as entertain his audience and provoking their moral and aesthetic standards. Scorsese’s devils are charming motherfuckers.
Scorsese’s fifth collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio casts the actor as Belfort, product of a blue-collar upbringing, son of “Mad” Max (Rob Reiner), a former cop turned PI. Belfort recounts his story in the same high-powered voiceover that Henry Hill used in Goodfellas (1990), and like Hill, occasionally breaks down the fourth wall. But whereas Hill was explaining and excusing himself all the time, Belfort is a better, cockier salesman, suddenly cutting short his spiel to grin smarmily at the audience, whom he treats exactly like his clients, assuring us we needn’t concern ourselves with the details. He’s got them down, and the results are presented for our amusement as torrents of lifestyle brags, including a formidable array of drugs he’s comfortably addicted to and keeps balanced like a juggler.
Belfort recounts his early days as a young wannabe stockbroker, landing a job at the prestigious L. F. Rothschild and negotiating the totem pole. He’s taken to lunch by his superior, Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), the kind of guy who snorts cocaine at the table of the ritzy skyline restaurant they sit in and preaches the values of masturbation to Jordan for keeping cool in their maniacal occupation. Mark also imparts the essential impulse of their business: to make sure the investor puts money in their hands and never takes it out, as the brokers get their cut for every use they can think of, regardless of whether it goes atomic or sinks into the abyss. The rollercoaster nature of the business is, however, almost immediately revealed to Belfort as the 1987 crash hits on his first day as an accredited broker, destroying his employer and leaving him and thousands of other brokers high and dry. On the advice of his wife, Teresa (Cristin Milioti), Jordan takes a punt at an ignominious job that will still keep him in the game: selling penny or pink-sheet stocks in small companies with a low-rent outfit working out of a strip mall in the wilderness of Long Island.
Belfort is rooted in this environment, however, and he quickly adapts. He combines the skills he’s picked up on Wall Street with the art of suburban hustling and his awareness, cynical rather than empathetic, of the secret fantasies nursed by the type of low-grade investor he’s enticing. He swiftly sets up his own pink-sheet stock firm, but rather than recruit other brokers, he goes back to his old neighbourhood and cultivates talent from the two-bit salesmen and dope peddlers he grew up with. These include Nicky “Rugrat” Koskoff (P. J. Byrne), nicknamed for his awful wig, Alden “Sea Otter” Kupferberg (Henry Zebrowski), and other sartorially sobriqueted suburbanites, though the talent he wants most, body-building Brad (Jon Bernthal), is content selling his stock of Quaaludes to stoner teens. Instead, Jordan gains a lieutenant in Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), a toy salesman who’s married to his own first cousin, Heidi (Mackenzie Meehan). Hill’s performance cunningly annexes a familiar brand of Scorsese spiv with deliberate artificiality, manifested through his grill of bathroom-tile-white teeth, recalling the lacquered creeps of Casino (1995). Donnie proves equivalent to Joe Pesci’s character in Scorsese’s earlier films, too, the loose cannon subordinate who doesn’t know where the limits of good sense are, even as his self-appointed wise superior slips quietly off the rails.
Scorsese starts with a thematic joke that’s also a cinematic one: an advertisement, rendered in a small, boxy TV format, for Stratton Oakmont that portrays a lion looking rather like MGM’s Leo, patrolling the floor of the company offices. It’s a deliberate alternative to, and echo of, the wolf figuration, as the ad creates an image of beneficent class and proud ferocity for a company that’s actually bent on eating you. Scorsese’s eruption into widescreen presents raucous, plebeian, orgiastic behaviour as Jordan and his hordes hurl dwarves at a target as part of an office party competition. The grotesque ebullience harkens back to Scorsese’s masters from the distant fringe of Hollywood memory, like Stroheim and Sternberg, when depictions of an amoral high life were a stock in trade, and through to Fellini and ’80s sex romps, save that this “Animal House” has sharper teeth and no pretence to counterculture attitude. The Wolf of Wall Street deals with much less violent characters than Goodfellas or Casino, and yet it ultimately feels uglier and less reassuring, not just because of the mind- (and eye-) boggling portrait of a business that considers itself an engine of national wealth, but because those earlier films’ criminal classes were defined by pretences to domesticity and rituals of pacific balance. The eruptions of violence there could be uncontrolled and irrational, but the essential fantasy of the mafia types was that they were people who pursued illegal wealth and liked wielding power, but did so with the understanding that they had to mimic the conservative family and social structures around them to survive. The Wolf of Wall Street, on the other hand, details a species that dreads such humble trappings and containing strictures. Although Jordan gets married, buys a house, and has kids, these feel more like lifestyle embellishment than a point in themselves. His cabal of hungry brokers are not happy merely consuming, even conspicuously. They want to live without the fearful pettiness of regular life, to remain on a constant high without dips or valleys.
Even the disasters and pitfalls Belfort and company encounter keeps them scrambling with an adrenalized excitement that Scorsese’s barrelling storytelling force-feeds to the audience. Belfort’s seamy genius is made clear as he gains awed applause from the other penny stock sellers for his master-class example flogging shares in a garage radar detector business to some shmuck, motivated by the discovery that unlike the 1 percent commission he got selling blue chip stock, in this “sort-of” regulated field, the brokers take home 50 percent. Jordan soon has the fateful inspiration to start selling poor stock to rich people. Jordan’s rationalisation argues that he deserves the money he reaps because he spends it better, and he only represents a more perfect version of the half-smart, ineffectively greedy people he bilks. He gives his new business cover by calling it Stratton Oakmont—Ivy League class and credibility seeming to drip from each syllable. This makes Belfort and his crew powerfully rich Wall Street players within months, with a high-rise office space churning with unleashed competitive energy. Scorsese pays a fittingly disgraceful nod to Citizen Kane (1941) as the team celebrates success with an invading marching band, except that the prim gaiety of the kick line that celebrated Charlie Kane is now a troupe stripped down to their underwear, followed by a mob of strippers in lingerie, as the scene devolves into a kind of pinstriped, pornographic Agincourt.
The brash, bratty attitude of the company and frat-boy ethos is highlighted by wince-inducing vignettes, like the dwarf tossing and a female employee having her head shaved for $10,000. The contempt and violence underlying this scene becomes clearer when Donnie smacks and belittles an employee he catches taking care of the office fish whilst gearing up for a big sale, before snatching out and eating the fish before the gleefully appalled staff. Predatory capitalism indeed. The chances of such egregious abuse pale compared to the rewards Belfort offers his crew, as far as they’re concerned. Even before he finds such accomplishment, Belfort is shown as a sensually greedy cad cavorting with prostitutes, and with great success comes only greater excess. The moment he claps eyes on Naomi Lapaglia (Margot Robbie), a random, stunningly attractive guest at a party he throws, he flirts mercilessly with her whilst conspicuously ignoring her dipshit, preppie date. Donnie’s status as Jordan’s embodied id-beast is confirmed as he, in a drug-addled state, settles for whipping out his dick and masturbating in the midst of the party whilst ogling Naomi. Jordan seduces the dilettante model, or rather she seduces him, because, like Jordan, she operates according to programmed cues to go after the rich guy. Theresa catches them together as Jordan’s snorting cocaine off her rack in a limousine. One marriage ends and another commences, but not before Jordan treats his firm to a Caligula-level bacchanal, flying them all to Las Vegas with a planeload of hookers and drugs. The scene concludes with a shot of the naked Belfort standing before shattered hotel room windows, gazing out on the Las Vegas dawn, quoting a $2 million price tag for it.
Belfort easily gives FCC investigators the run-around, sequestering them in a freezing cold room whilst setting up a grand scam that ensures triumphal profits: Donnie’s schoolyard association with Steve Madden (Jake Hoffman), hip shoe designer who’s taking his company public, allows them to turn the deal to their own advantage. The Wolf of Wall Street is, inevitably, a film about hubris, but Belfort’s particular kind of hubris is fascinating: having built an extremely successful business in a morally questionable, but essentially legal field, he must go further and attempt to rig the game, as he commits stock fraud on the Madden deal, making himself personally far richer. When he hears an FBI agent, Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) is investigating him, Jordan invites him and a partner onto his yacht, trying to let the allure of his lifestyle entice the agent, and then, as the agent affects agreeable receptivity, talks and talks himself right up to the edge of committing another crime in intimating a possible bribe for Denham. Denham points this out, the two men’s feigned amity crumbling beautifully as Belfort throws him off his boat and insults the two men with wealth-based jibes, hurling bills after them in a display of bratty anger, but all too aware that in wiseguy terms, he just showed his ass. What’s particularly acute here is that Denham operates like Scorsese’s camera, slowing to attentive stillness, letting the scene run on and on until Jordan’s taken enough rope to hang himself. The Wolf of Wall Street consciously mimics the structuring of Goodfellas and Casino in particular, with the self-evident point that they’re all criminal epics, starting in medias res, then jumping back to show how the set-up was created, using high-powered montages to put across exposition with a method that’s more like essayistic filmmaking or a bullet-point presentation than traditional cause and effect, and constructing the main thrust of the narrative through detailed vignettes that increase the pressure-cooker atmosphere and sense of gyrating farcicality.
The film’s connections spread out to many of Scorsese’s works and influences, and indeed whilst it never loses its racy verve and consuming intent, it surely counts as a summative work. It’s an antithesis to the viewpoints of Boxcar Bertha (1972), but essays the same thematic motives. Like Mean Streets (1973) and many of Scorsese’s subsequent films, it’s a study in the frustrating irrationality of some personalities who insist on spoiling good deals because they’re animated by desires that crossbreed with their pathology: just as Johnny Boy gets kicks blowing up post boxes, so, too, does Jordan feel the thrill not just of making money and living it up, but also in actively cheating the system and feeling smarter than everyone else. Like Vincent Lauria in The Color of Money (1986), he’s the hip student of the wise operator who rejects moral standards and becomes an unrestrained, conniving asshole.
Yet Jordan cohabits the space occupied by frustrated figures of wisdom like Eddie Felson, as his impish associates detonate hard-earned successes. As Rupert Pupkin finally finds fame and audience adulation through his assaults on the system of celebrity, Jordan finds a second act to his American life because his criminal notoriety attracts followers. Like Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta, and even Newland Archer, he falls for a blonde status symbol, and like the second two protagonists, is tied to a dark-haired woman who symbolises class mundaneness. Like so many of Scorsese’s characters, including the few saintly ones like Jesus, the Dalai Lama, and Bringing Out the Dead’s Frank Pierce, he passes through the gut of infernal experience, and emerges on the far side of an invisible but genuine barrier, looking back on the audience like a messenger. That experience defines Scorsese’s much-analysed dialectic between saints and sinners, and also unifies them: all approaches to life, essentially, lead to similar crossroads, but then what do we make of them?
Scorsese’s visual stylistics have been so often imitated and annexed by acolytes in the past quarter-century that sometimes his devices threaten to look hackneyed, like the opening sequence’s freeze frames, the practiced mimicry of mercenary film styles (in the film’s second and funniest fake advertisement), the fast-paced camera dollies, and so forth. The colour and richness of Michael Ballhaus’ and Robert Richardson’s work for Scorsese is muted here in favour of the bald, steely tones of Rodrigo Prieto’s digital photography: the segue from the painterly, nostalgic beauty of Hugo is likewise brutal. What continues to distinguish Scorsese’s filmmaking, however, is both the pace and precision of the devices, their organic force: Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing has scarcely been more ruthless or driving with Scorsese’s images, which avoid show-off moments like the famous Goodfellas tracking shots. The facile appropriation of Scorsesean stylistics by the likes of American Hustle neglects its purpose and roots in an expressionistic aesthetic, the drive to make the camera match the sensibility of the main character in an act of forced identification even as he ventures to places we otherwise would never go. We join the ride with Jordan, gobsmacked and appalled, laughing our asses off like bystanders at a particularly mad party: we don’t approve, but no way in hell are we going home.
A sequence that many directors might treat obviously, like the one in which Theresa catches Jordan with Naomi, becomes a little whirlwind of alternating angles that crash in upon each other, distorting space and time—one diorama-like shot from across the street turns the pavement into a desolate, slapstick space with all traffic, including the limousine with Naomi still inside, excised—capturing the violent shock and colliding spaces of experience. All this is scored, by the way, by Eartha Kitt’s rendition of “C’est si bon,” anthem of a gold digger, rubbing the audience’s ears and crotches with its insouciantly materialist eroticism whilst mocking the drama on screen by reducing all the players to types: gentlemen really do prefer blondes. The invasion of the office space by strippers after the frenetic action of the marching band devolves from slashing dollies and cuts to drunken slow motion. The sequence depicting Belfort’s flying orgy, employees humping hookers in every crevice of the frame, is filmed in a tracking shot surveying the scene from above, ravening in its motion but analytical in its height, and then segues into a shot of splendiferously vulgar wonder, as the plane hits turbulence, frizz-haired prostitutes and a wave of white cocaine tumbling in slow motion, a switchback of distrait strangeness. The framing and image is echoed in reverse later, when a private jet Jordan has coming to pick him up explodes in mid-air, as minor hiccup gives way to proper disaster: the fanning flames mirror the shower of coke, this time superimposed over Jordan’s face as he watches in disbelief.
The centrepiece of the film is the epic pep-talk Jordan gives to the firm as they prepare for the Steve Madden sell-off. Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter make mild fun of Belfort for his literary pretences, which only exemplify our contemporary habits of reducing everything to a sound bite or inspirational epigram. Thus, in Jordan’s estimation, Moby-Dick is the tale of a man hunting his white whale, and you, too, can bag your quarry if you follow this simple script. An atavistic, tribal quality underlies Jordan’s creation, signalled early on when Hanna teaches him a kind of ritual chant and chest slap, one that the Stratton Oakmont cadre repeats en masse at Jordan’s signal as they approach their fiscal Thermopylae, echoing the imperial funeral sequence, with its similarly ranked mourners and winnowing chants, in The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). The film as a whole borrows the deeper meaning of Melville’s novel, as the mad captain takes his ship to destruction in ceaselessly chasing an illusion of cosmic intent, and also echoes John Huston’s film of it in the way he shoots Jordan hypnotising and drawing his harpooners into a quasi-mystic compact of mission.
DiCaprio’s career-best performance is close to unhinged in its energy and force here, and caps over a decade’s worth of collaboration for director and star with a genuine triumph. Equally good in a potentially thankless role is Robbie, playing Naomi, whose aura of high-class beauty is undercut by a peerlessly broad Queens accent. Naomi has a so-English aunt, Emma (Joanna Lumley), who represents all things worth aspiring to for Naomi and Jordan, but who herself delights in subverting such standards: she unblinkingly notes Jordan’s nose caked in coke and reassures him, oh so coolly, “I lived through the ‘Sixties,” and then readily and happily signs onto Jordan’s project to hide his profits from stock scams in a Swiss bank account. Scorsese wrings discomfort but also a kind of comic grace from Jordan’s awkward attempt to seduce Emma as her dollybird charisma and way with an innuendo seems to demand its price; indeed, it’s hard not to fall under the sway of Lumley’s projection of a far different, far more adult and alien brand of sex appeal.
Jordan uses Brad’s Swiss-Slovenian girlfriend Chantalle (Katarina Čas) and her family as couriers to get his money into Switzerland, where it’s handled by Rugrat’s college pal, now a prominent crooked banker, Jean-Jacques Saurel (Jean Dujardin, cunningly following up his 2011 Oscar win in the The Artist). Snooty, wily, disdainful, and as unaware of his own edge of absurdity as any of the other characters, Saurel is presented as Jordan’s European doppelgänger to such a degree that the pair can communicate in quasi-psychic insults. Emma and Saurel prove to be weak links in Jordan’s plot, the former by dying inconveniently and the latter by getting himself arrested on U.S. soil for some completely unrelated conniving. Along the way, however, Jordan’s increasingly erratic behaviour results in two epic sequences of self-destructive tomfoolery. Jordan and Donnie’s Quaalude habit pays off in a scene of tremendous slapstick comedy as Jordan, stoned and just warned that his house is bugged, realises he has to get home to stop a similarly influenced Donnie blabbing over the phone to Saurel. He has to roll, crawl, and drive in a near-paralytic state, finally shaking himself out of a stupor to save Donnie from choking to death by imitating a Popeye cartoon his daughter is watching, snorting a vial of cocaine in place of spinach to fire him back to action. The second comes when, after finding Emma has died, Jordan has to rush from the islands to southern France in order to get to Switzerland and save his fortune, ignoring his wife’s stunned grief and his captain’s cautions; his yacht is wrecked in a storm, and everyone has to be rescued by the Italian Coast Guard.
Such displays of auto-da-fe tomfoolery are hilarious, of course, and successfully reduce Jordan from übermensch to schlemiel; having congratulated himself on spending money in a superior fashion to his hapless investors, he also blows it with incredible talent. The real shipwreck for Jordan comes as his defiance proves ineffective and his tormentors close in. Faced with losing everything, it’s finally Naomi’s cruelly exact spurning that sets the scene for a true debasement. The mirroring here is again concise, as this sequence repeats an earlier fight the couple played out, except reversing the dictum of history as tragedy and then farce. The byplay of the couple is based in Naomi’s sexual power over Jordan, keeping him on a leash by withholding, but shifts from bedroom farce to domestic violence as she gives into his attentions for one last time, and then, with an assassin’s precision, tells him she’s divorcing him: Jordan responds by socking her in the stomach and fleeing to hide in his Porsche with his bewildered baby daughter like a spoilt child refusing to give up his last toy. Scorsese is a past master of portraying the annihilating verve in collapsing relationships—New York, New York (1977), Raging Bull, and Casino climax with disintegrating marriages—and here the action is pushed into a Bergmanesque shot of Jordan assaulting Naomi in long shot at the end of a hallway. The great world has screwed inward for a portrait of intimate brutality. Whilst not as powerful as those other films in this regard, where the marriages were far more detailed affairs and the splitting far more cataclysmic, the effect in the context of the jaunty, adolescent adventure preceding these scenes in The Wolf of Wall Street is jarring, but also, finally clarifying.
Betrayal, as Jordan agrees to rat for Denham on his colleagues, and a half-hearted, self-incriminating stab at redemption, by warning Donnie about this, are equal only then in their pathetic insufficiency. A shot of Denham riding the subway with the other poor schmucks who will never even have a momentary taste of Jordan’s glory days, is, far from being a failure of moral perspective, as some have claimed, actually a coup of such perspective, because it refuses to let the audience off the hook and feel superior. There is, rather, a coldly precise indictment of the world that created Jordan, sustained by fantasies of what he enacted, living on the profits of a common dream of something for nothing, elevating the dark arts of the few at the expense of the many. Perhaps it’s the lingering morality of many, a kind of decency, like Denham’s, that keeps them behaving, or maybe it’s just the lack of smarts; early on in the film, Sea Otter disputes Jordan’s proposal that everyone wants riches with an anecdote of an Amish stoner he once met. Scorsese knows full well that such pacific desires are far more the exception than the rule, and in the world described in The Wolf of Wall Street, it’s dismissed as a jokey discursion. Of course, the desire for such virulent power and plenty is still there, and Jordan’s fantasy was only everybody else’s, even after we’ve seen him pay the price for overreaching. In the coda, as the real Belfort introduces DiCaprio playing him, plying his inspirational wisdom to an audience of wannabes, there is dissociation, as Belfort, punished technically if not sufficiently, now himself becomes the mirror to those desires.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Andrew Williamson
By Marilyn Ferdinand
I can hear the cries of “traitor” already, but I’m not the kind of film buff who thinks celluloid is essential to filmmaking or viewing. Human history is entwined to such an extent with innovation—the kind that gave us celluloid in the first place—that we could argue that it, not language, is what gave us dominion over the land. I welcome tools that, when put in the right hands, make our lives richer, and that certainly applies to the method of filmmaking and the content of The Land of Eb. Without the cost-saving innovation of HDCAM that gives independent filmmakers like Andrew Williamson the ability to make and distribute films with little commercial potential, this moving story might never have seen the light of day. For the Marshall Islander who is at the heart of this lovely Marshallese-language film, video is a way to preserve his culture and memories and bridge the gap to his family living near the home he was forced to leave in order for them all to survive.
Jacob Jackson (Jonithen Jackson) is a 56-year-old coffee-bean picker and handyman from Enewetak, an island mainly destroyed by U.S. atomic bomb testing, who lives in a small Marshallese community on the Big Island of Hawai’i with his wife Dorothy (Tarke Jonithen) and his children and grandchildren. Daughter Ruth (Rojel Jonithen) has just given birth, but Thomas (Jeff Nashion), the father, is a ne’er-do-well who has no plans to marry Ruth and who routinely turns to Jacob for help when he gets drunk or in a jam. Jacob is a pious, hard-working patriarch who has little patience with Thomas. He is also living with the unpleasant secret that his status as cancer survivor has changed back to cancer sufferer. He decides that it is God’s will whether he lives or dies, and rather than endure exhausting treatments that will make him unable to work, he tries everything he can to make enough money to pay off the mortgage on the land he has purchased to secure the future of his family before the cancer finishes him.
When I first read the summary of this film, it reminded me of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Ikiru (1952), but the resemblance in terms of plot is superficial. Like Watanabe, Jacob has cancer, and like Watanabe, his family is far away. Unlike Watanabe, it’s not clear whether Jacob is actually terminal and many members of Jacob’s family are literally far away, whereas Watanabe has lost touch emotionally, not physically, with his son. Where the two films come into beautiful accord is in the quiet determination of both men to accomplish a task they consider very important—Watanabe tries to get a playground built and Jacob works to pay off his land—and we come to care very much about them and root for their success.
Williamson doesn’t have a single professional actor in the cast; indeed, he and his coscreenwriter John Hill met Jackson and wrote a film for him, so interesting and inspirational did they find him. Jackson is a video enthusiast, and that passion is included in the film—in the video diary Jacob makes for his children and grandchildren with lessons on life and stories of their culture for them to view after he is dead, and in the ingenious camera boom he builds out of tripods and odd lengths of metal. Jacob tinkers with motorcycles, keeps an ancient pick-up truck running and a jerry-rigged ham radio connection with his relatives in the Marshall Islands. He has electronic musical instruments stashed around the family compound, which itself is a collection of buildings with one single-story “lodge” as the main family home. It reminded me of a city loft or some South Seas homes I’ve seen in pictures that are wide open and roomy. Despite the odds-and-ends furnishings and dime-store decorations, I found it very inviting, and the only explanation for my reaction is that the house is truly a home, filled with love and togetherness.
Williamson builds a quiet rhythm out of Jackson’s everyday life. We watch him pick ripe coffee beans off tall bushes and drop them into a plastic bucket harnessed in front of him. He empties the beans into burlap sacks. He brings the receipts from the sale of the sacks to his boss. He asks his boss if there’s anything else he can do to make some money—not extra money, no such thing in his world—and the boss says there’s nothing. He goes to a flea market and gets the idea to sell some of his stuff there. He brings a picking crew to a mean, old haole who promises to split the take 50/50 and then, predictably, cheats him. He gets sick and crashes his truck into a port-a-let. He never complains—he just keeps moving, and we keep pace.
Williamson allows us to fall more and more in love with Jacob with small, intimate moments and gestures. When his family takes his car keys and there’s nobody to drive the grandchildren to band practice, he walks with them there and listens patiently as they bleat and strain like elephants in heat. When Dorothy learns he is sick again, her gruffness doesn’t exactly vanish, but rather transmutes into something more personal. She joins him at the haole’s fields to pick beans, and they share a smile and briefly hold hands. When Jacob is exhausted, he moves slowly toward the ocean. Williamson gives us a brief view of the lapping waves, and that’s it—just a quiet look toward his home across the sea. Notably, this film is not seduced by the alluring scenery of Hawai’i, so we concentrate on the human story far away from the tourist traps.
As Jacob has a warming, ennobling effect on us, he gets to Thomas as well. Forced to rely on Thomas to drive him around, Jacob provides an example of how an honorable man lives. To emphasize this life lesson, we get the story of the Land of Eb. The story tells of a young man who is sent to bring clams to his starving village, but who greedily eats them all instead. On his second attempt, he does the same thing. On his third try, however, he returns to an empty village. The villagers have gone to the Land of Eb, below the sea, where they can eat clams to their hearts’ content. By failing the collective, he has made himself a lonely outcast.
The conclusion of the film leaves a number of threads loose. We don’t know if Thomas will step up to his responsibilities or whether Jacob will survive following the operation his doctor has scheduled. Whatever the outcome, we know that this family and community have the determination and collective spirit to go on, and that’s quite a lot indeed.
The Land of Eb is available worldwide on iTunes February 25. The DVD is available February 26 here.
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Director: Mike Nichols
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It’s hard to think of two people more suited to team up on Carnal Knowledge than its director, Mike Nichols, and Jules Feiffer, who wrote the screenplay. Both men are often savage social critics, though more frequently through sardonic humor than penetrating takedown, and Carnal Knowledge is a dart aimed squarely at the confusions and conceits of the hairy ape that was the bourgeois American male during the 1950s and ’60s. While I admit that this brand of masculinity is on the wane, it is hardly on the endangered species list, with people like Rep. Steve Pearce (R-NM) keeping hope alive for this offshoot of Neanderthal by arguing in his book that wives should “voluntarily submit” to their husbands, comparing marriage to the military chain of command he experienced during his Vietnam War service.
Feiffer has expressed his disgust with the military command-control he witnessed as a private: “Nobody did it better and more harmfully than the United States Army, where you saw mindless authority run amok, and proudly run amok.” Nichols spent the first part of his career lampooning the mating rituals and pretensions of the bourgeois intelligentsia with his comedy partner Elaine May. With Carnal Knowledge, the two men ridicule male immaturity and expose the quiet tragedy of the stereotypes about women their protagonists accept and act upon without question.
Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel) are best friends and incoming freshman at Amherst. The film opens with them speaking in voiceover as the Glenn Miller instrumental version of “Moonlight Serenade” plays softly, pulling us into the nostalgic innocence of an earlier time, that is, until we focus on the conversation itself. Both Jonathan and Sandy are talking about what they want in a woman, with Sandy yearning for understanding and, of course, sex, but it’s not the most important thing, and Jonathan wanting a woman, preferably with big tits, to go all the way with him while admitting he would lose respect for her if she does.
Jonathan has bought into the cocksman role, while Sandy is the proto-emo man. When they attend a mixer, Smith freshman Susan (Candice Bergen) walks past them, drawing their attention. Jonathan “gives” her to Sandy, so sure that if he has first crack at her, he’ll score. Sandy fluffs his first attempt to chat her up, and is only saved in his second try when Susan breaks the ice first. They engage in the kind of pseudo-intellectual b.s. college students can’t seem to resist, testing their intellectual muscles around the sensitive topic of emotional honesty.
Susan starts seeing Sandy, but balks at his attempts to get sexual. She finally gives him a hand job out of pity, a dubious triumph Sandy shares with his best friend. Jonathan instantly jumps at the chance for a piece of ass and calls Susan up. That she goes out with him shows she’s pretty typical in wanting to appear nice but actually break the rules, and that she’s as attracted to bad boys as most women are. Jonathan takes her virginity outside on the leaf-strewn ground. Nichols films her move abruptly out of the frame, and we think she’s appalled by what happened. Instead, Susan cuddles lovingly with Jonathan, and their affair is off and running. Despite Jonathan’s pleas and declaration of love, Susan refuses to hurt Sandy by telling him about Jonathan. Instead, the film takes a leap in time, and we learn that Susan and Sandy, now a physician, are married with children, and Jonathan is a businessman whose madonna/whore complex has transformed into thinking that all females are ballbusters.
Carnal Knowledge put me in mind of an anthropological study by Margaret Mead, say, Coming of Age in Samoa or Male and Female. Many of the shots are static, framing a scene or a face full on, taking advantage of cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno’s lush eye, as though photographing an exotic subculture, but also his clinical distance, both characteristics he displayed to perfection in Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963). One rather unnerving scene shows Bergen laughing almost uncontrollably, her aristocratic cool shattered, as Nicholson and Garfunkel speak out of frame on either side of her. Bergen is heartbreaking in showing how trapped she is between these two men, unable to reconcile her physical desires with her intellectual and material needs. The corollary for this scene comes later in the film when Sandy tells Jonathan all the things he and Susan do to try to spice up their sex life, ending sadly with “maybe you’re not supposed to like it with someone you love.”
At times, the shooting style is simultaneously elegant and tawdry. For example, when Jonathan and Bobbie (Ann-Margret), the passive sex object he has taken to dinner, have sex for the first time in his apartment, Nichols directs the camera smoothly through Jonathan’s apartment, going from room to room and up hallways until we are in earshot of the couple’s sex noises and ending with a shadowy shot of them in bed just as they both climax. He goes for the money shot he knows audiences want—Ann-Margret naked—but lets us pretend that, like children, we just happened to stumble in on the primal scene.
Much has been said about Ann-Margret’s touching performance in this film, one that turns her happy sex kitten act on its head by revealing the vulnerability of a woman who has bought into the stay-at-home wife/mother role society has determined for her and who uses her physical gifts to snare someone to take care of her. In a cute scene of seduction in which Jonathan tries to guess Bobbie’s age, Feiffer gets at the underlying cruelty—Bobbie is 29, a desperate age for women seeking respectability in family life. The contempt both men and women have for Bobbie is exemplified by Cindy (Cynthia O’Neal), the haute-bitch Sandy hooks up with after his divorce from Susan. Nichols frames the two women side by side as they watch Jonathan and Sandy play tennis, showing the class contrast between the two. Later, Cindy calls Bobbie “that tub of lard” when Sandy and Jonathan cravenly cook up a partner swap, repudiating not only Bobbie’s ’50s brand of femininity, but Jonathan’s attraction to it. In fact, Jonathan is not so different from Bobbie, as women out of his league emotionally use him for sex and then drop him back at his metaphorical corner.
Whether you find Carnal Knowledge absorbing or alienating may depend on your age and how well you recognize men like Jonathan and Sandy. Sandy is the more common male these days, interested in being in love and moving, however superficially, with the times. Garfunkel has a certain geeky air that has become chic in 2014, and his searching for himself in traditional and counterculture ways—taking up with a much-younger hippie chick (Carol Kane, in her first big-screen appearance)—certainly continues to resonate. Today, men like Jonathan are hounded individuals—every time one says something predictably outrageous in the public sphere, the petitions and denunciations come flying out of cyberspace. There must have been something prescient in Feiffer and Nichols’ approach to this character, who ultimately ends up impotent unless a gypsy-like prostitute (Rita Morena) performs a magic incantation word for word over his dick.
The sardonic imp that Nicholson would play in many of his films blooms to its fullest in Carnal Knowledge, the perfect arch of his eyebrows matching his wiseacre speech. He uncorks his patented tantrum with barely controlled intensity; it seems a tired device now, but when I first saw this film in a theatre, it really made an impression. Nichols tries to imbue Jonathan with some pathos early in the film, training the camera on his dejected face as an oblivious Sandy and Susan bustle and chatter in the margins of the screen. Sadly, Jonathan just ends up being really creepy, inserting a picture of his daughter into the slideshow of his love life, “Ballbusters on Parade.”
In some ways, I wanted to feel sympathetic toward Sandy and Jonathan, but Feiffer and Nichols were having none of that. This is a look at the dark soul of masculinity that saves its heart for its women.
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Director: Paolo Sorrentino
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Sometimes one just has to admit defeat. I have been struggling for a week to write a review of Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, looking for a way to open the review that will give a flavor of what I think Sorrentino is up to with this film, trying to find an artful method to link scenes that illuminate each other, grasping for an economical use of words to convey the themes and impressions Sorrentino has laid out for us. I’ve changed things up over and over, found myself writing a detailed synopsis instead of a critique, forgetting more about the film than I can countenance, and looking at other reviews for memory jogs and inspiration. Interestingly, I have found most reviews of the film to be extremely short and somewhat simplistic, seeing it mainly in terms of its resemblance to Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1961) or commenting on the great party scene that comes near the beginning of the film. I think all we critics are at a loss to really come to terms with this sprawling film whose story seems fairly confined, but whose real character is epic in scope, a Lawrence of Arabia (1962) focused on the whole of Italian culture from the Roman Empire to the 1960s heydays of Italian cinema.
A character in The Great Beauty says that the only industries for which Italy is known today are food and fashion—a country of grocers and garment workers. Abhorring this loss of creative stature, Sorrentino not only has tasked himself with the usual artistic challenge of finding a way to express his times in an authentic way, but also seems determined to return Italy to a place of cultural prominence. His work is complicated by the fact that the history of Italian culture is so long and laden with genius—his efforts are bound to look derivative if he works on a grand scale, or unambitious and forgettable if he goes small and personal. That he has chosen to take on some of the giants of Italian culture—Michelangelo, Dante, and Rossellini, to name but a few—and that he has found not only specific, but also transglobal ways to comment on the human condition circa 2013 is a cause for celebration. Sorrentino may just wake the sleeping giant that is Italian cinema.
The film begins with an epigram from French author Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s novel Journey to the End of Night: “To travel is very useful, it makes the imagination work, the rest is just delusion and pain. Our journey is entirely imaginary, which is its strength.” This quote brought to mind a film to which The Great Beauty bears some resemblance, Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002). In the latter film, a 19th century French nobleman escorts an unseen person (aka, the audience) through the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg on a tour of Russian history. The journey ends with the unseen tourist moving forward, leaving his historical guide behind. This, I believe, is Sorrentino’s purpose—to survey the past, present, and future in a kaleidoscope of images and feelings.
A rather startling opening depicts a group of Japanese tourists on a guided tour of Rome stopped in front of a church located at a high point in the city. As their guide talks to them about the church, a group of nuns sing in a capella harmony near an open balcony. One of the tourists separates himself from the group and takes a few photographs of the city below. He begins to perspire and then collapses. Was it heat prostration, a heart attack, or a swoon brought on by the overwhelming beauty surrounding him? In one moment, Sorrentino has communicated his mixed emotions about the project about to unfold. He follows this up immediately with a bacchanal of the first order, letting us know that he has thrown caution to the wind and will do his best to fulfill his promise to us and himself.
The party, an extraordinary set-piece in a film filled with extraordinary set-pieces, is celebrating the 65th birthday of Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), a journalist as well known as the famous and infamous people he interviews for a magazine published by Dadina (Giovanna Vignola), a middle-aged dwarf whose small stature belies her substantial influence. In homage to Fellini, Sorrentino stocks his party with people of every shape, size, countenance, and age. They writhe to techno music, some alone in a trancelike state, others in pairs or groups, and one on display behind a window moving to an internal rhythm because, as we learn in a shot from her point of view, she cannot hear the music on the other side of her glass cage. A helicopter shot of the party shows it lighting and scoring the night sky, a dazzling, pulsating organism that remains tantalizingly out of reach.
Jep is an older version of La Dolce Vita’s Marcello imagined at the crossroads of a life lived in disillusionment, a superficial creature who produces nothing of lasting value. His moments of triumph constitute little more than being a minor mover in high society, his ambition not just to be invited to the right parties but also to have the ability to make parties fail, whatever that means. That Jep might have been more consequential becomes something of a sick joke, as person after person asks him when he is going to follow up his well-regarded first novel, “The Human Apparatus,” a piece of juvenilia about the woman he loved and lost that sated his appetite for fiction writing when he was in his 20s. At 65, he knows “I can’t waste any more time doing things I don’t want to do.”
Jep seems sincere in his desire to lead an authentic life, and he becomes a mirror breaker in denouncing the vacuous and fraudulent. An unsatisfactory one-night stand with a beautiful, idle-rich woman (Isabella Ferrari) who complains about not being good in bed garners the blunt pleasantry “to be good is to risk becoming deft” and abandonment when she goes to get her laptop to show him the selfies she posts on Facebook. Jep rips apart a conceptual artist (Anita Kravos) whose act is to head-butt a wall and shout something angry. And when attacked for his superficiality by a woman (Galetea Ranzi) who claims to be a productive, principled torchbearer of socialist ideals with enough fortitude to take the truth, he pleads with her to “pass the time with us nicely,” and failing that, punctures her smug self-regard with her own hypocrisy and failure. Sorrentino, it seems, is fed up with what passes for profundity in Italy, as well as the veiled bourgeois aggression that causes blossoms of beauty to wither in despair.
In the main, however, Sorrentino finds inspiration in the beauty of the past and rather than attempting to imitate it slavishly, pays homage in ways that feel surprisingly fresh. He turns Dante’s The Divine Comedy on its head by having Jep act as the guide through rarefied Rome for Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), the 42-year-old exotic dancer with whom he starts keeping company. The commodification of art and the wunderkind is critiqued, but the results extolled in a scene in which a child artist is forced to create a masterpiece for her parents’ party guests—and, after a tantrum, does.
Ingrid Bergman’s menacing encounters with statuary and the ashen outlines of the victims of Vesuvius in Roberto Rossellini’s Journey in Italy (1954) are contrasted as Jep and Ramona trek through the palaces of the ancient princesses of Rome with the keymaster (Giorgio Pasotti) who safeguards their keys. We take in the artwork that fills the otherwise useless rooms—massive sculptures mixing with paintings and objets d’art. When a stunned Ramona asks the keymaster why the princesses entrust him with their keys, he says, “Because I am trustworthy.”
Such simple statements that Sorrentino seems to want us to take at face value are strewn throughout the film like pure drops of wisdom in a visually intoxicating house of mirrors. Jep often stares at his oval ceiling and sees a blue, inviting ocean, painting an undulating fresco with his imagination like a latter-day Michelangelo. When Jep asks a magician who has made a giraffe disappear if he can do the same for Jep, the magician cautions him that it is merely a trick (in fact, a CGI trick of Sorrentino’s). Jep is still vulnerable to the deceptions of the glittering creatures and night life that have absorbed him for so long. Indeed, in a somewhat gratuitous tip of the hat to French cinema, Sorrentino includes a cameo of Fanny Ardant. There is something naively sweet about her appearance, however, as Jep the jetsetter seems genuinely starstruck when he encounters her. This moment adds to the winsome charm Servillo brings to the role.
Jep’s ultimate deception revives when the husband (Luciano Vigiloof) of his lost love Elisa (Annaluisa Campasa) comes to his door with the devastating news that she has died. “She always loved you,” he says to Jep. Reminded of his life before the drive to be the center of the in crowd, Jep returns in his memory to the day he was almost run down by a motor boat, the day Elisa took his virginity. She is achingly beautiful to his mind’s eye, but after 40 years, it’s likely that Jep’s memory has sanded the rough edges of his past and retouched the imperfections of his “perfect” love.
There is more than a touch of melancholy to Jep’s passage into old age, as his inscrutable grin cracks into unseemly tears at the funeral of a young suicide victim (Luca Marinelli), a breach of etiquette he has warned Ramona about. Ramona herself eventually succumbs to whatever she told Jep she was using all of her money to cure, leaving Jep without his protector. Ferilli’s incredible presence, a stranger in this strange land, made her absence from the rest of the film a real loss for me.
In the last act, a burlesque critique of the church, Jep seeks wisdom in vain from the fatuous, spiritually dead Cardinal Bellucci (Roberto Herlitzka) and witnesses a 104-year-old Mother Teresa knock-off named Sister Maria (Giusi Merli) huff and puff and blow a flock of migrating (CGI) flamingos off a terrace where they were resting and preening. The hard turn into religious ridicule threatens to undercut the overall tone of the film, but it comes so late in the film that it doesn’t inflict lasting damage.
Servillo offers us a sympathetic figure that could have turned tragic in another actor’s hands. He longs for that clean slate that Sorrentino is scraping at while maintaining the lessons that age has brought him. When his friend Romano (Carlo Verdone) succumbs to nostalgia, his choice is to leave Rome, which has “disappointed” him, to return to the village he abandoned 40 years before. Not Jep. He won’t write another novel, but his hope that he might brings his rite of passage to something of a close. I look forward to seeing if Sorrentino’s next film will prove that he has shaken the dust of the ages off his camera lenses. I am rooting for him.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Paul Mazursky
By Marilyn Ferdinand
If anyone is interested in seeing films that successfully take on the male Jewish persona the Coens have been pursuing humorlessly in their recent films, A Serious Man (2009) and Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), check out the works of Paul Mazursky. A Brooklyn Jew who changed his first name (Irwin), went to Hollywood, and has spent his career toggling between directing and acting, Mazursky has reflected the times he has lived through in his eight decades of life while maintaining a surprisingly consistent worldview. For Mazursky the screenwriter and director, the world is a disorienting place; his films are filled with people trying to find themselves both physically, following displacement (Harry and Tonto ), and spiritually (Tempest ). His debut feature film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) starts in group therapy, moves inexorably to a fumbled foursome, and ends in a parking lot with the title characters staring at each other, still searching for answers.
Based on a novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer, Enemies: A Love Story, made exactly 20 years after Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, isn’t concerned with parodying the free love/therapy of the ’60s that Mazursky clearly saw through, but it could be considered something of a prequel. Set exactly 20 years before Bob & Carol, Enemies also involves a foursome of sorts, with Polish Jew Herman Broder (Ron Silver) running frantically on the outer edge of his wheel of fortune between three women—his first wife Tamara (Anjelica Huston), returned to him miraculously after eyewitness accounts of her execution at the hands of the Nazis; his second wife Yadwiga (Malgorzata Zajaczkowska), the Broders’ Catholic servant who hid Herman during the war; and Masha (Lena Olin), the concentration camp survivor whose edgy passion and longing for death have Herman helplessly entwined in a torrid affair.
Like Bob & Carol, this film opens with a therapeutic echo—a dream in which Herman is peering down from a hayloft as German soldiers drag Yadwiga into the barn where he is holed up and beat her to get his hiding place out of her. After Herman awakens from this nightmare in a cold sweat in his Brooklyn apartment, the endless fleeing from his past and himself begins. After rejecting the breakfast simple, trusting Yadwiga has made for him (“your favorite!”), he tells her he will be making a sales trip to Philadelphia to visit some booksellers. Instead, he goes to his real job with Rabbi Lembeck (Alan King), for whom he ghostwrites and does translations of religious texts, avoiding questions about where the rabbi can contact him, and then dashes off to Masha, who lives with her mother (Judith Malina). The three visit for a bit, and then Masha and Herman retreat to her bedroom for the intense sex they both crave as a salve for their battered souls.
Herman is a man who owes his survival in part to his ability to lie and evade. The truth of his life becomes unavoidable, however, when he comes face to face with Tamara, a woman who knew him well before the war and therefore represents someone to whom he cannot lie successfully. Tamara said she came to see Herman out of curiosity and has no interest in resuming their life together. To her question he confesses that of course he has a mistress—he’s married after all. When Tamara learns he married Yadwiga out of gratitude, she replies drolly, “Couldn’t you have found some other way to thank her?”
The truth is that Herman needs someone to look after him, and the literally servile Yadwiga fits the bill. When Yadwiga decides to become a Jew so that she can bear his children, she increases the demands on a man whose existential position is described in the game “Wooden Leg.” A woman with the presence of mind to crawl out of a trench of dead bodies after being shot and survive could certainly teach him something about perseverence, but Tamara becomes something like a Greek chorus to Herman’s fracturing life, watching him make the mistakes to which his character is prone and finally offering to become his life manager when she sees him falling down the rabbit hole.
We expect to feel sympathy for Holocaust survivors, but the genius of novelist Singer, as faithfully translated by Mazursky, is that he created no typical Holocaust survivors; the Holocaust is an important aspect of each life, but it is not the whole of that life. Herman lived in mortal fear during the war years and lost his beloved children, whose picture Mazursky movingly shows Silver kiss tenderly, yet he is the man he was born to be—a weak-willed shlemiel. His “enemy,” as Tamara calls her, is Masha, a strong-willed woman who wants Herman to marry her but who actually lives for her mother. Had she never had a number tattooed on her arm, she would still have the sexual charisma that makes all men fall under her spell, from Rabbi Lembeck to her estranged husband, played by Mazursky himself. Her death wish only amplifies her innate animal magnetism, a characteristic the actress who plays her has in abundance, but she only gets Herman to marry her in a Jewish ceremony when she says she is pregnant. I never once believed she was actually pregnant; her frequent references to already being dead suggested to me that she would never be able to harbor life.
Although Singer has a sense of the absurd, this film seems to owe its absurdity and sometimes antic humor more to Sholem Aleichem. The curses Herman’s women throw at him as he turns tail and runs have a bit of the Menahem-Mendl/Sheineh-Sheindl bickering to them, and Yadwiga’s burlesque of terror at seeing a ghost when Tamara comes to the apartment suggests Golde’s superstitious nature when Tevye the Milkman relates his manufactured nightmare to her. Mazursky even brings a bit of modern amusement to Herman and Masha’s trip to a Catskills resort, with loud-speaker announcements and fitness classes and other activities happening simultaneously on the grounds that have a whiff of Robert Altman’s MASH (1970) about them. There is something cartoonish about Herman; when we see him in the subway looking at the signs that direct travelers to Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, each of which contains one of Herman’s women, it’s hard not to imagine Elmer Fudd at a crossroads with contradictory signs directing him to Bugs Bunny’s burrow. The period setting rendered in a soft sepia tone also conjures a certain distance and unreality, the neon lights of Coney Island just a bit too bright and cartoonish.
Ultimately, Herman is overwhelmed by those he sought out in his neediness and his longing for oblivion, if not annihilation. Having impregnated Yadwiga, he flees from both her and Masha, a woman he said he could not live without, when she suggests a double-suicide in the wake of her mother’s death. Herman, clueless about himself and caught like a fly in a web of pain, never understands any of it. He’s as hopelessly bourgeois as any Mazursky character, sending money to Yadwiga in an unsigned card every week as he evades reality once again. And while Herman isn’t innocent, he is far from guilty of anything but being himself.
My thanks to Amy Brown for asking for a review of this film and for being an enthusiastic Ferdy on Films reader.
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Director/Screenwriter: Abdellatif Kechiche
By Roderick Heath
French-Tunisian filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche specialises in long, leisurely, encompassing behavioral studies of individual humans standing at various crossroads. They are often tilted towards Kechiche’s own understanding of cross-cultural neutral zones and the immigrant experience, whilst also often fluently examining the peculiar rituals and experiences that mark youth’s coming of age. Kechiche’s superlative 2007 epic The Secret of the Grain (aka Couscous), his third film and one of the best of the early millennium, depicted an extended and volatile family working to remake its fortunes by starting a small business. Blue Is the Warmest Colour, his latest, gained a Palme d’Or this year and international fame and notoriety along with it. It clearly extends Kechiche’s oeuvre in encompassing niches of the modern human experience, locating both what’s peculiar and universal about them.
Based on a graphic novel by Julie Maroh, Blue is the Warmest Colour charts young love, from individual yearning to electric attraction to coupling to break-up, as experienced by and between two young women. Maroh’s book told a familiar variety of queer love narrative with the expected beats of the genre (variably accepting parents, schoolyard angst, etc.) but in a dynamically expressive and highly emotional fashion. Kechiche’s approach is superficially cooler and more exacting, but ultimately travels into the tactile and emotional envelope that forms around its central couple, picking up manifold nuances and peculiarities.
Kechiche’s narrative replicates both the essence and specific moments from Maroh’s book, whilst revising many elements in a filmmaking process that often seems to have followed its own logic. The film loses the melodramatic bookending narrative and changes the main character’s name from Clementine to Adèle, partly, it seems, to clear a space of independence and to foster lead actress Adèle Exarchopoulos’ stake in the characterisation, and also to justify some shifts in attitude. Kechiche’s style has more than a hint of the neorealist hue revised and updated by filmmakers like the Dardennes brothers and Ken Loach in contemporary European film, except that Kechiche’s touch is more spacious, colourful, and carefully rhythmic, with an almost musical quality (musical performance is usually an important aspect of his work). His stories are less case studies than biographies, a quality that gives the film’s French title its justification, a title that also calls out to the film’s many references to classic French literature.
Much of Maroh’s book was rendered in a near-monochrome with only striking blues elucidated, reflecting the impact the woolly mane of dyed hair Clementine’s lady love Emma sports in an otherwise drab and petty environment. Kechiche avoids this flourish, painting rather in crisp but painterly colours and sunny hues, with the only suggestion of blue right at the end. But the relationship of film to other art forms, like literature, art, and music, is evoked with a nudging constancy, almost echoing the central relationship in its simultaneous rich accord and subtle disparity. Kechiche emphasises the hidden artifice of dramatic shaping in a manner reminiscent of some other French films, like Philippe Claudel’s I’ve Loved You So Long (2008), including virtually self-deconstructing, essayistic-flavoured passages.
Such reflexes are readily on display in long scenes in which bored teens in a class read and discuss Marivaux and Sophocles, failing to comprehend the urgency of the relationship between the experiences recorded in art and their oncoming plunge into life, or a later scene in which a middle-aged aesthete may stand in for Kechiche himself in meditating on the overwhelming urge recorded in art history of men trying to comprehend female sexuality. Kechiche calls out to his earlier work in this manner, like his second film, Games of Love and Chance (2003), which was built around rude and rugged high schoolers acting out Marivaux, explicitly testing the relationship of the young products of shifting cultural paradigms with the French canon, finding both alienation and connection through it. Adèle and Emma, whose studies necessarily entail comprehension of technique and representation, are glimpsed at one point exploring an art museum’s sculpture collection. Its rooms filled with roiling nude female forms coaxed into dazzling life from crude ore is an act that Emma—and through her Kechiche—can surely thrill to, whilst for Adèle it’s a way of familiarising herself with the form that very shortly she’ll be exploring more immediately.
Young Adèle is a fairly “normal” high schooler who begins to feel the elusive tension between her personal emotions and the pack life that dominates at that age as her friends call her attention to Thomas (Jérémie Laheurte), who’s taken with her, in the school cafeteria. Adèle dates Thomas and has sex with him, but is haunted by the vision of Emma (Léa Seydoux), an older art student she catches sight of with an arm around another woman, the image of her invading her nightly masturbatory fantasies.
Adèle’s intimation of an almost predestined link to Emma seems borne out when she and gay pal Valentin (Sandor Funtek) venture into gay bars, and Adèle, after having several women hit on her, is rescued by Emma’s charming attentions, setting the scene for a quickly combusting relationship. Adèle and Emma form a bond initially through extended conversations, where attraction and developing mutual confidence grow amidst the thrust and parry of conversation of two smart but callow lasses seeking to justify and express their tastes. Kechiche all but bends over backwards trying to situate his narrative in the great French romantic tradition, with all its references—Les Liaisons Dangereuses is also shouted out to at one point, evoking its rakish delight in bedroom matters and foreboding a later turn in the plot—and his film’s evident echoes. Adèle and Emma’s long, garrulous conversations laced with probing intimations of character and perspective echo the famous bedroom scene of Breathless (1959) and the chatty works of Eric Rohmer and Jean Eustache, whose The Mother and the Whore (1972) anticipates Blue particularly in length and scope. Like those films, and many in the French cinematic pantheon, the degree of cultural literacy on display is surprisingly high, perhaps to an extent that seems artificial (does the average French teen really enjoy talking about De Laclos?). Some of these conceits have specific overtones: when Emma prods Adèle about her knowledge of art, she answers that she’s only really aware of Picasso, who, of course, had his blue period. Kechiche’s work here, however, is in active dialogue with both cultural context and personal experience, whilst negotiating its own evolving disparities as an adaptation.
Kechiche dials back much of Maroh’s familiar angst, particularly in contending with homophobia as inward retardant on personal acceptance, avoiding clanger lines like one a parent emits in the novel, “Gay pride again? How much longer are they going to be doing this nonsense?” Not that it’s a bright, rosy, postgender world here: Adèle contends with her school friends who, at the first hint of her homosexuality, roundly turn on her. Whereas in the book Clementine runs away and hides to deal with her shame, the more forthright Adèle gets angry and tries to wallop someone. The way people come out, and the world they come out to, has changed, Kechiche notes. More faithfully reproduced from the novel is a moment in which Adèle has her first real same-sex snog, with the bohemian-styled school pal Béatrice (Alma Jodorowsky), who then resists Adèle’s desire for more: such are the pitfalls of curiosity when it grazes against real and urgent need. Kechiche makes long movies because, like the late Theo Angelopoulos and Nuri Bilge Ceylan, he’s a maximalist who specialises in redistributing the way cinema time is absorbed, with a flow of epiphanies that coalesce into a special brand of storytelling, creating an echoing space around the key drama. Unlike them, however, he’s less a poet than a blend of Victorian realist novelist and sociologist. The Secret of the Grain is still his best film because of the fashion in which it justified its heft in building to a brilliant conclusion, one that managed to express simultaneously an urge towards a climactic revelry associated with Shakespearean comedy whilst also counterpointing a tragedy laced with microcosmic import.
Blue is the Warmest Colour, by contrast, has little story and tones down sociological pressure on its heroines. Kechiche concentrates on the transitory beauties and pitfalls of a relationship that’s based more on a preternatural sexual chemistry than genuine accord of personality, and traces the urges that first brings them together, as Emma helps to ease Adèle through the pains of accepting herself, and then tears them apart, as they grow into distinctively different adults. Emma’s outlook is intimately bound up with her ambitions as an artist, whilst Adèle becomes a teacher of young children. A pair of well-contrasted scenes depicts each girl meeting the other’s family and comprehending the subtle but daunting differences in outlook they face. Emma’s mother and stepfather, casually accepting of her, are haute bourgeois, complete with a fancy art collection started by Emma’s father. In perhaps the film’s most obvious thematic joke, the stepfather, an expert gourmand, serves up live oysters to the girls. The poetic conceit of conflating eating oysters with cunnilingus is not at all new, calling back to, amongst others, Radley Metzger’s film of Violette Leduc’s signal lesbian erotica novel Thérèse and Isabelle (1967), and also suggesting the infamous “snails and oysters” scene restored to Spartacus (1960), whose director, Stanley Kubrick, Adèle loves. Dinner with Adèle’s petit bourgeois family, by contrast, eats spaghetti bolognaise and careful evasion of Adèle’s sexuality; Emma scarcely bats an eye at posing as Adèle’s friend and tutor in philosophy, whilst Adèle’s father (Aurélien Recoing) gruffly grills Emma about her job prospects as an art student, all familiar reflexes of a more working class mindset.
The quiet disparities outlined in these paired scenes include the first time in the film that both Emma and Adèle state what they want to be. Emma is forced to lie doubly not only about what she is, but also that she fully intends to be an artist, whilst Adèle is honest, but sets the scene for her later frustrations. Adèle remains closeted in some peculiar ways, neither coming out to her parents, or at least not on screen, nor to any colleagues when she becomes a teacher, to protect her brittle sense of security as much as out of concern of what might happen to her. Blue is the Warmest Colour is at its best when charting Adèle and Emma’s coming together, a process that climaxes in the already legendary and notorious central sex scene that sees the couple conjoin in feverishly energetic, invasively corporeal manner. Kechiche counterpoints the convulsive intimacy of the moment with one of public display, as Adèle joins Emma in a gay pride march where the ecstasy of being young and in love loses all bindings for a moment, a scene that mirrors another earlier in the film in which Adèle marches with students. One peculiarity of gay sex scenes in modern film is that they’re just about the only ones where anyone’s allowed to look like they’re actually enjoying themselves (straight sex scenes now, by contrast, are generally required to be hideous). Kechiche mimics Maroh’s approach to Adèle and Emma’s first bedroom encounter, using jump cuts like comic panel boundaries to fragment the girls’ roundelay of positions into an explosive succession of erotic images.
Kechiche’s approach here is quite clearly unitary with his general fascination for detail and descriptive comprehension, gazing calmly at intense sexual activity as he does at other behavioural traits. But to a certain extent, it also unbalances the film’s emphasis on interpersonal passion and distorts the impression we should be getting, of a young and inexpert girl’s first bedroom romp with a more experienced lover: the necessary sense of exploration is missing. It looks and feels more like an extremely hot one-night stand for two well-practiced sexual athletes, as they whip between positions and smack each other’s asses in search of ever-sharper corporeal registers. The aspect of clinical display is emphasised by the flat lighting and diorama-like bed, carefully charting possible positions and forms, coming close at points to resembling a yoga instruction sheet or “baby’s first pop-up book” of sapphic sex. Other points, however, strike notes of extraordinary beauty, as when the two lie together in symmetrical post-coital calm, as close to a unified creature with two minds as humans can get, the linchpin of both their affair and the film’s aesthetics.
When gay-themed works like Beginners and The Kids are All Right (both 2010) are so cosily mainstream and sentimental in their reflexes that it’s not too hard to imagine classic Hollywood actors playing roles in them, Kechiche’s gambit to wield an unblinking directness in his sex scenes gives the film a radical edge it wouldn’t have otherwise because he is working with two of the most pleasing possible avatars for lesbian love conceivable. In spite of Emma’s jokes about bull dykes and Adèle’s classmates branding Emma as an obvious lesbian, it’s hard to imagine just about anyone not falling for Emma, whose tousled tomboyishness and anime hair in no way violates rules of attractiveness; ironically, only later, when Emma is older and no longer dyes her hair, does Seydoux seem more genuinely androgynous.
In terms of the film’s intrinsic personality, two subsequent sex scenes are more impressive. One sees Emma trying to keep Adèle from crying out as they secretly make love in her parents’ house. The other depicts the two lovers, locked in a scissoring tussle, reach out for each other to grip hands, in part for greater traction and pleasure, but as much in that blindly desperate joy of trying to bridge the gap of mere flesh even as it seems they might literally meld. Perhaps indeed the most profound and universal note the film strikes is implicit here, the intensity some relationships can reach on the sexual level, to extent that when other circumstances intrude upon them, it can feel like being cut off from a part of one’s own flesh. Blue Is the Warmest Colour’s second “chapter” deals exactly with this notion as it skips forward a number of years. Now Emma and Adèle live together. Adèle has fulfilled her desire to teach young children, whilst Emma is poised frustratingly close to major success, a success Adèle helps to foster by posing for a lushly semi-abstract nude, exciting the attention of a major gallery manager, Joachim (Stéphane Mercoyrol), who comes to a party Adèle helps to throw. Adèle impresses and charms many present, including Joachim and Samir (Salim Kechiouche), a mildly successful actor who wryly comments on his moment of success, playing an Arab terrorist in an American movie. But Adèle still quietly chafes in their company, especially as Emma tries to talk up Adèle’s diary writing as an accomplishment, an attempt to paper over Adèle’s inferiority in their relationship.
Adèle is also perturbed by Emma’s friendliness with Joachim’s very pregnant artist friend Lise (Mona Walravens), and as Emma and Lise begin working on a project together, Adèle’s increasing alienation leads her to commence an affair with co-worker Antoine (Benjamin Siksou). Most of this is synthesised from the scant material in Maroh’s book, and begins to smack of a lack of inspiration on Kechiche’s part, as the once-powerful relationship cracks up over such clichéd tensions, with Adèle stuck playing the wife to the mercurial artist in a very familiar kind of domestic drama. The early shout-out to Picasso can be read as a warning that like old Pablo, Emma paints mistresses and moves on. Perhaps this was the point, to show their relationship is prone to the same weaknesses as any other union, but the price Kechiche pays for normalising that relationship is to also make his own narrative more banal, recalling Gus Van Sant’s Milk (2008), which for the sake of mainstream recognition, turned Harvey Milk’s lover into a regulation politician’s stymied wife. Without the force of a strong story behind the film, like The Secret of the Grain possessed, this film’s unwieldy length starts to wear thin.
Tellingly, the film’s intellectual discursions feel far too academic and potted, relating only to the film’s own telling but without real penetration. Unlike, say, Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore, which is as much about the sociopolitical milieu that formed it as it is about its central ménage à trois, Kechiche deletes most of Maroh’s emphasis on the experience of her couple as products of the early ’90s, when gay visibility was on the rise in a still-reactionary society, and thus of the schism of personality the women experience in the way their sexuality links them to the world. Neither Emma nor Adèle are granted much self-awareness in this regard, in part possibly because in altering the setting to be more contemporary, the relatively laggard sensibility of a more liberated generation is evoked. Whereas Metzger’s Thérèse and Isabelle was intimately layered to both build to the climactic sexual consummation whilst also mediating it through flashbacks to make it both immediate and nostalgic, cinematic and literary, Kechiche’s touch is often much more prosaic.
Which is not to say he doesn’t wield some marvellous cinematic prose, like that aforementioned image of the entwined lovers and an early sequence in which his camera glides ahead of Adèle after she’s brushed off by Béatrice, her hurt all too vivid even as she maintains a stoic mask and ignores the world whirling about her. Kechiche determinedly avoids melodrama: only the calamitous spat between the couple that breaks them apart resembles a traditional climax, and he skirts several key scenes of the novel, especially the slip-up that sees Adèle ejected from her home and previous life. Moreover, for a film that expends so much time on merely detailing the characters in a love affair, the inner life of both women remains a little vague—in the case of Emma, more than a little. She’s a cagey creature who holds Adèle at a slight remove that Adèle eventually tries to shatter, but this element remains frustratingly opaque. In Maroh’s book, the relationship commences under a pall as Emma already has a girlfriend, which lends a hypocritical edge to Emma’s explosive rage when she throws Adèle out after learning of her affair. Here, however, it seems at once more righteous and also more peculiar in its contextless vehemency. Adèle, for her part, becomes a Lady of Shalott figure, doomed to grieve over her ejection perhaps all her days.
Kechiche pulls off two excellent scenes as he skips forward again in time: Emma now lives with Lise and her young son as a family, but Adèle, having suffered for a long time, tries hopelessly to entice Emma back when they meet at last for an amicable drink. Adèle’s efforts to seduce Emma reveal once more the powerful spark of physical attraction between them, but can’t break Emma’s new commitment. It’s a somewhat gruelling scene of humiliation for Adèle, reminiscent to my mind of Bob Dylan’s angry heartbreak under surface goodwill in “If You See Her, Say Hello”. The subsequent, ultimate scene, is equally strong, as Adèle attends a gallery showing being given by Antoine signalling Emma’s success, with Adèle finding her portrait hanging with the others, a white-hot and life-changing affair now a mere incident in Emma’s life. Emma and Lise canoodle in the moment of triumph whilst Adèle roams in disquiet. Her intent is all too painfully obvious, as she’s dressed in blue, evidently trying to sway Emma’s eye or at least memorialise their connection. Where for the artist, alchemic creation is the act, for the average person the self is the canvas, and Adèle cannot channel but only telegraph her own bleeding emotion. Adèle meets Samir again, who’s now quit acting for a life in real estate. He searches for her when she quietly absents herself, dashing in a different direction whilst she walks away, a blotch of forlorn blue burning in a grey city street. If the use of the artistic milieu elsewhere feels hoary, here Kechiche uses it to concisely reflect Adèle’s exile: it’s a world of insiders and outsiders, and Adèle is just another outsider now.
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Director/Screenwriter: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The end of each calendar year brings with it a flood of new films vying for attention from audiences with holiday time on their hands and awarding organizations like the one to which I belong, the Online Film Critics Society. Because critics generally see so many films in a year that we presumably can’t possibly remember them all, publicists send bundles of DVD screeners and, increasingly, links to online screeners so nothing will escape our notice. It is at this time of the year, when I most feel the pressure to celebrate the new, that I realize how important it is to shine a light on films, even famous and well-recognized films, that have been forgotten or unseen by new generations of film fans.
Which brings us to All About Eve, one of Hollywood’s most honored and iconic motion pictures. Winner of six well-deserved Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and especially, Best Screenplay, this endlessly quotable film has been a staple in my life for decades, so much so that it never even occurred to me that a well-established cinephile like the hubby might not have seen it. Yet, when after scrolling through the cable desert looking for something watchable, I landed on All About Eve as winner by default—my views are, after all, in the double digits—I had no idea what kind of a “bumpy night” I was in for. Watching Shane whoop and holler and dish on what the characters were doing during this, his first viewing, was a revelation to me. This supremely theatrical film about the supreme world of the New York stage was playing like Brando on Broadway for my enthusiastic newbie and left me thinking about the strengths of an art form whose death has been predicted for decades.
Calling a film stagebound normally would be considered a criticism, but for All About Eve, it is the highest of compliments. Nothing, in fact, is more distasteful to the title character, Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), than to hear that one of her theatre idols has taken work in Hollywood. “So few come back,” she says to director Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill), the paramour of Margo Channing (Bette Davis), the Broadway legend Eve worships. Sampson has indeed taken a few weeks’ work in Hollywood, a move that has 40-year-old Margo worried that her 32-year-old lover will be tempted to stray.
She might have worried more about taking Eve under her wing after her best friend, Karen (Celeste Holm), wife of Margo’s regular playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), brings her to Margo’s dressing room after finding her standing by the stage door. Eve gives a short account of her life—a farmer’s daughter, a secretary in a Milwaukee brewery, and wife of a coworker named Eddie who went to the Pacific to fight in World War II. She says she traveled to San Francisco to meet Eddie following his discharge. Eddie, however, didn’t show up, and a State Department telegram informing her that he wouldn’t be coming home at all reached her after being forwarded from Milwaukee. She says she decided one aimless evening to see a play starring Margo, “The most important night of my life until now.” Eve followed the play to New York, attending every performance, flattering Margo into offering to help her. From that point on, Eve insinuates herself into every aspect of Margo’s life with the goal of displacing her as the toast of Broadway and the woman in Bill’s life.
It is almost impossible to overstate how much this film gets right about a life in the theatre and how shrewdly Mankiewicz heightens the melodrama of the milieu—hoisting the theatre on its own petard might be a more accurate way of describing it—while paradoxically peeling away the artifice to reveal some painful truths. By shooting the film in what amounts to a series of Noël Coward’s patented drawing rooms with a script so loaded with bon mots that Coward must have been panting with envy, All About Eve does “meta” better than any newly minted movie could hope to achieve.
At the same time, Mankiewicz keeps one foot in Hollywood. He uses a voiceover by Karen to provide the flashback narrative that would be difficult to recreate on stage. His grand set-piece is a party at Margo’s home that moves episodically through the many stages of Margo’s morose jealousy and inebriation by telescoping time with something similar to a cinematic b-roll. Would-be star Miss Caswell, played by soon-to-be movie star Marilyn Monroe, comes on the arm of the king of debonair cynicism, George Sanders, playing theatre critic Addison de Witt. Her attempted seduction of producer Max Fabian (Gregory Ratoff) is open and above board, which contrasts the deviousness that seems to characterize the New York scene in movies ranging from this one and Sweet Smell of Success (1957) to Tootsie (1982) and Bullets Over Broadway (1994). (Mankiewicz fires one across the bow for himself and his colleagues when he has Bill tell Eve off: “The Theatuh, the Theatuh! What book of rules says the Theatre exists only within some ugly buildings crowded into one square mile of New York City?”)
In his infinite wisdom, Mankiewicz never shows Margo and Eve performing on stage, not even a closing curtain line. What we know of their abilities—all we need to know—is how they play-act and self-dramatize in their offstage lives. Eve (née Gertrude Slescynski, an ugly, ethnic name for an inwardly ugly climber with a fake backstory), going for the ultimate long con, literally gives the performance of her life playing Eve Harrington, the humble, worshipful fan of the grand dame. She must be absolutely convincing to disarm her marks and get them to accede to the requests she calculates will pave her road to stardom. No one smells a rat except Birdie (Thelma Ritter), a former vaudevillian who acts as Margo’s dresser. After Eve tells her hard-luck tale, Birdie cracks, “What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin’ at her rear end.” The others protest her callousness, and she herself says she was moved by Eve’s story, but the seed is planted; later, Birdie says outright that she doesn’t like Eve, that she seems to be studying Margo. Sadly, Ritter’s character disappears for the rest of the film—one can imagine Eve packed her off somehow to avoid detection, but I wish she had been around for the run of the show.
Margo, of course, has played the star so long that she can display artistic temperament in her sleep. The problem with that particular script for a woman, however, is that it has a shelf life. Even extraordinary talent will only go so far once a woman has passed her peak of physical beauty. When she sees Bill off to California, Margo warns Bill not to “get stuck on some glamor puss.” He chides her for being childish, to which she responds helplessly, “I don’t want to be childish. I’d settle for just a few years.” His increased irritation only pushes her further, “Am I going to lose you, Bill? Am I?” And like the proper denouement to a truthful scene played for high theatricality, Bill takes her in his arms, tells her “As of this moment, you’re six years old,” and starts to kiss her. Their scene is interrupted by Eve handing him his airline ticket, a suggestive statement of theme that is itself theatrical.
Where Bill remains loyal to the woman he loves, Addison is ready to throw Margo over for a new temple idol. When Margo characteristically arrives hours late to read with Miss Caswell, who is auditioning to replace a pregnant cast member, Eve steps in. Addison, who has witnessed her remarkable performance, wounds Margo by saying that Lloyd “listened to his play as if someone else had written it, he said, it sounded so fresh, so new, so full of meaning”—in other words, it had an age-appropriate actress in the role. This exchange highlights the black hole that swallows up middle-aged actresses who find it hard to find characters their age to play. Mankiewicz shows his compassion for these mature artists by writing one of the best parts a mature actress could hope for; Davis was 41 when she made this film.
The conventional wisdom of the time gets an airing, too, as Margo’s only option at her age seems to be to get married while someone still wants her. Mankiewicz has her say to Karen after she and Bill have broken up, “That’s one career all females have in common, whether we like it or not, being a woman. Sooner or later we’ve all got to work at it, no matter what other careers we’ve had or wanted. And, in the last analysis, nothing is any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed, and there he is. Without that, you’re not woman.” The feminist in me bridles at this scene every time, but a secondary theme of All About Eve, one that edges it toward women’s film territory, is the desire for love. Eve wants the love of the audience, Bill wants Margo to marry him, Karen wants to keep her loving friendship with Margo, Addison, yes even poor, closeted Addison, wants a companion and blackmails Eve into being that person. Margo’s philosophizing feels both true and another part she seems to be convincing herself she wants, fearing that the age difference between her and Bill will become a yawning chasm. I can hate the sentiment while acknowledging that there’s truth to it even today.
The third act has Eve exposed and baring her teeth as she moves aggressively to capture Bill, who rejects her, tries her luck with Hugh, and finally loses all of her early benefactors as they see her for the conniving careerist she is. In a heavy-handed ending, Eve, successful yet still unhappy, finds a young woman (Barbara Bates) in her suite. As Eve starts to use her as a gofer like Margo used Eve, we see the young woman don Eve’s elegant wrap, hold an award Eve just won, and bow before a three-way mirror, multiplying many times the image of the young hopeful set to exploit and displace the established star. This is a Hollywood image that gives just a little bit of dignity back to a theatre that, after Mankiewicz’s takedown, really needs it.
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Director: Robert G. Vignola
This is an entry in The Late Show: The Late Movies Blogathon hosted by Shadowplay.
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Staying true to its title, Silent Star: Colleen Moore Talks about Her Hollywood discusses, in passing, only one of Moore’s sound pictures, 1933’s The Power and the Glory. In the first-person narrative, Moore says, “… I thought it was the best film I ever made, and the critics agreed with me. But the part I played in it was a heavy dramatic one in which I went from a young girl to a woman of sixty. The public didn’t care for me in that kind of part. They wanted me to go on being a wide-eyed, innocent little girl. I was too old for that—and too tired of it in any case. So I bowed out.”
Well, not exactly. Miss Moore, my favorite actress of the silent era, neglected to mention the three films she made in 1934 after The Power and the Glory: Social Register for Columbia, a return to her flapper persona helmed by Marshall Neilan, the director of her 1927 triumph, Her Wild Oat; Success at Any Price, directed by J. Walter Ruben during his three-year stint with RKO; and her final film, The Scarlet Letter, made by Majestic Pictures. Larry Darmour, a shrewd producer who released such crowd-pleasing series as The Whistler, Ellery Queen, and Crime Doctor under the Larry Darmour Productions moniker during the early 1930s, created Majestic as a prestige division of LDP. Majestic products were often indistinguishable from the formula westerns and crime films of its sister studio, leading one to assume that this adaptation of a classic American novel was an attempt to live up to its loftier ambitions.
The Scarlet Letter arrived at the start of serious enforcement of the Production Code, which may explain why its introductory title card assures us that the harsh punishments the Puritans imposed for moral lapses were necessary for the survival of the fledgling colonies of the rugged New World—certainly a call from the wild of pre-Code Hollywood to its fickle, sex-and-gun-happy audiences to stay the course. The sight of the town gossip being punished with a tongue splint, to the relief of her henpecked husband, we’re told, lightens the mood considerably.
However, the denunciation of the adulterous Hester Prynne (Moore), paraded before the town with baby Pearl in her arms as evidence of her sin of having sex following the presumed drowning of her husband at sea, brings the gravitas of the story to center stage. Moore, slim, pretty, and noble in her refusal to name her partner in moral crime instantly earns our sympathy. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the town’s minister and her illicit lover, the presumed saintly Arthur Dimmesdale, is played by the preternaturally handsome Hardie Albright, or that her husband (Henry B. Walthall), delivered just in time for the spectacle by the heathen who saved his life, is old and desperately in need of a shave and a haircut.
Despite the very unfortunate insertion of several comic characters and situations played with tepid enthusiasm by Alan Hale, Virginia Howell, and William Kent, this version of the familiar story is much better than one might expect. Although a sound picture, the film is executed with a strong flavor of silent film technique. Characters clutch their bosom when heartsick, the romantic blocking for Albright and Moore in their first scene alone together is all cheated-forward hugs and upright declamation, and Walthall looks slyly around him when he changes his signature from “Pr” to “Ch” in assuming a new identity as Roger Chillingworth. The strong visuals work well in delineating the life of the town, for example, a row of women rubbing their dirty clothes on long washboards by the river’s edge and some of the children pelting Pearl with mud in quite a savage scene. Details such as tepee-like assemblages of rifles standing in the center aisle of the church as Dimmesdale delivers his sermon and Roger speaking to a Native American in his own language are worthy of a prestige picture.
Moore delivers a generally strong performance within some of the creaky conventions of a movie that wanted to be both accurate and audience-friendly. She is dignified and convincing in her faith in both God and Dimmesdale, though not nearly as scared as Chillingworth correctly perceives she should be. She matches Dimmesdale for saintliness of deed and demeanor and is nearly rehabilitated in the opinion of the town. At the climax, when Arthur reveals the “A” he has burned into his chest to mirror her cloth one and falls dying at her feet, little Pearl (Cora Sue Collins) sheds the tears that never come to Moore’s eyes, nearly upstaging them both. This scene may reflect Moore’s own lack of enthusiasm for yet another part that she could have shaded with the moods of an outcast living precariously amid an intolerant populace, but that made her into just another wide-eyed innocent. It was time to step away.
Moore married her fourth and final husband, Homer Hargrave, and took up residence in Chicago, where the Museum of Science and Industry displays her beloved fairy castle to this day along with clips from her movies, including The Scarlet Letter. As a career capper, Moore needn’t have omitted this decent work from her recollections, but she must have preferred to remember her good notices in The Power and the Glory to living in the shadow of Lillian Gish’s indelible portrayal of Hester Prynne in the 1926 The Scarlet Letter. Moore says, “I wasn’t a girl any longer. And I had learned a number of things along the way which were more important to me in the long run than how to make successful movies. Back in Chicago, I had the husband and the home I had prayed for. I had two children who needed me. I had experienced there the satisfaction which comes from helping to make a community a better place in which to live. I had become at last a ‘private’ person.”
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