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Director/Coscreenwriter: Sidney Gilliat
By Roderick Heath
Outside London, 1944. During the second, lesser-known but very bloody Blitz turned on the city by Hitler, V-1 bombs, nicknamed “doodlebugs” for the insectlike drone of their rocket propulsion, rain on southern English. These flying weapons are a unique blend of the amusing, for the sound of their jets is like a noise a small child might infuriate an elder by making, and the terrifying, because when the engines cut out the bombs crash to earth in total silence, people on the ground within earshot are stricken with a moment of heart-stopping impotence as they cannot know if the bomb will explode close enough to them kill them. This backdrop of hapless besiegement is both an immediate plot device and psychic overtone vital to Sidney Gilliat’s Green For Danger, adapted from a popular detective novel by Christianna Brand.
The setting is Heron’s Park Hospital, an Elizabethan manor house in a village on the distant fringes of the city, requisitioned and expanded to serve as an emergency clinic taking care of civilians mangled as collateral victims of the war, as the unmistakably mordant drawl of Alastair Sim explains in voiceover. Sim plays Brand’s recurring hero, Inspector Cockrill, and his voiceover is the report he’s writing to his commander about his latest case, dropping alarming hints about things about to unfold, as when he notes the apparently banal progress of a postman and mentions that “he would be the first to die.” The postman, Joseph Higgins (Moore Marriott), speeds along a lonely country lane with a V-1 zooming overhead, and once he arrives at the post for rescue party volunteers with whom he works, reports dryly that the bomb was chasing him. The sound of the evil device still drones above, and then suddenly cuts out. Higgins listens for a moment, then, in reflexive fear, ducks just before an explosion erupts and the rubble of the destroyed building pours down on Higgins and company, all accomplished in what seems to be one, astonishing shot (close examination reveals a crucial, near-invisible edit). Fire gutters amidst clouds of dust. The office’s undamaged radio continues to operate, the voice of an infamous Lord Haw Hawlike female Nazi broadcasting propaganda threats and signing off with the eerie catchphrase, “This is Germany calling…this is Germany calling.”
Gilliat had become well known working with writing partner Frank Launder before the war, penning the film that gave Alfred Hitchcock his springboard for a move to Hollywood, The Lady Vanishes (1938). They also created for that film the comic characters Caldicott and Charters, played by actors Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne. The characters so perfectly epitomised a kind of preoccupied, even cloddish, but basically okay English gentleman that they were carried over to several other films, including Night Train to Munich (1940) and Dead of Night (1945), and helped give Gilliat and Launder the clout to set themselves up as auteur filmmakers and, like Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, create their own distinctive brand. The duo were in their element during the war and just after it, their special blend of dry-trending-black humour and drama connecting with an invigorated and engaged audience hungry to have their day-to-day lives acknowledged. The team’s early films Millions Like Us (1943), Waterloo Road (1944), and The Rake’s Progress (1945) studied the mores of life on the home front with intimate empathy and an acute sense of the human absurdity amidst the official heroics. After the war, they engaged subjects like crime and urban poverty, in London Belongs to Me (1948), and Anglo-Irish relations, with Launder’s I See a Dark Stranger (1946). As with other British filmmakers who thrived in this period, including Powell and Pressburger, Alberto Cavalcanti, David Lean, and Carol Reed, the 1950s brought waning fortunes that forced many to head overseas or face decline, but the duo prospered again when Launder directed and Gilliat produced the hugely popular, disreputably funny The Bells of St. Trinians (1954), birthing a series.
Launder loved farce and broader comedy, and was rewarded with the more solid directing career, but Gilliat was the more talented filmmaker, his elegantly cynical side meshing with an intuitive understanding for both noir and neorealist stylistics blowing in from abroad, and displaying elements of both in concurrence rather than in imitation of those movements. Gilliat’s sensibility found its greatest expression in Green For Danger. Importantly, this was a postwar film that nonetheless harkened back a mere two years, which could well have felt like a lifetime, making it partially a work of hurried anthropology bent on capturing the mood of the time before it slipped away. Rather than the unvarnished, docudrama look of a lot of wartime filmmaking, however, Green For Danger retreats to the studio to create the self-contained world of Heron’s Park—a mishmash of old and new, Renaissance gables abutting concrete blockhouses, stained and plate glass, where the workaday can suddenly morph into the menacingly shadow-ridden and alien: Powell and Pressburger’s idealised classical English landscapes of A Canterbury Tale (1944) and I Know Where I’m Going! (1945) are now riddled with the permanent mark of modernity, reflecting its jagged new sense of self. The setting has a curious similarity to the far more remote and overtly nightmarish precincts of Isle of the Dead (1945) and the lofty nunnery of Black Narcissus (1947) in the sense of being both insulated and besieged. Like Black Narcissus, Green For Danger is in part an oblique, metaphoric study of the mental exhaustion wrought by the oft-idealised Blitz spirit depicting the cost of lives led in painful sublimation and self-sacrifice through the figure of a young woman turned baleful psychotic.
This jury-rigged jangle of a workplace can also be likened to the hospital staff, a team of people forced to subsist in close proximity, working long, exhausting shifts with little respite for several years in the midst of explosions and broken bodies. Gilliat’s camera introduces the crucial players and potential suspects in the mystery about to unfold, Cockrill’s voiceover noting their names before their faces are revealed. Mr. Eden (Leo Genn) is the great surgeon and former suave playboy of Harley Street. Dr. “Barney” Barnes (Trevor Howard) is the anaesthesiologist who’s made perpetually tense by both a troubled professional history and his toey relationship with beautiful, inevitably popular Nurse Fredericka “Freddi” Linley (Sally Gray). Sister Marion Bates (Judy Campbell) is the coolly efficient and commanding head nurse silently eaten up by her lapsed romance with Eden, who seems now to be fascinated with Linley. Nurse Esther Sanson (Rosamund John) is a quiet, good-humoured, but damaged young woman, daughter of a family friend of Eden’s whom Eden has taken a paternal interest in, whilst Nurse Woods (Megs Jenkins) is the hospital’s one-woman morale booster and likeable busybody. Tensions begin to manifest as the team emerge from a lengthy operation. Linley nettles at Barnes’ proprietorial attitude and breaks off their engagement. Bates swoops about directing work with hawkish intensity and then watches Eden move off with pained longing. Woods prods Sanson about her condition when she seems woozy. An alarm bell calls them again to action, as Higgins is brought in. He’s a John Doe who has been pulled from the rubble with a broken leg, dazed and reciting the propaganda radio’s lines in delirious terror.
Linley replaces Sanson for night shift on the ward and chats with Eden about her problems until the sound of a V-1 overhead drives the two into each other’s arms in the anguish of waiting for the explosion, which fortunately goes off elsewhere. Eden kisses her in the heat of the moment, backs off shamefacedly and begs forgiveness, but Bates has glimpsed them through the window and assumed the worst. Sanson arrives back at the nurses’ quarters, quietly distraught: the death of her mother, crushed under her house and left to slowly die by a rescue team, is still a raw wound. Sanson also identifies Higgins before the surgical team operate on his leg. Recovered from his delirium, Higgins narrows his eyes suspiciously at Barnes before he can put him under and says “You’ve got a nerve.” Barnes decides to anaesthetise him on the operating table, but something goes wrong. Higgins stops breathing as he goes under, and in spite of Barnes’s quick efforts to give him more oxygen, he dies on the table from causes no one can determine.
Heron’s Park’s new administrator and chief surgeon Mr. Purdy (Henry Edwards) hopes at first to pass the death off as the inevitable result of the risks his people must take. When assured Higgins wasn’t an emergency case, he instead pressures Barnes to step down pending an investigation and help shield the hospital—and him—from blame. “I merely suggested that I was hoping the gesture would come from you,” Purdy suggests. “The only gesture I feel like making is far from polite,” Barnes retorts. He joins the party the hospital staff are throwing to blow off steam and tries to patch up with Freddi, whilst Eden contends with Bates’ spiky, forlorn jealousy. “You’re sick of me, and I’m sick of myself,” she says as they’re thrown into dancing together during the Paul Jones mixer. Bates breaks away, turns off the record player and shouts out to the staff that she knows Higgins’ death was actually murder and that she has proof.
The early scenes of Green For Danger are a master class in setting up a complex interaction of plot strands and human elements. The mechanics are readily familiar, obeying the basic precepts of whodunit detective fiction—setting up a cast of suspects, affording them all the opportunity for murder, bringing in a canny detective to disassemble the enigma—but the quiet excellence of the characterisation and the sharpness of the dialogue quickly nudge the film out of mere generic efficiency into something ebulliently enjoyable. Wilkie Cooper’s excellent photography, with future great DP Oswald Morris as camera operator, aids Gilliat in creating a probing, subtly mobile mise-en-scène with an interest in contiguity of space and action, such as the startling moment of the building dropping on Higgins’ head, that echoes Hitchcock’s fascination with such effects and looks forward to its use by many later filmmakers. For the most part, the film unfolds with a quiet realism, and yet Gilliat easily nudges it toward poles of ethereal strangeness and stygian menace. The early shot introducing the cast of suspects sees the camera adopting the position of prostrate patient, pivoting to note the masked, near-anonymous faces of the medical personnel, at once angelic and threatening in their concealing surgical whites. The hospital dance sequence is an intricate play of individuals in the midst of public revels, randomly stirred to bring both pleasant and nasty surprises to the participants. Lovers and the lovelorn are brought together, but then rearranged into less neat pairings, the change-partners motif played for both droll comedy and swift character illustration. The gang of medical heroes interact as a tight-knit, almost incestuous bunch, whilst warnings of dark and dangerous things unfolding are batted off with flip humour and drunken mordancy.
The dance is scored to an impudently catchy jazz version of “Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush.” As Eden appeals to Sanson to give up working at the hospital and tries to make her wake up to the corrosive effects of her mother’s possessiveness, Eden’s fellow surgeon Dr. White (Ronald Adam) darts into the frame, grabs Sanson’s wrist, and draws her away, chanting along to the music in comically unnerving fashion, “Don’t you believe a word he says, a word he says, a word he says…” Bates’ public eruption and ill-advised, almost exultant announcement of having discovered the hospital is as rotten as her own sense of self, segues into the film’s most alluring and well-staged sequence. Bates flees the manor house and darts through the dark hospital grounds, whilst Bates keeps catching glimpses of a fleeting shadow dogging her footsteps. A hand grabs her out of the dark; it’s Eden, claiming to be worried about her. Bates accuses him of pursuing her, and escapes his grasp. She enters the deserted, darkened operating theatre and searches for her secreted piece of evidence. Bates realises that she’s not alone in the darkened room: in a revelation that’s quite bone-chilling on first viewing, Bates sees a figure in full surgical gear standing in the shadows wielding a scalpel. Bates’ scream draws Linley, who’s been drawn to the surgical block for her own mysterious reasons; she finds Bates sprawled in the theatre, stabbed to death.
This sequence is an utter, sustained delight not just in the deftness of Gilliat’s staging, replete with camera movements racing with Bates through the aisles of a gentle English garden turned nightmarish zone of threat, but in the webs of association it evokes to the modern viewer, the prototypical edge to it all. Horror films had been entirely banned in Britain during the war, and here Gilliat skirts the edges of the genre with relish. The source of horror is no spook or monster, but a masked, gloved, homicidal maniac, an aspect that, considered with the film’s visuals, feels uncannily predictive of places the horror genre would go many years later, particularly Italian giallo cinema, which would follow Green For Danger in taking detective fiction and retaining its investigative plot patterns, but drag them into a zone of the irrational, filled with killers reduced to blank avatars of psychological menace. Much like Mario Bava’s Sei Donne per l’Assassino (1963) and its many children, like Halloween (1978), the solitary woman is stalked through familiar environs where the wind churns the bushes and autumnal leaves into an engulfing furore. As with Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), the villain is tethered inescapably to obsession caused by the possessiveness of a parent. As in Coma (1978), the institutions and paraphernalia of modern medicine are mined for the not-so-hidden anxiety and disquiet they hold for many, the barren, empty corridors of a hospital at night, the creepy impersonality of the surgical outfit, and the inherent anxiety in putting yourself into the hands of people charged with your protection but who might nonetheless betray that trust. Gilliat mischievously repeats a bleak visual motif—earlier he had framed Bates staring from without into the nurse’s station where Eden was kissing Freddi, boxed out by both life and the frame, and again just before Higgins’ operation, and finally in gazing through the window of the theatre door at her dead body.
Darkness gives way to light, and Bates’ murder brings Inspector Cockrill to investigate, first glimpsed dodging this way and that at the threat of a V-1 and finishing up hanging from a gate in anxiety until the explosion goes off and leaves him to recover his dignity. Cockrill is a strutting bantam cock, a canny and incisive operator who also happens to be a self-conscious egoist and showy agent of justice, about as different as it’s possible to get from both the Columbo school of sly, misdirecting investigator and the scruffy, earnestly neurotic kind all too familiar from most recent detective TV shows. Cockrill is more like an overgrown schoolboy, pivoting playfully on spinning chairs and almost poking people with his umbrella, blowing his nose in front of surgeons, gloating with joy as Barnes and Eden finally lose their cool and get into a fistfight at his feet. Sim had been a popular supporting comic actor for many years in British film, but his performance here turned him into one of Britain’s oddest, biggest movie stars, warping his native Edinburgh lilt into a burlesque of a southern accent that’s alternately soft and stabbing, disarming and provocatively insinuating. It might be worth mentioning that as well as being a dark thriller and interesting pressure-cooker character study and period time capsule, Green For Danger is also one of the funniest films ever made, with Sim entering the film as both plot game changer and comic relief with his impudent, almost insulting sense of humour and buffoonish streak. The narration not only allows Gilliat to do quick storytelling but also introduces Cockrill as a character in the film long before he actually appears, which isn’t until well over half an hour in.
“Very well—pause for 30 seconds while you cook up your alibis,” Cockrill tells the assembled medicos. “Did you get us here just to insult us?” Barnes asks. “I only like to strike an informal note,” Cockrill replies. “You scare the life out of her like any flat-footed copper off the beat,” Barnes rebukes Cockrill after his interrogations cause Sanson to have a hysterical fit, to which Cockrill retorts, “The police force has not a monopoly of fallen arches Dr. Barnes. Ask any chiropodist.” Grilling Barnes over the procedures of his anaesthetising, Cockrill recognises nitrous oxide as “so-called laughing gas.” “Actually it’s the impurities that cause the laughs,” Barnes notes. “Ah—just like our music halls,” Cockrill quips. “Are you trying to make me lose my temper?” Eden asks the inspector as he prods him over his love life. “That was only a secondary object,” Cockrill admits. Cockrill is a unique creation, a postmodern character from before the idea was coined, one who points out and makes jokes out of the clichés in the story he both represents and detects. His presence lets Gilliat reflect on how familiar the tropes of detective fiction were in 1946, whilst also acting as a perfect plot disruptor by reflecting the neurotic insecurities of the suspects back at themselves. When Eden takes Freddi out for a romantic and secretive moonlight tryst in the hospital grounds, Cockrill suddenly emerges from the shadows to airily finish the quote from The Merchant of Venice Eden uses as a chat-up line, and then casually brushes aside a bush to reveal a similarly hidden, eavesdropping Barnes to say goodnight. Here and there, glints of sharp satiric comedy appear amidst the drollery, including another interestingly anticipatory moment early in the film when the blowhard Purdy is first glimpsed, schooling his staff in that most dreaded of postwar arts, management and team-building, pointing to his chalkboard marked with explanations of the principles of positive and negative thinking, and his putting these ideas into practice by having the waste bins relabelled as salvage bins. Cockrill is found lounging in bed, reading a detective novel: his face lights up in glee, having clearly guessed who the murderer is, and so turns to the back page, only for his face to drop in disappointment, his guess wrong.
Green For Danger could have finished up a tonal stew with a less disciplined director, but instead it weaves together with the spryness of a dance, as Gilliat set himself the task of pulling off a feat Hitchcock had pulled off before him and Robert Hamer would afterward with Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) in extracting humour dry as a martini from dark situations. Gilliat may even have had ambitions of following Hitchcock, and with one film at least accomplished it. The film does become more conventional on a cinematic level once Cockrill enters the picture, though he acts like a bull in a china shop investigating the murder.
The actual crux of the mystery is the surgical gown the killer wrapped Bates in; it apparently was stabbed twice, but Cockrill notices that one stab wound was an attempt to hide the fact a hole had been cut in the gown, possibly to remove a crucial piece of evidence the gown sported. Meanwhile, four tablets from a bottle of poisonous pills have been removed from the murder scene, and Cockrill warns the others that there’s one pill for each fellow suspect for the murderer to use. But when Freddi lets slip that she noticed something important about the crucial surgical gown, the killer instead seems to try to kill her by sabotaging the nurse’s quarter’s gas supply, almost choking her to death as she slept. The fortuitous arrival of Sanson just ahead of Cockrill sees Freddi rescued in the nick of time, with Sanson dragging Freddi from her bedroom but losing grip on her and dropping her down the vertiginous Elizabethan staircase. The method of attempted murder here again points to the killer’s still unclear method of executing Higgins, but Cockrill still can’t quite fathom the method. He convinces Freddi, battered but uninjured, to help him by pretending to be badly hurt, requiring skull surgery, and pressing the others in the circle of suspects to reproduce their function in Higgins’ operation, giving the murderer the opportunity to repeat the modus operandi, something Cockrill recognises they’re bound to do because the murderer is actually insane, no matter their worldly motives. And motives they have. Barnes might have been after revenge on Higgins because of his seemingly personal knowledge of the professional mishap Barnes was investigated and exonerated of years before. Eden might have wanted to silence Bates. Woods might have covered up the truth of her twin sister’s fate: Woods told everyone her sister had died at the start of the war, but she has actually become the “Germany Calling” propaganda voice that haunted Higgins.
Another part of the unusual beauty of Green For Danger is its lack of a stand-out hero. That’s actually a common feature of much WWII-era cinema, especially those that actually deal with the exigencies of coping with the war. There is emphasis on teamwork and mutual reliance (and like a lot of such films, the credits list characters by the relative organisational rank of the personnel): the innate professional commitment of the characters is the chief value that has been both violated, and yet holds fast elsewhere. But Green For Danger doesn’t idealise the commune entirely and all of the protagonists are notably fallible. Cockrill, in spite of his cocky cleverness, is outflanked on occasion, and the finale is a particular disaster for him. Barnes and Eden seem to be offered as a polarised pair, provincial middle-class and urbane swashbuckler. But Gilliat refuses to reduce either to a type, with Barnes’s slightly pathetic chip on his shoulder and Eden’s covert decency emerging even as they compete for Freddi’s attentions. Howard had just become a major romantic movie star thanks to Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945), whose epitome of the wartime ethos Green For Danger could well be burlesquing, as Gilliat probes for self-destructing irrationalism behind the stiff upper lip and laughingly notes the commonplaceness of the dalliances Lean’s film portrayed as singularly fearful. Importantly, Eden represents the kind of slightly soured, faintly arrogant but ultimately good playboy that Gilliat was so fond of as to seem like a personal avatar, a figure usually played by Rex Harrison in Gilliat’s films, including in The Rake’s Progress and The Constant Husband (1956).
The quartet of nurses are even more interesting and diverse, ranging from Woods’ hearty presence as the team’s supplier of emotional ballast hiding a lode of humiliation, to Bates’ severe passion, as sadomasochistic and indiscriminate in her self-conceived tragedy as anything the killer does: “That hurt didn’t it? Now you know how I feel,” she comments with a quiet triumph after shocking Barnes with the news of Eden and Freddi’s kiss. Even Freddi, cast by fate as the confused object of affection and local glamour-puss, is thoughtful and aware of her naiveté as a problem, musing on how she considers Barnes “a better sort of person than I am altogether” and contemplating the nonlinearity of her emotional commitments. John’s Sanson is the quietest, the frailest, the least noticeable, so, of course, she’s the one to watch out for. John isn’t well remembered and didn’t appear in many films, eventually quitting acting after marrying a politician. But she was momentarily one of the most interesting British female stars of her time, discovered and given several leading roles by Leslie Howard before his death, usually playing quietly stoic heroines rising to the challenges of wartime in films like The Lamp Still Burns and The Gentle Sex (1943). As with Howard, Gilliat exploited that image in casting John as Sanson, whose emotional fraying makes her an object of concern for her colleagues and counts her out of the erotic roundelay eating everyone else up. Sanson retains flashes of droll humour and charm in between fits of anxiety, as when, intruding upon an argument between Woods and Eden over his play for Freddi, she notes Woods stamping out and asks Eden, ever so coolly, “Anything the matter?”
The title finally becomes clear as the penny finally drops for Cockrill right at the edge of his risky stunt costing Freddi’s life: a smudge of black paint on Woods’ gown gives away the ingeniously simple trick Sanson has used, painting a bottle of carbon dioxide, usually coloured green, in black and white to mimic an oxygen cylinder, and slowly poisoning the person under anaesthetic. Freddi is saved in the nick of time, and Cockrill reveals how his thinking finally saw all the pieces snap together, in recognising that the gown found with Bates had a similar paint smudge on it before it was doctored. Most cleverly, when Sanson is revealed as the insane murderer, John, instead of letting Sanson’s lunacy off the leash in being caught, becomes even quieter, unnervingly exactingly polite and explaining her motives with nonchalant simplicity, nominally for revenge against Higgins who had headed the rescue team that unwittingly left her mother to die—only her eerily wide eyes signal a frustrated animal’s fear, absent of reason and convinced of her the rightness of her course of action until she keels over, killed by those self-administered poison tablets, a fate Eden tries to save her from, having guessed she was the culprit, and having an antidote ready—except Cockrill wrestles the syringe from Eden’s hand before he can administer it, mistaking his actions for an attempt to kill Sanson and evade justice.
The bitter undertaste to the conclusion of Green For Danger is its last great touch, undermining the usual feeling of correct order restored and avoiding the sense that somebody heedlessly evil has gotten their comeuppance: instead the ultimate truth the film communicates is that the effect of war has turned a lovely young woman into a homicidal maniac and worn everyone else ragged. The film concludes on a joke that nonetheless still echoes the theme of professionalism as its own virtue: Cockrill offers his superior his resignation at the end of his report to express his regret over the resolution of the case, “in the confident hope that you will not accept it.”
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Director: Luchino Visconti
By Roderick Heath
Luchino Visconti was a singular and contradictory figure in just about any context. Visconti’s background was dauntingly aristocratic: his father belonged to a branch of the once very powerful Visconti family of Milan, whilst his mother was heiress to a cosmetics fortune. In the midst of Fascist Italy’s halcyon days, however, Visconti stood as a committed Marxist and out homosexual. Raised as an aesthete, he staged lush grand operas whilst directing films that helped define that most stringent and fundamental of film styles, neorealism. The disparities of Visconti’s experience and perspective armed him with a fearsome artistic arsenal, the intellectual and aesthetic reach to encompass the extremities of his age. Visconti started his film career working as an assistant director for Jean Renoir. When he returned home at the start of World War II, Visconti, like everyone else who wanted to work in the Italian film industry, had to labour under the auspices of the state, joining a unit under Benito Mussolini’s son Vittorio that also included Federico Fellini. Visconti gave neorealism its first, vital gambit with Ossessione (1942), and the movement soon bloomed, flourished, and peaked amidst the rubble and poverty of the postwar state, as Visconti was joined by Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica as the triumvirate of major neorealist directors. As the country and its film industry got back on their feet and the filmmakers who had become famous through the movement felt the changing tides of art and industry, neorealism began to evolve. Some saw this evolution as an inherent betrayal of neorealism’s early purity, given the political ideals the movement strove to express. Visconti seemed to be drifting farthest away from his early brief, as his work became increasingly formalistic, his subject matter leaned toward the historical and the literary, and his productions became increasingly international.
But the underpinnings of neorealism, with its sociological fascination for ways of life and lucidly detached method of storytelling, continued to be the lifeblood of much Italian cinema for years afterward. Visconti began with Senso (1954) to effect a complex blending of the opposing facets of his artistic persona—the florid and rigorous, the ironic and the fulsome—that took his old style to new places. Senso sketched much of what The Leopard would later develop, depicting the largeness of history in sarcastic contrast with the smallness of people caught up in it and evoking a classically romantic melodrama only to subvert and degrade it, alternating breathlessly florid staging and coolly choreographed, dissembling camerawork. The quietly radical Senso was viewed as a problematic work on first release, but Visconti rebounded with La Notte Bianche (1957) and Rocco and his Brothers (1960), the latter a soaring epic that sought to invest a tale of everyday calamity with the outsized intensity of a Verdi opera. Visconti’s next project was The Leopard, a deliberate antistrophe from the previous film’s focus and tone. The Leopard took on a then-recent cause célèbre, adapting a novel by Sicilian aristocrat Giuseppe di Lampedusa, who had died before his book’s publication. Lampedusa’s material was his own family history tracking back to the days of Garibaldi and the Risorgimento, blended with his own feelings of antagonism and displacement in the 20th century. Visconti surely felt sympathetic with the novel’s sad, dislocated view of the decline of his class’s influence, and also its vein of unsentimental clarity, its finite blend of tragically inflected romantic nostalgia and biting commentary. Much like Renoir’s The Grand Illusion (1938), The Leopard is partly an expression of regret at the loss of the best qualities of an age in the face of a ruder, cruder time.
Finding an actor to play Lampedusa’s hero, Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, wasn’t the smallest of Visconti’s challenges. Eventually Burt Lancaster was pressed on Visconti by his producers, whilst Visconti retained Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale, who had gained major career boosts in Rocco and His Brothers. Lancaster’s stern height and leonine visage proved to be crucial, for the part required an actor with great talent and presence, whilst the realities of the production demanded a big star. Visconti’s opening scene is a particularly dense series of signs, most of which are conveyed not through dialogue but through visuals and non-specific sounds: the camera closes in on the palazzo of the Corberas like a visitor stealing in through the orchards and craning an ear to tune in the sound, eventually entering the house to find the family and household at their Sunday prayers administered by the estate’s resident priest Father Pirrone (Romolo Valli). The chants and catechisms of the prayers evoke a ritual probably unchanged in the 400 years the Corberas have been in Sicily and before, but now is interrupted all too tellingly by the sounds of a commotion outside: the dead body of a soldier has been found on the estate. The soldier’s garb marks him as a follower of Garibaldi, who has just landed his part of volunteers in Sicily to wage a campaign to unify the country under the House of Savoy, signalling the commencement of a civil war. The careful colour composition turns the sight of the soldier’s grim death into a pietà depicting devoted sacrifice, clawing at the red earth of the Corbera estate as a last gesture of trying to claim it for the cause.
This touch echoes the opening sequences of Senso, where a similarly orchestrated use of colour coding announced political events. This breaking of the peace terrifies some, including the Prince’s high-strung wife, Princess Stella (Rina Morelli), but Fabrizio immediately announces his intention to go into Palermo to find out what’s going on and invites Pirrone to accompany him: Pirrone knows perfectly well that the Prince is actually using the event as an excuse to visit his favourite prostitute. Quickly, both the surfaces and contradictions of this little world have been confirmed, the tight intertwining of role and individuality, state and religion, officious idealism and carefully cultivated hypocrisy, and the way great public events become excuses for personal escapades. After the Prince’s nocturnal adventuring, Pirrone and Fabrizio carefully quarrel as the priest presses the Prince to confess his sins and Fabrizio defends himself as having made the best of a terrible marriage. This shades into a political argument in which Pirrone admonishes the Prince for even giving slight contemplation to a future settlement with the revolutionaries, concerned that the new regime will surely set out to break the church’s power and sell off its land. Their arguments are laced with concessions to different kinds of power, moral versus temporal and fiscal, as the Priest holds off from admonishing the Prince too sternly because he knows which side his bread’s buttered on, whilst Fabrizio feels the bite of Pirrone’s conviction nonetheless.
The crucial moment of the film’s first half comes when Fabrizio is having his morning shave after his return, and his nephew, Tancredi Falconeri (Delon), enters the room: Visconti carefully frames the entrance so that Tancredi’s face is caught in Fabrizio’s shaving mirror, capturing him just for a moment as the image of Fabrizio’s own sense of youth. Tancredi announces his intention to join up with Garibaldi’s Redshirt volunteers, distressing the Prince at first, but Tancredi argues that Garibaldi’s mission is preferable to a republican alternative that will completely strip the waning aristocracy of its influence, and delivers a shibboleth of import: “For things to stay the same, things will have to change.” Fabrizio comprehends Tancredi and sends him on his way in a swooningly romantic vision of youthful mission, Tancredi riding away from the palazzo to battle amidst Nino Rota’s swelling music, leaving behind relatives who, apart from the Prince, barely seem to know anything’s happening. Visconti stages a cold cut from Fabrizio and Pirrone’s argument to the midst of a street battle as the Redshirts fight Bourbon troops for control of Palermo. Visconti shoots this vignette of violent spectacle, the one traditional moment of epic largesse in the film, largely in long shots that study the masses of fighters rather than individuals, as contrasts of energy and poise, with the Garibaldi supporters swarming in masses of roiling, messy numbers, countered by crisp, neatly advancing lines of the royalist soldiers (a touch mimicked by fan Martin Scorsese in the climax of his Gangs of New York, 2002).
Amidst the fighting, Visconti picks out a gruesome, antiheroic study in oppression and reaction, as a suited bureaucrat oversees the execution of several revolutionaries, only to be chased down himself by an enraged plebeian citizenry who lynch him in a public square. This vignette is probably the moment most reminiscent of classic neorealist technique in the film, recalling Rossellini’s Rome: Open City (1945) and evoking the landscape of vicious civic coercion and reprisal that led to Mussolini’s hanging before a crowd. Visconti obviously intends a likeness here, but not just the usual vague connection of the historical made relevant one finds in historical films; here is a thesis in miniature, the essence of Visconti’s political and personal theme of cycles. Visconti films the hapless bureaucrat’s pursuit via a long telephoto shot, the hose-piping effect emphasising the scrambling motions and desperate entrapment. Finally, amidst all the impersonal clashing and communal violence, Visconti locates Tancredi and his fellow aristocrat-adventurer Count Cavriaghi (Mario Girotti, who would later rechristen himself Terence Hill to become a popular spaghetti western star), who remain only part of this swarming crowd of humanity fighting and falling. Tancredi is wounded by a shell splinter, and he and his men dash to take shelter in a neighbouring building.
Visconti dissolves from the midst of this tumult and slaughter to the sight of the Prince’s family and entourage travelling across the countryside. Tancredi, looking all the more dashing with his face bandaged, barges his way through a Redshirt cordon on the road with a mixture of comradely appeal (“I fought with you in Palermo!”) and hereditary prerogative. Earlier, Fabrizio’s face was enough to get him through a checkpoint, but now that political strength has passed to Tancredi. Visconti makes the direct transition to capture this point, and then interpolates, during the rest of the journey, the minor, but significant events that followed Fabrizio’s return to the fold via flashback, forging links between the family and the new regime. The family is making its way to the heartland of their influence, the regional town of Donnafugata, to sit out what’s left of the upheaval. On the way, picnics by the roadside evoke an age of graciousness all too easy to romanticise; Visconti notes wryly the work of the servants required to make it happen for the family, whilst Tancredi casually, half-unwittingly charms Fabrizio’s eldest daughter Concetta (Lucilla Morlacchi). They arrive in Donnafugata to the excited greeting of their tenants and the local bourgeoisie, all dues apparently unchanged, but with quiet expectations underlying: some of the locals have done well out of supporting the Savoyards, and Fabrizio is well aware he must build bridges with them. When the family takes their place in their ornately carved special pew in the cathedral, they’re like a collection of dolls slotted back into place: Visconti rolls his camera past them one by one, finding them bleary and covered in dust from travel, like neglected museum pieces—one of the saddest, most acerbic, concise camera movements in any film.
The Prince, partly out of a sense of clannish responsibility and partly with the pride of a frustrated father who finds his nephew a preferable avatar to any of his actual children, who are generally as dull and conservative as their mother, decides to take a hand in securing Tancredi’s future. The young man’s family fortune has been squandered, but the Prince knows now Tancredi’s charm and social cunning could gain him a truly important future if well-financed. The new lie of the land must be acknowledged and used to advantage: knowing Italy is being reconstructed to give greater power to a wealthy bourgeoisie who, in turn, are anxious to share the prestige of the old aristocracy, Fabrizio considers making Tancredi a match with an eligible daughter of the new, prosperous middle class. Soon, the perfect candidate presents herself: Angelica Sedara (Cardinale), daughter of Don Calogero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa), Fabrizio’s steward and now the Mayor of Donnafugata, who’s become rich carefully embezzling some of the Prince’s estate profits, and has used it to make himself a major landowner.
Angelica proves to be an astonishing beauty who makes the violation of class barrier all too easy for Tancredi. Only Concetta is infuriated by this potential match, appalled when Tancredi tells an embellished, suggestive tale about his wartime adventures as a naked play for Angelica’s attention. Tancredi’s attempt to help Cavriaghi supplant himself in Concetta’s affections is met with her uninterest. Although initially stricken by scruples at the thought of making a connection with Calogero, an ignoble type in both senses of the word, Fabrizio nonetheless supports Tancredi’s courtship of Angelica, and begins investigating her mystery, prying fact and legend out of his friend, the organist in the city church Don “Ciccio” Tumeo (Serge Reggiani). Ciccio tells the Prince that Calogero discovered Angelica’s mother in a peasant hovel, a fluke of nature given impossible beautiful, but utterly animalistic in nature, one Calogero snapped up and now keeps under wraps in his villa, let out only for early morning prayers. Such is the strange path of genetic luck from the very bottom to the top of society.
Carefully entwined with the political and social ruminations in The Leopard is a far more personal and intimate story, a confrontation with the strange ramifications that assail us in mortality, in a world and time carefully designed to keep careful checks and balances on such primal forces. Visconti and his post-neorealist followers, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Bernardo Bertolucci, were fascinated by the juncture of personal proclivity and social constructs, and Visconti wrestled with this nexus in many of his films. His most easily recognisable theme, that of family as a troubling embrace, is counterbalanced by this figuration, the eternal solitude of the unsatisfied being, and he eventually resolved it through taboo in his lunatic self-satire The Damned (1969). Here Prince Fabrizio’s physical lustiness is a part of him, an aspect he feels driven by but cannot express in his all-too-proper marriage—hence his irritable refusal to confess to Pirrone—and also plainly explains some of his fascination with Angelica. Yet this is also bound to a subtler sense of emotional frustration, which slowly emerges as Fabrizio lives to a certain extent vicariously in setting up the perfect match of Tancredi and Angelica, a union that comes to symbolise for him the ideal consummation of a new era as well as a dream of cavalier romanticism that he yearns to make real. Visconti underlines this by removing one significant aspect of the novel, where Concetta was doomed late in life to realise Tancredi always loved her; besides, Delon and Cardinale look too good to buy anything else. This is not to say Visconti idealises the young couple’s union himself: the degree to which the film plays up Tancredi’s dash and beauty only makes the sting of realising that in many ways he’s a callow and facetious figure all the more disturbing. Although Fabrizio is resolutely heterosexual, Visconti still finds definable queer self-expression through him as a figure wrestling with desires in secret (he even baits Pirrone with a dash of homoerotic humour to dry him after a bath).
Fabrizio’s hopes for Tancredi’s great career also reflects another kind of frustration, that of wasted capacities: class is a trap for its highest levels as well as its lowest. Fabrizio’s reputation is that of a gentleman scientist—he’s an astronomer who takes comfort in the serene peregrinations of the stars—but the Risorgimento brings the tormenting possibility of new uses of his gifts. A representative of the new state, Cavalier Chevalley (Leslie French), comes to Donnafugata to ask Fabrizio to become a senator, claiming his famous intellect and nobility are just the qualities the new country needs to help the great project of overcoming the awful stagnation that has gripped Italy in general and Sicily in particular. Fabrizio is polite with the bureaucrat, but turns him down, offering as an explanation his individual hesitations—his lack of real political and legislative knowledge for one, and, more importantly, his lack of the kind of blended sentiment and self-interest he thinks necessary for a politician—and also his social ones. His explanations frustrate Chevalley, for they contain a poeticism that eludes the technocratic progressivism of the bureaucrat, conceiving of Sicily as a place of people longing desperately for a long rest after centuries of being buffeted politically and socially by invaders and imposed cultures, full of raw humans who think themselves kings of the earth precisely because they remain so close to the earth, and so will resist being transformed into the kind of bourgeois moderns Chevalley means to make of them.
Fabrizio instead recommends Calogero, exemplar of a new breed of “jackals and hyenas” he sees supplanting the old lions and leopards of the aristocracy. This sequence transliterates much of Lampedusa’s prose into dialogue, but avoids becoming didactic by depicting Fabrizio’s attempt to articulate things he sees as true in a way he never has before with an intellectual force he’s too used to rounding off for less inquiring ears. Fabrizio remains something of a snob in spite of himself, but his snobbery has its uses, as it sensitises him to commonplace habits of democratic states: obfuscation, indulgence, self-promotion, and hypocrisy, whilst he knows his privilege has insulated him from any need to adopt such necessary skills. Visconti offers a great philosopher-hero but one who feels himself bound to what we call today the wrong side of history, even as he tries to give the right side a push.
The Leopard’s historical thesis is ambivalent in a manner that makes particular sense in contemplating Italian history, and the source of that ambivalence lies in the simultaneous closeness of Visconti and Lampedusa in their emotional intuition, and the disparity of their politics. Lampedusa was expressing, in part, his anguish with the state of his nation circa 1945 by trying to locate the crucial moment in the past that set it on this path. Visconti, for his part, has a prosecutorial eye for the same notion. His film depicts the advent of a new age, but finds it an unfinished revolution that left the nation with a fractured pseudo-democracy defined by the self-interested coalition that eventually augured in Fascism when its interests were threatened by post-World War I socialists. The vignette of the lynched official and its crucial parallel with the collapse of the Fascist regime points to a sense of inevitable repetition, the growth of corruption and oppression that will grip the state again and again just as men are born, grow old, and die—again twinning the personal and the political. The Prince’s contemplation of his mortality and inevitable decline mimics the wane of his class and his time.
The film’s funniest vignette depicts the events swirling around a plebiscite that will give the stamp of approval to the new state. Fabrizio, despite having championed the pro-unification vote, puts up with cheeky quips from some whilst being feted with scrupulous toadying by Calogero. Later, Calogero reads out the results of the election before an assembly of townsfolk, constantly cut off by an excitable brass band, much to Fabrizio’s entertainment. Eventually, Calogero manages to announce the results, a unanimous “yes” vote. Fabrizio later questions Ciccio, who angrily rants that he voted “no” because he still felt grateful to the former Bourbon Royal Family for financial aid, confirming what Fabrizio had already realised: the vote had been tampered with. Underneath the surface buffoonery and enthusiasm, the well was being poisoned. Democracy had already been subverted at the very moment of its inception.
Visconti, who hadn’t yet seen some of Lancaster’s more ambitious performances, initially decried being saddled with a cowboy (watching Judgment at Nuremberg, 1961, changed his mind), but this was actually one of the specific strengths Lancaster brought to the role (tellingly, his first choice for the part was Nikolai Cherkasov, who had played Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible for Eisenstein). For from being some effete relic, Lancaster’s height and strength imbue the Prince with a sense of physical power, harking back to some distant ancestor’s more direct use of such endowments to win the power his family is about to lose. Fabrizio literally towers above most of the rest of the cast, and casually picks up both Ciccio and Calogero. The bite of Fabrizio’s sense of impending mortality gains power precisely because he has such strength, evoking a classical sense of tragedy as life and death extract their price from everyone, even the titanic. When Pirrone makes him aware that Concetta has a crush on Tancredi, Fabrizio reacts angrily and then admits that realising his children are old enough for love has pushed old age on him suddenly.
Visconti’s sarcasm is deftly wound into the solemnity of the material, contemplating the exhaustion of the Prince’s interest in life not in the face of great trials or wrenching losses of more familiar epic fashion, but through a hundred petty annoyances and glimpses of unbearably paltry pathos. He’s not the only one: Visconti’s irony reaches a peak of quiet agony when he surveys the glumly doomed courtship of Cavriaghi and Concetta and then pans away to look over Donnafugata’s rooftops, Rota’s music rising to sublime raptures even as he contemplates the barrenness of the duo’s mismatched hopes (the moment also suggests Visconti annexing the dumbstruck distancing of Michelangelo Antonioni). Meanwhile Tancredi and Angelica stalk each other playfully in a grand old house Calogero has given them as part of a grand dowry, a cavernous space for foreplay littered with dusty paintings, leftovers of another age: decay is already overcoming the aristocracy, its wares already falling into the hands of the Calogeros of the world, and the old is repurposed for the newly ascendant. The temptation to ecstatic physical consummation grips Tancredi and Angelica, but he resists taking her virginity: Tancredi, ever the strategist, knows their game should be played by perfect rules for maximum effect.
The film’s famous, lengthy, deceptively detached finale depicts the new settlement through social ritual. The grasping bourgeoisie are introduced to the fusty aristocracy on the dance floor. The soldier who has defeated Garibaldi in the field is feted as the man defending the new reasonableness. The well-matched young lovers enjoy their moment in the sun of society. The middle-aged Prince shows off his famous dancing skills and everyone is delighted he hasn’t lost his zest. Yet the sequence enfolds a series of quiet epiphanies defacing the surface glamour, as Fabrizio experiences a dark night of the soul in a bright, gay salon. He regrets having come to the party as soon as he arrives but knows he can’t leave now until early morning, and doomed to wander from station of private cross to station, contemplates his own inevitable demise and the banality of the world about him. Contemplating a room full of excitable daughters of the inbred nobility reminds him of a gang of monkeys. The Prince takes a verbal swipe at Garibaldi’s conqueror for his hypocritical declamations about defeating the General and then genuflecting to him, not understanding the political game that must now be honoured: Garibaldi has become a national hero, but the movement he led must now be suppressed. A painting on the wall depicting a patriarch’s death fascinates him far more than the party, noting such morbid details as the deathbed sheets in the painting being too clean. Angelica and Tancredi swoop in to rescue him in a moment laced with evanescent, mysterious cues of unspoken understandings and concessions admitted amidst the trio. This leads to Fabrizio and Angelica performing a waltz before the assembled partygoers, an islet of perfect courtly grace and mutual admiration between the man and woman, new and old, kept in hypnotic motion as long as the dance goes on.
The deliberate tone of this sequence and its underlying mournfulness clearly anticipates the same mood in Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971), though Fabrizio’s anxiety is more ephemeral. The waltz gives way to the prancing jollity of a conga line, evoking, like the similar use of it in the finale of Fellini’s 8½ the same year, the ongoing absurdity and heedless motion of society. But whereas Fellini had his hero join in, Fabrizio remains detached. His daughter Concetta is revealed to be just as tragic a figure, upbraiding Tancredi not just for ignoring her, but also for revealing his smooth, smug acquiescence to the Way Things Are by approving of the upcoming execution of some revolutionaries. This last touch is one of Visconti’s more precise and caustic revisions of Lampedusa to set the seal on his parable as well as contrast the Prince’s musings. Whereas in the book the sight of slaughtered animals reminded Fabrizio all too keenly of the gross side of mortality, here the his long night reaches its end when he starts to walk home and hears gunshots signalling the executions. Meanwhile Tancredi grips Angelica all the tighter as they ride away in a carriage, and Calogero yawns and pronounces it a good thing. Fabrizio kneels down at the toll of Vespers and recalls Ciccio’s tale about the mysterious morning appearances of Angelica’s mother, and then whispers a questioning prayer to the stars, wondering when he might die and join them in their certitude. The film’s ultimate irony is the bitterest—the awareness that seemingly resilient, contemplative, complacent Prince is actually the frustrated dreamer of this crowd who have been busy arranging the world to suit themselves.
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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film
Director: Vladimir Motyl
By Roderick Heath
White Sun of the Desert has a stature with Russian film fans that can only be likened to the cultural currency The Godfather, Star Wars, or Gone with the Wind hold for western viewers. Lines of dialogue from the film have become everyday catch phrases. Statues have been erected to honour the lead character. Legend has it that to this day, Russian cosmonauts watch it as a ritual before going into space. Craters on Venus have been named after members of the gaggle of Muslim wives who feature in the film. Yet it’s a good bet most movie aficionados outside the limits of the old Soviet Union, even those with a taste for the exotic, haven’t heard of it. There’s nothing terribly unusual about this. Almost every national and regional film industry can boast this kind of big, native hit that, for whatever reason, just couldn’t be exported.
White Sun of the Desert wasn’t adopted as a lofty, arty darling of foreign critics, though some notable filmmakers, including Andrei Tarkovsky and Andrei Konchalovsky, were approached as prospective directors. Konchalovsky later described the screenplay by Valentin Yezhov and Rustam Ibragimbekov as a masterpiece, though it was largely rewritten by Motyl and others during filming. Meanwhile, the breed of movie fan that readily adopted spaghetti westerns and martial arts films around this time would surely have been bewildered if confronted by such an oddity, a work that extends the mood of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly’s (1966) eerie, surrealist-tinged desert sequence into an entire feature. For a work of such renown and popular affection, even on such a localised scale, White Sun of the Desert defies expectations. Less than 90 minutes long, it’s not a grand and swaggering epic, intense action tale, or laugh-a-minute comedy, though it resembles all of these at various points, as well as a kind of chaste sex farce and portrait of existential absurdity essayed with an almost ambient, peculiarly Slavic brand of melancholic romanticism. If you can get onto the film’s specific wavelength, it reveals itself a rare treasure.
White Sun of the Desert is certainly full of familiar motifs of a good pulp yarn. A frontier setting. A charming and robust protagonist. A wicked villain. Damsels in distress. Helpmates to the hero who waver but reappear in time to save the day. Yet, the way director Vladimir Motyl lays out his material is highly eccentric and peculiarly fashioned. White Sun of the Desert belongs to a popular but mostly bygone brand of Russian cinema, usually referred to as the “ostern” or sometimes as a “Red western” or “borscht western.” This was a genre readily comparable to the American western, crowd-pleasing, adventurous dramas set on the fringes of civilisation filled with action, horse riding and gunplay, but set in the wilds beyond the Urals and the fringes of the Caspian Sea, or amongst Cossack tribes. Osterns were usually set during the raucous and violent years of the Bolshevik revolution and subsequent civil war, and a consequential similarity of the western and ostern is the depiction of primal dramas unfolding in the context of upheaval and social flux, a shift in modes of life that will soon settle into a new civilisation. The traditions of the folk tale and folk song are also often invoked to describe Motyl’s work, and the tension between the immediacy of genre storytelling and the baleful meaning of a cultural relic is apparent in the film’s tone, which seems to be both merrily enacted and woozily remembered.
The early scenes of White Sun depict Red Army soldier Fyodor Ivanovich Sukhov (Anatoly Kuznetsov) wandering in the desert sands close to the Caspian seashore. Animated lines appear around him during the opening credits, blocked to trace out the geometry of the sand dunes, as if mocking the hero’s attempts to impose linear intentions on his entirely wayward fate. The lazily picked music on the soundtrack softly builds the mood of isolation, languor, and laconic attitude that define the film. Sukhov has been away from home several years fighting for the revolution, but now he’s been mustered out and is trudging his way home across the deserts of Central Asia. Sukhov mentally composes letters to his wife, which all begin with “Dear Katerina Matveyevna,” and become missives crammed with a mixture of pedantic and obfuscating detail, and statements of po-faced patriotism and workaday acceptance of the way great events mean a billion petty irritations, interruptions, frustrations, and dangers for him. Sukhov always envisions Katerina (Galina Luchai), in the midst of green and fertile fields for utmost contrast to his current surrounds, as an idyll of Russian homeyness, stout, pale, and rosy-cheeked.
Sukhov’s nature, as an easy-going, helpful-minded guy, and his reputation as a terrific soldier prove his own undoing, because life keeps throwing people who need or seek his aid in his path. In the middle of nowhere, Sukhov encounters a man buried up to his neck in the desert sand, as per local tradition for punishment. Sukhov digs him out whilst noting that he’s already dug out two more like him, and the last one attacked and robbed him. This man, on the other hand, is Sayid (Spartak Mishulin), who was seeking revenge on his father’s murderer, the bandit Dzhavdet, but was instead caught by him and left to die. “I’ll have no peace as long as Dzhavdet is alive,” Sayid grumbles, and then, “Why did you dig me up?” “Sure, a dead man has no worries,” Sukhov retorts, “but it’s so boring.” The two men separate, though Sayid continues to shadow Sukhov, torn between hunting his enemy and repaying Sukhov. Soon, Sukhov is stopped by a unit of Soviet troops led by an officer named Rakhimov. The commander is eager to divest himself of a strange burden: nine wives of “Black” Abdullah (Kakhi Kavsadze), another, more formidable and active local bandit who also has pretences to being a guerrilla warrior in the rebellion of the Basmachi. As the Soviets chased him, Abdullah was forced to abandon his harem because they were slowing him down and even intended to kill them all, shooting two before the soldiers forced Abdullah to run.
Sukhov is determined not to get caught up in any more adventures and won’t join the hunt for Abdullah, so Rakhimov instead convinces him to take charge of the women and get them to a nearby coastal village. He assigns the very young soldier Petrukha (Nikolai Godovikov) to help. Sukhov leads the women, dressed in their utterly depersonalising, full-body burqas and only identifiable by height, across the sands to the coast. There they enter a tiny village distinguished by some oil tanks, a thatch of houses, and proximity to some ancient ruins that have been made into a museum (actually the strikingly weird and remote old Silk Road city of Merv). Sukhov and Petrukha set up camp in the museum, but don’t know some of Abdullah’s men have remained behind. The bandits knock Petrukha out when he’s left behind with the women and ambush Sukhov whilst he’s bathing in the sea. Sukhov gives a display of why he’s famous and lasted so long: he snatches a gun from the hand of a bandit and shoots down two, whilst a third is lassoed by Sayid, who’s trailed his saviour. Sukhov realises that Abdullah is planning to return to the village, because a ship beached on the coast near the oil tanks is the only form of transport on hand that can get himself, his men, and his plunder away. The closest thing to authority in the town is the former Tsarist customs officer Pavel Vereschagin (Pavel Luspekaev), who used to battle the area’s copious bandits and smugglers, but now is an aging drunkard, mourning the son he lost in World War I with his wife Nastasia (Raisa Kurkina) and sitting on an arsenal of weapons that makes his house a matter of interest to both sides of the local conflict. When Sukhov sends Petrukha to find out if Vereschagin is still living in his house, Vereschagin literally drags the young soldier inside via an open window. Charmed by Petrukha, who reminds him of his own dead boy, Vereschagin sings songs for him until Sukhov turns up. Sukhov passes Vereschagin’s odd test of nerve, responding to Sukhov’s request for a light for his cigar by throwing out a burning stick of dynamite; Sukhov lights his smoke and tosses the bomb further along. Vereschagin is initially happy to join Sukhov in defending the ship and the women from Abdullah, but his wife begs him not to risk his life.
Like most seemingly simple, but vital things, White Sun of the Desert’s great popularity is surely bound up with the slippery and surprising density of its layering. The film swings between poles of drama and comedy with a spacey, sunstruck (or perhaps a vodka-glazed) head. The quiet, indolently catchy song Vereschagin sings to himself while plucking at a guitar and laying on his back with a bellyful of liquor, offers a fatalistic paean to the whims of “Your Honour Lady Luck.” The song by composer Isaak Schwarz and Bulat Okudzhava, which became a huge hit, is the only scoring, pervading many scenes like the crash of waves on the shoreline and the desert winds. When it was released in the United States, a critic dismissed the film as an escapist tale, and it is that. White Sun of the Desert is as light as a summer breeze, though dark and tragic moments punctuate the story, sustaining a truly unique blend of dogging nostalgia and idyllic optimism. Within its airy frame, White Sun of the Desert describes a sense of life as broad as a John Ford film; indeed Ford was one of Moytl’s singular influences, through the contrast of vast space and enclosed interpersonal drama in films like Stagecoach (1939) and 7 Women (1966), and perhaps the desolate situation of The Lost Patrol (1934), though that film’s feeling of nightmarish, assailed existential crisis is transmuted into blithe absurdity. Here, drama is elemental, the tone dreamlike, albeit mostly a daydream, the strange and jagged sense of locale and behaviour touched with just the faintest edge of surrealism as Motyl depicts as an array of boxes jutting out of the otherwise barren earth, a tiny space of civilisation wedged between zones of inhospitable elements, fought over by perverse emissaries of clashing societies. A light dusting of the otherworldly is apparent in the way Motyl films the actors treading the desert sand as if dissolving in and out of the earth, the way the nine faceless women strut in the sands, and the sight of Sukhov climbing the crest of a dune and being confronted with the endless blue of the sea.
Moments of slapstick comedy occasionally punctuate the more wry comedic texture, from a trio of aged Arabs having their caps blown off by an explosion to young Petrukha being told by an unseen voice to raise his hands and then being promptly grabbed by Vereschagin from out of the frame and hauled into a window above. Later, one of Abdullah’s villainous compadres, a White faction exile, is hurled bodily out of another of Vereschagin’s windows when he comes looking to steal some weapons: “His grenades are the wrong calibre,” the soldier tells a comrade after picking himself up by way of face-saving explanation. The Arabs have been sitting against a wall for so long that none of them can remember why, and one of them can’t be awakened by even the loudest blast. Far from the overpowering postures of Soviet Realism, Motyl surely found his audience’s heart with both the fondness and the lightly satiric attitude he turns on Sukhov and his sense of cause, as well as appealing through a story that evokes generations of Orientalist adventures.
Sukhov is undoubtedly an ideal Soviet hero, happily proletarian but blessed with good manners, down to earth, pure of heart, resourceful, and indefatigable. He has many of the qualities of a mythic hero in spite of his personal modesty, including a weapon with a suggestive backstory—his revolver is a personal gift from his commander—and his status as eternal wanderer, Odysseus with a Red Army badge. Sukhov also wields a terse sense of humour even at the most awkward moments: when a villain asks him if he wants to die or be tortured first and then die, Sukhov, ever a pragmatist, replies ever so coolly, “I’d like to be tortured.” Time is time, and even the slight delay Sukhov buys by annoying his captors through such glib gambits gives him a chance. When he springs into action, he blends speed and guile as well as innate survival skill, as when he guns down the bandits who bail him up with a show of agility and gunplay that would make a John Woo hero proud.
But Sukhov still needs help to win, because he is also a faintly hapless, occasionally flummoxed, very human figure who makes some costly mistakes. He’s reminiscent of the heroes of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), his closest Hollywood relatives of the time, and in some ways looks forward to characters like Indiana Jones and John McClane, rugged, exceptionally competent action heroes who nonetheless definitely feel pain and often look at the dangers facing them with bedraggled, ridiculous incredulity. Yet he’s far more average and lackadaisical than either of those guys, like somebody crossbred Casablanca’s Rick Blaine with Andy Griffith. Equally appealing to the hometown audience would have been the crucial, figurative joining of the generations and the concepts of Russia, as Sukhov appeals to Vereschagin for aid, a touch that echoes another of Motyl’s models, High Noon (1952). The old Tsarist officer reclines detached from the world in his house, with its walls clad in mementos of his youth and the world of the Belle Époque. Vereschagin wants to go out like a man, but he’s stopped at first by his wife’s desperate appeals. Vereschagin’s immobilised distraction and Sukhov’s forthright ethic seem directly opposed but are obviously two sides of the same coin. The two men are united by the cool, stoical attitude they maintain, casually batting aside the irritations of life and getting on with their own business. Both can also sink a shot of vodka with aplomb. The spirits represented by Vereschagin and Sukhov are in constant dialogue and battle within the very fabric of the film, the tensions of old and new, haunted and hopeful, commitment and carelessness. As Sukhov contends with the problem of his nine female charges, Motyl makes a joke with more depth than it seems to have at first, contemplating the problem of bringing new ideas to people who don’t necessarily see what’s so great about them, and very lightly basting the officious creeds spreading them.
White Sun of the Desert is indeed partly a film about clashing cultures and values, though the avatars of these systems seem to collide rather than interact. Early in the film Sukhov notes that “The East is a delicate matter” (one of the film’s most consequential, and popular, lines), and Sukhov is still as fallible as any in this context. Ignorant of any other lifestyle, the wives immediately decide that, having been abandoned by Abdullah, Sukhov is their new husband. Sukhov, however, is a good Soviet soldier and tells the ladies they are now free according to the gospel of Bolshevik liberation. “These nine liberated women of the East are precious things, too!” he tells the museum curator, who doesn’t want anyone upsetting the exhibits. Sukhov is fazed when he walks in on the ladies whilst washing, and they all impulsively grab their skirts and lift them over their faces, preferring to bare their lovely midriffs to him rather than their visages before deciding that as their new husband, he has the right. Their faces do indeed have more power than their bodies (except for one who has a thicker moustache than Clark Gable), sending Sukhov’s mind reeling, all hot coals in comparison to Katerina’s stolid creaminess. Sukhov houses them in a room of the museum and hangs a banner from the ceiling that reads, “Down with prejudice — Women are human beings. too!” The notion that the male hero is more of a feminist than the women he’s aiding is an idea of grand wit, but Motyl also disassembles this precept as Sukhov chooses the youngest of the women, 15-year-old Gyulchatai (Tamara Fedotova), who is also the most animated and easily distracted of the harem, to be his official interlocutor with the other wives.
Gyulchatai interprets this as being appointed favourite, which gives her status over the others, but also make her the target of blame when Sukhov shows no interest in them. They suggest Gyulchatai dance before him and inflame his passions, but she succeeds only in bewildering the warrior. Sukhov tries to explain that the women can now cast aside their veils and each take a husband. Gyulchatai, working through this proposition, retorts that this means she would have to do all the work for one man that the wives currently share between them. “That’s the way things are,” Sukhov replies, breezily confirming the limits of his own revolutionary outlook. Contrasting both Sukhov and Vereschagin is the adolescent romanticism of Petrukha, the boy soldier, who notices Gyulchatai’s unruly side in spite of her correctness and keeps finding opportunities and talk to her, urging her, “Show your sweet face!” in a certain amount of hope, as he’s falling in love with a walking bag. The influence of the dreaded Eastern decadence insinuates its way into Sukhov’s thoughts, and he eventually indulges a daydream whilst lazing in the heat of the sun on guard duty imagining Katerina Matveyevna joining him and his new bevy of females as he lounges in a potentate’s costume. He immediately pays the price for this lapse, as a small army sneaks under his nose.
In spite of the deadpan nature of much of the film, closer examination reveals an intelligent and layered cinematic sensibility that uses the setting as an organic stage, as enclosed and acausal as the settings of Beckett’s dramas, the plains of Dali’s paintings, the Zone of Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), and the people wandering through it as hardboiled avatars of their mutual, intensely insular, cultural sensibilities. Motyl expertly mines this situation for its simultaneous openness and treacherousness: the vistas are vast and seem wide open, and yet the smallest sand dune can hide something nasty lying in wait, a curve in the shape of reality that can swallow you. Something of Sergei Paradjanov’s anthropological and folkloric sensibility, which also often called back to the blank, two-dimensional display of early cinema and photography, permeates Motyl’s palette, whilst the way Motyl uses the natural elements even recalls the theatrical machinery of Georges Méliès. Although the necessary sparseness of Motyl’s shots couldn’t be more different to the baroquely crammed images of filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein and Josef von Sternberg, he does nonetheless evoke them in the way his frames, even as they’re depicting moments of urgent action, retain a fragmented, pictographic quality, flowing by in momentary islets of vivid, oblique strangeness, from Sayid’s head suddenly revealed jutting from the sand like some lost Easter Island statue, to the frieze-like depictions of Katerina in her natural habitat. Motyl mimics Vereschagin’s collection of postcards, photographs, the squared-off display of such vintage keepsakes pinned to the walls of his house to evoke the cultural memory of a lost era. The viewer is forced to assume the same attitude as Sukhov, knowing something utterly odd might be just around the corner, and forced to take it as it comes.
Motyl, Belarussian by birth, had gotten into trouble with Soviet authorities with his previous film, Zhenya, Zhenechka, and ‘Katyusha’ (1967), for its “disrespectful” take on the Great Patriotic War, clearly identified with the displaced state of Sukhov and his pining for a place in the world. His setting and time frame here, as well as the delicacy of the humour he employed, allowed him to bring just the hint of a scallywag attitude to onerous official creeds whilst also earnestly celebrating his hero as an exemplar, and proved here at least that he understood his audience exactly. The film changes radically in emotional key if not in apparent style once Abdullah turns up, trailing a force including Sayid, who, after shooting down three of Abdullah’s men when they seemed to be attacking him, is convinced by the bandit to join his party for a better chance of avoiding being buried to his chin again. Whilst Sukhov snoozes with dreams of harem comfort, Abdullah and his force enter the museum, and Abdullah first sneaks into the women’s quarters and strangles Gyulchatai, and then uses her veil to surprise Petrukha and kill him with his own rifle’s bayonet. The key image of slaughtered youth, scanned in a high shot by Motyl’s camera affecting a godlike blend of dispassion and awareness, drives Vereschagin to rouse himself and help Sukhov in fighting off Abdullah. Abdullah is an immediately persuasive and eye-catching villain, as Motyl cast Kavsadze, a good-looking hulk of an actor who threatens to outweigh Sukhov not just in size but as a potent screen presence, one whose sadistic violence is just as offhand and unfussy as Sukhov’s heroism. Abdullah’s sense of entitled authority immediately manifests in his ugly killing of Gyulchatai and then asking his remaining wives why they haven’t saved him the trouble of killing them by doing it themselves in obedience to his will.
Fortunately, Sukhov manages to bail up Abdullah before he can kill anymore, holding a gun on him and forcing him to send his men off to prepare the ship for departure. This gives Sukhov time to spirit the women off via a secret, hidden tunnel out of the ruins shown to him by the museum curator. Abdullah avenges himself by shooting the curator dead. Sukhov and the wives are forced to take refuge in the only hiding place available, one of the large empty oil tanks on the shore, but the bandits quickly locate them there. Abdullah has his men pump oil from a rail tanker to pool around the hideout and prepares to casually roast them all alive within, but Sayid intervenes and blows up the tanker and some of Abdullah’s men with it. Meanwhile, Vereschagin enlists his wife to dispose of the arsenal, and then sneaks aboard the bandits’ ship and battles the villains aboard. He kills or throws them all overboard before taking command in a cheer-along display of grit and prowess, one made more affecting by the off-screen story of Luspekaev, a WWII veteran and experienced stage actor who acted in the film in spite of having both feet amputated because of war injuries; Luspekaev died not long after the film was completed. The bitter kicker here is that Vereschagin is unaware that Sukhov and Petrukha have booby-trapped the boat, and he inadvertently blows himself and the boat sky high in the moment of his triumph, disappearing in a plume of white water.
Inadvertent tragedy gives Sukhov the chance to elude and defeat his besiegers, climaxing in a memorable comeuppance for Abdullah that evokes the finale of White Heat (1949), as Sukhov guns Abdullah down on the oil tanker. The villain slides down the tank’s ladder, gripping onto rails, his death signed with fearsome, mythic display of his grip on life. Motyl winnows his drama down to a succession of finalising images of great power. When Sukhov plugs him, Abdullah’s fingers reflexively tighten on the trigger of his machine pistol, firing off shots one by one, his aggression suddenly impotent, possibly an even more directly phallic joke considering that the entire story has revolved around Abdullah’s sexual domain. Vereschagin’s wife walks the beach alone, approaching a solitary horse in the dusk as “Your Honour Lady Luck” returns to the soundtrack, soulfully underscoring the notion that in violent conflicts, each victory is another’s loss. The note repeats as Sukhov bids farewell to the wives but pauses when he reaches the missing space where Gyulchatai would have stood, the meaningful end to Motyl’s repeated tracking shock along the row, stricken through with a tragicomic awareness that the surface interchangeableness of the women was illusory, and a hole is left in the world precisely by Sukhov’s efforts to call them into individual consciousness. As for Sukhov himself, like many a legendary hero and western gunslinger, he disappears into the wastes he came from, sad but not disheartened. He’s heading for home once more, but of course in spirit, he’s still wandering out in the wilderness, where people will inevitably need his help again.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Ettore Scola
18th Annual European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It was strictly a coincidence, but a few hours before I viewed How Strange to Be Named Federico, I took a look at The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni (2012), an experimental biography of Egypt’s biggest star told entirely through clips of her films. Bowled over again by the audacious approach Rania Stephan took to her subject, I was fully primed for this impressionistic tribute to the great Italian director by Ettore Scola, who modeled his own career to some extent on Fellini’s.
Anyone interested in learning all about Fellini’s life and career should look elsewhere. Scola privileges impressions, memories, and imagination in offering some background on the director. In particular, Scola pays tribute to the camaraderie he experienced with Fellini, particularly when they both worked for the satirical newspaper Marc’Aurelio.
Scola transitions between color and black and white cinematography, between reenactments and archival footage, and across decades to show the footprints Fellini left that Scola stepped into. We see a reenactment of a young Fellini (Tommaso Lazotti) showing his sketches to a front-office editor at Marc’Aurelio, who flips through them declaring them funny or not funny and then deciding they are good enough to bring to the attention of the head editors. The bullpen sessions of the illustrators, all with their own “columns” and all vying for the coveted center spread, is a wonder of competitive spirit, friendly banter, and creative foment.
Scola first enters the picture as a nine year old (Giacomo Lazotti) reading Fellini’s cartoons to his blind grandfather. Ten years later, we will see Fellini’s introduction to the Marc’Aurelio office play out again when young Scola (Giulio Forges Davanzati) shows up, portfolio in hand, to see if he can make the grade. A rather sobering scene of some low-level functionaries of Mussolini’s fascist government coming into the editorial office and the illustrators standing at attention and giving their names and “rank,” that is, the sections they draw, created an uncomfortable reminder of the Charlie Hebdo attacks this past January.
Film director Fellini (Maurizio De Santis), an insomniac, is shown driving with Scola to view the prostitutes standing on the streets to ply their trade. They pick up one hooker (Antonella Attili) who relates that her days in the life are nearing their end; she has saved money, which she has given to her boyfriend to purchase a house for them. The seeds of The Nights of Cabiria (1957) thus are sown. There are some other interesting tidbits about Fellini’s works, including the omission of Mastroianni among the great Italian actors the director tested to appear in Casanova (1976) and the enshrinement of Stage 5 at Cinecittà Studios as Fellini’s home.
As the film moves into eras in which footage of the real Fellini and his film shoots are available, Scola gives us a behind-the-scenes look at some of the director’s classic films. Crane shots of Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni playing in the Trevi fountain in La Dolce Vita (1960) intermingle with footage and restaged circus acts from La Strada (1954), with his Fellini stand-in watching the proceedings. Hilariously, Fellini and Scola are accosted by Mastroianni’s mother, who complains that Fellini always makes her son look handsome, whereas Scola always makes him look like a vagabond. While some of Scola’s memories may be suspect, I have no doubt this incident actually took place.
Scola distances himself from the film somewhat by having Vittorio Viviani serve as narrator, offering at least the semblance of an objective point of view from which the audience can take its cues. A familiarity with Fellini’s works makes viewing much more enjoyable and enlightening, as the movie feels a bit like a group of friends getting together to talk about a mutual acquaintance. A sampler of Fellini’s films at the end might jog a few memories, and offers, like a similar end montage of excised kissing scenes from Cinema Paradiso (1988), the only truly sentimental interlude of the film. The free-wheeling and affectionate moments that went before are almost as good as having the maestro back among us.
How Strange to Be Named Federico is the closing night film. It will show Thursday, April 2 at 7:30 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Ivano De Matteo
18th Annual European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
One of the most popular writers in Europe is Herman Koch. The sometime actor published his first book, a collection of short stories, in 1985 and has produced eight novels to date. He hit big with his sixth novel, Het diner (The Dinner), a best seller that has been translated into 21 languages, spawned a 2012 film of the same name in his native country of The Netherlands, and reportedly will receive an English-language film treatment with Cate Blanchett at the helm in her directorial debut. The story, one of feuding brothers and family crime, proved irresistible to Italian director Ivano De Matteo as well. His version takes liberties with the novel that open the action beyond a single dinner conversation, giving context to the hard choices at the heart of the drama.
The film opens with two drivers exchanging heated words when one of them blows a red light because he is talking on his cellphone. As tempers flare, the offended driver stops his car, pulls out a baseball bat, and goes after the cellphone user. The driver’s side window shatters, but not from the bat—the driver is a police officer, and he fires a fatal shot into the man in self-defense. The bullet passes through the man and strikes his 10-year-old son Stefano (Lupo De Matteo), who is sitting in the passenger seat and was pleading with his father to stop arguing. This incident brings the two brothers at the heart of the story, Massimo (Alessandro Gassman) and Paolo (Luigi Lo Cascio), together, the former a lawyer defending the shooter and the latter a physician treating the injured boy.
The solidly middle-class Paolo and his wife Clara (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) have one son, the sullen, acne-scarred Michele (Jacopo Olmo Antinori), who hangs out with his older cousin Benedetta (Rosabell Laurenti Sellers) watching embarrassing and violent videos on TV and YouTube. Benny’s father, Massimo, is a wealthy widower who is on his second marriage to Sofia (Barbora Bobulova), who has recently given birth to a daughter. Clara hates Sofia, and Paolo has some long-standing enmity toward his brother, but like clockwork, the two couples meet at Massimo’s favorite restaurant once a month.
Michele has been doing poorly in school, and Paolo wants to keep him from going with Benny to a party. Clara, not wanting him to miss something he has been looking forward to, gets Paolo to relent. At the party, Michele is hopelessly out of place among the college-age crowd and ends up getting very drunk. He decides to leave, and Benny trails awkwardly after him in her high heels. The teens are uncommunicative the next day, but when Clara watches an Italian version of “Crimestoppers,” she sees a video of two people beating and kicking a homeless woman and dragging her along the street. Clara views the video again on her son’s laptop the next day after he goes to school, gets up shakily and walks to the kitchen, only to have her knees go out from under her, shocked to confirm her fear that the pair may be Benny and Michele. Later, Benny pumps her father for legal information about the crime, which she claims her friends committed; Massimo goes to an unsuspecting Paolo and says he suspects that their children were responsible. Angry at Clara for keeping him in the dark, Paolo forces the truth out of Michele. It is then up to the families to decide whether to cover for their children or turn them in.
The theme of The Dinner is similar to that of another EU festival film, Magical Girl (2014), that is, the human struggle between emotion and reason. Clara and Paolo are horrified that Massimo can defend the policeman who left a family man dead and his son temporarily paralyzed, but Massimo believes that everyone deserves a defense. This is the kind of rational thinking one needs and expects from a lawyer. Paolo is overcome with horror at what his son and niece have done, yelling at Massimo, Clara, and Sofia for talking about the best way to keep them from paying for their crime. Paolo’s conflict is enormous, flipping constantly between love for his son and his belief in justice, challenging his kneejerk liberal philosophy. Clara shows herself to be a hypocrite, watching her “Crimestoppers” show to see whether justice will be served, yet choosing to believe the lies of her son until he is forced into confessing and then actively seeking to keep the truth from getting out. Sofia is more dispassionate, as Benny is not her natural daughter, but she will do whatever Massimo believes is right.
The film remains blessedly neutral about technology. Just when we think the film will blame Benny and Michele’s actions on their consumption of violent videos, we see that a security camera is instrumental in uncovering their crime. De Matteo rightly lays the blame directly where it belongs—on human nature, on people driven to violence by thoughtlessness or the view that some people’s lives are worthless. Envy certainly plays a role in how Paolo and Clara regard Massimo and Sofia and their luxurious lifestyle. Our sympathies are constantly shifting, and our beliefs about the characters reinforced and challenged again and again.
The naturalistic film style and the mesmerizing performances, especially by Lo Cascio and Mezzogiorno, take this film and its somewhat familiar theme to some interesting places. It is, however, hard to get a toehold on the film because we are catching these characters at a stressful moment in time; without a thorough grounding in character, the film sometimes tips into melodrama. Whereas the first half of the film contains only diagetic music, the introduction of an emotional score in the second half amps the melodrama rather unnecessarily.
The tack De Matteo takes to this story recalls the amorality of privilege and the immorality of envy found in The Bling Ring (2013), suggesting that Gen X filmmakers (De Matteo is 49) are acutely aware of the worm riddling our new Gilded Age and are seeking to examine and expose it. While The Dinner perhaps needed a more full-bodied script to draw out more nuance to the situation, this film is well worth a look.
The Dinner is showing Thursday, March 26 at 8:15 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago.
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Director/Screenwriter: Olivier Assayas
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers.
Olivier Assayas’ career is littered with films studying the cross-pollinating perversities of art and life and contemplations of art as life itself—as hobby, business, mirror, catalyst, passion, refuge. Key to much of Assayas’ cinema is a belief that performance is a kind of life and that all life is a kind of performance. This notion becomes an ever more enveloping truism as new portals of reality are opened by technology and our increasingly narcissistic gaze. Assayas has tackled this obsessive theme from many different angles in his career. Even his discursions into genre and reportage, like Boarding Gate (2008) and Carlos (2011), hinge on the spectacle of individuals trying to reinvent themselves according to a self-concept: the former film’s protagonist, forced to survive conspiracies of power and the brutal results of her own extreme emotions, became something like the science fiction heroine she had once written about, whilst the latter espoused the idea that Carlos the Jackal was essentially a man who fell in love with playing the radical titan and made his life match the image. Assayas’ international breakthrough, Irma Vep (1996), depicted a film shoot as intersection of cultures, peoples, epochs, and modes of artistry, recognising and disassembling all the grand and inane things that go into creating a popular artwork. Clouds of Sils Maria inevitably evokes that movie in constructing a similar fablelike exploration of the tensions between player and play, a cotillion of ideas and impulses dancing around the subject of art in the modern world itself, and also just as fascinated with the iconography of the great female performer. That iconography has clearly often tantalised and tormented Assayas, as he documented in his works with ex-wife Maggie Cheung, Irma Vep and Clean (2004).
Clouds of Sils Maria belongs to a small battery of recent films that have tackled the same theme, including most prominently Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s Oscar-winning Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) and Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur (both 2014), all of which meditate fixedly on the process of actors creating new realities as they wrestle with the purity of the text and the complexity of existence. The corollary to his recurring theme is that Assayas knows that however much artists might wish it and be facilely in love with the notion of art and life conjoining, it never does, or at least not in the neat manner most takes on the idea suggest. Assayas maintains tension is his variations on this theme by keeping the audience guessing as to where he will draw the line.
Crucial to both the intent and the effect of Clouds of Sils Maria is the presence of Juliette Binoche, whose own aura of matured excellence as a performer and invocation of a specific kind of European chic is crucial for the attitude the audience is encouraged to take toward her character, Maria Enders, and that of Kristen Stewart, playing Maria’s personal assistant Valentine. At the outset, tellingly, Maria and Valentine are travelling, between stages of life. Maria seems at first to be on a kind of cultural victory lap, heading to Switzerland for a film festival where she is to accept an award on behalf of publicity-averse playwright and filmmaker William Melchior. Melchior wrote the play that gave Maria her big break, “The Maloja Snake,” a tragic tale of a widowed, middle-age businesswoman, Helena, who falls in love with younger female employee, Sigrid, only to be cruelly used, discarded, and driven to suicide. Melchior later adapted the play into the movie that made her an international star.
Maria is now just coming off a stint playing an X-Men character in Hollywood, the pinnacle of that career in terms of fame and financial reward. Soon it becomes plain that Maria is actually beating a retreat, turning her back not just on such pay-cheque work but also on new horizons in a changed cultural zeitgeist, and also fleeing the fallout of her ongoing, acrimonious divorce. On the train taking them through the Alps, Maria reads Val her acceptance speech on behalf of Melchior, whilst Val drip-feeds her interesting offers, information titbits, internet gossip, and relevant bulletins that come to her through copious cell phone calls. One call brings genuinely startling and shocking news: Melchior has just been found dead near his home in the mountain village of Sils Maria. Later, Melchior’s widow Rosa (Angela Winkler) tells Maria that he was fatally ill and took a graceful self-administered exit in his favourite spot, high above the lake of Sils.
The festival award turns into testimonial event, and Maria is faced with some less agreeable aspects of her shared past with Melchior, as his other favourite actor, Henryk Wald (Hanns Zischler), comes to get in on the act. Maria is still deeply contemptuous of Henryk after he seduced her, forgot her, and got interested in her again once she hit the big time. Reluctantly, Maria meets with Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger), a new hotshot theatre director who wants to cast Maria in a revival of “The Maloja Snake.” Whereas Maria made her name as the young character in the play, whom she played with a precise relish for callow, egocentric cruelty, Maria is now to take the role of the older, waning, doomed Helena.
Maria is initially seduced into this potentially facetious piece of backtracking by Klaus’s theory that Helena and Sigrid are essentially portraits of the same person at different stages in life and thus a predominantly psychological work, whilst Henryk describes it as a simple and relentless portrait in the pathetic subordination of a weaker person by a dominant one, and thus about the power dynamics of interpersonal society. When Rosa decides to leave the house she and Melchior shared, she offers it to Maria as a place to rehearse the play and commune with the essence and inspiration of Melchior’s art. Maria and Val move in for the duration, and begin the heady work of finding an access point into the play’s theatre of pathos.
The title of both Assayas’ film and the play within it refer to a strange weather phenomenon in the region—a snakelike ribbon of cloud that creeps up through the mountains and over the lake at Sils Maria whose exact cause is unknown. This mystery is correlated with the enigma of desire and the wilful self-immolation of Helena depicted in Melchior’s play, which concerns both the consumption and supplanting of the old by the young, but also with the impulses that still burn within us as we age and the overpowering force of repressed, asocial wont. The invented play that serves as linchpin for Assayas’ dramatic enquiries was inspired by Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1970), a work Fassbinder likewise translated from stage to screen. Although Assayas has been prone to fetishizing lipstick lesbianism in the past, the status of Fassbinder’s works as singular classics of the burgeoning age of outright queer art concern Assayas less than using them as template for fabricating an exemplar of ruthlessly psychological, selectively realistic, serious-minded modernist art. Likewise, the film’s allusions to Ingmar Bergman’s films, particularly Persona (1966) and Hour of the Wolf (1968), annex the aura of intense worthiness still retained by that grand, but fading era. Simultaneously, the way Fassbinder used gay coupling with cunning alacrity to render the power dynamics in all relationships bare in deadly contrast is also vital to Assayas’ plan.
Assayas can then toss such high-falutin’ fare playfully against the seeming frivolousness of much contemporary big-budget cinema. Rather than merely exploiting the dissonance to better affirm the aspirations of the would-be artist in the face of sell-out self-loathing, as Birdman was rewarded for depicting, Assayas is a postmodernist, knowing all too well that the divisions between high and low art are often illusory, but also he is determined not to pander. He wants to know why metaphorical studies in human nature, which can be at once simplistically minor and mythically large, have stolen so much thunder from the integrity of such grand art. “The Maloja Snake” is supposed to be the kind of work artists and scholars can get lost in for years trying to plumb its subtleties and evocations of seldom-explored corners of the psyche, and the way each person engaging with the text transforms it via their own experience and intent.
Maria trips up on her own evolving and altering reading of the work, which she once understood on the level of pure instinct in channelling her own ruthless, youthful drive into the figure of Sigrid. This must now be subordinated to the far more painful process of reconciling her own fear of aging with the terrible description of Hanna’s disintegration, but also on the level of raw theatrical craft, stumbling over lines that once seemed abstractly forceful and now only ring as clunky and didactic. Appropriately for the theatrical dimensions of his inquiries, Assayas structures his film in three acts: a first part, a second part, and an epilogue. But he also subdivides the film with a classic cinematic device—fading to black as the punctuation of most scenes rather than the direct leaps favoured by most modern editors, emphasising, rather than sublimating, the passage of time, giving the film a mood of somnolent, yet wiry expectation.
By most standards, not much actually happens in Clouds of Sils Maria. Assayas gives the bulk of the screen time to Maria and Val shacked up in Melchior’s house, arguing approaches to the play in specific and the business of performing art in general in a manner that takes near-unseemly delight in the mere display of actors verbalising with all their wily talent, as if taking a calculated tilt at the dogma of modern filmmaking, to avoid devolution into mere talk. Assayas quietly undercuts cliché in making the older European actress more emotional and quicksilver in her reactions and creative yearnings and the younger American taciturn in her emotional life and more overtly intellectual and theoretical in her explorations, albeit in such a way that often conflicts with Maria’s sense of worthy art, talking up the necessity of committed acting even in light fantasies. The association between the two women seems workaday, but steadily unveils itself as a complex and loaded mesh of mutual requirement as Maria and Val are bound together by shared intelligence and passion for the creative life, albeit a passion that the younger woman must subordinate to the elder as the successful professional. Val functions as sounding board, mental fencing opponent, grease trap keeping distractions and time suckers at bay, and avatar out in the world of youthful desire. The project of restaging “The Maloja Snake” is both expedited and complicated by the other side of the casting equation. Klaus tells Maria he’s secured Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), a rising starlet who’s a big enough fan of Maria’s to have dropped other commitments for the chance to play opposite her, news that helps lures Maria on board with the appeal to vanity, though Maria has never heard of Jo-Ann.
Val, in another of her functions—translator for the vagaries of the internet age for Maria—is able to dish all the dirt: Jo-Ann is infamous for her spacy, spiky interviews and You Tube-enshrined freak-outs. Like Maria, she’s just come off a big-budget scifi movie, cueing a sequence when Maria and Val go to see the film, donning 3D glasses for the privilege. In the brief glimpse of the movie, Jo-Ann’s character is a mutant walking out on her fellowship of good guys, revealing herself to be a traitor who’s in love with the bad guy before exterminating her mutant friend (Nora von Waldstätten). Val vocally admires Jo-Ann’s talent and encourages Maria to work with her, even take some inspiration from her. After the movie, the pair argue over what they’ve just seen. Maria dismisses the pop psychology and what she sees as inherent ludicrousness of the material, but Val argues passionately for Jo-Ann’s transcendent dedication to the part and the force of feeling underneath the generic metaphors. Maria laughs heartily with a hint of wilful contempt, whilst Val continues to argue with frustration, but they patch it up when Val dismisses the film’s villain. This sequence binds together much that’s essential about both the film and Assayas’ recurring peccadilloes, not least of which is the spectacle of cinephilia itself, the critical dissection of clashing artistic concepts and world views, and Assayas’ adoration for louche glamazons in tight outfits, an adoration he always treats with wry awareness, harking back to Irma Vep’s PVC fantasias and the confused invocations of Catwoman as inferior descendant.
As a mimicry of Hollywood blockbuster style, the movie-within-a-movie misses the mark, probably deliberately. The wigs and costuming recall a different brand of comic-book-inspired pop cinema from the ’60s and ’70s with a hint of retro camp, whilst the overt discussion of emotion in the dialogue cuts against the grain of the current superhero genre’s pre-adolescent distrust of such things. In this aspect, Assayas is clearly more definitely referencing the Twilight series, setting up Val’s passionate defence of the kinds of role and performing that gave Stewart her own fame and fortune. There is another message in the mutant movie that has warnings for the two ladies: one mutant kills off the friend who tries to council her wisely but against the flow of her tumultuous feelings. When Maria and Val meet Jo-Ann, she and her boyfriend (Johnny Flynn) are listening to Handel in an upscale hotel. Jo-Ann seems to be a calm, cool, generous young woman light years removed from the half-mad or druggy tyro the internet records. Jo-Ann charms Maria by copiously praising her and explaining the roots of her adolescent obsession with acting as being rooted in seeing Maria live on stage. Only when Maria and Val return to Sils Maria can Val explain the tabloid storm waiting to happen they were just privy to, because Val recognised Jo-Ann’s boyfriend as Christopher Giles, a hot young writer who’s married to a prize-winning German artist. At first, Assayas seems to be constructing an obvious point here, decrying the way celebrity’s worst moments can be captured and turned into permanent, inescapable representations, and that Jo-Ann is just a young talent who indulges, but isn’t defined by her appetites. But another facet suggests itself, that Jo-Ann is a consummate performer in life as well as on screen, becoming whatever she thinks is needed of her in a given moment.
Assayas, who started as a film critic and then turned to screenwriting, penned the script for one of Binoche’s important early films, Andre Techince’s Rendez-vous (1985), and he all but invites the viewer to go right ahead and conflate the various players on and off screen with the characters in the film, with himself cast sarcastically as Melchior, ghostly, pointedly absent but still the puppet master, and Binoche and Stewart playing versions of themselves. Assayas certainly mines the ironies of the two actresses’ careers with assiduous skill, playing off the oppositions they seemingly invoke—European/American, maturity/youth, high art/pop culture, and on and on—whilst also collapsing and undermining those divisions. Mostly this feels like a sarcastic dare for the audience to make such an ill-advised leap: Assayas is ahead of the game. Binoche’s own recent, too-brief part in Godzilla (2014) was an interesting discursion for a hugely admired performer who nonetheless has had a frustrating time of it in English-language cinema, whilst Stewart, an actress with an impressive resume of film performances under her belt in small and independent films, is still currently defined for most by the Twilight franchise, which made her name the easiest of cheap-shot targets, whilst Jo-Ann’s transgressive romance with Giles evokes Stewart’s own tabloid crash-landing.
Of course, there’s nothing terribly uncommon about either actress’s career pattern either, and it’s this very commonality of experience that intrigues Assayas, trying to turn the mixture of specificity and universality that’s supposed to make for great art inside out. Like fellow ’90s French auteur-star François Ozon, Assayas is fascinated by characters who indulge in role-playing and try to actualise their internal dialogues, but he’s careful not to stoop to an overt a trick like Ozon did with Swimming Pool (2003) and have his characters prove to be literal, obvious projections of a creator’s thought process. Instead, Assayas reroutes his awareness that all characters are essentially fragments of the author’s (his) mind, whilst purporting to make them radial extensions of Maria herself, commenting on past, present, and future, as Val, Jo-Ann, Klaus, and Henryk all present dimensions of Maria’s ambitions and anxieties in obedience to the common pattern of function in drama.
At the same time, all of them are struggling for autonomy, for their own justifications and arcs: actors’ egoverse couples folding themselves into every other person around them with the eternal fear that others will erase them. Maria and Val’s life together in Henryk’s house quickly starts to feel like a kind of sexless marriage, especially as Maria relies on Val to give her juice and morale, but she also resents it when Val’s admiration goes to anyone else, like Henryk and Jo-Ann. Maria’s feelings about other actors are coloured by the way they interact with her life experience, whilst Val assesses them purely with the gaze of an intelligent fan. Jo-Ann comes to represent the unalloyed force and ambition of the young actor as opposed to the toey criticality of Maria as the weathered artist.
Maria stores up Val’s implied criticisms and veiled warnings and then ambushes her with their implications at random moments, whilst the two women begin to bicker and butt heads with greater frequency. Their adventures in the surrounding landscape mark stages in the decay of the partnership, from casually stripping off and diving into the lake to getting lost and wandering in the descending murk after arguing aesthetic quandaries until they literally can’t find their way home. Val strikes up a romantic liaison with a photographer, Berndt (Benoit Peverelli), who shoots Maria for the festival promos: Val amusingly introduces him to Maria as the man who took “those really trashy photos of Lindsay Lohan.” Val leaves Maria to meet up with Berndt a few times, but after one excursion, she is depicted driving back through the mountains in the fog, the film’s sole moment of showy filmmaking: Assayas double-exposes the image, so that the road continuing to twist and bend from a driver’s perspective even as Val stops the car to vomit by the side of the road, expertly visualising Val’s physical state of head-swimming nausea and her tumultuous, disoriented emotional state of things having gone bitterly wrong. Eventually, she asks Maria if she wants her to leave after a particularly gruelling rehearsal session, feeling that her ideas are only confusing Maria, but Maria asks her with disarming directness to stay and embraces her.
The mountainous setting is replete with otherworldly evocations, a Wagnerian landscape for communing with gods, and the Maloja Snake itself, which took on a spiritual significance for Melchior. Maria and Val try repeatedly to grasp that meaning by hoping to see it, whilst Val herself gets lost in the churn of lesser atmospherics. Early in the film, Rosa shows them a film of the event, taken by German filmmaker Arnold Fanck (codirector of The White Hell of Piz Palü, 1929). In the film’s provocative, initially bewildering pivotal moment, Maria and Val try to catch sight of the Maloja Snake on a foggy morning. On the way, the duo argues about the play’s ambiguous ending, which implies but does not show Helena’s suicide. Val points out that it’s hardly conclusive and that it might in fact support the theory that the play is actually about Helena wilfully throwing off the vestiges of her life en route to rebirth. Maria barks irritably at Val that she’s trying to make the play the opposite of what it was supposed to be. Moments later Assayas observes the duo descending a hillside, and Maria reappears on the reverse slope, but without Val behind her. Maria reaches the peak and sees the Snake forming, but when she looks back, she sees no sign of Val. Maria searches with increasing frenzy, but turns up no sign of her companion. Assayas fades out and returns weeks later, with Maria in London with a completely new PA and the restaging of “The Maloja Snake” now in final rehearsals.
What the hell has happened? Maria doesn’t seem disturbed or unhappy, so it’s unlikely Val has met a sticky end accidentally or deliberately. More likely she simply gave up, walked back to the house, packed her bags and left her job. But there is no certainty. At first it seems like a mischievous diegetic joke, Val making a point about the ambiguity of the text’s conclusion to taunt Maria. It’s also possible to take it to mean that Val never was, that she was just a projection of Maria’s self, a facet of her personality she now no longer needs as creative quandary gives way to hard career choices (this does seem unlikely, however). As the film’s metatextual humour has constantly threatened, this proves to be rather Assayas’ act of narrative self-sabotage, highlighting the very point that was just being argued about: he quite deliberately erases all sign of what’s happened, and the audience must decide for itself. Val vanishes as the Maloja Snake appears, and Assayas mediates dreamily on the mountains engulfed by cloud, Handel sawing away on the soundtrack.
The unanswered mystery of the sudden disappearance calls back to another icon of mid-20th century art film, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960), but where Antonioni was evoking the mystery inherent in much of life, Assayas undermines the very structure of his art to reaffirm it. The notion of a character suddenly absented from a story and thus from existence is another of Assayas’ fixations, from the fraying New Wave director in Irma Vep who seems to vanish into the experimental movie he leaves behind to the antiheroine of demonlover being abducted into the black zones of the internet and the protagonist of Boarding Gate retreating from revenge to be lost in the great mass of humanity. The tale of Val and Maria seemed to demand a conclusion, a grand gesture—that they split, become lovers, destroy each other—but Assayas simply avoids it. Whatever Val has done has been aimed at hurting Maria and perhaps herself, and more importantly, she’s hurt the narrative and broken free. The rest of the film plays out normally. Maria has a new assistant (Claire Tran), who has Val’s confidence but nothing like her bohemian edge. Whilst Maria and Klaus have dinner, the director pensive about his project, news comes of Giles and Jo-Ann’s affair: Giles’ wife has attempted suicide, and the shit is about to hit the tabloid fan.
Jo-Ann coolly invites the tabloid blame for the tragedy to shield Giles, revealing an almost saintly side, but as she and Maria rehearse and Maria tries to sensitise her to the dramatic value of evoking pity for Helena, Jo-Ann dismisses the point, stating that the audience is now entirely bound up in Sigrid—in short, she’s taking charge now and fuck the older woman, Maria and Helena both. Helena accepts this without demure, and meets with Piers Roaldson (Brady Corbet), a young, first-time filmmaker far less slick and self-assured than Klaus who wants her to play another mutant in a low-budget scifi film he’s about to shoot in Ukraine. Ironically, Piers has contempt for this very thing Maria’s been struggling to accept and adapt to, as well as for Maria’s concerns about her age. “She’s outside of time,” Piers tells Maria of the character he’s written for her, a creature who does not age normally. The likeness is obvious, to the image of the eternal actress, frozen at a phase in life by the movie camera, exempted from the petty cares of life. By inference Maria has finally reached a point where she, too, has transcended time. To reach this point, Maria has essentially been stripped of her illusions, her airs, and her beliefs. There is nothing now but the job itself, but that is a form of freedom. Assayas fades out on the image of her ensconced in Helena’s place, smiling with wry expectation to herself, aware that on one level Val was correct, that Helena’s self-destruction is as much a journey of wilful disassembling as it is one of tragic succumbing, an expression of desire to find what else there is life—and that Maria doesn’t have to follow it to the same end.
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Director/Screenwriter: Carlos Vermut
18th Annual European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Midway through Spanish filmmaker Carlos Vermut’s mordant sophomore feature Magical Girl, Bárbara (Bárbara Lennie), a former prostitute in the S&M scene around whom much of the action centers, meets Oliver Zoco (Miquel Insua), a wealthy paraplegic who runs a brothel for sadists. Married to a psychiatrist who keeps her on a short leash and desperate for $7,000 to pay off a blackmailer, Bárbara has agreed to a one-off session with one of Zoco’s clients. Zoco asks her if she likes bullfighting, and they agree that neither of them has a taste for it. Zoco then offers the following analysis of the place of bullfighting in Spain.
It is curious that Spain is the country where bullfighting is most popular. Do you know why Spain is a country in eternal conflict? Because we are not sure if we are a rational or an emotional country. Nordic people, for example, act in accordance with their brains. However, the Arabs or Latinos have accepted their passionate side without blame. Both, they know which are their strong points. Spaniards are balanced right in the middle. That’s the way we are. And what is bullfighting? The representation of the struggle between instinct and technique, between emotion and reason. We have to accept our instincts and learn to deal with them as if they were a bull, trying not to be destroyed by them.
This speech is the key to the quietly savage tale Vermut has put on the screen for our amusement and horror.
In sadomasochistic relations, it is the submissive who controls the action. Magical Girl shows just how much two seemingly vulnerable and submissive females control and bring about the ruin of the men in their lives. One of them is the picture of innocence—Alicia (Lucía Pollán), the 12-year-old, leukemia-stricken daughter of unemployed literature teacher and single father Luis (Luis Bermejo). The close, loving relationship between them is evident in his loving names for her, the games they play, and his parental concern over Alicia’s request to spend the night with some girlfriends watching Japanese anime. Her favorite anime is Magical Girl Yukiko, and her fondest wishes are to possess the costume Yukiko wears and to live to be 13. When her father discovers her laying in her room unconscious and rushes her to the hospital, he learns that her second wish likely will not come true. He decides he will grant her first wish, even though the designer outfit costs nearly $7,000.
The second submissive is Bárbara. The opening scene of the film shows a young Bárbara (Marina Andruix) turn the tables on her math teacher Damián (José Sacristán) when he forces her to read aloud a note she was passing in class. The note reveals that she thinks “Cabbage Face” is pathetic, and when he demands the note from her, she makes it disappear through sleight of hand. The adult Bárbara is kept in luxurious bondage by her husband Alfredo (Israel Elejalde), who shoves an antipsychotic or antidepressant down her throat, checking to see if she has swallowed it, even sweeping his finger around the inside of her mouth to be sure. The depth of her disturbance shows when they go to visit friends, and after being forced to hold the friends’ new baby, Bárbara starts to laugh. Compelled, like Damián compelled her so long ago, to reveal what she was thinking, she says she was imagining what everyone’s faces would look like if she tossed the baby out the window.
At home, Alfredo forces Bárbara to take a sleeping pill, and when she awakens in the middle of the night, she finds only empty hangers in his clothes closet. She downs the bottle of sleeping pills, only to vomit them out the window and right onto Luis, who is standing in front of a jewelry store ready to smash and grab the valuable contents in the window to finance the Yukiko costume. Bárbara takes him in, washes his clothes, and while they are drying, seduces Luis, thus leaving herself open to the blackmail he sees as the only way to get the money he needs.
Both Alicia and Bárbara depend on others to take care of them. Both are sick and find ways to use that sickness to get what they want. The frivolousness of Luis’ mission forms a dead-on critique of affirmative parenting. Luis may be delusional about Alicia’s real needs—as a friend from whom he tries to borrow money says, Alicia just wants to spend time with him—but when he presents her with the dress, her reaction is underwhelming. When she starts looking through the box, he realizes he missed something—the $20,000 magic wand accessory—and is forced to extend his blackmail demand. Alicia is indeed a very entitled child who elicits our sympathy and scorn at the same time.
Bárbara finds a way to embarrass Alfredo for making her go out when she didn’t want to, and though he tries to leave her that same night, he returns the next day with an ultimatum I suspect would vanish into thin air if Bárbara ever called him on it. That she doesn’t, and indeed, pursues increasingly more dangerous sexual activities to deal with her blackmailer suggests to me that she’s trying to have her cake and eat it.
As with any good bullfight, Vermut waves his red cape and punctuates these fairly straightforward, intertwined stories like a picador with some lacerating scenes of seriocomedy, as when Bárbara splits her forehead open when she head-butts a mirror or Alicia dances in manic delight to some Japanese music, clutches her side and suddenly collapses out of the frame. The undercurrent of economic crisis in Spain adds an air of desperation, and Luis’ instruction to Bárbara to put the money in a copy of the Spanish constitution held at a public library because “nobody will read it” offers a sardonic commentary on the state of neoliberal policies in Spain. His men—all educated intellectuals—often have the mere illusion of control, but when they succumb to their emotions, their ferocity is something to behold.
Vermut offers some interesting set-ups to suggest character, and even cinematic parody. When Bárbara enters Zoco’s mansion, the formality of the setting and faux gentility of the characters echo the sleazy sophisticates of Eyes Wide Shut (1999), and the addition of the black lizard room, with this animal silouette hanging portentously over the door, is the kind of sly joke one would expect from the likes of Luis Buñuel. Revelation of the scars criss-crossing Bárbara’s body brings out the Spanish sense of morbidity (and incidentally, offers more erotic menace than a “sensation” like Fifty Shades of Gray  could begin to think of) and the pallor of death that permeates so many film from that country. In other instances, an overhead shot of Damián’s desk, with every object regimentally aligned with geometric preciseness, is a perfect snapshot of a man desperately trying to keep the bull locked in its pen, and the small hand reaching toward him holding the key to the gate.
When Vermut pulls his sword out from behind his cape to go in for the kill, the change is as unexpectedly thrilling as it would be in a real bullfight. Damián is the sleeper character in this film, and his obsession with Bárbara the driving force in a truly unsettling tale of revenge. Like the Spanish, Vermut moves us slyly between the poles of reason and passion. The final victory, perhaps unsurprisingly, goes to the bull.
Magical Girl is showing Saturday, March 28 at 3:00 p.m. and Wednesday, April 1 at 7:30 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago. The Wednesday screening will be introduced by Steven Marsh, associate professor of Spanish film and cultural studies at the University of Illinois Chicago.
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Director: Christian Schwochow
18th Annual European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
On October 3, 1990, East and West Germany were officially reunified, and Germans in both halves of the country looked forward to better times for the entire country. The hardships under which the East Germans lived for decades, however, did not vanish overnight, and integration of the two populations was fraught in many ways. Christian Schwochow, who was born and grew up in East Germany, has begun to examine this past. His 2012 miniseries The Tower dealt with the crumbling of communist rule in East Germany, observing life in the former Soviet bloc country near the final approach of reunification. West takes a step back to the 1970s for a look at life for East Germans who were granted permission to emigrate to the west.
The film opens with our main characters, Nelly Senff (Jördis Triebel) and her son Alexej (Tristan Göbel) bidding a loving farewell to the man of the house, Wassilij (Carlo Ljubek), who is leaving on a trip. The context of the trip is vague, and when he says that he will see them in a week, the furtiveness of the exchange made me wonder whether they were all going to try to escape to the west. Flash forward three years, and a worried-looking Nelly is indeed making for the border with Alexej to start a new life—but with the government’s blessings. Nelly, jittery that something will foul up the plan, tries to keep Alexej from the leaving the car to use the rest room. This action ironically arouses suspicions, and Nelly is asked to submit to questioning. Although her papers are in order, East Germany reserves one final indignity for her before she leaves—she is made to strip, jewelry and all, for a cavity search before she is released to West Berlin’s Marienfelde Refugee Center.
Mother and son are given room and board, and Alexej is enrolled in the local school. They are given a card that will need 12 stamps from various officials before they can leave the center and find a job and a place of their own. Slowly, Nelly begins to make friends, and Alexej latches onto a long-time resident of the center, Hans Pischke (Alexander Scheer), who distracts him when the boy witnesses a hanging suicide. Nelly, initially furious that Hans seems to be playing father to Alexej, relaxes when he tells her why and begins to trust him. Sadly, an American official, John Bird, (Jacky Ido) who refuses to stamp her card because he believes Wassilij was a Soviet courier who is still alive, derails her plan to get on with her life and stokes her paranoia to the point that she begins to suspect Hans of being a Stasi spy.
West is a film that cuts a lot of narrative corners and provides so little backstory on any of its characters that it’s hard to register them as anything but types. This sketchiness may be deliberate, as it helps us to identify somewhat with Nelly’s dislocation and distrust. Nonetheless, because we are shown things Nelly is not—Hans taking Alexej away from the scene of the suicide, Alexej buying flowers for his mother that he leaves as a surprise for her in their room—her anger and paranoia seem quite unreasonable. Schwochow further plays with our sense of reality by giving us a few brief glimpses of Wassilij, sometimes as Nelly’s delusions and then perhaps as a real person. He offers an American paranoic, a fairly predictable, but perhaps accurate touch, but puts Nelly in the position of using sex to find out what he knows about Wassilij; adding this cloak-and-dagger element and setting up the stereotype of the German woman desiring an African-American cheapens an already unflattering portrait of an intelligent, professional woman (a chemist) defined by her lover and mother roles.
Nonetheless, looking past the narrative weaknesses, West is a riveting experience thanks to the mesmerizing performances of Triebel and Göbel. Triebel won best actress awards at the 2014 German Film Awards and 2013 Montreal World Film Festival and was a best actress nominee of the German Film Critics Association in 2015 and the 2014 Seattle International Film Festival. Triebel is on camera almost constantly, and her intense, full-bodied performance makes up for the sometimes weak dialogue with which screenwriter Heide Schwochow, the director’s mother, saddled her. So focused is she that looking at screencaps for this film, I was extremely surprised how much her character smokes in the film—I just never noticed. At the same time that I felt her full-bore seductiveness toward Bird and deep love for Wassilij in their one brief scene together, there was a certain containedness that felt absolutely right for someone who lived under an oppressive, vigilant regime.
Göbel’s open face and innocence stand in contrast to his costar’s suspicions and fear. Alexej misses his father, a fact he and Nelly talk about openly. At the same time, his inability to deal honestly with his mother, standing bewildered, unable to say the flowers are his gift to her when she snatches them out of their vase and smashes them in a trashcan, rings painfully true. His relationship with Hans is wonderfully warm, untainted by the suspicions of others; we’re grateful he has Hans to turn to when the West German boys start to pick on him and break his glasses. Frankly, I could have looked at him the entire film and not have been bored at all.
Alexander Scheer has a tricky balancing act. Hans must be normally friendly but seem abnormally so to Nelly. He doesn’t quite pull it off, but I give him full marks for convincing me that he had been tortured by the Stasi and emotionally crippled as a result. It is important to realize that not everyone can be strong and put the past behind them.
Schwochow’s handheld work, getting right into the faces of his characters, creates an intimacy that draws us into the story, even as his muted, cool colors suggest the gray area between imprisonment and freedom. When Nelly’s world gradually starts to open up, it is a joyful relief, a reminder that despite its imperfections, unification made life better for a lot of people.
West is showing Saturday, March 21 at 5:00 p.m. and Wednesday, March 25 at 6:00 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago.
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Director/Co-Adaptor: Alain Resnais
18th Annual European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
On March 1, 2014, Alain Resnais died after a long and fruitful 91 years of life. A chronic asthmatic from a comfortably bourgeois family who was exempted from active military duty during World War II, he made some of the most powerful antiwar and humanist films ever produced, including Night and Fog (1955) and Muriel, or the Time of Return (1963). He also created films of mystery with elliptical narratives like Last Year in Marienbad (1961), reflecting his early interest in surrealism. In his later years, he struck up a working relationship with British playwright Alan Ayckbourn, whose comedies of manners reminiscent of Molière’s bedroom farces must have held great appeal for the French director. Resnais’ adaptation of “Intimate Exchanges,” Smoking/No Smoking (1993), swept France’s César awards. His next collaboration with Ayckbourn was an adaptation of “Hearts,” the bittersweet Private Fears in Public Places (2006). Their next collaboration turned out to be the last film Resnais ever made, Life of Riley, or Love, Drink and Sing, as Resnais’ title translates. The story and presentation are light as a feather, yet something of Resnais’ gravitas as a director adheres, making it an appropriate valedictory work.
The comedy involves three bourgeois couples—Kathryn (Sabine Azéma) and her physician husband Colin (Hippolyte Girardot), Tamara (Caroline Sihol) and her wealthy husband Jack (Michel Vuillermoz), and Monica (Sandrine Kiberlain), who has left the titular George Riley, for life on a farm with Simeon (André Dussollier). The first two couples are involved in an amateur drama of the 1965 Ayckbourn play “Relatively Speaking,” and much of the film’s action involves them traveling to and from rehearsals. It appears that Kathryn and Tamara were once professional actresses, and a mild level of competitive sniping goes on. Generally, however, harmony reigns.
All that changes when Kathryn wheedles a secret out of Colin—one he all but reveals to her with poorly veiled hints—that George has terminal cancer and has perhaps six months to live. Despite Colin’s warnings about patient confidentiality, Kathryn immediately blabs the news to George’s best friend, Jack, whose distraught reaction is theatricality itself. The friends decide that the best thing for George is to join the cast of the play to get his mind off his troubles, and he is summarily recruited for that purpose. The heightened emotions that emerge during the amateur theatrical, so reminiscent of a similar treatment by another British humorist, Jane Austen, in Mansfield Park, pose a challenge to the harmony of the couples, as each woman—long-ago lover Kathryn, estranged wife Monica, and current fling Tamara—are drawn toward the charismatic, doomed George out of boredom, duty, or a need to be needed.
Resnais hews close to the stage origins of this romantic farce by emphasizing the artifice of his soundstage shooting, with fake flowers and plants, barely there sets, and long sheets of painted muslin to simulate walls, with the actors pulling back the muslin to exit and enter the scene. There is a sitcom quality to the construction of the film with Resnais’ use of drawings of each set as the establishing shot of where the next scene will take place, and light, lyrical transitional music. The cast of veteran actors use all the verve at their command, with Resnais’ wife and frequent collaborator Sabine Azéma a particular stand-out as a take-charge woman shackled to a passive husband. Michel Vuillermoz is pitch-perfect as a doting father to 16-year-old Tilly (Alba Gaïa Kraghede Bellugi) who all but ignores his gorgeous wife, practically ensuring her dalliance with George. While André Dussollier doesn’t have much screen time, cartoonish encounters with a tree stump, trying to avoid kicking it when Monica runs to George’s side, lead amusingly to the inevitable.
The difference between the “no sex, please” British and the “amour fou” French is the emotional bedrock of their respective approaches to the bedroom farce. British romantic comedies tend to be less fussy, more declamatory, and generally safer from an emotional point of view. The French, who seem to take love as it comes, compartmentalizing the propriety of official matrimonial alliances and the passion of romance, always seem much more serious to me about the place of love in their lives. It’s hard to imagine an Englishman filming Jacques Demy’s semi-tragic The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), for example. It is this underlying passion that gives Life of Riley the heft it has. When each of the women contemplates spending George’s final days with him in Tenerife—in his infinite bet-hedging, he has asked them all—their true feelings emerge in a very telling way. It is at this point that Resnais finally and fittingly films scenes in the interior of each of their homes.
Despite the brightness of the comedy and energetic work of the splendid cast, it is hard to watch Life of Riley without a certain melancholy setting in. Like the unseen George Riley, Alain Resnais’ ghost haunts this motion picture. The final grace note of the film reminds us of just how enormous our loss really is.
Life of Riley screens Friday, March 13 at 6:00 p.m. and Thursday, March 19 at 6:00 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago.
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Director/Screenwriter: Eugène Green
18th Annual European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Most of us have met people who identify with bygone eras. They style themselves to suit their preferred time, in ’60s go-go boots, short Sassone hairdos, and day-glo miniskirts or ’40s wide-shouldered, double-breasted suits, fedoras, and hand-painted ties. It’s rare to find someone go much earlier than the 1920s, however, because the clothing gets a lot more complicated and cumbersome. However, though he may not dress the part on a daily basis, Eugène Green is all about Baroque, a period that occupied the whole of the 17th century in Europe. Green is an New York-born filmmaker and naturalized French citizen who, through his teaching, theatre work, and films, has revived the French Baroque style of performance.
Green began making films when he was in his mid-50s, and when I saw his last feature film, The Portuguese Nun (2009), I felt he had a lot of potential but hadn’t quite jelled as a filmmaker. I’m happy to report that with his new feature film, La Sapienza, Green has arrived with a clear intention of what he wants to say and the wherewithal to pull it off superbly.
The film’s central couple, architect Alexandre Schmidt and his psychologist wife Aliénor (Fabrizio Rongione and Christelle Prot), are frustrated by their career compromises and disconnection from each other. After a particularly disheartening meeting with some investors who reject his desire to use existing structures and people-friendly spaces in favor of a more cost-effective development project for Bissone, Switzerland, Alexandre decides to take a break. He asks Aliénor if she wants to go to Italy with him, where he intends to do research for his long-delayed book on his idol, Baroque architect Francesco Borromini (1599-1667).
The two travel to Stresa, a beautiful town on Lake Maggiore in northern Italy, where they encounter 18-year-old Goffredo (Ludovico Succio) and his 16-year-old sister Lavinia (Arianna Nastro) while walking along the lakeshore. Lavinia suddenly grows dizzy and weak, and the older couple hail a cab and take the siblings home. Aliénor’s concern for Lavinia grows, and when Alexandre announces that he needs to travel to Turin and Rome to conduct research, Aliénor decides to stay behind. She enjoins him to take Goffredo, an aspiring architect, with him.
It’s possible to look at the doubling of Aliénor and Lavinia and Alexandre and Goffredo as doctor/patient and teacher/student, respectively, and suspect that the roles will be reversed. Indeed, this is exactly what happens, but this schema is more complex than that. The couples are bilingual in French and Italian, but to learn their individual lessons, the females speak French to each other, and the males speak Italian. Aliénor and Alexandre become time travelers, not literally meeting people from the time of Green’s imagining as happens in a film by another New Yorker in love with France—the all-too-facile Midnight in Paris (2011)—but rather by interacting with teens who embrace the ethos of the Baroque period. Succio and Nastro are rather unusual looking, as though they came from another time. Lavinia is said to have a wasting disease, archaic terminology that takes Aliénor aback, and the girl believes there is a cloud hanging over Goffredo that is the cause of her condition, certainly an evocation of hysterical illness that would not be treatable until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Goffredo sleeps with his door unlocked, despite Alexandre’s cautions against it. The young man says he always burns a candle at night, whose light he believes will keep him safe. Indeed, Goffredo wants to design buildings to contain light and people, a stark contrast to Alexandre’s design for a windowless hospital to eliminate outside distractions and focus its patients entirely on their recovery. “I would do it differently today,” he says to Goffredo.
The heart of the film might be said to encompass Alexandre and Goffredo’s tour of the great edifices of Borromini. Alexandre explains the challenges Borromini faced, particularly from his mentor and eventual rival, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, a compromising architect with whom Alexandre regretfully identifies. The plain facade of Borromini’s Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, built on a limiting footprint in Rome, opens to reveal an undulating, soaring interior, using the geometry of circles and ovals to create the feverish excessiveness that characterizes Baroque style. Green leads us to the cornice high above the nave floor, shaped and lit like the eye of God, the most ancient being in a film reverent toward the past.
Alexandre’s desire to retain existing elements for new construction, as Borromini did, reminds us that cities and towns are an amalgamation of styles from throughout history; Green’s reference to an archeological dig further reinforces the fact that human life on Earth has been built, layer by layer, on the foundations of the past, a repudiation of modernity and its overweaning ego. Green lays his criticism on a little thick at a dinner party of shallow bourgeois professionals living on an ancient estate without seeming to notice anything around them but their own intrigues. He doubles down with a comic burlesque involving an Australian tourist (Jon Firman) who demands to be let in to a chapel that is closed because he came all the way from Sydney to see it.
Green’s camera roves Borromini’s edifices and lingers lovingly on the majesty of Stresa, contrasting the survivors of the past with the straitjacketed characters of the modern age for whom the camera rarely moves. In keeping with Baroque theatre style, the actors declaim their lines with little emotion and generally static facial expressions. Nonetheless, though the buildings have been given the illusion of movement by their architects, our cast comprises real people with actual movement and simmering emotions that infuse their performances as the film progresses. As with The Portuguese Nun, Green adorns his females, especially Aliénor, with beautiful and distinctive clothing in keeping with his version of a costume drama.
Green himself becomes the mouthpiece of the past, playing the Chaldean, one of an ancient tribe driven by the American invasion of Iraq from their ancestral lands and thought by Aliénor, who encounters him one night, to have gone extinct. The Chaldean says his people were able to read and speak with the stars, and he looks at Aliénor and says her destiny is a good one, filled with love. When Alexandre and Goffredo return to Stresa the next day, Lavinia is cured, Alexandre and Aliénor find themselves passionately in love again, and Alexandre finds a new purpose as a teacher. It appears Green believes in oracles as well, and he arrives at his happy ending via a well-lain journey of discovery. In his worldview, it seems that those who remember the past will be lucky enough to repeat it. Bravo, professore.
La Sapienza shows Saturday, March 14 at 3:30 p.m. and Monday, March 16 at 6:00 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago.
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Director/Screenwriter: Wim Wenders
By Marilyn Ferdinand
This year, the Berlinale is paying tribute to one of Germany’s most creative native sons, Wim Wenders. Showing next week at the Berlinale Palast theatre is Everything Will Be Fine, Wenders’ brand-new feature film shot in 3D, and the “Homage” section of the festival will screen 10 of his works, including the film under consideration here, Pina. This documentary about one of the giants of German modern dance, Pina Bausch, was the first film Wenders shot in 3D. Clearly, he must have been intrigued by the form during his first outing and wondered how it could be applied to a fictional narrative. Like many of our finest directors, including Jean-Luc Godard and Martin Scorsese, Wenders has found a new toy to play with and has had to learn all over again how to shoot a movie. Pina is an interesting, often beautiful film that shows the learning curve for 3D cinematography is a sometimes steep and bumpy one.
Pina was a project nursed over the 20-year friendship of Wenders and Bausch, but it stayed as little more than an idea until 3D cinematography made its resurgence. In a 2011 interview with The Guardian, Wenders said, “I never knew, with all my knowledge of the craft of film-making, how to do justice to her work. It was only when 3D was added to the language of film that I could enter dance’s realm and language.” Although dance has been filmed since the very beginnings of motion pictures, Wenders’ appreciation of the importance of space as well as movement to dance is an interesting and vital addition to the representation of dance on film. The possibilities of allowing viewers to “enter” the spaces between dancers must have had great appeal for Bausch, for whom some level of audience involvement would be a natural fit with her convention-defying choreography and collaborative work method.
Sadly, Bausch died suddenly before principal photography began, so we will never know what influence the 3D effects would have had on her personal language of movement or what contributions she could have made to the visual approach and results Wenders achieved. But we do have her company, the Tanztheater Wuppertal, who were filmed in live performances before an audience and in sequences set up by Wenders in a variety of environments, including a warehouse, an overhead tram car, a glass house set in the midst of trees, a swimming pool deck, and a busy street, among other locations.
The place where Wenders achieves the potential of 3D is in the film’s opening. A topless woman wearing an accordion briefly sings about the seasons of the year, initiating a kind of snake dance in which the company, dressed in suits and evening wear, move onto the stage in a line repeating small hand gestures for spring, summer, fall, and winter as they cross the stage and double back behind a flowing scrim. The 3D effect actually seems to move us into the line and, at one point, elicits an urge to sweep the scrim out of our way. It’s an amazingly effective opening, giving the audience a stake in the film as a participant, not just the usual passive viewer of dance.
Wenders follows up by showing in slow time lapse workers dumping large containers of earth onto the stage and smoothing it into a giant square that covers the entire performance space. We are then treated to perhaps Bausch’s most famous piece of choreography, her interpretation of Igor Stravinsky’s composition The Rite of Spring. This is the only piece we see in its entirety, and indeed, it would be hard to cut away from this primal, frightening work whose power would pop off the screen with or without Wenders’ camera tricks. As the film moves on, however, Wenders is content to present fragments of dances, interspersing them with short vignettes of the dancers talking briefly about Bausch or sometimes saying nothing at all. He does not see fit to identify the dancers in any way, though he does relate them to the dances they perform. Bausch painted with a wide brush, and her company is polyglot and international, young and not so young, tall and tiny—the very opposite of the regimented sizes and shapes of traditional ballet and even more diverse than can be found in many modern dance companies.
As the film moves on, Wenders’ use of 3D is less obvious, and the film becomes less interactive as a result. He uses his power as director to become something of a choreographer, particularly in a performance of “Kontakthof,” a ballroom-dance-inflected piece concentrating on the awkwardness of finding intimacy transformed into an examination of aging by having three different casts—adolescents, adults, and mature adults—melting successively into each other, thus merging the three age-specific versions of this dance Bausch staged over the years.
The piece that gets the majority of Wenders’ attention is “Café Müller,” which introduced the director to Bausch’s work in 1985. It is also the piece where we get to see and hear Pina dance and talk about the language of dance. It’s poignant to hear her remark that the deep feeling she had for this piece vanished when she tried to dance it with her eyes open—once she closed them again, it all fell back into place emotionally. We see archival footage of Pina in the piece as well as a contemporary mounting with another dancer in Pina’s role. The dance certainly is remarkable, with two women moving through the space of a café peppered with round tables and chairs with their eyes closed, a male dancer rushing to remove the objects before the dancers run into them. Pina’s part was more minimal in this regard—she largely remained against a wall, moving slowly against the vertical plane, occasionally breaking away from it to shuffle behind a plexiglass wall and bash into it from time to time. This dance carries on Bausch’s habit of ritualized movement and repetition, seeming to turn people into machines that become habituated to their environment and frightened of separation.
Wenders recognizes this approach and chooses sites that emphasize a harrowing, hemmed-in quality to match the movements. One dance that particularly struck me begins in a factory of some kind that has metal cars moving on overhead rails along its periphery. A male dancer is swinging his female partner on a concrete floor boxed by I-beams, making this open, expansive movement appear dangerous. As they move out of the frame, a male dancer is filmed moving on the floor; he seems to be paralyzed from the waist down and must use his hands to manipulate his legs in fast, repetitive motions that create a box of his body. The effect is of a man turned into a machine, and the marriage of his frantically busy movements and his mechanical, industrial surroundings is a fortuitous one.
Other sites are less felicitous. Wenders films a younger dancer new to the company who barely had a chance to work with Pina before her death. The dancer talks about how Pina would give her little instruction—in fact, all the dancers remark on her reluctance to give them more than a line or two of direction—and how she realized that she would have to pull herself up by her own hair. Wenders films her dancing on the deck of a pool with a few swimmers in the water, a rather clichéd way to suggest her fear of drowning in her new environment. Interestingly, the choreography includes her pulling her hair up above her head, but whether Wenders suggested the gesture or the dancer improvised it is anyone’s guess.
This poolside dance was revealing of another aspect of Bausch and her company. A young woman with very little experience of or indoctrination into the cult of Pina showed more spirit and feeling in her dancing than the more established members, while still executing moves that were in keeping with Pina’s choreographic ethos. Pina’s dances are often described as cerebral, even cold, while her subject matter is about relationships, community, the fraught landscape of love and its discords. In “Café Müller,” she has a woman desperately hug a man, only to have another man break her grip and place her on her lover’s outstretched arms; when the lover’s arms grow tired and he drops her, she immediately goes back into her desperate clutch. The disruptive dancer again breaks her grip and places her on her lover’s arms, and the scene repeats over and over, moving faster and faster, until the couple repeat the sequence without prompting, a piece of conditioning that overtakes their genuine feelings. It was only when I saw Pina dance in the film’s archival footage that I understood that her choreography, for all its supposed collaborativeness, maps her feelings—every gesture she made was electric and alive. No matter how well-trained and devoted her dancers were to her, they could not duplicate her inner fire, and she could not articulate it to them in words. That Wenders’ 3D effects tended to wane the longer the film progressed may have had something to do with the difficulty even he was having finding the heart of Bausch’s art.
Wenders ends the film at a deep quarry, where a young male dancer runs into the frame from below the lip of the quarry. He is a whirling dervish of movement, thrilling and frightening to watch as he edges dangerously close to the lip. Suddenly he breaks and climbs a steep slope. The snake dance of elegantly dressed dancers miming “spring, summer, fall, winter” moves along the top of the slope. A long shot of them reveals them to be the dancers of death from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), a too-much imitated shot that, nonetheless, offers an appropriate finale in tribute to its departed central subject.
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Director/Screenwriter: Jean-Luc Godard
By Marilyn Ferdinand
You know why I quit playing ballads? Cause I love playing ballads. —Miles Davis
The above quote by jazz great Miles Davis has always stuck in my mind. Why would someone give up on something they love? Why would they push themselves to the edges of their chosen form with sounds that couldn’t be more different from a ballad? Miles was frank about his reasons: “”You should never be comfortable, man. Being comfortable fouled up a lot of musicians.” Comfort has fouled up a lot of other people, too. Just see what some writers about movies have to say about the National Society of Film Critics’ choice for best picture of 2014—“…as stupid & self-congratulatory a choice NSFC could make” (David Poland, Movie City News); “snobbish and elitist” (Scott Feinberg, Hollywood Reporter). In an age of punditry, not being utterly accessible for critical parsing or two-line synopsizing is perhaps the greatest offense a film could make.
I, for one, congratulate the NSFC for their choice and wholeheartedly agree with it. Goodbye to Language is a joy, not least because the 84-year-old dean of French cinema, Jean-Luc Godard, continues to embrace new challenges and humbly said to the NSFC in a thank-you missive that he is “still learning.” Nobody insisted he keep making movies, and at his age, he would be forgiven for retiring on his laurels to write full time or tend his garden. Instead, while other directors have approached 3D technology timidly or in the pursuit of butts in seats just like its original aim in the 1950s, Godard has, like Roberto Benigni, chosen to “lie down in the firmament making love to everyone” with his warm and ground-breaking embrace of 3D cinematography.
There are many knowledgeable Godardians who have done a far better job than I could of analyzing the content and technical aspects of his latest effort and contextualizing it within his oeuvre. Indeed, the excited discourse among Godardians is a juggernaut of its own, with the endless possibilities of Godard’s intentions being picked over like the booty in a dragon’s treasure chamber. For me, such detailed intellectual exercises are for the young. As an older film enthusiast who craves the immediacy of experience, I prefer to bask in the absolute beauty of Goodbye to Language.
If I can be so presumptuous, it seems that Godard is a little tired of these mental roundelays as well. Goodbye to Language seems more like a repository of impressions, inspirations, even questions. While he drops a few references, images, and actions into the film regarding Africa and violence, his oft-repeated refrain, “There is no why!” challenges his seriousness of purpose in raising these subjects. For me, the film is a valentine to all the things Godard loves—nature, dogs (particularly his dog, Roxy), art, film, language, and his partner in life, Anne-Marie Miéville. As though to confirm that assertion, one enterprising writer at MUBI has catalogued many of the literary, visual, and musical quotes Godard incorporated into the film, and the range of his influences, from Derrida to Anouihl to Ezra Pound, reveals Godard’s far-ranging intellectual and cultural engagement that makes the title of his film all but impossible to take seriously. At the same time, Godard is dipping several toes into the media of today, commenting on and making use of the renaissance in 3D filmmaking and smartphone videography, the former with wild abandon, the latter with more petulant reservations.
Goodbye to Language concerns itself with nature and metaphor in four alternating parts, preceded by an introductory scene at a book stand near Usine a Gaz, a cultural center in Nyon, Switzerland. Most amusing of the goings-on in this section is a professor named Davidson (Christian Gregori) looking at a copy of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago and telling a young woman not to look the writer up on Google. Godard juxtaposes book readers with smartphone readers and eventually shows a smartphone with a headshot of Solzhenitsyn on the screen. I laughed out loud at the futility of Davidson’s plea and at the way a man of towering importance concerned with the worst in state oppression in his writings could be reduced to a selfie by proxy.
Godard uses two couples who strongly resemble each other to play almost identical scenes in parts 1 and 2, in what seemed to me to be an homage to his New Wave compatriot and former film editor Jackie Raynal, particularly her film Deux Fois (Two Times, 1968), in which she says goodbye not to language, but to meaning. At the same time, by using different actors, he is illustrating a very literal interpretation of the word “metaphor,” that is, a comparison of two unlike things that share something important—and no matter how much the pairs of actors (Héloïse Godet [Josette] and Kamel Abdelli [Gédéon]/Zoé Bruneau [Ivitch] and Richard Chevallier [Marcus]) resemble each other, they are not the same.
Godard varies the scenes in ways that modulate the amount of alienation between the two couples. In a pierside scene, Josette is looking forlornly at the clouded sky from behind a set of bars when a man’s hand moves tentatively into the frame, but remains far from Josette’s hand. In the replayed scene, Marcus’ hand moves much closer to Ivitch’s. Josette and Gédéon are filmed in an apartment. Both are nude, but unlike Ivitch in the later sequence, Josette is conspicuous in her nakedness, putting a trench coat on at one point but allowing it to flap open. Gédéon says with disgust that there is no Nobel Prize for art, which must be his profession, and his unease spills through the scene. The couple’s unhappiness crystallized for me when Josette sits naked next to a vase of flowers, more subjugated objects for a painting than real and relatable. A shower scene shows Josette from behind, standing in the bathroom doorway urging Gédéon to finish so she can use the shower. The second couple tussle in the glassed-in shower, a scary scene considering that they could break through the glass, but at least they are showering together.
Godard also offers sequences of violence (an apparent murder, water running in a blood-filled sink) and of low comedy (the men farting on a toilet while their women try to talk to them). Throughout, scenes from films appear as short snippets or on a large TV in the couples’ bedroom, drawing the eye away from the foreground. And that is literal, as Godard’s use of 3D allows us to separate the planes of background, foreground, and subtitles. The viewer has the freedom to close one eye or the other to get different angles and colors, reminiscent of the open-source films like Sita Sings the Blues (2008) that allow viewers to embellish and change the basic film.
Godard even seems to send up his own rebellion against France’s so-called quality films and Oscar-bait period films by inserting an interlude of Mary Shelley with Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron as she pens Frankenstein. At the same time, he seems to suggest that the act of creation is a terrible beauty and that technology can unleash forces that can subvert our humanity. Is Godard a hypocrite, decrying smartphones while playing with 3D? I say we all draw our lines, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
He saves his most dazzlingly colorful scenes for the nature sequences that feature his dog Roxy, which may be a proxy for Godard himself. Roxy is a philosopher queen in her natural world of trees, grass, and flowers ruminating on what the river knows, immediately putting me in mind of “Ole Man River” from Show Boat (1936/1951). Roxy is rejected by one couple, left standing on a pier while they go off in a boat; they may even have tossed her in the rapids. The other couple adopts her and takes her everywhere with them. Dogs, we are told in voiceover, are the only creatures that love others more than themselves, making them superior to human beings in their capacity for empathy and sacrifice. Godard, the old dog learning new tricks, may be wondering whether he will be accepted or rejected and signals in what I believe to be an almost total lack of ego that he really does what he does for us, not himself. The ungenerous criticisms flung at this sweet film show us to be the lesser—again.
To quote from Miles Davis again: “If you understood everything I say, you’d be me!” It’s time to stop our own ego trips, give up on finding new ways to reduce his vision to a few paragraphs, and offer this consummate artist our sincere thanks for never giving up on us.
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Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film
Debut feature film of: Claude Chabrol, director and screenwriter
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It’s not often that a film—especially a debut film—grabs me and pulls me into its orbit with the irresistible force of a black hole, but that’s exactly what happened to me and, impressively, the hubby, when we started watching Le beau Serge. I stipulate that I’m predisposed to like films by Claude Chabrol, one of my favorite filmmakers, but Shane is famously fidgety in the opening minutes of a film, wanting to know what is going to happen before the credits have even finished rolling. Running roughshod over the usual settling-in period, Le beau Serge grabs the viewer by the scruff of the neck with an ominous energy and holds us tight to the bitter end—bitter being the operative word.
1958 was an interesting year in cinematic and Gallic history. Just as the supposed end of the classic period of American film noir was reached with the release of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, the Cahiers du cinéma critics were gearing up to start making their noir-influenced independent films, with Chabrol being the first out of the blocks with Le beau Serge. This bleak film shot in Sardent, to which the Paris-born Chabrol was evacuated during World War II, has the kind of quasi-confessional aspects of personal remorse and social unease that were then being unleashed by the angry young men of the United Kingdom. A reference in the film to a townsman serving in Algeria prefigures the May coup attempt in that French-occupied country that would see a member of the old guard, Charles de Gaulle, return to power. Interestingly, Jacques Tati’s nostalgia for small town France got a big-screen airing in 1958 with the debut of Mon oncle; Le beau Serge is a radical counterpoint to that humorous fantasy.
François (Jean-Claude Brialy), a handsome young man, returns to his home village after 10 years in Paris to rest and give his tubercular lungs a chance to heal. His family home has fallen into ruin, and he is forced to take a room at the local inn. His friend (Michel Creuze), who had no illusions that he would ever leave the village and become anything but the baker his father was, reaches to grab François’ suitcase from the bus driver on top of the bus. A discordant note is struck in the film score as two men are viewed on the opposite side of the bus. They are François’ great childhood friend Serge (Gérard Blain) and Serge’s father-in-law Glaumod (Edmond Beauchamp). Both are drunk and belligerent, and seem oddly menacing. François tries to capture Serge’s attention, but fails. As he makes his way up the street to the inn, villagers greet him and have to remind him who they are. He doesn’t recognize anyone but Serge.
Class resentment is Claude Chabrol’s thematic calling card, and he starts flashing it with this, his very first film. François has distanced himself from the villagers, his head stuck in books in a rented room with faux-brick wallpaper (Chabrol revels in tacky interiors) as a symbol of his outsider, intellectual status. He believes he can save the villagers from themselves, showing up the ineffectual priest (Claude Cerval) in the process in an echo of Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951). He especially wants to reform Serge, whom he tries to persuade to leave Yvonne (Michèle Méritz), the wife he took when he got her pregnant, only to be trapped in an apparently loveless marriage when their baby was stillborn. Yvonne is pregnant again, but that doesn’t seem to bother François, who wants Serge to join him in bourgeois striving. The urgency of François’ yearning to see Serge in the opening scenes of the film and his continued efforts to connect with Serge contain homoerotic overtones that the film’s title, which translates as Handsome Serge, tends to endorse. In fact, Serge, a Marlon Brando knock-off in his black leather jacket, is kind of a mess—often covered with mud from his delivery job and his drunken carousing. François is much more handsome and is targeted immediately by the promiscuous, 17-year-old Marie (Bernadette Lafont), Yvonne’s sister who lives at home with their father. While he’s perfectly happy to diddle Marie, it’s clear he thinks she is in no way good enough for him.
While his films preponderantly critique the French bourgeoisie, Chabrol has always saved some contempt for the pettiness of the underclasses as well, allowing mere resentment or even boredom to burgeon into murder. With Le beau Serge, Chabrol highlights the self-delusions of the villagers as well. Serge seems to enjoy wallowing in his degradation and refuses to abandon Yvonne, claiming that he loves her. That may be a lie, but he certainly does need her to blame for his own lack of ambition and as an excuse to get drunk early and often. The townspeople also seem to have conspired in pretending that Marie is Glaumod’s daughter—Marie tells François she’s not—so that he can keep from jumping her bones. Glaumod all but forces François to tell him the truth about Marie, and then blames him when nature takes its course.
Indeed, the entire film, which assumes François’ point of view, looks at the villagers as little better than animals, and incestuous ones at that. Although the village is poor, there is a real life in it, with meals and dances and daily work. But François’ dealings with Serge, Yvonne, Marie, and Glaumod reduce the environment to squalor in a manner that must have influenced Bertrand Tavernier’s dissipated look at French colonialists in Africa in Coup de torchon (1981). Serge literally starts sleeping his drunks off in chicken coops, and the final scene is the birth of Serge and Yvonne’s baby, a basic animal act if ever there was one.
From the standpoint of filmcraft, Le beau Serge shows the influence of the Italian Neorealist movement. Like the Neorealists, he populates his frames with actual villagers and shoots from life, with natural lighting. A village dance looks and sounds quite like a similar dance in Luchino Visconti’s early Neorealist film Obsessione (1943). Yet, Chabrol includes a score by Émile Delpierre that telegraphs feeling in a very melodramatic way. Some have criticized the score, but it is part and parcel of Chabrol’s heightened sense of reality and wicked humor, a dark opposite to the light and urbane music of Tati.
The final scene is shot through with arresting images—Yvonne’s martyred face looking all the world like Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928); François shining a flashlight into every stable and coop, his utterly black form contrasting with the light and making him seem like a human void; François sliding a passed-out Serge along the snowy ground like a sack of potatoes. Serge’s maniacal laughter at the birth of a son might mean a new start—or just another person to start blaming.
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Director/Screenwriter: Ruben Östlund
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It’s the holidays, and in this part of the world at least, audiences finally have the opportunity to see the feel-good Swedish movie we’ve all been waiting for.
. . . . feel-good Swedish movie?
Yeah, not exactly what I was expecting either—but then, I’d be lying if I said you’d really feel all that good at the end of Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure. In true Swedish style, this closely observed parable about social roles and the lies we tell ourselves and others mixes an ounce of bitters with its liberal doses of comedy and leaves behind a queasy-making aftertaste.
Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) arrive at a frightfully luxurious ski resort in the French Alps with their two children, Vera (Clara Wettergren) and Harry (Vincent Wettergren), for a rare five days of quality family time. As with many modern families, Ebba pries Tomas and the children away from their electronic masters for a beautiful day on the slopes. The family cuts a fetching figure of togetherness as they shuss on a pure pillow of snow, pose for photos, and nap together in almost identical blue underwear on the king-size bed in the master bedroom.
Trouble stirs when a controlled avalanche is triggered by the report of cannons rimming the resort for just this purpose. The Swedish family and others dining on the resort’s outdoor terrace start snapping photos and shooting videos with their smartphones until they realize that the advancing snow seems to be coming perilously close to the resort. In the panic that ensues, Tomas runs away, leaving Ebba and the children to fend for themselves. Although only harmless spray from the avalanche reaches the café and dissipates quickly, something just as dangerous has been loosened between Tomas and his family. The remainder of the film watches this family as they blunder through their disillusionment at discovering the head of the household has feet of clay.
In 2014, the idea of a male protector seems almost prehistoric, particularly in Sweden, the divorce capital of the world, and Tomas and Ebba’s marriage is something of an anachronism compared with the friends they meet at the resort. For example, Charlotte (Karin Myrenberg Faber) has an open marriage and picks up at least two different men during the trip, astonishing Ebba by saying that if her husband were enjoying himself with another woman, she’d be happy for him. To Ebba’s question about whether she is afraid of being left alone, Charlotte says she doesn’t like the idea, but that her life doesn’t revolve around her husband and children. Ebba, on the other hand, is especially vulnerable to her family’s opinion. Harry and Vera, free of the many social layers that burden adults, initially despise their parents and throw them out of the master bedroom with torrents of jeers, causing Ebba to try to accept Tomas’ version of events—that he didn’t run off—to win back their children’s trust. Tomas’ continuing and fervent denials only set off a series of increasingly hilarious—and harrowing—episodes, as the children worry about divorce, Ebba’s anger repeatedly bubbles and bursts like a thermal hot spring, and Tomas crumbles into a blubbering mess of self-pity.
Relationship troubles have been the stuff of high comedy for centuries, and Östlund knows how to draw the absurdity of the situation out of his actors. Kuhnke’s sad-sack look is so cluelessly nonchalant that I cracked up every time I saw him; his embarrassment at being caught out as the self-centered guy he is makes his intense self-loathing and over-the-top crying jag two-thirds of the way through the film ring like a cracked bell. He confesses to cheating at games with his kids and being unfaithful to his wife—it’s like watching Bill Clinton begging forgiveness from his wife and the nation through his voluptuous smirk and twinkling eyes. Östlund ups the ante by introducing Mats (Kristofer Hivju), a divorced friend of Tomas’ from their bachelor days, and his 20-year-old girlfriend Fanny (Fanni Metelius), and the pair very nearly walks off with the entire picture. After he and Fanny have been drafted by Ebba into a little game of “Courtroom” and watch in growing discomfort the event captured on Tomas’ smartphone, Mats stammers out an unconvincing defense of Tomas’ actions as the force majeure (irresistible compulsion) alluded to by the film’s title. Infected with outrage but well aware of the cliché she and Mats are, Fanny scolds him for running off with her and ignoring his own children, and the two have a hilarious bedroom argument that is both absurd and painfully real.
While Force Majeure focuses most of its attention on the failings of men, especially bourgeois men, it ranges over the whole of humanity, contrasting our social constructs with our primal instincts. Modern conveniences, including exquisitely appointed apartments for the well-heeled vacationer, insulate this family from the snowy, rocky environment they have chosen to visit. Yet they depend on funiculars, chair lifts, covered conveyor belts, and tow chains get them to and from the ski runs—the effect is similar to Charlie Chaplin threading helplessly through a series of giant gears in Modern Times (1936). Watching Tomas and Ebba argue in the hall amid massive wooden beams or in a funicular with a craggy mountainside passing behind the window only confirms the pettiness of these two mortals, so protected by their wealth and technology that Tomas’ failure to think of his family before himself is actually all but irrelevant. It’s telling that their solution to restoring family faith and harmony occurs on the mountain, the only place where this instinct really has any use at all, and even that solution must be faked—another stab at Tomas’ loss of animal prowess.
Force Majeure isn’t perfect. In Bergmanesque fashion, the semi-tragedy of this family’s illusory happiness is laid on thick, in both appropriate and unfortunate ways. One of Ebba’s reactions to her husband’s fecklessness is to go skiing by herself, a potent symbol for both her vulnerability at this moment and her potential strength. But then she sees Tomas and the kids skiing on the other side of a wood and breaks down sobbing in a somewhat heavy-handed symbol of her lost state of grace. Tomas’ breakdown goes on for too long, mainly to set up a joke group hug, a joke that fell flat for me. Another joke in which two young women come over to Mats and Tomas and say their friend thinks they’re cute, and then return to say that their friend wasn’t pointing at them after all, seems an unlikely and schematic way to showcase the men’s considerable egos. Better was a nighttime swarm of drunken men screaming and jumping like apes, Tomas unwittingly caught in their bacchanal of raw testosterone.
The film drags on too long and includes an unnecessary and improbable emergency that panics Ebba in a false equivalency with Tomas’ fear and shows Tomas to be a changed man, willing to own up to who he really is. That he tells the truth to Harry may be a small glimmer of hope that the next generation will be better than Tomas’, but frankly, I wouldn’t bet on it.
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Director: Terence Fisher
By Roderick Heath
A fog-rimmed lake. A sonorous voice on the soundtrack telling us we are now in Transylvania. A carriage careening through the twilight forest, the driver whipping his horses in frenzy, his comely passenger panicking as her journey to a new life seems to be turning into a nightmarish ride in unknown territory. What looks like dead body lies on the road, blocking the way. A mysterious stranger watches from the woods, looking for his opportunity to stealthily climb aboard the coach and work his mysterious purpose. Now that’s how you start a horror movie.
Amongst horror movie fans and connoisseurs of Hammer Films’ output, The Brides of Dracula has slowly gained repute, to the point where some state today that it’s the best horror work the studio ever made. The film’s delayed rise to such acclaim was due to its being overshadowed and dismissed as a by-product at the time of its release. Christopher Lee had played Bram Stoker’s vampire overlord in Terence Fisher’s Dracula (1958) to audience-delighting, icon-making effect. Titling a film The Brides of Dracula without Dracula actually turning up was received as a bit of a cheat, and after Lee resumed the role, Hammer’s first stab at extending its vampire franchise was obscured. Lee, frightened with good reason of being typecast, refused to play the role again, and would not buckle until 1966’s Dracula, Prince of Darkness. In the meantime, Fisher and the creative team at Hammer tried to synthesise a replacement for Dracula whilst retaining his antagonist, Peter Cushing’s Dr Van Helsing, for another bout with evil. Lee and Cushing wouldn’t be reunited in their archetypal roles until Dracula A.D. 1972. The film’s development was rocky, with three credited screenwriters including the studio’s two main horror scribes, Jimmy Sangster and Peter Bryan, and contributions from producer Anthony Hinds, Fisher, and Cushing, and a planned finale that was dropped and then used in another film. And yet Brides stands alongside the likes of Fisher’s own The Gorgon (1964) and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), Don Sharp’s Kiss of the Vampire (1963), and John Gilling’s The Reptile (1966), as one of the supreme Hammer films, a fiercely concentrated and lushly executed work of the studio’s peculiar brand of Technicolor Gothic, instantly recognisable for its near-operatic sense of colour and drama.
The Brides of Dracula arrived when Hammer’s budgets and ambitions were expanding, with more elaborate sets and some special effects, but still limited enough to deliver some of the shoddy pleasures associated with the brand, here apparent most particularly in a delightfully unconvincing devil bat. But Brides is a vibrant work, one that revels in being freed from the specific mythos of Dracula himself whilst still remixing the themes and images established so vividly by Fisher’s first take. Early sequences provide a tweak on Stoker’s template by placing a woman, rather than a man, in danger in a remote locale, and emphasising more forcefully the theme of the innocent abroad taking a plunge into the abyss. The innocent here is Marianne Danielle (Yvonne Monlaur), a young Frenchwoman on her way to work as a student-teacher in the small town of Badstein, in the usual hazily defined Mittel Europa of Hammer works, supposedly in what the narrator describes as, “Transylvania – land of dark forests, dread mountains and black, unfathomed lakes – still the home of magic and devilry as the Nineteenth century draws to a close.” The thunder of the opening resolves in a fake-out, as the body on the road proves to be only a peculiarly shaped log, which the fretful coachman (inevitably, Michael Ripper) clears out of the way. But this anticlimax turns out to be a ploy by the stranger in the woods (actually Black Park in Buckinghamshire, soon be all too familiar to audiences of Hammer films) who catches hold of the back of the coach and rides secretly with it into the nearby village.
The stranger’s part in the film proves the most enigmatic element, an emissary of evil who’s never named (although the credits and the famously whacko novelisation by Dean Owen call him Latour) and vanishes from the proceedings having performed his deed, as he bribes the coachman to leave the village and abandon Marianne while she’s in a tavern having dinner. Already gilded genre cliché is already in play, but with a twist: the locale is strange, the underlying mood tense, but the locals are friendly enough in a workaday fashion, until the time of dread falls upon them, at which point the innkeeper so solicitous to Marianne (Norman Pierce) and his wife (Vera Cook) are gripped by enigmatic, hysterical urgency. Fisher offers a lovely weird moment when an abrupt silence draws the attention of Marianne and the innkeeper, who have been conversing pleasantly, to the front door, and see that the stranger is standing there, watching them with a satisfied smile, whilst everyone else in the room has fallen gravely quiet. Marianne is advised to flee by the two solicitous hoteliers, but before they can bustle her away, the sound of another coach coming into town signals the limits of their bravery and resistance. “Don’t open it,” the wife says; “I must,” the man replies in bleak concession to life under a tyranny. Tyranny in this village has a courtly face, however, as the owner of the coach Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt), who offers Marianne hospitality for night, beguiling the young woman with aristocratic indulgences, like fancy wine. Marianne accepts and dines with the Baroness in the castle overlooking the village.
The Baroness offers that most hallowed of gothic horror tropes, the devolved remnant of the ancien regime reminiscing with exultant sadness about the times when the castle was the scene of grand parties and conspicuous consumption. By this time, however, Marianne is privy to the mysterious secret of Castle Meinster, having glimpsed from the room the Baroness assigns her a young man, standing on a balcony far below. The Baroness admits this is her son, the young Baron who is, she explains, beset by a malady that has destroyed their lives, a malady he picked up in his wild, indulgent youth: “We pray for death, my son and I,” she reports, shocking Danielle but also stirring her empathy. However, during the night, Marianne catches sight again of the Baron, this time seemingly about to hurl himself to his death from his apartment balcony. She screams out to stop what she presumes to be his imminent suicide, but after she find her way through the house into the Baron’s apartment, she is confronted by the contrivance that makes his suicide by jumping impossible: he’s chained by the leg. The Baron, far from being an imprisoned lunatic, steps out from the shadows to reveal himself as a starkly handsome, soft-spoken romantic idol who appeals desperately to Marianne to find the key to the lock on his ankle in his mother’s room.
The Brides of Dracula offers a fun burlesque here on classic historical romantic fiction, calling back to British cinema’s mid-‘40s heyday of films in that genre when James Mason and Stewart Granger played roguish, black-hearted seducers not that far removed from Hammer’s Dracula. Marianne is cast as plucky damsel freeing the cruelly imprisoned heir with an impressive feat of bravery, stealing into the Baroness’s room and locating the key and then, when she’s almost trapped by the Baroness’s arrival, escaping through the window and traversing a narrow ledge to safety, all whilst still clad in her nightgown. But Marianne’s act of love-struck bravery proves, of course, to have been performed in the service of bottomless evil, because the Baron is a vampire, held in restraint by his mother and kept sated with young women like Marianne. The freed Baron shields Marianne from the Baroness’s wrath however, telling Marianne to go pack and then addressing his mother with smoothly menacing intensity that compels her to follow him back into his former prison. Marianne, once dressed and ready to leave, hears a strange cackling laugh echoing from the Baron’s apartment and descends to investigate. Rather than her beautiful prize for gallant action, Marianne only finds Frieda laughing in nihilistic delight over the Baron’s discarded restraint, and the cracked servant happily makes Marianne face the consequence of her act: the Baroness sitting dead in an armchair. Marianne, horrified and panicked, flees into the night and traverses the forest by moonlight. Frieda remains behind, muttering a Shakespearean soliloquy as she admonishes the dead Baroness for her history of indulging the young Baron until he finally become an undoubted monster, and anticipates the Baron’s inevitable return to his coffin, waiting empty for its owner’s return.
Hammer’s brand of horror was usually quite literal and straightforward, portraying eruptions of the irrational in a thoroughly tangible context, an alternative to the otherworldly approach of German expressionism. This alternative was rooted in a peculiarly British variety of magic-realism, one that had long lurked within classic gothic literature and romantic fiction, a distorted, magnified sense of the compellingly vicious that had generally only found cinematic expression in Britain through Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Powell, and the charismatic bounders and bitches of the Gainsborough Melodramas of the ‘40s. Evil, no matter how supernaturally powered, becomes a materialist thing infesting and infecting the human world in the Hammer ethos, whilst Fisher’s approach to the genre’s monochromatic moral essence was resolutely totemic and vivid, staked in flesh and blood and stone and wood. Social evil is indivisible from the less palpable kind, feeding each-other. The Brides of Dracula, however, sees the director straining beyond the studio’s usual realistic template, as he would again with The Gorgon. As usual with Fisher’s direction, the dramatic, geographical, and interpersonal relationships are all mapped with an exacting sense of linkage, progression, cause and effect in Brides. He builds a little world with the fastidiousness of a model train enthusiast, where all the elements exist precisely to facilitate others and are demonstrably connected, like the plainly visible chateau above the Meinster village set, and the keen camera movements and angles in the chateau that make the set feel both labyrinthine and spatially coherent.
Yet Fisher often invested his horror films with hints of dark fairy tale and folk myth, an inflection fully apparent in images here like Marianne stalking the shadowy halls of the fairy tale castle, trying to free her demon lover, and then running away into the dark forest like Snow White, only to be found as a sleeping beauty lying in the midst of the woods by an improbable Prince Charming. The Brides of Dracula skirts of a kind of airy cinematic mysticism usually associated with continental filmmakers like Lang, Cocteau, and Franju, with their love of permeable realities and blithe manifestations of the fantastic. The film also harkens explicitly to Fisher’s early, pre-Hammer work, the Hitchcockian thriller So Long at the Fair (1952) where another young female traveller falls through the permeable barriers between normal and abnormal worlds, faced with jarring disappearances and conspiracies of silence. Van Helsing speaks of vampirism not as individual monstrosities but a “Cult of the Undead,” a “remnant of one of the ancient pagan religions,” which introduces a note of dense, conspiratorial evil reminiscent of Lang’s films, whilst the darkly romantic fairy tale motifs in a proto-modern world anticipate Franju’s remix of Judex (1963). Moreover, Brides may well be the most specifically influential of Hammer films, certainly in its visuals the quintessential studio entry. The rich Technicolor photography by Fisher’s regular photographer Jack Asher painting a world in musty, muted blues and browns that suggest a permanent autumn in the world, punctuated by eye-gorging, saturated hues in clothing and décor, evoking Victorian lithographic and book plate illustration to generate a sense of gothic atmosphere. Neil Jordan, with The Company of Wolves (1984), and Tim Burton, in Sleepy Hollow (1999), would later pay explicit tribute to that style, with Burton even recreating the windmill featured in this film’s finale for his tribute.
The morning following Marianne’s adventure sees a passing coach halt on the forest roadside. A casual downward pan reveals Marianne sprawled unconscious on autumnal leaves. The passenger in the coach proves to be just the person you want to find you after a terrifying encounter with a vampire: Dr Van Helsing plucks Marianne off the ground and transports her to the village, where the innkeepers are surprised and happy to see her safe. Van Helsing has been invited to the village by the local Cure (Fred Johnson) who suspects the nature of the evil previously held within the Chateau and wants Van Helsing to investigate. Van Helsing carefully teases out details of Marianne’s story whilst trying to shield her from the nature of the danger she faced, hoping to speedily return her to normality, but this proves a miscalculation on his part, as he leaves the door open for the Baron to approach Marianne still playing the hapless young lover, his mother’s death dismissed as tragic culmination of her own violence. Van Helsing escorts Marianne to her new place of employment, a Girl’s Academy run by the sweet-and-sour couple Frau and Herr Lang (Mona Washbourne and Henry Oscar). Van Helsing calmly faces down the overbearing Herr Lang, whose own wife describes him as “a little bit terrifying,” when he chastises Marianne for being late and in a man’s company: Van Helsing producing his business card with its long list of impressive doctorates instantly turns petty overlord into grovelling bourgeois. This joke is repeated with a slightly more pointed inference later when Baron Meinster turns up to romance Marianne, and Lang, not knowing him, threatens to throw him out. The Baron explains he’s Lang’s landlord with suave assurance, but gets a measure of revenge as he congratulates Lang on maintaining “such a charming house and grounds – at so low a rent.”
Cushing’s Van Helsing here wields the same specific gravitas he held in Dracula, as the unremittingly rational being who battles supernatural evil with the trappings of religion and myth but with the method of a scientist, slowly cutting out the cancer of ancient ills as the emblem of modernity as faith. “Who is it is who has no fear?” Baroness Meinster asks him when he approaches her: “Only God has no fear,” he replies, but Van Helsing hesitates at no threshold. Cushing was better off than Lee in returning to his character, as Lee would find to his increasing chagrin as he was reduced to an intensely glowering monster in Hammer’s later Dracula entries, whilst here Cushing was allowed to develop nuances in the role. Van Helsing had been courageous but brutal in Dracula, embodying the puritanical force pounding life out of the sensually gorged lovers of the vampire overlord, but turning on a penny to solicitously comfort a small girl with fatherly grace. Here that side of him is emphasised as he appears as the essential crusader hero, bringing relief from tyranny and insidious evil.
Producer Hinds quipped once that he and Fisher and Sangster had all regarded these films as their own babies but Cushing was certain of it, and Cushing’s contributions to the script perhaps helped this recasting of the hero in something like his own image, kinder and with a dash of romanticism. Van Helsing engages in rivalry with the Baron for Marianne’s affection as well as her soul, the Baron’s pretty boy charms pitted against the spindly savant’s hangdog intensity and winning out initially. Cushing pulls off a marvellous scene when Marianne informs Van Helsing she’s now engaged: he congratulates her with a good grace that’s ever so slightly pallid, but when she mentions just who it is she’s marrying he reacts with horror and checks her hands for signs of the tell-tale venereal stigmata of the “kiss of Dracula.” “Do you love him?” he asks in mild incredulity, and quickly leaves when Marianne answers yes, silently astounded at the perversities of existence but not swayed from his mission.
The deep veins of perversity that spread through The Brides of Dracula are indeed a source of the film’s specific richness. The notion that vampirism was a metaphor for sexuality permeates Fisher and Sangster’s take and permanently inflected the genre, but here Meinster’s attentions are indiscriminate and suggestively pansexual. Even Van Helsing, who’s seen a thing or two, is revolted by the discovery Meinster has drunk his mother’s blood, and this comes on top of the narrative’s hints of homosexuality, as the good doctor himself comes in for the vampire’s attentions. The film’s title suggests the Girl’s Academy will be a feasting ground for the bloodsucker as one would be in Lust for a Vampire (1970), but Meinster only attacks one of Marianne’s fellows there, her fast friend Gina (Andree Melly). On the night of his first release, Meinster kills a village girl (Marie Devereux), and her heartbroken father is confused and appalled when the Cure, after finding her buried in the churchyard, tells him she must be removed. Van Helsing, who overhears, assures the Cure that he can prevent the girl’s revival, but when he arrives in the churchyard finds Frieda lying upon the grave, playing midwife in encouraging the new vampire’s emergence in a travesty of birth. This cues one of the most memorable scenes in the genre’s history as it climaxes with the ecstatically morbid images of the girl’s white hand thrusting out of the earth, and then pushing back the lid of her coffin and sitting up with a dead-eyed smile of sensual gratification. This image of a vampire’s birth has an iconic perfection, and indeed it could well have been the first depiction of this morbidly beautiful process.
Van Helsing can’t help but watch in disgusted but mesmerised fascination, a spell only broken when the Cure, who’s just arrived, bellows his protest and then leap to secure Frieda whilst Van Helsing chases the vampire. Van Helsing’s pursuit is stalled however by Meinster, transformed into a huge bat which dive-bombs the vampire hunter until his kitbag tumbles open and his crucifix spills out. Van Helsing heads up to the Chateau Meinster, where he finds the Baroness, now revived as a vampire, haunting her own castle. The splendidly patrician Hunt was most famous for her role as Miss Havisham in David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946), which Fisher had edited, and her casting here plays on that role as a reclusive and haughty grande dame whose hospitality entails destruction (Jackson, playing her servant, was also in the Lean film where she played the fearsome Mrs Joe), but here is allowed to retain more pathos as an eerie, existentially tormented victim who hides her new vampire fangs like a demure maiden behind a veil. The Baroness recites with dread the indulgences that brought disease upon her son and self and now believing herself cursed to eternally bend to her son’s will. David Peel, chiefly known as a stage actor, was received badly as a stand-in for Lee when the film came out, an understandable response as far as it goes.
Peel is, nonetheless, a coldly confident presence as a younger, more sadistically callow but superficially debonair evil lord, charming Marianne with his Mod hairdo, hints of intense sensuality, and precise, plummy Old Vic accent reminiscent of a better-looking edition of fellow Hammer alumnus Michael Gough: he’s the vampire prince as a mix of boarding school bully and toffy-nosed pop heartthrob. Meinster is presented as a Byronic sleaze who takes active delight in spectacles of cruelty, stripped of even the faint remnant of noble hauteur Lee gave his Dracula. Peel handles the alterations between the smooth façade he puts on to people he needs to charm and the animalistic savagery of his true nature with élan, particularly when he suddenly appears from nowhere whilst Van Helsing talks to his mother, teeth extended and mouth dripping blood, hissing like a snake at the sight of its only natural predator.
Meinster and Van Helsing have brief but vigorous tussle as the doctor fends off vampire by sliding his crucifix down the length of a table toward him, forcing the vampire back, cringing in pain. Meinster flees after upending the table to trap Van Helsing in turn, leaving Van Helsing alone with his mother. Fisher offers another starkly simple yet rhythmically powerful aside as Van Helsing waits for the dawn to give the Baroness the release she craves, whereupon he takes out stake and hammer and drives it through her body: Fisher cuts from the spurt of red blood to a deep crimson curtain which Van Helsing rips down and spreads across her body with solicitous care that mirrors the vampire midwifery, laying the desiccated matriarch to rest like a mother himself putting a baby to bed. The scoring by Malcolm Williamson, an Australian-born composer who later became Master of the Queen’s Music, is particularly notable in this sequence, a lightly funereal organ on sound rising to a crescendo that helps the vigorous cutting and colour inflate the brief sequence into something rhapsodic. Van Helsing’s return to the village coincides with news of Gina’s death at the Academy. At the Cure’s urging, Van Helsing goes with the local GP, Tobler (Miles Malleson) to look at the body, and convinces Tobler to let him deal with the problem by quickly quarantining the body locked in a stout, padlocked coffin and assigning reliable people to keep a watch over it. Marianne relieves Frau Lang in this task and waits with the school’s stable master Severin (Henry Scott). Before Van Helsing can return with his vampire killing kit, however, Severin is killed by Meinster in bat form, whilst Marianne is confronted by Gina rising out of her coffin.
Fisher borrows a flourish here from M. R. James’ “Count Magnus” as the padlocks on Gina’s coffin fall one by one to the floor unlocked. The vampire Gina stalks the terrified Marianne with fiendishly sensual intent even as she begs her forgiveness for “letting him love me” whilst urging Marianne to kiss “your little Gina.” The lesbian vampire film still has to wait until the following year’s Blood and Roses to come out of the coffin however, as Van Helsing arrives in time to chase Gina off, but Brides does rack up the possibly more interesting landmark of gay vampiric activity later. Van Helsing breaks his unspoken compact to protect Marianne from the truth as she confronts her with the Baron’s nature and forces her to tell him where she expects to meet him. This proves to be an old windmill at the edge of town, a marvellous arena for a final confrontation where Van Helsing finds Gina and the other vampire bride with a harshly mocking Greta. Van Helsing holds off the two girls with his crucifix but Greta simply jumps on him and fights for the talisman, only to accidentally plunge with it over a balcony and crash to her death on some boards laid over a well. The cross drops through a crack into the well before Van Helsing can retrieve it, leaving him vulnerable to Meinster when he enters producing a chain from under his cape and almost throttling Van Helsing to death with it, before gleefully biting his nemesis, taking enough blood to put him under his command. The Baron then goes to drag Marianne out of the Academy and bring her back so that he can force Van Helsing to watch her initiation into the undead fold.
When he wakes up, Van Helsing is distraught to find the vampire’s mark on his neck, but he isn’t out of tricks yet. In another of the film’s innovative and clever ideas, much mimicked in vampire cinema ever since, Van Helsing tries a radical cure. He stokes a branding iron red hot in a brazier and then jams it against his wound, scalding him hideously but removing the stain of this most transgressive “kiss.” A little dab of holy water from a cask the Cure gave him heals the burn immediately, and Van Helsing is back to form. When Meinster returns he doesn’t realise his enemy is able to fight, and before he can vamp Marianna, Van Helsing helps to a face-full of holy water that leaves him horribly scarred. Meinster escapes after warding off Van Helsing by kicking the brazier over, turning the windmill immediately into an inferno, but Van Helsing escapes with Marianne to the mill’s upper balcony.
The climax originally intended of Brides was for Van Helsing to use a curse to call down other vampires as bats upon the Baron, for his transgression in drinking his mother’s blood. Budget constraints and Cushing’s objection to the idea Van Helsing would engage in black magic meant this concept was abandoned, only to be used a few years later in Kiss of the Vampire. Meinster’s comeuppance here is less spectacular but still original and memorable, as Van Helsing jumps onto the mill’s sail and drags it down to turn the whole structure into a crucifix, pinioning the Baron under the shadow of religious sanctity and finally killing him, leaving a fade out with Marianne in Van Helsing’s arms and the mill with the two vampire girls within going up in flames as the credits roll. The Brides of Dracula was released in what proved a banner year for horror cinema as the commercial force of Hammer’s success unleashed a new wave of films, including Mario Bava’s La Maschera del Demonio, Roger Corman’s House of Usher, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and it stands tall with them in the genre’s mottled history. After all but dying out in the mid-1940s, the horror film was well and truly back from the dead.
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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: 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: Fritz Lang
By Roderick Heath
The shadow of Fritz Lang’s early work still falls heavily not just upon many filmmakers, but also upon a swathe of modern pop culture. The remarkable run of movies he made before he was driven to leave Germany by the Nazi ascension helped define, if not originate, a handful of major film genres: the cliffhanger action film, with The Spiders (1919-20); the historical epic, with Die Nibelungen (1924); the science-fiction dystopia with Metropolis (1926); the spy thriller, with Spione (1927); the space opera, with The Woman in the Moon (1929); and even, in his first sound film, M (1931), the serial killer drama. Lang and his major collaborator and wife, the writer Thea Von Harbou, didn’t invent all of the elements loaded into these films, but their increasingly expensive and prestigious explorations of each mode codified these different genres in visual and narrative terms, becoming inescapable points of reference for genre artisans, apprentice filmmakers, and film scholars alike ever since.
Lang’s works also reveal common roots in a stock of archetypes, basic concepts, and linking thematic concerns that Lang was able to transfer onto almost any genre. When he made The Spiders, Lang had clearly been under the immediate influence of Louis Feuillade’s serials, with their secret criminal organisations and insidious masterminds at the centre of an international web of intrigue. With The Weary Death (1921) and Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, Lang developed that world into something deeper and richer. Dr. Mabuse became one (or, rather, two) of the most legendary works of the silent era, properly defining Lang’s artistry not only in its moment, but for the next 40 years, as he returned to the film’s evil genius twice more, each at a crucial moment in his career, including his swan song.
Luxembourg writer Norbert Jacques’ novel provided Lang and Von Harbou with a template for a new take on Feuillade’s semi-surreal universe, as Jacques had taken Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty and evolved him from the hero’s sketchy antagonist and mirror into a major protagonist, even antihero, overshadowing the law enforcers who chase him. His capacity for evil suddenly matches the modern world’s dark psyche, feeding off both its septic spirit and its dehumanised systems. Mabuse’s DNA is shared by the many nefarious protagonists who followed him—Superman’s Lex Luthor, Batman’s Joker, Ian Fleming’s Blofeld, George Lucas’ Palpatine, and even John le Carré’s KARLA. Whilst Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu did something similar almost concurrently to Jacques’ creation, Fu was more safely rendered as an Other, an exotic fiend, whereas Mabuse is the spidery genius who is both king and exile within his own society. The influence of Mabuse is not just restricted to comic books and pulp fiction, though. Lang helped create the artistic mode that became cinema’s first great aesthetic movement, German Expressionism, when he cowrote the script of Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari (1919) for director Robert Wiene. F. W. Murnau, Lang’s greatest rival in Germany at the time and a subtler visual stylist, took the style further with Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922) and codified the horror genre in the process.
With Dr. Mabuse, Lang began to render the expressionist visual language in a subtler, less pervasively unreal manner, continuing to cloak sets in chiaroscuro shadows and offering lighting and design effects that take on a quality of abstraction that acts only an overlay on otherwise lifelike methods. The result surely helped transfer Expressionism from a fantastic niche to mainstream cinema and planted seeds for French Poetic Realism and Hollywood’s widespread embrace of a similarly restrained Expressionism that culminated in film noir. The first part of Dr. Mabuse, subtitled “The Great Gambler: An Image of the Age (Der große Spieler: Ein Bild der Zeit),” kicks off with an epic sequence of analytical cinema that may well have pollinated Sergei Eisenstein and the Moscow film school’s imaginations as they were thinking about how to encode intellectual analysis into the structure of film, and left some ideas for generations of filmmakers making everything from heist movies to documentaries. With a title card kicking off the epic as “He – and his day,” as Lang depicts one of Mabuse’s plots in systematic detail, from when the villain wakes up in the morning through to the culmination of his plot. Along the way his henchmen stage an intricate robbery, knocking out a diplomatic envoy on a train and stealing a portfolio containing a secret commercial treaty between Switzerland and France from him. The theft has been arranged to send the stock market into a selling frenzy, allowing Mabuse to buy up stock cheaply. He does so whilst standing on a pillar above the churning mass of brokers who hysterically give themselves up to the panic Mabuse has inflicted on them.
Mabuse then contrives to have the treaty discovered. The market rises, and he sells his stock for a vast fortune. All in a day’s work for the extraordinary mastermind, but his thrill is not money, but power—power he works in subtle, intimate, interpersonal ways much more than on a national level. For a 1922 German audience, the inference here would have been clear and frightening, as the country was in the depth of an economic crisis with skyrocketing inflation. Early in the film, Lang depicts Mabuse readying himself for his enterprise by thumbing a set of photos of apparently highly disparate men like a set of tarot cards: this has a sequel at the conclusion of the opening, as Lang holds on a shot of the empty, desolate stock exchange and shows another succession of faces, each of which has been involved in the deception and each revealed to be a different disguise of Mabuse. Whilst aspects of Dr. Mabuse are ripe melodrama, this sense of the tale being based in the bleak realities and the vague but vital workings of modernity’s new, interconnected financial and industrial zones gave Lang’s film a peculiar and important stature. Paranoia was the underlying state of the German psyche, the sense that somebody, somewhere was responsible for the national collapse.
The beauty and alarming quality of Jacques’ creation was that Mabuse was able to take on more definitely political inferences than predecessors like Moriarty, Fantômas, Count Fosco, and Svengali—indeed, Jacques had intended him in that fashion. He sits upon modernism’s fault lines, easily tweaked to become a figure of left-wing paranoia as a titan of predatory capitalism, or more reactionary viewpoints, as he also offers an emblem of new-fangled psychiatry (his actual medical profession) and traditionally immoral pursuits like gambling, which the film presents as the last and greatest existential rush for a rotting society through its capacity to make or strip fortunes according to chance, but with Mabuse subverting this by getting his kicks from eliminating chance and playing the player. Lang already seems to be subverting a familiar structure even as he’s erecting it, as he introduces Mabuse and his aides up front, making them more familiar to the audience than the traditional hero figure whose perspective it is usually forced to take. In spite of his myriad sidelines, Mabuse continues to don disguises and delight in fleecing the indolent sons and daughters of the upper classes by mesmerically manipulating them into losing at cards. Mabuse’s network of agents includes his spindly, cocaine-addled manservant Spoerri (Robert Forster-Larrinaga); Pesch (Georg John), his driver and hitman; and Hawasch (Charles Puffy), who runs a counterfeiting operation for his overlord that employs a gaggle of blind men in a dingy cellar. Such a plot touch carries a hint of Edgar Wallace’s grotesquery and also a kind of grim psychological symbolism.
Another of Mabuse’s best agents is a Folies Bergère dancer, Cara Carozza (Aud Egede-Nissen), who is able to collect information on high rollers who come to see her performances and pass it on to Mabuse. Attending one of her shows, Mabuse sets his sights on a new victim she points out, young heir Edgar Hull (Paul Richter), and hypnotises him from afar. Calling himself Hugo Balling, Mabuse directs Hull to give him admittance to his gentleman’s club, and there begins to fleece the young man by forcing him to play badly. Once Mabuse has his fill, he gives Hull a card with the address where he can come to pay his debt. Hull, when he snaps out of his stupor, naturally puzzles over what’s happened, and begins to dig, visiting the address and finding that a real Hugo Balling lives there and has no idea what Hull wants. Word of Hull’s vexing enigma soon attracts the attention of State Attorney Norbert von Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke), who contacts the young man and begins to theorise about a hidden criminal mastermind he dubs “The Great Unknown.” Wenk’s entrance into the story gives Dr. Mabuse a hero, and his job, distinct from that of policeman or private eye, gives him both a level of power and status, and flexibility in investigating his white whale. Wenk strikes a deal with Hull to follow him into the city’s gambling communities (which city never quite stated) in search of the mysterious mastermind in an underworld, rubbing shoulders with social elite, gathering in seedy dives and upscale palaces, in search of the same secret nerve of a corrupt society that Mabuse himself has located and presses with sadistic pleasure.
With The Spiders, Lang had suggested a penchant for décor effects that lent his cinematic images a quality of stylisation close to cubism and other nascent forms of modern art, a quality that Caligari made far more explicit than Lang preferred. Here, Lang’s style comes into fuller fruition, before Die Nibelungen would see Lang push his stylisation to extremes. The world he creates in Mabuse is more restrained whilst grazing the edges of an equally strange and dreamy netherworld, full of framings that place characters in traps of space with mysterious design motifs and incipient shadows, and interiors replete with an art deco designer’s idea of limbo’s antechambers. Lang throws in an aesthetic in-joke that partly disguises a serious subtext, as a toff asks Mabuse in his professional guise what he thinks of Expressionism; Mabuse replies with sagacious dismissal, “Expressionism is a mere pastime — but why not? Everything today is a pastime!” Mabuse’s disdain for artistic fashion matches his contempt for the arts he himself has mastered as a healer, which he turns to the only pursuit he does not see as a pastime—the acquisition of power. But Lang’s mise-en-scène contradicts, entrapping and enfolding character, and seems to become all but animated and nearly literal by the diptych’s hallucinatory finale. Lang’s most dynamic cinematic effects are mostly employed to force the audience to share Mabuse’s viewpoint as he commits his criminal acts, with iris shots and crowding fields of black mimicking Mabuse’s intent as he zeroes in on new victims and begins to work his hypnotic will, usually intercut with the victim’s vision of Mabuse’s false faces in leering close-up. Mabuse’s hypnotic gifts coincide with Lang’s filmmaking vision, rupturing holes in reality.
The first encounter between Mabuse and Wenk takes place at the gaming table, except with the two men both in disguise: Mabuse wearing a perversely hooked nose and tufts of wild hair and Wenk done up as a middle-aged milquetoast. Mabuse tries to hypnotise Wenk with his pair of glasses, which Wenk recognises as Chinese-made. “Yes, from Tsi-Nan-Fu,” Mabuse replies. The name of this city becomes a charged and mystic utterance that takes over Wenk’s mind, appearing as printed words on his cars and glowing through the woodwork of the gaming table. Wenk manages to throw off Mabuse’s influence, and with it his disguise, chasing his quarry out of the den and to the Hotel Excelsior. But Wenk is foiled by one of Mabuse’s agents who drives a taxi fitted out with gas to knock out hapless passengers. Wenk, unconscious, is set adrift in a rowboat, but he’s rescued by the coast guard. The close call drives Mabuse to order the deaths of both Wenk and Hull as the duo continue their excursions to night spots. Mabuse assigns Carozza to get close to Hull. She pretends to respond to his playboy charms to insinuate her way into his house and find out what the dynamic duo are up to. When the trio visits a swanky new gambling house, Carozza leads them into a trap: Hull is shot by one of Mabuse’s men, but manages to tell Wenk of Carozza’s involvement before dying. Carozza, fleeing the scene, is encircled and captured by hordes of policemen.
In spite of its influence, Dr. Mabuse stands at a distance from the contemporary thirst for backstory and tales of formative influence on titanic heroes and villains. This is however not quite the same thing as the role-casting of rank melodrama, but something else again: Mabuse is not a type but a force, a product, a symbol. Mabuse’s background is unimportant; he comes from nowhere, and his motives are reduced to singular need, a fully formed monstrosity spat up by the diseased sectors of modernism’s psyche. He exists only insofar as he acts, dedicating himself entirely to mastery of any situation, and succeeds. He is infinitely malleable rather than specific, capable of becoming any figure of covert or overt power, from labour leader to stockbroker to mystic to physician, drawing secret analogies between such roles and conflating worlds that begin to mimic each other—the gaming table and the spiritualist’s séance, the aristocratic drawing room and the sailors’ pub. As physically real as Mabuse is, he retains emblematic power—indeed Lang’s later instalments took him to the edge of noncorporeal subsistence, surviving as a force of will. Wenk’s chief quality is his singular strength of mind which allows him to resist the villain, but even that only stretches so far.
The clash of Mabuse and Wenk hinges around two women and two men who represent uneasy partnerings loaded with deception. Carozza’s fake romance with Hull makes a mockery of the expected niceties of romance between pretty young things living the high life, because Carozza loves Mabuse with a fixated ardour, at once obsessively morbid and yet finally transcendent in her pure worship of Mabuse as a being of Nietzschean power amongst social cattle. Even when thrown into prison, Carozza’s obeisant loyalty cannot be shaken; indeed, it becomes all the more exultant in the chance to prove her sublime devotion. The second coupling is the Count Told (Alfred Abel) and his wife, Countess Dusy Told (Gertrude Welker). Their home life seems pleasantly dull, the Count a childish soul who delights in games and toys. As a result, the Countess haunts the gaming rooms to watch the gamblers in the throes of agony and ecstasy as a druglike salve for her own lack of sensation, almost a caricature of privileged weltschmerz as she opines, “I fear there is nothing in this world which can interest me for long – Everything that can be seen from a car or an opera box is partly disgusting, partly uninteresting, always boring!” Wenk meets her in the course of his journey through the underworld, and the two connect as outsiders fascinated by the underworld. Wenk even helps Dusy make a getaway when her husband unexpectedly turns up at one of the gambling dens.
Yet, Dusy is linked more precisely with Mabuse in their mutual pretensions to standing above the harrying world and studying the patterns created by the meshing human life driven by desire, greed, and the need for pleasure—except that Dusy remains aloof, whereas Mabuse manipulates. Not surprisingly, then, the Countess becomes an object of erotic obsession for Mabuse once he encounters her. One of Lang’s constant fascinations, especially in his films written by Von Harbou, comes to the fore as destabilising force of sexual obsession rattles humans with pretences to omnipotent power. When he is invited to the Tolds’ townhouse as Mabuse the reputed psychiatrist, the villain stands apart from the Count and his friends as they play cards, discovering kinship with Dusy as an observer with pretences to godlike disinterest and insight. He starts to school Dusy in the nature of his idea of godlike power as he hypnotises her husband and drives him to cheat during a game, prompting a walkout by his friends and the Count’s complete desolation. Then, he subdues Dusy and kidnaps her. The Tolds came into Mabuse’s sights when he attends a séance with the couple, and more properly because of Wenk, who asked Dusy to pose as a prisoner and be locked up with Carozza, a task that turns into an interlude of startling emotional intensity for the two women, as Carozza easily discerns Dusy’s purpose and dazzles the worldly cynic with her own transfiguring faith in Mabuse.
Dusy is profoundly affected, not in being awed by Mabuse, but by the spectacle of Carozza’s ardour, and she writes a letter to Wenk swearing off further involvement because, instead of encountering alienated evil, she met a source of overpowering emotional force that, regardless of its purpose, convinces her that love exists. It’s not a sentimental kind of love that Lang and Von Harbou envision: it’s a deep-riven blend of erotic and emotional sustenance that shatters strong psyches, cripples geniuses, and transfigures the mundane. In that regard, it’s the only force equal to Mabuse’s evil. For his part, once Mabuse ensnares Dusy, his own competence and psyche begin to slip. The great climax of the first part ends on a cliffhanger, with Mabuse apparently triumphant, with Dusy in his clutches and Wenk stymied. The second part, entitled “Inferno: A Game for the People of Our Age (Inferno: Ein Spiel von Menschen unserer Zeit),” sees his victories continue, but with intimations of growing hysteria, as he kills off anyone who could offer a lead to his whereabouts to Wenk, who is hunting him. These victims includes his agent Pesch (Georg John), who is captured after unsuccessfully bombing Wenk’s office, and is shot during a proletariat uprising stirred by Mabuse, and Carozza herself, who is ordered to commit suicide in her cell even after resisting all of Wenk’s entreaties.
If the driving motif of the first part is images of masses of people playing with fortune, whether in gambling houses, stock exchanges, or séances, then the second is dominated by two sequences of mental disintegration. The first comes as Mabuse, playing the psychiatrist again, manipulates Count Told, perfectly under his power, promising to control the compulsion that made him cheat, his bogus “helpful” advice turning him into a sequestered prisoner cut off from the outside world and Wenk’s help. Mabuse tries to blackmail the Countess into yielding to his erotic demands by promising to destroy the Count, and finally he does, sending Told off into a spiral of depressive hallucination where he sees his ancestors, all wearing his face, holding up card hands and displaying the black ace. Told cuts his throat in his bathroom, and his body is discovered by his servant. This maniacal achievement in sadistic legerdemain from Mabuse proves the start of his undoing, however, as it allows Wenk to connect Mabuse with the Count’s death.
Two filmmakers immediately inspired by Lang’s early work were Luis Buñuel and Alfred Hitchcock, who both laid down their involvement in film to the aesthetic impact of The Weary Death. Yet, here in Dr. Mabuse, innate and prototypical, I find Buñuel’s viscous, permeable sense of reality and amused punishment of material anomie and Hitchcock’s conspiratorial universe where ordinary people are ensnared in abstract webs. Here, too, is Carol Reed’s third man squirming his way through tightening nets of justice in the sewers, the churning, chiaroscuro moral maelstroms of Josef von Sternberg, Georg Pabst, and Orson Welles. Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1932) reflected the idiot-savant Mabuse, readying his urban fortress for attack. Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman explicitly drew on Lang’s model for his shadowy villains, whilst Ridley Scott’s American Gangster (2007) repainted its kingpin in shades of Lang as a shadowy unknown and tweaked the cabal of blind counterfeiters into a similar operation of naked women employed as cocaine sifters.
Lang’s edge of oneiric strangeness gives Dr. Mabuse immediate connection to the singular spiritual fable of The Weary Death, with its similar pivots between languid, otherworldly torpor and ecstatic, transcendental passions (Goetzke had played Death in that film). Mabuse’s fantastical present tense also connects inevitably with Lang’s upcoming parables of past and future. As in Die Nibelungen, Richter plays the traditional pretty-boy hero who finishes up as a sacrificial victim to insidious, merciless power-driven plotting. In the film’s coda, Mabuse envisions a monstrous mechanical creation as the image of his own machinations and his personal inferno, looking forward to Die Nibelungen’s dragon and Metropolis’ vision of a great engine as a monstrous visage swallowing workers: the supernatural, symbolic terrors of distant history become the consuming, mindless aspect of modernity, terrifying even Mabuse—or, perhaps, especially Mabuse, whose campaign to gain the untrammelled power of a feudal conqueror works a spell on those around him but finally is defeated not so much by the forces of modern statism, represented by Wenk, as by the impossibility of his ambition to become bigger than the systems surrounding him.
The inevitable, climactic revelation of Mabuse’s identit(ies) to Wenk finally arrives as Mabuse lures the State Attorney into a trap, cunningly approaching Wenk as himself, supposedly to warn him that Told died because he was under the influence of a strong and destructive mind. Mabuse offers a culprit, a stage hypnotist named Weltemann, and Wenk attends the man’s show, only to realise too late that Weltemann is Mabuse: the revelation echoes the early, successive superimpositions as Mabuse’s faces pass before Wenk’s eyes, peeling back each layer until he sees Mabuse for what he is just before he gives in to his mesmeric power. Mabuse sends Wenk out under hypnotic influence from the theatre to drive off to a fiery death, a relished plan to eliminate his enemy with an overt display of power while maintaining a seemingly perfect guise.
But the plot is forestalled by Wenk’s attentive men, who manage to prevent his death. The finales of Hitchcock’s first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), Scarface, and half of the Bond films, as well as the quiet note of assailed solitude of Marcel Carné’s Le Jour se Lève (1939), are all presaged as Wenk leads an attack on Mabuse’s lair. This tumultuous sequence comes in clashing perspectives, as troops pour from trucks to assault the lair, Mabuse’s foot soldiers dying one by one or collapsing in fear like papier-mâché without his will to hold them together amidst a hail of bullets and tear gas. Mabuse’s own attempt to flee with Dusy sees him forced to abandon her and escape by the skin of his teeth to plant seeds of evil somewhere else. Mabuse’s graduated schemes finally do him in as he reaches the hideout where the blind counterfeiters work and finds himself accidentally locked in by his minions’ excess cleverness: in this trap, the lunacy that’s been percolating under Mabuse’s surface emerges in a sequence where, like Shakespeare’s Richard III, the hallucinated shades of Carozza, Told, Hull, and Pesch appear, Told’s prosecutorial vision now Mabuse’s. The mastermind begins to hurl his counterfeit funds about like confetti before the vision of a mechanical monster chews his mind to pieces. The darkly sarcastic title card that greets Wenk’s arrival on the scene describes the husk on the floor as “The Man Who Was Mabuse,” and yet, this phrase signals it’s not exactly a total triumph. Whilst Mabuse the flesh-and-blood being has collapsed, Mabuse the idea, the entity, has slipped such bonds and become legend, perhaps even a world-spirit. Lang revisited the material next in 1933, but found the new film banned because something frighteningly like Mabuse had just taken control of his country.
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Director/Co-screenwriter: Joon-ho Bong
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers
South Korean director Joon-ho Bong captured the attention of many international filmgoers in 2006 with his home-grown monster movie The Host. He rode the crest of a wave of interest in popular Korean cinema with its potent and often outlandish preoccupations, and reservoir of directorial talent and also including Chan-Wook Park and Kim Jee-woon. Many movie fans found that The Host offered the texture and quality of a bygone variety of genre entertainment, plied with energy and love for the nuts-and-bolts craft of a good creature feature Hollywood hasn’t offered since around the time of Arachnophobia and Tremors (both 1990). An enjoyable film, it was nonetheless rather overrated: I found Bong’s filmmaking, in spite of (and because of) his sustained steadicam shots, often clumsy or arrhythmic, the script far too busy and over-long, and the attempts to incorporate political and social commentary obvious, even tacky, without ever being incisive or as curtly dovetailed as in the best examples of the genre. Still, the film surely earned Bong a cult following abroad, whilst his follow-up, Mother (2011), seemed a complete about-face in subject matter, but still earned critical plaudits for the director’s eccentric artistry. Snowpiercer is a work of greatly increased ambition, an adaptation of a French graphic novel series with The Host’s co-stars Kang-ho Song and Ah-sung Ko rubbing shoulders with an international cast in a film that aims for the broadest possible audience, delivering thrills and spill tethered to an allegory that’s never any vaguely disguised.
A post-apocalyptic take on Spartacus (1960) mixed with a little A Night to Remember (1958) and The Cassandra Crossing (1977), Snowpiercer is built around one central, dominating concept: the entire film takes place on a super-fast bullet train speeding around the world. The world itself has been frozen into a giant block of ice by a misguided attempt to deal with global warming by inculcating the atmosphere with a dense artificial gas, and only the train’s constant motion keeps it from finishing up as a metal popsicle. Captain American himself, Chris Evans, plays Curtis, an intelligent and conscientious member of the train’s third class, that is, passengers who were allowed on board in the pure desperation and chaos of civilisation’s last days, and have been forced to subsist ever since in the rear carriages of the train. The train is the brainchild of genius inventor and industrialist Wilford (Ed Harris), who never leaves the very front carriage of the train, tending his engine with its miraculous, perpetual-motion energy supply. The train still travels the old world-looping track he built nominally for international travel but actually because he anticipated just such a fate.
Curtis has become something like the adopted older brother or even father of Edgar (Jamie Bell), and the two have begun conspiring on ways to overthrow the armed guards who keep them cordoned off from the other classes on the train, and stage a takeover. The filthy and dispirited passengers of the rear carriages are fed on green, jelly-like blocks of protein. Curtis is haunted by evil events that occurred on the train in the early days and is discomforted by Edgar’s hero worship. Curtis feels second-rate compared to other passengers, like the wizened old Gilliam (John Hurt), who are missing multiple limbs for reasons that are eventually explained. Gilliam seems to have an intimate understanding of the train’s remote lord, who is regarded as an almost god-like benefactor by the better-off on the train, and he advises Curtis as their plans begin to take shape. Another, more mysterious helper has been smuggling messages of advice to Curtis in his evening protein blocks.
The third-class passengers are infuriated when Wilford’s emissary and concubine Claude (Emma Levie) comes on one of her occasional missions to extract small children for an unknown purpose. She claims Tim (Marcanthonee Jon Reis), son of Tanya (Octavia Spencer), and in the distraught melee that results, one passenger, Andrew (Ewen Bremner) tosses a shoe at Claude’s head. Andrew is grotesquely punished by having his arm forced out through a portal to be frozen stiff in the high mountain cold, and then shattered with a hammer, whilst Mason (Tilda Swinton), a gummy, gawky, patronising Minister in the train’s government, lectures the third class in the necessity of their happy obeisance to the settled order. Mason accidentally gives away a crucial piece of information which Curtis correctly interprets: the guards’ guns have run out of bullets in putting down earlier revolts, and now, if they can strike hard and fast enough, the third class might stand a chance. Curtis chafes against the efforts of Edgar, Tanya, and others to make him their appointed leader, but it soon becomes clear that any revolt is going to need a guiding mind with a clear and relentless idea of what to do each at each challenge, with the reflexes to match. Gross manifestations of repression and inequality are of course soon gleefully repaid as Curtis launches his revolt, using salvaged barrels to jam doors open and swoop upon the guards. As the rebels gain access to the next few cars, they discover the sickening truth about their food source, as insects and waste scraps are mashed into their protein blocks.
There’s conceptual similarity in Snowpiercer to works and writers from great days in the science-fiction genre, likes J.G. Ballard’s grimy satires and Philip K. Dick’s dystopian fantasias. Bong signals his influences and reference points early on: some have compared him to Steven Spielberg, and whilst that was evident in The Host with its narrative focus on a fractious, venturesome family unit, here the guiding influence seems rather to be ‘80s and ‘90s Euro Cyberpunk, like the early films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, and Terry Gilliam, who’s given an explicit name-check in Hurt’s character. Which could be cool, but frankly I found much of Snowpiercer felt old-hat, particularly in channelling Gilliam’s least likeable trait, of pushing his performers towards becoming leering grotesques, particularly evident in Bremner’s performance and, more appreciably, Swinton’s amusing if unsubtle Mason, who becomes the main foil and victim of the rebellion. Although pushed a few rungs down the social bracket so she speaks with a broad midlands accent and has a rather awful dental plate, Mason’s a quite obvious burlesque on Margaret Thatcher, abusing her charges, whom she calls “freeloaders,” for their lack of gratitude, and going through a show-and-tell play with a shoe placed on Andrew’s head: “Be a shoe,” she advises the passengers, because they’re not hats. In case it’s not obvious enough already, Snowpiercer is supposed to be a parable about have and have-nots, casting the rear carriage passengers as third world and underclass losers held down by the man, man.
Curtis seeks out Namgoong Minsoo (Song), the train’s former electrical and security wizard, who seems to have degenerated into a hopeless frazzled drug addict. The drug of choice on the train is Kronol, a by-product of the train’s toxic waste and a highly flammable substance. Minsoo, once he’s awakened out of his dissociate daze after being plucked from a penal cell like a morgue locker, makes a deal with Curtis to get his daughter Yona (Ko) out of another locker, and for them both to receive for blocks of Kronol in exchange for getting the rebels through each barrier ahead of them on the train. Yona, a “train baby”, seems to have a preternatural awareness, bordering on precognition, and is able to warn the advancing force about dangers hidden on the far side of the closed doors. The rebels face their greatest challenge in a carriage where they find Mason and a death squad armed with battle-axes waiting for them, timing a blackout with the train’s movement into a long, dark tunnel, so that the attackers, who have night vision goggles, can freely slaughter them. But, in perhaps the film’s funniest moment, one of the tiny number of matches Minsoo had saved is used to light a torch, and this is rushed from the rear of the train to the battleground by successive runners including Andrew in an ecstatic parody of an Olympic torch relay.
Fire allows the battle to proceed fairly and the rebels vanquish their foes, but Curtis is forced to make a call between saving Edgar, who is defeated and used as a human shield by one of the guards, and catching Mason before she can scurry off. Curtis makes the choice of a leader and goes after Mason: Edgar’s throat is cut but Curtis captures the Minister and uses her to force the guards to stop fighting. I like Evans as an actor: he was the star of one of my favourite recent genre films, Push (2009), which was one of those rare films that started off cleverly and kept up the flow of invention until the very end. And he’s quite competent here as a hero whose only exceptional characteristics are his intelligence and his desperation for moral regeneration, which drives him to break boundaries others accept. To his credit, Bong gives the film time to breathe with contemplative time-outs between scuffles, and paying attention to Curtis’ interactions with his fellow, culminating in a lengthy explanation to Minsoo about the early days on the train, when he was a teenage punk who had succumbed to murderous cannibalism, before the protein feed regime was instituted and the passengers were starving.
Curtis was brought to his senses when Gilliam and other older passengers began donating their limbs as food to keep the marauders like Curtis from snatching babies for the pot: Edgar’s life was saved directly by this intervention. Curtis thus faces that regulation trope (or cliché) of many recent Japanese and Korean dark thriller and horror films, the sense of guilt or transgression that can only be expiated by sacrificing a limb (see also the works of Chan-Wook Park, who produced this, and Takashi Miike). Such a revelation invests Curtis with a memorable pathos and darkness, and yet it doesn’t sit very well with the pretty clean-cut guy we’ve been introduced to. I couldn’t help but wonder if it would have been more convincing, and indeed genuinely affecting, with an older, more world-weary and weathered actor in the part, somebody who at least looked like he had the memory of a savage self in him.
At some point in this film’s development, Bong seems to have decided he was faced with a clear choice with this material, to either try to make it convincing or to play up its symbolic value. He chose the latter, but immediately revealed his lack of understanding of science-fiction, which can revolve around parable but must also exemplify a logical take on its chosen fantastical realm. The film follows a very basic guiding logic that makes sense, the literally linear movement from front to back of the train, which has a suspiciously video-game conceit to it, whilst also evoking the powerful influence of producer Park in the resemblance of fight scenes to the tight-packed, squared-off fight scenes that rather resemble the famous corridor battle in Oldboy (2006). But beyond this, Snowpiercer’s set-up, both technical and social, makes painfully little sense, never working at all to explain certain basic questions. Key to the film’s plot is the supposed balance of life within the train, a concept that has important ramifications in a climactic reveal. As the rebels advance through the conveyance, they pass through carriages dedicated to the propagation of animal and plant-life.
If the Snowpiercer had been deliberately designed as a mammoth Noah’s Ark-like device to save a small section of humanity I might have bought this, but the circumstances of the machine’s construction, when revealed, present the film as a private industrial Spruce Goose repurposed into it present use. The train, when glimpsed from the outside, doesn’t seem all that much bigger than the average Amtrak cross-country express, and couldn’t possibly support enough infrastructure to make the life on the train we see possible, not even to produce the insects ground up for the protein meal. The film is full of unexplained logic jumps as weapons come out of nowhere and characters who shouldn’t know one end of a gun from another suddenly having a working knowledge of automatic weapons. A gunfight is precipitated in the midst of a carriage full of the last kids on earth. Obviously someone doesn’t think children are our future.
The perspective the audience is forced to follow makes the early stages a striking experience in the sense of isolation and imposed abused, envisioning life in the third-class carriages as a ride on the Trans-Siberian Express turned into way of life, mixed with a favela. The conceit of the film can be excused as merely a transposed vision of slum dwellers invading the better parts of town wrapped in a polite sleeve of genre fiction, but nakedness of political metaphor doesn’t make for brilliance. As the film unfolds the coherency of the metaphor becomes increasingly silly and self-serving, as it offers no chance for perspective from the other classes on the train, just a broad caricature of privilege and indoctrination. Far from being a wake-up call about the dangers of global warming, the film could be seen as marking a different inference, a metaphor for the way third world countries are denied the pleasures and benefits of industrialisation by the environmental concerns of rich westerners. As the rebels penetrate the “first world” part of the train, the vignettes they see there look like the interior of a luxury liner where prim personages sit, and then the interior of a rave club, filled with louche young things reclining in decadent postures. Yes, that’s the limit of Bong’s insight into modernity’s diseases: stoned young party people and Victorian upper-crust caricatures. It’s so puerile it makes the French Revolution invocations of The Dark Knight Rises (2012) seem profound.
Where all the warriors came from, and indeed where they go to after initial skirmishes, and the train’s entire apparent infrastructure of government and representation, is skipped over. Good points might have been made about the whipped-up bloodlust and fear of the other passengers when faced with the insurrection as a simile for political manipulation, but the only “people” on the train are the rebels, and even they’re pretty one-dimensional. The film’s best scene isn’t much more sophisticated but is staged with such an intimate gusto I didn’t mind, as the rebels bust into a schoolroom carriage. There the primly raised little snots of the train’s upper class are inculcated with cultish love of Wilford through absurd songs and catechisms like “The engine is eternal! The engine is forever!” and “We would all freeze and die!” Mason delights in hearing the songs: “I love that one – such a tonic!” she reports with splendidly needy over-enthusiasm. Canadian actress Allison Pill has a deliriously inspired cameo here as the kids’ wackadoodle teacher, eyes aglow and eyelids aflutter with feverish excitement in teaching the gospel of Wilford like a Moonie zealot, whilst the overtones of this sequence take on several targets at once, from religion in general to the specifically cultish fanaticism attached to supposed benefactors, and even perhaps a tilt north of the 38th parallel.
The scene sharpens to a point as the heavily pregnant teacher draws an automatic weapon on Curtis and the other rebels: she gets a knife in the throat, and Curtis coolly executes the increasingly pathetic Mason in retaliation. Most of the issues I had with the film on an intellectual level with the film might have been rendered moot if I’d found it more satisfying on the level of meat-and-potatoes action, but Snowpiercer is rather ordinary in that regard, and certainly inferior to, say, Pierre Morel’s work on Banlieu 13 (2004), a film which had much the same structure and subtext but not half the pretension. One major problem with the film’s development is that apart from Mason none of the antagonists are at all well-defined enough to dislike. We have bad guys whom scrutiny of the credits tell me are called Franco (Vlad Ivanov, the sleazy abortionist of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, 2007) and Egg-Head (Tómas Lemarquis) but who come out of nowhere and are standard action movie villains. Curtis and Franco end up having a gunfight between carriages as the train goes around a long curve, an idea that makes interesting use of the specifics of the situation but as it plays out here is numbingly stupid.
Franco lumbers along emotionlessly killing Curtis’ followers, including Tanya, and proves rather hard to dispatch, like the Terminator in business casual. The film’s action set-piece is the tunnel fight, which is passably well-staged but more interested in pretty effects like art-directed blood spurting on the windows than in believably depicting a fight in such close-packed quarters: interestingly, neither side seems to have thought much about how such battles are likely to proceed. Bong does pull off one terrific little moment of action staging, with Curtis locked in mortal combat with a goon, another goon looms over his shoulder ready to strike, only for Edgar to launch himself into the frame and crash into the goon’s belly. This moment not only requires carefully framing on Bong’s part but also nicely shows off Bell’s physical grace as an actor, which no-one seems interested in exploiting otherwise. I’m not sure what both sides stopping their fight momentarily to celebrate the anniversary of getting on the train is supposed to signify except unfunny satirical intent.
It could also be argued that the film’s weakness as a mixture of realistic and metaphorical storytelling are justified by a certain pseudo-surrealist tone, and there is a little of this, as when the rebels suddenly burst into carriages that are gardens and aquariums. Not nearly enough to justify the film’s conceits, however. Where the finale might have justifiably moved into a zone of splintering realities, like the last episode of The Prisoner (TV, 1967-8), Bong and screenwriter Kelly Masterson (who penned Sidney Lumet’s last film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, 2007) stick close to diagrams of clunky blockbuster exposition. Curtis and Minsoo make it to the engine of the train, but find their way barred by a seemingly impassable hatch. Minsoo has a secret intention to use the Kronole he’s amassed to blow open the train’s only exterior hatch, because he’s noticed that the ice outside has retreated and escape from the train is now possible. Rather than do this immediately however, he and Curtis sit around for a half-hour talking whilst their enemies have time to mass. Claude unexpectedly emerges from the engine with a gun to usher Curtis in to see Wilford. Now, unlike Curtis who’s supposed to be smart, the audience will have guessed about five minutes in that Wilford was the one sending the helpful messages to Curtis, with only the motivation hazy. This is revealed to be, in a shameless rip-off of the climactic revelations of The Matrix Reloaded (2003), because Wilford likes to carefully provoke and repress rebellions to justify culling back the train’s population for the sake of sustainability.
Now, why a technocrat like Wilford who has essentially reduced the world to his own immediate ego-verse where he might easily control every element of life would rely on such clumsy and self-destructive tactics to maintain balance on his train is a question for smarter folks than I. So too is why the train’s society is set up like it is. Mason’s use of the word “freeloader” made me wonder if perhaps the schism was set up around those who, as in Roland Emmerich’s 2012 (2009), had paid to get on the ark and those who had been taken on as an act of charity or had forced their way on. But this is never actually brought up, and really it’s just a conservative code word trucked in for broad satirical effect, and besides, after eighteen years nobody’s questioning such delineations? The dark sacrificial antitheses of the surface paradises portrayed in the likes of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” or Logan’s Run (1976), stories based around similar ideas, aren’t necessarily more probable but they make a hell of a lot more sense in terms of the schematic societies they present us with.
Another ready reference point here is that immovable icon of cinema sci-fi, Metropolis (1926), which has an infamously vague political meaning, but at least boiled itself down to a likeable homily. I’m not sure what homily I could boil Snowpiercer down to, not even “Fight the Man”, as the film’s somewhat self-defeating climax derails (literally) the point it seems to have been making. The film does finally achieve a minatory power in the rush of events and visuals building to that climax – the sight of young Tim imprisoned amongst the gears and wheels of the engine has a Dickensian, symbolic impact, and Curtis and Minsoo rushing to embrace Yong and Tim to protect them from an explosion’s billowing flames offers a fitting condensation of the film’s theme of fatherly care, and a spark of real emotion at last in a film that otherwise lacks it. The last images evoke the end of THX-1138 (1971), although not as vividly iconic, in the simultaneous evocation of freedom and exposure, even as once again Snowpiercer begs a lot more questions than it really answers. Is it better than a Michael Bay movie? Yes. But not that much better.
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