Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Lili Marleen (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1981)


Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Lili Marleen isn’t typically ranked among his best films, but if it seems at times to play a little flatly, that’s not necessarily unsuited to its structuring ambiguities. Willie, a German singer, is barred from escaping into Switzerland at the start of WW2 because of machinations by the father of her Swiss boyfriend Robert (who actively works to help Jews evade the Nazis); needing to make ends meet, she keeps on pursuing her career, and chances onto the title song, the popularity of which lifts her to iconic status, bringing both rewards and dangers. The soundtrack is suffused in the song, while leaving it unclear whether it serves as a morbid sapping of positive will (as we’re told is Goebbels’ view) or as a unifying evocation of the heartland (Hitler’s view); the song is played to raptly listening soldiers in the trenches and to vast formal crowds, but there’s never any sense of the war as other than a losing venture, and near the end when a group of soldiers hear the song on the battlefield and head in its direction for refuge, it’s a Russian trap. The ambiguity extends to Willie herself (summed up in the character’s very name, and in the way her identity later becomes entirely intertwined with the song) – the film withholds any confirmation of whether she sleeps with Nazis as is rumoured, and while she assumes personal danger in some of her anti-regime activities, her motivation, and the depth of her convictions (if any) are entirely unclear (even her basic competence as a singer is the subject of debate). As such, the film continually returns to the unstable nature of cultural symbols and to the ideological regimes they may seem to support. Hanna Schygulla ably embodies Willie’s recessive qualities; the film also stars Giancarlo Giannini and Mel Ferrer, splashy casting befitting the film’s classically melodramatic ambitions.

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Providence (Alain Resnais, 1977)


Alain Resnais’ Providence makes it clear early on that the apparent initial narrative (a strange affair involving the mercy killing of an injured old man with a werewolf-like affliction, leading to a court trial, and then to a relationship between the accused and the prosecuting lawyer’s wife) is at least in part a representation of the work in progress that tumbles through the head of elderly author Clive Langham during a night of drunken pain, while leaving the possibility that elements might be rooted in external reality (Langham’s own son, daughter-in-law and even his deceased wife take on prominent roles in the narrative). To that degree, the film represents a  puzzle of sorts, although it never feels likely that a clear “solution” to these oddities and discontinuities is likely, or even desirable; it often plays like broad, destabilizing comedy, as Langham’s inner voice floods the soundtrack with scabrous vulgarities (delivered with relish by John Gielgud), often disappointed by his own imaginings, sometimes losing control over them (most charmingly involving a tangential football player character who keeps jogging into scenes where he doesn’t belong). The ultimate arrival point, once reality does assert itself (or so we might assume), is surprisingly bucolic, with Langham’s children coming to his country house for a birthday lunch, identities and realities clarified and softened from what was previously mooted. Langham drinks as excessively in daylight as after dark, and there are references to past transgressions, but the pervasive sense of present attack is gone, and one might even wonder whether such heavy tranquility more fully embodies the death of creative faculties. Despite the productive affinities with Resnais’ other work, the tightness of the conception, and the extreme Englishness of the setting, periodically generates a sense of a director being somewhat hemmed in; Gielgud aside, the actors only intermittently flourish. And yet, it does all linger quite deliciously in the memory…

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Fedora (Billy Wilder, 1978)


Fedora, Billy Wilder’s penultimate film, is usually regarded (if at all) as a sign of waning powers, and it’s certainly what you might call an “old man’s film,” but then the strangely haunting material hardly lends itself to a young man’s one. William Holden (at his most resonant, accentuated by one’s hindsight knowledge of how his own time was running out) plays Barry Detweiler, a seen-better-times independent producer who comes to Corfu in search of Fedora, a retired Garbo-like actress whom he hopes to lure back to the screen. He finds her beauty undiminished, but his attempts to get to her are blocked by an old Countess in whose villa she’s living, and the Countess’s surrounding retinue; then that narrative comes to a sudden end about halfway through, and the second half largely provides a different perspective on what we’ve previously seen. Much about the film feels dislodged from time – it suggests for example that Fedora somehow sustained her stardom into the 70’s while making strictly old-school movies (Detweiler’s passion project is cringingly titled The Snows of Yesteryear) – and there’s a hole at the heart of the movie in breezing far too easily over various self-serving acts of cruelty by the Countess and those around her, keeping us at a distance from a key character’s inner anguish. But that’s only to say that the film is an artifice, no less than the illusions depicted within it, suffused in a sense of regret and loss. It’s an artifice though that flirts deliciously with reality at times, no less than in its use of Michael York, playing himself (Holden’s reaction when Fedora names York as her ideal co-star, rejecting Detweiler’s suggestions of Nicholson, Beatty and McQueen, is an absolute highlight). Henry Fonda also briefly appears as himself, presenting Fedora with a life achievement Oscar, looking serenely happy to be there. And truly, why would he not be?

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Passion (Jean-Luc Godard, 1982)


Jean-Luc Godard’s Passion is one of his most gorgeously twisted art objects, a work of stunning craft and visual sumptuousness which, even as it ravishes us, persistently prompts us to find such beauty lacking, both on its own terms and as an expression of the hermetic industrial and financial infrastructure which allows its creation. While it’s seldom been worthwhile to try summarizing a Godardian narrative, Passion revolves around a stalled film project taking place in proximity to a factory riddled with industrial unrest and to a nearby motel, the proprietors and workers of which interact in various ways; the director is from Poland, at that moment in time a focus of political engagement, the very evocation of which tends to condemn the decadent irrelevance of the film within the film and all that it drives. The project appears to consist primarily of (again, gorgeous) recreations of iconic paintings and historical snapshots, with no apparent protagonists; the director spends much time worrying about the quality of the lighting, while his producer continually hustles for money; as such it’s in an intriguing dynamic with Godard’s own film, which has an emblematically art-house cast (Isabelle Huppert, Hanna Schygulla, Michel Piccoli), all of course subservient to the governing scheme (Huppert’s character stutters: Piccoli’s perpetually coughs; Godard seems most interested in Schygulla for her face, including one wondrous searching close-up that recalls Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc). In the end, the director sets off for his home country with some of the film’s women tagging along; to one who balks at getting in because she doesn’t like cars, he explains that it’s not a car but a magic carpet - a silly line, but one which works on her, and which perhaps points to the possibility of escaping a cinematic dead end, for a creative renewal more rooted in the real world.

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

The Family Way (1966, John Boulting & Roy Boulting)


One’s memories of the Boulting Brothers’ The Family Way are likely to be dominated by the highly sellable central situation of a young couple (Hayley Mills’ Jenny and Hywel Bennett’s Arthur) unable to consummate their marriage after moving in with his parents, and gradually subject to a barrage of local speculation, gossip and worse. Viewed now though, this is just one element in a virtual catalogue of sexual dysfunction, much of it carrying homosexual implications: most prominently the fixation of Arthur’s father (John Mills) with his lost boyhood friend, whom he even brought along on his honeymoon (he seems entirely oblivious to any subtext, although his wife plainly isn’t). It’s hinted that Jenny’s mother was perversely suspicious of her husband’s affection for his daughter, and even the movie’s most outspokenly ribald character, Joe Thompson, played by Barry Foster, is, based on his wife’s climactic outburst, a sexual strike-out whose “job” has been filled for years by the milkman. The movie roots all this in a highly judgmental, privacy-challenged, booze-sodden community, with little sense of space (the house lacks a bathroom) or economic opportunity; it’s not exactly a societal hatchet job, but certainly allows ample understanding of how one’s insecurities might only be amplified in such a milieu. The movie is an easy pleasure, although it’s a shame that the resolution basically consists of Arthur battering his way to redemption, beating up Thompson and preparing to leave Jenny, his anger and resentment finally enabling him to conquer the central problem; the final scene then bundles the couple out of the way on a delayed honeymoon. But even then, as embodied by Bennett, Arthur seems too inherently out of place for the marriage ever to work, his thoughts and ambitions seldom seeming to align with those of the sweet but more basically content and locally-rooted Jenny, providing little prospect of avoiding further troubles ahead.

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Eyes Without a Face (Georges Franju, 1960)


Just as everyone says, there’s an inexhaustible quality to Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, a rare balancing of unnerving narrative mechanics and a searchingly poetic sensibility that seems constantly to be looking beyond. Its 90 minutes contain a remarkable variety and breadth of characterization and incident, the focus several times moving outside the established narrative onto a new character who then gets drawn into the central scheme; even at its most potentially lurid (and it is, after all, about a monstrously self-justifying doctor, located in a big creepy house, whose plan to restore his daughter’s mutilated face entails, with the help of a manically devoted assistant, kidnapping, surgically abusing and killing a series of young women), the film is rooted in personal agony and helpless compulsion, dotted with touching, psychologically revealing moments. The film’s ending represents an astonishing inversion, the relative ease with which the two villains are dispatched speaking to the inward-looking irrelevance of their scheming, obsessing with restoring the damaged girl’s face when her true redemption lay in embracing its absence, and entering her own ethereal space, depicted in a climatic dove-shrouded glide into the woods. The scenes of the investigating cops could from one perspective be eliminated – we last see them getting the wool pulled over their eyes, departing with no idea of their proximity to past and pending crimes - and yet, the intrusion of such ineffective authority reminds us (because we might easily forget), that the film’s threats and perversions of causality, for all their fantastic aspects, are products of our own world (the final scene of Franju’s Judex appends a note to a similar end), of familial love and scientific ambition and perceived social entitlement; the vibrant Paris captured earlier in the movie lying just a twenty-minute train away ride, we’re told. Overall, amazing viewing every time.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

American Guerilla in the Philippines (1950, Fritz Lang)


Drawing on his own experiences of flight and exile, Fritz Lang’s American Guerilla in the Philippines is a sweaty, sun-baked variation on his foreboding urban narratives, its protagonist as hopelessly trapped as in any of them, in this case fighting an all-but-endless war while devoid of almost any personal agency or any sense of the passage of time. Tyrone Power’s Chuck Palmer is one of a small group of Americans trapped in the islands after the US withdraws in the face of the 1942 Japanese invasion (General MacArthur’s parting declaration, printed on matchboxes, that “I shall return” comes to seem like as much an existential taunt as an inspiring promise) – he treks for weeks in search of others, has an idea of sailing to Australia which goes nowhere, and from there is gradually drawn into the prolonged, lonely, constantly threatened guerilla existence. Micheline Presle (billed here, in a wondrous example of dumbing-down, as “Micheline Prelle”) plays a Frenchwoman married to a local businessman who channels money and support to the guerillas; once he’s identified and killed by the Japanese, she and Palmer rapidly become a couple, a transition depicted with notable lack of sentiment (she’s depicted as being unerringly pragmatic, and gets to wield a gun in the final showdown in a church, as does one of the altar boys). The movie has a huge amount of action and incident, with Palmer required to do everything from building a radio with whatever’s on hand (which he succeeds at) to operating on a horribly injured man (he fails), but the flag-waving is offset by its protagonist’s essential loneliness, with only one other American, played by Tom Ewell, depicted in any depth; when the troops triumphantly roll in at the end, they watch from the perspective of liberated locals rather than as part of the team.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

La faute de l’abbe Mouret (Georges Franju, 1970)


Georges Franju’s La faute de l’abbe Mouret contains major elements of both hell-and-damnation Catholic severity and flower child-inflected dreaminess; one’s assessment of the film’s success (mine differed across separate viewings) may depend on the extent to which the two cohere. Young Abbott Mouret, bearing a Bressonian pallor and sense of self-denial, serves in a rural village of little apparent piety (the film opens on two locals having sex in a field), and after a sudden collapse which largely wipes out his memory, he’s taken by unknown means to a nearby house occupied by a fiery atheist, whose daughter Albine nurses him back to health. The two walk daily in the adjacent walled-off garden (visualized in extravagantly lovely terms, its centerpiece an overpowering abundance of flowering roses), where they eventually make love, like two innocents discovering something that was previously beyond imagining. But a prolonged shot of a snake on a tree makes all too clear the fragile nature of this paradise, and when a storm brings down the wall, Mouret’s memory returns, along with an even more austere sense of vocation. The film contains some punishing moments, such as Mouret’s unrelenting colleague terrorizing children with his pitch-black vision of their future, but the proffered alternative is no less ungrounded; Albine claims that the garden supposedly contains a magic tree that distorts one’s sense of time, and tells him an origin story that sounds like a fairy tale. Mouret’s actions end in tragedy, triggering one of cinema’s more unusual suicides, and a shocking act of violence; the final scene, a fusion of inner and outer worlds, could be read to suggest that Mouret’s external fealty shrouds a transgressive inner life, even a surrender to the devil. Given the considerably lighter nature of Franju’s subsequent film, Shadowman, it may constitute the last great enigma of a fascinatingly shifting body of work.  

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Absolution (Anthony Page, 1978)


Richard Burton’s Catholic priest in Anthony Page’s Absolution might be viewed as an amalgam of many of his then-most recent roles: Exorcist II (in which he also played a priest), Equus (written by Peter Shaffer, whose brother Anthony wrote Absolution), and The Medusa Touch (where his character’s rage against society is so powerful that it can overcome the laws of nature): all roles which in one way or another tried to make a strength out of the actor’s customary stiffness (whereas the one not listed above, The Wild Geese, tried in futility to ignore it). His character in Absolution, Father Goddard, is a teacher at a boys’ school who comes to believe that his star pupil Benjie (Dominic Guard) has in effect fallen under the influence of Satan (Billy Connolly plays the serpent who leads him astray, a drifter called Blakey who hangs around the school grounds); Benjie starts using the confessional to taunt Goddard first with made-up sins, and then apparently with real and horrific ones, including the murder of Blakey, knowing that Goddard can’t repeat any of it to anyone. The movie’s interest in its cloistered world is unfortunately limited, with only one other boy (played by Kes’s David Bradley) portrayed in any depth (not that the adults register either, beyond Goddard and Blakey), and the briefest possible glimpses of such standard transgressions as girlie magazines and cigarette smoking. Although Catholic teachings and rituals are inherent to the plot, the film seems mainly interested in them as devices; it’s interesting to imagine what a more cerebral or intense director could have done with it. Such a director might have gotten something very powerful out of Burton; even so, the actor is at his latter-day best here, conveying sheer inner torture at a situation that rapidly surpasses both his analytical capacities and his faith.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Girl at the Window (Luciano Emmer, 1961)


The first half an hour or so of Luciano Emmer’s undersung Girl at the Window provides no hint of what the title might refer to, following a group of Italian immigrants as they enter Holland to work in a coal mine, negotiating the mechanics of arrival and integration – on the very first day, a sudden collapse seals off one of them, Vincenzo (Bernard Fresson) with the supervisor Federico (Lino Ventura), triggering a remarkable series of scenes in which their air supply gives out, sounds of approaching rescue recede, and even the ebullient Federico has little specific hope to offer. But suddenly, after several days, they’re freed after all, and with little further reflection, the two men set off for Amsterdam, with the object of buying some female company. Emmer provides a rich portrait of the red-light district, emphasizing the language difficulties that many movies gloss over, and including a matter of fact depiction of a gay bar; Federico in particular is depicted as ravenous for booze and for women, spending his hard-earned money with an abandon which seems like its own kind of airless confinement. The film’s structural freshness continues as the two men part ways (the film then focuses mainly on Vincenzo, who forges a sort of connection with Else, played by Marina Vlady, despite the two being barely able to communicate the simplest thing to each other), their paths meeting up again later, and again diverging. But these expansive aspects coexist with a feeling of fate closing in, symbolized by a recurring shot of the world receding into a tiny square of light as the miners descend into the depths. Overall, the film conveys a strongly tragic sense of economic and existential inevitability, but its final note is a resigned, jocular one, a small tribute to the spirit that allows such men to keep pressing on (albeit that this may only leave them more open to exploitation).

Thursday, April 21, 2022

A Different Image (Alile Sharon Larkin, 1982)


Alile Sharon Larkin’s beautiful A Different Image is an extraordinarily full 51 minutes of cinema, lightly but meaningfully expressed at every turn. Its focus is on a young woman, Alana, who predominantly wants time and space to work on her art, to enjoy her friends and to explore whatever means of self-expression occur to her. This may not sound like a radical project, but it’s subject to skepticism and/or attack from all directions: from her mother who doesn’t understand her resistance to getting married and generating grandchildren; from her female co-worker who can’t believe she could have a platonic male friend, Vincent; and then most sadly from Vincent himself, who (albeit partly driven by peer pressure from his Playboy-reading friend) ultimately can’t resist the urge to sexualize their relationship (at one point he reads to her a famous passage from Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, without any apparent awareness that Black women might experience their own different form of invisibility, or all-too-visibility). The placement of “image” in the title reflects the film’s reflection on representation for worse and better: Larkin’s camera on the one hand taking in  soft porn and sexualized advertising billboards, and on the other offering a lovingly curated selection of photographs of Black women, existing not to be mimicked or subjected to hollow praise, but as cherished reference points in achieving growth and self-awareness (the film’s final photograph, of Larkin herself, adds a wonderfully personal perspective on this). The film has a warm and delicate approach to its characters: while it leaves no doubt that Vincent crosses a line (Alana explicitly accuses him of rape) it also allows us to see her from his perspective, to convey the heightened sense of presence and connection that contributes to his misreading of the moment, leading to a final note of partial reconciliation, in which Vincent seems to be at least starting out on better understanding her perspective.

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

La vie est un roman (Alain Resnais, 1983)


In the closing moments of Alain Resnais’ delightfully singular La vie est un roman, one character asserts based on what’s transpired that, as her father always said, life isn’t a fairy tale (probably a more evocative translation of the French “ roman” than “bed of roses,” as used in the most common English version of the title), and another character almost immediately states the opposite, that it is – it’s a measure of the film’s barely graspable scope that both conclusions seem equally plausible (as does a third, that the answer will only become evident when one grows up, whenever that might be). One of the film’s main strands (in his post-WW1 magic-type castle, a rich man plans to have a group of people attain a new level of happiness) plays primarily like a fantasy that ends up tarnished; the other (in the present day, that same location hosts a conference on educational methods) sounds like the most unpromisingly grounded premise, but yields musical interludes, outsized behaviour, and unpredictable romantic entanglements. The gap seems to speak to the hopelessness of any sweeping diagnosis of human motivation and achievement: grand schemes take tragic turns, laying bare their founding naivete; life directions change on a whim; however serious an endeavor the conference may be, for the male attendees it’s still just as much about getting laid.  Both tales are built in part around a gasp-inducing model of the desired world, each an object of delight on its own terms, which nevertheless possibly restricts one’s grasp of reality as much as it provides a basis for engaging with it. In that vein, the film itself feels like a kind of experimental prototype, an early deployment of the theatrically-informed techniques that would dominate Resnais’ subsequent work, and the one that most explicitly invites us to contemplate them exactly as strategies for illumination and stimulation.

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

The Cardinal (Otto Preminger, 1963)


Otto Preminger's three-hour The Cardinal may have come as close as was then feasibly possible to examining the church's personal and political morality, taking its protagonist through wrenching personal dilemmas (whether to authorize for his sister an abortion that will save her life but kill that of her child), and rendering him a close-up witness to the cowardice of the Southern US church in the face of racism and to the utter complicity of the Austrian church in the rise of Nazism (the film seems to exonerate the Vatican itself in that regard though). The focal point is Stephen Fermoyle (Tom Tryon), who returns from a Vatican education to a pastoral position in his home town of Boston, first learning the ropes of parish priesthood and expanding his personal sense of sacrifice and humility; later on taking a leave of absence to deal with doubts about his vocation before being posted to Rome and rising within the structure, ending on his being named to the titular position and a pending return to the US (it's hard to buy into Fermoyle's final words, in which he asserts that the American precepts of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are entirely congruent with the philosophy of the church). Preminger provides a reasonable amount of doctrinal debate (such as whether evolution contradicts creationism or is only the medium of it), while leaving Fermoyle a rather opaque figure - for instance, the film throws little light on how he reaches his decision to recommit to his vocation, after falling in love  with a young woman (Romy Schneider) during his leave of absence. But then, the mystery of faith is one of The Cardinal's core subjects, satisfyingly navigated by Preminger in a film that ambitiously grapples with the church's immensity and complexity, while (very obviously) leaving much unexplored.

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

I Want to Go Home (Alain Resnais, 1989)


The main character of Alain Resnais’ I Want to Go Home, Joey Wellman, is a veteran American cartoonist (but not one of the top-tier ones, his work barely celebrated now) in Paris for a convention; his almost estranged daughter is already there, studying at the Sorbonne and trying to shed her roots, fixated on getting her thesis on Flaubert to the attention of a public intellectual (Gerard Depardieu) who however is more interested in the old man. The cartoonist is played by Adolph Green, much better known as a songwriter than an actor (I Want to Go Home isn’t a musical, but sometimes seems on the verge of becoming that); others involved in the project include Jules Feiffer, John Kander, Linda Lavin, Geraldine Chaplin and John Ashton (at the time widely recognizable from Beverly Hills Cop and other mainstream movies), with references ranging from Victor Hugo to Krazy Kat – it’s surely a unique mixture of cultural coordinates, carrying the sense of a cultural puzzle to be unlocked. This manifests itself for much of the way as sometimes grating and repetitive conflict (Joey’s complaining about even the smallest aspect of French culture might profitably have been pared back at least a little), although ultimately leading to a rather mysterious transference in which some of the central characters reorient their affiliations and arrive at reconciliation; the final shot in which Joey’s temporary new home in the country sprouts into a Disneyland-like castle is the final assertion of possibility. Ultimately, for all its annoyances, the film insists that one might find delight even in the most unlikely locations and interactions, if one is only open to it. And of course, if that’s not so easy, you can draw on the common ground of cultural touchstones– those small-town French people may not recognize the most basic words of English, but they know “Clint Eastwood”!

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

March or Die (Dick Richards, 1977)


Dick Richards’ March or Die is something of an oddity – a British-financed French foreign legion picture made in the late seventies, its cast encompassing Hollywood respectability (Gene Hackman), the European mainstream (Terence Hill) and arthouse class (Catherine Deneuve, Max von Sydow). The film reflects these competing resonances, with Hackman’s character often lost in dark brooding built on brutally hard-won life lessons and a keen sense of political realities, while Hill’s provides doses of exuberant anti-authoritarianism, and Deneuve (whose character is an object of fascination to all the male principals) embodies the tangled romantic perspectives that have always accompanied tales of the legion (in a nice touch, an old woman who spends the day wordlessly lost in her thoughts might be, on the basis of what we’re told of her back story, Marlene Dietrich’s character from von Sternberg’s Morocco). The core plot engages critically with the imperatives of colonialism, with Hackman’s Major Foster unenthusiastically drafted to protect an archaeological dig led by von Sydow’s Professor Marneau, knowing that the Arabs view the project (the proceeds of which will be shipped back to France) as mere plunder and that if things go bad, his men will be hopelessly outnumbered: when this proves correct, it makes for some truly eye-filling scenes of conflict, with the Arab leader El Krim unleashing wave after wave of fresh attacks on the wretched soldiers. The fact that El Krim is played by Ian Holm (with a crime-boss-like veneer of philosophical brutality) sums up some the film’s limitations; it’s also evident that those separate strands I mentioned don’t always easily coalesce (Hill’s breeziness belongs in a different filmic universe from Hackman’s tightly-wound, implication-heavy self-reflection). Nevertheless, the overall impact is more satisfyingly bracing than you might expect, notwithstanding a final scene packed with tired notions of ambiguously evocative closure.