Saturday, February 15, 2020

Lady Oscar (Jacques Demy, 1979)


Lady Oscar is certainly one of Jacques Demy’s less prominent films, with a persistently displaced feeling about it: set in France during the decade or so leading up to the Revolution, but made in English with mostly Japanese money. It may sound in summary like a gender-bending swashbuckler - Oscar is born a woman but raised as a boy to satisfy her father’s desire for a male heir, becoming a personal guard to Marie Antoinette -  but doesn’t feel particularly queered: except for one scene in which she dances with and kisses another woman (entirely to demonstrate her resistance to an unwanted suitor), there’s no suggestion that Oscar is anything other than a slow-to-awaken heterosexual woman, whose awakening as a woman coincides with that as a socially aware citizen, coinciding further with the radicalization of the populace as a whole. Compared to the striking grubbiness of Demy’s Pied Piper, the film often feels overly antiseptic, consisting largely of stiff exchanges in fancy rooms, with a central character that’s as much observer as meaningful participant. At times, certainly, the distancing can be rather stimulating - to that point I couldn’t quite decide on the merits of Catriona MacColl’s well-spoken but largely blank lead performance – and Demy often seems as interested in secondary narratives of female deception and adaptation, including the Queen’s self-serving materialism and infidelity, and another character who lies her way from poverty into money, each instance adding fuel to the popular anger that sparks the Revolution. It’s certainly interesting how Oscar’s ultimate arrival at a sense of self is immediately followed by a kind of obliteration, as she suffers her greatest personal loss, while submerged in the jubilant crowd: as such Lady Oscar looks ahead to Demy’s often quietly tortured-seeming, much underrated late run of work, in which a musical number might be as likely to accompany suicide or incest as to articulate more conventional sentiments.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Law of the Border (Lutfi Akad, 1966)


The restored print of Lutfi Akad’s The Law of the Border starts by emphasizing the remaining flaws and shortcomings, noting that “the poor state of preservation of the only source available for restoration has irreversibly hindered the quality of the final outcome.” While no one should argue this benefits the film, the ragged quality of the viewing experience does rather accord with the scrappy nature of the underlying narrative, adding to a sense of authentic sociological engagement channeled through energetically genre-hugging set-ups (as has been pointed out, one might choose to engage with it as a displaced western, although that could be more limiting than helpful). The movie’s basic opposition is between a group of poor villagers who make their living by smuggling across the Syrian border, and the firm but sympathetic law enforcer who tries to shut them down without putting them in jail, brokering a deal for them to become sharecroppers (the term used in the subtitles) on a rich man’s land, and helping to persuade them to accommodate a school. Further conflicts erupt between outlaws, the details of which weren’t always entirely clear to me at least, but this generally functions as daring, almost poetic fragmentation (the movie has enough raw narrative material to fuel something of epic length, but dispenses with it all in barely more than 75 minutes). Much of what’s depicted seems almost divorced from any recognizable time and place, but the very clearly contemporary affect of the teacher in particular emphasizes that this isn’t some kind of romantic primitivism, but rather a simple function of poverty and deprivation: seen today, the film’s social charge is heavily retrospectively enhanced by the subsequent extraordinary life history of its star Yilmaz Guney. Overall, the film can’t be classed as a masterpiece, but it elicits a deep sense of respect.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Popeye (Robert Altman, 1980)


Robert Altman’s Popeye plays more like a self-absorbed, semi-penetrable mystery than a family entertainment (especially by today’s standards) – a lonely sailor turns up in a strange town, his conversation barely penetrable, finding little welcome among the eccentrically downtrodden inhabitants, who are over-taxed, often physically maligned by the local strongman, and apparently stuck in narrowly repetitive lives and behaviour patterns (although the community does include a gambling den and even an apparent brothel). His purpose is to find his long-lost father, and he eventually succeeds, although it barely seems to matter by then to either of them, his affections diverted onto a cruelly abandoned baby which he immediately takes on as his own, and via whom he rapidly acquires a sort of surrogate wife (that would be Olive Oyl), although there’s not a hint of what you’d call “chemistry” between them. They’re all put in peril by the evil Bluto, with Popeye discovering at the last minute the transformative powers of canned spinach, but little of this registers as a meaningful narrative. The movie’s great strengths are its tangibility, both in evoking the rickety all-in-it-togetherness of Sweethaven (which lives on as a tourist attraction in Malta) and in the physicality of the clowning, and of course its abundance of the texture we always prize in Altman – the sense of lives in motion, of a world that doesn’t stop at the edge of the frame. It just all seems rather strange, when what’s actually in the middle of the frame is so weird and unapproachable. Robin Williams’ performance seems largely directed at himself, no doubt as instructed; Harry Nilsson’s songs, somehow managing to be simultaneously negligible and memorable, perfectly suit the rest of the film. There was no sequel, but if there had been, I like to imagine they would have offered the job to Raul Ruiz…

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Teorema (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1968)


The most exultant moments of Pasolini’s inexhaustible Theorem are its opening ones, plunging us into a news footage-type presentation of a rich man who’s given away his factory to the workers – an act of apparent progressive altruism that’s immediately analyzed as suspect, as stripping the workers of the possibility of a future revolution (the ultimate example, one may think, of a glass half empty). The film that follows confirms the skepticism though, leaving a heavy impression of the stickiness of the bourgeoisie: they may lose their bearings, their sanity, their morality, or even consciousness itself, but they persist at the centre of their stories, tarnishing the figurative and actual landscape they inhabit. It’s a sly joke, perhaps, that the medium of this unwinding should be the mysterious visitor played by Terence Stamp, and the popular summation of the film, highlighting his seduction of each member of that rich man’s family, makes the film sound much racier than it actually is (while it draws our attention repeatedly to the visitor’s crotch, it’s almost strenuously chaste in how it visualizes other sexual happenings, particularly by comparison with the unbound nudity of Pasolini’s later films). In comparison to the family’s solipsistic responses, the maid apparently perceives Stamp’s visitor as a medium of holy transformation, and retreats to her rural home where she demonstrates healing and levitational powers before willingly embracing death: the contrast may speak to the relative purity of the working class, but also to its passivity in the face of transformational possibilities. Although Stamp’s character may sound schematically conceived, he also has the film’s most playful, spontaneous-seeming moments, pointing to how the bourgeoisie’s failure is as much one of intimate self-understanding as societal stewardship. Ultimately, the rich man is reduced to wandering naked in a barren desert, stopping to emit a crazed, accusatory cry, perhaps speaking for his own plight, perhaps for that of us all.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

The Return of the Pink Panther (Blake Edwards, 1975)


Blake Edwards’ fascination with the Pink Panther universe (five films with Peter Sellers, three more after his death) almost carries the air of a stubborn, doomed quest toward revelation. Return of the Pink Panther, the third and arguably the best of them (and I realize many might question what that could possibly mean in this context) exemplifies the core narrative momentum: Jacques Clouseau is a fool of such magnitude that he causes physical laws to break down around him and induces madness in his superior, and yet he keeps rising in rank and popular esteem, regardless that (unlike Sellers’ late triumph in Being There) almost everyone seems to see him for the idiot he is (at several points in Return, the co-star Catherine Schell is seen barely suppressing laughter, as if we were watching outtakes). When at his best, Sellers almost makes the character coherent in his dignity: his absurd over-deliberation in some matters (his propensity for disguise and false names) combined with total blindness in others; his perpetually odd pronunciation suggesting some unspecified secret origin. The title animation suggests a bending of reality which also recurs around Clouseau (affecting, as the moment may dictate, other individuals, light bulbs, vacuum cleaners, the force of gravity etc.), while also possessing a jazzy hipness that he lacks, but often seems to aspire to. Edwards makes a game out of shifting the coordinates (casting Graham Stark, who played Clouseau’s colleague in an earlier installment, as a petty criminal here) while indulging his penchant for plush living on the one hand (Christopher Plummer, as the object of suspicion, mostly inhabits a different, more efficient universe than that of the rest of the film) and his affinity for something more merciless on the other. The series already feels a bit tired here (a trait that would rapidly escalate) but that only adds to the sense of strange, displaced destiny. Oh, and in case it’s not clear from all that, it does actually make me laugh.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Rendez-vous (Andre Techine, 1985)


Andre Techine’s Rendez-Vous leaves us to chew over a citation from John’s Gospel: ““Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” The most obvious application is to Lambert Wilson’s Quentin, who throws himself under a car midway through the movie after staging a contest of sort for Nina’s (Juliette Binoche’s) affections – his death sets the stage for Nina to meet a respectable theatre director (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and to gravitate to serious acting work, playing Juliet, while also freeing herself of unhealthy attachments. In the end, she’s almost strenuously self-defined – the director leaves before the opening night curtain goes up, the other man who loved her seems to have cleared his head, and we never even see who is playing Romeo. It’s a strange and lurching journey to get to that point though, one marked by regular swerves in behaviour and focus, by return visits by Quentin from beyond the grave, and by a problematic objectification of Nina: a woman who initially uses her sexuality freely, but thereafter struggles to have her voice heard and her will respected (Binoche, as always, inhabits the role with complete commitment). The film often feels borderline nutty in its flirting with extremity, as if setting itself a challenge - the depiction of a public sex club, where the self-loathing Quentin exercises his notion of his art (this time with a different take on Romeo and Juliet), certainly contributes to this sense, even as it broadens the film’s notion of sexuality as display. Overall, it’s rather impressive that Techine makes it feel as coherent and unified as it does. Still, his later work would almost always be more accomplished, whether measured by the depth of its human investigations or by the allure of its structural mysteries.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

The Appointment (Sidney Lumet, 1969)


For every Dog Day Afternoon and Network, Sidney Lumet’s filmography contains something more obscure or uncharacteristic – as often as not belonging in the “interesting failure” category, but at least evidencing an appealing curiosity and openness to disparate influences. The Appointment is a prime example – made at a time when Europe’s art film giants were at their zenith, set in Rome without a single American actor (although with English dialogue), it feels as if Lumet was almost willing himself to become an Antonioni, although with a more common touch. Omar Sharif plays a lawyer, falling for a beautiful woman and then marrying her despite allegations that she occasionally works as a high-class whore (shades of the then-recent Belle de Jour) – his suspicions start to consume him, and when he tries and fails to catch her in the act, the circumstances of his failure appear as incriminating as success would have been. In terms of Antonioni references, the use of enigma and absence-as-presence evokes several of the Monica Vitti movies, and there’s a fashion show sequence that seems pointlessly extended unless to bring Blow-Up to mind (it’s presumably not coincidental that Lumet was working here with that film’s cinematographer, Carlo di Palma). Anouk Aimee (of course triggering further resonances) is well-cast as the woman, embodying helpless evasiveness; Sharif is a blander presence, but workable as a comparative lightweight overwhelmed by events. Lumet anchors the story effectively in its environment, whether in chillily spacious well-to-do living spaces, or the cluttered antique shop that runs a mini-brothel in the back, or (in one striking if perhaps rather pointless flourish) in a God’s eye view aerial shot, emphasizing the lovers’ relative insignificance. The film never attains the sublimity of its reference points, but it’s a solid enough narrative on its own terms, and overall no less watchable now than some of Lumet’s more widely-recognized works.