Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The Reckless Moment (Max Ophuls, 1949)

Max Ophuls’ (or as the credits have it, Opuls’) The Reckless Moment is a fascinating incursion of noir-ish menace into superficially perfect domesticity, a thematic precursor of sorts to Blue Velvet. The two worlds cross in the opening sequence, as Lucia Harper (Joan Bennett) drives from her bucolic small town into the sleazy heart of LA, to confront a low-life who’s dating her teenage daughter; within days, he’ll be dead, killed by the anchor attached to the family’s boat, and she’ll be dealing with a blackmailer, in possession of an intimate stash of letters. Ophuls portrays Lucia’s life as a relentless treadmill of undisciplined children, an ever-present and largely infantilized father-in-law (who sleeps in the same room as her young son), runaway expenses, and limited privacy, whether at home or elsewhere (this being a community where everyone knows everyone) – the husband’s chronic absence for work, even over Christmas, underlines the structural imbalances (the film’s treatment of the family’s black maid Sybil - a major supporting role for which Frances E. Williams goes scandalously uncredited – might warrant an essay in itself). The blackmailer Donnelly (the always marvelous James Mason) is as much poignantly would-be lover as adversary, seeing in Lucia’s life an embodiment of his own failure; and yet the movie suggests we’re merely observing contrasting forms of confinement (“You have your family, I have my Nagel,” says Donnelly in one of the film’s more memorably odd lines, referring to his menacing business partner) Ophuls presents the house as a spacious, materialist dream, its underbelly revealed through the vivid play of nighttime shadows. The ending closes off the incursion, reasserting the family imperative, but underlining the husband’s continuing absence; Ophuls’ brilliant framing leaves a sense of submergence and defeat as much as triumph. Further disquiet flows from the (still relevant) moral question that runs through the movie: how strongly should the interests of the privileged override the rights of a more visibly tainted underclass…?

Monday, February 18, 2019

Quelques jours avec moir (Claude Sautet, 1988)

The conventional view of Claude Sautet tends to overlook the frequent eccentricity of his narratives, and Quelques jours avec moi pushes that tendency almost to a break point, before the director’s two quieter final films. In disconcerting short order, a troubled retail executive (Daniel Auteuil, holding his cards close to the chest throughout) is released from a mental hospital and returns uneasily to work, then accepts a road trip to check out some underperforming stores before impulsively deciding to stay on in the first location he arrives at, Limoges, largely because of his attraction to a woman (Sandrine Bonnaire) who works for the local store manager, and regardless that she continues her relationship with her boyfriend (Vincent Lindon). The plot goes on adding further elaboration, eventually and improbably embracing outright melodrama, but Sautet’s primary interest is in community and connection, in tracing how such an arbitrary-seeming trajectory might nevertheless provide the momentum that crosses lines of class and money and attitude and brings disparate people together. In this case the project takes on an air of borderline goofiness, as the chief of police and other pillars of the establishment take to partying or hanging out in dive bars with the dive bar crowd (the closing stretch of Mado comes heavily to mind here); fiscal and other transgressions are forgiven (and as an aside, has any other director seemed so intrigued by finance and accounting as a plot motor) and long-fractured relationships are refreshed. If the ending seems somewhat arbitrary and unresolved, it only underlines how the interest here is much more in the discoveries that attend the journey than in the arrival point. At times the movie may seem rather coarse and overdone, but even that much is refreshing for a director usually better remembered for small-scale observation and “humanism” than for his more elusively substantive traits.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Shadows (John Cassavetes, 1959)

Shadows is as pleasurable to watch as any John Cassavetes film, although in a different way: perhaps as a more conventional verite-type experience. That’s partly on fairly simple grounds: it’s made up of shorter scenes, so that Cassavetes’ behavioural choreography emerges here more in spurts than in fully-developed dances; it’s more specifically rooted in a particular time and place (the many shots of movie theater and Broadway marquees, playing the likes of early Brigitte Bardot movies and the original production of The Most Happy Fella, almost constitute an engaging mini-documentary in themselves). The film makes a notable statement on race primarily by not making a notable statement about it, by structuring itself around three siblings of notably different skin tone and allowing the situation to speak for itself, by presenting inter-racial relationships that flow freely and naturally: the main plot point (insofar as there is one) involves the revelation of prejudice in a man who’s been pursuing Leila Goldoni’s character, but the film is fairly subtle in how it presents this. The closing titles emphasize for us that we’ve been watching an improvisation, and one certainly feels that in the naturalistic rhythms: more broadly though, the film is just as much about improvisation, about trying identities and mannerisms on for size, and perhaps ultimately starting to stumble toward a better sense of self (although, of course, the resolution is hardly that tidy). The film still feels (for lack of a better word) plain cool in a way that Cassavetes’ later films mostly consciously eschew – it channels an electrically aspirational milieu, set against an almost ever-present jazzy soundtrack. For all its many observational and performative grace notes though, one of the greatest passing pleasures comes from Cassavetes’ own brief, wordless but pugnacious appearance, even if it almost seems now to jolt us momentarily out of this movie and into (say) that of the more characteristic Husbands.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Days of Hate (Leopoldo Torre Nilsson, 1954)

In its close concentration on an unhappily obsessed woman moving through a threat-laden environment, Leopoldo Torre Nilsson’s Days of Hate often feels strangely linked to a movie like John Parker’s Dementia, and not just because they’re both barely more than an hour long. For sure, it’s not a seamless correspondence: Dementia is fancifully and aggressively stylized, basing the woman’s trauma in a grotesque family tragedy; Days of Hate is always rooted in real settings – in the factory workplace and in the Buenos Aires streets – and the motivating event is much sadder. The fascinatingly grave Elisa Christian Galve plays Emma Zunz, her father dead by suicide after he was set up as the fall guy in a theft and her mother dead from grief; she fixates on getting revenge on the conniving, sleazy factory manager who set up the whole thing. The film is dense with problematic masculinity: the men are mostly dangerous pursuers and potential or actual rapists; others are psychically unsettling (on two separate occasions she refers in voice-over to the striking sadness of someone’s face) – even her love for her father manifests itself in a troublingly destabilizing form (the film shows that she remains capable of striking up connections, but they appear doomed to transience). The film is based on a short story by Borges, and although it doesn’t explicitly evoke the predominant notions of his work in that it’s not consciously labyrinthine or mythic, it carries a pervasive oneiric quality, the extremity of Emma’s focus on her quest creating its own unsettling texture. This carries through to the ending and beyond: she evades human justice, but feels already convicted by justice of another kind, and is last seen wandering the city as if zombie-like, perpetually removed and separated. Borges was apparently disappointed in the film, but on its own terms it’s unerringly full and fascinating.