Wednesday, March 31, 2021

The Wayward Girl (Edith Karlmar, 1959)


Edith Karlmar’s The Wayward Girl is at its finest in observing the protagonist of the title, Gerd, marvelously embodied by an uninhibited Liv Ullmann in one of her earliest roles – she’s not yet eighteen but already in possession of a “bad” reputation, and the director and actress are completely attuned to the tumbling mixture of boredom and glee that drives her actions, her fascination with her own sexuality, and with the legacy of her bumpy personal history (she never knew her father; her mother is often away and equally poorly regarded). A boy from a more stable background, Anders, falls for her and steals his father’s car to take her to a remote tumbledown farm, with some undefined plan of shaking off the bad element she runs with and of opening up something lasting; the parents soon discover their location, but let it ride for a while, and then the situation becomes more complex with the arrival of Bendik, a vagrant with a much more openly lascivious response to Gerd’s provocations. One of the film’s most startling scenes has Bendik pausing from cooking a game bird he’s killed, and imitating its mating behaviour for the amusement and provocation of Gerd and her mother – their shared reaction provides the film’s most marked moment of commonality between the two, brought together in mutual transgressive delight. The final scenes aren’t among the film’s strongest though, the imperative of wrapping up the plot coming at the cost of pushing Gerd relatively to the side of the narrative, emphasizing instead the conflict between the younger and older man. But, of course, that makes its own kind of point too, that the window for Gerd’s “waywardness” to evade lasting social and biological consequences was always a narrow one, and that any sense of positive closure was always likely to be fragile, if not completely hollow.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Only Two Can Play (Sidney Gilliat, 1962)


Sidney Gilliat’s Only Two Can Play presents 1960’s Wales as a smutty cauldron of repressed desire, the lid barely on at the best of times, and often threatening to extravagantly explode. Peter Sellers plays John Lewis, a married librarian with two children, squeezed into a barely tolerable living space (we’re told early on that an extra £150 a year would make all the difference), his workday punctuated by knowing looks from women on the bus and subtext-heavy book requests (it’s plain that any item with “sex” in the title just flies off the shelves). Liz (Mai Zetterling), doubly glamorous by virtue of being an immigrant married to a wealthy town councilor (the movie presents the class system at its most unctuously all-defining) takes a shine to him and dangles the prospect of using her influence with her husband to get him a promotion (and that dreamy £150 raise) – this goes better than their would-be affair, perpetually set back by accidents and interruptions. Sellers’ performance walks a fine line between being subtly low-key and completely blank (over time, the balance would tend to shift more toward the latter), with a few rather ill-fitting moments of escalating mishap in which one can almost glimpse Clouseau just around the corner; more affecting is Virginia Maskell as his wife, rapidly tuning in to what’s going on but lacking the resources to do much more than ask that he leave her out of it, as long as he hands over the housekeeping money. Despite a cautiously happy ending, interesting for its tentatively compromising nature, the film leaves a prevailingly sad impression, and Zetterling seems generally out of place (especially if you know that she was just a few years away from directing some absolute masterpieces), but then that’s largely the point. As a bonus, the combination of Welsh names, accents and the odd bit of language or local insight allows the film a modest cultural distinctiveness.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Doctor Glas (Mai Zetterling, 1968)


Mai Zetterling’s little-known Doctor Glas is a remarkable attempt to convey a protagonist’s inner life, all the more so for the aggressively complex nature of the psyche under examination. In the present day, Glas moves as an old man through the city, seen only in shadows, his lack of engagement emphasized by out-of-focus imagery, his mostly self-loathing thoughts heard in voice-over. In almost blinding contrasting clarity, the film shows him as a young man, focusing on his interactions with a prominent clergyman whom he loathes, and the man’s much younger wife who asks Glas to help her escape her husband’s exercise of his “marital rights.” Pushed by a mixture of animus, fixation, and a preoccupation with his own power, he tries to do so first by falsely diagnosing the wife’s physical state; later by playing on the clergyman’s anxieties about his own health. Glas ultimately takes his intervention to a transgressive high point, but the resulting benefits are more ambiguous than he foresaw, apparently sparking a lifelong reexamination of his action. Per Oscarsson is amazing as Glas, at times cold or impervious, at others uncertain and inadequate, feeling himself distant from his contemporaries (for instant lacking the usual male capacity for easy sexual banter) but quietly eaten away by a failure to chart an alternatively satisfying path. Zetterling visualizes his inner life through stark, sometimes shockingly direct images, dominated by the clergyman in various contorted poses, by a recurring image of the barely-clothed wife, carnally advancing. The film is almost bookended by two scenes in which Glas, using the same unyielding language, refuses to help in terminating a pregnancy, the difference being that the first request comes from a woman and the second from a man; one of many small but potent examples of how Zetterling in this film expands her predominantly feminist perspective.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

The Ploughman's Lunch (Richard Eyre, 1984)


Richard Eyre’s The Ploughman’s Lunch, written by Ian McEwan, is a much under-appreciated temperature-taking of Britain at a very specific time – the early years of Thatcherism marking an end to some long-established certainties, but the shape of their replacements not yet clear, national self-examination temporarily largely suspended under the patriotic boost of the Falklands war. Jonathan Pryce’s James Penfield, a BBC radio news producer, should perhaps in theory be perfectly placed to analyze and draw on the national evolution, but is strangely stunted, unable to see his job as much more than a matter of making the hourly bulletins smoothly fill the allotted time; he fixes on an idea of building his reputation by writing a book on the 1956 Suez crisis, his views on which appear much more superficial than those of the historians he interviews. The challenges of navigating class structures run throughout the film – Penfield has absorbed an elitist mindset to the extent that he can laugh out loud at the pointless questions raised by the audience at a poetry reading, but then finds himself on the other end when trying to keep up at a privilege-soaked (albeit that some of the attendees profess themselves  to be fervent socialists) dinner party. His evolution is such that he’s effectively no longer capable of communicating with his unpretentious working-class parents, but he lacks the unquestioning facility of those who were born into it (his treatment at the hands of the woman he imagines he’s in love with is often excruciatingly uncomfortable to watch). The title refers to the contention that the term “ploughman’s lunch,” supposedly a reference to a traditionally rustic meal built around bread and cheese, was actually a marketing construct from the 1960’s, and as such evokes the uncertain nature of our understanding of social and cultural change and its impact on the present, as well as the way in which capitalist interests are often pulling the strings. The film’s primary virtues may be literary and intellectual rather than visceral and cinematic, but it’s endlessly and subtly fascinating as such.

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Loving Couples (Mai Zetterling, 1964)


The last shot of Mai Zetterling’s amazing Loving Couples places all that precedes it in a kind of stark biological perspective – an extended, highly clinical shot of a newly born baby, the edges of the screen closing in on it, emphasizing its potential domination of its mother’s immediately shrunken world. It’s not quite that straightforward though, because just a few moments earlier we’ve witnessed a birth in which the mother’s free spirit seems less likely to be vanquished as a result, and a few moments before that a still-startling shot of the disposal of a stillborn delivery. That is, contrary to the sense of oppressive uniformity that opens the movie, placing the three expectant women (whose lives will all be seen to be intertwined) in the same stark hospital, Zetterling establishes motherhood as a premise that need not constitute destiny, while being realistic about the odds that it may. Her film is enormously rich and expansive, charting a bourgeois society rife with adultery and unfulfilled desire, at various points encompassing both male and female homosexuality, alluding to masturbation as a response to a dull marriage, and near the end staging a stunningly cynical wedding ceremony, in which the pregnant bride spends the wedding night with her lover rather than with her husband, a gay man basically paid to provide the pending child an official father. But it’s also alert to momentary pleasures (and, in the case of one of the women, the corrosive feeling of being excluded from them) and to the complexity of motives and reactions, radiating awareness of and respect for the multiplicity of reasonings that drive women’s decisions. Men aren’t exactly dumped on here, but they certainly seem like relative fixed points, their political and social dominance amounting to a kind of embalming (to be periodically disrupted by a war of the kind that percolates in the background).