Wednesday, December 29, 2021

May Morning (Ugo Liberatore, 1970)

For much of its length, Ugo Liberatore’s May Morning seems largely anthropological in intent, closely observing the architecture, social texture and embalmed oddities of Oxford University, apparently boundlessly fascinated with the rowing and the punting and the dining halls, with the contrasts between the very proper dons (that’s what they call the teachers) and fashion-channeling students, with such rituals as the “sconce,” in which a social wrongdoer is punished by being made to drink a large amount of ale. The film’s outsider perspective, embodied in an Italian protagonist, Valerio, who struggles to fit in, is illuminating up to a point, although the fact of many of the actors being dubbed into English introduces a counter-productive sense of distancing. It’s not just the central presence of Jane Birkin (playing Flora Finlake, a student who happens also to be the daughter of Valerio’s tutor) that suggests Antonioni’s lurking influence (although given that Zabriskie Point was released a little later, the occasional similarities in that regard must be coincidental); the “swinging” elements become more prominent as the film goes on, with actions dictated by alcohol and anger and horniness, ultimately feeling like a rather disembodied, twisted reverie. Liberatore certainly takes pains to emphasize the institution’s repressed aspects, having a character observe that dons were traditionally prevented from marrying, and throwing plenty of baggage into the Finlake household; Valerio is presented as being rather supercilious and academically lazy, but his main transgression is simply his exotic otherness and its threat to cozy continuity, attributes which ultimately mark him as a suitable “sacrificial victim” (as the film’s poster put it). In that respect, May Morning’s unexpectedly wide scope also encompasses links to the later Wicker Man and other localized, ceremonial horrors (interesting that the University's term for expulsion is “rustication”); other aspects though, such as the prominence of the Tremeloes on the soundtrack, seem now to maroon it back in time.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Judex (Georges Franju, 1963)


The final note of Georges Franju’s Judex, following an elegantly romantic happy ending on a beach, is a reminder of the “unhappy time” of 1914 that gave rise to Louis Feuillade’s original silent film serial, reminding us of the severe global turmoil and threat that originally underlay such inventions, and that if we should feel inclined to dismiss them as pure genre fancifulness, they’re rooted in humankind’s darkest capacities. The point could perhaps be missed, because although Franju’s version has no shortage of venality – such as a rich man coldly running over his car over an old peasant who’s antagonized him – it doesn’t consistently evoke the pervasively disquieting societal threat that marks the original (and the most comparable works of Fritz Lang), being set instead in a rather charmingly disembodied world defined entirely by the narrative’s demands. At times Franju emphasizes pure whimsicality, perhaps best summed up by the scene in which a detective is standing in the street, at a loss over how to reach the upper floor of a building to carry out an urgent intervention, and a circus troop happens to wander by, including a star female acrobat who’s an old friend of his (problem solved!). Likewise, for a master operator, the titular Judex is quite charmingly fallible at times, letting his grand antagonist escape from custody and easily getting overpowered and knocked out at one key point (again, a good thing that acrobat came along). Other parts of the film – the eagle-headed magician that captivates the crowd at a grand ball; skin-tight costumed figures climbing walls or clambering across rooftops – are pure cinematic iconography, only notionally rooted in the surrounding narrative, and perhaps all the more striking for that. It all adds to a quite singular creation, nostalgia and retrospection inherent in its conception, without in any way diluting its vivid sense of presence.

Thursday, December 16, 2021

Haut bas fragile (Jacques Rivette, 1995)


Haut bas fragile is one of Jacques Rivette’s most beautiful assertions of the world as a playground, so easily and constantly enjoyable that its radical strangeness is rapidly absorbed or overlooked. Just as a small example, the film would generally be labeled as a musical, but the first such number doesn’t arise until well over an hour into the film, and one of the three main characters (all followed through separate, occasionally intertwining narratives) is excluded from any singing or dancing…except that she’s haunted by a song she’s had in her head since childhood, that she believes might lead her to her birth mother, thus in a sense making her story the most purely musical of all. The film teems with elements of quasi-mythology or fairy-tale - a woman waking up after years in a coma, finding herself the owner of a mystery-filled house left to her by a deceased aunt; a mysterious underground society where the members engage in a form of Russian roulette (it turns out to be a fake, but still…); peculiar encounters with men, or with cats – but never feels like a work of frivolity or denial, with none of the three strands providing perfect closure. On the contrary, all three women in a sense choose to defer discovery and accountability, all the better to keep moving unpredictably through life (nevertheless, one comes away with the general sense of a happy ending, as one would wish). The highly theatrical dance choreography forms its own interrogation of life and cinema: one character moves as if openly trying to possess the entire floor, another oscillates between minimal moves and sudden extreme, jagged poses, as if to preserve an element of surprise; all of which (in combination with the quirkily beguiling songs) render the musical sequences not so much an adornment or expressive addition, but a counterpointing source of mystery and reverie. The cast (including Marianne Denicourt and Anna Karina) is almost pure delight.

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Walking a Tightrope (Nikos Papatakis, 1991)


Nikos Papatakis’ Walking a Tightrope in fact figuratively walks (or runs, or leaps) across a series of them, stretched across a strange, highly iconoclastic variety of narrative and thematic divides and contrasts. The film does feature a fair amount of literal tightrope walking: famous author Marcel Spardice (Michel Piccoli) fixates on and later seduces Franz-Ali, a young man who catches his eye while picking up elephant dung at the circus, and then invests much time and resources in helping Franz-Ali work toward his high-wire dream. But with Franz-Ali failing to fulfil Marcel’s vision for him, and another young lover appearing on the horizon, Marcel’s attention moves on, and Franz-Ali eventually ends up back where he started, except that it’s unbearable now, and only obliteration awaits. There’s much genuine longing and loveliness in the film - not least in the character of Helene (Polly Walker), initially little more than a procurer for Marcel (it’s clear how those with power and connections manipulate the system to their advantage), but later overcome by a doomed love for Franz-Ali – and much personal and societal pain. The film counterpoints Marcel’s initial pursuit with a damning portrait of engrained racism – Franz-Ali’s mixed ethnicity causes him to be randomly rounded up and thrown into jail, after which a policeman volunteers to his German-born mother that as bad as the Nazis were, her dilution of racial purity by marrying an Arab is a worse sin. But this aspect of the film rather recedes as it goes on, while certainly remaining implicit in Franz-Ali’s decline – for instance, even at the height of her love for him, a large part of Helene’s plan is to have him work as a uniformed manservant either for her or her sister. That’s just one aspect of Papatakis’ consistent confounding of expectations, of his highly singular, energized sense of cinematic and emotional form and balance.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

A Little Night Music (Harold Prince, 1977)


Stephen Sondheim’s sublime A Little Night Music surely had (and retains) the capacity to spawn a beautiful film version, but in the hands of original stage director Harold Prince it’s a mostly glum affair. If nothing else, the film might have taken something from Ingmar Bergman’s spawning Smiles of a Summer Night, the theatrical styling of which almost seems to anticipate the likelihood of the later musical; more broadly, Bergman’s film carries an acute sense of moral investigation, of sex as an object of the most elevated seriousness, but one inherently reliant on a degree of evasion and stylization. That’s all there in the musical’s underlying text, but Prince’s blocking and filming are largely static; the film feels starved of breath, let alone of joy. The casting hardly helps, particularly (and there’s no pleasure in piling on in this regard) that of Elizabeth Taylor as the famous actress and object of desire Desiree Armfeldt – Taylor seems here like an inert actress and entirely indifferent singer, a miscasting exacerbated by preserving the stage version’s Len Cariou as her fated lover Ferderick Egerman (Cariou is evidently too young for the role, among much else, seven years younger than Taylor and only fifteen older than Lesley-Anne Down, also ineffectively cast as Egerman’s inappropriately young and virginal wife, which doesn’t help that aspect of the film either). Of course, some of the songs can take care of myself, and Prince lands the occasional scene, but it’s much less than should have been expected. It’s no doubt inevitable that some of the original’s songs had to be sacrificed, but still, the omission of The Miller’s Song and Remember seems most regrettable, and the cutting of Hermione Gingold’s Liaisons leaves the character of Desiree’s mother entirely gutted (it’s tempting to read several peculiar close-ups of a disengaged-looking Gingold as a sad acknowledgement of this).