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.