Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Eyes Without a Face (Georges Franju, 1960)


Just as everyone says, there’s an inexhaustible quality to Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, a rare balancing of unnerving narrative mechanics and a searchingly poetic sensibility that seems constantly to be looking beyond. Its 90 minutes contain a remarkable variety and breadth of characterization and incident, the focus several times moving outside the established narrative onto a new character who then gets drawn into the central scheme; even at its most potentially lurid (and it is, after all, about a monstrously self-justifying doctor, located in a big creepy house, whose plan to restore his daughter’s mutilated face entails, with the help of a manically devoted assistant, kidnapping, surgically abusing and killing a series of young women), the film is rooted in personal agony and helpless compulsion, dotted with touching, psychologically revealing moments. The film’s ending represents an astonishing inversion, the relative ease with which the two villains are dispatched speaking to the inward-looking irrelevance of their scheming, obsessing with restoring the damaged girl’s face when her true redemption lay in embracing its absence, and entering her own ethereal space, depicted in a climatic dove-shrouded glide into the woods. The scenes of the investigating cops could from one perspective be eliminated – we last see them getting the wool pulled over their eyes, departing with no idea of their proximity to past and pending crimes - and yet, the intrusion of such ineffective authority reminds us (because we might easily forget), that the film’s threats and perversions of causality, for all their fantastic aspects, are products of our own world (the final scene of Franju’s Judex appends a note to a similar end), of familial love and scientific ambition and perceived social entitlement; the vibrant Paris captured earlier in the movie lying just a twenty-minute train away ride, we’re told. Overall, amazing viewing every time.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

American Guerilla in the Philippines (1950, Fritz Lang)


Drawing on his own experiences of flight and exile, Fritz Lang’s American Guerilla in the Philippines is a sweaty, sun-baked variation on his foreboding urban narratives, its protagonist as hopelessly trapped as in any of them, in this case fighting an all-but-endless war while devoid of almost any personal agency or any sense of the passage of time. Tyrone Power’s Chuck Palmer is one of a small group of Americans trapped in the islands after the US withdraws in the face of the 1942 Japanese invasion (General MacArthur’s parting declaration, printed on matchboxes, that “I shall return” comes to seem like as much an existential taunt as an inspiring promise) – he treks for weeks in search of others, has an idea of sailing to Australia which goes nowhere, and from there is gradually drawn into the prolonged, lonely, constantly threatened guerilla existence. Micheline Presle (billed here, in a wondrous example of dumbing-down, as “Micheline Prelle”) plays a Frenchwoman married to a local businessman who channels money and support to the guerillas; once he’s identified and killed by the Japanese, she and Palmer rapidly become a couple, a transition depicted with notable lack of sentiment (she’s depicted as being unerringly pragmatic, and gets to wield a gun in the final showdown in a church, as does one of the altar boys). The movie has a huge amount of action and incident, with Palmer required to do everything from building a radio with whatever’s on hand (which he succeeds at) to operating on a horribly injured man (he fails), but the flag-waving is offset by its protagonist’s essential loneliness, with only one other American, played by Tom Ewell, depicted in any depth; when the troops triumphantly roll in at the end, they watch from the perspective of liberated locals rather than as part of the team.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

La faute de l’abbe Mouret (Georges Franju, 1970)


Georges Franju’s La faute de l’abbe Mouret contains major elements of both hell-and-damnation Catholic severity and flower child-inflected dreaminess; one’s assessment of the film’s success (mine differed across separate viewings) may depend on the extent to which the two cohere. Young Abbott Mouret, bearing a Bressonian pallor and sense of self-denial, serves in a rural village of little apparent piety (the film opens on two locals having sex in a field), and after a sudden collapse which largely wipes out his memory, he’s taken by unknown means to a nearby house occupied by a fiery atheist, whose daughter Albine nurses him back to health. The two walk daily in the adjacent walled-off garden (visualized in extravagantly lovely terms, its centerpiece an overpowering abundance of flowering roses), where they eventually make love, like two innocents discovering something that was previously beyond imagining. But a prolonged shot of a snake on a tree makes all too clear the fragile nature of this paradise, and when a storm brings down the wall, Mouret’s memory returns, along with an even more austere sense of vocation. The film contains some punishing moments, such as Mouret’s unrelenting colleague terrorizing children with his pitch-black vision of their future, but the proffered alternative is no less ungrounded; Albine claims that the garden supposedly contains a magic tree that distorts one’s sense of time, and tells him an origin story that sounds like a fairy tale. Mouret’s actions end in tragedy, triggering one of cinema’s more unusual suicides, and a shocking act of violence; the final scene, a fusion of inner and outer worlds, could be read to suggest that Mouret’s external fealty shrouds a transgressive inner life, even a surrender to the devil. Given the considerably lighter nature of Franju’s subsequent film, Shadowman, it may constitute the last great enigma of a fascinatingly shifting body of work.  

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Absolution (Anthony Page, 1978)


Richard Burton’s Catholic priest in Anthony Page’s Absolution might be viewed as an amalgam of many of his then-most recent roles: Exorcist II (in which he also played a priest), Equus (written by Peter Shaffer, whose brother Anthony wrote Absolution), and The Medusa Touch (where his character’s rage against society is so powerful that it can overcome the laws of nature): all roles which in one way or another tried to make a strength out of the actor’s customary stiffness (whereas the one not listed above, The Wild Geese, tried in futility to ignore it). His character in Absolution, Father Goddard, is a teacher at a boys’ school who comes to believe that his star pupil Benjie (Dominic Guard) has in effect fallen under the influence of Satan (Billy Connolly plays the serpent who leads him astray, a drifter called Blakey who hangs around the school grounds); Benjie starts using the confessional to taunt Goddard first with made-up sins, and then apparently with real and horrific ones, including the murder of Blakey, knowing that Goddard can’t repeat any of it to anyone. The movie’s interest in its cloistered world is unfortunately limited, with only one other boy (played by Kes’s David Bradley) portrayed in any depth (not that the adults register either, beyond Goddard and Blakey), and the briefest possible glimpses of such standard transgressions as girlie magazines and cigarette smoking. Although Catholic teachings and rituals are inherent to the plot, the film seems mainly interested in them as devices; it’s interesting to imagine what a more cerebral or intense director could have done with it. Such a director might have gotten something very powerful out of Burton; even so, the actor is at his latter-day best here, conveying sheer inner torture at a situation that rapidly surpasses both his analytical capacities and his faith.