Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Lili Marleen (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1981)


Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Lili Marleen isn’t typically ranked among his best films, but if it seems at times to play a little flatly, that’s not necessarily unsuited to its structuring ambiguities. Willie, a German singer, is barred from escaping into Switzerland at the start of WW2 because of machinations by the father of her Swiss boyfriend Robert (who actively works to help Jews evade the Nazis); needing to make ends meet, she keeps on pursuing her career, and chances onto the title song, the popularity of which lifts her to iconic status, bringing both rewards and dangers. The soundtrack is suffused in the song, while leaving it unclear whether it serves as a morbid sapping of positive will (as we’re told is Goebbels’ view) or as a unifying evocation of the heartland (Hitler’s view); the song is played to raptly listening soldiers in the trenches and to vast formal crowds, but there’s never any sense of the war as other than a losing venture, and near the end when a group of soldiers hear the song on the battlefield and head in its direction for refuge, it’s a Russian trap. The ambiguity extends to Willie herself (summed up in the character’s very name, and in the way her identity later becomes entirely intertwined with the song) – the film withholds any confirmation of whether she sleeps with Nazis as is rumoured, and while she assumes personal danger in some of her anti-regime activities, her motivation, and the depth of her convictions (if any) are entirely unclear (even her basic competence as a singer is the subject of debate). As such, the film continually returns to the unstable nature of cultural symbols and to the ideological regimes they may seem to support. Hanna Schygulla ably embodies Willie’s recessive qualities; the film also stars Giancarlo Giannini and Mel Ferrer, splashy casting befitting the film’s classically melodramatic ambitions.

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Providence (Alain Resnais, 1977)


Alain Resnais’ Providence makes it clear early on that the apparent initial narrative (a strange affair involving the mercy killing of an injured old man with a werewolf-like affliction, leading to a court trial, and then to a relationship between the accused and the prosecuting lawyer’s wife) is at least in part a representation of the work in progress that tumbles through the head of elderly author Clive Langham during a night of drunken pain, while leaving the possibility that elements might be rooted in external reality (Langham’s own son, daughter-in-law and even his deceased wife take on prominent roles in the narrative). To that degree, the film represents a  puzzle of sorts, although it never feels likely that a clear “solution” to these oddities and discontinuities is likely, or even desirable; it often plays like broad, destabilizing comedy, as Langham’s inner voice floods the soundtrack with scabrous vulgarities (delivered with relish by John Gielgud), often disappointed by his own imaginings, sometimes losing control over them (most charmingly involving a tangential football player character who keeps jogging into scenes where he doesn’t belong). The ultimate arrival point, once reality does assert itself (or so we might assume), is surprisingly bucolic, with Langham’s children coming to his country house for a birthday lunch, identities and realities clarified and softened from what was previously mooted. Langham drinks as excessively in daylight as after dark, and there are references to past transgressions, but the pervasive sense of present attack is gone, and one might even wonder whether such heavy tranquility more fully embodies the death of creative faculties. Despite the productive affinities with Resnais’ other work, the tightness of the conception, and the extreme Englishness of the setting, periodically generates a sense of a director being somewhat hemmed in; Gielgud aside, the actors only intermittently flourish. And yet, it does all linger quite deliciously in the memory…

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Fedora (Billy Wilder, 1978)


Fedora, Billy Wilder’s penultimate film, is usually regarded (if at all) as a sign of waning powers, and it’s certainly what you might call an “old man’s film,” but then the strangely haunting material hardly lends itself to a young man’s one. William Holden (at his most resonant, accentuated by one’s hindsight knowledge of how his own time was running out) plays Barry Detweiler, a seen-better-times independent producer who comes to Corfu in search of Fedora, a retired Garbo-like actress whom he hopes to lure back to the screen. He finds her beauty undiminished, but his attempts to get to her are blocked by an old Countess in whose villa she’s living, and the Countess’s surrounding retinue; then that narrative comes to a sudden end about halfway through, and the second half largely provides a different perspective on what we’ve previously seen. Much about the film feels dislodged from time – it suggests for example that Fedora somehow sustained her stardom into the 70’s while making strictly old-school movies (Detweiler’s passion project is cringingly titled The Snows of Yesteryear) – and there’s a hole at the heart of the movie in breezing far too easily over various self-serving acts of cruelty by the Countess and those around her, keeping us at a distance from a key character’s inner anguish. But that’s only to say that the film is an artifice, no less than the illusions depicted within it, suffused in a sense of regret and loss. It’s an artifice though that flirts deliciously with reality at times, no less than in its use of Michael York, playing himself (Holden’s reaction when Fedora names York as her ideal co-star, rejecting Detweiler’s suggestions of Nicholson, Beatty and McQueen, is an absolute highlight). Henry Fonda also briefly appears as himself, presenting Fedora with a life achievement Oscar, looking serenely happy to be there. And truly, why would he not be?

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Passion (Jean-Luc Godard, 1982)


Jean-Luc Godard’s Passion is one of his most gorgeously twisted art objects, a work of stunning craft and visual sumptuousness which, even as it ravishes us, persistently prompts us to find such beauty lacking, both on its own terms and as an expression of the hermetic industrial and financial infrastructure which allows its creation. While it’s seldom been worthwhile to try summarizing a Godardian narrative, Passion revolves around a stalled film project taking place in proximity to a factory riddled with industrial unrest and to a nearby motel, the proprietors and workers of which interact in various ways; the director is from Poland, at that moment in time a focus of political engagement, the very evocation of which tends to condemn the decadent irrelevance of the film within the film and all that it drives. The project appears to consist primarily of (again, gorgeous) recreations of iconic paintings and historical snapshots, with no apparent protagonists; the director spends much time worrying about the quality of the lighting, while his producer continually hustles for money; as such it’s in an intriguing dynamic with Godard’s own film, which has an emblematically art-house cast (Isabelle Huppert, Hanna Schygulla, Michel Piccoli), all of course subservient to the governing scheme (Huppert’s character stutters: Piccoli’s perpetually coughs; Godard seems most interested in Schygulla for her face, including one wondrous searching close-up that recalls Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc). In the end, the director sets off for his home country with some of the film’s women tagging along; to one who balks at getting in because she doesn’t like cars, he explains that it’s not a car but a magic carpet - a silly line, but one which works on her, and which perhaps points to the possibility of escaping a cinematic dead end, for a creative renewal more rooted in the real world.

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

The Family Way (1966, John Boulting & Roy Boulting)


One’s memories of the Boulting Brothers’ The Family Way are likely to be dominated by the highly sellable central situation of a young couple (Hayley Mills’ Jenny and Hywel Bennett’s Arthur) unable to consummate their marriage after moving in with his parents, and gradually subject to a barrage of local speculation, gossip and worse. Viewed now though, this is just one element in a virtual catalogue of sexual dysfunction, much of it carrying homosexual implications: most prominently the fixation of Arthur’s father (John Mills) with his lost boyhood friend, whom he even brought along on his honeymoon (he seems entirely oblivious to any subtext, although his wife plainly isn’t). It’s hinted that Jenny’s mother was perversely suspicious of her husband’s affection for his daughter, and even the movie’s most outspokenly ribald character, Joe Thompson, played by Barry Foster, is, based on his wife’s climactic outburst, a sexual strike-out whose “job” has been filled for years by the milkman. The movie roots all this in a highly judgmental, privacy-challenged, booze-sodden community, with little sense of space (the house lacks a bathroom) or economic opportunity; it’s not exactly a societal hatchet job, but certainly allows ample understanding of how one’s insecurities might only be amplified in such a milieu. The movie is an easy pleasure, although it’s a shame that the resolution basically consists of Arthur battering his way to redemption, beating up Thompson and preparing to leave Jenny, his anger and resentment finally enabling him to conquer the central problem; the final scene then bundles the couple out of the way on a delayed honeymoon. But even then, as embodied by Bennett, Arthur seems too inherently out of place for the marriage ever to work, his thoughts and ambitions seldom seeming to align with those of the sweet but more basically content and locally-rooted Jenny, providing little prospect of avoiding further troubles ahead.