Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Secret defense (Jacques Rivette, 1998)


Near the start of Jacques Rivette’s Secret defense, Paul Rousseau (Gregoire Colin) tries to steal a gun from his sister Sylvie Rousseau (Sandrine Bonnaire); his target is the successful industrialist Walser, newly suspected by Paul of killing their father, at that time Walser’s boss, five years previously. It’s a classic Hitchcockian-type set-up, and Rivette often plays it straight enough that the packaging of my old DVD copy gamely tried to sell the film as a conventional thriller (“A father’s death…A daughter’s obsession…Revenge was the only answer”). But of course, the director also continually subverts any such genre expectations and norms: a train journey which might easily have been condensed into a few seconds or less of screen time extends over fifteen or twenty minutes; a key revelation about the dead father is delivered almost casually, during another train journey; and so on. The film has a sense of magnetic contraction, with all the characters being drawn toward Walser’s country estate, a location with which the Rousseau family has a long connection (and one of many such labyrinthine, figuratively haunted locations in Rivette’s work); there’s often a sense of narrative echo, with the father’s death recalling an earlier family tragedy along similar lines, and with one key character who departs from the narrative rapidly replaced for most purposes by a look-alike sister. Bonnaire’s often flinty, brittle performance speaks to the strain of things not confronted within or without (an amusing subplot involves a persistent suitor who she perpetually keeps at arm’s length, without ever actually extinguishing all hope); the “top secret” of the title refers as much to unexplored inner or cinematic possibilities as to the specific folds of the plot. But overall, without buying into those marketing excesses I cited, the film would indeed be a relatively accommodating entry point into Rivette’s stunning cinematic world.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

The Mosquito Coast (Peter Weir, 1986)


Peter Weir’s version of Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast certainly supports a lively dialogue on its merits as literary adaptation, and on the wisdom of even having tried, while almost entirely failing on its own ambitious terms. Harrison Ford plays Allie Fox, a sporadically brilliant, quasi-tyrannical under-achiever whose disgust with the condition of America leads him to take off with his wife and four children to a remote part of South America, where he sets out to transform a broken-down jungle outpost into a high-functioning community reflecting his own principles. Taken at face value, the narrative presents us with a series of absurdities (all the less palatable for their white-saviorism); for example, arriving at their wretched destination with almost no initial resources on hand, the family systematically imposes the desired order, dominated by a massive, technologically adventurous ice-making machine, during all of which the four young kids don’t appear to age a single day. The film lacks the sense of obsession or immersion that might have allowed it to blast through such reservations (Werner Herzog is impossible to ignore as a reference point; Apocalypse Now comes to mind several times as well), and Ford, in theory an inspired piece of imaginative casting, seldom provides an appropriately charismatic (or even very engaged-seeming) focal point (the mostly unquestioning compliance of Fox’s wife also seems to require greater investigation than the book provides, when embodied in the form of Helen Mirren). Some aspects of the film do benefit a bit from hindsight; for instance, our greater attunement to climate change and sustainability now adds an extra charge to the dark irony of Allie’s icemaker ultimately becoming a source of environmental chaos. But overall, there’s very little the film does adequately, even failing to make much of the rich surrounding landscape in all its possibility and threat.

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

The Passion of Anna (Ingmar Bergman, 1969)


One of Ingmar Bergman’s most hypnotically inexhaustible works, The Passion of Anna is a film of sustained and unnerving presence and precision, in which however even the most basic aspect of interpretation is in some way open to doubt. The sense of misdirection flows from the very title – the main character, insofar he opens and closes the film and occupies the majority of screen time, isn’t Liv Ullmann’s Anna but Max von Sydow’s Andreas, living in substantial withdrawal from the world on a barren-looking island after doing time in prison; while he and Anna enter a relationship, it’s presented in mostly functionally pragmatic terms, the real object of her passion being a husband (also called Andreas) who died in a car accident some years previously (she speaks of that relationship in heightened terms, but evidence exists that it was less than she claims, despite her insistence on truth as a preeminent value). The film often strikes a measured, analytical tone, including brief interviews with the four lead actors (the other two are Bibi Andersson and Erland Josephson) on how they view their characters; Josephson’s character, an architect who maintains an extensive archive of photos, embodies a vaguely sinister sense of control. But he also disparages the prospects of his flagship project, a cultural centre being constructed in Milan, and the island is plagued by instances of animal cruelty, for which one disliked loner falsely comes under suspicion, and is sadistically persecuted. A brief scene of TV news, even fighting through poor reception, links these fragmentations to broader global conflicts; it’s a moment of spectatorship echoed at the end of the film, when the camera slowly moves in on Andreas after the relationship’s apparent break-up, caught in a form of both physical and spiritual limbo, the image quality correspondingly degrading, his very name no longer capable of being asserted with certainty.

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

A Closed Book (Raul Ruiz, 2009)


One of Raul Ruiz’s most accessible works if measured by the ease of dissecting what’s on screen (which didn’t however mean it was any more effectively distributed and marketed than most of the others), A Closed Book (alternatively and less gracefully titled Blind Revenge) takes place almost entirely within a large country house occupied by Sir Paul (Tom Conti), a former art critic blinded a few years earlier in a car accident, who engages Jane (Daryl Hannah) to help him write his autobiography. For a while the movie plays like a robustly peculiar character study as the two work out a mutual equilibrium and routine, telling each other what they dislike about the other’s style and so on, then out of nowhere it swerves into the grotesque as Jane starts to mess with Paul, walking about in the nude, fueling the fire with his valuable book collection rather than with logs, and then (once the housekeeper is conveniently out of the way) turning paintings upside down, moving furniture around, and ramping things up still further. Assessed as conventional narrative, it’s a weakness that the ultimate revelation of Jane’s motives, and Paul’s subsequent reactions to them, seem (to say the least) inadequately connected to what’s gone before (the movie might as well have posited say that she’s an obsessive animal lover harboring a grudge at Paul for having once kicked her dog), although looked at more generally, it’s a swerve that reflects Ruiz’s playful sense of narrative contingency. Conti is in robust form, and as if to satisfy some producer's quirky contractual demand, the movie includes single-scene appearances by Elaine Paige and Simon MacCorkindale, so, there you go. A delectably lasting moment has Jane making up a bunch of fake news to tantalize Paul (who conveniently never listens to the radio or TV) including that Donald Trump has become a Muslim (hey, if only…).

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

The Victory of Women (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1946)


Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1946 film The Victory of Women isn’t among his cinematically or emotionally richest works: drawing on then-current waves of post-war legal reform, it often feels overly didactic, its characters generally registering less as people than as contrasting ideological mouthpieces. But despite (and to some extent because of) that, it makes for fascinating and urgent viewing, finding sadly easy parallel in the debates of our own age. Hiroko Hawakawa (Kinuyo Tanaka) is a recently qualified lawyer taking on the case of a poor widow who, overwhelmed with grief after losing her husband, accidentally crushed her baby to death; where the prosecution charges simple parental neglect, Hawakawa sees her client as a victim of an insensitive patriarchal and militaristic society (in which, for instance, the husband received health care for his workplace-incurred injuries for as long as the war continued, but afterwards had it abruptly withdrawn). The somewhat overly-compressed narrative scheme includes a zealous prosecutor, Kono, who happens to be Harakawa’s brother in law, with a wife/sister caught in the middle; some five years earlier, Kono participated in prosecuting political activists including Hawakawa’s fiancĂ©e, who’s released at the start of the film, his health ruined as a result of his ordeal. The film sets the notion of an independent and objective legal system against one informed by societal needs and changes, while of course making it evident that any claim to the former will always be as ideologically driven as the latter (in this regard in particular, viewed at a time of a supposedly Constitution-respecting yet pathologically activist US Supreme Court, the film carries renewed topical resonance). Mizoguchi withholds the ultimate outcome of the widow’s case, tacitly suggesting that legal victory in this particular battle may be unattainable. But he leaves no doubt regarding the disposition of the moral victory.