Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Muriel ou Le temps d’un retour (Alain Resnais, 1963)


Alain Resnais’ Muriel will probably seem disorienting at a first viewing, at times dawdling and at others jarringly jumping around, the events shown on screen often seeming less significant than others that are frequently referred to, its ending unresolved and cryptic. But with repeated viewing, these characteristics come to seem central to its astounding interweaving of form and content, and evocation of history and memory; it feels less like watching a film than moving around inside it, always aware that to look in one place is to miss what’s happening in another. The plot has Delphine Seyrig’s Helene reconnecting with her old wartime lover Alphonse after many years, during which she was married and widowed and now lives with her stepson, dealing in antiques out of her home (a perfect representation of a life highly conditioned by memories, if not necessarily one’s own). The stepson, Bernard, refers to a fiancĂ©e, Muriel, who appears not actually to exist; we later learn that during his wartime service, the same name was used to denote a woman subjected to military atrocity, an event which continues to haunt him. But it seems it wasn’t that woman's real name either (the real Muriel in the film isn’t even seen, being merely the subject of a briefly overheard cry in the street), and likewise almost every aspect of Alphonse’s past and present is unreliable, a characteristic reflected in the film’s unstable-seeming, pliable form, and in its small-town setting, damaged during the war and now uncertainly evolving (one of its key landmarks is a brutalist-looking casino which appears to wreak havoc with Helene’s finances). The ending, coming in the wake of some abrupt realigning of the lives we’ve been watching, follows a previously unseen character arriving in town and wandering alone through Helene’s space, providing a strangely appropriate sense of rebalancing even as it withholds conventional closure. Overall, a must-see (and, as noted, once won’t likely do).

Thursday, May 25, 2023

A Warm December (Sidney Poitier, 1973)


In Sidney Poitier’s A Warm December, the star/director plays Matt Younger, a widowed American doctor on vacation in London with his young daughter; he falls in love with Catherine Oswandu (Ester Anderson), the mover-and-shaker niece of the “Republic of Torunda’s” Ambassador to Britain, eventually learning that she has fatal sickle-cell anemia, and only a few years to live. The film’s main virtue, and not a negligible one, is its very Blackness: race is never cited as an issue in any context, and it incorporates several diverse scenes of Black music and culture (ranging from Miriam Makeba to an odd open-air scene in which Younger and Catherine play records for a group of rural white kids, as their elders look on in mostly bemused fashion). Much else about it is disappointing or confounding though. The initial scenes, for whatever reason, have a cloak-and-dagger feel about them, shrouding the purpose of Younger’s trip in some mystery, and presenting Catherine as a stylishly mysterious figure with a host of ethnically diverse people on her trail; that all peters out, the film then becoming mostly defined by repetitive soppiness (aided by a generally excruciating music score, drawing not at all on the best of Black culture) with Catherine’s entourage and duties and mercurial nature repeatedly thwarting Younger’s plans and dreams. In truth though, given Poitier’s predominantly bland performance, it’s hard to know why the guy keeps at it, and the film doesn’t make the most of Anderson’s vivid presence; Yvette Curtis is intriguingly stoic as Younger’s daughter, although the film treats her as little more than a plot device. The ending might be read as an endorsement of prioritizing nation-building pragmatism over personal desire, but if so that’s mostly botched too. Still, for all its flaws, the film is notable as the high point of Poitier’s directorial ambition; following its failure he stuck entirely to comedy (well, and Fast Forward…)

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

From the Life of the Marionettes (Ingmar Bergman, 1980)


From the Life of the Marionettes is one of Ingmar Bergman’s most chilling films, infiltrated with a loathing and pessimism that feel all-consuming: it was made during Bergman’s German exile from Sweden, a period of great acknowledged personal difficulty, in which the film feels helplessly suffused. It certainly feels like a deliberate stifling of any lightness we might detect in his work, with for example a protagonist called Egerman harking back to Smiles of a Summer Night (and with another famous actress prominent in the structure), except that the smiles here are heavy with malice and/or calculation, and the “little night music” becomes a deadening disco-inflected grind; the film’s cheerless interiors generally preclude any sense of day or night or any other index of the natural world. It starts with Egerman’s murder of a prostitute, then goes back in dossier-like fashion to place the event in a kind of context: we learn early on that he was plagued by fantasies of killing his wife Katarina, with the doctor in whom he confides these thoughts promptly summoning Katarina to his office, and then making sexual moves on her (which seemingly come close to succeeding); almost every subsequent scene provides a further moral or ethical or behavioral transgression or atrocity or mark of trauma. It perhaps follows that Egerman can gain a measure of control over his deadeningly repetitive, joyless life only by embracing the extremity of depravity, placing himself beyond the pale; the murder and his subsequent life in prison, removed from any knowledge of what’s going on outside, are the film’s only sections in colour, contrasting with the forcefully drab black and white of everything else. The film is highly artificial, its single-mindedness sometimes verging on parody; it causes you to worry for the state of mind of its maker (or would do, if not for one’s knowledge that Bergman’s next work was Fanny and Alexander), and for your own.

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Darling Lili (Blake Edwards, 1970)


As a major Blake Edwards fan, I’ve long felt I’m missing something with Darling Lili; a recent reviewing didn’t really remedy that. The film certainly has some of Edwards’ most sophisticated play with image and identity, right from the initial emergence of Lili from a black screen to sing the haunted, almost disembodied “Whistling in the Dark” number. Given the plot of a beloved English singer who’s also a German spy; with moments that appear to explicitly channel Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music and which look ahead to later works like “10” and “Victor/Victoria,” its use of Julie Andrews’ star image is unusually multi-layered. And yet, the film’s machinations often feel unduly heavy and joyless, not least due to Andrews herself, who here as in several films to come hardly seems to justify her husband/director’s faith in her. Even allowing that the opaqueness is part of the point, Lili is a confounding blank; every time I see the film, I expect it to be revealed that she was actually a double agent all along, or at least that there’s more to it than I’ve previously grasped. Her relationship with an American ace, Larrabee, evolves from spycraft to real reciprocated love, but as embodied by Rock Hudson, the character remains strangely formal and distant; the Clouseau-type sight gags, in the form of a sozzled colleague of Larrabee’s and two French policemen on Lili’s trail, aren’t too well integrated; the film is likely to leave you puzzled on a number of other narrative and thematic fronts. It’s true that these and other criticisms could be repositioned as evidence of a slyly elusive intelligence, but where I’ll happily rush to point out what people overlook in (say) S.O.B. or even The Man Who Loved Women, I’ve never felt capable of making the effort for Darling Lili. Oh well, can’t win them all…  

Thursday, May 4, 2023

The Last Adventure (Robert Enrico, 1967)


Robert Enrico’s Les aventuriers is a consistently fresh and unpredictable pleasure, its surprises spanning the film’s tone, pacing, narrative construction, the behaviour of its characters and, well, just about everything. As if in response to a write-this-if-you-can challenge, it starts with a woman (Laetitia, played by Joanna Shimkus) rummaging through a scrap yard; she soon crosses paths with the owner Roland (Lino Ventura) and his best friend/collaborator/fellow dreamer Manu (Alain Delon), the three soon coming to form a loose trio (the film establishes the deep importance of these connections while gently side-stepping conventional sexual competitiveness). After a string of failed passion projects, they take off to the Congo in search of a stash of treasure located underwater on a crashed plane; this time they achieve their goal, but at a wrenching human cost which directs and underlies their activities on returning to France. The film evokes the great human dynamics of Howard Hawks: the three principals have a sense of each other that allows bumps and breaks to be traversed, whereas a fourth participant who joins the group for a while in the Congo (Serge Reggiani) is consistently shown to be in small or large ways suspect, and is ultimately cast out, despite having tried to do the right thing. It’s typical of the film though that it allows Reggiani’s unnamed character a late reappearance which establishes his basic moral fortitude; such moments seem rooted in a pervasive curiosity which has the two men digging into Laetitia’s humble origins, and to some degree assuming her life trajectory as their own, with time for charming diversions such as a visit to a rinky-dinky small-town museum, in which we get to examine just about every stuffed animal and rusty artifact. The climax delivers all the scenic action the adventure genre demands, but without any ultimate sense of exultation, ending on another note of bitter loss and existential arbitrariness.