Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Blind Spot (Claudia von Alemann, 1981)


Claudia von Alemann’s Blind Spot is a small, quiet film, almost seeming designed to be overlooked (it might as well have been so designed, given its lowly place in the conventional canon) but capable of permanently shifting one’s inner paradigms. A young German woman, Elisabeth, comes to Lyon to carry out research on the real-life 19th century writer and activist Flora Tristan,  focused less on traditional archival methods than on walking in Tristan’s footsteps, seeing what she might have seen, hearing what she might have heard, thereby moving toward a new form of identification and understanding. It’s a sometimes draining project (she comments that she can’t even find a bakery that’s open, let alone tap the depths of Tristan’s experiences) and in any case unclear what output might result from it; part of the film’s point is that it couldn’t possibly be clear, because a feminist history requires a comprehensive renewal, encompassing everything from the nature of the inquiry (Elisabeth somewhat randomly finds herself listening to first-person testimony on Lyon’s persecution of the Jews during WW2) to how one defines and engages with eventual discovery (equally randomly meeting a woman who makes collages out of newspaper headlines as an way of better perceiving the inter-related totality of what’s reported). The project is personal as well as professional: it appears that Elisabeth has left her job, and her relationship with her partner and daughter is uncertain (there are a couple of hints that she may be pregnant); she briefly makes out with a stranger (and there are several moments when the film makes us aware of the male gaze upon her) but it doesn’t appear to lead anywhere. The film concludes, unexpectedly, in two very different kinds of musical outburst; the ending is tinged with frustration, failure, but also a kind of acceptance and reclamation of self, even a sense of transcendence, in which the viewer may gratefully share.

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

A Cottage on Dartmoor (Anthony Asquith, 1929)


Anthony Asquith’s 1929 film A Cottage on Dartmoor is as skillfully varied an entertainment as any silent film, placing elements of bustlingly orchestrated social comedy within a starkly tense thriller. It may be true that one responds to individual moments more than to the film in its totality - it lacks (say) the intensity and broader implication of Lang’s best silent work, or the sustained poetry of Murnau's, and the ultimate narrative trajectory is unremarkable – but this caveat emerges more in retrospect than while watching and submitting to the film. At the start, we follow Joe, an escaped prisoner, making his way over the moor to a lonely house containing a woman and her young child; she recognizes him and calls out his name, and we’re immediately in the busy beauty salon where they once worked together, tracing the events that brought them to their sorry place, setting up an ultimate sorry ending. Throughout, Asquith keeps intertitles to a minimum, trusting on the audience’s engagement with the evocative power of images: to randomly pick from countless examples, when an ebullient Joe chatters away to a customer, Asquith juxtaposes images of cricket and racing and other conversational fodder with shots of the bored customer; later on, with Joe now disconsolate and unable to engage with a garrulous client, the device is reversed (this being the Britain of the time, cricket is a constant). An extended sequence in a movie theater is a tour de force, depicting a varied crowd taking in a sound film preceded by a Harold Lloyd silent (nicely indicated by a couple of kids noting another attendee’s resemblance to Lloyd and arguing over whether or not it’s him up there on the screen), the talkie's novelty summed up by shots of the live accompanists now killing time by drinking and playing cards, the camera taking in a rich range of audience reactions, all punctuated by flashes of Joe’s jealous, uncomprehending, furious inner life, the overall effect quite thrilling.

Friday, August 18, 2023

La signora di tutti (Max Ophuls, 1934)


One of the most lastingly elegant and piercing films of its era, Max Ophuls’ La signora di tutti fully realizes the tragically ironic paradox implicit in its title, that if the signora belongs to all, she belongs to no one, least of all to herself. Isa Miranda, perfectly embodying the character’s journey from exploited innocence to doomed fatalism, plays Gaby, early in the film expelled from school after a scandal where a professor killed himself over her (we don’t see the professor, and it seems clear that she did little or nothing to encourage him, the first in the film’s succession of doomed romantic imbalances). She’s invited to a party by a young man, Roberto, who might be the potential love of her life, all the more so after his disabled mother also becomes fond of her, and then largely dependent on her. But Roberto’s financier father also falls for her, messing things up, leading to family tragedy and his financial ruin; she flees and eventually becomes a movie star, without of course finding the happiness to match the image. Roberto briefly reenters her life and she starts to think there may be a way back for them, but it turns out he’s married her estranged sister instead; however, he tells her, he’ll still see her, onscreen in her latest film, once it reaches them. Of course, despite Ophuls’ satirical approach to the film industry’s calculations and mercantilism, his feeling for the medium is peerless, alert to the entire visual possibilities of the narrative space, deeply attuned to emotional fragility and longing. But even as this lends the film a sense of expansive possibility, there’s a persistent offsetting gravity, a sense that nothing can ever be entirely consigned to the past. In this regard too, Gaby’s allure is that of cinema itself, in a film that speaks deeply to its moment, and barely any less to our own.

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

La mamain et la putain (Jean Eustache, 1973)


Much as Jean Eustache’s La maman et la putain leaves you staggering and drained, there’s a distinctly aspirational strand to the film: its protagonist Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Leaud) lives a life, albeit a low-budget, low-possession one, free of conventional constraints, with no job or apparent source of income, yet usually with sufficient money to meet the needs of the moment; he exercises his wits as he sees fit, with life providing ample material (he meets an old friend in a cafĂ© and a few days later sees her picture in the paper as a wanted murderer); he lives with one woman, Marie (Bernadette Lafont), who allows him much latitude in sexual and other matters, and pursues another, Veronika (Francoise Lebrun), eventually ending up in bed with both of them. It’s inevitable that this structure would hardly feel built to last, but it’s unclear what can replace it: at times he seems preoccupied with marriage (however unpromising the putative match), at others with the past, even in its least savoury form (such as his and a friend’s mutual interest in a book about Nazism); the sense of personal energy lacking any applied momentum creates a rather unique, unsettling sense of stasis and draining, and it’s not coincidental that Veronika, almost always clad in flowing black, has a certain vampiric quality. The haunting aspects of Lebrun’s performance are entirely human though: open about her promiscuity, often seeming detached from her own behaviour, at other times hollowed out by it, culminating in an astounding, soul-tearing monologue positing in part that sex means nothing unless it’s to have a baby, a view partly complementary to those expressed by Alexandre, but he’s also earlier suggested that abortion providers are the Robin Hood of our age, and the final images of the two together, possibly on the edge of formal union, are contorted with pessimism. In this respect and countless others, one feels newly pummeled and penetrated by the film on each reviewing.

Wednesday, August 9, 2023

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Milos Forman, 1975)


Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest remains grandly entertaining viewing, with a pumped-up tonal unity that certainly wasn’t inevitable for such a project. With that stipulated, a detailed consideration of the film tends to turn into a pile of objections (some of them, admittedly, clearer now than they might have been at the time). It’s not necessarily a drawback if the conception of the institution shaken up by Jack Nicholson’s Randle McMurphy seems based in vaguely grotesque theatre more than clinical fidelity (it’s telling that the subsequent highpoints for many of the actors came either in horror or comedy), even if one never gains a coherent sense of how the place actually works. But within those parameters, the details of many of the characterizations still leaves one uneasy, such as McMurphy’s girlfriend (if that’s the right word), perpetually available to do his bidding, including having sex with other men. Nicholson’s best actor award seems as inevitable as it must have then, even if the performance is dotted with signs of pending excess and self-caricature; Louise Fletcher’s Oscar for best actress though must be one of the most generous in the history of the awards, her role as Nurse Ratched clearly a supporting one (if the distinction means anything at all) both in terms of screen time, and more importantly within the film’s structure and emphases. The central theme of the institutional stifling of an uproariously non-conforming individual still drives the film, but the mechanics of the ending leave one uneasy (the sadistic take-down of Brad Dourif’s forelorn character; the tasteless rush of pleasure presumably intended to accompany McMurphy’s subsequent murderous lunge at Ratched; the lumbering final image of freedom, with Will Sampson’s “Chief” smashing through the window and running into the sunset). Still, despite these and other caveats, you mostly submit to the film’s defiant, propulsive grandeur.

Wednesday, August 2, 2023

Les granges brulees (Jean Chapot, 1973)


Jean Chapot’s Les granges brulees revolves around an investigation of murder in a rural community, located close to a struggling family farm overseen by long-married couple Paul and Rose; an investigating judge, Larcher (Alain Delon), turns up from the city, installing himself in a local inn and slowly working to crack local codes of silence and suspicions. Given that Larcher’s approach seems to consist largely of showing up at the farm and hanging around Rose, the film often evokes one of those episodes of Columbo where the detective seems to many observers irrationally (but ultimately correctly) fixated on a single suspect. Of course, those interactions were defined largely by garrulousness, whereas Delon’s Larcher barely has as much dialogue in the whole movie as Columbo might have had in a single scene; the actor’s performance is an absolute master class in steely, unblinking silence, and as Simone Signoret embodies Rose with equal self-containment, it’s tempting to read the whole thing primarily as an exercise in juxtaposing complementing, distilled star images. Although the film is set in the then-present, it often seems lost in time: there are many references to WW2 and its legacy, and “the city” is referred to as if to some unattainable dream; as if confirming the extent to which the community resists any kind of outside influence, the mystery’s ultimate resolution comes out of nowhere, from a source unrelated to Larcher’s investigation. While the film suggests that the judge nevertheless feels strangely informed and elevated by the experience, the film provides only a slight indication of what form this takes: in the closing moments, Rose demonstrates an utter certainty that he won’t follow up on a crime committed by one of her sons, for the sake of closure and some broader sense of equilibrium. It seems likely that she’s correct, but the film provides no space for celebration on this point, nor on any other.