Sunday, 25 April 2010

Rome, Open City (1946)

***WARNING: Spoilers below***

***WARNING: This is a long one, so get comfy.***

Synopsis: World War Two. Italian resistance fighters hide out then get caught in occupied Rome. It ends badly.

One of Rossellini's (and cinema's) most important and influential films and rightly so. This visually and thematically gritty post-war war film sees a group of resistance fighters hiding out before being sprung by the Nazis and tortured under questioning. There are so many great things about this film that it's difficult to know where to begin.

I'll start with the visuals. Apparently filmed with scavenged bits of celluloid, the overall look of the film (especially the opening scene) is dark and grubby and shabby black and white, giving the film a really filthy, documentary, rough and ready feel. Purely visually speaking, you can see how neo-realism became the engine of postwar Italian cinema, and eventually paved the way for the French New Wave. So many scenes reminded me of Truffaut's 400 Blows, as well as (more obviously) De Sica's The Bicycle Thieves.

Like these other films, we quite often feel as if we're watching the director just following the characters around (quite a different feel to his Journey to Italy) like a photojournalist. This is low-key but masterful film making, with a cast of (mainly) non-professionals giving quite astonishing performances.

Some of the cross fades between scenes are sharp and beautifully constructed. One has a the cross fade from right to left just as the character of ??? walks through a door from the right, walking towards frame left. This to me symbolised how this character is the one who will move the action forward, who will (through her actions) force her agenda on the 'goodies' and bring about the dramatic conclusion. Here she is, literally bursting through the screen and ruining everything.

The film also has some ace characterisation. Don Pietro Pellegrini (played brilliantly by Aldo Fabrizi) is a fabulous character. A Catholic priest (with a socialist streak a mile wide) helping out the resistance, his bullish frame set off nicely by his calm and sometimes comical persona. This character is reminiscent of a Graham Greene whiskey priest (cf. The Power and the Glory), predicting South American liberation theology. He balances grace, humility and tenacity with an everyday humour. There's a lovely moment in which he's in a shop with some small statues. He notices that one of the statues (a saint) is 'looking' at the nude torso of another statue. He turns around the nude statue but realises that the saint is now staring at the statue's rear end, so he turns the saint too. A lovely, light little moment. Even though in the midst of moral panic, he's still got time to restore dignity to statues.

Incidentally, this scene also reminded me of that pivotal moment in The Goonies when Chunk breaks the statue of Michaelangelo's David.

The Holy Family of Pina (the fantastic Anna Magnani), Francesco and Marcello. We are introduced to these key characters early on and we soon realise how important Pina is to the resistance, almost a Virgin Mary, Mother of God to all of them. When we find out that she's both pregnant and already mother to Marcello (pint sized resistance fighter) this confirms her role as the all encompassing Mother to resistance. This religious theme surrounding Pina then evolves and gathers momentum in two devastating scenes.

Death is a very real and everyday occurrence for the characters but still the killings that we do see shock us terribly. The most incredible scene in this film is the one in which Francesco and other fighters are being taken away. Pina is then shot and killed as she's running after the truck that's holding him. The action here happens so quickly, that we just don't have time to really process what's going on and when we do, it's just appalling. The horror of what happens to her casts a dark cloud over the rest of the action. Later on, we see two sheep delivered to a bar (black market meat) and subsequently shot in the back yard. We immediately think back to Pina's murder - she is the innocent lamb to the slaughter, dispatched in cold blood.

Another key female character is Marina, the ex-lover of the leader of the resistance, Giorgio. She's a beautiful but drug addicted actress (the profession should be a clue) in thrall to the Nazis and their stolen goodies and access to drugs. It's Marina who is the catalyst for the final, violent scenes in which Don Pietro and Giorgio are tortured and then killed. Maria Michi's performance is quite something; she veers from desperate for attention from Giorgio to desperate for attention (and narcotics and fur coats) from a female Nazi (suggestions of lesbianism pretty strong here) to desperate at the thought of betraying her countrymen. It's exhausting just watching her. A real twist-the-knife-in moment comes after Marina has fainted at the site of the tortured Giorgio. Female Nazi No.1 walks calmly up to her, takes off the fur coat she'd just given her (her 30 pieces of silver) and proclaims 'for the next time'.

The Children of Rome as a group are almost a whole character in themselves. They're a great model for the typical gang-of-kids-as-adults and a mirror of the adult resistance fighters (the adults are really just as vulnerable as children in the end). The kids in this film are fantastic; energetic, as angry as the adults but amazingly organized and strategic in their cunning, this bunch of little urchins are a force to be reckoned with. Emulating their older role models, the kids get together to blow up a petrol tanker (?). They then scramble back into their apartment block through a side alley hidey hole (later used by the men themselves to escape - what a parallel) a la the kids in The Goonies.

Their powerlessness is shown along side that of the adults in the final scenes in which they witness the execution by firing squad of Don Pietro. This scene reminded me of Elie Weisel's Night - a partly fictional account of Weisel's time in a concentration camp as a child. The key moment in the book comes as another child is being executed by hanging for being 'exposed' as a thief. As the camp inmates are forced to trudge past his lifeless body, a man asks "Where is God?", the response "He's up there on those gallows". Maybe one of the messages of the film is that God is in amongst the horror and suffering of the Italian people, through the actions of the heroic few. It's only as we follow them from this scene back to their neighbourhood (with St. Peter's in the background, standing proudly as testament to the pride and strength of the city, and religion?) that we see that they are the ones to pick up the baton and re-take Rome.

Theme of resistance, political injustice and the decisions we make in extreme circumstances
Having recently watched Ken Loach's IRA film The Wind That Shakes The Barley, I was struck by some similarities in overall tone. Both films focus their attention on occupying armed forces (the baddies) and a resistance movement (the goodies). It's difficult to compare the films in an unbiased way as I have no 'real' connection to WWII occupied Rome, whereas the decades long fighting between the British Army and the IRA did affect my life directly (growing up in London in the '80s I knew only too well the impact of living with constant terrorist threat, albeit mostly in the form of there being no litter bins in central London and on the Tube at the time). This was 'normal' life and never turned me into a rabid anti-Republican.

However, what I am sure of is that Loach's socialist credentials are writ large in The Wind That Shakes The Barley. As we watch beating after humiliating beating we are in no doubt at all as to how evil the Black and Tans and the British Army were with several scenes of violence against the poor, beautiful Irish peasants. I found it a bit heavy handed and patronising in its message (Look. They were baaaad. Er, yes, I think we already knew that.), which is a huge contrast to the gut reaction that is Rome, Open City. Ken Loach decides on the subject matter of each film he makes, you get the feeling that Rossellini had no choice but to make a film about what the Romans had just experienced. A better companion piece would almost be Picasso's Guernica - another black and white masterpiece depicting the skewed and twisted ravages of war. I haven't felt an author's palpable anger and hatred as strong as this since reading John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.

This film could almost be a reflection/bookend/second part to Renoir's Regle Du Jeu, both depicting the impact of WWII in Europe, although on two very different classes of society. They both show us how individual decisions can drastically alter a larger narrative (mostly for the worse). One positive difference is how Rossellini's film is, unsurprisingly, chock full of heroes whereas Regle Du Jeu is pretty thin on the ground when it comes to heroes. Those that we do meet come off pretty badly. Or dead.

Anyway, I've rambled on for FAR too long. Just watch the film. It's awesome.

See also: The Bicycle Thieves, The Wind That Shakes The Barley, Battleship Potemkin, Regle Du Jeu and, er, The Goonies.

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In the Realm of the Senses (Ai no corrida) (1976)

***WARNING: lots of spoilers. Don't read if you want a surprise***

Synopsis: Japanese erotic art-house film about a man and one of his employees having an obsessive sexual relationship ending in a Bobbitt style crescendo.

Another one that I missed at BFI Southbank, I finally caught up with this controversial classic, based on a real life case. This is a fairly claustrophobic film in that you really are focusing on just the two leads and their strange relationship.

We start off in 1930's Japan, in a hotel owned by a man (Kichizo) and his family, and meet their female employees, one of whom, Sada, is an ex-prostitute trying to earn a respectable living. They soon start an all-consuming affair which sees them locking themselves away in their room and having non-stop sex.

No wonder it caused controversy on release, this film is properly pornographic with close-ups of the male lead and his tumescent member throughout. We also get to see what looks like actual penetration and what definitely is actual fellatio. In some ways this sort of distracts from the 'action' and in others, well, this is the action, so why not.

The other thing that probably pushed the censors over the edge is the couple's S&M antics. Their obsession with each other, (more hers than his) ends in Sada experimenting with strangulation at point of climax. As you can probably imagine this doesn't end well...

Even though the film is based on a real life case, it's not treated as a straight-to-TV movie a la The Amy Fisher Story. This is your proper art-house take on things (i.e. a lot more nudity). The film looks lovely, with many scenes almost completely symmetrical in composition. The characters' kimonos are beautiful - vividly patterned (contrasting with very dim and bland rooms) and in several shots the swishing of skirts etc. is used to great effect. The lifting of a kimono here, the parting of swathes of scarlet fabric there, all signalling the unveiling of hidden, forbidden flesh.

At one point bright red fabric (I think of another woman's kimono) fills the entire frame, symbolising vividly both sex and the (eventual) violent, bloody death of Kichizo. I suppose there is something to be said for the eastern take on sex and its obsessive link with violence and death. This film certainly reminded me a little of Ang Lee's Lust, Caution in which a torrid affair is somewhat characterised by sadism.

What both films do have in common is that the sexual relationship is also a power relationship. In Senses, Sada is wildly jealous of Kichizo and his wife's relationship (even though she too is married). She makes him swear allegiance to her and promises revenge if Kichizo should ever sleep with his wife again. The phrase 'possession is nine tenths of the law' kept springing to mind. It's almost as if Sada wants to devour and be devoured by her lover; she wants him almost constantly, even suggesting that he urinate whilst making love so that they won't let even basic bodily functions come (no pun intended) between them.

In the end, she claims possession in the most mind-boggling, psychopathically logical way by strangling him as he ejaculates and then cutting off his genitals (come on, we've all done it...). As you got used to her threats all the way through the film, you think by the end, well, she did warn him. For Kichizo's part, he goes along with Sada's demands (even the strangulation). He is completely submissive to her every whim, but does throw in a few of his own odd requests along the way.

In the end you're left wondering - who really had the upper hand? Sada certainly wins on points by killing then castrating her lover, but she does this out of a desperate belief that she will never fully own/possess him. All in all a very sorry tale.

See also: Lust, Caution.

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Sunday, 18 April 2010

La Regle du Jeu (1939)

Synopsis: A load of French poshos get together to go huntin', shootin' and lovin' in pre-war France. Their maids and butlers join in the upstairs/downstairs farce. Alternative title: Whoops, There Goes my Manservant!

My first Renoir and what a great introduction. A film in which the director/camera is the only moral centre. The film places a rather damning magnifying glass on the pre-war French upper classes and their completely amoral behaviour. Rather neatly, their servants reflect their actions and also provide a parallel to the main story.

The structure of the film is such that for the first two acts we are given a fairly fast paced tale of husbands, wives and lovers all mixing it up in Paris. Renoir goes from scene to scene masterfully, with one particular scene melding into the next via a radio broadcast (the airfield to Christine's bedroom) showing how fresh and innovative the director was. This is all to set up a few days shooting in the country, to which all the players are invited.

When we reach the chateau we have the Marquis and his wife Christine, her 'friend' and social sponger/misfit Octave (played by Jean Renoir himself), we have Chrisine's assumed lover (airman Andre), the Marquis' lover Genevieve, Christine's maid Lisette and her husband Schumacher. There are other bit players along the way. The frenetic and jolly atmosphere Renoir creates is brilliant, you really get swept along with the busyness of the scenes, the camera swooping to follow one character out of a room and then going all the way back to focus on some other part of the story. It really never stops.

I realised how many other films that I know of have been influenced by the scenes in the country house, including Louis Malle's Milou en Mai (so many similarities that I will come back to), Jean de Florette/Manon des Sources, Dangerous Liaisons, Gosford Park, White Ribbon and Remains of the Day. All these films have a few central themes in commmon: class warfare and changes in the world order, the relationship between servants and their masters, upper class ennui and lively, chaotic scenes full of energy.

The similarities with Milou en Mai are palpable as soon as you realise you're dealing with a story about major world events affecting the state of society with the parallel of the upper and lower classes, all set in a big French country house. Whereas I think Milou's setting of May '68 has a bit more humour and a few sympathetic characters, La Regle du Jeu has not one character with any moral weight and has the spectre of World War Two hanging over every scene and embuing so many images and story developments with menace.

One of the early scenes in Milou tells us everything. The upper class matriarch is seen in the kitchen listening to the broadcast about the riots in Paris and how many people have been injured or killed. She is crying but as the camera pulls back we see she is chopping onions. She doesn't care a hoot for the revolution but only cares to keep in her cocoon of bourgeois safety in the country.

In parallel, Regle du Jeu has a very strong sense running all the way through of an entire portion of society that only cares about its own petty squabblings and infidelities, completely ignoring the world outside.

The similarities with White Ribbon have to be viewed carefully as Renoir made this film before the Second World War and cannot have foreseen what was to happen. On the other hand, Michael Haneke's visceral White Ribbon, made in 2008, is quite forceful in highlighting how pre First World War German society paved the way for fascism. There's one really telling scene in White Ribbon when the Baroness implores her husband to move from their home in the village (their son has been subjected to torture at the hands of unknown assailants). She has just returned from a restorative holiday with the children and met another man. Her husband asks if she's in love. At that moment, both the Baroness and the viewer realise that the Baron (any many other characters) just DO NOT GET IT. It's their ignorance of how cruel life is for everyone else that is setting up these atrocious events.

When we move on to the shooting scenes, Renoir really steps up a gear to highlight this amorality. The guests all take great pleasure in killing the defenceless animals, with the camera not letting us off by showing several rabbits getting shot and dying horribly. Of course, the whole time we're watching we think of how this slaughter not only echoes that of the First World War but how it is foretelling the bloodshed that's to come. The camera practically flies about during these scenes, dashing after rabbits and pheasant, following the hunting dogs and beaters through the woods. It's an orgy of panic and death and really strips away any niceties and shows these people for what they are - cold blooded sadists.

With the use of the servants, Renoir is able to really bring home the meaning of the title. At so many moments in the film we see servants expressing their wish to be servants or their loyality to their masters - they understand the 'rules of the game' better than anyone - better the devil you know and don't ever question your place in the world - the exact sentiments that allowed the Nazis to rise to power.

The final act, the post shoot party, goes bonkers. The pace and structure goes out the window and rushes us through in real(ish) time the climax to all the games the protagonists have been playing with each other. Each menage a trois ends in violence - the fight between the servants begins downstairs then moves upstairs - an analogy perhaps for how world events will eventually come crashing into every European drawing room.

The dramatic climax of the film has probably the least reprehensible character (the airman) being shot and killed (he is mistaken for the lover of the gamekeeper's wife). As the film ties up here, I was quite shocked at how the other characters just sort of got on with everything as if nothing that important had just happened. These are a bunch of truly disgusting people, who don't even care when a true hero is dispatched.

The only hope in the entire mental clan is a young niece of the Marquis, who we discover has been studying art and civilisation and when questioned by an older relative, is knowledgeable about the world (unlike the rest of them). She falls in love with the airman and is upset when he is killed. So, the only faint ray of hope is the youngest character and she actually is aware of a world outside her window. Probably says a lot about Renoir's view of the world.

Having said all of that, this is actually feels like a 'light' film, which I suppose is where Renoir's genius lies. It is the skill of a great artist to make you enjoy and appreciate something beautiful that also has great intellectual power.

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Friday, 16 April 2010

Babette's Feast (1987 )

Synopsis: 19th century Denmark. A couple of old sisters recall how a life-changing female French chef came to live with them. Like a Scandie-visual version of the Larousse Gastronomique in cordon bleu food porn mode.

I'd first seen this film years ago, when BBC2 showed proper decent European films, at a proper, decent hour. Then a friend's Dad recently gave him a copy so I got to re-visit it.

It's always interesting watching films that you haven't seen for years, as I remembered it as being a lot darker (in terms of lighting rather than mood) than it actually is. There was also a bittersweet love story which has a rather poignant and delicate conclusion.

We start off with two elderly sisters, spinsters, living a spartan, Puritanical life in rural, seaside Denmark. Thinking about their lot in life, they look back at their younger days and how through a series of interesting episodes involving suitors for both women being eventually rejected, a female French chef comes to live with them.

Due to needing a 'holiday' for 'over exhaustion' a French opera singer comes to stay in the Danish village where the sisters live. After attending church one Sunday and hearing one of the sister's singing, he offers her free singing lessons. After a few lessons, it's obvious that she has both an outstanding voice and a romantic hold over her teacher. Her father, the stern village preacher, rejects the idea of his daughter flouncing off to Paris to sing in the opera and the singer leaves the village all the sadder. Years later, during the Franco-Prussian war, the singer sends a friend (Babette), whose son and husband have been killed, to the safety of the far flung Danish village. The sisters take in Babette as their cook, not knowing that she had been a famous chef in Paris.

We also see the other sister wooed by a soldier, again ended by her stern father. The soldier goes on to become a general in the Swedish army and marries into a good family.

We then move on slowly, Babette has been with the sisters for over ten years, fitted in with their way of life and cooking the grimmest looking food. The narrative takes a turn when she learns that she has won a huge amount in the French lottery. The sisters worry that this means her return to Paris, but instead she insists on holding a lavish dinner party in honour of their dear departed father.

This is where the film really comes into its own. Babette visits a larger town to contact her cousin to order some key ingredients, wine etc. from Paris. All sorts of strange things start arriving in town (cow's heads, enormous blocks of ice, a turtle, cages of quails etc.). The day of the dinner arrives and we watch (drooling) as Babette prepares the feast. We see her unwrap expensive, vintage wine and brandy, boil stock for soup and prepare pastry.

Out in the parlour and dining room something else is happening. The uptight, Puritan pensioners that have up to this point been mealy mouthed and grumpy, with much in fighting, start very slowly to loosen up, relax and re-strengthen bonds. We see the beautiful dinner table, complete with crystal water, wine (both white and red) and brandy glasses and a range of cutlery. These simple Danish folk have never seen the like of it. They are being opened up to a different way of eating - they will, for the first time in their lives, enjoy a meal and get drunk.

As we see Babette working her way through the cooking in the kitchen, we see the parallel in the dining room of the diners enjoying new sights, tastes and smells.

Crucially, one of the key diners is the soldier who had once come a-wooing one of the sisters (along with his aunt, a local bigwig). He has risen through the ranks and enjoyed the finer things in life, including food, in Paris. One of the real joys of the film is watching the general enjoy his food, recognising the vintage of the red wine and the particular recipes/versions of dishes that he is served. He knows his stuff and knows that the only person who could possibly be cooking this meal, can be the chef from the Cafe de Paris.

It's really lovely seeing the different reactions of the general and the older guests. He knows what he's eating and drinking and is enthralled; they don't know what they're eating or drinking and are also enthralled. There's a really lovely moment where an old harridan picks up her water glass thinking that it holds some other liquor. When she realises it's water, she quickly puts it down and goes for the red again - absolutely relishing it.

In the kitchen, I loved watching Babette making the little quail pies, reducing a stock that looks so rich you can smell and taste it. I loved seeing her prepare her dessert, a cake covered in angelica, dried fruit and liquor and I loved seeing the general's driver sampling each wine and getting tipsy.

We go through several courses and eventually coffee and as we move through we see the guests make friends again, forgive previous differences and re-kindle romances.

At the end of the evening the general gets a chance to say goodnight to the sister whom he had previously romanced. This is such an unexpected moment of delight - he says to her that she is with him everyday and that she will continue to be so. He says that he hopes that she knows it and kisses her hand. This delicate emotional climax sums up this film so nicely. This is not an extravagant foodie blow out like La Grande Bouffe. This is one woman's way of expressing her gratitude and love for a quiet community that saved her life and the delicate but incredibly generous way in which she does this. This is a film about subtle joys and bittersweet regrets.

The final scene of the film has the sisters thanking Babette for her feast and acknowledging that she will now return to Paris with her lottery winnings. But Babette has a surprise - she is not leaving, she has spent all her winnings on the meal. When the sisters confront her spending so lavishly and going to so much trouble, she sums everything up by saying that the sisters have allowed her to be the best artist that she could be and that that is the real zenith of existence for her.

I loved it that although this film is about the domineering father and lost loves of the sisters, it is the relationship between them both and Babette that is at the emotional core of the film.

See also: Big Night, Milou en Mai, La Grand Bouffe

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Monday, 12 April 2010

Psycho (1960)

Synopsis: Are you kidding?

Just saw this at the NFT as part of the 50th anniversary season. It was my first (and probably only) time seeing it on the big screen and it was well worth it. Ever since the first time I saw it many years ago, Psycho has been one of my desert island films. It is utterly perfect, without flaws of any kind (in my opinion).

The best thing about seeing Psycho on the big screen was that I noticed so many more nuances than I had previously remembered.

Both murder scenes are nowhere near as long as I remember either - such is their power that in my mind, poor old Arbogast is falling backwards down the stairs forever, but it's really over in a flash.

There is so much use of close up in Psycho. Especially the scenes when Marion is driving to Fairvale, we get her face and almost nothing else. When we see Norman and Marion dining together in his parlour, I don't think we get any medium or wide shots at all, it's all tightly packed close-ups. Our view of Norman is very interesting as we sometimes view him from a low angle to take in one of his stuffed birds up high on the wall, poised to swoop down on him or Marion or both of them. Of course the best close ups in the film are in the scenes with Marion and the highway patrolman. She's all starey-eyed guilty panic (especially when she's first awoken in her car - ace), he's all stoney-faced calm behind the shades. I suppose this is really well juxtaposed with Norman's initial conviviality and kindness. We are more frightened of the cop until 'you know what' happens.

However, the most terrifying close up I know of, perhaps only rival to Ben Gardner's head in Jaws, is that of 'Mother' at the end of the film. I still cannot watch the scene in the fruit cellar to its full conclusion, the bare light bulb swinging to alter the shadows across her face still frightens me.

As Hitchcock used each scene so sparingly (and only to drive the plot forward), it's interesting that we still manage to get insight into Marion's motivations, her fears and her morals (or lack thereof). One moment that leapt out to me for the first time ever was in one of these driving scenes.

It's night and Marion is driving along the highway imagining the conversation between the man she stole the money from and her boss. Playing this over in her mind she finally allows herself the faintest of smiles, so different to her previous anxiety and panic. It's just as this smile starts to show on her face, and it's a smug, devilish smile full of self-satisfaction, that it also starts to rain. This, we've no need to remind ourselves, is the heavy rain that eventually takes Marion off the highway and towards the Bates Motel. I sat there, looking up at Janet Leigh's face, knowing full well what was in store for her and thought, yes - the gods are angry with you and you are about to be punished. Incredible and terrifying. Compare this smile with the final shot of Norman at the end, as he lowers his head and stares straight at us, 'Mother' faintly coming through, it is Marion's earlier smile echoed perfectly.

Another very unusual shot that I'd previously missed is later on when Arbogast is pointing out Marion's fake name in the hotel register. As Norman keeps slipping up and eventually confesses that Marion did stay in the motel, he leans over to view the name. He twists his neck around and we get a screen full of his stretched, exposed throat (busy chewing nervously on Kandy Korn). What is Hitch telling us here? That with these small but important cock-ups Norman is making himself vulnerable? Here is his neck, ready for the chopping block or noose? It's certainly a very unusual angle.

This viewing was also the first time that I'd really understood how Marion disturbs the balance of her own world, but more importantly sets off an imbalance that will destroy Norman's world too. For the first time I saw Marion as the destructive force and Norman as the defendant of his private universe, so desperate to keep the bizarre status quo that he will stop at nothing to do so - a pure psychopath. I think it was Roger Ebert who wrote about how Hitchcock does an amazing switcheroo with our loyalties, and that as soon as Marion is dead, it's Norman that we feel for. I would love to have seen Psycho not knowing the story at all, as this would have strengthened this sense. All we would know is that poor Norman is under Mother's thumb and is acting for her. It makes more sense that way.

No doubt I've always 'got' the message that Marion turns into a bad, or at best a morally ambiguous person (we get that much from her clothing and underwear especially changing from white to black after the theft of the money) but what really came across this time was how her actions (lead on by her love for Sam) set off the chain of events that eventually lead to her death.

The other thing I really enjoyed (yes, enjoyed) about the cinema size Psycho, was the photography. The use of black and white strips away frivolity and diversion and gets us almost to look more directly. There are a couple of really cracking shots after Marion's death, when Norman is in cleaning mode - we see him in the bathroom with the bright white bath tiles behind him. He is in the far left of the frame, the other two thirds empty but with Marion's body just below the shot. This emptiness emphasises so succinctly the horror of what is just out of sight, and the juxtaposition of the shiny white tiles with the bloody mess below is left largely to our already overworked imagination.

Arbogast's death also has some ace camera angles. The bird's eye view of him coming up to the landing echoing the stuffed birds of earlier on. This shot (utilizing the whole frame) also allows us to see both Arbogast climbing the stairs (top left) and Mother's bedroom door opening (bottom right), with the centre of the screen as the obvious meeting place and starting point of the murder. The tension that this creates is almost unbearable.

So much has been written about Psycho, how it was made for so little money just after the success of North by Northwest, how shocking it was to kill off the leading lady so quickly, the incredible Bernard Herrmann really is a proper masterpiece and seeing it on the big screen made it even more important for me.

See also: You know, that other one, what Gus Van Sant did.

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Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Vendredi Soir (2002)

Synopsis: A Parisian woman, just about to move in with her boyfriend, gets stuck in a traffic jam, meets a stranger and has a one night stand.

I've slowly been working my way through Clare Denis' back catalogue, so came upon this one after seeing Beau Travail and 35 Rhums. All totally out of sequence, but hey, who cares?

You can definitely see a thread running through Denis' films (of those that I have seen). She is very much interested in human relationships, both on the micro, one on one, level and those within family (35 Rhums) or more formal groups (Beau Travail). In Vendredi Soir, we follow Laure (Valerie Lemercier - last seen by me in Louis Malle's joyous Milou en Mai) on one Friday evening as she packs boxes to prepare for moving house. She attempts to meet friends for dinner but gets stuck in a huge traffic jam (transport strike, innit). The travel announcer on the car radio suggests giving strangers lifts, an act of kindness in extraordinary circumstances. We see Laure try to give Denis regular Gregoire Colin a lift but he refuses in favour of walking.

Eventually, we see a man, Jean (the gorgeous, rugged and incredibly sexy Vincent Lindon), appearing to check out Laure and perhaps another female driver, choosing which one to ask for a lift. He taps on Laure's window and gets in. Thereafter, we see them chat a little, Laure fantasises about asking him to come to dinner, all the while she is in control of the wheel. At one point she leaves the car to make a phone call (to cancel dinner with the friends), when she returns to where she thinks she's left the car (and Jean), it's gone. She wanders around for a few minutes and then Jean comes running after her. He now takes control of the vehicle (metaphor anyone?) and drives off erratically down a side street and away from the jam.

All of the subtle suggestion (lots of close-ups of both Laure and Jean's hands, faces, limbs) then leads to the couple making the decision to spend the night together. There's a great scene in a tabac, when Jean asks the waitress for 10 franc coins. We (and more importantly Laure) assume he's making a phone call, but when Laure herself ventures to the phone, we see it only accepts cards - it's the condom machine next to it that takes the 10 franc coins. So, she knows his intentions and only has to go along with him.

Outside they embrace and kiss passionately in the quiet street that leads them to a hotel. After finding their room they quickly make love, almost fully clothed. This is dimly-lit, close-up, uncoreographed sex, not stagey and self-conscious but almost episodic or dreamy. The way it looked reminded me a little of one or two of Thomas Ruff, Guy Bourdin or Antoine D'Agata's photos (out of focus, deep, dark colours). There's none of the base, cold shagging as in a film like Intimacy either - these are two people genuinely attracted (and attractive) to each other who have found themselves in an unusual chance encounter. Without becoming gratuitous the camera focuses on their bodies to highlight form and muscle tone, making this film genuinely erotic.

Speaking of which, this is a film quite definitely about the senses, it is truly sensual:

We see Laure enjoying the smell of Jean's cigarette smoke (she has given up smoking) inside the car and during their love-making Jean tells Laure that her hand smells of rubber.

We see Laure's hands/fingers gripping the steering wheel and her feet and legs stretching out in the foot well, we see her bathing early on in the film with the camera concentrating on her back and hair. We also see Laure's hand touching the bedclothes in the hotel. Of course, we also get the caresses between the couple - so many moments reminded me of Hiroshima Mon Amour, arms entwining, backs arching and some very tight shots on abstract flesh.

Of course being a film it should look good and interesting, so there is much visual stimuli. The dusk of a Paris evening followed by the the rainy bright lights of the traffic jam is very vibrant. Some of the close ups of rain drops on cars, neon lights reflecting on chrome reminded me of the opening scenes from Taxi Driver too.

This is also a film about sounds - music from the radio (from what I'd previously seen Clare Denis uses music brilliantly in her films), but we also have the sound of the car heater and the gas heater in the hotel room. We have the car horns constantly going off, signifying boredom and frustration but also urging the couple on in their actions...

Jean always has a fag on the go, and they enjoy a coffee together in the tabac, so the classic French combo is there. There is also, of course, the taste of each other - this is not a couple that talk and shag, they kiss. A lot. There is so little dialogue but they do use their mouths. Maybe I've read far too much into this, I don't know...

Was it all a crazy dream?
There's a very short episode when Laure first gets in the traffic jam. A man attempts to enter her car and she locks the door and drives off. She soon realises (after hearing the radio announcement) that she needn't have been scared. But is there more to this? Is the following all in her imagination? Is she sitting, bored, in a jam, fantasising about what could have happened had she let a strange man in her car? We see her alone several times when she is 'with' Jean - at the restaurant table, in the other hotel rooms that she noses around.

Another reason we have for thinking this - she is just about to move in with her boyfriend. A pretty momentous event, perhaps she's having second thoughts or at least fantasising about continuing her single, carefree life. Interestingly, the film was written by Emmanuele Bernheim, who also wrote Francois Ozon's Swimming Pool, a film also about one woman's erotic experience/imagination. These films are very different but they do both end on an ambiguous/mysterious note.

So, in the end we are left wondering whether this sexy female fantasy figure was ever real or the product of Laure's vivid imagination.

See also: Swimming Pool, Hiroshima Mon Amour

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Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)

Synopsis: Mellow Drama of the classiest kind. Louis Jordan and Joan Fontaine play sort of lovers in Vienna in this fin de siecle tale of very, very unrequited love.

I missed this at the recent season at BFI Southbank, so caught up on DVD. Not all restored etc. but the story doesn't lose any of its power. There is some really lovely photography in this, not least the rushing camera work when Lisa runs to say goodbye to Stefan at the station. It transported me instantly to Truffaut and Jules, Jim and Catherine's freewheeling days.

This film is an essay on how to do unrequited love. All the stops are pulled out with letter-reading-voiceover and flashback to tell the story. As we listen to Joan Fontaine's voice taking us back in time with the line "By the time you read this, I may be dead..." we can all think back to those fantasy letters we wished we had written to the one that got away, the one that just didn't get how great you were and how wonderful their life would be if only they had noticed you...

I love the way the film is structured around Lisa's memories through her letter and the way that someone can have such an impression on you (even after only meeting briefly) that you suddenly only care about what they care about, only want to read the books they read, listen to the music they listen to...

I kept asking myself whilst watching this - where is the line drawn between unrequited love and just being a crazy stalker? There are certainly stalker-ish tendencies in Lisa's behaviour and it's not really until they spend the night together that she can really shift from being Barry George to being the voice of Dorothy Parker's Two Volume Novel. Even so, there is so little for Lisa to base her love for Stefan on, she never gets the chance to test out a real relationship with him and is only really left with if only's and what if's.

We see her happily dreaming of an imaginary life with Stefan - not in the here and now but somewhere else that never actually exists and through her actions Lisa shows how if you can't live with the man of your dreams you can end up living 'for' them instead, desperately waiting for them to look your way.

The really pathetic side to this is that Lisa never gets to see Stefan's feet of clay until it's far too late. In any normal relationship, each partner gradually exposes to the other their flaws, with the other either accepting or rejecting the whole person that they are. Lisa is never given the chance to do this so she is left with only part of Stefan, a brief encounter (and doubtless many more imaginary encounters) to keep replaying over and over in her mind, driving her mad.

It is amazing how one can exist on the periphery of someone else's life, having been touched by them for only a moment and yet the reverberations and repercussions of that moment can go on forever and without conclusion. There are moments in the film when you get the impression that Lisa revels in this state. On their first (and only?) evening out together, they visit a fairground park. It is winter and Lisa tells Stefan how much she prefers it as in spring time "there would be nothing to imagine, nothing to wish for" - in this line we understand that Lisa exists purely to hope and to wish her life away, never able to exist fully in her love for Stefan.

(Another scene that illustrates this nicely is when they are on the train ride to nowhere, signifying both Lisa's lack of experience, her naivety and the strength of her imagination).

Can you be in love with someone but barely know them? Undoubtedly, yes. But that love is a million miles from the love of a fulfilled relationship. In some ways purer and in some ways an arrested development. There is also the way in which Lisa completely decieves herself as to her relationship and importance to Stefan. Just as Stefan is about to introduce himself to Lisa, she proclaims "I know who you are". There are two levels to this exchange, she does know who he is, literally speaking, but there is a foretelling of the rest of their story - the truth is that she will never know him properly but that she has already moulded a vision of him in her mind and it's this vision that really matters, right up until much later in the film.

After their brief fling, Stefan leaves Vienna and doesn't see Lisa again until years later. She has had a son, their son, and is married. They have a chance encounter at the opera (interestingly The Magic Flute - another story about disguising ourselves and lost loves) and it is ambiguous as to whether Stefan remembers Lisa or not. Lisa then visits Stefan, at which point it becomes obvious that he does not remember her. As Stefan leaves the room to fetch champagne, Lisa realises this and is devastated.

There follows what I think is the absolute killer line (and dramatic climax) of the film. Stefan jokingly asks Lisa if she is lonely as he has left the room to get the drinks and she replies "Yes, very lonely". Her worlds, both real and imaginary, come crashing down around her and she quickly leaves. She has finally been forced to see the reality of the situation, there are no more what if's as Stefan finally breaks the spell of Lisa's lifelong disillusionment.

Of course, it is Lisa herself who has willed all of this to happen and makes this clear herself by saying how nothing in life happens by chance. She has been the motivator, the impetus to action throughout and in the end it kills her. Her son dead from Typhus and Lisa now following suit, her letter to Stefan finally lays to rest a life of self-deception and torment.

See also: Brief Encounter, Journey to Italy (see below), Casablanca.

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Friday, 2 April 2010

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

Synopsis: Awesome one armed tie rack molotov cocktail wild west action noir thriller. This neo/pseudo/ersatz western from John Sturges sees dubya dubya eye eye veteran Spencer Tracy visiting the small (minded) town of Black Rock for twenty four hours to find the Japanese-American father of a dead war hero friend.

***WARNING: Spoilers below*** (but I won't reveal too much)

It begins with a long distance train dropping him (the only passenger that embarks) off in the two-bit town. Everyone is immediately suspicious, which in turn arouses the audience's suspicion. Why are they so cagey about this stranger?

We are slowly introduced to some of the other shady characters, all played by western stalwarts (Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, Walter Brennan...). The tension is tangible from the start, and as Tracy's reason for visiting slowly becomes clear, the town and its inhabitants begin to unravel.

There's often a feel of a stage play about this film - the way the characters are often placed in relation to each other on set and the sparse production design. Also, there are no close ups, we are forced to see the bigger picture in every shot. This emphasises the smallness of the town and, perhaps, the fact that their dirty secret is now out in the open. They are literally completely exposed, with nowhere to hide.

Spencer Tracy's character slowly uncovers the town's secret almost without having to lift a finger. It is enough that he has just turned up to send Robert Ryan and his thugs into a tailspin of paranoia and threatened violence. Tracy is dressed smartly in a suit, tie and hat, looking cool, calm and collected at all times (sartorially signifying that he DOES NOT BELONG), whilst the townsfolk are dusty and sweaty (apart from the fragrant Ann Francis) in their grubby jeans and cowboy outfits. This sense of alien-ness is heightened by the fact that Spencer Tracy's character has a maimed arm which he doesn't use. Not only is he from some place else and smartly dressed but he's also deformed/disabled.

They are a world away from each other in so many ways and this sense of 'otherness' gets stronger as Tracy gets closer to the truth about the man he is looking for. I say this is a sort of western as it has all the hallmarks - stranger coming into town from an alien place, inadvertantly stirring up traumatic events, pitting one lot of townsfolk against another, and we *know* that the story will have to have a violent, fatal climax. Another review I read mentioned the noir aspects. This could almost be the Big Sleep/Chinatown with the naive newcomer again inadvertantly uncovering dispicable events and forcing the perpertrators to face justice.

The climax of the film sees Spencer Tracy driven out to the desert in the middle of the night to face Robert Ryan. This is such an awesome scene, as we see the almost superhuman Tracy hiding behind a jeep and using a stray empty bottle, the fuel from the jeep and his neck tie to make a Molotov cocktail. Just watching him do all this with one arm is thrilling. He brings down the dastardly Ryan and takes him back to town to face the State Police.

This is a taut, sparse thriller, dealing with otherness, racism and how the Old West is changing to the New West with access to water as a impetus to violent action (cf. Chinatown). Spencer Tracy is a force to be reckoned with and a proper hero.

Friends of mine use this film as a benchmark of when to pull a sickie. If it's on the telly, it's seriously tempting to stay off work just to watch it. They are not wrong.

See also: History of Violence, Chinatown

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