Here’s my contribution for the Criterion Blogathon, hosted by Criterion Blues, Speakeasy, and Silver Screenings. Make sure to take a look at everything else being blogged this week in the Criterion-verse.
Although it’s considered one of the greatest French films ever made, I was still a little wary going into a 3+ hour epic featuring a mime. I shouldn’t have worried. Marcel Carné’s CHILDREN OF PARADISE is engaging and perfectly paced throughout its two parts, and the pantomime is delightful. Set in the early 1800s Parisian theater scene, the story revolves around the beautiful Garance and the men who fall for her, all based on historical figures: an actor, a crook, an aristocrat, and yes, a mime. The story woven between these characters is constantly shifting, highlighting new aspects of love, humanity, and the stage at every turn. It’s a dense, complex film that feels light and effortless. And while the performances are all outstanding, it’s Jean-Louis Barrault’s portrayal of the lovesick mime that’s the most difficult to look away from. I’m sorry I ever doubted it.
In DON’T LOOK NOW, Nicholas Roeg’s spooky supernatural thriller, Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie find themselves in Venice after the death of their daughter. Amidst the narrow maze of canals and bridges—a perfect setting for getting lost and some what’s-around-the-corner anxiety—they encounter blind psychics, strange visions, and ominous warnings. I’ve seen enough Nicholas Roeg at this point to recognize his hallmarks: story told through unexpected editing and the juxtaposition of imagery. Here, that collage style of filmmaking is at its most refined, and ramps up the sense of unease that permeates the film even when nothing bad is happening. It all leads to a jarring conclusion which, very unfortunately, I had already seen a clip of years ago. Sometimes that doesn’t matter. But in this case, I think I missed out on the full impact of the film’s slowly building sense of mystery. So my advice this Halloween is if you haven’t seen this film yet, and you don’t know what happens, consider yourself lucky and see it now! Quick! Before the spoilers get to you, too! Consider yourself warned.
In 14th century war-torn Japan, among overgrown waving grass and an ominous pit in the earth, live an old woman and her daughter-in-law. They barely subsist on selling the gear of murdered lost soldiers, but their careful balance is threatened when one of the local men returns home—and a cursed demon mask appears shortly after. ONIBABA is a dark but fun tale of two women who have essentially sold their souls to survive. It’s full of tension, horror, eroticism, and a pinch of humor, all heightened by some fantastic acting and black-and-white art direction. The two main actors seem to have mastered the cold, dead stare, while the wilderness around them perfectly mirrors their wild desperation. I can think of few films in which the landscape itself seems so dangerously charged. Scenes of the wind ripping through the grass, set to a jarring and experimental soundtrack, are enough to set the tone for the whole film from the start. And watching the vulgar, macabre story slowly unfold from there is a treat.
Whenever I sit down to yet another film about filmmaking, I have a hard time not rolling my eyes. Yes, I get it that filmmakers like talking about their immediate surroundings; who doesn’t? But Preston Sturges’ SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS places its scope well beyond Hollywood. Set at the tail end of the Great Depression, it stars Joel McCrea as Sullivan, a director of light comedies who wants to make a serious film about poverty. (He wants to call it, incidentally, O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?—maybe that’s old news for you diehard Coen brothers fans, but it was a fun surprise for me.) When it’s pointed out how little he knows about trouble, he decides to hit the road with ten cents in his pocket to find out. He has a few false starts, but succeeds in meeting the glamorous yet plucky Veronica Lake who wants to tag along. Unable to say no to such flawless shiny hair, they set off to experience poverty together, depicted in a loving silent montage. I’ll admit that Pulp’s “Common People” kept playing as the soundtrack in my head, but this is a satire that recognizes the flaws of the well-meaning. The beauty is that making fun of Sullivan’s desire to comment on poverty and the human condition also allows Sturges to do just that. And he does it warmly and movingly and full of humor, especially towards the end, concluding on what may well be his career’s thesis. No wonder that the Coen brothers wanted to pay homage to that.
BLACK ORPHEUS, as the title might imply, is a retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus, set in Rio de Janeiro with an all-black cast during the vibrant festivities of Carnival. As a refresher (because I had to look it up myself), Orpheus is the musician who ventures into Hades to retrieve his dead love. Unfortunately, the more compelling parts of that story (the going-into-hell parts) get far less screen time than the introduction of Eurydice and the love triangle that results. But this isn’t a film about the uneven storyline or the undeveloped characters. It’s only about the colors, costumes, dancing, and of course the revolutionary bossa nova soundtrack, which apparently paved the way for João Gilberto to do his thing. It’s certainly a fun film to watch, especially once the celebrations get fully underway, and it has some neat surreal elements towards the end. The viewer should be aware that the film’s clear love of Brazilian culture is a little tainted by its outsider French, white director. But that won’t stop me from my love of drawing dancing people.
FRANCES HA follows an aimless 20-something woman in New York City as she attempts to figure out her life. And if that sounds like a cliché, the execution certainly isn’t. Co-written by director Noah Baumbach and lead actress Greta Gerwig, the film toes a careful line between bleak and lighthearted, balancing a character who makes plenty of mistakes but has her heart in the right place. Enjoyment of the film is going to be pretty dependent on whether the viewer likes Frances or not, but for me, Gerwig has the charm and sincerity to pull it off from the start. And Baumbach’s direction keeps the black and white filming as playful as its subject. A favorite moment has to be Frances embarking on the most disappointing Paris trip in film history. But what stays with me more than anything are the explorations of themes severely lacking in cinema: the idea that creative ambition doesn’t have to end in wild success or miserable failure; and the elevation of friendship to the status usually reserved for romance. More of that, please.
Happy new year! Remember, there’s only a week left to buy this and all of my other Criterion illustrations as prints.
I can be picky about films depicting disaffected teens, but the 1963 kitchen sink drama BILLY LIAR is perfectly subtle and charming. The titular liar Billy, played with a ton of range by Tom Courtenay, relies on fantasy to get himself through his dull middle class life. He’s a lazy clerk for an undertaker, juggles two girlfriends he doesn’t much care about, and dreams of ruling an invented struggling nation. It’s all very sweet, but the film comes alive at the introduction of Liz, played by an absolutely dazzling Julie Christie, who is living the carefree freedom that Billy only pretends at. The interactions between the two are beautiful to watch, and drive the film towards a moving end. I particularly appreciate that most everyone in the story is treated sympathetically, fitting for the on-location realism that marks the film’s visual style. Outside of Billy’s make-believe world, there are no real villains, no right or wrong decisions, and nothing is quite black and white.
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It’s clear from the first few minutes of Ingmar Bergman’s PERSONA that this film is something special and strange, and just a bit creepy. It opens with a collage of shocking imagery before settling into the main storyline of a young nurse charged with the care of an actress who has suddenly gone mute. They retreat to the seaside for her recovery, and there they spend most of the film alone in each other’s company. The performances by Bibi Andersson (with all the dialogue) and Liv Ullmann (with no dialogue) are both incredible, as their relationship shifts between amicable, intimate, hostile, and sexually charged. They’re highlighted by stark black and white cinematography, and propelled by just enough plot to keep things moving before the story starts to fray and fall apart. PERSONA is a puzzle of identity, gender, and existential angst that I have neither the space nor qualification to unravel. But even at face value, there’s no escaping the film’s mysterious emotional impact.
Happy Halloween! Previous Halloween installments can be found here and here.
The 1922 silent film HÄXAN is not entirely sure what kind of movie it’s trying to be. Or rather, HÄXAN knows exactly what it’s trying to be, and it’s merely the audience that’s unprepared for it. Starting as a straightforward lecture on the belief in witchcraft in the middle ages, complete with engravings and a disembodied pointer, it soon moves on to a dramatization of medieval life. That’s still perfectly normal for a documentary. What is less normal are the dramatizations of the fictional things that witches do: a bacchanalian witches’ Sabbath, a woman cheating on her husband with the devil, nuns being possessed. And if that weren’t enough, the film gets extra grim when it goes into the undiluted events of a witch trial, including a full catalog of torture equipment and their use. One has to wonder if the director wanted his documentary to have shock value, or if he wanted to lend his horror film some academic legitimacy. And what is there to make of the fact that the director, himself, is cast as the devil? None of it is very shocking today, but it is incredibly entertaining, with great comedic timing and some gorgeous visual effects. A fun spooky way to spend your holiday.
The description of SECRET HONOR tells you right away that this is the kind of movie that can either triumph or fail. Phillip Baker Hall plays a recently resigned President Richard Nixon, who delivers a 90 minute monologue into a microphone, surrounded by portraits, whiskey, and a gun. And that’s it. With the wrong actor or director, this could have been a pretty painful 90 minutes. But Phillip Baker Hall is incredible, careering between depression, rage, joy, shame, and manic bouts of paranoia that are constantly engaging, even if it’s not exactly clear what he’s talking about. (My very limited knowledge of politics meant that I was furiously Googling everything as he spoke.) Robert Altman’s deft direction doesn’t hurt either, and he makes full use of his single actor and set. Particularly memorable are the row of television screens that sometimes display security footage, but more often are trained on Nixon’s face. It’s fear and ego wrapped up into a nice little visual, just as Nixon’s complexities are wrapped up into this deceptively simple film.