Sunday, April 29, 2018

Frank Borzage | Liliom

the circle and the line
by Douglas Messerli

S. N. Berman and Sonya Levien (screenplay), Frank Borzage (director) Liliom / 1930

The second movie I truly remember attending was at the age of 9 with my parents at a drive-in movie theater between our small town, where we were then living, Newhall, and the town near which we later lived, Cedar Rapids. I think my brother and sister, then 6 and 3 must have been left at home with our neighborhood babysitter. It was my first encounter with a version of Ferenc Molnár’s Liliom, this Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s adaptation of the Hungarian playwright’s 1909 work. I was utterly enchanted with the Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae work, particularly given its remarkable dance numbers, which included the joyful “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” and the long Billy Bigelow “Soliloquy,” in which the carnival barker imagines the life of both his possible son and daughter and 
what they will be, which included long dance routines. I think this film not only made me love musical theater at such an early age but encouraged me to love dance as much as I do today.
     My parents had also had taken me to Oklahoma! a year earlier, at the age of 8, so I was already addicted to something that would haunt me throughout my life! I can’t quite imagine how my farm-born parents and later movie-absent parents might have accomplished these two feats! But today I can almost cry out with deep appreciation. As I write elsewhere, we saw so few films, let alone musicals ever again (although we did attend White Christmas as a family in a revival several years later, the original having been shown a year before either of these masterworks).
     I don’t know what my father thought about these first movie experiences—he didn’t much like musicals and he was even less taken with romantic scenes—but I am certain my mother must have insisted to attend these films; how could she imagine that they would completely transform my life, and I praise them both for their blissful ignorance and the gift they gave me in “taking me along” to what surely were very special occasions in the life of a young couple trying to enjoy their rare free time together? If my father had known how it might affect me, he most certainly would have banned them, as he later did when them I announced that I planned to attend West Side Story (I lied about going to another film, and attended it anyway, having listened to the musical in our living room hundreds of times.)
      Although I loved both of these early works immensely, I did not like Carousel’s first scenes. Although I had been raised fairly religiously, with regular attendance of church Sunday school, I couldn’t imagine a heaven like the one in which Billy Bigelow begins the film, polishing up plastic stars. And why, I later wondered, was he even allowed into heaven given the fact that, despite his deep love for Julie and his family, he had attempted a robbery, being killed in the process (little did I know that in the original he had committed suicide). It all seemed quite ludicrous to me, just as the dark attraction that Laurie felt for the stupid farmhand, Judd, in Oklahoma! I guess I must at the ages of 8 and 9 been far more precocious that even I might have before imagined.
      Yet, once these musicals got underway in their proper communities, I was totally convinced and enchanted. And I simply could not forget these or the later The King and I (although it’s now clear that I saw only clips from the movie until I grew older, simply imagining that I had seen the full work).
      Even if I didn’t all like the “heaven” scenes, I loved the errant hero, Billy, and his innocent wife Julie, and wished that everything had worked out for them, although even in my child’s imagination I knew it was not possible given his shady activities. If she was desperately in love, he was mixed up with that terrible carousel woman, Mrs. Mullin (Audrey Christie), as her loving cousin Nettie clearly perceived. But even in those days, I must have realized, love was simply something you couldn’t control, and that Julie was doomed simply because of her innocent infatuation. But, once again, even as a child I knew that once Billy had died, despite the last great ballad, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” that Julie and her daughter would very much be forced to “go it alone.”
      Reading of the great Broadway revival this year, how I wished I might travel to New York to see it, but recognizing that it was probably impossible, I was, nonetheless, delighted to find on Filmstruck had another this version of this work. I quickly downloaded and watched it.
      Sorry to report, it’s not a great film, but nonetheless it is very interesting, particularly given Borzage’s expressionist leanings. All of the musical New England trappings of the Rodger’s and Hammerstein's piece is replaced with the dark shadings of a Budapest landscape, where the carousel and local amusement park’s lights are projected into whatever space Julie inhabits, including her aunt Hulda (Lillian Elliott) seemingly voluminous basement residence, where the
      Although he continually resists the temptations of his friend, The Buzzard (Lee Tracy), we know that it is only a matter of time when that evil influence upon his life will insinuate itself, particularly when Liliom discovers that his lover is now pregnant.
       This version has none of the lightness and possibilities of the Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s production with the noted songs of “If I Loved You,” the June celebration number, and “A Real Nice Clambake,” and doesn’t even have the ruminative imagination of Liliom’s dream of how his child might turn out. From beginning to end, this is a very dark drama where, from the beginning, we know that in the attempted robbery Liliom has killed himself and is banned from heaven for 10 years, traveling via a modernistic railway to Hell, only after the allotted time to return for his one day return to earth—a voyage which he squanders once again by slapping his daughter’s face in anger, although she declares she hadn’t even felt it but simply heard the whirl of the hand against her face. Julie (Rose Hobart) assures her, as if she were asserting that abuse was natural, that this is what love is all about. The most I could praise this version for was that at least its hero not was polishing up the stars!
      Yet there is something powerful about this dour version, as if it were a piece closer to Carl Dreyer moral drama than the socially dismissive work where Julie’s friend sings of her love for the mediocre Mister Snow, and wherein her stuck-up daughters later dismiss Julie’s child for her social inferiority. If Borzage’s drama is far darker than Carousel it may be better for it.
      And its insistent images of circularity, the carousel and Ferris Wheel, reinforce the fate that Julie even knows, in her deep love for such a loser, she cannot escape. If Mr. Carpenter, a far better man than Liliom, tries again and again to help build up a better life for her, she rejects it, demanding an independent projection into space that may destroy her, but is, at least, of her own making. Both she and her now-dead husband have sought their alternative routes through a society that would have delimited those circular delights of the carousel. If nothing else these figures are not moving in a straight line, even if they are doomed by the repetitions of their fates.

Los Angeles, April 29, 2018

Friday, April 27, 2018

Louis Malle | L’Inde Fantôme (Phantom India)

not on any map
by Douglas Messerli

Louis Malle L’Inde Fantôme (Phantom India) / 1969

Having recently gone through a divorce and very mixed reviews of his 1967 film, The Thief of Paris, Louis Malle determined to take a break in order to reevaluate his life. A planned short trip to India became a stay of two months and led to a fascination with that country that would result in his personal investment in a six-hour documentary L’Inde Fantôme (Phantom India), which, after the editing of over 30 hours of original footage, was released in France as a seven-episode TV documentary.
       As I’ve expressed several times throughout these pages, over the years I have grown to see the 
works of this former “wunderkind,” much beloved by many film-viewers, as films that I find quite problematic. It’s not that Malle is not a great director, it’s simply in how he choses to tell his tales and how he focuses his films on outsiders and voyeurs that, I feel, weaken his cinema. In his various tellings of thieves, young disenchanted boys, and unhappy housewives, Malle often turns to the sentimental as opposed to the wry wit of Truffaut and Godard.
       The overlong Phantom India has many of the same problems. Yet, because the director openly admits that his views of India are precisely his own, and because he makes it so very obvious that this variation of the cinéma vérité is a “film of chance encounters,” the film becomes not only one of his most personal works, and also one of his most fascinating directorial pieces.
       The film is divided into sections titled:

Episode 1: “The Impossible Camera”
Episode 2: “Things Seen in Madras”
Episode 3: “The Indians and the Sacred”
Episode 4: “Dream and Reality”
Episode 5: “A Look at Castes”
Episode 6: “On the Fringes of Indian Society”
Episode 7: “Bombay”

And even here we can immediately see that Malle’s India is not India’s notion of itself, even in the time before (1969) their economic revolution. Instead of visiting the major cities (although both 
Madras and Bombay are visited), Malle stays primarily in the more sectarian and less developed south, seeking out areas which he, as narrator, describes as places where “time has disappeared,” where “life can be dizzying,” and where people are perceived as “fanatics of the absolute.” No Taj Mahal or shining Indian sites are depicted in his film, nor even the joyful and colorful festivals that seem to dominate much of Indian life. In Malle’s world “conditions are always too hot or too cold, which influences the mindset.” And nearly everyone portrayed in his living portraits, many of whom are highly skeptical of his camera and face it, most often, head on, as if challenging it to turn them into something they are not, are, in one way or another, outsiders. As Malle himself describes it, even the wealthy and dominate Brahmins “are outcasts,” “Shiva regulates the cosmic order and sexuality.”
       In Malle’s highly romanticized vision of the country, everything is like a dream, a kind of feral world where it becomes simply an amazing thing to survive. He quotes Mark Twain: “The Ganges is so dirty that even germs cannot survive.”
      Malle’s India is a world of outcasts: the Bondo tribe, which speaks a language utterly separate from any of the numerous other India languages and live their lives, almost naked, literally raking the fields for eatable leftover; the Toda tribe, which accepts an open sexuality for their youth, and has no sexual hierarchies; the Iranian-born Parsis of Bombay, or the Bombay Jews, who, with their dwindling populations are living on “borrowed time.”
      If nothing else, Malle’s film might almost be seen as putting a series of disappearing people on the map, in a way that anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss might (and probably did) appreciate.  And the people and scenes the director captures in his cinematic frames are often beautiful and always fascinating. The film draws you into his outsider vision, while recognizing that it is just that, the view of an outsider imposing his own perspectives onto other worlds. There surely can be nothing wrong with such an honest admission of what any serious director does in the process of making a film, or writer, poet, and artist does in creating their art. If nothing else, this film is monumental in its love the Indian landscape that we seldom see.
       But even in 1969 the Indian government was furious about Malle’s very personal picture of a much broader and developing culture. Today, his work, given the great changes within that country, seems a bit like a film that might have been created if a Frenchman had visited the US and concentrated his efforts on the small, dying Shaker communities, or the Amish farms, American Indian reservations, or survivalist cult groups in Montana and Wyoming. It all might be fascinating, but it surely was not a recognizable vision of the mixed-up people we truly are. Yet, this is, to give Malle credit, a “phantom” country, not truly anywhere on the map, filmed, as he put it, by chance. And it is that casual and accidental relationship with the people and their lives that makes the production so fascinating, a bit like a visit to a forbidden world where we know we are unlikely to ever enter in any other way.
      Yet, here again his Malle’s voyeurism, his preference for the outcasts of societies rather than those who survive within the walls of a culture’s general behavior. And, once again, in taking his camera into these partially forbidden worlds, one has to ask whether Malle also has helped to destroy them. Do the Bondos and Todas still exist today? Surely some of the castes he describes are gradually disappearing. If we don’t really need picturesque snapshots of India’s many beautiful tourist sites, it might still be nice to have a more nuanced view of the culture, a kind of mix of Satyajit Ray and Jean Renoir as opposed to a view of that country as all awkward angles, like the adolescent youths that Malle also portrayed. But then, some would argue that’s a very white western view, just as romantic as Malle’s vision—or even a Bollywood movie!

Los Angeles, April 27, 2019

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Andrzej Wajda | Sibirska Ledi Magbe (Siberian Lady Macbeth)

a trapped woman
by Douglas Messerli

Andrzej Wajda (based on the novella by Nikolai Leskov), director Sibirska Ledi Magbe (Siberian Lady Macbeth) / 1962

The great Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s 1962 film, Siberian Lady Macbeth, even from his point of view, was unsuccessful:

… the only lasting results of my labours are: the wonderful photography by Aca Sekulovic, the character of Sergei played by Ljuba Tadic with enormous commitment and talent, and the set decorations…. The film made me realise how difficult it is to adjust to a new and foreign reality. I understood that a little freedom abroad was not enough: I needed more freedom at home, in Poland.    

   Yet, this film, 56 years later, has very much stood the test of time. Yes, its sets by Sekulovic are crucial; the isolated village in which Katerina Izmilowa lives, with its whirls of blowing dust and the walled fortress of her home in which she lives with a missing and unloving husband and his terrifyingly crude father symbolizes her plight of being a handsome woman locked away from any emotional fulfillment.
     Is it any wonder that the moment she sets eyes on the iterant pig-tender Sergei—who himself has a brazen way with the women, worming his way into the Izmalowa fortress through his  attentions to the cook and servant (Kapitalina Erić)—should immediately be seen by Katerina as mysteriously attractive?  Besides, she is desperate to have a baby to whom she might be able to devote her love and life, something, evidently her husband cannot provide.
     And you have give it to this “Lady Macbeth,” although she is proud of her family’s wealth she has no scruples when it comes her position in this small village’s social world. What she seems most to want is simply a way out.
     Yet, one must ask, what is a woman of the latter 19th century to do to attain that? Surely, if she were simply to run away, as Sergei finally desires to, she would have a difficult time of it. She might hate the world in which she is imprisoned, but if she might control it, surely life would be different. And she has now discovered that she pregnant, at the very moment almost, when her step-father discovers her sexual peccadilloes, severely beating Sergei and threatening to send her of in social disgrace.
     The old man, who early in this film displays a fascination with killing the rats that inhabit his house, is himself killed off by rat poison cooked into mushrooms, reminding me a bit of the recent film Phantom Thread; beware of a spurned woman cooking up mushrooms, I thought to myself. In killing him, however, she can spend days in bed with her new lover, and, after nursing him to health she has ensnared him in her machinations. Sergei, in fact, plays a role that is usually assigned only to women: a figure so devoted to his lover that he cannot free himself from the enchantment. The swine can go hungry, since he has become a kind of dependent beast himself.

     While Sergei, the peasant, clearly feels guilt, Katherina seems to feel no remorse; she has freed herself from at worst one of her major tormentors. And when her husband returns home, forcing Sergei to temporarily flee her bed, she has little difficulty in planning the demise of Zinovij Izmailow (Miodrag Lazarević), who having heard rumors has returned home earlier than expected—although it appears that he might have intended to go away forever.
     But even his death cannot end the legions of those who descend upon this killer to claim their rights. Katerina’s aunt soon arrives with her mean-spirited little son to claim that a great part of the estate belongs to him. Like the young son it Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, one wouldn’t really mind if the little brat, who tortures the local animals, might be sent to heaven or worse. Of course, so many deaths, or, at least, attempted ones, in single family has to arouse suspicions.
     Eventually, the police arrive, arresting Katerina and Sergei, punishing them by banning them to Siberia, to which, with numerous other such criminals, they are forced to take a long and arduous march. Instead of the forest coming to them, they must march to the forest. 
    Despite Sergei’s relative innocence in the murders, we see him, once again, as a sexist monster, attempting to seduce another beautiful woman during the voyage. Strangely, by this time, we side more with the murderous Katerina than with her former lover. She, at least, is still loyal to him, ready to give up her own life for him. Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella, upon which this film was based, in its pre-feminist hero, might have been in league with Ibsen’s Nora of Ibsen’s A Dell’s House, written 14 years later. We sympathize with this intelligent and passionate woman, trapped in a society from which she had few alternatives to escape, although we might not wish to be left alone with her for very long for fear of our survival. Like so many strong women of film, literature, and opera, she is a seductress and monster both, just as likely, if she fell in love, to serve your head upon a plate.
     I should add that Wajda’s film also offers up a score by Dušan Radić that wonderfully incorporates many elements of Dimitri Shostakovich’s operatic treatment of this same work.

Los Angeles, April 14, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (April 2019).

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Jean Renoir | Toni

the doomed
by Douglas Messerli

Jean Renoir and Carl Einstein (screenplay, based on a story by Andre Levert), Jean Renoir (director) Toni / 1935

There could hardly be a more appropriate film for the increasingly anti-migrant attitudes growing internationally in 2018 than Jean Renoir’s 1935 film Toni. In this beautifully filmed black-and-white work Renoir turns his lens on an immigrant worker, Antonio Canova (Charles Blavette) who arrives from Italy into Southern France as a worker in the local quarry, along with many others arriving almost daily into that area after World War I.
      The workers cheerfully arrive, finding housing with the local citizens, as does Toni, who takes a room in Marie’s house (Jenny Hélia), with whom he quickly falls in love, sharing her bed.
    He also makes friends with others, who also befriend Marie. And, at first, things seem quite cheerful, despite the guestworker’s difficult jobs, with immigrant guitarists strumming late into the night, and strolling through the beautiful landscape.
     But things quickly turn darker when Toni falls for the flirtatious local Spanish girl, Josefa (Celia Montalván), realizing that he loves her far more than Marie, which angers his landlady. A proper peasant, Toni approaches Josefa’s father, a local wine-maker, asking for her hand in marriage, which her father agrees to, soon after, on his death bed, insisting that Toni be her protector, and offering him what is certainly a far preferable job as overseeing his grape fields. For a moment it appears that this migrant worker has become lucky and will be assimilated into his new culture with a good job—and get his love to boot.
      The villain enters in the form of Albert (Max Dalban), Toni’s quarry boss, who is also taken with the beautiful Spanish girl. In order to marry her, he brutally rapes her, forcing Toni to except that he has now no choice but to marry the demanding and selfish Marie.
      The brute Albert, beats his new wife and generally treats her badly, while Toni cannot help but admit to Marie that he still loves Josefa. Marie demands he forever leave her house at the very moment when Josepha seeks to steal money from Albert and escape.       
     Discovering her intentions, Albert beats her again, while Josefa takes up a knife and kills her husband, Toni arriving to claim that he has done the terrible act.
      If this plot sounds like something out of opera—and it might be wonderful to see this work set operatically—Renoir, with his amateur actors and delight of filming the everyday occurrences of southern France make it a far grittier experience than the sentimentalized works of Marcel Pagnol, who produced and distributed the film. Yet, as in all of Renoir’s cinematic works there is in this film a subtlety that reveals just how trapped Toni and his friends are from the very beginning. They are not only outsiders, hated not only by French but by other immigrants who have proceeded them, and they remain so, even as they become involved with the locals.
      Just as today when a figure such as Donald Trump, an Viktor Orban, and the right wings of many, many countries, declare entire immigrant populations as being criminal in intent, so are Toni and his compatriots, as different as they are, perceived to be subversives, forced to spend many of their nights in outlying camps where they sleep on the ground. In the last scenes of the film, after being thrown out of Marie’s house, Toni joins them, almost refusing to eat and to share even in their beautiful singing and dances.
      Throughout this film, the great director makes us aware that these men (and the few women and children who have joined them) will forever be outsiders; any attempts at assimilation are checked and squelched.
       And just as the guiltless Toni takes on the crime which he has not committed, so must they all bear the crimes of those locals around them.
       As critic Michael Campi writes:

The cyclical nature of the narrative reinforces the inevitability of the drama and this prefigures such later Renoir masterworks as The River (1951). Of special intensity are the final minutes in which Toni tries to escape his fate by running across the viaduct linking parts of the town. Finally, we can get an overall sense of where these people have been living out their dramas, but it is too late for Toni by then.

    Toni is a tragedy less personal than national, a crime of an entire nation which cannot quite come to accept people of other countries entering their provincial territories. There can be no real justice for the likes of men like Toni, or even like Josefa. They remain at the peripheries of a society that, while possibly attracted to their appearances and even behaviors, will remain always suspicious of them, and demand that they completely assimilate at the very moment that they refuse that process.
      Like so many of his great films—and this one was long unavailable to the American audience—Renoir’s film is masterpiece of the analyzation of his society. And it has a great deal to say to us still today.

Los Angeles, April 10, 2018

Friday, April 6, 2018

Jacques Tati | Trafic (Traffic)

getting there
by Douglas Messerli

Jacques Tati, Jacques Lagrange, and Bert Haanstra (writers), Jacques Tati (director) Trafic (Traffic) / 1971

In Jacques Tati’s final Mr. Hulot comedy, Trafic, the title refers not only to the automobile traffic in which the movie’s figures become ensnarled, but to the “trafficking” of goods, in this case the 
buying and selling of cars themselves. Much like My Uncle, this final work, at heart, is entirely about consumerism, only this time instead just suffering the effects of consumerism, Hulot is himself the creator of a crazed machine of gadgetry, in this case a camper replete with automatized devices that might make even the most urban-dwelling being feel right at home in country life. Even I, who since boy scouts could never even imagine camping out in nature, might be attracted to this set of contraptions, which almost take care of events by themselves—even if you know that, in reality, something is certain to break down.
       We only get to see these wonderments, however, mid-way through the movie, when Hulot and 
his driver reveal them to a group of grungy mechanics at work in attempting to repair the truck in which the camper has been riding. For most of this film is a crazed road trip as the creator of the camper, Hulot (Tati), attempts to get his new product from his Altra Paris factory to a large international auto show in Amsterdam.
      The set in which the camper will be displayed, mock birch trees with piped-in birdsongs, arrives safely; but the camper, its creator, and the American publicity director, Maria (Maria Kimberly), face such a plethora of problems that it seems fate is entirely against them.
       Along the way, they are plagued by flat tires, engine failure, lack of gas, freeway traffic, and a long chain of automobile accidents that plays out like the balls on a billiard table.
     The hilariously well-dressed publicist, in a bright-yellow convertible (as showy as the yellow Rolls Royce of Anthony Asquith’s 1964 film) comes to their rescue numerous times—each time dressed in a different costume which she pulls on and off with the speed of a chameleon changing colorsdangerously speeds down the freeway, determined to get her “product” to the show before it closes.
        It is a hopeless task, as the dumb driver and the flustered Hulot move at an ever slower pace, unable to adapt to the highway life into which they have entered. After all, they are selling, despite all of its custom details, a product that is the exact opposite of the mechanized present and future, a world of the sylvan past. And we suspect that had they arrived at the show to display their camper they might have attracted very few, if any admirers. Like Hulot, himself, now 64, everything in their world has slowed down. As The New York Times Critic Vincent Canby noted:

In Tati's film, an automobile's windshield wipers take on the properties of the automobile's owner. A tycoon's wipers make positive, decisive thwacks. Those belonging to an elderly driver never quite manage to complete a full sweep. The wipers totter up to a due‐north position, then fall back, exhausted.

     And Tati himself, who has always been notably silent in his films, almost disappears from this one, with hardly a single closeup or performance of the sight gags he is so good at. And for those reasons and others many critics felt that this incarnation of Hulot was simply not as successful as the previous two films. But that is only if you truly want to see them arrive at the international auto show; the real fun, this time around, is not even the slings and arrows that Hulot must survive, but the ridiculous trip itself. And the hero of this work is the truck in which the camper is embedded, symbolizing its creators imaginations, a bit like a dinosaur shuffling off to Bethlehem, a new world in which it cannot possibly survive. The fun is all in the journey, while there is surely none to be found in the product’s arrival. The camper, much like the house in My Uncle, is a ludicrous creation that can never be at home in the very world to those it seeks to reach out to.
     It is fitting that the pair most successfully “display” their product to the thick-headed workers in a mechanic’s shop located in the midst of an automobile graveyard, as Canby quipped, a bit like going to a hospital located in the midst of a cemetery. And it’s just as funny to see this relic of a past promoted by a woman totally conscious of present fashion and style. Maria, frustrated, calls to the auto show, promising their arrival, again and again, but, of course, to no avail. The little red engine simply cannot make it up the hill. She’s simply the right person for the wrong job.
      And by film’s end we come to side with Hulot’s defeat, revealing a man fortunately out of touch with contemporary society. The traffic (the automotive jams and the trafficking in goods) is precisely against Hulot’s entire being. A bit like Chaplin’s Tramp in Modern Times, Hulot is simply not a person at home in the world in which he now lives, and we love him all the more for that.

Los Angeles, April 6, 2018

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Luchino Visconti | Le Notti Bianche (White Nights)

weavers of dreams
by Douglas Messerli

Luchino Visconti (screenplay, based on a story by Fydor Dostoevsky) and director Le Notti Bianche (White Nights) / 1957

Let me begin this review of Luchino Visconti’s 1957 film, White Nights, by doing something I’ve never before done, recommending that you first read a piece titled “Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland—Luchino Visconti and White Nights” written by critic David Melville published in Senses of Cinema. In fact, I will be sharing many of Melville’s ideas, while also hoping to introduce many of my own.
     Melville argues that this film, based on a work by Fydor Dostoevsky, which Visconti transferred from the canals of St. Petersburg to the arched bridges of the provincial Italian town of Livorno, represents a landscape that is “slightly false” (I’d call it purposely “theatrical”) while yet pretending to be realist. We must recall that Visconti, a truly theatrical filmmaker by the end of his career, began as a kind of neo-realist. But then almost all the neo-realists later turned to somewhat exaggerated and unordinary landscapes by the end of their careers. But in White Nights it is clear Visconti wanted to present a kind of realism that moved closer to the world of dreams, perhaps a precursor of what later South American writers attempted to do in their works of “magic realism,” creating landscapes that blurred reality to demonstrate the psychological issues of their characters.
     Melville doesn’t argue for this issue, but I do feel in the street-life settings of this film, that the director is creating a kind of hallucinatory world that parallels its heroine’s, Natalia (the outsider character and actor, Maria Schell), state of mind. She, who comes, after all from a land of rug-makers, and whose parents once sold rugs and now repair them, might as well be a figure right out of the Arabian Nights, like Scheherazade, a dreamer who weaves stories to save and redeem her life. Only, in this case, Natalia tells stories to herself, turning her one-time sexual encounter with a handsome older man (Jean Cocteau’s lover, Jean Marais), into a dream-like obsession. She tells her tales to Mario only to save her dreams.
      The man she loves, who has been a border in their home, tells her, in a mysteriously-laden explanation, that he must go away for a year to “take care of some business,” but asks her still to try to remain available for him upon his return. Only a fool, of course, would agree to such a proposition. But then Natalia, in her dream-like imagination, is just such a being.
       The man she meets just before her “lover’s” return is also a strange figure, Mario (Marcello Mastroianni), a man of the working class, who roams the night streets of this small town to discover and share in exciting liaisons, an activity that Melville compares, again convincingly, to gay cruising.
      The night he meets Natalia, it appears he has arrived home too late to truly hit the bars, so to speak, as lights on the small main boulevard go out around him, shutters close, and only one bar remains open. He wanders the rainy streets, looking for something and someone, but, at first, only finds a hungry dog, whom he befriends. Quite by accident he spots Natalia, and later overhears her crying on one of the small bridges that dot this magical landscape. He is, as he later reports to her, “a shy man,” perhaps itself a clue to his own sexuality (although Visconti is very careful to maintain Mario’s heterosexuality in the plot). And he uses that fact as a method to attract her; she sees him, ultimately, as friend more than a would-be lover, which allows him to remain in her company.
     Mario, as we later discover, is not quite as innocent as he pretends. When she does reject any advances he retreats, on another night, to the local bar frequented, it is clear, by both prostitutes and gay boys; as Melville points out: “The most erotic moments occur, not between the protagonists, but in a sleazy after-hours nightclub where a black-clad, snake-hipped dancer (Dirk Sanders) cavorts to 
‘Thirteen Women’, a song by Bill Haley and His Comets.”
      Yet, the honesty and obsession of Natalia clearly intrigues him, and changes him as well, helping him to keep a distance from her even as he falls more and more in love with her. Her request that he help write and mail a letter to her former lover, who apparently is back in the city, is met—at least at first—with his consent; he later, however, tears up the letter without sending it. It is his one obvious betrayal of her; but even then, he remains passive rather than completely admitting to his love for her. It is only later that he admits his actions, too late, it appears, since the Marais character has returned to claim his prize.
      The lonely and still-unloved Mario, at film’s end, is left alone without anyone to truly turn to. In the very last frames of the film, he is befriended again by the equally searching dog, and they walk away into the night together.
      Although White Nights has seemingly remained an under-valued film even by Visconti aficionados, as Melville argues: “With its setting of dark alleys, deserted canals and random encounters, White Nights may well be Visconti’s ‘gayest’ film – even though it contains no homosexual characters or situations. It is perhaps the most evocative film ever about the gay phenomenon of ‘cruising’ and the nocturnal city as a realm of boundless sexual fantasy.”
      Clearly this is not the same world of Visconti’s later richly color-infused, gay transgressive films such as The Damned, Ludwig, or Death in Venice—without even the sweaty and violent gay sexuality of Rocco and His Brothers. Nobody (except the director in the subliminal ways I pointed to) even says anything about being gay. The smitten prostitute is rejected by Mario. And Mastroianni, despite his handsome face and physique, is no Alain Delon or Helmut Berger, the latter one of Visconti’s lovers. Yet the glittering, rain-spattered streets of White Nights portray a love quite outside the normal confines of heterosexuality. These figures all know love as an attraction which is based on obsession and temporality, a thing of body and time rather than tradition, family, and commitment.
     This beautiful film has a territory upon which Visconti treads much more delicately, like its set, placing it in a world of in-between.

Los Angeles, April 3, 2018

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Mikio Naruse | 君と別れて Kimi to wakarete (Apart from You) / Jean-Luc Godard | Une femme mariée (A Married Woman)

two feminist films
by Douglas Messerli

Mikio Naruse (writer and director) 君と別れて Kimi to wakarete (Apart from You) / 1933
Jean-Luc Godard (writer and director) Une femme mariée (A Married Woman) / 1964

     Although some critics might wish to describe the Godard work as a kind of romantic comedy, in its abstraction of the feminine figure, Macha Méril as Charlotte, and the camera’s almost mechanical analysis of her body, there is actually very little romance or comedy, despite the fact that the film begins with her lover, Robert (Bernard Noël), with whom she finds “pleasure” despite the fact she actually does love her husband, Pierre (Philippe Leroy) more, and serves as a fairly good mother to his son, born to Pierre’s first wife.
     Both men want her exclusively, which she refuses, demanding the same rights the French men have often assumed, to be able to have both a wife and a lover. Robert pleads with her to divorce Pierre and to marry him, while Pierre has previously had her followed and discovered that she was seeing Robert. What he doesn’t appear to know is that she is still seeing him.
      The story of the Godard work is slight, amounting primarily to a final reckoning up Charlotte’s discovery that she is pregnant (without the knowledge of which of the two men is actually the father); the director makes it quite clear early on that of two, Pierre is the better man, a devoted father, an intellect, and an adventurer, while Robert is simply an actor. And it is that fact the finally most influences Charlotte’s decision to give up pleasure for love.
     The important thing about the film is the intellectual underpinnings of the work, particularly in the way Godard presents the different viewpoints of his characters. In a radical storytelling device, the director studies the relationship between love, sexual pleasure, and conception. Pierre, who argues that we must never forget the past, has a firm moral ground, particularly in connection with his attention to the Holocaust. Charlotte, on the other hand, lives and acts primarily in the present, not always knowing why or what she is attempting embrace. It is Pierre’s filmmaking friend (Roger Leenhardt) that argues for conception, that the two, past and present, need to be arbitrated, compromised so to speak. A fourth set of views is spoken by their young son, Nicholas, who seems to argue for the future: you desire something and then set out to achieve it.
      Of course, all these views are needed simultaneously to live a full life. And it is only as a family, working together that we perceive the complete being living with knowledge of the past, a lust of the present, and a vision for the future, and is for that reason alone that the “married woman” remains just that.
     The other remarkable aspect of this film is Godard’s presentation of the media’s notions of womanhood.  Everywhere Charlotte goes, billboards and magazine ads call out for an idealized and male fantasized vision of women, women with perfect breasts, with desired bodyweight, and who wear the proper clothing. Her maid even expects her husband to be a kind of beast, and two young girls whom Charlotte encounters in a café discuss what to expect from the boys when it comes to sex, the more knowledgeable of the two arguing that the girl simply must be compliant. Is in any wonder in such a sexist world that Charlotte seeks equality, that she may seek a way to meet her own desires for pleasure.
     At film’s end, we have no way of knowing whether or not she might gain that equality. Yet, it appears she has learned about herself in her affair that she might bring to her relationships with her husband and children, certainly if that second child is a girl.
     In the end, it is Godard’s visual analysis of the problems of his hero that make this movie such an excellent piece. As in so many of his films, Godard creates a structure that works perfectly in tandem with its themes, in this case, the problems “the second sex” face in a patriarchal society.    
     It’s odd that as early as 1933, Naruse as analyzing similar concerns; perhaps not so very odd, however, given his lifelong commitment to showing the lives of women under harsh conditions.
     Like so many of his characters, the hero of Apart from You, Kikue (Mitsuko Yousikawa), and her friend, Terugiku (Sumiko Mizukubo), work to support themselves and their families as geishas. Neither of them enjoys their employment, and Kikue, in particular, is growing older and secretly being called by some of her customers, a “crone.”
     Yet Kikue must continue to work simply to support the education for her young son, Yoshio (Akio Isono), and Terugiku sends money home to her family since her father (Reikichi Kawamura) is a drunkard. Both, however, are given no credit for their selfless acts. Yoshio, shamed by his mother’s profession, has joined a violent gang and has been skipping school for several days. When she returns to her home for a visit, Terugiku is verbally abused by both mother and father, and learns that they now are about to send her younger sister into prostitution as well.
     Only when the gentle and beautiful Terugiku takes Yoshio with her on her visit to her ocean-facing home that he gradually perceives how difficult life is, not just for her, but for his own mother. He returns home recognizing that his mother is a kind of hero, while Terugiku plans to leave her job to make certain that her sister is saved from having to play the same role.
     Again, as in Godard’s film, it is males who define the terms with which the women must compromise. Yet it is the women who are truly in control of their lives, making sacrifices for those around them. Like Godard, Naruse represents his women as the true heroes, while presenting the men as weak and selfish.
      If males imagine that they define the worlds in which they live, both directors reveal that they are living a lie. Or, perhaps, it is simply that women are so much more skillful at pretending.

Los Angeles, Easter day, 2018