Thursday, May 31, 2018

Mikio Naruse | Midaregumo (Scattered Clouds, aka Two in the Shadow)

in purgatory
by Douglas Messerli

Nobuo Yamada (screenplay), Mikio Naruse (director)乱れ雲 Midaregumo (Scattered Clouds) aka Two in the Shadow / 1967, USA 1968

A couple, Yumiko (Yôko Tsukasa) and Hiroshi Eda (Yoshio Tsuchiya), is looking forward to moving to the United States where he has been reassigned by his company. She is 3 months pregnant with a new baby and is attempting to better learn English when she receives the horrible news: her husband has been struck by a passing automobile and has died.
        Against all advice, the driver of the car, Mishima (Yūzō Kayama), attends the funeral, where the dead man’s father and his grieving widow angrily respond, forcing him to quickly leave. We later discover that the accident has legally not been his fault—the car was the problem—but in that car he was also chauffeuring two geishas as he had been ordered to do by higher-ups in his company, a kind of tourist service; afraid of media-attention, the head of the company not only chastises his employee but transfers him from Tokyo to a country outpost.
       Despite these setbacks and rebuffs, however, Mishima determines to pay, in retribution, a small amount of money each month to Mrs. Eda, and when he finds that, after having revoked by the Eda family (perhaps having something to do with fact that the forthcoming baby suddenly goes missing in the plot) she is now living in nearby a country inn run by her sister Ayako (Mitsuko Kusabue) as a maid/possible geisha, he pays another visit.
    The meeting, once more, is tense, but at least more peaceful, and gradually we begin to perceive that the two, despite that tension, are beginning to fall in love, both of them being absolutely beautiful beings, who dress in western-style dress and obviously share a modern way of looking at the world—along with sharing so many disappointments in their lives. Yumiko, being no longer part of her husband’s world, now refuses Mishima’s monthly payments.
        So begins the Japanese film director’s deeply saturated color film, his very last, Scattered Clouds (also titled in some venues as Two in the Shadow). Immediately, this 1967 melodrama, seemed somehow familiar; it was only a bit later that I realized just how much kinship this film has with Douglas Sirk’s 1954 film, Magnificent Obsession, a film wherein Rock Hudson’s character not only kills the husband of Jane Wyman’s character, but later is responsible for her being hit by a car and going blind. And suddenly I realized that in nearly all of the now six films I had seen of Naruse, mostly about women with thwarted loves and lives, were beautiful melodramatic studies very much in the manner of Sirk—even though they lack his deep Hollywood Technicolor treatments or their sometimes almost operatic-like flair (particularly in Sirk’s later works). Yet, I think the comparison is fair, and it helps me to explain why I was drawn to Naruse time and again. I now intend to see as many of films of as I possibly can.
       If in this film, the two unlikely lovers are increasingly brought together, and have quite clearly grown to care for each other, we know, simply from Naruse’s images of heavy rains, trains rushing off into space, and, most notably, their observation of another accident, in many ways similar to Eda’s, that their love cannot be fulfilled. They’re not just in the “shadows” of each other but are unfortunately outcasts to the societies to which they once belonged. With its deep censure of the self and its inability to speak openly of illness and death, their world ostracizes people like them. Might the handsome Mishima driven a bit more carefully and discretely? Did Yumiko abort her baby or simply have a stillbirth? Both of these very beautiful people are doomed it appears by their very commitments and successes. Mishima, even though beloved by his fellow employees, is yet again to be sent away, at film’s end, to a more remote location, Lahore—a place in the Japanese imagination that is the birthplace of cholera.
      Without any other financial support, we suspect, Yumiko may well have to submit to becoming a geisha in her sister’s employment. The few hours of boating and enjoyment they experience are set against not only “scattered” clouds but an endless downpour of rain and unfortunate events.
      By film’s end, we can only hope that these remarkable individuals might find a way to climb out of their purgatory, meeting up finally in the urban center to live the life to which they might otherwise have been destined. But, as in so many of his films, Naruse presents us with little hope for the “best of all possible worlds.” And their departure is a true tear-jerker in the manner of so many Sirk films. Independent-minded women particularly do not fare well, nor working men who have lost the faith of the firms which they so faithfully served (see Ginza Cosmetics and the brilliant, A Woman Who Ascends the Stairs). If Naruse’s films don’t always have the polish of Ozu’s or the innovation of Kurosawa’s films, in my mind he is still one of the Japanese film masters.

Los Angeles, May 31, 2018

Monday, May 28, 2018

Giogos Lanthimos | The Killing of a Sacred Deer

what’s wrong with this picture?
by Douglas Messerli

Giogos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou (screenplay), Giogos Lanthimos (director) The Killing of a Sacred Deer / 2017

Like the two previous movies by Greek director Giogos Lanthimos his 2017 film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is rather quirky work that in its highly fictional elements blends a kind of Kafka-like world with a naturalist presentation. In all three films, despite the impossibilities of the plot, Lanthimos treats them as full realities in which we have no choice, if we are to follow his movies, but to enter; and once we do enter that world we realize despite their lack of credulity, his stories still have deep meaning and connection to our own lives. No, we are not living in separate, imaginary 
world such as that the parents create for their children in Dogtooth; nor are we forced into marriages, as in The Lobster, with a danger of transformation into animals if we do not marry. Yet, metaphorically speaking, we are the products of our parental upbringing, which we can all perceive as rather strange at moments; and we are, in our societies, often shoehorned into the marital condition.
      Nor are we all punished, as in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, for our major failings in the past, particularly not by being forced into a decision for which our children will be permitted to live or die; yes, we have similar stories throughout literature, including the Biblical tale of Abraham and Isaac (in that instance the child was saved), William Styron’s painful novel (and later movie) Sophie’s Choice, and Euripides’ ancient drama Iphigenia at Aulis, which is referenced in Lanthimos’ film. In that play the Greek warrior Agamemnon is forced to sacrifice his eldest daughter, Iphigenia, in order appease the goddess Artemis who has refused to allow the winds to rise enough so that his fleet might leave its port.       
     In this case, it is Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), a successful cardiothoracic surgeon with an almost perfect family—a beautiful wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman), an intelligent older daughter, Kim (Raffey Cassidy), a talented and precocious son, Bob (Sunny Suljic), and lovely home—who is required to make the sacred sacrifice. Although everything may seem perfect in his life and household, we immediately recognize, as critics have pointed out, that something is not quite right. When he has sex with his wife, also a doctor, they play roles, she pretending to be an anesthetized patient so that we might get an erection and, so to speak, rape her. Although Kim is pretty and sweet, they overpraise her singing skills, which, it is clear, are not very impressive. Bobby is praised for playing the piano, although—perhaps fortunately—we never hear him play. Steven may now be a much vaunted surgeon, but in the past, he has evidently had serious drinking problems, one such incident perhaps responsible in a long-ago patient’s death after a car crash.
     A bit more troubling is that before the first frame of this film Steven has been regularly meeting with a teenage boy, Martin (Barry Keoghan), giving him money and gifts. Obviously, we can only wonder, at first, why they are meeting, and we are set up to expect that Steven may be a kind of pedophile; certainly, when Steven’s anesthesiologist friend, Matthew (Bill Camp), perceives that his friend has bought the boy an expensive watch (one which Matthew himself previously recommended), he might have come to the same conclusion. Accordingly, despite the picture-perfect vision of Steven’s life, we know there is also something amiss.
       The surgeon’s relationship with Martin, Lanthimos gradually reveals, is not an issue of illicit sex but of guilt, for Martin is the son of the man who Steven, ten-years earlier had operated on after drinking. It is this occasion of bad medical practice that clearly haunts our hero, and his friendship with Martin is an attempt to assuage his guilt and to rectify the years the young boy has been fatherless.
        But in his bland appreciation of Steven’s good intentions, we realize there is also something strange about Martin. Nonetheless, the surgeon eventually invites the boy to share a dinner with Anna and his children, Kim immediately taking a liking to the polite and seemingly shy boy, despite the fact that he, quite apologetically, has recently taken up smoking. The family has little knowledge of why the boy is in their home, since Steven gives only a vague notion of his interest in the teenager, but all seems to go so nicely that Martin returns the favor, inviting Steven into his own far less well-off home where he lives and seemingly dotes on his mother.
     In retrospect, I perceive that his invitation into his home is almost an possible antidote to what later happens, for in many respects, he is inviting the guilt-ridden Steven to actually replace the father he has lost, sharing with him one of his favorite films; Martin’s mother (Alicia Silverstone), in fact, attempts to seduce him, encouraging him to stay, even after Martin has gone to bed, to try her “tart.” It’s quite clear that she would be glad to become his mistress or, if possible, his wife; and perhaps had Steven taken the bait, his own family might have been saved. True to his own wife and family life, however, he hastily departs.
     Soon after, Steven’s son Bob finds that he can no longer walk. Rushed to the hospital Bob is found to have no neurological problems, and his parents can only imagine that his inability to walk has been psychosomatic, a diagnosis confirmed, apparently, when the boy eventually regains the use of his legs. Yet, as he leaves the hospital, in a long and quite shockingly-filmed scene, the child descends the escalator with his mother, only to collapse as he comes to street level. He also finds that he wants nothing to eat, and later begins to bleed profusely from his nose.
      No sooner after Steven, despite all of his scientific education, begins to perceive that something supernatural is occurring, his daughter also loses the use of her legs and shares the same inability to consume food. The two siblings share the same hospital room, while Murphy revisits Martin’s home, where those within refuse to respond.
      Only later does he again meet with Martin, who calmly explains that both children will die if their father does not make a decision to kill one of his beloved offspring as retribution for his acts.
      Murphy’s relationship with Anna is also in jeopardy, particularly since he had hidden his connection with Martin and she discovers, through Matthew, that Murphy had drunk during the morning of operating on Martin’s father.
      Critic Brian Tellerico argues that the situation is one of a kind of “god and devil” playing out their destinies:

Steven plays God. He saves lives and he makes mistakes that take lives. And he sees the world in that kind of black and white. Martin breaks down his perfectly controlled worldview, and demands something rarely asked of the gods, personal sacrifice.

      Yet, we also perceive just how ungodly Steven has truly been, despite the suburban castle which he inhabits and the moral sacred ground in which he has pretended to live. Like all of us, Steven is an ordinary sinful being of whom the devil or simply a supernatural force is now demanding revenge. As in all of this director’s films to date, we are forced to ask the simple question: “What is wrong with this picture?”—not necessarily the “motion picture” we are watching (although by extension Lanthimos also asks you to judge his highly improbable conceits) but the extravagant societal structures which his films represent. Something is truly rotten in all his various Denmarks—the Danes now described as one happiest of people on earth.
      By film’s end it appears that Steven has no other choice left, as he covers his children’s heads and shoots randomly toward them. The first two bullets miss, but the third kills his youngest.
      Later, at the diner where Steven first met with Martin, the remaining family sits, Martin entering and all exchanging horrific glances. The family quickly stand and exit while the devil, or perhaps just a still-longing boy, stares after them.

Los Angeles, May 28, 2018

Saturday, May 26, 2018

André Téchiné | Les Sœurs Brontë (The Brontë Sisters)

becoming ghosts
by Douglas Messerli

Pascal Bonitzer, André Téchiné, and Jean Gruault (screenplay), André Téchiné (director) Les Sœurs Brontë (The Brontë Sisters) / 1979

French director André ’s Téchiné's1979 film, The Brontë Sisters, focuses on the daily lives of the famed Brontës while basically ignoring their literary contributions. Of the 3 featured sisters and one brother, Emily (Isabelle Adjani), Charlotte (Marie-France Pisier), Anne (Isabelle Huppert), Branwell (Pascal Greggory), Branwell’s art is commented on and actually shown. The fiction and poetry of his own and his sisters is briefly mentioned, and, at one point, Charlotte and Anne do travel to London to convince one of their publishers, Mr. Smith (Julian Curry), that their writings, published under the pen-names of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell are actually their and Emily’s work. Yet, I would think it might be safe to say that if a young viewer had never read the original novels or seen the movie versions of Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, or The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, he might wonder what all the fuss is about. These provincial daughters of a religious leader living on the moors, although seeming basically intelligent and pretty, seem to lack the talents which might allow them to easily survive within society. Although Anne finds a position with a local gentrified family to educate their daughter, the others seem, as Branwell argues, to need to get out and see the world.
      Perhaps recognizing this fact, Charlotte convinces their moneyed aunt to pay for her and Emily to travel to Brussels to study French which, hopefully, will allow them to return to teach that language to locals.
      The journey ends in a kind of disaster for both. Although Charlotte loves the school, secretly falling in love with the married and rather heartless Monsieur Héger (Xavier Depraz), Emily is terribly unhappy faced with the bourgeois young Belgian women who make fun of her plain and English manners.
She prefers the moors, where, often dressed as a man (it allows me to walk faster and more easily, she argues) she wanders, at times accompanied by Anne. Emily likes the hardy and plain holly, while Anne prefers roses.
      Their Brussels episode, however, is interrupted by the death of their Aunt Elizabeth (Alice Sapritch), which Emily appreciates as an opportunity to return home, while Charlotte, when they arrive too late to see their aunt before she dies, chafes at having had to return, rushing back to Belgium and the unresponsive Héger.
     Perhaps it’s inevitable that the director of numerous gay-themed films should, instead, focus on the male of the family, Branwell, an alcoholic and, later, opium addict, upon whom his sisters dote. Emily (and later even Charlotte) wait up nights to allow him secret entrance back into the house after he has wasted his evenings at the nearby Black Bull Inn. Ann even procures him a job as tutor in the same house in which works, for the Robinson family’s young son.
      Indeed, we might at first suspect that Branwell is confused about his sexuality, particularly given the immense effect that his sisters—two of whom, not portrayed in this film, died while he was still a child—had upon him. Téchiné even toys with this idea in presenting his relationship to the sculptor Leyland (Jean Sorel), whom Branwell describes not only as a would-be mentor but as a man of great beauty and power. Clearly, the proud Leyland was also taken with him, deigning to even visit the young artist later in Branwell’s life, when he no longer had any talent and could offer the elder no intelligent company. Even the biographers speak mutedly about his possible gender problems.
      But it was the flirtatious wife of Robinson (yes, just like the Mrs. Robinson of The Graduate) that led to his downfall. Although Téchiné’s film shows us some rather racy scenes, particularly given his lowly position—and especially in the eyes of her cruel husband, who she dares not cross—we are never quite sure just how much of their passion has been realized. Mrs. Robinson, in fact, complains bitterly about his own lack of commitment to their relationship; she too, apparently, is a Romantic, 
seeking a man who might simply kidnap her, allowing her to escape her husband’s boorish world. What is clear is that Branwell is not that man; and seeing her mistress toy with her brother as he falls for her wiles, Anne quits her job with the household, Branwell being fired soon after. In one of his opiate fits, the Brontë brother removes himself from his own portrait of his sisters. He has become a ghost.
       It quickly becomes clear that Branwell prefers the manly laborers he finds in his drinking buddies at the local inn. But even when Mrs. Robinson’s monstrous husband dies, she will no longer allow Branwell to visit her, having failed in his “heterosexual” commitments.
       It is almost as if Branwell’s debauchery, resulting in his death from excessive drinking soon after, that signals a downward spiral of the entire family. Soon after, Emily is diagnosed with tuberculosis, refusing to receive medical treatment and also dying. Anne, ill as well with tuberculosis, requests that she see the ocean before she dies, Charlotte traveling with her to the water’s edge, where Anne also dies.
       Only Charlotte—perhaps the most romantically inclined of them all—survives, beginning a relationship with her father’s curate, Arthur Nicholls, and traveling with him to London where she sits in the opera box of British author William Thackeray (performed, in a brilliant moment of casting, by French literary theorist and semiotician Roland Barthes).
       In the end, if the director does not literally tell us about these four siblings actual literary contributions, he shows them, elliptically, through their lives. We have enough of all their fictions presented—the romantic hauntings of the moors, the harsh teachings of both religious and secular leaders, the unhappy marriages of the husbands and wives who surrounded them, the near-impossibility of lovers being able to sustain their relationships, and the magical moments of imagination that allowed their fictional figures to transcend their worlds, even while being destroyed by them—that we still get a strong sense of these individuals’ literary oeuvres. If nothing else, we certainly learn the context in which their wonderful tales were hatched. The harsh world in which they lived killed them while also giving birth to their remarkable writings which history would not forget.

Los Angeles, May 26, 2018

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Věra Chytilová | O něčem jiném (Something Different)

unhappy women
by Douglas Messerli

Věra Chytilová (script and director) O něčem jiném (Something Different) / 1963

Czech director Věra Chytilová is often seen as the bad girl of the filmmakers of the Czech revolution of the 1960s. Her best known film was her 1966 work, Daisies (see my review below), after which she was banned from making films and found it almost impossible to continue as an active film-maker until later in her life. Yet, as Criterion has recently revealed by releasing earlier works, Chytilová also made other noteworthy movies, particularly her first feature film, Something Different of 1963.
     This film is made even more fascinating through its ties to documentary filmmaking focusing on an unhappy housewife and an aging gymnast (Věra Uzelacová and Eva Bosáková), and for its quite outspoken feminist positions.
      Intercutting scenes between the two, and at one point through a television screen bringing the gymnast into the housewife’s home, we observe that both hard-working females must apparently sacrifice everything, including love, the males, and in this gymnast’s case, other females’ demands.
      The director focuses on the housewife’s repetitive kitchen chores, her daily housecleaning and cooking duties, and, particularly, on her caretaking of her loveable but truly rambunctious son. But even those endless duties don’t seem to be enough for her husband, who in an attempt for them to save up enough to buy a car, insistently asks her to consider washing and ironing all the clothes instead of paying a woman who does them in her house.
      And when the husband returns from work each day, he has little time even for conversation, determined as he is to spend hours reading the newspapers. Even when the couple entertain friends, it ends generally, so the second couple admit, in a fight between the husband and wife guests, along with hurried goodbyes. Clearly the husband has little to do with his son, not even at the dinner table where the boy often refuses to eat the soups the housewife has cooked up.
      For the gold-winning gymnast life is also a series of routines, walking the Balance Beam, swinging on the Uneven Bars, etc. while her trainers shout out orders to her. Even when her husband arrives, he evidently a former gymnast himself, makes further suggestions to improve her routine.
     Moreover, Eva is knowingly coming to the end of her career, suggesting that she intends to retire after one more competition. Her legs aren’t holding up as well, a foot is often in pain, and she has grown fearful of the flying leap off the Vault the trainers demand. Her dance instructor (she was a former ballerina) adds his own derision when she can no longer lift her leg to an impossibly high position while keeping her balance as she does so. One might describe her daily regimen more like abuse, just as the housewife feels is nightly doled out a more passive abuse by her no longer loving husband.
      At one point, both women momentarily rebel, seeking clearly “something different” in their lives. While out shopping, the housewife meets a handsome younger man and begins an affair with him, leaving her son in the hands of others on some afternoons.
       The gymnast suddenly rebels, refusing to continue with her workout and storming off to her home for a few days. Ultimately, she returns to the workouts and wins another gold medal for herself.
       The housewife’s lover proves to be a petulant and selfish as her husband and breaks off the relationship returning to her home and family, begging for her husband’s forgiveness. Yet both these women have shown the family and friends that they are something of value and are able to move into different worlds if pushed too far. These independent-minded women are both extremely capable of what they do, but they need more variety in their lives if they are to successfully continue.

Los Angeles, May 23, 2014

Monday, May 21, 2018

Sean Baker | The Florida Project

so close yet so far
by Douglas Messerli

Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch (screenplay), Sean Baker (director) The Florida Project / 2017

As in Sean Baker’s earlier film Tangerine, his film The Florida Project deals with individuals who most of his audiences would never have otherwise met. Baker does not sentimentalize these figures but is able to create sympathetic portraits that help us all to comprehend, in this case, families at the lowest end of the economic spectrum—particularly in Moonee’s case  (6-year old Brooklynn Kimberly Prince, the real star of this film), a mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite) who finds it difficult to raise even the $38 a-week necessary to stay in the low-budget motel, one of several lying just outside the gates of Kissimee, Florida’s Walt Disney World. The Disney office originally called the new construction of Disney World near Orlando, "The Florida Project."
     The names of these motels, The Magic Castle, Futureland, etc. almost mock the tourist paradise. Yet Moonee and her friends, Scooty, Jancey, Dicky and others will never be able to afford the entry to that magic kingdom and are left alone to roam the scruffy urban territory throughout most of every day. Living the hardscrabble lives they do, these kids are tough and, like many young children everywhere, find ways they can to get into trouble: spitting on the windshield of cars below the second-story balcony of the motel, shutting down the electricity to their building, spying on a topless elderly sunbather woman by the pool, and, in the worst of their delinquent activities, accidentally setting on fire an empty condominium home, which results in Scooty (Christopher Rivera) being removed from the children’s group when his father perceives his son’s involvement in the fire.
     Yet Moonee—and by extension, we suspect, many of her childhood friends—also has serious responsibilities, collecting each day the waffles one of Halley’s friends hands out the back door of the restaurant in which she works, and gathering up provisions from a local church food-bank truck.
     In fact, we suspect this little “pistol” of a child is more morally responsible that her childlike mother, who, after losing her job as a pole dancer takes up prostitution in her room, locking away her daughter in the bathroom wherein the young girl plays with her plastic toys, creating a kind of imaginary Disneyland for herself. If nothing else, she is the film’s emblem of imaginative thinking, at one point taking her adventurous followers on a tour of what she describes as “Safari Land,” a field of cows.
     Almost like Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon, Moonee plays a wonderful con when her mother buys up perfumes and soaps at a local wholesale shop and sells them to tourists at higher prices. Yet at other moments the child in her comes out as she lags behind her mother to create “sandcastles” in the mud outside one of the hotels. At one point earlier, just to get enough coins to purchase an ice-cream cone for herself and her friends, Moonee approaches a stranger:

Moonee: [to tourist at ice-cream stand] Excuse me. Could you give us some change, please? The doctor said we have asthma and we have to eat ice-cream right away.

       If there is any true hero in this ragtag community, it is The Magic Castle’s manager, Bobby Hicks (the always wonderful Willem Defoe), who must play bad cop to many of his customers, including 
Moonee’s mother, while still gently protecting their kids, scolding them while simultaneously trying to protect them from the nudity of his elderly customer and, most importantly, scaring off a creepy man—obviously a potential child predator—while yet offering these poverty-stricken kids a place to hang out in the lobby and even hide under his protected computer space in one of their hide-and-seek games. He is a kind of hidden saint in a world of no saintliness.
         If there is any one father who might responsibly care for them, it is this gentle, hard-working, janitor, care-taker, and enforcer for those, like Halley, who constantly break the motel rules. But even his caring ministrations have a limit, particularly when Moonee’s mother steals Disney passes from one of her clients and then charges a huge breakfast with her and Moonee at the very restaurant where her now former friend works—to the same man’s account. Halley’s robbery is clearly a step too far, beyond even the prostitution which has cost her the friend she had long counted on.
       It is almost inevitable, after the fire and Halley’s robbery, that workers from Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) show up at Halley’s door to take the child into public custody. Moonee, now perceiving her destiny, quickly runs off, her mother chastising the officers:

Halley: [while being confronted by CPS after Moonee runs away] You just let her get away? And I'm the one who's unfit? FUCK YOU!

       Moonee proclaims that she is off to the Magic Kingdom, and although we never know and certainly doubt she might ever be able to enter it, we do know that through her imagination she might enter another world even more remarkable. The director himself wrote of enigmatic ending:

We've been watching Moonee use her imagination and wonderment throughout the entire film to make the best of the situation she's in—she can't go to Disney's Animal Kingdom, so she goes to the 'safari' behind the motel and looks at cows; she goes to the abandoned condos because she can't go to the Haunted Mansion. And in the end, with this inevitable drama, this is me saying to the audience, “If you want a happy ending, you're gonna have to go to that headspace of a kid because, here, that's the only way to achieve it.”

       Moonee and her kind can only seek salvation in their heads. There is little room for them on earth, and it is only in her daily wanderings that she might find a place to live out her dreams.

Los Angeles, November 21, 2017

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Catherine Breillat | Une vieille maîtresse (The Last Mistress)

lustful listening and the venomous tongue
by Douglas Messerli

Catherine Breillat (screenplay, based on the novel Une vieille maîtresse by Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly and director) Une vieille maîtresse (The Last Mistress) / 2007

To describe Catherine Breillat as one of the greatest women directors in the world, while appropriate, would also be to qualify her; it might be better to simply describe her as one of the best international directors of her generation.
     Beillat’s work generally involves romantic tales, some based on fairy and folktales, that involve strong women who outwit the men with whom they are involved, creating a kind of feminist twist, yet calling up the whole genre of romance fiction, with handsome heroes and strong-willed women. The Last Mistress fits many of these patterns, with a more than handsome male lead playing the 
libertine aristocrat Ryno de Marigny (Fu'ad Aït Aattou) and his beautiful, impetuous and demanding mistress and later wife, Vellini (Asia Argento).
      Using richly hued colors with detailed, luxurious sets, and filming her figures often in deep close-ups, Breillat uses all the tricks of romance novels, taking the viewer into steamy sexual relationships without blinking. Yet there is also a sophistication about Breillat’s works that utterly separate them from their cruder forms.
      Particularly, in this film, the feminist-like hero, Vellini, of royal Spanish blood (her royal mother having had an affair with a matador) speaks her views numerous times, including at a costume party hosted by Ryno’s friend in order to introduce him to the rare treasure he has discovered in Vellini. The two do not hit it off well, and at that party, where she dresses as the devil—“not a she-devil” she corrects one of her female cohorts; I do not play the feminine, I like that in my men. She apparently also has a lesbian affair with her maid.
      But the real wit of this film appears even earlier in the form of the grandmother of the young naïve beauty, Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida), who Ryno is now prepared to marry, having divorced La Vellini years earlier. The young girl’s elder relative, who identifies more with the 18th century than the century in which she now lives, is what one might almost describe as a prurient voyeur, forcing the young Ryno to tell her the lurid details of his previous love affair with Vellini while she, dressed in full gown, slowly downs several glasses of port and lounging in pleasure while he details his previous sexual intrigues.
     For most of the film, La marquise de Flers (the brilliant Claude Sarraute) luxuriates in the sexual titillations of the thick-lipped Ryno as he recounts their hatreds and passions, and a love that has become almost become a mad compulsion. I think that the best way to describe this film is imagine a Technicolor version of Hitchcock’s Rebecca with characters from the opera Carmen tossed in, spiced up with a bit with scenes out of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Dangerous Liaisons.
      Breillat, so it is reported, discovered her Algerian-born hero, a model then working in Paris, in a local café (the sort of casting that big male white studio executives did in the days of Lana Turner), and she portrays her figures, that goes far beyond the Hollywood Studio films, as objects of titillation. Both men and women, gay and lesbian can equally enjoy this film. In a sense, Breillat uses a kind of light porno to take home her message that women have the power to turn their admirers into pawns, mere playthings that destroy the male’s sense of privilege and sexual superiority. La Vellini totally enjoys her sexual encounters, while, ultimately, destroying Ryno’s marriage to the far more chaste Hermangarde. All men, Vellini insists, as she locks away Ryno early in their relationship, are “prisoners,” “later you will be my slave.” I can just imagine the excitement of many males, particularly those like Trump.
    Even when Ryno is determined to escape her, moving off to an oceanside coast, far away from his beloved Paris, the cigar-smoking siren moves in on her prey.
     To Paris high-society, such as the snippy La comtesse d'Artelles (Yolande Moreau) and Le vicomte de Prony (Michael Lonsdale)—who himself has clearly experienced pleasure in her arms—Vellini may simply be a “slut,” the real woman, far outside their gossipy corridors, could care less. She is the victor over their obsequious whisperings by her acting out what they merely insinuate.
       By film’s end it is clear the “treasure” of La marquise de Flers’ world, Hermangarde, has lost her beautiful husband, yet she is still pregnant with his son or daughter and will surely rise anew, this time more wisely, to create a new generation out of the old. Besides, she is presented as such a cypher that we hardly care.
       One might almost describe Breillat’s engaging film as a kind of purposely voyeuristic work, the way one might characterize Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. In the end, we must ask ourselves are we more interested in the prurient content like La Comtesse and Le vicomte or as the obviously lustful listener La marquise de Flers? In the end, the director suggests, it doesn’t really matter. Passion is passion; we are not the lovers possessed. Observers, as Vellini makes clear, have no role in the matter. The scorpion may bite the innocent—as it has her daughter, killing the child—but the stronger adult can simply remove itself from the venomous tongue.

Los Angeles, May 17, 2018

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Éric Rohmer | L'Amour l'après-midi (Love in the Afternoon, also called Chloé in the Afternoon)

the winding, never-ending staircase
by Douglas Messerli

Éric Rohmer (writer and director) L'Amour l'après-midi (Love in the Afternoon, also called Chloé in the Afternoon) / 1972

Éric Rohmer’s films are not so much about their slight stories or plot but are more about characters and the interrelationships between men and women. In that sense, Rohmer’s work is perhaps closer to François Truffaut’s films than those of any other French director. As in Truffaut’s work the males are unknowing bumpkins, trying to please the women to whom they are attracted.
       One of Truffaut’s major figures, however, Antoine Doinel performed by actor Jean-Pierre Léaud, if likeable, is also a kind of bad boy, attempting throughout the five films in which he appears to find a beautiful woman who might care for him a bit like a mother, particularly since his own mother was not so very loyal to her husband and not always loving to the child. But Rohmer’s hero Frédéric 
Carrelet (Bernard Verley) in Love in the Afternoon (titled Chloé in the Afternoon in North America) is anything but a bad boy and is very much in love with his school-teaching wife Hélène and their child; his wife is also pregnant and about to bear another baby.
     That does not mean that the couple have no problems. Frédéric admits to himself and the audience that he is a bit intimidated by his wife, and often playing the clown, feels unable to fully share his ideas with her. Moreover, he does have fantasies about other women, even recounting his youthful fantasy that he had a magical amulet that would make all women bow to his will. But his fantasies are harmless; he has not been unfaithful to wife.
     But when the former girlfriend of a close friend suddenly appears in his office, things quickly go downhill. Chloé (Zouzou) is what you might describe as a dangerous woman, a highly independent-minded being with a deep sense of cynicism, a good portion of selfishness, and, admittedly, usually gets what she wants out of men; having dealt with bad previous relationship, she is also somewhat vengeful. The only thing she doesn’t desire is another marriage. But she is clearly seeking sex, and later takes that even further in demanding that Frédéric be the father of her desired child without any of the strings attached.
      Frédéric not only feels comfortable with this attractive woman but becomes quite loquacious, speaking to her openly about his life with Hélène and offering her advice. If at first Chloé seems to want only friendship and emotional support, before long she has manipulated him into shopping with her for an apartment and breaking and entering her former lover’s apartment so that she might collect her clothes and records. And Chloé, it quickly becomes clear, is not as desperate as Frédéric might suppose; she easily gets a job as a waiter in a trendy Paris restaurant, meets a wealthy businessman, and runs off with him to Italy, dumping him there for a young 19-year boy. Upon her return she suggests that Frédéric make time for weekly afternoon meetings which quickly escalate into continued hints that the two have sex without telling Frédéric’s wife. Most people do it every day, she argues; the whole society is polygamous, and hints that his sacred Hélène may be having an affair since she has seen her with another man in one of the major Paris train stations.
       Meanwhile, Hélène gives birth to their second son, Frédéric demanding that she hire an au pair to care for their children. For a period of time he attempts to resist meeting with Chloé, while she succeeds in getting a far better job in an up-scale dress shop, finding a perfect small apartment just above it, to which she now lures her would-be lover. A couple of times he comes close to having 
sexual intercourse, since now they are at the kissing stage, but backs out at the last moment. He suggests another meeting to discuss their relationship, but when he arrives at her apartment he discovers her in the shower, after which she insists he dry her off. He accepts the responsibility, but when she moves off nude to her bed, demanding he join her, he abandons ship, so to speak, racing down a marvelous, almost-never-ending staircase to return to his office, where his secretaries exchange rather knowing smiles.
      But Frédéric, still in flight, simply calls his wife to tell her he will be home early, his meeting having been cancelled. When he finds her alone, they begin a true discussion, which is apparent that they have long needed. She feels “out of sorts,” and suspects something is going on with her husband.
     For the very first time, Frédéric admits his silences and his intimidation, while she seems also be expressing something she has long kept from him. When he finally announces that he has something to tell her, you can almost see her bracing for the worst. Hovering, in the corner of their couch she prepares to understand why he has done so many minor strange things lately. For his part, he cannot even perceive her fears or imagine any that he might need himself. He simply admits that he has been able to tale freer with strangers, but that he deeply loves her and their life.     
     In one of the most beautiful scenes of this film, showing the great humanity of Rohmer and a director and Hélène as a character, she begins to cry, all the while insisting that she is simply laughing; yet as he goes to kiss her, holding her gently against his chest, we recognize it as tears of joy, although laughter may surely follow, since they quickly agree to retreat to the bedroom for sex.
        In this film, the last of Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales,” morality wins out, not just what Chloé has previously described as “bourgeois morality,” but a true inner morality which involves love, kindness, honesty, and faithfulness. Certainly, Frédéric has not told her everything, nor she, possibly, to him. Yet something within them has truly shifted, and we are certain they will become even closer to each other, with the great possibility that Frédéric may in the future be able to better communicate with his wife.    

Los Angeles, May 12, 2018

Friday, May 11, 2018

Miloš Forman | Hoří, má panenko (The Fireman’s Ball)

the horror of celebration

Miloš Forman, Ivan Passer, and Jaroslav Papoušek (screenplay), Miloš Forman (director) Hoří, má panenko (The Fireman’s Ball) / 1967

This year, on April 13, the Czech-born film director, Miloš Forman died. I’d seen several of his American-produced films—after the post “Prague-spring” crackdown he determined to stay in France and, later the US—including One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (which I quite enjoyed) and Amadeus (of which I am not as fond). I determined, however, in celebration of the filmmaker to focus on his last Czech film, The Fireman’s Ball, a hilarious satire that, without actually being structured as an allegory of Czech Communism, nonetheless speaks volumes for the ideals and, most importantly, the general cynicism of the society.
     At the center of this comic masterwork is the Retired Fire Chief (Jan Stöckl), who at 85 is now suffering from cancer—although the volunteer firemen working under him are not certain he knows of his diagnosis, since current doctors refuse to tell their patients the worse new about their health (much, one supposes, like the politicians who run the government). Nonetheless, a group titled “The Committee,” (headed by Jan Vostrcil) determine to celebrate their former leader in a big way, including a grand dance replete with a lottery of foods and smaller trinkets—perhaps as a way of paying for the event—as well as a beauty pageant. They also have purchased a ceremonial fire axe brandishing a special commentary of praise to the retiree.

Even in the film’s very first scenes we suspect that this seemingly joyful tribute might very wall end badly, given the fact that, like the school-board members of Meredith Willson’s The Music Man, these provincials cannot agree on anything, and have no potential to become a barbershop quartet. And indeed, once they have agreed to never mention their former head’s illness to him and that they will all work together to make the best celebration possible, they move, more and more quickly, into choppy waters.
   For, from that moment everything begins to go wrong. While creating a banner for the event, the artist, using a flame to char the banner’s edges, presumably to suggest their vocation, falls from a high ladder, while a small fire consumes his art. Another committee member perceives that some of the consumables laid out on the lottery table are now missing, a bottle of wine and, later, a large piece of headcheese (which he ultimately discovers in his wife’s purse).
      As the large audience begins to dance some of the younger women and men get more and more inebriated, resulting in under-table sexual events and numerous other pratfall situations, including a kind of banana-peel incident when one of the women loses all her fake pearls, one by one.
      The Committee members begin to go on a hunt to find eight women for their beauty pageant, some preferring to explore legs and faces from deep within the crowd, while others take to the balcony to spot the women dancers’ bosoms. But, in the end, they find it difficult to find even eight beauties, while fathers and mothers attempt to intercede on their choices, insisting their own 
daughters be included. When they do find at least 8 women, the girls seem quite plain and truly awkward in even having been chosen. Only one, who is late because she has gone home to get her bathing suit (about which nothing has previously been said), has any panache, as the elderly fireman ogle her, finally locking the door to protect their activities.
      When they do finally attempt to parade the women before the crowd, the shy local girls rush away from the supposed festivities, locking themselves in an upstairs bathroom, embarrassed now by their sudden if momentary celebrity.
       Fed up with the chaos, the dancers themselves begin to nominate their own companions, bringing them forward in chairs and arms, while the women cry out in distress. A real fire, fortuitously, interrupts events as the firemen and the entire audience rushes out to the house of an old man, whose large home is already burning beyond control. Only a few pieces of furniture and the old man himself is saved.
       In sympathy to what has happened to the man, the crowd returns with him to the ball, giving up all their lottery numbers so that he may have first choice. By that time, however, the Committee discovers that almost everything upon their table has been stolen. They offer the possibility that they will briefly turn off the lights so that people may return what they have illegally taken, but no one except the Committee member whose wife has stolen the headcheese returns it, caught unfortunately when the lights go up again.
      When they finally attempt to award their former chief their ceremonial hatchet, they open the box to discover that it too has been stolen!
       One can easily comprehend how such a dark satiric message suggesting that nearly everyone in this small community is corrupt, despite at a few moments of meaning well, would not go down well in Forman’s home country. And several small-town Czech firemen strongly protested the film’s presentation of their kind. When the new Czech freedoms were squelched, Forman’s film was banned “forever.” Presumably the Czechs can now show this film, particularly after the film’s nomination for the 1967 Academy Award for best Foreign Film. But I might imagine that its darkly cynical view of his countrymen still rankles some sensibilities.
      The only moment that this small community actually come together with a sense of communal purpose is during the great fire, but even here we suspect it is more for the spectacle of the event than for any empathetic concern—although some do encourage the fireman to turn the old man away from his view of the fire now destroying his entire life. And once the event is over, as we see, they are perfectly ready to leave the now homeless and fortuneless man with nothing. Forman, in a surrealist scene, shows the old man returning to his bed, now sitting in a snow-filled field near the desolation of his former house. Already another man lies in the bed, which he is simply now forced to share with the intruder.
       In a world of even best intentions, as Forman has written, nothing can work out when the leaders attempt to import their own shared notions of what is right: “That's a problem of all governments, of all committees, including firemen's committees. That they try and they pretend and they announce that they are preparing a happy, gay, amusing evening or life for the people. And everybody has the best intentions... But suddenly things turn out in such a catastrophic way that, for me, this is a vision of what's going on today in the world.” As Forman’s contempoary, Jan Němec, has shown us in one of his own films, even an invitation to dinner can suddenly become a threatening reality when one cannot refuse the invitation.

Los Angeles, May 11, 2018