"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

October 30, 2011

"The Earrings of Madame de ..." (1953) by Max Ophuls (Film review)

We only get to hear the first name of the heroine of The Earrings of Madame De - her last name is withheld with a wink. Louise has been indiscreet and as is the case with offenders whose names are withheld in the papers, Ophuls replaces her last name as it were with a few dots or a dash. For he is going to tell a story of infidelity and appearances.

Comtesse Louise, Madame de ... (Danielle Darrieux, who also appeared in La Ronde), is a rather spoiled child-woman (just look at her clothes and jewels, when she opens her treasure-filled cupboards at the start of the film), married to a much older general (Charles Boyer). Recently, Louise has been shopping so heavily that she has to sell some valuables in order to pay off her debts and avoid a scandal. She picks the earrings her husband gave her as a wedding present - something which is indicative of the cold relations of the pair - they sleep in different bedrooms so far away from each other that they have to shout to say goodnight. 

The General is a typical bourgeois, to whom appearance is everything. The irony is that when Louise pretends to have lost her earrings to explain their absence, this creates such a lot of commotion - the general himself looking for them all over the opera house they are visiting - that it becomes a small scandal after all, even noted by the papers. This alerts the jeweler (Louise has sold the earrings back to the original jeweler from which her husband bought them). The jeweler visits the General and he, again to avoid further scandals, buys back the earrings to keep the whole affair quiet. 

To be rid of the jewels, the General gives them as a farewell present to his mistress who is just then leaving for Constantinople (against her will, probably packed off by the General to avoid a scandal?). The General hopes he will never see the earrings anymore, but he is wrong... 

Via-via the jewels fall into the hands of an Italian baron, Fabrizio Donati (played by Neorealist director Vittorio De Sica), who comes as Ambassador to Vienna. As they move in the same circles, he meets the General and his wife (he has by chance already seen Louise on two occasions and become interested in the beautiful woman). He falls in love with Louise as they dance endless waltzes in glittering ballrooms, where the swirling camera of Ophuls waltzes around them. A whole courtship told in a dance. "They're seen everywhere, because they can't meet anywhere." By showing various balls in rapid succession, Ophuls gives a beautiful visualization of the passage of time. Finally, the Baron presents the earrings which he found in a shop in Constantinopel to Louise, who recognizes them, of course, but does not inform the Baron about their background. Instead, she now treasures them as a memento from her admirer and token of their clandestine romance.

The feelings Louise and the Baron have for each other are giving rise to a small scandal and so the General is alerted. Louise has a weak heart and therefore is prone to fainting spells, but one such spell (when the Baron on a hunt has fallen from his horse) just lasts longer than usual and therefore attracts attention from gossipy society. The General in fact doesn't mind if his wife flirts a bit (he is quite a philanderer himself), but scandals should be avoided at all cost. The code permits sex, but not love.

The General tells the truth of the earrings to the Baron ("It is incompatible with your dignity, and mine, for my wife to accept a gift of such value from you"). The Baron experiences this as a cold shower and is cured of his love for Louise - he is deeply hurt as Louise has never taken him into her confidence about the story behind the jewels.

Louise is inconsolable and although the General is very attentive to her and tries to nurse her back to health, she is blind to the love her husband now discovers he in fact feels for her. As the General tells her, their marriage is "only superficially superficial," - although they have fallen into formal roles towards each other, he loves her and has been patient with her, enduring misery. But she is too selfish to realize this...

In the finale, the General challenges the Baron to a duel. Louise follows them into the woods to stop the fight. One shot rings out - that of the General, but the second shot, which would be coming from the Baron, never sounds and she collapses in agony, victim to her heart condition. The evening before, she has donated her earrings to the local church. 

More than this resume can show, this is one of the greatest films of all time. Ophuls is just as inventive a director as Welles and he loves large sweeping camera movements and long takes like Renoir and Mizoguchi. See only the sweeping take when Louise enters the jeweler's shop, or even more so, her first visit to church - not to speak about the incredible dancing scenes. Or, on a different note, the scene where Louise is on a forced trip to the Italian lakes and sits day after day writing letters to her lover, only to confess later to him that she lacked the courage to mail her letters - we see those letters, torn into shreds, dancing in the air, and then turning into the snow falling in the next scene. A tragedy Ophuls would make only one more film after this (Lola Montes) and die at the young age of 55.

That The Earrings of Madame de... has never been accorded the rank it deserves (why is a film about a gangster family - of all subjects - so often put as No.1?), perhaps because he was regarded as a director of "women's films." But that should be irrelevant in our more enlightened times. After all, Japanese directors as Ozu and Mizoguchi are also awarded first rank status, so it is time to give Ophuls the dues he deserves. The Earrings of Madame De... sets out as a simple comedy of errors but goes on to plumb surprising depths. More than that, like all great directors, in the visual compass of film, Ophuls manages to make life's inexorable flow almost tangible which leaves us as viewers a bit sadder, a bit wiser.
Available from Criterion

"Body Double" (1984) by Brian De Palma (Film review)

A rip-off or a riff? A copy or a homage? Of course, this delightful  thriller-cum-satirical comedy belongs squarely in the second group: it is a conscious play with Hitchcockian conventions and an ode to the famous films of the great master (such as Vertigo, Rear Window, and Dial M for Murder). It is also a satire on genre film, such as cheap horror movies.

Body Double is about claustrophobic Jake Scully (B-actor Craig Wasson), a vampire film actor who has just been exposed to the double disaster of being fired and finding his girlfriend in bed with another guy. Scully needs a place to stay (the flat belonged to his girlfriend) and gratefully accepts the chance to house-sit a spectacular place in the Hollywood Hills (in reality Chemosphere on Torreyson Drive, just off Mullholland Drive, in Los Angeles). The owner is away in Europe and the current house-sitter, fellow actor Sam Bouchard (Gregg Henry), has to leave town for a couple of weeks. Sam shows Scully the bonus of this place: via a telescope on the balcony, one can see into the open window of a bedroom where gorgeous neighbor Gloria Revelle (1970 Miss America Deborah Shelton) performs nightly stripteases.

Scully is so enthusiastic about what he has seen through the telescope, that the next day he follows the woman in his car to a shopping mall and then to the beach. But Scully soon realizes that he is not the only stalker... she is also being followed by a mysterious Indian with a disfigured face.

Indeed, the next night through his telescope he sees the Indian murder her with a power drill and is too late on the scene to rescue her. Scully is plunged into the chaos of a bizarre murder mystery and seeks help from porn queen Holly Body (Melanie Griffith), who seems to hold the key to finding the killer (Scully has noticed that she uses the same dance routine as the victim).

Here are some examples of how De Palma pays homage to Hitchcock:
- At the start of the film, Jake Scully is overcome by claustrophobia when filming a scene in a coffin (and later at crucial moments this claustrophobia will return), just like Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo suffered from dizziness.
- The spying scenes with the telescope call Rear Window to mind.
- Instead of Stewart stalking Kim Novak, here Scully stalks Deborah Shelton in a mall.
- Instead of Hitchcock's camera circling Novak and Stewart, here De Palma's camera waltzes around Scully and Shelton when they embrace on the beach.
- Melanie Griffith (who gives one of her best performances in this film) is the daughter of Tippi Hedren, who played in Hitchcock's Birds and Marnie. Her hairstyle is the "platinum blonde" favored by Hitchcock.

De Palma's camera movements are beautiful, such as a twenty  minutes long, dialog-free pursuit sequence and he uses iconic Los Angeles locations. This is a great film, but also a rather sleazy one, so critical opinion was against De Palma when the film came out. But Roger Ebert praised the movie, giving it three and a half out of four stars. In fact, the film developed a dedicated cult following, and is still going strong today - which is right, because it is really full of tongue-in-cheek humor.


October 29, 2011

"Smiles of a Summer Night" (1955) by Ingmar Bergman (Film review)

Smiles of a Summer Night (Sommernattens leende) is a comedy made in 1955 by Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. It was his first international success. The film is a costume drama set around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.

This romantic comedy of errors brings on the following characters:
- Fredrik Egerman (Gunnar Björnstrand), a middle-aged lawyer, married for the second time after the death of his first wife;
- Anne, his young wife (Ulla Jacobsson), in fact a mismatch with the much older man (Fontane's Effi Briest comes to mind - see my post about this novel), who refuses to consummate the marriage and is rather unhappy;
- Henrik (Björn Bjelvenstam), Egerman's son from his first marriage, who is studying theology, but more interested in the immediate charms of the maid Petra than in the rewards of Heaven - and to further complicate things, Petra is meant as a substitute for his impossible love for his "mother" Anne;
- Desiree Armfeldt, a middle-aged actress (Eva Dahlbeck) and a smart and strong woman, who once had an affair with Egerman - and they still harbor tender feelings for each other;
- Desiree's mother, a retired courtesan living in a huge country house where all characters are invited in the second half of the film to celebrate the long summer night;
- Count Malcolm, a rather aggressive and cocky military man, the present lover of Desiree, but one who is about to get the boot;
- His wife Charlotte, a friend of Anne, who wants her husband to desist from his amorous expeditions and come back to her;
- Petra (Harriet Andersson), the bosomy maid of the Egermans;
- Frid, the groom of the elderly Mrs Armfeldt.

This list of characters already suggests what the story is like, I don't think I have to add anything to that!

Although this is a comedy, it is no light screwball affair and all characters are fully rounded out as realistic human beings. It is also a film rather heavy with dialogue - after all, Bergman originally was a script writer and director for the theater - and there is also a certain Protestant "squareness." But in the end, after various trysts and follies on the long night of the summer solstice, all find their proper mates - setting right the obvious imbalance in the life of Fredrik Egerman.
Smiles of a Summer Night is available in the Criterion Collection.
(Revised August 2014)

October 26, 2011

"Flesh and the Devil" (1926) with Greta Garbo (Film review)

Flesh and the Devil (1926) is a strange film. It is an early Hollywood product, silent, with a story that reeks musty of the nineteenth century, but the film is worth watching thanks to the presence of a young Greta Garbo and a few spots of inspiration of director Clarence Brown.

It is the story of two life long friends, Leo (John Gilbert) and Ulrich (Lars Hanson), who start the film off on a giggly note when they play a prank in their military garrison. Leo is a commoner, but Ulrich is a rich aristocrat. There is a never directly stated, but for modern viewers unmistakable homo-erotic subtext to their friendship. But home, on leave from their military training, Leo sees the gorgeous Felicitas (Greta Garbo) at the railroad station. Smitten with her beauty, he seeks her out at a ball and retires with her into the garden for some private quality time.

Next we find him in her room, languid after a long embrace, and who comes in but her husband Count von Rhaden - she had conveniently neglected to inform Leo about the existence of a husband. This leads to a duel: the count is killed. The military authorities are not pleased and pack Leo off to Africa. Leo asks his friend Ulrich to take care of Felicitas, now a widow, without telling him about his relation with her (to the outside world, the duel was about cards).

After three years, Leo is allowed to return home and what does he find? Felicitas is married to his friend Ulrich! This of course creates a distance between the two bosom friends - Leo never informs Ulrich about his feelings for Felicitas. But the scheming woman now starts playing with Leo like a cat with a mouse... he becomes her lover again... which leads to a big quarrel between the two friends.

But all is well in the end, for the evil woman is swallowed by the icy lake she is traversing to stop a duel between them, while Leo and Ulrich reconcile and reaffirm their friendship. They are so busy looking in each other's eyes, that they miss seeing Felicitas, crying for help, dying lonely... the sinister woman who disturbed their pure friendship is no more...

Or at least, that seems to be what the film wants to tell us. This is all ultimate camp, but still interesting is how Greta Garbo plays the temptress who catches Leo in a web of sex and lies. Garbo has never looked more sexy than when she sits trying on her widow's weeds and dark veil. Or take the garden scene, where she lights a match for Leo's cigarette (he is too nervous to do it himself) and the flame reveals her beguiling features.

Interesting instances of cinematic art are the focus on the clenched fist of the husband when he throws open the door to the boudoir where Felicitas is having her tryst with Leo, and the duel sequence done entirely in silhouettes, like a shadow play. It is a pity that so much else in the film (including the story) is either dated or plain silly.

October 25, 2011

"Amélie" (Film review)

Amélie (original French title: Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain aka The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulain) took France by storm when it came out in 2001 and I was eager to see this film about which I had heard such a lot of good things. Well, it was a big let-down, as the director Jean-Pierre Jeunet just drenches his audience in false cliches and stereotypes. Amélie is as fake as the unrealistic colors and cheap TV-commercial-type effects with which it has been filmed, as if by the lavish use of color filters the director could force it to become a real fairy tale.

Amélie tells the story of a shy, young woman (Audrey Tautou), working as waitress in a Montmartre cafe, who unloved as a child, gradually opens herself to the world around her, spreading good influence to others. This is shown in various episodes: kindling a romance between the hypochondriac, chronically sick middle-aged tobacco lady of the cafe where Amélie works and a customer; faking a letter to convince the unhappy concierge of her building that the husband who abandoned her and later died in South America in fact did love her; and supporting Lucien, the mentally-challenged assistant of the locally greengrocer, who is being bullied by his boss.

The problem is that these people are just grotesque - as are others in the film, like the painter with the brittle bones who never leaves his room and continually sits copying Renoir, or the boyfriend Amélie finally finds, who has the weird hobby of collecting torn-up photos from the booths in the station where automatic pass-photo's can be taken.

The film is full of oddities, for example when people are introduced we get a voice-over telling us about their likes and dislikes and invariably these are weird things like unpacking a toolkit and packing it again, hating shriveled skin on the fingers when taking a hot bath etc. It is all so irrelevant...

The Paris of the film is even worse than grotesque, it is a never-never-land. We get cosy Montmartre street scenes from the fifties (even then non-existent), as if we were back in An American in Paris. Multicultural Paris has been sanitized and is presented as a city (or rather, village) where only native French live together in good harmony. Of course, this film is a fairy tale, but your dreams tell on you.

As the film rolled on, I got not only fed up with the silly cutesy story and the reactionary image of Paris, but also with the snug reds and greens, the tiring TV-commercial effects (like showing a beating heart under Amelie's sweater when she was excited), and the unnecessary zooms and tracking shots probably intended to keep the PlayStation generation awake.

October 24, 2011

"Peeping Tom" (1960) by Michael Powell (Film review)

Peeping Tom (1960), a film about a voyeuristic serial killer, was so savagely criticized after it came out, that it meant the end of the career of British director Michael Powell. Since then, opinion has made a complete turn around and today Peeping Tom is considered a masterpiece, one of the top 100 British films.

As Peeping Tom is rather tame compared to what we are exposed to nowadays, it is difficult to understand what caused such vitriolic comments in 1960. This was also the year that Hitchcock's Psycho came out, a film with much more shocking scenes. Perhaps it was just the fact that Peeping Tom was made by Powell, the director of The Red Shoesa sort of family film, while people were expecting shocking reels from Hitchcock who had already addressed voyeurism in The Rear Window.

Mark Lewis (an amazing portrayal by the German actor Carl Boehm) is a lonely and introverted young man. He works as assistant cameraman in a film studio and as a side job provides naughty pictures to the local newsagent, who doubles as under the counter porno provider. His hobby is film making, he constantly carries a hand camera around with him. Soon we learn the sinister use he makes of this camera: he accompanies a hooker to her room and kills her, while filming the fear registered on her face. Lewis' weapon is a sharpened metal stake made from a tripod leg and he has a mirror attached to the camera so that the victim can see her own contorted features. His ongoing project is a "documentary on fear."

We later learn why: as a child Mark was abused by his father, a psychologist who studied fear and used his own son as a guinea pig. Mark has been scarred for life, although it would be too easy to explain all his actions from this background. Mark is befriended by Helen (Anna Massey), a sweet-natured young woman living downstairs in the same lodging house, who feels pity for this loner. Mark commits two more murders, a stand-in actress (a great sequence played by Moira Shearer) and a photo model, but he tries hard not to hurt Helen. It is Helen's blind mother, by the way, who sees through his real nature. In the end, when the police storm the lodging house, Mark commits suicide with the tripod leg that served him as murder weapon.

There are three aspects that may have angered 1960's audiences. In the first place that the film shows pornography for what it is: sordid, but common - there is a rather mean scene of an elderly gentlemen stealthily buying Mark's photo's at the news agent and carrying them home in an envelope marked "educational materials."

The second is that the film turns us all into voyeurs. Not only because we watch the murders through the view finder of Mark's camera, putting us in the position of the killer. The larger implication is that watching films in itself is a sort of voyeuristic act. Doesn't the white screen allow us to see other people in their most intimate moments, often in close-ups suggesting we are skin-to-skin with them? And doesn't it let us calmly watch things one shouldn't watch - murder for example?

And the third one is that Mark is such a nice guy (in contrast to the nervous Norman Bates from Psycho, who clearly had some loose screws). He is rather shy, but also quiet and polite. This despicable criminal in fact looks like the ideal son-in-law. Today we know from the news that many of the cruelest murderers are exactly such seemingly nice quiet young men, but in 1960 people preferred to keep their illusions.

Is Peeping Tom still an interesting film? Yes and no. For those used to stronger fare, there is not really much suspense - we know from the start who the killer is, the only questions are who will become his victims and how he will be caught. The psychologizing is much too heavy and would be mercifully skipped in a contemporary film. On the positive side, the film is well acted and has some nice sequences, without being devoid of humor. And it is good to see the late fifties in such beautiful colors.
Peeping Tom has been brought out by Criterion


October 23, 2011

"Kind Hearts and Coronets" (1949) by Robert Hamer (Film review)

Kind Hearts and Coronets is a delicious 1949 British black comedy from the Ealing Studios directed by Robert Hamer. It is different from other Ealing products in being ironic and witty rather than complacent and cozy. The film can even be called amoral as it roots for a calculating serial killer who seems to be getting away scot-free. The title is a reference to a poem by Tennyson:
"Kind hearts are more than coronets,
And simple faith than Norman blood."
Dennis Price plays a penniless young man, Louis Mazzini, ninth in line to inherit the D'Ascoyne dukedom, who systematically sets about murdering the eight who stand between him and his title. By "chopping down the family tree" he wants to revenge his mother who was rejected by the aristocratic family for marrying an opera singer. "The eight" - among whom are a banker, a clergyman, an amateur photographer, a suffragette, a general and the duke himself - are all played brilliantly by Alec Guinness.

Price is impeccable as aristocratic murderer: genteel and well-spoken. He systematically moves up the ladder from draper's assistant to partner in a bank, while eliminating all the heirs that stand between him and the title of Duke. The killings are done in a most enjoyable way. Instead of the eternal selfsame gunshot, we have murder by poison, by explosives, by cutting loose the victim's boat so that it is swept over a waterfall, and by shooting an arrow in a hot air balloon, to name a few. The victim in the boat was secretly spending a weekend with his mistress, and Louis observes: "I was sorry about the girl, but found some relief in the reflection that she had presumably during the weekend already undergone a fate worse than death." Price, the murderer, is so sympathetic that we find ourselves wholly on his side.

Well, Price/Louis indeed succeeds in becoming Duke, but at the start of the film we find him in prison... his youth friend Sybilla (played languorously and petulantly by Joan Greenwood) has tripped him up: because Louis was too poor, she married a common friend, Lionel, but soon became Louis' mistress. But she gets jealous when Louis tries to marry his way upward into the family tree with Edith D'Ascoyne. She therefore frames Louis for the death of Lionel (in reality a suicide) and that is how the so successful murderer ends up in prison after all... ironically for the only murder he didn't commit!

Louis has received the death sentence and expects to be hanged the next morning, so he now sits in his prison cell writing his memoirs. That is how we see the film, as a large flashback with extensive voice-overs by Louis (who said voice-overs are no good? They work to perfection in this film!). Happily, at the last moment Sybilla relents so that the verdict is reversed. Louis is released and finds both Sybilla and Edith waiting for him outside the prison gates. Just as he stands hesitating in whose carriage to ride, he remembers something terrible: he has left his memoirs, a virtual confession, on the table of his cell... will he get away again? We can only guess, because this is where the film ends.

This is a wonderful film, with great English humor, understated, dry and detached. The dialogues are sparkling, the English used in this film is lively and varied.

The film was also clearly made when Britain still was a strict class society. It is a sustained attack on that type of society, on conventional morals and on the institute of the family. There are no deeper layers besides that, but its humorous atttitude will definitely put you in a good mood!
This film is available from Criterion.

October 22, 2011

"The Good Soldier" by Ford Madox Ford (Book Review)

The Good Soldier (1915) is not a war tale, as I first thought on the basis of the title, but the story of the tragic lives of two outwardly "perfect couples." It is a story about adultery and deceit and finally about how people can destroy each other. It is also the ultimate novel with an unreliable narrator.

There are two kinds of unreliable narrators, those who cheat on purpose, and those who do not see the truth themselves. John Dowell, who tells the story of "the good soldier", belongs in the last group. He first gives us the story in flashbacks from the outside, seen through his rather naive eyes. Gradually, as his knowledge grows, we penetrate into the heart of this sad story and see events in their true colors.

The novel is set in the decade just before WWI. John Dowell is a rich American from an old Philidelphia family, idle but well-meaning, who has married the beautiful but empty-headed Florence on a strange condition: that he never enters her bedroom! She claims she has a heart problem and any excitement could be fatal so the marriage should remain sexless. An added condition is that he take her to Europe. So they rent an apartment in Paris and spend the summers in a German spa, Nauheim, where she cures for her heart. John is his wife's nurse (and financier) rather than her husband.

In Germany they meet a British couple, Edward and Leonora Ashburnham and they soon become fast friends. Here the husband, Edward, has the heart problem prompting them to leave their English country house every summer for the German spa's. Although the Ashburnhams are perfectly polite to each other in public, in private they never exchange a word. The husband, the owner of a large estate, has been a military man, although now retired, and as he is the main focus of the story, the novel has been named after him "the good soldier."

Edward has another "heart problem" as well : he is a great philanderer. He can't keep his hands off other women and that is the reason his relations with Leonora are so cold. His women also have cost him a lot of money, so now Leonora - the daughter of impoverished Irish gentry - handles all financial affairs.

It is only after the death of Florence that John learns Edward and Florence have been lovers, for a full nine years, right under his unseeing eyes. He has been squarely cuckolded and learns that in reality Florence had no heart problems at all, she just wanted to keep him away so that she could carry on with various lovers. Her death was in fact a suicide, brought on because these events came out. Interestingly, John never blames Edward.

Later he visits Edward and Leonora in England, where he witnesses another tragedy. After Florence, Edward has fallen in love with Nancy, his young ward. He fights against this affection, but Leonora coldly plays them out against each other. When Nancy leaves him, Edward commits suicide, thereby ending the story. The bad heart of Edward was of course also a lie - but despite his failings, Edward is seen by the narrator as an unselfish and warm personality, with as only short-coming his sentimentality, which made him fall in love all the time.

The perspective of the story keeps changing in an ingenious way. We start with the focus on John and Florence, after that Leonora for a while takes center stage, but the final focus is on the real protagonist, Edward, the good soldier. The shift in focus is accompanied by a shift in knowledge, as John gradually realizes the truth.
 
Ford Madox Ford (1873-1939) was the grandson of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown. His real name was Ford Hermann Hueffer. Born in the U.K.. he also lived in various European countries and in the U.S. The Good Soldier is generally considered as his best novel. Another important novel is the his tetralogy Parade's End (1924–1928), set in England and on the Western Front before, during and after World War I. Ford Madox Ford was also an important critic and helped many other writers in their first steps towards fame.
The Good Soldier is available as a Penguin Modern Classic, and can also be found at Gutenberg

October 21, 2011

"Brief Encounter" (1946) by David Lean (Film review)

A married woman (Celia Johnson as Laura Jesson) goes each Thursday by train into town for shopping and seeing friends. In the waiting room of the station in town she meets a man, an unmarried doctor (Trevor Howard as Dr Alec Harvey) as she will learn later. They strike up a conversation. They start meeting on Thursdays, for lunch, to see a film together, then for a drive in the countryside. They fall in love and start searching for a place where they can be in private. But she is being torn apart between the attachment to her family (her children rather then her boring husband) and the rules of society on the one hand (this is 1946!) and her feelings of newly found love on the other hand. She feels as if being engulfed in chaos, although so far they have only exchanged a furtive kiss. They decide not to meet anymore and the doctor takes up a position in South Africa. Their last goodbye in the waiting room is disturbed when a loquacious friend of the woman joins them.

What could be a more sugary chick-flick than such a story? I started watching with some trepidation, but was pleasantly surprised: the film is not sentimental at all. Brief Encounter was in fact rather "Japanese" (Ozu-like) with its understated feelings (although there are verbal declarations of love, which in the Japan of the 40s or 50s would not have happened) and the dignified decision of the protagonists not to meet again. It is all about restraint - of course, England is like Japan another island country known for its stiff upper lip. Falling deeply in love, and then to agree not to meet again in order not to destroy one's family... who in our hungry ego-tripping time where people throw away marriages like old socks, would be able to show such self-control?

There is another reason why I liked this film: it is full of trains. David lean has expertly composed the film around the waiting room at Milford Junction, where the couple has their first meeting and where they see each other every week; the platform where both have to run for their train; the express hurtling past, giving the woman after the separation a brief thought of suicide; and the great steam locomotives and beautiful train compartments carrying them home. But the waiting room is the center of the film and most important scenes take place here. There is a counter selling tea with cakes and chocolate, in real life refreshments the British at the end of the war could only dream of. On the other hand, 1946 was a time that waiting rooms in stations were still clean and decent places...

Milford Junction was really Carnforth Station, in the Lake District, selected by director David Lean because he wanted to be safe  from the German V2s - the film was made in the first months of 1945 when the war was still raging. Filming could only take place when local trains were not running and actors and crew spent a lot of time waiting in the bitterly cold weather - which may have helped to create some of the film's atmosphere.

The music used in the film is Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2 - Laura also listens to this romantic concerto when, still full of emotions, she returns home after her trysts. Celia Johnson only appeared in a small number of films - she mainly worked for the stage and enjoyed a happy marriage to Peter Fleming, brother of James Bond creator Ian. With her expressive, vulnerable face she is perfect for the role of Laura in Brief Encounter.
Available in the Criterion Collection

October 16, 2011

"The Red Shoes" (1948) by Powell & Pressburger (Film review)

The Red Shoes (1948), by the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger ("the Archers"), has been called "the best ballet film ever made," and also "quintessential backstage drama" a la Chorus Line. Artistry nor expenses were spared to bring some color to the drab post-war years in Great-Britain: glorious Technicolor, beautiful cinematography, Oscar-winning sets and music, and an experly choreographed central dance sequence. The star of the film, Moira Shearer, was a real-life ballerina with the Sadler-Wells company.

The story is about the age-old choice between dedication to art and the demands of life. Rising star ballerina Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) has to choose between her love for a young composer, Julian Craster (Marius Goring), a rising star like herself, and Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), the ruthless impresario of the Ballet Lermontov - based on Diaghilev -, living only for art and  intent on perfection.

Page becomes star dancer in a ballet written by Craster and choreographed by Lermontov, based on the story "The Red Shoes" by Hans Christian Andersen. It is the fable of a young girl who puts on a pair of red slippers that help her to dance as she never danced before, but then will not allow her to stop dancing until she drops dead. The arrogant, curt, and imperious Lermontov is a sort of Mephistopheles (although he has nothing sinister). He promises to make Page the greatest dancer ever, but demands obedience above all else and forbids her to have a private life. After she falls in love with composer Craster, both are fired. When Lermontov later relents and allows Page to come back to dance in the Red Shoes, Craster leaves the opening night of his first opera to reclaim her. He argues over her with Lermontov. Torn between two opposites, as soon as Victoria Page puts on the red shoes, they take control of her and lead her outside where she jumps to her death.

I love classical music and ballet, so I should be fascinated by a film with a 15-minute dance sequence at its core. Well, not really. The Red Shoes is Gothic, blubbery, melodramatic and as full of holes as a Swiss cheese. To name a few points: no young composer would walk out of Covent Garden when he is about to conduct his first opera there, no ballerina would run out of the theater just as the curtain is about to rise. Backstage, adjustments of private life with art are continuously being made. There can be real conflicts here, especially in the mid-twentieth century when women were more restricted in their choice, but it is ridiculous to have such problems lead to suicide. Of course, in the film it was "the force" of the red shoes that led Victoria Page to her death, but the problem is that she could not have been wearing those red shoes before the start of the performance... it was part of the ballet that she changed into them on-stage (the directors knew this, but kept this incongruent last scene for melodramatic impact).

There are other things. This 1948 film has a strong 19th century look with ballrooms, expensive hotels in southern France, beautiful fluffy dresses, private carriages in trains pulled by steam locomotives, and Lermontov being attended to like a feudal lord. I would have liked to see ballet and classical music as part of modern life, rather than a bygone age. The music of the ballet (composed by Brian Easdale), too, is more of the 19th century - in line with Hollywood film music, so it brought in an Oscar -, but only listen to Stravinsky, Prokofiev or Copland to hear what real 20th century ballet music sounds like.

The Red Shoes as a whole is like an expensive stage set, beautiful but fake. The characters (except, partly, Lermontov) remain pieces of cardboard and the atmosphere is stilted and old-fashioned. This heap of kitsch is the opposite of how I would like to see a film about ballet.

Being a ballet dancer is as heavy as top sport. This film lacks the essential quality: the reek of sweat.
Moira Shearer herself opted in the end for private life over a lasting career in ballet and film. In a 1994 interview she said about The Red Shoes: "The whole story of Victoria Page is such nonsense from the point of view of any real person [...]. You have to take that film with a huge tin of salt, because there was never a ballet company anywhere which was like that. I'm sure no dancer of any generation ever had this supposedly appalling problem ending in suicide, if you please - between real life and the ballet."
The Red Shoes has been brought our by Criterion.

October 11, 2011

"My Man Godfrey" (1936) with William Powell (Film review)

My Man Godfrey was made in the depths of the Depression, a period that seems strangely familiar, with just such a wide gulf between have-nots and the very rich as today in the U.S. But this is a Hollywood film, so it stops short of social commentary and winds up with the usual feel-good fairy tale.

The idle rich spend their leisure playing games and one such a party game brings scatterbrained socialite Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard) to the city dump where she meets Godfrey (William Powell), a vagrant. He has just rebuffed the haughty advances of Irene's proud sister Angelica (Alice Brady), and plays the game along with Irene. Out of gratitude she hires him as the family butler... but we will see that there is more to Godfrey than meets the eye.

[Image from Wikipedia]

The film satirizes the life of the nutty Bullocks: two empty-headed sisters, one bitchy and the other petulant, and a loony mother (Alice Brady) who has a live-in protégé, a composer mainly known for leaping around the room like a gorilla. Father-businessman Alexander (character actor Eugene Pallette ) is the only sane one: "What this family needs is discipline. I've been a patient man, but when people start riding horses up the front steps and parking them in the library, that's going a little too far. This family's got to settle down!"

The professionally buttling Godfrey, with typical attentive posture and measured voice, survives this menagerie, even when Irene starts imagining she is in love with him ( "I'd like to sew his buttons on sometime, when they come off" - as Ebert reminds us, elegant trousers didn't have zippers but buttons in the 30s). But at a party he is almost unmasked by a college friend - far from a vagrant, he is a rich person himself, down on his luck because of a broken heart. So when the finances of the Bulloks are in peril, he saves them and also buys up the city dump to turn the location into a posh restaurant (the other vagrants are employed as waiters)... and of course, Hollywood-style, the girl does get him in the end.

This film by Gregory La Cava is beautifully photographed, from the opening credits resembling lighted billboards to the interiors and elegant dresses. Moreover, it boasts sophisticated humor and a great set of actors. Happily, contrary to most other screwball comedies, it doesn't loose itself in slapstick or shouting matches. I was so caught up in the spell of this wonderful film that I didn't mind the romantic, implausible  ending - it was just great fun.

My Man Godfrey is one of the great comedies of the 20th century.
My Man Godfrey is in the public domain. Watch it at Internet Archive.

October 10, 2011

"Platinum Blonde" (1931) with Jean Harlow (Film review)

Platinum Blonde is an early Frank Capra film about a young woman (Jean Harlow) from a rich and distinguished family who impulsively marries a rather boorish newspaper reporter (Robert Williams). Each assumes the other is the one whose lifestyle must change, but of course that only goes so far...

The film is named after the hairstyle of Jean Harlow, who played one of her first major roles. Harlow has been called the role model for Marilyn Monroe and it doesn't take long to see why. Tragically, she died six years after making this film of a kidney disease, at the young age of 26. Although the film was promoted as a vehicle for Harlow (the film company had even lined up beauty salons to transform any interested woman into a "platinum blonde"), it is carried by Robert Williams - another actor who died young, in fact shortly after completing this film. A third interesting presence is Loretta Young, who plays his colleague/assistant, patiently waiting until his fling with Harlow misfires.

Although there are funny moments - especially when Williams against his protestations to the contrary, is completely encapsulated in the rich household of Harlow, even wearing the garters she gives him - as a whole the film didn't work for me. Williams is too aggressive and loud (can't he speak in a normal voice?) and in fact, boorish and uncouth - in the last part of the film, I found him positively offensive. That is of course the fault of script and director, who aim blow after blow at the lifestyle of the rich Schuyler family. But Williams has invited himself into their house and could have behaved more politely and tactfully - he really is the greatest screen yokel I have ever seen.

That's why I found myself rooting for Jean Harlow, her elderly mother, even her weak brother - and the butler, although he is no Jeeves. The "official underdog," the plebeian Williams, is so distasteful that the rich family starts looking like the actual  underdog, and that can't have been the intention of the film.


October 9, 2011

"The Lady Eve" (1941) with Barbara Stanwyck (Film review)

The Lady Eve (director Preston Sturges and with Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda as major actors), begins as a great sophisticated comedy but halfway is almost sunk by a wave of  broad slapstick.

[Image Wikipedia]

Fonda plays the naive Charles Pike, heir to a brewery fortune. On his return from South America, at the cruise ship, the eyes of all single women are turned towards the table where he sits immersed in a book about his hobby, snakes (remember the snake of Paradise?). Con-artist Jean Harrington (Stanwyck) takes action (as a real Eve she has already dropped an apple on his head when he was boarding the ship): when he passes her table, she sticks out her foot so that he trips and falls. As he picks himself up she blames him for breaking off the heel of her shoe and asks him to help her to her cabin so that she can change her shoes. She lets him choose new foot-gear, has him kneel on the floor, and swings her nyloned leg right in his face. You see him blushing, even in black-and-white. That's how one catches a man!

Later that evening she is frightened by one of his snakes and uses that as an excuse to have him hold her tight, again kneeling on the floor beside her, while she keeps running her fingers through his hair in a very sexy way. More was not possible in 1941, but suggestion is often more powerful than naked reality. Charles is literally paralyzed by this exquisite torment. She calls him affectionately (but also humiliating) "Hopsy" after the beer his father brews.

Her father, a card sharper, is traveling with her and attempts to bamboozle "Hopsy," but has to abandon his plan as Jean is clearly falling in love with their prey and protects him. But later her identity as an adventuress will trip her up. When Charles learns the truth about her, he hypocritically breaks off their relationship.

That is the great part of the film. The next part takes place in the parental home of Charles (his monumental father is Eugene Pallette), where she has herself introduced as a visiting English lady, in an attempt to reconquer his heart. She only disguises her voice, but Charles is fooled and doesn't recognize her (impossible to believe, even in the artificial world of a screwball comedy). He falls for her again. Unfortunately he also falls over the furniture, and has himself showered with a tray with drinks and a plate with gravy. He keeps tripping and falling and sophistication makes place for broad slapstick. To add insult to injury, father Pike sits banging like a big baby on the plates and saucers when he is not served quickly enough.

A more interesting scene arrives again when Charles and Jean (still as English lady) are off by train for their wedding night. Jean now takes revenge for Charles' behavior on the ship. Instead of letting her new husband enjoy a romantic night, she keeps telling him stories about all her other lovers, a protracted and ingenious mental torture, until he gets so fed up that in the middle of the night, and in the middle of nowhere, he jumps out of the train.

In the end, everything of course turns alright, again aboard the cruise liner, now on its way back to South America. Jean lets Charles again trip over her foot, has him take her to her cabin and then the door remains closed to the camera while we hear sounds that suggest a final romantic union.

[Barbara Stanwyck - Photo Wikipedia]

The fun of this film is that it is the woman who is in charge and not only that, she positively enjoys tormenting her lover and making him look silly. Barbara Stanwyck has all the sophisticated sexiness, grace and innuendo that is necessary for this role. She seduces Henry Fonda in the most casual way, even with open contempt.  “I need him,” she says, “like the axe needs the turkey.” There is no romance here, only irony.

But all this cruelty is far from unpleasant. In fact the tone of the film is very happy, not to say exhilarating. It could have been much more without the silly slapstick and improbable & impersonation in the second part, but even as it is, The Lady Eve is a coldly brilliant comedy.

Available in the Criterion Collection.

October 5, 2011

"The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde

The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.

Oscar Wilde published his only novella, The Picture of Dorian Gray, in 1891. It is the story of "beautiful boy' Dorian Gray, who is taken under the wing of the cynical Lord Henry, who teaches him how to be a cruel hedonist - the only things worth pursuing in life are beauty and fulfillment of the senses, he teaches.

Dorian has had his picture painted by artist Basil Hallward, who is infatuated with him, and succeeds in creating a masterwork. Seeing his youthful self on canvas, Dorian wishes that he may always remain young, instead the picture should grow old. Dorian's wish is magically fulfilled...

Under the evil influence of Lord Henry, he plunges himself into debauched acts. He first leads a young actress to her doom, then destroys the lives of several young men. He also becomes a visitor to the opium dens of London. Each time when he views his portrait (carefully hidden from the gaze of others), he sees the effect such acts have had on his soul - the face in the portrait grows dark, cruel and mean. But he himself feels no remorse, or even responsibility.

Finally, Dorian will become a murderer, killing Basil who irritates him with his moralizing, and himself hunted by the brother of the actress who seeks revenge. And then the only solution is the destruction of the portrait...

This is a typical fin-de-siecle melodrama, as intricate as a chalice by Lalique and ultimately as superficial. Dorian Gray leads a double life, like a second Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde. But he is totally uninteresting, a type and not a character. I also couldn't care less for his concern of keeping his young looks - it is by growing and developing themselves that human beings become interesting, not by preserving a baby face.

What pulled me through the book were the witty conversations of Lord Henry, who speaks in epigrams and whose every word would fit in a collection of quotations. He glitters in the conversations with Dorian Gray, but even more so at social occasions as dinner parties, and is like a character in one of Wilde's plays as Lady Windermere's Fan. Here are a few (I only endorse the second one about laughter; the third one serves to show how misogynistic the novel is):
"The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful." 
"Humanity takes itself too seriously. It is the world's original sin. If the cave-man had known how to laugh, History would have been different."
"My dear boy, no woman is a genius. Women are a decorative sex. They never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly. Women represent the triumph of matter over mind, just as men represent the triumph of mind over morals." 

There are many editions of The Picture of Dorian Gray available, but it can also be found on Gutenberg or in a free audio-version. It has been countless times adapted for the screen.

October 4, 2011

"Lady Audley's Secret" by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (Book Review)

Lady Audley's Secret is a typical Victorian potboiler written by the prolific Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835-1915). It has been written with theatrical flair and reads fast. Unfortunately, despite a flying start, with an interesting mystery and fresh descriptions, the second half of the novel is rather unsatisfactory, not only because it gets bogged down in the too detailed procedure of a private crime investigation, but also because the focus shifts. The clue is revealed too soon, in a rather heavy-handed way, shutting off the engine so to speak, after which we get a rather nasty solution to a mystery that has turned into a family melodrama.

The plot centers on a case of accidental bigamy. Old Lord Audley falls in love with a beautiful young woman, Lucy, who almost could have been his granddaughter. She is cute, lively and dollish, with lots of blonde curls, the ideal type for Victorian men (think of Lilian Gish). But her past is a secret. In fact, as in the course of the novel is revealed, she was already married, although husband No. 1 left her suddenly to try his luck in Australia and didn't show his face (or let her hear from him) for three full years, so she herself also set out on a new course of life.

She realizes her dream by marrying Lord Audley, and so escaping poverty, but then husband No. 1, George Talboys, suddenly returns, setting a dramatic chain of events in motion. George disappears, a crime is suspected... The part of detective is taken on by George's friend and (a bit too accidentally) nephew of Lord Audley, Roger Audley - a typical phlegmatic member of the British upper classes who is only interested in cigars and French novels. Roger Audley is the main character in the novel, but not a very interesting one because of his idleness. He is contrasted with George Talboys, the man of impulsive action, the other extreme.

Whatever way you look at it, the most interesting person in the novel is Lucy Graham/Audley. But she doesn't have the sympathy of the author. Mary Elizabeth Braddon criticizes Lucy's childish demeanor and introduces other, stronger women as positive examples, such as the daughter of Lord Audley who is a very sportive and masculine type, or the serious and motherly sister of George Talboys. But I find Lucy very strong - appearance is not everything. After all, she has taken life-changing action when she felt bogged down and does not allow anyone to subdue her.

But she was an evil one for the Victorians - they found it shocking to see how crime could invade the sacredness of the home. That reflects Victorian urbanization and uneasiness about living together with strangers in the big city. How can you be sure people are really what they say they are? Incidentally, it was this atmosphere that gave rise to the modern detective novel.

One reason I disliked the final part of the novel is because the author has Lucy packed off to a madhouse in Belgium, something she apparently approves of. A law case would be embarrassing for the Audleys, so they get silently rid of her. But the author is unable to convince me that Lucy really is insane - on the contrary. This is apparently the way how Victorian society treated women who had become a liability. The author seemingly stands on the side of 19th century society where the administrative offense of bigamy was seen as a worse crime than locking up people (mostly women) for the rest of their lives under the pretext of insanity.

Mary Elizabeth Braddon was inspired by a real case of bigamy that had been sensationally reported in the papers just a year before she published Lady Audley's Secret in 1862. There were also parallels with her own life. She was living together with a publisher, John Maxwell, who had his wife locked up for insane in Ireland. And she herself was also close to bigamy, as for many years she was this man's de facto wife, bearing him six children, and bringing up five he had from his previous marriage (she later married him after his wife died in the asylum).

Braddon's sensation novels were inspired by similar endeavors by Wilkie Collins, who around this time wrote The Woman In White. It was sensation time in British literature and Braddon remained a popular author until her death in 1915, steadily turning out one or two novels a year. After that she was forgotten, until feminism in academia in more recent years rediscovered her work. But I argue that Braddon is betting on the wrong feminist horses. She should have taken up the case of Lucy (after all, isn't Lucy's position like that of the "mad woman in the attic" in Jane Eyre?)!
Available as an Oxford World Classic and, of course, free on Gutenberg. There is also a free Librivox recording

"M*A*S*H" (1970) by Robert Altman (Film review)

M*A*S*H means "Mobile Army Surgical Hospital," and that is the place where during the Korean war two young surgeons, Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt) meet each other. They use surrealistic humor to keep their sanity in the face of the horrors of war. The film consists of a series of loose episodes and ends when Hawkeye and Duke leave the hospital.

I only knew the TV series and saw the film now for the first time. I must say it is much more subversive than the TV series (with different actors and actrices - strange, by the way, to see M*A*S*H without Alan Alda!). Made in 1970, this is not so much a film about the Korean war as about the war in Vietnam. The surrealism reminded me of Catch-22, as well as of the under-cooled humor and nonsense conversations of Easy Rider. It is not a real anti-war film, but rather an exercise in black-humor showing how war causes the worst in human beings to come out - instead of making them heroes. Fun is also made of the true believers in military rules, religious phony Major Burns (Robert Duval) and stiff but sexy head nurse "hot lips" Houlihan (Sally Kellerman). When these two moralists make secretly love, Haweye and Duke hook up the PA system so that the whole camp can listen in.

That is the level of other pranks as well: exposing "hot lips" in the shower by hoisting up the tent from around her, drugging a general and photographing him in sex club, enacting the Last Supper for a buddie who contemplates suicide because he thinks he is impotent, and an inter-army football game with heavy betting that outstays its welcome. And in between juvenile jokes we have grueling scenes of surgery, with lots of tomato juice.

One thing that struck me is that this film which has the reputation of being so free and liberal, is in fact painfully sexist when seen with the eyes of today.

It is also a typical late sixties film, laid-back, discursive, not going anywhere. You don't feel their experience has made a difference to them when Hawkeye and Duke return to the U.S. The rather abrupt ending in fact makes everything they have been through seem all the more pointless.

That is also the film's problem: I didn't feel involved and only smiled at all the nonsense going on. And immediately forgot about it.