Sunday, 19 August 2007

Persona (Sweden, 1966, Ingmar Bergman)

The film world sadly lost two of its greats on 30 July this year, when Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman passed away. Having already reviewed Antonioni’s ‘Professione: Reporter’ (and won’t someone finally release his classic early 60s films on DVD?), I thought it was time Bergman received the same treatment. Shamefully to this point I have only seen a few of his films, from the great ‘Cries and Whispers’ to the less great ‘From the Life of Marionettes’. Persona certainly resides with the greats and compares favourably with them.

Persona is a film of great psychological depth that a regular plot synopsis really gives little indication of the greatness of the film, but I will try. A young nurse named Alma has been requested to care for Elizabet, a stage actress who suddenly became mute during a performance of Electra, and has remained so for three months. Persona then charts the relationship between the two women which is of a symbiotic nature, but has been the nature of numerous interpretations ever since the film’s release. Alma and Elizabet retreat to a rural residence which has been considered by her doctor to be a perfect place to recuperate. Since Elizabet has become mute, the conversations are all one way traffic, with Alma telling Elizabet of her fears and anxieties (her lack of ambition and so on) as well as stories of her past. The most notable of these is a tale of a sexual awakening when on holiday with her husband, when Alma and another girl, a total stranger, had an orgy with two male strangers. Alma mentions that she has never enjoyed such good sex with her husband since, nor was it ever that good before.

Much is made of the physical resemblance of the actresses; not extraordinarily so, but it was certainly a deliberate piece of casting by Bergman to choose both Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullman in these roles. Alma frequently mentions how they are alike and how she could turn herself into her. There is a very famous shot at this point, where the two characters’ faces seem to merge as they turn their heads towards each other. Not only this, but is this an indication that their identities are merged as well? This is one of the major interpretations of the film; that Alma and Elizabet are one and the same person, and there are several clues in the film which sustain this argument. There is one scene where Elizabet speaks and suggests Alma goes to bed, and Alma reacts as if nothing has happened and repeats Elizabet’s words exactly. More crucially perhaps is the appearance of Elizabet’s husband at the country home. He ‘mistakes’ Alma for his wife, and after a brief denial, she confirms this. Elizabet is ‘present’ but it is as if she isn’t there. What’s more, she moves Alma’s hand towards Mr Vogler’s face. After he leaves, Alma begins to deny being Elizabet, although half of Elizabet’s face is then transposed onto hers as if to confirm they are one person and the characters represent one part of this person (Alma is the Spanish word for soul). Plus, Alma seems to know all about Elizabet. In the final scenes, she accurately sums up Elizabet’s concerns about motherhood and her rejection of her son (the film is filled with references to tragedies of great psychological stature, e.g. Oedipus, Electra). This is certainly a convincing interpretation, which I am more than happy to align to align myself with. Where the relationship is mutually beneficial in some ways, it is mutually destructive in others (such as the slightly gruesome scene when Alma scratches her arm deliberately and Elizabet sucks the blood).

Much can be interpreted from Bergman’s use of interludes of clips from films, which some have cited as a Brechtian alienation technique. The film begins with several clips, which includes crucifixion, a dead sheep, a cartoon, a spider (which Bergman uses as a symbol to represent God elsewhere) and notably a boy whose mother’s face is projected, distorted, on a screen (which I’m sure is meant to be Elizabet’s son). In some school of psychological thought, these represent childhood images of trauma, but it also represents an indication of the fictional and artificial nature of the film on Bergman’s part.

Persona is certainly the kind of film you have to take at more than just face value. If you’re willing to invest time and thought, there’s so much to explore. It’s a remarkably deep and provocative account of a breakdown, filled with psychoanalytic insight. It’s clearly the work of a film maker at the peak of his powers, effortlessly outstripping his contemporaries time and again. And then there are the stunning performances of two outstanding actresses, which I’ve barely mentioned. Persona is one of the most striking and powerful films you could ever watch. Perfect.

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Devi (India, 1961, Satyajit Ray)

One of the first post-Apu films of Ray’s career takes as its main themes religious obsession and superstition. The opening titles refer to Kali, a revered deity, who is then worshipped during an elaborate ceremony by the community of a small Indian village. Rumour has it that Kali is sometimes reincarnated in human form, a belief which is taken most seriously by the old and infirm Kalikinkar. When his son, Uma, leaves to study in Calcutta, he becomes reliant on his daughter in law, Doya, whom he believes to be the goddess reincarnated after a feverish vision. Despite initial scepticism amongst some in the village, and even within the old man’s own family (his other daughter in law thinks it’s ridiculous, and is proclaimed jealous, whilst her husband seems to ‘believe’ just to please his father who favours his more academically minded son), such is the old man’s influence and authority within the village that many become convinced, especially when the Doya appears to perform miracles. A peasant brings his dying child to see her, whom she apparently cures.

Her husband believes the old man is out of his mind, and tries to take his Doya away from the village to Calcutta. However, she is now convinced that she is indeed Kali reincarnated, and refuses to leave with him. The true test of her divinity arises when her nephew, Khoka falls ill. His mother, unconvinced by the whole situation, refuses to take her son to see Doya. Her husband tells Kalikinkar, who then insists upon Doya curing the boy. Of course, tragedy strikes.

Doya’s husband, upon his return, is the only person who can make sense of what happened. Kalikinkar thinks the boy died because he was punished for his own sins. His son tells him he was responsible, because he didn’t send for a doctor to treat the boy. His faith was so blind that he thought Doya would save the boy’s life. Doya herself is stricken with grief having failed, and descends into madness.

Ever the humanist, Ray highlights the dangers of fanaticism and religious obsession, but approaches this with great subtlety and care, rather than a heavy-handed approach. Doya finds herself exploited by those more powerful than her, who project their beliefs upon her and strip her of her identity as well as jeopardise her marriage. These beliefs are held at the expense of rationality, and those who hold them most put at risk their own families in order to prove them. Yet Ray never strays into being too judgemental with these religious obsessives; he just presents them as being misguided, though this doesn’t prevent the tragedies which occur. Another splendid film by one of the greatest film makers of the twentieth century.

Days and Nights in the Forest (India, 1970, Satyajit Ray)

To commemorate sixty years of Indian independence, the Curzon cinema chain is showing a mini-season of films by India’s most famous and celebrated film maker, Satyajit Ray, which also includes his famous work, The Apu Trilogy. These following two films are much less known, but just as intriguing and remarkable.

Days and Nights in the Forest focuses on four men who are leaving Calcutta for a vacation in the countryside. They immediately strike us as vain and materialistic, and comfortable in their Western attitudes (which include references to Western popular culture, e.g. American western movies). With this apparent confidence goes a patronising attitude to their rural countrymen and a belief that they act as they wish without consequences. When told a guesthouse needs to be booked for them to stay there, they bribe the caretaker, despite the fact his job would be at risk (“thank God for corruption”). They hire a local boy to run errands and so on, and mistreat him, which comes back to haunt one of them later on. The men make a symbolic break with their lives in Calcutta though by burning the newspaper they had with them, though their values and mindsets are distinctly at odds from those of the rural folk. The men get drunk; try their luck with local ‘tribal women’ and make fools of themselves.

However, their vacation suddenly is spurred into action beyond simple leisure by the sight of two refined women, who are clearly more like the women of Calcutta, and they all try their hardest to impress them, although this generally ends with the men embarrassed or humiliated in some way, such as when the women catch them bathing by a well or when the men unwittingly flag their car in the middle of the road one night when drunk. Despite this, the women seem drawn to the men, partly because of their own frustrations in living in such a remote place with their father. Perhaps they yearn for the freedom and lifestyles these men enjoy back home. During a picnic, Rini (the youngest woman) and Ashim (the most dominant of the four men) play a memory game that has sexual undertones (similar to the famous chess game in ‘The Thomas Crown Affair’ perhaps). Sanjoy, the most serious of the four men, courts Jaya, though this is short lived once he discovers that she is the widow of a man who committed suicide. Hari, who was rejected by his lover back in Calcutta (his version of events differs from the flashback Ray presents) becomes fixated with Duli, a local girl, and seduces her in the woods, which incurs the wrath of the boy Hari mistreated earlier. The boy extracts revenge by attacking Hari and robbing him.

By the time the four agree to return to Calcutta, it’s interesting that Ray presents their confidence as being little more than superficial. As the film develops, their insecurities and fears about their jobs and their futures come to the fore, and they are finally able to admit and identify their shortcomings away from the competitive worlds they normally reside in, as if the countryside is a retreat away from their lives. The men are then presented more sensitively, and show themselves to be more complex than the arrogant city dwellers they appeared. Days and Nights in the Forest blends comedy and drama exceptionally well, and is so effortlessly handled by Ray. Time Out describes this film as his masterpiece, and perhaps few would disagree.

Monday, 6 August 2007

The Lady from Musashino (Japan, 1951, Kenzo Mizoguchi)

The only previous Mizoguchi film I’ve seen is ‘Tale of the Late Chrysanthemums’, made more than a decade before, but both films demonstrate an interest in the themes that recurred throughout his career; notably the position of women in Japanese society and their subjugation and struggle. Set just outside Tokyo during the last days of World War Two (we can sense the bombing of the cities frequently), the film begins with a married couple (Michiko and Akiyama) returning to her parental home. Michiko is from an aristocratic family, whilst her husband is from peasant stock, which was naturally difficult from her family to accept. However, with Michiko as the now widowed father’s only child, it is imperative that they remain together and raise a family in order to keep the family going. Her father frequently reinforces this, and the responsibilities of this instruction cause Michiko great upset in the future.

When Michiko’s father dies soon after the war, she inherits the family home and wealth, though it is this that encourages her cousin, Tsutomu, to return to the family home. He is set up as a complete opposite to Akiyama; he is sensitive and sympathetic, in comparison with Akiyama’s indifference. Akiyama seeks out affairs with other women, notably a friend of Michiko’s named Tomiko. His excuses are that she treats him like an outsider because he isn’t her social equal and is distant towards him, paying him no attention.

Akiyama’s distance brings Michiko and Tsutomu together, and a mutual love starts to develop. Whilst Tsutomu is open about declaring his feelings, Michiko is forced to restrain herself and not act upon hers. She is aware that by doing so, she would disgrace the family name, and is willing to sacrifice her own happiness in order to keep her family’s integrity. Forced to book a room in a hotel together during a torrential rain storm, Michiko fights Tsutomu off when he tries to make a move on her. Even though she knows Akiyama is behaving improperly, she tells Tsutomu that they must. Despite the fact that their relationship is completely chaste, this doesn’t stop Tomiko gossiping to Akiyama about what might be going on between his wife and her cousin, though this occurs after she is rejected by Tsutomu. Akiyana is typically self-righteous on this issue, requesting a divorce and setting Michiko up as the guilty party.

Tomiko and Akiyama run off together with the property deed to Michiko’s house. When told by a lawyer that the only way he can be thwarted is if Michiko changes her will, which she indeed does, placing Tsutomu as sole inheritor of her fortune when she commits suicide. She blames herself still, for provoking Akiyama into having an affair. As she dies, the remaining protagonists blame each other for what has happened, though Tomiko makes the pertinent point that “You men brought her to this”, an indictment of society as much as this group of individuals.

Though not considered as one of the supreme Mizoguchi films like ‘The Life of Oharu’ and ‘Sansho The Bailiff’, ‘The Lady from Musashino’ is still a superb melodrama that accurately portrays a Japan that is still in transition between old and modern values and which still reinforces paternalistic values at the expense of undermining the position of women in society. Michiko is a virtuous heroine, sacrificing herself for her family name and marriage to a feckless adulterer, and let down by everyone.