Monday, 24 September 2007

The Eclipse (Italy/France, 1962), Michelangelo Antonioni and The Red Desert (Italy/France, 1964, Michelangelo Antonioni)

A double bill of early Antonioni films that focus on the alienation of modern industrial societies, both featuring the glamourous (and gorgeous) Monica Vitti. The Eclipse forms the third part of a trilogy with L'Avventura and La Notte, both of which I've yet to see, whilst The Red Desert seems to further develop the themes from these films, although Antonioni uses colour and sound more prominently to emphasis the alienation of his protagonists.

The Eclipse begins with an agonising and drawn out break up. It's several minutes before any meaningful dialogue; the silences speak more than the actual individuals involved ever could. Vittoria (as played by Vitti) is by her own admission "tired, depressed, disgusted and disorientated". When meeting her feckless mother who gambles daily at the stock exchange, she meets Piero, a stockbroker (played by Alain Delon), who pursues her, even though she rejects his advances. To Vittoria, love is a great effort. Piero on the other hand is ruthlessly materialistic and successful; witness the exceptional replication of the goings on at the Rome stock exchange where he thrives. He too is insensitive - when a drunk steals his car and drives it into the river, he is more concerned about the car than the fate of the dead man. He represents the vitality of capitalism; the source perhaps of contemporary human alienation, and her romantic and brooding personality so at odds with his dooms their future - she is unable to love or know him, so she chooses to be alone rather than marry him.

The Red Desert is thematically quite similar. Vitti is Giuliana, a wife recovering from a car accident, who finds no understanding from her husband and finds herself unsettled in her environment. Using colour for the first time, Antonioni is able to amplify this sense of alienation through the unique palette he employs (the reds in particular are very striking in colour), as well as the electronic soundtrack he uses, which is incredibly disorientating, thus reflecting Giuliana's state of mind. The bleak landscape of Ravenna (heavily industrialised and polluted) adds further emphasis to her sense of dislocation. Giuliana's husband's behaviour encourages her to consider an affair with an engineer played by Richard Harris, who seems more sympathetic to her neurotic condition than her husband.

The Red Desert to a degree concludes Antonioni's examination of alienation and loneliness in the modern world. Both films are emotionally devastating pieces of work, held together by the phenomenal performances given by Monica Vitti. Whereas The Red Desert is probably the more ambitious of these films, it does feel like the less involving, though maybe that's the point. Much time and patience has to be invested in these films in order to get the most out of them as events in them often appear pretty random, but all form part of a studied examination of the malaise of both characters that Vitti plays. Antonioni's films have tended to be pretty divisive critically, and these are no exceptions. They will baffle as much as they will entrance.

Friday, 21 September 2007

The Painted Veil (US, 2006, John Curran)

Adapting classic texts is always a tricky proposition and often a gamble. Just consider how The Bonfire of the Vanities and the numerous versions of The Great Gatsby turned out. Such is the weight of expectation, as well as the fact that film makers have to respect the original work, perhaps it's no wonder that it sometimes goes wrong. As the Maugham novel is one of my favourites, I felt a degree of concern at how the novel would be treated. John Curran and Ron Nyswaner, the screenwriter has remained pretty faithful to the novel, though I'm pretty of the opinion they overdeveloped the love that Kitty begins to feel for Walter after years of a loveless marriage (there was nothing like the later passion in the book). There's shifts in chronology too - the 'England' scenes are shown entirely in flashback and it feels like they're rushed through (even though this is a two hour film!). Because of this, the film loses some of its context.

Kitty's change from vain society girl to selfless and compassionate wife is plausible enough thanks to the Naomi Watts, who's easily gives the best performance here. I've reservations about whether Edward Norton was the best choice for the role of Walter. Can you really suspend disbelief enough to think he fits Walter's character. I also think he affects the English accent in the way many non-English actors do; very slow and deliberate speech, making sure every syllable is properly pronounced so that it sounds forced, but maybe it's a churlish point to make. Not to say Norton doesn't equip himself well, and it sounds as if he was passionate about the film being made, so kudos for this.

The film certainly looks great; the use of locations and cinematography are superb, though one wonders whether the film makers had seen how Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou had managed to capture the Chinese landscapes on film previously to make them look exotic and dazzling. Whether one gets more from the film having read the novel, I don't know. Most of its audience probably won't have read it so will approach this film as a period romance of the classic kind (it's still superior to most contemporary middlebrow film making however), whereas those familiar with the novel will probably have to judge the film next to it. It's as good an adaptation as one might have hoped; obviously things have to be condensed and simplified in cinema. I'm not sure we get the overview of the Fane's marriage that the novel presents, nor the motivations behind Walter's suicidal decision to take himself and Kitty into the middle of a cholera epidemic in China, but I think the film makers did more than enough with the constraints they had (there was also the pressure of Chinese commercial investment in the film that led to some minor cuts).

Thursday, 20 September 2007

The Cranes Are Flying (Soviet Union, 1957, Mikhail Kalatozov)

Made almost as soon as the Krushchev Thaw was introduced in 1956, when repression and censorship was slightly reversed, The Cranes are Flying is one of the first films from the Soviet Union to swerve from the accepted policy of near glamourising The Great Patriotic War (1941-1945 of the Second World War). It's unthinkable that this film might have been made in this way just years before, as no doubt the demands to produce patriotic propaganda would have been too great.

War is not so much the focus, as how it affects the budding relationship between Boris and Veronika, two young sweethearts. It's easy for us to root for them at all times; their courtship is cute and at times amusing (their animal nicknames, getting soaked in the rain, Boris chased by a neighbour's dog when taking Veronika home). However the outbreak of war smashes this idyllic situation. Boris is conscripted, whilst his cousin Mark, who is a promising conductor, is waived service (as he uses his respected father's name to do so). Boris's absence encourages Mark to make his moves upon Veronika. The scene in which he tries to force himself upon her is reprehensible, but Kalatozov used light and sound so well in framing it (shadows, windows blown open violently - metaphors perhaps) that you have to watch.

Very little is shown of the war as such; the camaraderie of the down to earth soldiers is given more importance than fighting the Germans. On the home front Veronika works as a nurse and adopts an orphaned boy; the sole comfort she has after marrying Mark, in what we sense to be guilt from the rape. Mark predictably gets his just desserts when his father discovers his deception, and he is disowned by his family, yet there is to be no predictable happy ending with Veronika and Boris. Kalatozov simply presents the likely scenario; that good men sent to war often die, but he doesn't show Boris as a hero or martyr, but as a soldier serving his country.
A winner of the Palm D'Or in 1958, The Cranes are Flying is a superb melodrama which is restrained enough to not degenerate into pure propaganda. Indeed, one final scene shows hundreds of women waiting to hear of the fates of their loved ones. A friend of Boris's seeks Veronika and explains how he died on the front, and though this is perhaps too contrived and tries to push our emotional buttons a bit too much, I'm happy with it. One member of the public makes a speech about the war; it is sombre rather than fervent, and pacifist in tone, asking that loved ones never be separated by war again. Zalatov would in 1964 direct the excellent Soy Cuba; otherwise his work remains fairly unknown in the West (The Letter That Was Never Sent from 1959 remains unavailable).