Monday, 26 May 2008

Le Mépris (1963, France/Italy, Jean-Luc Godard)

Godard's sixth feature was very much a departure for him. He previously made low budget films on the run. With international producers Joseph Levine and Carlo Ponti on board, Godard was able to utilise much larger budgets than he was used to in order to create a defining film about cinema, but so much more. As is always the case with Godard, there is far more going on than meets the eye. On one level, it's a film about the balance between art and commerce, whilst on another level, it's a film about a marriage breaking down. It might ultimately be read as Godard's own marriage breaking down or perhaps a film that very much is about itself - where the difficulties depicted onscreen reflected very much the difficulties that the film ran into whilst in production.

The opening scene of 'Le Mépris' reflects the arguments Godard had with his producers. Having finally cast Brigitte Bardot in one of the leads, the director and producers had different ideas about how she should be used. Ponti and Levine insisted on featuring Bardot nude - a demand Godard finally acceded to, but what he actually gave them was a distinctly unerotic image of a nude Bardot. Lying on the bed front down, Camille asks her husband Paul (Michel Piccoli) about her body; what he likes about it and so on. So nudity is discussed rather than shown, and what's more, it's a scene more about insecurity rather than a celebration of Bardot's figure. The scene completely subverts her public persona as the sex kitten of 'And God Created Woman' and other films. So the arguments within 'Le Mépris' between the producer Prokosch (Jack Palance) and Fritz Lang (himself) might reflect those between the producers and Godard himself. When Prokosch tells Lang "you've cheated me", should we interpret this as the general feeling about the actual film itself?

The narrative mainly focuses on an adaptation of Homer's 'Odyssey' at the Cinecitta studios in Rome, with Lang as the film's director who wants to make a faithful version of the poem, and Prokosch a crass American producer who wants more semi-nude mermaids to make the film more commercially appealing. Prokosch hires Paul, a playwright who worked on such terrific films as 'Toto versus Hercules' (which refers to Levine's producing past), to rework the script to his liking. Whilst deliberating over whether to accept the commission, Paul finds himself increasingly estranged from Camille, who has caught the eye of Prokosch and who makes his intentions pretty clear. It's a marital breakdown that is never really explained. Their arguments are evasive, and whilst it's hinted that Paul has been violent in the past, this never seems the likely explanation. Perhaps it's Paul's lack of integrity - the way in which he compromised his principles and the way he complies with Prokosch's wishes to see Camille which more or less encourages her infidelity.

This love triangle echoes that of the film they are making, with Paul as Odysseus, Camille as Penelope and Prokosch as Posideon. During moments of estrangement or argument between the couple, there are cuts to the statues of the Roman Gods, which reiterates this idea. Another interpretation is that of Paul as Godard and Camille as Anna Karina, which is emphasised by the instances of Camille wearing a black wig like Karina. The richness of Godard's films is that they're seldom as simple as they appear, offering a multitude of insights or understandings. The cinematic references also underpin the themes, with the likes of 'Voyage in Italy' also focusing on a marital breakdown. Filmed in Technicolour by Raoul Coutard and featuring a breathtaking score by George Delerue, two of Godard's most able collaborators across his career, 'Le Mépris' is one of Godard's finest; a masterpiece for certain, with only 'Pierrot Le Fou' matching it, in my opinion. 5/5

Veronika Voss (1982, West Germany, Rainer Werner Fassbinder)

"I have nothing to give you but my dream".

'Veronika Voss' was Fassbinder's penultimate film and concluded the loose BRD trilogy that also included 'The Marriage of Maria von Braun' and 'Lola'. These films examined the German economic miracle and political recovery during the 1950s under the Adenauer government. Fassbinder suggested that this rehabilitation and success was achieved due to corruption and compromise, as well as the cultural and economic imperialism of the United States. In each film, the main character is a woman who either succeeds or falls during the era. Whereas Maria von Braun and Lola were upwardly mobile women who sought a better life for themselves during these boom years, Veronika Voss is a woman whose successes were during the Nazi era and she finds herself unable to adjust to the new West Germany - she's a victim of the country's recovery.

'Veronika Voss' starts with a remarkably prescient scene that predicts events to come. Veronika (Rosel Zech) watches a film from her UFA past; a silent melodrama about a woman addicted to morphine who becomes exploited by her doctor, literally signing her life over to her. This is intercut with scenes with Veronika's memories of making the film, complete with depictions of life behind the scenes. This was clearly an act, though Veronika's actual dependency on morphine is very much real. A jittery mess, she is rescued during a rainstorm by a journalist, Robert Krohn (Hilmar Thate). She has delusions about her own fame, whilst he doesn't recognise her. Smitten, he examines her past to discover what happened to the actress who was feted during the 30s but fell out of public view. It was rumoured that she was a lover of Goebbels and relied on the patronage of the Nazis. In post-war Germany, Veronika struggles to find roles. Fassbinder perhaps contrasts with the fact that public officials during the Nazi era were still accepted after the war and were responsible for Germany's recovery. Denazification was a policy that some fell foul of but some did not.

Krohn discovers Veronika's "illness" through observing her withdrawal symptoms. Her doctor, Katz (Annemarie Duringer) is a superficially kindly doctor with a veneer of respectability, although below the surface something much more sinister is taking place. Again, should we see this as an allegory of contemporary Germany? Katz regulates the morphine she provides to her clients, increasing their dependency and desperation for more drugs, allowing her to exploit the wealth of her clients, ultimately ready to allow them to overdose for their wealth. Krohn's attempts to rescue Veronika are at her expense however, reflecting Fassbinder's perception of empathy as essentially a self-serving act motivated by self-interest rather than the good of the other. Krohn's help puts Veronika in more danger and also results in the death of his girlfriend. Only when it's too late does he accept the futility of what he sought to achieve - that he was unable to help her or stop Katz's schemes, and returns to his sports journalist position rather than undermine Katz.

Many of Fassbinder's preceding films were influenced by Sirk's melodramas. 'Fear Eats The Soul' was a direct remake of 'All That Heaven Allows' and other Fassbinder works were influenced by Sirk's use of colour and expressionism. 'Veronika Voss' is very much inspired by one of Hollywood's most corrosive examinations of itself; Billy Wilder's 'Sunset Boulevard' as well as the real life story of UFA actress Sybille Schmitz, who also died of a drug overdose in 1955, which is pretty much when the film was set, given the reference to West Germany joining NATO. Like with Norma Desmond, Veronika makes an abortive comeback, which demonstrates how the art of film making has changed. The opening scene showed Veronika as a silent actress who could weep on cue, but now finds the multitasking of doing this and reciting lines a problem (though this is probably also due to her morphine addiction considering she "breaks down" on set). It's a sign of an inability to adjust, not just perhaps to making films but life itself. Veronika's not used to no longer being recognised or famous and she cannot accept obscurity.

With cinematographer Xavier Scwarzenberger, Fassbinder recreates the aesthetic of many of the UFA productions that Veronika Voss might have starred in, with crisp black and white cinematography and typical methods of cutting between scenes. The reflection upon the Nazi era is important because Fassbinder believed there were attempts towards a collective amnesia about the entire duration of the Third Reich; that it was better not being discussed. He thought that West Germany would only genuinely recover and deal with its past through discussion and reflection. 'Veronika Voss' doesn't just reflect the past though; it carefully considers West Germany's contemporary success, suggesting it wasn't as honestly achieved as many would like to think. 4.5/5

Thursday, 22 May 2008

In A Year Of Thirteen Moons (1978, West Germany, Rainer Werner Fassbinder)

'In A Year Of Thirteen Moons' was the film that saved Fassbinder's life. At least temporarily. Devastated after the suicide of his lover Armin Meier, who'd appeared in a few of his previous films, Fassbinder threw his energy into this hugely cathartic and personal project. It's been suggested that had he not made the film, it's highly likely he also would have committed suicide, yet Fassbinder was able to positively use his volatile emotional state to create an incredibly moving and sympathetic account of the last days in the life of a character on the edge.

The film starts with an extended set of titles on the screen, a prologue so to speak to account for the actions and behaviour of the main protagonist. Every seventh year is a Moon year and those who are strongly influenced by their emotions suffer more intensely from depression during these years. This is also the case in a year with thirteen Moons, where inescapable personal tragedies may occur. This was the case of Elvira, formerly Erwin (Volker Spengler), a woman who recently had a sex change operation in Casablanca, whose torrid romantic life is her downfall. Initially beaten by a man during a cruising incident for not having a penis, she is then mistreated and abandoned by her cruel lover, who offers the parting shots that she's fat and repulsive. Elvira is over-emotional and hysterical, but we realise that this isn't the first incident of the couple splitting up. Their rocky relationship seems to have ended before, but whilst he can walk away, Elvira cannot cope with rejection.

The reasons for Elvira's sex change become apparent. It was not for the benefit of her present lover, but for a co-worker at her previous place of work - a slaughterhouse. Fassbinder then reveals an incredibly bloody and brutal scene showing the slaughterhouse in great detail, which requires a strong stomach to endure. Elvira when as Erwin once declared his love for Anton (Gottfried John), who remarked "it's a shame you're not a woman", a throwaway remark which Erwin then took to heart, and hence Erwin became Elvira. Believing than Anton would now want her, Elvira now seeks to find Anton, who is now a powerful businessman on the back of apparently dubious business practices (another indictment of the West German economic miracle?). However, life and love in Fassbinder's universe is cruel and so it must be that Elvira is humiliated once more by a man who no longer remembers Erwin from before, and what's more seduces Elvira's prostitute friend more or less in her presence. As fate has determined, this film does not have a happy ending for Elvira, with the cruelty and humiliation of those she loves/loved finally shattering her resolve.

Featuring a dynamite lead performance by Volker Spengler (who was the sexually ambiguous son of the housekeeper in 'Chinese Roulette'), Elvira is one of Fassbinder's greatest characters. It's a performance full of compassion and sympathy, and never pity. It transcends the film by some distance, which is often a bit erratic and struggles with certain elements midway through the film, but because of the personal angle and the fact that Fassbinder simply had to make the film for his own sanity, it's still more than worthwhile. It truly is heartbreaking too; not just the emotionally tiring scenes of Elvira rejected by lovers, but also Elvira rejecting her recent femininity after Anton humiliates her - she cuts her hair and wears a man's suit to reclaim her former masculinity, as if she's asserting that life was better or less difficult as a man. The sole reason for her changing her gender doesn't want to know after all. There's also a taped monologue which overlaps scenes in which her body is found, improvised by Spengler, which are just devastating. Typically for Fassbinder, he reveals love to be nothing more self-deception and a tool for others to manipulate. Whilst it's a theme much used by him previously, it never feels like repetition. 4/5

Monday, 19 May 2008

Profondo Rosso (1975, Italy, Dario Argento)

Upon discovering that the Fashion in Film season ( contained a number of giallos by Argento and Bava, I was inspired to revisit one of the most prominent and regarded films of the genre; 'Profondo Rosso', where all the aspects of Argento's work combined to dizzying effect. The last decade or so of Argento's career seems to have been characterised by a number of poor films; so much so he has even returned complete the trilogy that 'Suspiria' and 'Inferno' were part of, in a bid to restore his fortunes. Not that 'Mother of Tears' has enjoyed particularly great press thus far. 'Terror at the Opera' probably remains the last good Argento film, but that shouldn't impair our judgement on one of his finest films.

'Profondo Rosso' starts his a dazzling dream or memory sequence, scored by a nagging nursery rhyme that is used significantly and often throughout the film. With the use of low level camerawork, Argento indicates he is showing us a child's eye view of an event. What's happening isn't certain though. All we see is a dropped knife and the legs of a child entering the scene. I was reminded of the scene in Hitchcock's 'Marnie', when she remembers the death of the sailor at her hands as a child. Whether this is direct homage, I don't know, though Argento is obviously inspired by Hitchcock. It sets the tone for the film, giving us an impression of what we think we perceive, but in true Argento style, the narrative is never straightforward.

Then at a conference for the paranormal, a psychic identifies a murderer, who then of course is herself killed by the person she addressed (don't ask how she didn't know she was going to be killed - it's probably Argento's sense of humour at work) - a murder witnessed by Marcus Daly, a British pianist. The casting of David Hemmings is an obvious nod to Antonioni's 'Blow Up', in which an unwitting individual witnesses a murder but where there's more than meets the eye and what one thinks one sees isn't often the truth. Faced with a skeptical police force, he collaborates with a tenacious reporter, Gianna (Daria Nicolodi) to investigate the crime, though the murderer always manages to stay one step ahead of them, as well as eliminating all those who might identify him/her or assist the investigation.

So the narrative's a bit loose and holes can be picked quite easily, but plotting has never been Argento's interest. Instead, he's mostly concerned with style and image; dazzling the viewer, whilst offering them violence and death in abundance, in ever more gruesome fashions. There's a terrific set piece at the start, during the paranormal conference. The camera moves elaborately, roaming, and even the curtains literally open for the camera. This is typical of Argento; the camera is seldom still, always frantically in motion, capturing a dizzying and disorientating effect. Themes of childhood are prominent, but always given a dash of disturbance about them; dolls are decapitated and hung, a sinister life-like doll (like something out of 'Dead of Night') emerges through the door of the professor's study just before he is killed. Whilst the increasing brutality of the deaths are enough to shock, the non-violent episodes are likely to be considered just as strange. One has to suspend logic when watching an Argento film. Not everything makes sense and the films often lack any kind of substance. Never mind though. The sheer style and confidence of 'Profondo Rosso', as well as 'Suspiria' for instance, were enough. 3.5/5

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

The Bride Wore Black (1968, France/Italy. Francois Truffaut)

'The Bride Wore Black' was Truffaut's first adaptation of a Cornell Woolrich novel, preceding the very mediocre 'The Mississippi Mermaid' by a year or so. It's similarities with the latter continue; another tribute to both Hitchcock and Renoir, but falling considerably short of the standards of both directors. Both feature a femme fatale for whom murder is natural and men are simple pawns to be manipulated, and change identities and looks at the drop of a hat. 'The Bride Wore Black' even features a Bernard Hermann score that was obviously commissioned to sound like something he'd compose for Hitchcock, as well as referencing a number of Hitchcock's films; 'Foreign Correspondent', 'Notorious' and 'Rear Window' and perhaps 'Marnie' too, with the female protagonist changing name and hair colour as she moves from one identity to the next.

Since it's so slavishly indebted to the work of Hitchcock, it's really hard to judge the film on its own merits. Perhaps we should be able to overlook that as critics but it feels like a cut and paste job of other Hitchcock films, minus any substance of its own. We start with a young woman (Jeanne Moreau) attempting suicide, but stopped by her mother. We don't know why yet; Truffaut just presents this episode and then fills in the reasons later. Reinventing herself, she is looking for a man. Again, we don't know who he is, why she's visiting him, whether she knows him, whether he's involved in her suicide attempt - nothing! When he's not home, she tries again, arriving at his wedding. She's beautiful and enigmatic, and he's drawn to her (all the men in this film are stupid and blinded by her looks incidentally). She convinces him she knows him, but he doesn't know how. As she throws her scarf from a balcony and is stuck in an overhanging branch, she asks him to retrieve it. Revealing herself as Julie Kohler, she pushes the man over the balcony to his death, which neatly mirrors the aborted suicide attempt at the start of the film when she tried to jump from a window.

And so Julie continues her mission of murder; her reasons become apparent upon the increasing number and depths of flashbacks. Her husband was murdered on the steps of the church at which they were married, and these are the men she believes were responsible. There's a great degree of black humour at work here as Truffaut makes each murder more ingenious and well planned out than the last. She poisons one man and suffocates the next, having already meticulously assumed a role in each man's lives. She makes them fall in love with her, spots their weaknesses and goes for the kill. I've heard it mentioned how these deaths actually contrast to the death of her husband. He was killed by rifle from distance. These men are killed in a far more personal and well executed way. These are deaths inspired by pure revenge and hatred. Interestingly though, Truffaut never reveals why Julie's husband is killed, and towards the film's climax, he eventually sows the seeds of doubt in our mind as to whether these men were responsible for the death of Julie's husband and whether it was just something Julie believed in her fractured mental state rather than fact.

'The Bride Wore Black' is a more interesting and well thought out exercise than Truffaut's next Woolrich adaptation and Hitchcock tribute 'The Mississippi Mermaid'. The film clearly has a sense of (black) humour that the latter in my opinion lacked and Truffaut obviously understood that this was a prominent feature of many of Hitchcock's films. The problem of making such an accurate tribute is that it just becomes a pastiche or facsimile if the film has little ideas or substance of its own and that's where I think the two Woolrich adaptations have failed. As I said in the previous review, Truffaut was a gifted film maker but after the first three classics never recovered that sense of creativity, spontaneity or spirit. Many of his films were perfectly fine or competent, but I don't personally afford him the same respect as many of his contemporaries; Godard of course, but neither Resnais nor Chabrol. It seems so odd that he was the French New Wave director that influenced Hollywood the most. But then perhaps not. 3/5

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

The Mississippi Mermaid (1969, France/Italy, Francois Truffaut)

'The Mississippi Mermaid' is an unconvincing attempt at marrying the styles and traditions of the two film makers most beloved of Truffaut's; Alfred Hitchcock and Jean Renoir, to whom the film is a tribute to. Made during his mid-period, considerably after the opening run of terrific films that included 'The 400 Blows', 'Shoot The Pianist' and 'Jules et Jim', the film has the feel of a director who has lost his way and his creativity. Despite being one of the most widely known and influential directors of the French New Wave, Truffaut has been accused by many of this and certainly by the mid 70s was stuck in a rut with the Antoine Doinel cycle, which he never seemed to escape from.

'The Mississippi Mermaid' is based on the Cornell Woolrich short story 'Waltz Into Darkness'. The Hitchcock association is enhanced by the fact that 'Rear Window' was written by Woolrich. The film obviously has noirish aspirations, which is contrasted by the bright colours and location shooting in Reunion, an French colonial island just off Madagascar in the Indian Ocean (amended from Woolrich's original American setting). A plantation owner, Louis Mahe (Jean Paul Belmondo) advertises for a mail order bride and the woman he's been courting and has offered to marry arrives on the boat which the film's title is named after. Julie Roussell (Catherine Deneuve) is a beautiful woman whom any man would fall in love with, but her story doesn't add up. She doesn't resemble the photo she sent (she says it was her sister), the ring doesn't fit (Julie tied string around her finger to indicate the size of the wedding ring) and she drinks coffee, when she originally stated in her letters that she only drank tea.

In spite of these lies which completely destroy her credibility, and it's surely clear that Louis is aware of these lies and accepts them, they marry. The marriage is of course a scam, as Julie clears his bank account and returns to France, pursued not only by Louis, but a private detective hired by Louis and the real Julie's sister. When they are reunited, she explains that her gangster love devised the scheme for her to impersonate Julie (hints of 'Vertigo' perhaps) but that he took the money. Given Marion (as her real name is) has lied before, why should we (and Louis) believe her? Whether he does or not, he's so hopelessly in love with her that he'll forgive anything and do anything for her, even commit murder.

Not only does the film hint at 'Vertigo', but also 'Marnie' perhaps; we have two emotionally damaged protagonists engaged in a perverse love affair that's dangerous to them and a female lead who changes identities. As a tribute to Hitchcock, it doesn't really work, lacking any depth or subtlety. The narrative itself is pretty flimsy and the motivations of Louis and Julie/Marion are too contrived. Where 'Vertigo' explored love as self-delusion and obsession convincingly and traumatically, this just seems like a poor tribute to that and seems completely half-hearted. The other later period Truffaut films I've seen; 'Two English Girls', 'The Woman Next Door' and 'Finally Sunday' were also quite frustrating. They were clearly well made and competent films by a gifted film maker but lacked spark and finesse, and were obviously flawed. The same accusation could easily be levelled at 'The Mississippi Mermaid'. 2.5/5

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Man of Marble (1977, Poland, Andrzej Wajda)

Although Wajda is most celebrated for his early war trilogy, which included 'A Generation', 'Kanal' (which I recently reviewed) and 'Ashes and Diamonds', equally acclaimed are his twin films that look simultaneously at Poland's Stalinist past ('Man of Marble) and examine Poland's present issues with organised labour and eventual political decline ('Man of Iron'). This screening of 'Man of Marble' was at the BFI Southbank, with 'Man of Iron' to be screened in a fortnight. Once I have seen both, I will be able to offer more lucid comparisons upon these two adjoining films.

'Man of Marble' examines the myth-making of Poland during the Stalinist regime during the 1950s, demonstrated in the use of "shock workers" or Stakhanovites as propaganda stooges and representations of the potential and achievements of Polish labourers. One such "shock worker" was Mateusz Birkut (Jerzy Radziwilowicz), a bricklayer who oversaw the completion of Nowa Huta, a new Socialist town outside of Krakow. Having disappeared into obscurity, he is now the subject of interest of Agnieszka (Krystyna Janda), a young film maker who is making her diploma film. She's a steely and determined young woman, considered the strongest female character in Wajda's films, who finds resistance in her attempts to extract the truth about Birkut from her academic professors (he is considered ambiguous subject material) as well as those who knew Birkut well.

Wajda then repeatedly alternates between Agnieszka's attempts to find out about Birkut as well as Birkut's own past, in both documentary footage and conventional reconstructions of events. Wajda's own recreation of 50s style propaganda is remarkably effective and I assume based exactly on the propaganda of the era. Wajda examines the trustworthiness and truth of the footage we see on screen; how it presents a version of the truth and how it is used to manipulate facts and its audience. This might not just apply to the propaganda footage that is shown. The recreations of Birkut's past are based on the interviews that Agnieszka holds with those who knew him, who may not necessarily be reliable in their memories of him. In the case of the event that ended his career as a bricklayer, when a scolding brick burned his hands, we cannot be entirely sure what took place. A friend, Witek (Michal Tarkowski) was officially blamed and latter arrested for treason, but the sabotage is not shown as such therefore we don't know what to believe.

Agnieszka is able to research Birkut successfully whilst he is a national celebrity but his decline is less well documented. He was discredited after an unapproved union address in which he claims that Witek was unjustly accused of treason, and therefore his portrait and statue, the representations of Birkut as an exemplary worker were removed. After which, Birkut fell into an alcoholic decline, abandoned by his wife, and thus obscurity. Perhaps aware of the potential political implications of the film, Agnieszka is thwarted by her superiors; she is refused access to film or camera and the work done so far is impounded (although it's suggested that films are only ever banned on technical grounds, whatever this means). Wajda concludes the film on an ominuous note, as Agnieszka finds Birkut's son, Maciej (also Radziwilowicz) working at Gdansk shipyards, a couple of years before the labour disputes that would have far reaching effects upon the eventual decline of Communist rule in Poland, and the same shipyards where it is implied that Birkut was killed by the authorities.

At it's simplest, 'Man of Marble' has been described as Poland's own 'Citizen Kane', and it's fair that the narrative is largely similar, as a journalist examines the rise and fall of a national hero/celebrity. However, Wajda adds a political dimension of his film and considers how propaganda, through national icons, was used to present a false impression of Polish success and how these national icons were removed and disappeared into obscurity when they fell foul of the authorities, although this information was not widely available of course. The faux-documentary footage that shows Birkut as a "shock worker" contrasts with the contemporary Poland in which Agnieszka is making her film. Witek, once imprisoned for treason, now runs Katowice steelworks, whilst Michalak (Piotr Cieslak), who observed Birkut's decline but seemed to have been on the level, now runs a strip club. It's as if Wajda suggested that contemporary Poland was a politically and morally compromised country and that individuals' standings with the authorities could easily change depending on which way the political wind was blowing. 4.5/5

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

XXY (2007, Argentina, Lucia Puenzo)

'XXY' was Argentina's official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film category at this year's Academy Awards and also represented Argentina at the Spanish Goya Awards for the category of Best Foreign Film in Spanish. The first time feature by the daughter of the Oscar-nominated Luis, 'XXY' is an impressive and sensitively handled debut and shows great promise as Puenzo tackles the issues facing an intersex teen with an appropriate and non-judgemental tone.

Alex (Ines Efron) is a typical teenager, exploring sex and sexuality and confused by it all; only she is different to other teenagers in one crucial way - she is an intersex, that is to say she has both male and female organs. It's a secret her family have tried hard to maintain, frequently moving schools and homes to protect Alex who obviously doesn't need the community singling her out as a freak (which eventually happens in a very difficult scene to watch where Alex is molested by some curious locals). She's fallen out with her best friend, Vando (Luciano Nobile), presumably because she told him the truth and betrayed her confidence. On the surface, Alex seems a girl but this is because she has undergone operations and drugs since birth to prevent her masculinising. However, her father (Ricardo Darin) vowed to allow her to decide which gender she wants to be, rather than make that decision for her.

A surgeon who deals with 'deformities' as his son puts it, is invited to the family's home on the coast to discuss with Alex want she wants to do. However this never really develops because Alex and Alvaro (Martin Piroyansky), the son of the surgeon, develop a relationship which explores their mutual curiosity with sex. One scene in which they make in love is quite humourously subverted as Alex, who to this point had shown all the indications she was a girl suddenly allows her masculine side to control this lovemaking. This scene is pivotal also in the context of the relationship the surgeon has with his son. Their relations are cold and this is discussed between them. The surgeon congratulates his son on making love to Alex because he was concerned his son was gay, hence his aloofness. Clearly the surgeon thought that Alex was the male role in male-female sex, rather than the male-male sex that occured. The impression I got was that this experience made Alvaro consider his own sexuality, especially given his liking of their encounter and his desire to try it again. Alex's confusion had unforeseen consequences - the surgeon was there to try to help but she in fact has impacted the relationship between the surgeon and his son, as well as helped Alvaro examine his own sexuality, which might not strictly be beneficial for the family.

To her credit, Puenzo doesn't force a decision upon Alex about her own gender, which would be the easy way out. She admits to being sick of operations and drugs and that she wants things to remain as they are, therefore the future is undetermined. 'XXY' could easily have been too melodramatic or too manipulative, but it's actually subtle and understated and crucially is just as humorous and is it serious and tragic. Perhaps it feels like it's more at home on television than the cinema, but it's a minor quibble really. Efron is terrific in the lead role, which requires the kind of complexity and mixed emotions that actors of her age shouldn't have by any rights. It's a film of potential for the director and lead actor rather than straining for greatness but who's to say it's beyond them. 3.5/5

Ran (1985, Japan, Akira Kurosawa)

'Ran' is the last great Kurosawa film, made three decades after his golden era whilst in his mid-seventies. Loosely influenced by King Lear (as well as Japanese samurai legends), the film reminds us that Kurosawa was one of the great cinematic interpreters of Shakespeare - his 'Throne of Blood' was a version of Macbeth. One might think of Olivier or the RSC as the definitive adaptations of Shakespeare though arguably their equals are the works of Kurosawa and the Soviet director Grigori Kozintsev.

Those familiar with King Lear will know the general plot but to briefly recap; Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadi), an elderly lord who has amassed a great empire after decades of war and conquest abdicates and bequeathes it to his three sons. This sparks a rivalry between the three sons that will ultimately result in tragedy and the end of the empire. Saburo (Daisuke Ryu) is disowned and banished for being disrespectful and ungrateful when he questions the decision, mindful of the consequences perhaps. Taro (Akira Terao), the eldest son who controls most of the empire and Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu), the second eldest who was somewhat overlooked by his father then commence war for control over the entire domain.

The controlling influence here is Taro's wife, Lady Kaede (Mikeo Harade), a Lady Macbeth type figure who encourages his ambitions and rules her weak husband. When Taro dies in battle, she transfers her loyalties towards Jiro, encouraging him to have his wife killed in return for her sexual favours. Lady Kaede's motives are plain to see to everyone; her father had been killed by Hidetora and her family stripped of its land and position and revenge is on her mind. She knows full well Jiro had her husband killed but she's out for herself and wants to keep the realm together (to ultimately destroy, but also the castle she lives in was her father's). The fact that she is the dominant influence upon the unravelling of the empire just reinforces how ineffective the two eldest brothers are and how unsuitable they are to sustain a vast empire. Saburo, the younger son who re-restablishes a relationship with his father when he has been cut off by his other sons and was the most astute in the sense that he predicted the tragedies to follow was clearly the wisest, but it's the two eldest sons' ability to be manipulated and lust for power that proved their downfall, as well as the father's sense of pride.

'Ran' boasts incredible colours and costumes - it really is a feast for the eyes. The acting stles borrow from Noh and Kabuki theatre; Hidetora's madness is demonstrated by his ghost-like appearance; his face painted white and dressed in full white. Battle scenes are elaborately staged; castles were built and burned down, thousands of extras and hundreds of horses were used and the whole film is more or less filmed in long shot. Unsurprisingly this was the largest budget Kurosawa had ever dealt with and it certainly shows. 'Ran' is a masterpiece with style and substance. 5/5

Sunday, 4 May 2008

Funeral Parade of Roses (1969, Japan, Toshio Matsumoto)

This film was screened as part of the 1968 season, which is running between April-June in a series of London venues and not just incorporating film but other art forms. During the 1960s and as in Western Europe, a new wave of Japanese cinema emerged, which broke with the classical film making tradition as exemplified by the likes of Kurosawa, Mizoguchi and Ozu. Young film makers like Teshigahara and Oshima appeared on the scene and themes such as youth, sexuality and protagonists as outsiders on the fringes of society were explored with increasing frequency. One of the finest examples of these themes being addressed simultaneously, against the backdrop of revolution in the Western world, was 'Funeral Parade of Roses'.

On one level, this film inverts the Oedipus myth, giving in a distinctly homosexual twist. Eddie (Peter) is a young cross-dressing male involved in an affair with his boss but haunted by recurring memories of having murdered his mother in flagrante with another man, as well as the absence of his father who is represented by a photograph in which his face is burned through by a cigarette. Eddie is representative of a young subculture in Tokyo; that of drag queens - men who have chosen to live as women but are not transsexuals. Eddie's rival for their boss's attentions is Leda, who sets herself up as Eddie's opposite. Where Eddie is always rude, late and flirtatious, Leda almost believes herself to be a traditional geisha with refined manners and behavioral codes.

Matsumoto's roots were in documentaries and this is very much evident here. There are many "interviews" with the drag queens themselves, with questions about why they've chosen to live this way, whether they like men or women etc, and often the narrative blurs that distinction between what part of the film and what is part of a documentary in itself. Eddie is making love to an American GI she met at the bar (Genet) she works at and then suddenly we cut to them being filmed by a documentary film maker. And then there is the political element with uses of other media. Student riots in Japan are shown on television, which are also filmed from the television. This puts the film in a degree of context for the era. There had been protests regarding the use of Japanese air bases by the Americans and also security treaties between the two countries. Although this film is not ostensibly about these issues, they're hard to ignore within the film.

Matsumoto shows himself to be a remarkably astute visual artist. There are many memorable visual gimmicks in this film which proved to be influential in years to come. Much has been made of the influence this film has on Kubrick's 'A Clockwork Orange', most notably the fast motion scenes with electronically treated classical music used when Eddie and two friends have a street fight with three girls (just after eating the sexually suggestive ice creams that also feature in the record shop scene in 'A Clockwork Orange') and also a catfight between Eddie and Leda. The latter scene is also memorable for starting almost as a comic strip with the insults represented as speech bubbles. It's a stunning numbers of ways of rewriting the language of cinema and the influence of these visual tricks lives on, which is especially fascinating since this is such a little viewed film.

As it must, the climax reflects that of the myth itself and is suitably shocking and violent (to re-emphasis the myth as the basis for the film, Eddie at one stage stands in front of a poster for the Pasolini film of Oedipus Rex) as Eddie wanders blinded amongst a crowd of bystanders who reportedly had no idea they were being filmed. Having committed suicide, Leda poked two pins through the eyes of the voodoo doll supposed to represent Eddie, which also reinforces the fact that these events are pre-ordained by fate.

Matsumoto only made four features but has a wealth of documentaries and shorts available. 'Funeral Parade of Roses' is a stunning example of blending both schools of film making, whilst incorporating a number of contemporary themes effortlessly. 4.5/5

Friday, 2 May 2008

Kanal (1957, Poland, Andrzej Wajda)

Throughout May, the BFI Southbank is showing a retrospective of the great Polish director, who was recently nominated for an Academy Award for his latest film, 'Katyn', which is opening shortly. I'm hoping to attend as many screenings as I can, but in the meantime I'll look at 'Kanal', which was the film that made Wajda's reputation in the West and forms the second part of the 'war' trilogy, preceded by 'A Generation' and followed by 'Ashes and Diamonds'.

'Kanal' opens with shots of the devastation of Poland during World War Two; a country in ruins during the German occupation and the human and economic cost of war is apparant. Wajda focuses on events in Warsaw specifically and the ill-fated 1944 uprising by remaining partisans against their oppressors. One company of soldiers have held out against the Germans but are trapped and cut off from their comrades, and their capture is surely a matter of course. These men are brave; as one says it's the Polish way to fight to the death, but also desperate. The uprising is on the verge of collapse and survival is only possible through one means - escaping through the sewer systems.

What follows is one of the most claustrophobic and clammy cinematic experiences, as the company trudge through the dark sewers with only the odd flashes of torchlight providing any respite. They must remain silent to evade capture and deal with the filthy and grimy conditions. Below ground it's hard to stay disciplined; some members of the company are left behind, one ducks out of the sewers at the wrong moment and is shot by German soldiers. Filled with fear and dread, these men and women are not portrayed as heroic or valiant - they are just patriots defending their freedom but nothing more than this. Their Hell is summed up by one soldier who quotes Dante (referring to 'Inferno') - "there in the depths of the pit as we stand....".

Wajda informs us immediately that this journey will not succeed and that there will be no contrived denouement. The fatalistic commentary reminds us that these are the last hours of these men and women's lives. The journey through the sewers might be a journey through Hell but there is no safety at the other end. Once Jacek and his girlfriend reach the end, they are captured by Germans and nearly the entire company are shown to be rounded up and imprisoned. Remaining soldiers are forced out by the Germans with explosives.

'Kanal' reminds me of 'The Wages of Fear' in its presentation of men under pressure in a claustrophobic environment. Nothing can prepare you for watching the agonising journey through the dark and dirty sewers with the bare glimmer of hope at the other end. We are shown the company as ordinary men and women, living their normal lives the day before the journey through the sewers - Jacek makes love to his girlfriend, they all sing collectively in a bar and so on. It's a modest film but laid the foundations for a career that continues and will be justly celebrated this month. 3.5/5