Monday, 25 August 2008

The Spirit of the Beehive (1973, Spain, Victor Erice)

Erice's breathtaking film was set during the initial years of the Franco regime, but was made during its final years. Needless to say, it's unlikely that it could have been made when the regime was at its strongest. Despite it not being overtly too critical of the regime, its sufficiently subtle in its approach - is the theme of loss of childhood innocence a reflection on the loss of innocence after a bloody civil war that had deposed a legitimate government?

Set in a village in Castile, a Francoist stronghold, a screening of James Whale's 1931 horror classic 'Frankenstein' becomes a community event. Whilst other children are frightened by the film, Ana (Ana Torrent), a young girl, is touched by the more poignant moments in the film, such as when Frankenstein's monster meets a young girl by a pond and plays with her. When her sister Isabel (Isabel Telleria) explains that the spirit of the monster lives in an abandoned outhouse in the village as a joke, Ana wants to befriend this spirit. A Republican soldier is now hiding there, and Ana tends to his injuries and brings him food, believing him to be the monster's spirit and their relationship to be similar to that between the monster and the young girl Ana identified with. However, is Ana helping the soldier or making his discovery more likely?

Ana's retreat into fantasy and identification with the film is possibly the consequence of a disintegrating family unit. Her father, a scientist is obsessed with bee-keeping and related experiments and there's barely any kind of relationship with his younger wife, who writes letters to her loved ones. In fact, you notice that there are no scenes at all with all family members in the frame at the same time. The only instance they're all together, at the dinner table, no two family members are in the same frame. Ana herself abandons her family temporarily - having given the soldier her father's watch, we know that the soldier is then discovered and murdered by the gunfire in the night. Ana doesn't know this, and only discovers then when her father deliberately and cruelly pulls out the watch at the dinner table. This completely shocks her since in the film, she could not understand why the community turned on and killed the monster - to her, this murder of the soldier just echoes that. This society is still divided and will turn on its "enemies". This is a disjointed family, perhaps reflective of Spain as a whole during Franco or at least certainly in its initial years when the entire nation was polarised by war. Is the imagery of the community of bees and windows in beehive shapes reflective of community under Fascism - ordered, organised, but devoid of individuality or imagination? Is Ana the only hope, the only individual in a homogeneous society?

Driven by the superb performance of Ana Torrent (who would later appear in Alejandro Amenabar's debut film 'Tesis') - which is surely one of the finest ever delivered by a child actor; believe me, she'll break your heart, 'The Spirit of the Beehive' is one of the most poignant films ever about childhood and the loss of innocence. This scenario acts as an allegory if you like for the wider society under Franco; a society that is still divided but has hope in Ana. The constant reference to bees and beehives might reflect an increasingly organised society under Fascism; one that is ordered and controlled, where individuality is suppressed in the name of homogeneity. Featuring breathtaking cinematography from a near blind Luis Cuadrado, where the yellows dominate each shot, and a correct lack of dialogue - Erice never allows his characters to speak more than they need to, and a sense of isolation and lack of communication is precisely what is needed, 'The Spirit of the Beehive' is a moving and heartfelt account of life under Fascism. 4.5/5

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Summer Palace (2006, China, Lou Ye)

Showing as part of the 21st Century Chinese Cinema season at the BFI Southbank (London), 'Summer Palace' is an ambitious but ultimately flawed account of the turbulent love lives of a group of Beijing students, which mirror the social, economic and political changes in China between 1987-2001. Certain elements of the film, including full frontal nudity and footage of the student demonstrations at Tiananmen Square led to the film being banned in China and also a five year ban from film making for director Lou Ye, though the official word was that the film was banned for "technical reasons". It wasn't the first time he fell foul of the Chinese authorities - his 2000 film 'Suzhou River' remains banned in China, and Lou Ye was banned from film making for two years. Fellow Sixth Generation directors, Jia Zhang Ke and Wang Xiaoshuai have managed to escape formal disapproval of their films as of yet whilst remaining equally ambivalent as Lou Ye of China's modernisation in recent decades - perhaps their approach is a bit more subtle than Lou Ye's.

'Summer Palace' begins in Tumen, a border city between China and North Korea, where Yu Hong (Lei Hao), a young student receives notification of her acceptance to study at university in Beijing. Life in Beijing offers more choices, opportunities and freedom than she has been used to - she falls in love with Zhou Wei (Xiaodong Guo), who begins to get involved in the student demonstrations which are developing at the time (1988-89). Somewhat immature and impatient, and perhaps unable to cope with these feelings, their relationship is turbulent and remains on-off. It's a relationship which exists beyond university and its difficulties reflect those China faced in the path it took to reach where it is today.

Lou Ye shows the student demonstrations with a combination of dramatic action and TV footage of the time. By using this footage, Lou Ye is arguably increasing the power and impact of the events - we know we are witnessing the truth rather than a recreation of what happened. What he doesn't show (and maybe we shouldn't be too surprised) is the aftermath of these events. We see the army trying to maintain order, but the massacres that followed the demonstrations are never shown, nor inferred. Even by the most understated of figures, there was a harsh crackdown on dissenters after these demonstrations, but the film doesn't even remotely reflect what took place. A shame, since Lou Ye was clearly brave enough to make a film about these events - maybe he should have gone further, though one could hardly blame him I guess given what the consequences might be for him.

After Tiananmen Square, Lou Ye shows us the rapid changes in both China and internationally - the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union for instance - Lou Ye offers documentary footage of each of these events, which also includes the return of Hong Kong to China, further evidence of the growing success of China and its emergence as a global superpower. At each global event, we dip into the personal circumstances of Yu Hong, Zhou Wei and the assorted other main characters, all of whom seem to have messy and chaotic romantic lives every time. As a group of people, they're difficult to care about or sympathise with, and that's partly where the film suffers because you start to tire of them failing to maintain relationships with each other, notably Yu Hong's self-destructive approach to romance. There's certainly things to admire here - the cinematography for instance, where a jerky camera and rapid cutting reflects the turbulence of both events and personal circumstances and Lou Ye's ambition is to be praised. However, there's enough flaws - the uneasy balance between being critical of Chinese modernisation and the need to appease the censors, as well as difficulty to engage with any of the characters to make it a bit of a mess overall, though it's certainly a brave and interesting one. 3/5

The Colour of Pomegranates (1968, Soviet Union, Sergei Parajanov)

A loose biopic of the Armenian ashug (troubadour) and poet Sayat Nova, Parajanov's film is a beguiling, if sometimes frustrating film. It's defiantly unique in its scope and vision, which accounts for the difficulties Parajanov faced from the Soviet authorities, who not only banned the film in its original incarnation but also heavily re-edited it - no doubt for its supposed nationalist content and also the fact that Soviet audiences just wouldn't understand it. Parajanov himself was persecuted by the authorities, and was later imprisoned in a labour camp for four years on charges of rape and homosexuality.

'The Colour of Pomegranates' certainly requires the viewer's patience. Dispensing with formal cinematic narrative, Parajanov recreates the life of Sayat Nova by displaying his inner world. It's essentially visual poetry; the narrative driven by the scenes of abstract imagery and the native Armenian music. There is no dialogue, just voiceover (this and any titles are usually lines from Nova's poetry) and Parajanov uses a still camera which never moves. Parajanov makes no attempt at realism, but uses Armenian folklore to revive a national culture which was undermined and suppressed by the authorities.

Parajanov seems to portray Nova as an androgynous and mystical figure, using Sofia Chiaureli, a Georgian actress who was Parajanov's muse, plays Sayat Nova across five stages of his adult life, in contrast to using a boy and man to play Nova as a child and older man. Parajanov also obliquely accounts Nova's rise from humble carpet weaver to diplomat and King of Songs, and then his fall from favour at court, becoming a monk - it's only really reading up on Nova's biography that this all becomes apparent though. Parajanov has no interest in recreating Nova's world in a conventional fashion - by using elaborate music and dance, costumes and choreography, as well as a series of beautiful and enthralling images, 'The Colour of Pomegranates' is a justly acclaimed film, albeit one that really tests one's tolerance for art of the avante-garde kind. 4/5

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Red Angel (1966, Japan, Yasuzo Masumura)

Upon reviewing Masumura's 'Blind Beast' recently, I remarked upon how versatile a director he is, able to turn his hand at almost any genre and seemingly hop between them with ease, whether it be the lesbian melodrama of 'Manji' or the S&M infused amour fou of 'Blind Beast'. Between these films comes 'Red Angel', a strange black and white war film. One problem with being so versatile is that you spread yourself to thinly, don't always play to your strengths and fail to carve out your own niche or voice. My problem with the Masumura films I've seen, and I've enjoyed them on the whole is that I never feel sufficiently engaged. There's something unconsciously (for me at least) alienating about them and I never feel totally immersed in them. I wonder whether that's related to Masumura's desire to try his hand at various genres.

Starting with sounds of war (gunfire, bombing) over photographs of conflict, Masumura creates a powerful statement about the physical and psychological effects of war, specifically the Sino-Japanese war of 1937-1945. Masumura doesn't hold back in showing these horrors; soldiers are injured and in gruesome scenes which remind me of the surgery scenes in 'Eyes Without A Face', amputations without anaesthetic are the norm for those "lucky" enough to survive. This is a recurring issue here; whether these men would be better off dead than being amputees for the rest of their lives, isolated from mainstream society. Many of them long to be put out of their misery. Then there's the moral anguish of the medical staff who are responsible for these life and death decisions. Against this backdrop, Sakura Nishi (Ayako Wakao) is sexually assaulted by a group of soldiers. It emerges this isn't the first time that has happened, that all nurses are subjected to similar treatment and that behaviour of this kind is pretty much accepted and forgiven by the authorities. War is an unnatural state where social conventions and norms are rejected perhaps and in a world where death or severe injury is likely and human life has no sense of value, humanity falls by the wayside. I doubt this is any kind of excuse for this act, but might act as a sense of explanation for it.

Nishi's commitment to her cause forces her to make serious self-sacrifices - seeing a doctor's compassion but also his erratic behaviour, caused by his reliance on morphine to allow him to endure the horrors of the frontline, Nishi falls in love. At the same time, she tends to one severely injured patient in the most unconventional of means. Unable to relieve his own tensions (his arms were amputated - there's no doubt what he means), they start a short lived affair. These men are the desperate and the dying and Nishi considers it her duty to try to save them. When her lover dies, she blames herself and cannot forget, despite all the contrary advice she receives to think only of herself in this state of war. But the psychological scars don't heal. Proof that this conflict is too horrendous for anyone to possible bear is the outbreak of cholera that coincides with the massacre of the Japanese forces.

'Red Angel' is quite a struggle to get through; it's subject matter of amputation, drug addiction and gruesome conflict was probably just as groundbreaking and taboo-busting as much of Masumura's work at the time, but it also supersedes most other war films in that sense. Very few that I can recall have treated war in such an honest and depressing fashion, nor have they quite approached the subject of war in quite such a bizarre and peculiar way. It's beautiful and gruesome in equal measure with a dash of the erotic at the same time. Certainly unique, it's further proof of Masumura's talent, though I'm not convinced I've seen a truly great film of his yet. 3.5/5

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Seconds (1966, US, John Frankenheimer)

The third part of an unofficial 'paranoia' trilogy (which also comprised 'The Manchurian Candidate' and 'Seven Days of May'), 'Seconds' might well be one of the most downbeat films you're ever likely to see, but shows a remarkable insight into contemporary America through the eyes of a director that cinema history tends to ignore the achievements of; perhaps because he was never auteur material, perhaps also because of the poor films he was making at the end of his career. In my opinion, it's more satisfying and thrilling than 'The Manchurian Candidate' and is easily one of the most stunning films of its decade.

Utilising the immeasurable gifts of cinematographer James Wong Howe, who made 'The Sweet Smell of Success' look so bleak, Frankenheimer's masterpiece is dizzying and disorientating for the viewer - the constant use of fish eye lenses to create an impression of a world out its natural order, where nothing is as it seems, as well as extreme point of view filming methods, following individuals with intense close ups. The ominous use of these techniques in the film's opening scenes indicate straight away that we're being shown events where nothing will be normal and the tension never once lets up from this point.

Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) seemingly has the middle class American dream - a successful job, a wife and children, and a prestigious house in the suburbs. But at the same time, there are obvious cracks in the facade. His marriage is loveless and he barely communicates still with his wife, and his children have long since moved out and started out on their own adult lives. A peculiar incident in which he's given a piece of paper with an address piques his interest; it's for a company which can offer him what every middle aged American male wants - "real freedom". Hamilton is offered a chance to start over again - the company can fake his death, offer cosmetic surgery and set him up with a new life, the life he always wanted. And so he becomes Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson), a bohemian painter. However the cost of such a change is not just financial, but also psychological and emotional, as he struggles to adjust to his new life. Despite this freedom, Hamilton maybe starts to wonder whether it's all it's cracked up to be, and the consequences of not living this new lifestyle as it was intended are potentially dangerous.

Perhaps some aspects of 'Seconds' seem a bit quaint and dated nowadays - the party in which revellers dance around naked as if it were some cliched Summer of Love nonsense (but even this seems quite daring for a mainstream film of the mid-1960s), but that doesn't remotely undermine a stunning film that examines the frustrations and emotional lack in the white American middle class in such a frank and open fashion, certainly more insightfully than any other film of the age was prepared to do. The core values of this social class; achievement, prestige, success, the good life - these are all seen as not being enough for the individuals who reject this for the new life of freedom offered by "the company", though this freedom itself has conditions that are more than Hamilton can bear. A thriller that puts the viewer through the emotional wringer and which is constantly technically inventive, 'Seconds' is incomparable. 5/5

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

La Ronde (1950, France, Max Ophuls)

As alluded to in the previous piece, Ophuls' brief Hollywood career was completed after making 'Caught' and 'The Reckless Moment', but still at his creative peak, he resumed work in France, with 'La Ronde' being the first example of this. Based on 'Reigen', the play for Arthur Schnitzler which was banned for obscenity, a fate the film faced in certain countries, Ophuls weaves a mesmerising tale of a daisy chain of ten sexual partners (e.g. A sleeps with B, B sleeps with C, etc before returning back to A). Although Ophuls remains faithful to the original setting of the play, turn of the 20th century Vienna and scrutinises the sexual mores of society as well as its class differences, the crucial theme of the transmission of syphilis seems if not omitted, then underplayed, although this doesn't really undermine the satire too much.

One of Ophuls' masterstrokes is using the handsome and charismatic Anton Walbrook (most famous for 'The Red Shoes') as the film's narrator and master of ceremonies. An omnipotent presence over the events that unfolds, as well as influencing events to ensure the circle of lovers remains intact, he is the incarnation of our desire to know and dispenses romantic advice; "all are led the same merry dance, when love chooses its victims of chance". He initially sets up the whore with the soldier, then aids the pairing off of each subsequent set of lovers, all to keep the carousel going.

Ophuls shows how sexual impropriety crosses class boundaries; notice how the whore pairs off with both the soldier and the aristocrat, representing two arms of high society. The sole married couple both have affairs - as the husband says "marriage is a perplexing mystery" and perhaps the young gentleman who sleeps with his maid represents a sense of economic exploitation. Using typically elaborate camerawork, never more evident that the opening scene, unbroken for several minutes as it follows Walbrook's introduction and summation of the events at hand, Ophuls pans the camera in circular directions as if to denote the circular nature of the waltz of love. Good natured and whimsical, though no less specific in its observation of sexual attitudes of the time, 'La Ronde' is an enchanting cinematic experience by a film maker clearly on the crest of a wave. 4/5
'La Ronde' is released on DVD on 8th September from Second Sight.

Monday, 4 August 2008

Caught (1949, US, Max Ophuls)

Recently, I reviewed 'Letter From An Unknown Woman', a superior melodrama which remains probably the best of the four Ophuls films that I have seen. Made just a year after, 'Caught' was Ophuls' first attempt at making a contemporary American film. This too is another melodrama, but one that also acts as a scathing attack on certain American values of the era (materialism, ambition, success). Leonora Eames (Barbara Bel Geddes), Caught's heroine starts as a rather shallow young woman about to enter charm/finishing school, with the sole intention of developing the refined habits and behaviour that will snare her a rich, successful husband. She reads fashion magazines, and romantically yearns for the good life. Naturally, her dreams becomes more of a nightmare.

Leonora meets and falls in love with Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan), a ruthless businessman with emotional and physical health issues. He's not so keen, but just to spite his psychoanalyst, he marries her regardless. Marriage isn't what Leonora expected it to be. Her charm school education is no use to her now. A man used to winning (who has heart palpitations when his superiority is threatened), Smith humiliates her in front of their friends/colleagues and wants to do his best to ruin her, ruling over her like a tyrant.

Escaping his clutches, she takes a job as a receptionist for the kind and self-sacrificing Dr Quinada (James Mason), and their attraction is mutual. However, when Smith finds her and wants her back (he can't accept losing her), Leonora is torn between the two men. Her yearning for a good life, for wealth, security and status take priority over love, though the crucial aspect is the fact she's pregnant with Smith's child and that Smith threatens a divorce citing adultery, giving him custody of their child, so perhaps Leonora is learning that her shallow ideals aren't what they're cracked up to be. Her eventual freedom is obtained in the most ironic of fashions, though not without a huge degree of tragedy, and what there is resembling a "happy ending" is incredibly subdued.

Like his fellow German, Douglas Sirk, Ophuls utilises the melodrama genre to raise significant and salient points about typically American values, increasingly held by many during a period of economic prosperity. Smith, unrestrained capitalism in human form is a cruel and merciless creature, who can't accept defeat and who must master others. Leonora's desire of Smith's world and her idealised notions of success and wealth display a sense of ambition that becomes her downfall. Only with the compassionate Quinada does Leonora find happiness, which refutes every ideal she previously held, although she struggles to let go of Smith's world. One wonders though, whether like Sirk's films, the satirical angle of 'Caught' was obviously noticed by its audience or whether it was just treated as a domestic nightmare and nothing more. Ophuls, who uses camera movement better and more interestingly than most, uses his technical gifts to show Leonora's world of peril - look at his use of lighting too when Leonora is faced with the moral dilemma of saving Smith's life when he has a heart attack. It would be so easy to let him die so she can be free and the contempt on her face is obvious, but Ophuls rejects such simple plot developments. 'The Reckless Moment' was made the same year, and should be considered together as incredibly pertinent dissections of contemporary American mores. 4/5

'Caught' is released on DVD on 8th September from Second Sight.