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Nocturnal Animals, USA 2016

Posted by keith1942 on November 27, 2016

50805_AA_4167_v4lo Academy Award nominee Amy Adams stars as Susan Morrow in writer/director Tom Ford’s romantic thriller NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Merrick Morton/Focus Features

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Academy Award nominee Amy Adams stars as Susan Morrow in writer/director Tom Ford’s romantic thriller NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Merrick Morton/Focus Features

 

This is the second film directed by Tom Ford. I was not taken with his first, A Single Man (2009). It was accomplished and offered a fine performance by Colin Firth. But it was so beautifully designed with scarcely a hair out of place. It reminded me of The Hours (2002), which was extremely well done but even in the baking sequence no flour was spilt. It also reminded me of I Am Love (Io sono l’amore, 2009), another spotless movie which made me long for Boudu to wander in and spit in the extremely expensive soup. Tom Ford was a designer and worked for Gucci prior to moving into film. It shows. His films are rather like a mannequin parade, style over substance.

Having noted this I found Nocturnal Animals a lot more interesting than the first film: I suspect that is due to the source novel by Austin Wright. It has Amy Adams, but the tight design constrains her enormously. Interesting in terms of gender treatment Jake Gyllenhaal is not so severely restrained. He plays the ex-husband, Tony Hastings, of our heroine Susan Morrow. Her philandering second husband, Hutton Morrow (Arnie Hammer) is away and Tony sends Susan a draft copy of his novel, something she has waited years to see. The story in the novel works as an insert in the main film, and features Jake Gyllenhaal, but not Amy Adams, playing a character, Edward Sheffield.

The whole film is an exercise in noir though the inset story plays much darker and strays into horror. In Tony’s novel Sheffield’s wife and daughter becomes the targets in a rather nasty ‘road rage’ incident. The theme of Tony’s novel is revenge: a point made when Susan, who works in a gallery, passes a pop art painting constructed round this word. Revealingly she has forgotten the painting though she acquired it for the gallery.

The whole film is beautifully designed and in addition includes numerous art displays, including one by Damien Hurst. The film opens with a gallery display of actual women on show in ‘art works’. These appear to be designed to comment on the position of women in relation to sexuality and objectification. The art works continue throughout the film. I did not recognise all of them but I was aware that i was constantly seeing examples of ‘good taste’ in the sense used by Pierre Bourdieu. I did recognise settings modelled on the work of Edward Hopper, including the final shot of Susan, which presumably points up the moral of the film.

I was especially unhappy about the opening gallery presentation. This, like at least one sequence in the story within a story, struck me as pornographic: presumably deliberately. Evelyn Waugh in his masterpiece, The Sword of Honour trilogy, has a character remark that ‘all pornography is about death’. This is central to this film. However, unlike say in a film by Ingmar Bergman, I did not feel there was a redeeming theme to counter this. I thought that both Amy Adams’s Louise Banks and Arrival (2016) are a more worthwhile trip to the cinema.

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In the Mood for Love/ Faa yeung nin wa, Hong Kong / China 2000

Posted by keith1942 on November 21, 2016

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The film came second in ‘BBC Culture’s 100 greatest films of the 21st Century’. Nick James, in an editorial in Sight & Sound, made a personal argument that it should be in the first place. It is certainly critically highly regarded and has good rankings in many different listings: it has also won many awards. The International title in English comes from a popular song of the 1930s: recorded many times over the years. The Chinese title has a couple of meanings, one being ‘the flowery years’:  a ‘Chinese metaphor for the fleeting time of youth, beauty and love’. The film uses Cantonese, Shanghainese and French [with subtitles] and the songs on the soundtrack come in several languages as well.

The basic story is simple and the main plot suggested by an opening on-screen title. Set in the early 1960s Hong Kong, a married man and woman move into adjoining apartments. As they become acquainted they realise that their spouses are having an affair with each other. Despite this, their growing friendship remains platonic. Later in the film the man moves to Singapore and they are separated. They miss meeting each other later in Hong Kong. At the film’s end the man visits the Buddhist Temple at Angkor Wat where he performs a ritual relating to his memories.

The main setting is important. We are in Hong Kong when it was still a British colony. There is a brief reference in the film to the unrest there in 1967 and demonstrations against the British occupation. In the same period Hong Kong was an emerging, dynamic market with a rapidly expanding population. One of the key aspects of the film is the sense of an overcrowded urban area with competition for living space. The characters are on top of each other and accommodation is a prized commodity.

Food is an important component in the film. We see characters at meals on a number of occasions. The depiction of food and eating seems to be a common motif in South East Asian films. And the communal aspects of eating is important here. There are a number of occasions when the landlady of the apartments invites one character to join them in a meal. But we also see characters eating alone and using taken out food: emphasising a sense of alienation for some.

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The two main characters are Su Li-zhen – Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) and Chow Mo-wan  (Tony Leung). They are two of the best known Hong Kong film stars internationally and have appeared in several films together. These include other films by the director Won Kar-wai and martial arts films such as Hero (2002).   Their performances and the relationship they create onscreen is important for the feel of the film. Moreover, throughout the film Mrs Chan is dressed in the traditional cheongsam dresses whilst Chow is uniformly in suits, though he at one point removes his jacket and at another both jacket and shirt. All these add to the strong sense of period.

This and the style of the film would appear to account for its appeal. It is very much a cineaste’s film, with a strong emphasises on visual and aural style. The cinematography by Chris Doyle [a Wong-Kar Wai regular] and Mark Lee Ping Bin is lustrous. It is also carefully constructed. The sense of cramped space and of society bearing in on the characters is strong, with characters frequently blocked in by lines, buildings and fittings. There are several shots that use mirrors for reflection. Long shots also suggest characters trapped by their environment. And the leisurely long takes that recur, notably in the final sequence at Ankur Wat Temple, produce a meditative feel. Much of the film relies on chiaroscuro lighting and the colour palette lacks saturated hues.

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The soundtrack and in particular then use of popular song adds to the feel of the film. The Chinese title track is “Hua Yang De Nian Hua”, a popular song from the 1940s. There are also several songs performed by Nat King Cole including “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás” [known as ‘Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps’ in an English rendering],  a popular Cuban song. The song ‘In the Mood for Love’, which inspires the international English-language title, does not appear in the film. The choice of songs adds to the wishful feel in the film and a sense of loss and transitory times.

The editing by William Chang is elliptical: moments are cut off whilst we are still following the action. And at other time shots are held beyond the point of the import for plot. This helps the feeling of ambiguity that pervades the film. The audience are listening in but never completely hear all the relevant information. The later point is emphasised in the final sequence, a sort of epilogue. When Chow visits the Ankor Wat Temple he whispers his secret into a cavity in a tree. We do not hear the words but we can guess at their import.

When we discussed the film students had a number of reservations about the film, though they were impressed by the production and felt the emotional effect of the story. Some felt that the film was too ambiguous and also found the style of the film inhibited involvement with the characters. It strikes me that In the Mood for Love is indeed a cineaste’s film. When I looked at the BBC Culture ‘top 100’ I saw that this Wong-Kar-wai film followed David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001). That film is even more ambiguous and even trickier to follow than In the Mood for Love. The BBC list was compiled from responses from 177 film critics. This is a very specialist audience and, moreover, both directors are regarded as ‘auteurs’, beloved by critics. It would seem that In the Mood for Love is a classic with a specific and limited audience. It is worth adding that the film received a further outing in Leeds earlier this year. This was a screening organised by the Confucius Business Institute. The Institute is a parallel to the British Council, propagandising China’ economic potential abroad. Confucius was rightly criticised under the genuine Communist rule but has made a comeback under the ‘capitalist roaders’. The film does connect in some ways with Confucian morals which emphasise ‘correct’ social relationships and ‘family values’. However, at the end of the film, Chow is at a Buddhist temple, a movement that emphasises the transitory nature of our temporary life here; added to by an end-on-screen title. So I would be chary of subscribing Confucian values to this film: I doubt Confucius would have sympathised with the sense of loss that the film engenders.

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Woman of the dunes aka The Woman in the Dunes / Suna no onna Japan 1964

Posted by keith1942 on November 9, 2016

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I had seen this film a couple of times before and I was able to revisit it when it was screened at the Hyde Park Picture House as part of a Leeds International Film Festival retrospective celebrating the ‘film soundtrack’. The film is certainly a favourite that does enjoy re-releases. It reportedly did well at the Japanese box office. On its international release it garnered the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

In terms of soundtrack the film has both distinctive sound and music. The score was composed by Takemitsu Toru, a colleague of the director Teshigahara Hiroshi. The music is electronic and discordant and emphasises the avant-garde style of the film. At certain points in the film noise is used, seemingly amplified, on the soundtrack. The film was produced by the director under Teshigahara Productions and distributed by Toho. There was a ‘road show’ version released in Japan that ran 147 minutes, longer then the international release at 127 minutes. The film was adapted from a novel by Abe Kōbō, and a another variant on the title is ‘sand woman’.

The basic plot involves a man (Okada Eiji): only at the end of the film do we learn his actual name Junpei Niki. He is an amateur etymologist and has taken three days holiday to visit the sea-side near Tokyo in order to collect specimens. Late in the afternoon he is told by local villagers that the last bus has left but that he can have accommodation for night in a local house. This turns out to be that of a widow (Kishida Kyoko), and is situated in steep sided pit in the sand dunes. When he tries to leave next morning he discovers that the rope ladder out the pit has been removed and that the sand cliffs of the pit are impossible to climb. He learns that the villagers have deliberately lured him to this spot and trapped him there in order to assist the widow in coping with the shifting sand. The sand accumulates and drifts everywhere and as it seeps into the pit it endangers the widow’s wooden hut. More importantly he learns that if her pit collapses it will endanger all the houses in the village.

It seems that this tactic is one regularly used by the villagers to preserve their habitat,

“the native place spirit is strong.”

Another women in the village has a trapped salesman. The widow has lost her husband and her daughter in a sand slide. The work to prevent further slides recurs every night as she and [eventually] the unwilling prisoner shovel sand into boxes that are hoisted up and taken away by the villagers. The widow tells the man that the villagers sell it ‘half-price’ as building material though it is actually unfit for this. When he suggests that a more efficient way of preventing sand erosion would be to plant trees she replies simply that

“it’s much cheaper this way”.

The man’s initial response is destructive. Then he ties up the woman and stops her nightly labours to remove the sand. But the villagers respond by cutting off the supplies of water, food, sake and cigarettes. Eventually he becomes a reluctant partner with the woman. The partnership develops to include sexual relations. The first coitus is a fairly violent affair on the part of both the man and the woman. But as he settles to become part of the labour force and the household the relationship becomes rather like a marriage.

However the man continues to try and escape. One night, with a makeshift rope and grapple, he manages to climb out of the pit. As he searches for a way from the sand dunes the villagers pursue him. Then he is trapped in quicksand and the villagers have to rescue him. He is unceremoniously returned to the pit and the house.

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He then constructs a trap for the crows that circle and pounce on any food scraps. However, whilst he fails to trap a bird he discovers that he can collect water through capillary activity in the sand. He thus perfects a water collecting device. At this point it becomes apparent that the woman is pregnant. Signalling to the villagers with a torch on a long pole, the woman is hoisted to the surface and taken either to a doctor or a midwife. However, the villagers leave the rope ladder in place and the man is able to climb out of the pit. He walks down the dunes and looks out at the sea. Then he returns to the pit. The audience can assume that he remains with the woman and their new-born child. In an internal voice he rationalises that he will finish his water collecting device: he can leave at another time.

The film depends to a great deal on the relationship between the man and the woman: to a lesser degree on that with the other villagers. The film plays with the classic distinction between city and countryside, though we never see the city, we only hear the characters refer to it. Initially the man’s attitude is one of superiority. He assumes that the villagers are simple and naïve. This is his undoing when he first meets them because he fails to realise their real purpose. Once in the sand pit with the woman he treats her with a certain contempt. She explains to him that the sand attracts water and this rots the woodwork of the house. He dismisses this as a ignorant misunderstanding on her part. Later in the film, when he realises that she is right, he is able to develop his water collection. She also has a assumed reverence for the city, mentioning Tokyo several times as a place of superior facilities and attractions. When not working at shifting sand she carefully threads sand grains into necklaces which she will sell in order to make money to buy a radio.

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The man’s situation, imprisoned in this pit, is paralleled by his activity as an etymologist. He carefully collects specimens at the start of the film placing them in his receptacle and later pinning them out in his collector boxes. At times the camera carefully contrasts the insects in their boxes with the man in the box like structure of the wooden house. In a key moment in the relationship the man empties his collection, throwing it on the fire, so that the woman can use the frames for her jewellery.

There is notable erotic charge to their relationship. At the beginning of the film the man sits alone in a ruined boat on the beach. He remembers a woman and her figure and voice are superimposed on the shot. She chides him for the failing in their relationship.

“you criticised me … I argued too much.”

One critic suggests that she is/was his wife, though this is not apparent in the English sub-titled version. When the man is them imprisoned in the pit with the woman he takes her for granted. The first night of captivity sees her sleeping semi-naked in the hut, and the drifting sand moulds her figure. But this apparently does not affect him. Then later, when his emotions are charged by his frustrations, sake and a violent shake from sand falls, he impetuously grabs and embraces her. She responds and we witness a fairly violent bout of love making. We can presume that this sexual relations, once started, continues. And in the latter stages of the film the woman is pregnant.

The plot of the film is linear and recognisable though also unconventional. However, it is carefully encased in an overall film whose style is unconventional, ambiguous and extremely reflective. So at the opening we see of close-ups of insects accompanied by natural sounds. This sets up the theme of entrapment which is central to the story. These shot intersperse with the simple shots of the credits which are adorned with official-looking stamps. Throughout the film sequences of the characters interaction are intercut with shots of sand and sand dunes. These shorts empathise the material texture of the sand and also form abstract patterns. So at times the shifting sand resembles the movement of water, a central motif in the film. At other times the folds of the dunes resemble part of the human body, part of the erotic theme in the film.

The cinematography by Segawa Hiroshi brings out aspects of this. It is shot in crisp black and white film, with high contrast and in the Academy Ratio. The shots tend to deep focus, so we are aware of both the foreground and background. There are a great many long shots which emphasise the placement of the character in the environment. And Segawa also uses the occasional high angle shot which feeds into a sense of omniscience and relates to the theme of containment. There are many extreme close-ups, both of the characters but also of the sand which becomes a character in the story. Takemitsu Toro’s electronic score adds to both the moment of intensity and to the abstract quality of the film. So the music is occasional, but notable when the relationship becomes emotional. Alongside this there are non-melodic chords accompanying the shots of the sand and the dunes.

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The ambiguities in the plot leave questions about the villagers and the woman. Is the rope ladder being left an omission or have the savvy villagers figured that the man will no longer attempt to leave. And the woman’s pregnancy is unexplained. it may be the man’s. However what detail there is about dates queries this. At the end of the film we learn that the man went missing in August. At one point the woman comments he has been there three months. When the pregnancy occurs the woman states that the signs started in October: we already know from comments that December is coming when the wind stirs up the sand. So either there has been an ellipsis of getting on for 12 months or the man is not the father? In the latter case is this also part of the villagers’ manipulations?

A further theme emerges at the end of the film. In the opening, when the man wanders alone on the beach he, at one point, muses on the different certificate and identity forms required in modern life. This relates back the official stamps that decorate the opening credits. Then at the close of the film a voice over accompanies shots of an official form, informing us that Junpei Niki went missing in 1956 and that in 1963, after a gap of seven years, he was legally termed a missing person. It is left to viewer to decide if this is a flight from the demands of modern urban living or a celebration of re-alignment with nature. I would suggest that both themes relate to a sense of freedom. The musings on certification suggest that Junpei feels trapped in his ordinary urban life and work. When he is imprisoned he is trapped in a different way. However by the film’s end he has chosen to stay and work in the pit. The complication is the nature of his new community, which seems to have its own containment and manipulations. Meanwhile the officialdom of his previous existence has removed his chains by deeming him absent, presumed dead. One critic suggested that the film’s story is “is a modern version of the myth of Sisyphus, the man condemned by the gods to spend eternity rolling a boulder to the top of a hill, only to see it roll back down.” There is an element of truth here, But Junpei moves beyond this in his choice at the climax of the film.

Teshigahara had studied painting [like Mizoguchi] and made some short documentaries. However, as with other directors identified as a Japanese New Wave, he moved to less conventional films. His preceding film, also scripted by Abe Kōbō, included elements of the kwaidan eiga [ghost film]. There is a ghost-like quality to Woman of the Dunes. It is clearly not a realist film, and works like an allegory. But given the narration is set -up by the male character and the impersonal voice that ends the film it could be an imagined story.

 

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Ida Poland, Denmark, France, UK 2013

Posted by keith1942 on September 29, 2016

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This film received high praise on its release. I included it in my top five new releases when it arrived in the UK. Pawel Pawlikowski directed the film from a script by himself and Rebecca Lenkiezewski. Pawlikowski has worked in the UK for a number of years and this is his first film set in Poland where he was born and spent his early years. Praise has also been heaped on the design, cinematography, editing and music. The film was shot on digital and then processed to create a black and white image in Academy ratio. The film has a distinctive look with the grainy surface found on celluloid whilst the predominately static camera and minimal non-diegetic music create an atmosphere of silent contemplation.

The film opens on Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska), a young novice in a Convent about to take her vows – poverty, chastity and obedience. She was bought there as a child and is now 18. The Superior sends her out into the world to visit her only surviving relative, Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza) who lives in Lodz. Ida’s visit leads to her discovering that her parents were Jewish and died during WWII. Wanda drinks and has occasional affairs despite being a judge. These two seemingly ill-matched women embark on a journey to find out more about Ida’s parents and their fate. Along the way they seek out people where the parents (Lebensteins) lived and also meet with a young jazz musician, Lis (David Ogrodnik). Wanda’s life changes drastically following the odyssey, what Ida’s future will be is ambiguous.

S&S notes the film is set in 1961, presumably from information in the Press Pack. The film is opaque on both dates and to a degree places. But we are in the so-called Polish Socialist society of the early 1960s. The Regime has hardened into a fairly repressive society whilst the economy seems to have little developed since the end of the war. One character invites the protagonist to join him on a visit to Gdansk, clearly a reference to the future and Solidarity.

The class viewed the film and then discussed it. What follows is my record of the many comments and the incomplete consensus on the film, though all enjoyed and/or were impressed by it. Students commented on the film’s feel of grim scarcity, both material and emotional. There are a few moments of liveliness or even joy: the dance at the hotel where the women stay: moments Ida’s spends with her fellow novices: and, though less certain, a jazz club. Whilst Wanda offers frequent extrovert behaviour Ida is mainly placid. There are a few moments of emotion: a silent laugh in the Convent refectory, but unexplained; a tear as a fellow novice takes her vows; and another as she bids farewell to Wanda.

Everyone was impressed by the style of the film. Much of the feeling generated and our sense of the characters is communicated visually. The film features a number of shots with characters set against windows. Then, at the climax we see a character by an open window.  And the film also works through the music. Suitable for Ida is a Bach theme whilst Wanda enjoys a Mozart symphony. And Lis plays a piece by John Coltrane.

It seemed clear that Ida is an outsider in this Polish society. This enables her to offer a rather detached viewpoint. Intriguingly nearly everyone she meets behaves slightly differently with her, as she wears her nun’s habit for most of the film. The Catholic religion is a key component in Polish culture; even to this day, so religion also offers a separate set of values in the film. And this is enhanced by the presence of Jewish characters and our awareness of the persecution during war years: a persecution in which many Poles were complicit.

There was some discussion of the camera work in particular. The film adheres for most of its length to static camera shots. Even when there are tracks, six or seven, these also use a fixed camera on a car, tram or dolly. However, and this suggests the ambiguity at the end of the film, our last sight of Ida, again wearing her nun’s habit, is in a reverse hand-held [or simulated on a Steadicam] camera. There are also several notable and impressive shots. One is an acute low angle, through a balustrade, as Ida reaches an agreement with a man who knew her parents. Another is a high angle shot of the hotel stairwell as Ida ventures down to the dance below. And there is a stunningly ambiguous shot as Ida wraps herself in a lace curtain after a particular tragic sequence. One aspect of the film is how it revisits the style and approach of the Polish and Eastern European cinemas of the 1960s: often subversive views of their societies.

One intriguing suggestion was that the film could be seen as a road movie. Certainly the film offers an odyssey for Ida, who meets a range of characters to whom she responds in different ways. And the end the film poses the question – has she arrived or does the road continue.

Production Design by Katarzyna Sobanska and Marcel Slawinski. Cinematography by Lukasz Zal and Ricard Lenczewski. Editing by Jaroslaw Karminski. Music by Kristina Selin and Eidnes Anderson.

Running time 80 minutes with English subtitles.

 

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21st Century classic films?

Posted by keith1942 on September 4, 2016

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I am planning a film study course this autumn which will discuss ‘C21st classics’. Do we have memorable films to compare with [for example among English language films] Brighton Rock (1947), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial(1982) or the original Mad Max (1979)? This will involve myself and students deciding what is a classic film. The online dictionary offers the following:

ADJECTIVE

  1. judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind:
  2. very typical of its kind:

NOUN

  1. a work of art of recognized and established value:

“his books have become classics”

There are, as you might except numerous definitions, comments, explanations and listings on this topic on the Internet. One entry asks:

“What’s your definition of “classic”? Record-breaking? Precedent-setting? Influential? Enduring? How soon can such a status be determined? (Films have to be at least 25 years old to qualify for the National Film Registry; acts don’t become eligible for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame until 25 years after the release of their first record.) Are their films from the 1990s and 2000s that you would already consider worthy of classic status? Have at it.”

A filmmaker opines:

“I am fondly reminded that I, along with countless others, was asked-to-answer this very question by the Director’s Guild of America for their February 1992 issue of their monthly magazine featuring this topic. Pick up a copy if you can because you’ll enjoy getting a breadth of answers from many of the industry’s then-luminaries.

That being said, I believe my answer then still holds:

“A film that captures a past generation’s heart, challenges a present generation’s mind, and nourishes a future generation’s soul.”

An anonymous film buff offers:

“When it pushes the boundaries of filmmaking techniques (e.g. visual effects, storytelling, thematic exploration, etc.) and filmmaking itself (e.g. scale of production.) Being a trendsetter (i.e. a lot of movies that follow copy one or more of the original movie’s aspects) helps as well.”

We also, to my surprise, have numerous listings of the best films [i.e. potential classics] since the start of the century, 2000. Some opt for ten titles, one opted for a hundred. Among the titles chosen as number one we find:

Mulholland Drive (USA 20011)

Hunger (UK 2008)

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

The Master (USA 2012)

Carol (USA 2015)

They are all relatively mainstream, though quite varied collection of films. Moreover, the more recent films seem to stick in the memory. They are all English-language. Hollywood does still dominate the international market, but other cinemas might offer different titles. This is certainly true of 20th films: in Japan one classic is Carmen Comes Home / Karumen kokyô ni kaeru (1951) whilst in India one undoubted classic is Sholay (1975).

There is a question to what degree classic status varies according to audiences. Mainstream classic presumably have the largest audience, but national and regional cinemas may offer variations. Then we have the art film audience, audiences for foreign language films, documentaries, animation, independents, avant-garde … To which we might add, are we discussing films that screen in cinemas or are viewed on some of the contemporary alternatives.

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My inclination is to look at possible classics in a range of varied film industries. Every year now I pick the top five new releases that I have seen: there are some I miss but also some that do not get either a distribution or an adequate UK release. I attempted to reduce the 75 titles to 15. I managed 20 features [with some difficulty]: time will probably reduce this list a little. I include the title, country of origin and arrange them in date of release. Some of the films are clearly by distinctive filmmakers, but the idea of ‘auteur’ is a problematic one. In nearly every case the quality of the film cannot be reduced to one person. That in itself makes for interesting points of discussion on the films.

Bamboozled (USA 2000)

Set in a fictional Television company this is satire of the highest order. The film is constructed around the idea of blackface, with a powerful and moving montage to close.

In the Mood for Love / Faa yeung nin wa (Hong Kong, China 2000)

Slow. elegant and with minimal sex, romance to die for.

Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (India 2001)

Set at the end of the C19th in rural India this is both a great cricketing film and a critique of British colonialism.

Belleville Rendez-vous / Les triplettes de Belleville, (France, Belgium, Canada, UK, Latvia 2003)

This is a brilliant animation, quirky, witty and with a distinctive palette.

Dogville (Denmark, Sweden, UK, France, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Finland, Italy 2003)

The film is presented on a series of minimal theatrical sets: the drama is down to the characters, lighting, camerawork and editing. Brilliantly successful.

Moolaadé (Senegal, Burkina Faso, Morocco, Tunisia, Cameroon, France 2004)

A fine drama about oppressive traditional practices and women’s resistance to them. 

Flags of Our Fathers (USA 2006)

This is a Hollywood film with a difference. The construction of the film takes in aspects that most war films do not even envisage.

The Lives of Others Germany / Das Leben der Anderen (Germany 2006)

There has been a number of films about the repressive security system in the DDR: this is a particularly fine example with echoes of Victor Hugo.

Let the Right One In / Låt den rätte komma in (Sweden 2008)

A stand-out vampire film. Essaying a brilliant variation on the genre.

35 Rhum (France 2009)

Essentially a family dram, low-key and sometimes slow but powerful in its evocation of life.

The Secret in Their Eyes / El secreto de sus ojos (Argentina 2009)

The main character revisits past events which finally reveal the ‘secret’, part of which is the past of Argentina itself.

Surviving Life (Theory and Practice) / Prezít svuj zivot (teorie a praxe) (Czech Republic, Slovakia, Japan 2010)

This is genuine surrealism and both very witty and technically brilliant.

Nader and Simin a separation / Jodaí-e Nadér az Simín (Iran 2010)

The film follows a family break-up but actually reflects on contemporary Iranian society.

Once upon a Time in Anatolia / Bir zamanlar Anadolu’da (Turkey, Bosnia-Herzegovina 2011)

I saw this film three times. It retained its luminous images and sounds but increased in complexity at every viewing.

Turin Horse / A torinói ló (Hungary, France, Germany, Switzerland, USA 2011)

Probably the ultimate in ‘slow cinema’. It also enjoyed the model trailer, at least in the UK.

Amour (France, Germany, Austria 2012)

The film has fine direction, but what most impresses are the performances.

The Great Beauty / La grande bellezza (Italy, France 2013)

The most stylish film I have seen that year: the final track along the Tiber is magnificent.

Selma (USA 2014)

A model of what a biopic should be, combining intelligence with mainstream production values.

45 Years (UK 2015)

Slow, elegant and very complex: the acting performances of the year.

Carol (USA 2015)

What other praise than this is as good as the Patricia Highsmith original novel.

Our younger sister / Umimachi Diary (Japan 2015)

A study of four sisters, little drama but a completely satisfying study.

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Savage Messiah UK 1972

Posted by keith1942 on August 10, 2016

Savage Messiah

This screening at the Hyde Park Picture was part of celebration of the film’s artistic protagonist, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska in 2011. The Henry Moore Institute in Leeds was hosting an exhibition ‘Savage Messiah: The Creation of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’. We had been hoping then to hear Ken Russell introduce his film. However, he was unfortunately in hospital after suffering a ‘little’ stroke; he sadly succumbed and later died. So his friend and long-time editor Michael Bradsell introduced the film, reading out a letter from Ken’s sick- bed. He told us this was the favourite among his many fine films. It was understandable that British films foremost maverick should love a film about an early C20th artistic maverick.

The film primarily focuses on the stormy and unconventional relationship between Gaudier [Scot Antony) and Polish writer Sophie Brzeska (Dorothy Tutin). The joined surname is a symbol of their union, and Russell described one facet of it as ‘solitudes join up’, [quoting the German poet Rilke].

Michael Bradsell suggested that film had not been seen in a public screening for forty years, [the original West End release only ran five days: it was screened on television in the 1980s]. My memory of the film was that it was uneven, brilliant, but not completely so. The new screening fitted that memory. The film does depend on the central characterisation of Gaudier. Scot Antony seemed to me a one-note performance. He captures the restless and exuberant energy of youth, but not the complexity and angst that I certainly sense in Gaudier’s artistic work. But opposite him as Sophie Dorothy Tutin is magnificent. Her Sophie is contradictory, emotional, passionate, critical and obsessive. I felt that the best scenes in the film were when she was fully involved.

savage_messiah_sophie

Henri and Sophie are [I believe] the only historical characters in the film. Gaudier was involved with British Vorticism, a movement also enjoying renewed interest at that moment. Russell and his screenwriter Christopher Logue created a set of fictional characters embodying some [but not all] of the characteristics of this artistic group. Their particular brand of experimentalism provided a grand opportunity for the sort of camp display that Russell so enjoyed. These included two visits to The Vortex club where their unconventional behaviour and performance were gloriously dramatised. This group also included an early film outing for Helen Mirren (‘Gosh’ Smith-Boyle], outlandish but performed with great assurance.

The screenplay was developed from a biography of Gaudier by H. S. Ede. This provided the title of the film: it also used the many letters between Henri and Sophie to develop their story. This effectively provided continuing and illuminating dialogue on the up and downs of their relationship and of his art.

The film offers two major settings, Paris and London. I found the Paris sequence fairly unconvincing; [the locations all appear to be English]. However, when the poverty-stricken couple cross the channel the film improves immeasurably. The focus in London is Gaudier’s Putney studio, a basement where a grill at eye-level, running the entirety of this long room, looks out on the street. Russell uses this as a canvas on which past the rapidly developing social events of the day. This is a rather theatrical device, but one which Russell [as in other films] delivers in beautiful cinematic form. The camera work is extremely good: apparently shot mostly in natural light by Dick Bush. The dark and shadowy basement is frequently illuminated by the wider world of the street. And there is the memorable design work of Derek Jarman.

It is in the basement that we see most of Gaudier’s artistic endeavour, especially the sculptures for which he is famous. Russell captures the effort and the energy that produced his work. There is less sense of his artistic purpose and philosophy, though there are a couple of monologues where he does expound his ideas. So the film captures the visual rather than the mental state of this artist.

Apparently Russell and his collaborators reworked Gaudier’s biography fairly freely in their dramatisation. He arrived in London in 1911. By 1915 he went off to the trenches of World War I where was he killed. The film presents this as a contradictory response to the devastation of the war: apparently the actual Gaudier was quite gung-ho about supporting the war, certainly in keeping with Vorticism and its major influence Futurism. His death is followed by a posthumous exhibition of his works, with the camera focusing on the many, varied and innovative sculptures. This sequence is intercut with the grieving Sophie. And the final shot shows her standing by a massive, unfinished sculpture in the studio. It is a beautiful visual image to close to a powerful film.

Savage_Messiah_sculpting

Whilst it is a film of light and shadows, it is not all doom and gloom. There is a delightful scene where Sophie serenades a dinner party with a pseudo-folk song. In another sequence Henri and Sophie explore and romance among the piles of stones at Portland. A night scene in a cemetery shows Gaudier and his friends purloining a marble for a sculpture: a scene, which takes us back to Russell much earlier work on the Pre-Raphaelites. And at the start of the film Gaudier drapes himself round a stature to the consternation of Parisians and the police. This last reminded me of the opening of Chaplin’s City Lights (1931), not the sort of reference I usually associate with Russell.

The qualities of the film certainly outshine its limitations. And the print, restored with assistance from the Institute, looked really good and showed up well on the big screen. Hopefully, its availability would temp more exhibitors to offer screenings of this important film. And then we might also get to see again Women in Love (1969) and The Devils (1971). In fact I have seen both the latter films again since 2011 but there has been no further sign of Savage Messiah.

Producer and director: Ken Russell. Screenplay: Christopher Logue from the book by H. S. Ede. Photography: Dick Bush. Editor: Michael Bradsell. Production designer: Derek Jarman. Music: Michael Garratt. UK 1972, 100 minutes. In Metrocolor.

Originally posted on ITP World.

Posted in British films, UK filmmakers | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Jane Eyre on film

Posted by keith1942 on July 21, 2016

Peggy-Ann-Garner-in-Jane-Eyre-1943

I was able to revisit C20th Fox’s classic film version of this story in a good quality 35mm print at the National Media Museum. There was also a panel discussion before the film. This is an adaptation from one of the most potent novels in English literature written by Charlotte Brontë  and published in 1847. I first encountered it at the start of my teens, and read it twelve times in the space of a couple of years. Jane Eyre’s passionate, tenacious and truculent resistance to being put down and patronised struck a strong chord with me.  I have since seen at least six official translations to the screen and a number of other films clearly influenced by the novel.

This 1943 version is one of the most famous and was preceded only by four fairly short silent versions [varying in length from one to seven reels] and a relatively short feature length version in 1934. The latter is stagey and suffers from the limitations of early sound. It also rewrites the plot in a way that diminishes the story. So we get quite  a lot of the book, but extremely condensed. Unlike some later versions we meet [St] John Rivers (Desmond Roberts), but only in one short scene. Jane is played by Jean Darling as a child and Virginia Bruce as an adult. In both cases she is too attractive and too stylishly dressed. Both Adele (Edith Fellows) and Blanche (Aileen Pringle) describe her as ‘pretty’. Colin Clive as Rochester is miscast. He completely lacks the dark mystery of the novel’s characterisation. And the film also lacks any Gothic trappings. The house is affluent and cosy: indeed the staircase to the attic where Bertha (Claire Du Brey, who hardly seems mad at all) resides looks like any ground to first floor stairs. And to cap this Rochester is daily expecting his marriage to be annulled. We do get the fire and subsequent blindness.

The 1943 version does to a great degree dramatise the book and has become one of is the most influential film versions. It was filmed at the C20th studio at Century City and runs for 97 minutes in crisp, black and white Academy ratio. It has a crew of stellar names, both in front of and behind the camera and microphone.

It is worth restating one of the models frequently used in analysing adaptations of literature to film. There is the adaptation that aims at relative fidelity to the source novel. Then there are the versions that reinterprets or even deconstructs the novel. And the third approach is one that re-imagines the novel, using selectively whatever fits. The 1943 Jane Eyre is clearly a film that aims at a degree of fidelity, allowing for both the stylistic conventions and dominant values of the studio film. Daphne du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’ could be seen as a novel that deconstructs the original, and the film (1940) follows suit. While Jean Rhys’ ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ would seem to re-imagine the original: a filmic equivalent would be Val Lewton’s production of I Walked with a Zombie (1943). All of these later works offer interesting illuminations on the novel and on the film adaptations.

The screenplay for the film is credited to Aldous Huxley, the film’s director Robert Stevenson and John Houseman. The latter was a key associate with one of the stars of the film, Orson Welles. Welles’ The Mercury Theatre on Air had broadcast a radio adaptation in 1938 of the work with John Houseman collaborating in the writing. This film, to some degree, was developed from the that version. Welles also produced ‘Rebecca’ for his later radio series The Campbell Playhouse. Bernard Hermann, composer for the film, provided music for that broadcast.

Lowood school in the 1943 version

Lowood school in the 1943 version

The screenplay deftly cuts the novel to fit the reduced space in a 97 minute running time. So scenes are cut or abbreviated. A good example is right near the opening of the film. We see a candle [repeatedly used with low key lighting throughout the film] held by Bessie (Sara Allgood) accompanied by a manservant as he opens the door to let Jane [Peggy Ann Garner] out of what is [in the book the red-room] some sort of or cellar store room.. This follows the altercations with her cousin John which is elided though referred to in the subsequent dialogue. Far more drastic changes occur later in the film. The characters of Miss Temple at the Lowood School and St John Rivers, who with his sisters provides shelter for Jane late in the film, are both missing. However, they are in a way substituted by an additional character, Doctor Rivers (John Sutton) who is seen several times in the sequences at Lowood School. He stands in for Miss Temple, especially in relation to the illness and death of Helen Burns (Elizabeth Taylor). He is also given some of the maxims that St John Rivers opined in the book. After the death and burial of Helen he tells Jane, with reference to ‘duty, that she needs,

“to do God’s work…” and that this requires “an educated woman”.

Much of the dialogue is taken from the novel or is fairly close to that. Moreover the film uses literary devices common in Hollywood adaptation of classic literature. The film credits present first the embossed cover of the novel and subsequent pages setting out the title and production credits. Then we see the opening page of the opening chapter. A voice [that of Joan Fontaine] reads out the opening paragraph. This device is repeated five more times in the film. On each occasion we are shown the page and particular paragraph in the novel, read out by a voice-over. However, at the end of the film Jane’s voice reprises the end of the novel without any use of page or book.

St John Rivers is a character that is frequently missing in film adaptations, though he gets fully developed characterisation in the 2011 version. Another character, but minor, also frequently missing in film adaptations is the gypsy fortune teller, who turns out to be Edward Rochester in disguise. In this adaptation the plot information that was presented in this way is covered by an additional scene, differently scripted, between Edward Rochester (Orson Welles) and Blanche Ingram (Hilary Brooks). This is one of at least two sequences where the narrative departs from what Jane herself can know. The other is a sequence between Rochester and Mason (John Abbott), the brother of Rochester’s actual wife Bertha. Note, the actress or extra playing Bertha does not appear in the credits, probably because she is only glimpsed briefly through a doorway.

Through the use of the voice-over the film attempts to provide the personal narrative voice which is one of the real successes of the original novel. But, apart from the scenes mentioned, this device is not consistently used in the film. Whilst Jane’s voice is a constant in the book, not only explaining the plot but commentating both on the characters and her own feeling and responses, in this film I counted seven such sequences, all only a paragraph from the book. We get leaving Gateshead, arriving at Lowood, Jane’s early thoughts on Rochester, her first awareness of the ‘mystery in the tower’, her thoughts after Rochester has proposed marriage, her return to Gateshead, and the final summing up for the conclusion. Key sequences, as that involving the actual Bertha or Jane’s subsequent flight from Thornfield, offer no such comment. Moreover, despite the presentation these are not the words that Brontë wrote. The opening page and voice-over offers,

“My name is Jane Eyre …. I was born in 1820, a harsh time in England.”

After more on social conditions and attitudes we get a reference to Gateshead and to Aunt Reed. But the original novel opens with,

“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. “

It goes on to describe the events that led to Jane’s incarnation in the red-room. It is only half-way through chapter two that Bronte allows Jane her comments on Mrs Reed. The same is true of the later ‘extracts’ and only the final un-illustrated voice-over comes close to the novel with the details of Edward Rochester’s recovering sight and his first-born. The novel though goes on toe inform the reader about the sojourn of St John Rivers whose religious commitment closes the book. I incline to think that these passages are taken from the earlier radio version and are designed to help the audience into the story and to follow its plot.

Peggy Ann Garner as the young Jane catches her rebellious spirit. In both the Reed household and at Lowood, she resists the impositions on her by adults. The film’s emphasises the power of this world by using low angle shots from Jane’s point of view of both her aunt Mrs Reed (Agnes Moorehead) and of Mr Brocklehurst (Henry Daniell) . Agnes Moorehead is suitably icy as the uncaring Aunt. Daniell is a little overbearing as the sadistic head of the Orphanage. The film emphatically stresses this aspect with an additional scene which shows Jane and Helen burns forced to perambulate in the rain with signs bearing the label ‘rebellious’ and ‘vain’. The latter notice refers to Burns’ ringlets. The punishment exacerbates Burns illness and it is after her funeral that we hear the religious strictures from Doctor Rivers.

The rebellious spirit is more muted when the Jane transforms to the adult woman played by Joan Fontaine. However, she still displays a firm determination, especially in the exchanges with Edward Rochester. This is a much more confident and determined young woman than the unnamed heroine of Rebecca. However, the film leaves out all the plot and discussion about her paintings, an aspect of the story that brings out Jane’s imaginative world. So the film lacks the intellectual relationship between Jane and Edward described in the book..

Kate Ellis and Ann Kaplan commented on both this film and the 1970 TV film version directed by Delbert Mann:

“[this] is a story of a woman who understands instinctively the inequities of patriarchal structures but who cannot, finally, move entirely beyond them. … Jane’s strength comes to the reader through the clear, strong voice of the first person narrative . . . Neither film version (1944, 1970) is ultimately able to retain the centrality of Jane’s point of view. (The English Novel and the Movies, 1981).

Fontaine does have a problem in the overbearing presence of Orson Wells as Rochester. Once he appears he dominates the film and even after tragedy strikes he is till the most potent presence on screen. Referring to the finale of the novel and film Ellis and Kaplan ask,

“(could Welles ever appear chastened?) . . . “

And it is worth noting that at their first meeting, when in an unexpected encounter Rochester is thrown from his horse, he does not need Jane’s assistance to remount as he does in the book.

Adele (Margaret O’Brien) is pleasant but clearly cannot achieve the French quality which is important tin the book. Blanche Ingram is suitably arch. Mason is underdeveloped and, as noted, we do not really see Bertha at all. The film does essay presenting Jane’s point of view, but not consistently. Two shots stand out, as the camera, sited behind Jane, includes her in a shot of Rochester with Blanche in deep staging. In fact the film uses deep focus/staging and chiaroscuro for much of its length. In that and other ways it resembles Citizen Kane. Here though we have cinematographer George Barnes. He had worked on the earlier Rebecca, where equally there was a frequent use of chiaroscuro sand a gothic feel.

Jane Eyre 06

This gothic feel is emphasised by the Production Design of William Pereira, who also acted a second unit director. Together with the Art Designs by James Basevi (who worked on Wuthering Heights) and Ward Ihnen and also the set decoration of Thomas Little the film seems to come from some C18th Gothic novel rather than the C19th Brontë. Thornfield is like a castle and most rooms have bare stone walls. There are battlements and a tower where Bertha resides. And there are frequent shots of the battlements as the plot darkens. Thornfield is a building full of shadows. The film was shot in a studio but through back projections, matte shots and the use of models it generates a feel of a Yorkshire landscape, wild and turbulent. There are frequent dissolves as transitions between scenes, the work of special effects specialist Fred Sersen. Another trope is the use of staircases, a conventional Hollywood setting for moment so drama and transition. There are at least nine sequences set on a staircase, more than a in any other version of the novel that I have seen. They appear when Jane leaves Gateshead, when we meet Helen Burns for the first time, in several scenes involving Jane with Rochester and, of course, as a spiral, in the tower where Bertha is hidden.

The director of the film was Robert Stevenson, who had worked in the British film industry and then moved to Hollywood. But this gothic-style film is unlike his other films of the periods. However, it is very like the work directed by Orson Welles, and seems at times to borrow from the style of Citizen Kane (1941). Welles, when negotiating the film, asked for a producer credit, but was only contracted as an actor. However, it is clear from reminiscences that he also ‘assisted’ in some of the direction. Citizen Kane, of  course, had an immense influence among the Hollywood craft community. The expressionist style and atmosphere can be seen in numerous examples across the studio films. But Welles was also assisted in this case by the number of his associates working on the film. John Houseman worked with Welles in the theatre and radio in New York. Welles apparently picked a member of the Mercury Theatre, Agnes Moorehead, for the role of Mrs Reed. The Jane Eyre film also crosses over in at least one way with I Walked with a Zombie. This was filmed at RKO , Welles old studio, where he was still working when not acting, on re-cutting his It’s All True [only to see the light of day in 1993]. And the score for Jane Eyre by Bernard Herrmann at times seems to recall that in Citizen Kane: in fact, it appears that Herrmann used orchestrations and themes in this film from the score he composed for the earlier Rebecca.

Rochester and Jane in the 1943 version

Rochester and Jane in the 1943 version

Welles, like the dominant studio model of the time, was not strong on independent women. And the film does not generate the sense of female autonomy for which Jane struggles throughout the novel. There is no mention of the inheritance which gives her economic independence in the novel. When Rochester and Jane meet again in the ruins of Thornfield, it is almost as if the former is the savaged persona of Kane. There is a brief but passionate kiss between the couple, dominated by Rochester. Then Jane’s final comment tells the audience that Edward recovered enough sight to see his first-born son.

There have been several film versions of the book since the C20th Fox feature. Ellis and Kaplan note that a later film of Jane Eyre, a UK/USA TV film production in 1971, came after the period of Hollywood’s flirtation with film noir and when values around the representation of women had changed:

“But Mann’s [The director Delbert Mann) version made in the period when the new wave of feminism was at its most exuberant, optimistic phase, humanizes Rochester and Bertha …”

The film is in Eastmancolor, with George C. Scott as Rochester and Susannah York as Jane. In some ways the film returns to the 1934 version, with a more obviously attractive Jane and Thornfield as an elegant mansion, though more in keeping with the period of the novel. Bertha is a catatonic character, rather than the violent person of novel and the earlier film. This version omits the opening in the Reed household but does include St. John Rivers (Ian Bannen, excellent) and his sisters. There is no mention of an inheritance for Jane. And when she returns to Thornfield her meeting with the now blind Rochester is in a wooded walk where he first proposed to her. She tells him “I’ve  come home, Edward, to stay.” ‘Coming home’ is one of the classic endings in Hollywood films. The film did have a theatrical release in the UK but was shot for television. It does have some odd ellipsis which may be due to this, cuts where one feels that material is omitted. And the Eastmancolor does not serve the drama as well as black and white film.

Rochester and Jane in the 1970 version

Rochester and Jane in the 1970 version

There was another TV film version for London Weekend Television in 1997. This has Samantha Morton as Jane and Ciarán Hinds as Rochester. The film opens as young Jane (Laura Harling) is bundled into the red-room after the incident with John Reed. There is quite an amount of play with the effect of this on  Jane. This leads to her moving to the Lowood School, Miss Temple (Emily Joyce) does appear here but is an undeveloped character as is Helen Burns (Gemma Eglinton). Eight years pass and she takes up employment as the Governess at Thornfield. It is at this point that we get the first of the occasional voice-overs with Jane’s comments. Rochester and Jane are well presented, and include the responses to Jane’s paintings. When we come to the climatic revelation of Bertha she is vividly portrayed and with quite a lot of sympathy. The film does address how much or how little knowledge Mrs Fairfax (Gemma Jones) has of Bertha, something the novel is slightly ambiguous about. Jane’s journey from Thornfield is detailed and we meet St John Rivers (Rupert Penry-Jones), but with only one sister, Diana ((Elizabeth Garvie). Again there is no reference to an inheritance and when Jane returns to Rochester the emphasis is on the union and subsequent children. The film makes quite a lot of play with landscapes, though shot in Cumbria rather than Yorkshire. This version also uses less of the dialogue from the book than other versions but with the most distinctive Pilot, a Newfoundland / Landseer.

A family ending in the 1997 version

A family ending in the 1997 version

The 1996 film version is produced by Miramax and involved several European film companies. It was directed by Franco Zeffirelli. For much of its 112 minutes it has a high degree of fidelity to the book, but takes bizarre turn late in the film. There is a strong cast, led by William Hurt playing Rochester in a low key and Charlotte Gainsborough as an admirably determined Jane. There are also some Yorkshire landscapes. The film opens with a powerful rendering of the red-room incident. When Jane moves to Lowood we have a recognisable Miss Temple and Helen Burns, with the original religious emphasis. And an interesting detail, we see Helen and Jane’s locks loose before Mr Brocklehurst as he wields the scissors. This is the only time in the film that Jane’s hair is completely loose. When we arrive at Thornfield the building has the recognisable battlements, and the interiors are affluent but also limited in the C19th style. Rochester and Jane study and discuss her paintings. Later she makes the trip to the dying Mrs Reed. At this point St John Rivers appears as the local vicar and with only one sister. Also at this point we learn about the inheritance that waits Jane. Here as with Bertha the film brings in the West Indian connection. After the interrupted wedding and the revelation of Bertha Jane leaves Thornfield. Immediately Bertha starts the fire that kills her, and Grace Poole and maims Rochester. Jane meanwhile receives a perfunctory proposal from Rivers but returns to Thornfield. Now the couple are united. In this final scene it is Jane who is passionate in the kisses and embraces. So the film offers an effective representation of the original, marred by some careless plotting.

Jane kisses the blind Rochester in the 1996 version

Jane kisses the blind Rochester in the 1996 version

The most recent version on film was produced by Focus Features and BBC Films in 2011. It was scripted by Moira Buffini, whose earlier Byzantium (2012) was impressive in its treatment of a pair of vampiric sisters. The director was Cary Joji Fukunaga whose earlier Beasts of the No Nation (2015), set among child soldiers in Africa,  was good, though I thought the plotting was slightly problematic. This colour film retains much of the plot and dialogue of the novel but changes the structure. So the film opens with the adult Jane standing in a doorway. She leave Thornfield [following the attempted wedding ceremony] and endures a difficult and distraught journey to the door of the River’s household. As she convalesces Jane has a series of flashbacks, first to the red-room incident at Gateshead and then [briefly] to Lowood school and her friendship with Helen Burns. Now follows her taking up the post of governess to Adele at Thornfield. For this we  have one long and uninterrupted flashback. She meets Rochester as he falls from his startled horse. Note, this is the most undeveloped Pilot in the whole cycle. At Thornfield Rochester discusses her painting with Jane: their conversation brings out the imaginative side of Jane’s character. The film uses a series of visual motifs and tropes to illuminate the developing relationship. One example is picture that Jane examines twice, a nude woman reclining on a sofa. This is a film where the sexual aspect of the relationship is acknowledged. The other, possibly a subtle point, is a brief glimpse of a black coachman when Jane arrives at Thornfield. When Blanche Ingram appears we also see Jane’s journey back to Gateshead and Mrs Reed’s confession of Jane’s relative John Eyre. The only voice-over in the film gives us the wording of a letter that Jane writes to him.

Back at Thornfield we hear Rochester’s proposal, see the interrupted wedding and the mad Bertha. This flashback includes part of the journey already seen at the film’s opening. There are two differences: one is a shot of a distraught Rochester calling after Jane at a window: the other a dramatic overhead shot of a distraught Jane lying in the heather. Back into the film’s present, we see Jane working at the school and then St John River’s proposal. Now she also learns of her inheritance. In an open-air encounter Rivers questions her continuing passion for Rochester. At the sound of his name Jane runs off into the surrounding moors. We then see her in a carriage journeying to Thornfield. Finding Rochester, in the spot where he originally proposed to her, the couple are re-united. There is no dialogue about wedding or children,. just a long shot of the entwined couple.

The interrupted wedding in the 2011 version.

The interrupted wedding in the 2011 version.

The organisation of the flashback is slightly odd. The series of flashbacks at the River’s house of Lowood draw a parallel between the two settings: places where Jane’s education, formal and informal, occurs. However, the later shot as she runs towards the moors does raise a question as to whether the final sequence is actual or imagined?

The panel discussion that accompanied the screening of the 1943 film version was chaired by Samira Ahmed with Lauren Livesey, Amber Regis and Michael Jackson. They were all interesting but none of them was a film specialist. This was an aspect that was not fully explored.

The three panellist talked about aspects of the novel and the various adaptations, both on film and on television. There are also several foreign language versions. The television versions, they suggested, offered much more detailed versions of the novel. It also appears that there have been a number of pornographic film versions based on the novel and that Fifty Shades of Gray is an example.  Laura suggested that this related to the master/servant relationship in the novel. This aspect is one that varies considerably in the film versions, though more recent films treat this with greater complexity.

They noted how the films tended to project a ‘brooding Byronic hero’ with Jane the ‘right kind of woman to tame him’. This is especially true of the 1943 and 1970 film versions. The more recent films tend to a less strident characterisation. But as Amber pointed out all the films in some way present ‘a damaged English character [who] needs saving’. They also noted how certain characters or events, Gateshead – the Rivers family, the Madeira inheritance – are not always included. And the sequence that is uniformly missing is Rochester’s impersonation of a gypsy and his fortune telling trick. It is worth adding that the characterisation of Bertha varies considerably. From a violent and malevolent hag to a damaged and catatonic woman.

Bertha raises the point that is dramatised in Jean Rhys novel, the West Indian connection. There is a hint of this in the 1943 version, which intriguingly in places has a similar feel to that of I Walked with a Zombie: filmed in the same year at RKO. Both film’s have the heroine walking in mist, and with an oppressive silence. The RKO film has a plot that includes voodoo, which is where it crosses over with the Rhys novel. It also brings out the horror aspect that is a sub-text in the Bronte novel. Whilst recent versions have shown the influence of feminism in treating the novel, the colonial subtext has yet to be exploited. This is present in the Rhys novel through Rochester’s first marriage in Jamaica and also through Jane’s inheritance of estates in Madeira, where the Portuguese operated a slave system.

There is a 1993 film version of the Rhys novel produced in Australia and a BBC TV film made in 2006. The 1993 film is the more faithful to the novel: it received an 18 certificate in the UK for sex, nudity, violence and profanity. The novel and the films chart Edwards Rochetster’s [but not named as such] relationship with Bertha, originally Antoinette and renamed by her husband. Antoinette is Creole and comes from a slave owning family. Her mother was mentally unstable and the same malady blights her marriage. However, in this version Rochester is not the victim and already in the early days of wedlock he has had sex with a servant. The novel takes in Antoinette’s childhood right up to her incarceration at Thornfield and the subsequent fire which will lead to her death. The novel has multiple voices, including Antoinette and Rochester. In this and in other ways the Rhys version picks up on the form, motifs and tropes in the Bronte original. The use of narrative voices is present in the 1993 film, as are a number of the motifs. The 2006 versions lacks most of these, certainly the narrative voices.

There was only time for one question, which raised the issue of female consciousness. All the panellists agreed that the narrative voice of the book is crucial to this. The films vary in their use of this. Only the 1943 and 1996 version use this extensively, though the 2011 version does essay a subjective viewpoint through the camerawork. What is interesting is the choice of dialogue. Jane’s intelligent response to Brocklehurst’s vision of sin and hell,

‘I must keep well and not die’

seems the most favoured. The missing line in most that strikes me is the rhetorical,

‘Reader, I married him’.

This decisive statement undercuts the seemingly conventional ending to the work, the bonding of heroine to hero. The closest to this is Charlotte Gainsborough’s Jane who ends with

“And so I married him.”

Judging by these adaptations even a work aiming at fidelity only offers a partial rendering. Condensing a book that can take many hours to read into the space of two hours has its impact. Television can offer a more leisurely perusal. And writing a story is rather different than rendering it in images and sound. Having noted that I found it odd that there is so little use of the voice-over in the film versions. Then there are the changing mores of the times. the original Jane Eyre has a concentration on religious values that do not speak to effectively to a more secular time. Likewise child rearing has changed in immeasurable ways in English/British society: even more true of the English-speaking society in North America. However the films do bring out aspect of the work. This is especially true of the gothic atmosphere of the novel and the implied horror. Jane actually uses the word ‘vampire’ when describing Bertha in the novel. In the sequence after Bertha attacks Richard Mason he claims,

“She  sucked the blood: she said she’d drain my hear,” ..

The 1943 version has “sank her teeth into me..”, the 1970 “she bit me..”, 1996 “drain my heart …”, the 1997 “bit and clawed me … like  a vampire..” whilst the 2011 version has a silent Mason. The later colour versions offer a more graphic depiction of the actual wounds, peaking in the 2011 version with exposed and bloody flesh.

From that point of view I prefer to have read the novel prior to seeing the film as this illuminates Bronte’s masterpiece: a status |i feel none of the films achieve.

 

 

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Versus: The Life and Films of Ken Loach UK 2016

Posted by keith1942 on June 10, 2016

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The film was produced by Sweet Sixteen films and funded by the BBC. It involved Loach’s regular collaborators producer Rebecca O’Brien and writer Paul Laverty. For a change Ken Loach appears in front of the camera rather than behind it. One strong features of the film is Ken’s explanations and comments, always interesting, often provocative. There are also a number of excerpts from a long interview with Tony Garnett, Ken’s collaborator and a major influence on the filmmaker. Garnett is given the space to talk at some length on Loach and his work and his comments are interesting and pertinent. Much of the film was shot during the filming of Ken’s new film, the winner of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, I, Daniel Blake. There is a certain amount of biography but the film’s main focus is the television and film work directed [and occasionally produced] by Loach. The coverage is fairly comprehensive, from Ken’s early days in BBC television to the recent series of films that have appeared almost annually in this century.

Whilst Ken Loach shoots his film chronologically, this study uses a varied time frame. There are also edits from filmed material like interviews to location footage. Some of this works well, as with the cut from the account of the suppression of Perdition to fog shrouded streets. However, some of it slightly puzzled me. Why do the team feature Ken’s early work as an theatre actor when we had reach the films of the late 1990s?

The film does address the controversial aspects of Ken’s films. There are extended discussions of a number of cause celebre’s. There is Cathy Come Home (1966) and, interestingly, there are excerpts from a television ‘balancing’ discussion chaired by Cliff Michelmore. There is discussion of Up the Junction and Nell Dunn is one of the interesting voices at this point. There are also features on the television films Rank and File and [particularly] The Big Flame (1969). One does get a sense of both the radicalism of these films and the controversy that they sparked. However, Days of Hope [equally important] is only treated briefly. There is also time spent on Ken’s early film work, especially Kes and Poor Cow. The problems in the early 1980s with television censorship over Questions of Leadership and Which Side are you On? get proper space. And it was refreshing to hear Melvyn Bragg owning up to the actual factors in the suppression of the latter, rather than the euphemisms that were trotted out at the time. There is a particular focus on the suppression of the stage production Perdition (1987) at the Royal Court. The abuse of the term anti-semitic at the time shows that not everything has changed over the intervening years. There is a well judged set of comments on this by Gabriel Byrne. Also welcome at this point in the film are several short clips of Jim Allen, such an important collaborator with Loach and a major writing voice for film and television of the period.

There are quite a lot of other voices in the film. There are only brief comments included from Rebecca O’Brien and Paul Laverty, without whom Ken’s recent output would not have appeared. At times some of these voices felt rather like the ‘talking heads’ found on television. There are some interviews with Loach’s family members, but they are cut with film extracts and do not get the attention they deserve. I felt that the television style was apparent in other ways, so that there is a tendency to have voices overlapping film extracts, but not always with any clear connection. And when we come to the chain of films, starting with Hidden Agenda in 1991, there is not the same depth of discussion. Some of the films sequences felt more like trailers than studies: this is true of the really important Land and Freedom (1995).

Land and Freedom

Land and Freedom

The latter relates to an omission in the film. Derek Malcolm appears briefly at one point and comments how Ken Loach enjoys a greater appreciation in continental Europe than in the UK. But this is not explored. There are several passages where the film includes footage of political events, such as the accession of Maggie Thatcher as Prime Minister. But there is not really an equivalent treatment of the European dimension, with the exception of the events in Paris in May 1968. Whilst Ken’s films are distinctly British there is also an important European dimension, witness that his major Cannes Awards have been for films with that focus.

We do see/hear a mention of the Czech ‘new wave’, when Chris Menges is interviewed. There are also clips from A Blonde in Love / Lásky jedné plavovlásky (1965). The distinctive style of this film is well versed as is the influence on Loach. He selected a clip from the above film as his contribution to the BBC’s celebration of the centenary year of 1995. However, there are other influences which are overlooked. Notable would be the influence of a long tradition for social realism and actuality filming in the British Film Industry. Apart from the documentary influence there are filmmaker like the Boulting Brothers or Alberto Cavalcanti in the 1940s and 1950s. These had an influence on British television. Garnett and Loach do comment on the ‘new wave’ in television in the 1960s, but there was much and varied experimentation at the BBC and at ITV in that decade. There is an interesting contrast to be drawn between Loach and  another filmmakers at the BBC [for a very short time]  Peter Watkins.

Equally this film is low on the form and style of Loach’s work. There is the reference to his working chronologically, and a number of actors/performers comment on his approach to their work. The film is scripted by Paul Laverty, though it is not clear how much his work has been changed. Certainly his screenplays allow for lengthy and often discursive sequences, where as this film is long on editing, montages and cross-cutting. And there is no mention of the emphasis that Loach places on the script, a point he has made in several earlier interviews. Then there are the cinematic techniques, the tendency to the long shot and the long take: the tendency to linger on a character or setting after the overt plot significance has passed.

In fact one oddity is that this film is shot in 2.39:1 [some screens will show 2.35:1]. No Loach film has used this ratio. His early films were in television’s 4:3, i.e. 1.37:1. Some of are in 1.66:1 and more recently in 1.85:1. A friend thought that the production picked 2.35:1 because it seemed more cinematic. This however, does not apply to the sequences from Loach ‘s own films. They are uniformly cropped. Sometimes this is more noticeable than others: heads only half seen and similar problems. There is one ironic moment when Garnett comments about some television footage and a grandiose ministerial room, which cannot be seen because the top of the frame is gone. Apart from the mistreatment of film footage this is a grave disservice to the many talented cinematographer who have worked with Ken Loach: Tony Imi, Chris Menges, Barry Ackroyd, to name only those who worked with him a on number of films. Roger Chapman’s cinematography for Versus:… is very good, with some striking shots at times, but the widescreen frame seems anomalous.

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This documentary is actually weak on the whole collaborative form of Loach’s filmmaking. The approach is to treat Ken as an ‘auteur’. I feel this is a misnomer. He is really a metteur en scène, though unfortunately that word has acquired a value judgement since its use by Cahier du cinéma. But it applies in the sense that whilst there are recognisable themes and a familiar style in his films, this develops out of the collaboration. Jim Allen and Paul Laverty in particular have an immense input through their writing. Tony Garnett was mentor, both in terms of drama and in terms of politics. And cinematographers, in particular Chris Menges, contributed to the style that has become a hall mark. There is little from Rebecca O’Brien, his long-time producer. We only see her in the footage of the production of I, Daniel Blake: and most of this looks more like a ‘making of…’ than contributing to a profile.

The BBFC have given the film a 12A with a note regarding ‘infrequent strong language’. My sensitivities may be weakened but all I noted was a final ‘bastards’ from Ken. Given the illegitimacy of the whole political class this seems to me an apt comment. Another slight oddity is a short interview with Alan Parker in which he seems to confuse The Wild One (1953) with Rebel Without a Cause (1955). You would have expected the filmmakers to give him a repeat take. And one publicity listing gave Robert Carlyle as ‘himself’ when he only appears in a clips from Riff Raff (19921) and Carla’s Song (1996).

 

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Florence Foster Jenkins 1868 to 1944

Posted by keith1942 on May 19, 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins

This New York character has been presented in several theatrical plays. Currently she is the subject of two films: one, Marguerite, using her story in a different period and setting and the other, Florence Foster Jenkins, translating the later recorded years of her life to the screen with a few embellishments. I saw the French film first, which gave it an advantage. But having now seen both I think it is the better film, if the less accurate biopic.

Given the advance publicity and trailers for the two films it is not a plot give-away to note that Jenkin’s fame or notoriety stemmed from her being an amateur performer who was often labelled the ‘worse singer in the world’. In a detailed biography Wikipedia notes that she

“was an American socialite and amateur operatic soprano who was known and ridiculed for her lack of rhythm, pitch, and tone, her aberrant pronunciation, and her generally poor singing ability.”

As is apparent in the films she became an object of fun for many people who heard her performances, usually private, but in her final year public, at the noted New York Carnegie Hall. The films fill out these in rather different ways and there will be plot spoilers below.

Catherine Frot

Catherine Frot

Marguerite is set in 1920s France and stars Catherine Frot in the title role, a performance that won her a César as Best Actress. This was deserved award. Frot imbues the role with plausibility but also achieves a deluded sincerity that is likely to win audience sympathy, despite her musical histrionics. André Marcon is also excellent as the loving but embarrassed husband. In a neat French twist, whilst he sincerely cares for Marguerite he also has a regular mistress. One of the qualities of the film is the way that it fills out French upper-class society in which Marguerite and her husband move. The accompanying aspect is the way that we also enter the world of professional music and musical criticism. Here we have three very good performances by Sylvain Dieuaide as Lucian Beaumont, a journalist: Aubert Fenoy as Kyrill Von Priest, who has touches of the Dada movement about him: and Christa Théret as Hazel Klein, a professional singer who develops a romantic relationship with Lucien. This trio help fill out the context of period and place but also qualify the responses to Marguerite’s performances.

The film also has a villain in the person of her butler Madelbos (Denis Mpunga). He keeps a photographic record of Marguerite, which we  realise late in the film is his passport to financial rewards. The fact that he is the only notable black character in the film left me ambivalent.

The film was written and directed by Xavier Giannoli. I saw his earlier film The Singer / Quand j’étais chanteur (2006) . There is a thematic connection here but I think Marguerite is the better realised project. It is ably served by the cinematography by Glynn Speeckaert  and production design by Martin Kurel.

Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant

Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant

Florence Foster Jenkins is set in 1940s New York and presents the final year or so of the title character. She is played here by Meryl Streep with Hugh Grant playing her ‘common law husband’ St Clair Bayfield. The pair are very good and play the characters fairly sympathetically but I did not feel that they generated that much sympathy for either character. I think this partly down to casting. Meryl Streep is a fine actor but she is also rather technical. I can admire her performance but I am also conscious that it is a performance. Whilst Hugh Grant is associated with fairly light characters and Bayfield appears of this order. The French actors tended to let you forget they were performing much of the time. I never quite felt this in this version. And there is the effect of star casting. The most poorly judged instance of this was Hugh Grant being given a brief party spot where he performs the jitterbug. This seemed to have little to do with the plot. And whilst there is also a mistress in this film it is all rather seemly and even a little coy.

But I think the main factor is the script, which, of course, positions and limits the actors. This was written by Nicholas Martin. His writing career started with travel pieces. He studied at the UK’s National Film and Television School. He then wrote for Television, the only series he has contributed to that I have seen is Midsummer Murders. This is his first feature film script to be produced. I always thought Midsummer Murders was rather light compared with my favourite Inspector Morse. And I feel the same about this film. It seems to aim for a ‘feel-good’ air. The French film is definitely melodrama.

The script does include the information that Jenkins suffered from syphilis, caught from her first husband. But this serious note is not really developed and its function in the plot seemed mainly to explain [again with good taste] that Bayfield and Jenkins relationship is not sexual. I also thought the dialogue presents them as formally married, not as a common law relationship. There is no real villain. We do meet Agnes (Nina Arlanda) who laughs louder than anyone at a Jenkins performance. But then, at Carnegie Hall, it is Agnes who silences the laughter and enables Florence to feel she is a success. The music critics are cyphers, either suborned by Bayfield or in one solitary case reacting critically.

The director of this latter film is Stephen Frears. He is what is described as a metteur en scène: I use the term descriptively not evaluatively. His films are very much constructed in co-cooperation with the production team, especially the writer. At its best we get a landmark film like My Beautiful Laundrette (1985). But here I felt that Frears presented rather than transformed the material. In fact, the best bits for me were the scenes where we watch exciting visual compositions, notably the final Carnegie Hall concert. Presumably Frears making good use of  the cinematography by  Danny Cohen  the and Production Design by  Alan MacDonald. The film creates New York from UK locations and there is some good CGI work, including the Empire State Building and the Brooklyn Bridge.

Both projects appear to have started off in 2014. Presumably at some point each production became aware of the other, especially as there is French funding in both productions. The French film was released in September 2015 whereas the British film only came out in April 2016. The French film was presented at several festivals, starting in Venice. The British film only had one Festival appearance, in Belfast. In Britain there has been different certification. Florence Foster Jenkins has a PG, despite the reference to syphilis. Marguerite has a 15 Certificate, all those French innuendos. Outside of France Florence Foster Jenkins is doing better box office. In the UK it has already taken well over twenty times the amount achieved by Marguerite. Of course, the contemporary market here [and in many other territories] is skewed against the foreign language film.

The films are fairly different in all sorts of ways. However, both use imagery from the life of the actual Jenkins. The notable example being a costume with angels’ wings that she used for her public performance. Both use original scoring and operatic extracts, though Marguerite uses them more extensively. The character of Hazel enables some fine [as opposed to less fine] singing. The public performance is the climax in each film. And both essay to achieve a moment of catharsis. In Marguerite this is a moment of seeming magic, which just about convinces. In Florence Foster Jenkins it is the efforts of Agnes, which also works, partly due to the performance. And both films end with the impact of reality: tragic in Marguerite but more feel-good in Florence Foster Jenkins.

Florence Foster Jenkins (2016) UK/France.

Marguerite (2015) France / Czech Republic / Belgium.

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Our Little Sister / Umimachi Diary Japan 2015

Posted by keith1942 on May 8, 2016

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This film was screened in the 29th Leeds International Film Festival and I thought it the pick in a strong programme. The film is adapted from a popular manga title by Koreeda Hirokazu, who also edited the film. It is the most recent in a line of family dramas in the tradition of the Japanese film genre, shomin-geki [shōshimin-eiga, the lives of ordinary working people]. These include Like Father / Soshite chichi ni naru (2013) involving parentage and children: I Wish / Kiseki (2011) about separated siblings: and Still Walking / Aruitemo aruitemo (2008) about adults and their ageing parents. Our Little Sister combines aspects of the earlier films with its main focus on four sisters. Three of these are the adult Koda sisters, Ayase Haruka as Sachi, Nagasawa Masami as Yoshino and Kaho as Chika. The ‘little sister’ has Hirose Suzu as Asano Suzu, their step-sister.

The film is set in Kamakura on the Yokohama peninsula; not that far away from Tokyo. The characters also travel at one point to the North-East and other characters from there. Kamakura is a small coastal town. The settings include the family home, urban and rural sites and the seashore.

The four sisters are beautifully played and the supporting cast are excellent. Their actions and conversations are totally believable. Detail is important and lovingly played in this film. Little touches like the picking and preparation of plums from the garden tree are very effective. And these actions play into a complex network of motifs that tell us as much about the characters as their words.

Koreeda and his team, notably cinematographer Takimoto Mikiya, offer fairly slow and detailed observation. Critics have made comparisons with the films of the great Ozu Yasijurō, but thematically this film is closer to the equally fine work of Naruse Mikio. There is loss but also resilience and the importance of memory and tradition. The film is a delicate study with moments of fine humour and irony. As with the earlier films food and meals are an important aspect of the lives and their study.

If you have not seen Koreeda’s films before this would make an excellent start. if you have you will know just how rewarding are his studies of family life. If we see half-a dozen equally fine films in 2016 then this year will be a classic. Note though, it has a very limited distribution. It seems the next screening locally is on the evening of Tuesday May 31st at Hebden Bridge Picture House.

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