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Archive for the ‘Surrealist films’ Category

Two Monks / Dos Monjes, Mexico 1934.

Posted by keith1942 on August 21, 2017

This was part of a programme at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2017 presenting ‘Revolution and Adventure: Mexican Cinema in the Golden Age. The programmers Daniela Michel and Chloë Roddick explained in the Festival Catalogue;

“This programme aims to offer a broad spectrum of work that explores some of the most significant political, social and cultural moments in Mexican history. beginning with the nascent sound cinema of the early 1930s, the selection encompasses a variety of styles and genres through the 1940s, 50s, and early 60s.”

It appears that film production in Mexico took off in 1933. And this early sound film is both intensely interesting and seems to have been influential. The curators again,

“The beginnings of sound cinema in Mexico in the early 1930s saw the birth of a strange new genre that might reasonably be called ‘Mexican Gothic’. Arguably, in part, a more subtle and obscure response to the violence [that] had been imprinted on the collective psyche by the Revolution, films like the Spanish-language remake of Tod Browning’s Drácula (1931), …”

This film certainly combines some of the key features found in Gothic, horror, death and romance. It also includes tropes and motifs common in the genre, with unexpected revelations, gloomy and threatening buildings, religious paraphernalia and characters who suffer and/or swoon.

The film opens in a monastery where Brother Javier(Carlos Villatoro) appears to be in the process of some sort of mental breakdown. His condition is exacerbated when a new arrival, Brother Servando, appears.  He recounts the experiences to the Prior is an extensive flashback.

Javier is an affluent young man living with his mother Gertrude (Emma Roldán) with a particular talent for music and composition. He is smitten with the young women staying with his neighbours, Ana (Magda Heller). Their relationship develops but it is hampered by Javier’s delicate health: he appears to suffer from some sort of consumption. An old friend Juan (Victor Urruchúa) returns to the town. As the marriage of Javier and Ana approaches Javier discovers Ana and Juan in a compromising situation. In the ensuing fight Ana is accidentally shot by Juan.

As the flashback ends Javier tells the \prior that he searched for ‘Ana’s murderer’ everywhere and finally ended up in the monastery. Low and behold Juan appears in the guise of Brother Servando. The Prior now questions Juan/Servando who also confesses in another long flashback.

Much of this presents the same detail as in Javier’s confession, but from a different angle. What we do learn is that Juan and Ana were lovers prior to his leaving the town. On his return,

“like a bad dream”

he finds her ands Javier engaged. We also learn that Javier’s ill-health means that a shock could kill him. Hence Juan and Ana repress their re-wakened love until the night when Javier discovers them. Juan is planning to once more leave the town and this is his farewell.

The second flashback ends and we follow as Javier goes to the chapel, followed by Juan, the Prior and the other monks. Javier then expires playing the chapel organ.

The story is oddball but full of the themes that delighted surrealists: romanticism, repression, dream worlds, and fetishistic objects. The Catalogue notes informed that

“French surrealist and writer André Breton was reportedly taken with the film, which he saw during a visit to Mexico, dubbing it a “bold and unusual experiment”.”

However, there is also the influence of German expressionism

“evident in the film’s moody, nuanced use of black and white, and the photography of celebrated Mexican photographer Augustin Jiménez, which together create a strange, distorted atmosphere.”

So the film combines the obsession with desire [surrealism] with the dark eruptions of the psyche [expressionism].

The monastery in particular is full of chiaroscuro. And the religion objects, especially the crucifixes, are weirdly distorted. The mansion where Javier lives with his mother has odd objects, including a strangely elongated clock. And the camera constantly presents characters framed through window bars and grills. The sets are frequently oddly angled, and the camera mirrors this with low angle shots. In a real coup Javier and Juan are presented in alternative black and white clothing’s in the two flashbacks; emphasising the ambiguous nature of the revelations. There is the mother/son relationship, to become a staple of film noirs. And the final dramatic organ sequence became a staple of the horror genre.

The film was screened from a DCP in Spanish with English sub-titles. The restoration was part of the World Cinema Project of The Film Foundation.

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Films by Vĕra Chytilová

Posted by keith1942 on April 11, 2015

vera-chytilova

Chytilová was one of the important filmmakers in the Czech New Wave and one of the outstanding women filmmakers in Europe at that time: fortunately less of a rarity now than then. Her most famous film is Daisies (Sedmikrásky. 1966). The film is a collage of colour, editing and avant-garde techniques: it follows the adventures of two young women. The film appears anarchic and Chytilová ’s work is often described as ‘Dadaist’. Certainly this was the most radical of the films to emerge in 1960s Czechoslovakia: the authorities tried to prevent its release. It subverted the prevailing cultural and gender politics, though Chytilová resisted the label of ‘feminist’. The film was screened at an earlier Leeds International Film Festival: unfortunately this used a DVD rather than film or DCP, and one of the screenings had a live musical accompaniment! But Chytilová ’s use of sound is equally important as her play with images.

So it was a pleasure when the Hyde Park Picture House screened two of her earlier student films, courtesy of the Czech Centre London and the Czech National Film Archive. The films have been restored from the original camera negatives by the Imagine Ritrovato in Bologna; fast becoming the foremost European laboratory for the production of such work. The result looked and sounded good and the two films [both from 1962] were an absorbing but also entertaining 85 minutes.

The first film was A Bagful of Fleas (Pytel blech). This was set among a group of young women working in a cotton-spinning factory and housed together in a women’s dormitory. The film opens with the arrival of a new worker [‘fresher} Eva. And she is the narrative voice of the film, whilst the focus is a young and unruly worker, Jana. The film takes in the highly organised ‘socialist’ culture and working environment. There is a disciplinary meeting involving not just manager and foremen, but other workers. The title of the film comes from a disparaging comment by an older man, some sort of supervisor, on the group of girls. We see the girls at work, in their leisure and with their interests in popular song and [predictably] men.

What gives the films its distinctive quality is the form and style. Much of the film has that fresh, observational use of the camera, which was one of the hallmarks of the Czech New Wave. But the film also has a mainly subjective viewpoint. We see characters and events from Eva’s point-of-view: her voice provides an intermittent commentary on the soundtrack and sequences are often shown through a subjective camera. In fact, only at the end of the film do we see Eva herself. One can see here already some of the tropes and motifs that were to appear in Chytilová ‘s mature films.

This cinematic approach was even more apparent in Ceiling (Strop). This film follows approximately 24 hours in the life of a medical student also working as a model, Martha. We see her modelling and on the cat walk: at mealtimes and with friends, and at parties. The film in some ways parallels Agnes Varda’s very fine Cleo From 5 to 7 (Cléo de 5 À 7, 1961). However, the Czech film differs in two important respects: Cleo, and the audience, learn of the problem that preoccupies her throughout the film right at the outset: whilst with Martha it is over halfway through the film that we learn of her pre-occupation. In addition Cleo encounters a sympathetic young soldier: all of the man in Ceiling struck me as unsympathetic.

The style with both films is also very different. Ceiling uses the elliptical editing that was also apparent in A Bagful of Fleas and which is the hallmark of Chytilová ‘s later films. Whilst Ceiling still has an observational feel there is a greater use of camera and sound techniques which typify avant-garde film. There is a restless camera, jump cuts and a range of angles and distances. The sound ranges through the diegetic and non-diegetic, both with noise and music. And some of the film has a strongly subjective feel and some a more distant presentation. Some critics have made comparisons with the films of Michelangelo Antonioni: what I was most reminded of was L’Eclisse, which itself only came out in 1962. And there is an impressive night-time scene as Martha wanders the urban spaces, which reminded me forcibly of Claude Chabrol’s Les Bonnes Femmes  (1960). This is not necessarily a question of a direct influence. There are common stylistic and thematic tropes across the European New Waves, as they responded to often common and dominant cinematic conventions and common cultural restrictions.

Dina Iordanova (2003) suggests that the Czech New Wave, whilst often quite divergent, did share certain common traits;

The specific manifestations of the Czechoslovak New Wave style can be reduced to an idiosyncratic combination of several characteristics. These include the interest in contemporary topics (often tackled with documentary authenticity), the subtle humour (often bordering on the absurd), the use of avant-garde and editing techniques (often deployed with astonishing persistence) and the attention to psychological detail (often better revealed in the exploration of interactions within a group rather stand in studies of individual protagonists).

Of course, Iordanova is writing about more than style here, but much of her description can be seen in these two films by Chytilová. The one point to emphasise is that A Bagful of Fleas is very much about group interaction whilst Ceiling is a study of an individual protagonist.

Fruits

Someone remarked after the screening that it was ‘worth turning out on a Sunday to see these films’. Absolutely. The Hyde Park, a month of so later, also screened one of Chytilová ‘s major features, Fruits of Paradise (Ovoce stromu rajských jíme,1970) on April 30th. Possibly her most avant-garde work, the film uses an extraordinary mix of unconventional imagery and sound: whilst the ‘plot’ offers a symbolic treatment of gender issues. The title is variously translated to include either ‘Paradise’ or ‘Garden’. The former makes more sense because the wealth of illusions include quite a few with biblical resonances. We are in a garden with a central focus on a tree, referencing the book of Genesis. The film spends a lot of time focusing on fruit and vegetables and is reminiscent in style of the Czech Mannerist movement. There are a cat and an owl and mirrors, stones and bikes. At times it as if we are in Alice in Wonderland and then Through the Looking Glass. In this tale one protagonist is a serial killer: the dark centre of so much of modern cinema. There is a shadowy noir mansion. As with her earlier films Chytilová offers impressive visual and musical tropes, which fill out the settings and symbolism. The colour palette is dominated by reds and whites. And finally we find characters buried on a beach recalling Un Chien Andalu. This is appropriate because this film feels more Surrealist than Dadaist. Whilst at times it seems to delve into dreams it is also constructed very much around desire. The excellent Time Out concludes on this film with:

It is both of its times and outside the clock in its intent.

It did not go down well with the establishment of the time: Chytilová was banned from filmmaking for six years.

Posted in East European Film, Film Directors, Films by women, Surrealist films | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »