A Year in Repertory


Another year draws to a close and the annual critical ritual of list-making reaches its apex, along with my concomitant realization that i’ve spent the last 12 months watching all the wrong films, a point underlined by my consternation at how few of the top films in Julien Allen’s recent Twitter poll (in which I took part) i’ve managed to take in before the close of the year.

As a form of cultural penance, then, I offer here a collection of some of the older films which I have come across and enjoyed in my cinematic travels over the past 12 months. Huge thanks to anyone who has pointed me in the direction of these, in particular my 20th Century Cube co-conspirator Pip Taylor, whose breadth and diversity of cinematic knowledge is forever keeping me on my toes. Happy new year everyone!

The Edge of the World (Michael Powell, 1937, UK)

The elegant beauty of Michael Powell‘s first major work as a director ought to have come as little surprise to a seasoned acolyte of The Archers‘ output of the 1940s, but what was striking about The Edge of the World (1937) was how, even at this early stage in his career, his still-incubating talent appears already fully formed: the stark, poetic visual imagery, the air of windswept mystery and the sense of mournful wistfulness make this elegy to the mysterious beauty of the Outer Hebrides a near-equal of his later, more reflective pastoral masterpieces A Canterbury Tale (1944) and I Know Where I’m Going! (1945).

Scarlet Street (Fritz Lang, 1945, USA)

March’s 20th Century Cube screening of Scarlet Street (1945) afforded me the excuse to delve into the murky depths of The Master of Darkness‘ American output, revealing numerous mini-masterworks ripe for future revisits – Ministry of Fear (1944), Hangmen Also Die! (1943), Secret Beyond the Door… (1947) and Man Hunt (1941) to name but a few – though none topped this haunting 1945 thriller in terms of lasting impact. Edward G. Robinson‘s masterful portrayal of an middle-aged naif caught in Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea‘s web of deception is noir at its most tenebrous.

Le Silence de la mer (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1949, France)

Researching Jean-Pierre Melville for our May screening of his seminal Le Samouraï (1967) brought to my attention a number of his policiers I had not viewed before, most notably the magnificently shadowy, duplicitous Le Doulos (1962), but two of the stand-out films in his ouevre proved to be different beasts altogether to what I had been accustomed to from his work: Léon Morin, Prêtre (1961), a sober examination of theological and existential questioning against the backdrop of the Nazi Occupation of France, featuring towering, extraordinarily moving performances from Jean-Paul Belmondo and Emmanuelle Riva served to butter me up for the shattering experience of his début Le silence de la mer (1949), a sparse, minimalist drama revealing the deeply humanistic side of a director primarily associated with cool emotional detachment.

Mr. Klein (Joseph Losey, 1976, France | Italy)

Dovetailing beautifully with Le silence de la mer, Mr Klein (1976), a fastidiously icy thriller directed by Joseph Losey and centring on Melville regular Alain Delon‘s morally questionable title character, places us in a near-purgatorial wartime Paris of paranoia and deceit, its queasy sense of omnipresent dread looking ahead to Costa-Gavras‘ (here an uncredited script writer) similarly devastating Missing (1982).

The Happiest Days of Your Life (Frank Launder, 1950, UK)

The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950), an uproariously funny Launder and Gilliat production sadly now neglected in favour of the cultural phenomenon that was its inferior, informal sequel The Belles of St Trinian’s (1954), boasts Alastair Sim and Margaret Rutherford in typically sumptuous form, upstaged only by Joyce Grenfell‘s superbly-named hockey mistress Miss Gossage (“call me sausage”) and her over-zealous gong banging.

Targets (Peter Bogdanovich, 1968, USA)

If the timing of Targets‘ (1968) initial release – in the year of the assassinations of both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy – proved to be coincidentally apropos of contemporary events, then a viewing of it this year rendered it uncomfortably prescient in the wake of the events in Aurora and Newtown. The central conflict in Peter Bogdanovich‘s early feature – between the nostalgia for a wistfully recalled past and the fearful uncertainty of a nihilistic future – might be the quintessential American theme, a messy dialectic articulated nowhere as eloquently as here.

The Curse of the Cat People (Gunther von Fritsch & Robert Wise, 1944, USA)

I had fastidiously avoided this follow-up to Cat People (1942) from a combination of my unabashed love of the original film and the impression, largely derived from Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), that the sequel would be a flimsy studio cash-in on the earlier film’s success. What I got, however, was a heartbreakingly beautiful treatise on loneliness and an elegy to the virtues of the childhood imagination. Sublime.

Henry Fool (Hal Hartley, 1997, USA)

My watching of Hal Hartley‘s films had thusfar been both intermittent and somewhat scattershot, so researching him for October’s 20th Century Cube screening proved to be an immensely rewarding immersion in his back catalogue culminating in this, his magnum opus – a sprawling, ramshackle indie-epic, retaining elements of his signature style and recurring themes whilst expanding his canvas to envelop larger, more far-reaching concerns. In telling the story of Simon Grim, a shambling combination of Chauncey Gardner and Charles Bukowski, Hartley here alights on a definitive, if inherently contradictory, statement on the nature of his own artifice.

The Landlord (Hal Ashby, 1970, USA)

As with Powell’s The Edge of the World what was striking about The Landlord (1970), Hal Ashby‘s feature debut, was how fully formed his directorial vision arrived – both men’s careers testament to the virtue of working one’s way up from the lowest rungs of the film industry. Here, as in Harold and Maude (1971), Ashby again takes fire at the cloistered mores of white, bourgeois America, here presenting a wryly humorous look at race relations against the vibrant backdrop of a pre-gentrified New York.

Stage Door (Gregory La Cava, 1937, US

Only a cursory glance at the cast list of Stage Door (1937) – featuring such luminaries as Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Eve Arden and Lucille Ball – suggests this is practically essential viewing, but what really stands out in this gossipy backstage comedy-drama is the film’s whip-smart dialogue, delivered with enough sarcasm and at such velocity to give both Hecht and MacArthur a collective seizure.

Films of the Year 2011

Jodaeiye Nader az Simin [aka A Separation] (Asghar Farhadi, 2011, Iran)

Shi [aka Poetry] (Lee Chang-dong, 2010, South Korea)

We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, 2011, UK | USA)

Tomboy (Céline Sciamma, 2011, France)

Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, 2010, USA)

Senna (Asif Kapadia, 2010, UK / France / US)

Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011, USA)

The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011, USA)

The Woman (Lucky McKee, 2011, USA)

Archipelago (Joanna Hogg, 2010, UK)

Films of the Year 2010

1. Madeo [Mother] (Bong Joon-Ho, 2009, South Korea)

Bong Joon-Ho’s latest exercise in genre-bending featured the most unpredictably twisty of thriller plots as well as the stand-out individual performance of the year from Kim Hye-Ja, who overcomes her physical frailties to find the steely resolve to battle against inept authority figures, local hoodlums and suspicious townsfolk in order to prove her son innocent of a murder. The plot, though, is a mere framework to investigate wider issues: the corruption endemic in Korean patriarchy, the speed with which society throws suspicion on those it considers eccentric, and, perhaps most disturbingly of all, the sinister and occasionally morally elastic side to the maternal bond.

2. La mujer sin cabeza [The Headless Woman] (Lucrecia Martel, 2008, Argentina | France | Italy | Spain)

A masterpiece of understated disorientation, Martel’s film places protagonist Verónica’s life at a slight angle to what it was after she is involved in a car accident. Did she run down a boy, or merely a dog? The question itself quickly becomes irrelevent, as the viewer too begins to doubt everything that they may think that they have seen beforehand. The everyday has seldom seemed less familiar, or more sinister. A marvel.

3. Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, 2010, USA)

Little to add here that hasn’t been said several thousand times over elsewhere, really. Pixar really make storytelling, comedy and pathos look so easy – so why can’t every other American animation studio keep up?

4. Kynodontas [Dogtooth] (Giorgos Lanthimos, 2009, Greece)

The blackest of black comedy. Some might call it perverse but I thought Dogtooth, essentially the results of a sociological experiment gone very badly wrong, sticks to its own internal logic with perfect fidelity – and lets human nature do the rest. What happens if you keep you children locked away from the outside world all of their lives? And what happens if they then catch a glimpse of Rocky? A salutary lesson not to tell children lies about their teeth, at the very least.

5. Aruitemo aruitemo [Still Walking] (Koreeda Hirokazu, 2008, Japan)

Beautifully observed shomin-geki story of a son returning home to visit his family on the anniversary of his brother’s death. The setting may be rich in the mores of Japanese life, but the themes are universal – transience, disappointment, and the things that families find themselves unable to speak to each other about.

6. Un prophète [A Prophet] (Jacques Audiard, 2009, France | Italy)

Any doubts I held about Jacques Audiard were comprehensively dispelled by A Prophet, his best film, and the most muscular, viscerally thrilling prison drama since HBO’s Oz.

7. The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010, USA)

Damning indictment of the (anti)social habits of the internet generation? I’m not convinced, but Fincher’s film was one hell of a lot of fun, especially thanks to the contributions from messrs Sorkin, Hammer and Timberlake.

8. White Material (Claire Denis, 2009, France | Cameroon)

I tend to require several viewings of Claire Denis’ films before coming to any film opinions about them, but what I will say about White Material is that it gave me the overwhelming feeling of unease which characterises what I feel to be her best work. A malaise hangs over everything – illness, political turmoil, that inescapable oppressive heat, and Maria’s wilful refusal to accept that she is in a place where she is no longer is welcome.

9. Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010, USA)

I wasn’t as taken with the story as most others quite obviously were, but Granik shows an eye and ear for capturing the sights and sounds of the Ozarks, and invests her film with an impressively restrained sense of simmering menace.

10. La Nana [The Maid] (Sebastián Silva, 2009, Chile | Mexico)

This wonderful Chilean film proved to a most unexpected delight, the story of a long-serving family maid Raquel who, despite the obvious physical toll, steadfastly refuses to accept any assistants to help her around the house. What begins as light farce slowly develops into a moving character study of a woman who has devoted herself to a family who she will, ultimately, never fully belong to. Watch in a double-bill with Mother.

Akai Hashi no Shita no Nurui Mizu [Warm Water Under a Red Bridge] (Imamura Shōhei, 2001, Japan | France)

This post comes as part of David CairnsThe Late Show blogathon over at Shadowplay.

Making its début as part of the main competition of the Cannes Film Festival in the spring of 2001, Warm Water Under a Red Bridge proved to be Imamura Shōhei’s final film, save for a short segment in the portmanteau 11’9”01 September 11 (2002) of the following year, and came in the then-veteran director’s fiftieth year in the filmmaking business. His varied career saw him begin as assistant Ozu Yasujirō, become a key member of the Nuberu bagu (Japanese New Wave), ‘retiring’ into making documentaries after a high-profile box-office flop, before eventually returning to critical acclaim and a record-equalling two Palme d’Or wins.

In such a long working life, a number of distinct phases emerge from the whole, the final of which seems to begin after the eight-year hiatus following Kuroi ame [Black Rain] (1989) with Unagi [The Eel] (1997), the Cannes winner with which Warm Water… shares many similarities. Like that earlier film, it takes as its protagonist a man who relocates to a small town to start a new life, though the focus here seems to be on a mischievous sense of mystery rather the murderous melodrama with which The Eel begins. Yosuke (Yakusho Kōji) is an unemployed former salaryman with apparently few prospects for finding a job, much to the chagrin of his unforgiving, nagging wife. When his elderly friend Taro dies, he remembers that he informed him about a valuable gold Buddha he has deposited in a small fishing town many years before, and urges his friend to follow his directions to find it and sell for his own profit.

Once there, Yosuke quickly locates the key geographical clue – the red bridge which stands over the river running through the town – and follows the occupant of the house adjacent to it to the supermarket where he is shocked to witnesses two things: firstly, that the woman, Saeko, is depositing items from the cheese aisle into her handbag without paying for them and, more disturbingly, she is somehow leaking liquid onto the floor beneath her. Disturbed, he follows her back to her house where he soon discovers her strange biological quirk, best not described in too much detail here but what comes to be known in the film as ‘venting’, which she may only achieve by either shoplifting or by sexual stimulation.

The fast descent into the surreal confirms the film to be what it self-describes as an ‘impossible tale’, and slides into obviously metaphorical whimsy. There follows a rash of Freudian symbolism (signposted by the ‘water’ and ‘red bridge’ of the title) including a strange hallucinatory dream incorporating Yosuke’s entry into to a womb-like state composed of stars (which augments the theme of fertility raised by Saeko’s exaggerated medical condition), repeated flashbacks to Taro’s inane quasi-philosophical ramblings about erectile dysfunction, and another younger character’s obsession with his own ‘precious life essence’. The plotting, after its initial coherence, becomes increasingly scattershot, haphazardly throwing in a visit to a state-of-the-art neutrino observatory, an odd flashback to Saeko’s mother’s water-bound death, more venting, more clumsy flashbacks and some occasional documentary-like shots aboard a fishing vessel.

When considering Imamura’s later films, it is perhaps too easy to focus on the negative and what he had lost in terms of his filmcraft by this time. Gone are the obviously strong, central female characters of his 1960s films which, rightly or wrongly, had him labelled as a director of feminisuto (feminist) films, and his famously ‘anthropological’ portrayal of the lower classes of Japan scarcely seen in the respectable canons of Ozu, Mizoguchi and Naruse. Mostly absent too is the strongly observational style, which at their best disintegrated the borderline between documentary and fiction (see the superb Ningen Johatsu (1967)), or showed glimpses of social order in pre-industrial Japanese cultures (Kamigami no Fukaki Yokubo (1968), Narayama Bushiko (1983)). The late-period films seem whimsical and inconsequential in comparison.

This insistence on looking back on former glories does the films of Imamura’s late phase a disservice. What is notably different about them is that they feel so much more laidback, less motivated by a reactionary anger, and more upbeat, allowing the comedic side honed by the influence of his mentor Kawashima Yūzō to be shown more fully. Perhaps too, he was calmed by the influence of working with his eldest son Tengan Daisuke, screenwriter here and on The Eel and latterly a collaborator with Miike Takashi (himself a graduate of Imamura’s own Yokohama Vocational School of Broadcast and Film).

While lacking the bite of his best work then, what gives Warm Water… its strange charm is this newly-found air of relaxation in the director’s work, the film’s assembly of a small-town world and its population with a host of curious characters – the grandmother who obsessively writes clairvoyant fortune messages all day, the African college student running around the town being tailed by his bicycle-riding, baseball-bat-wielding trainer barking orders at him through a megaphone, the old fishermen of the town, their young rival and his over-exuberant girlfriend – and a host of other minor details and offbeat asides.

Perhaps this is not enough for fans of his more ‘important’ films, but Warm Water… does offer a modified version of the director’s eye for the anthropological; Saeko’s ‘venting’ drains out into the river, which sends the local fish and seabirds into a kind-of frenzy and in turn ensures a bumper haul for the local fishermen. If Imamura’s earlier films more directly showed human behaviours to be analogous to those of animals such as snakes, insects and pigs, then what these later films show is a more serene vision, of man as an essential part of the balance of nature. The film’s final shot, though primarily a terrifically funny visual gag, also serves this vision: a superimposed rainbow, apparently caused by a particularly large ‘vent’ by Saeko; an oddly contrived moment of transcendence which closed this great director’s career.

The Film of 2009

1. Il Divo (Paolo Sorrentino, 2008)

The biopic can be one of the most teeth-grindingly awful forms of cinema and, with only a few notable exceptions, political ones especially so. Take, as an example, a film like Gus Van Sant’s Milk (2008) which, chained to the constraints of the biopic format, rendered very dull a subject matter which had made for a lively documentary in the form of The Times of Harvey Milk (1984).

Almost regardless of the subject at hand, there is the need in such films to simplify their protagonists’ lives in order to follow a simple trajectory: a first act establishing their early successes, second act showing their further rise to prominence and their inevitable meeting with personal problems, and concluding with some form of redemption and at least partial resolution of these problems. So while specific details might differ, in Hollywood’s eyes Harvey Milk’s story is very similar to that of the Ray Charles of Ray (2004), the Johnny Cash of Walk the Line (2005) or any number of other subjects.

There are, of course, exceptions. Last year, for instance, saw Steven Soderbergh’s long awaited Che (2008) diptych, a curiously oblique portrait of the revolutionary superstar, taking an approach which dealt purely with his public surface rather than trying to penetrate his interior psychology. While still obviously reverential to its subject matter, and with a narrative following a near-symmetrical pattern of his rise and fall, the films’ refusal to simplify this highly contradictory figure into an easily-comprehended secular saint made for a more much more thought-provoking and memorable piece of work.

Il Divo might broadly be termed a political biopic, focusing as it does on the life of seven-time Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, but it shows such scant regard for the mores of the genre that it barely deserves the tag at all. Indeed, if the much-praised Gomorra (2008) displayed a clear debt to the brutal documentary-like realism of Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, then Sorrentino’s film is more readily identifiable as being in the tradition of Italian political cinema exemplified by Francesco Rosi, in particular his Salvatore Giuliano (1962). Rosi’s film eschewed conventional notions of biography and cast doubts on cinema’s ability to show the past within the confines of a straightforward narrative by telling its story highly subjectively rather than through plainly observed historical fact, and though to an extent large sections of Il Divo contradict this, it is clearly a major touchstone.

Andreotti is a figure who is without parallel in Western Europe: a politician who has circulated near the centre of his Italy’s political heart for the last sixty years. Elected Prime Minister seven times during this period, he was one of the key men who steered the country, rightly or wrongly, through those years, years which saw near-constant political instability and acts of violence from terrorists on both extremes of the political spectrum, and yet also a period which saw the country witness a remarkable ‘miracle’ which saw it build itself up from the rubble and poverty of World War 2 to become one of Europe’s key economic powers. He is also a figure surrounded by controversy: linked to any number of crimes and corruption scandals, as well to various Mafia organizations and the sinister, secretive P2 Masonic Lodge. Despite the allegations, his ‘official’ record remains unblemished.

How, then, to tackle the life of such a figure? If the political biopic commonly tends towards either blind hagiography or rabid character assassination of its chosen subject, it is significant that Sorrentino treads such a careful path between them that after two hours it is by no means clear what the director’s own opinion of the man is. But then Il Divo seeks not to provide easy answers to the complex questions raised by the history of post-war Italy, and how could it? Instead we have a figure as inscrutable as those in the director’s previous films, his inscrutable, unemotional exterior concealing whatever thoughts lie beneath it.

The title of the film suggests someone with a reputation of high, almost divine, celebrity, and yet Andreotti is a figure who tends to attract much less flattering descriptions; “Beelzebub” and “Man of Darkness” are among his other nicknames, and he was once described by Margaret Thatcher as having “a postivie aversion to principle”. From the very outset of the film, it is clear that there is no little irony in titling the film thusly: the first shot we see of him is distant, head-bowed in surrounding darkness, a slow zoom reveal his face to be covered in acupuncture needles, an image inevitably recalling the horrific Pinhead from Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987). At other times in the film he will resemble Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) with ears reminiscent of something from Gremlins (1984); these visual references should be enough for most viewers to realise that we are clearly not in the realm of strict realism but caricatured expressionism.

That is not to say that the film has no basis in fact. Quite the opposite, as from as early as the opening title cards – a glossary of some of the key political groups – and onwards from there, the viewer is bombarded with a deluge of onscreen information : places, faces, names, infamous assassinations, political parties, Parliamentary votes, tribunals, all of which likely to be alien to a large majority of viewers, and far too much to begin to digest in one viewing. Cumulatively, though, the effect is to convey the stupefying complexity of the workings of the Italian system, and to illustrate just how many groups have fingers in the political pie.

Andreotti’s own career trajectory – from humble beginnings through to inglorious fall, via personal triumphs and mistakes – actually sounds like the stuff of a simplistic biopic, and yet here the film’s main timeframe of events is extremely narrow, confined to the period in 1992 between Andreotti’s seventh election as Prime Minister and his appearance at the Tangentopoli bribing investigations, and it is only through flashbacks that significant events such as the are shown. Of particular weight is his refusal to bend to the terrorist Red Brigades after their abduction of his friend and political colleague Aldo Moro, a decision which effectively signed Moro’s death warrant. The guilt of this haunts him like Banquo’s ghost does Macbeth.

Far from a straightforward biography, non-linear in its storytelling, a mixture of journalistic enquiry and fancy, social realism and monster movie, just what is Il Divo? The best lens through which to view it is as an unequivocally idiosyncratic Paolo Sorrentino film, a work which sits easily with oeuvre as well as expanding its range, its protagonist a logical progression from those of his previous two films The Consequences of Love (2004) and The Family Friend (2006). Like those films, it boasts a bravura central performance from the remarkable Toni Servillo, though the difference here – that his character has a real world equivalent and one of huge historical significance – has the effect of raising the stakes considerably.

The film also displays the director’s flair for reconciling a fluid, fast-moving visual style with the subject matter of an emotionally detached, inscrutable protagonist. I would not be the first to suggest a splash of post-Tarantino brashness in the mix somewhere here, and early scenes have the irresistible storytelling urgency of vintage Scorsese – Goodfellas (1990) in particular. The soundtrack, a combination of classical music suggesting an operatic tragedy and rock music hinting at a more modern sensibility, is used to very frequent potent effect: see how Andreotti’s alleged hugely symbolic kiss with a Mafia don is ironically followed with a tender love song. The heavily stylised aesthetic pays dividends; if the viewer is finding themselves lost within the film’s political labyrinth, the presentation alone is enough to sustain interest.

Ultimately, it is in the political ideas that Sorrentino manages to convey that the film’s triumph lies. Two scenes stand out: firstly, in an interview with La Repubblica‘s Eugenio Scalfari, it is put to Andreotti that he is “either the most cunning criminal in the country because you never got caught, or you’re the most persecuted man in the history of Italy”. Surely the web of allegations against him cannot be some perverse coincidence? Andreotti, instead of answering, turns inquisitor: why did he prop up his interviewer’s ailing newspaper when allowing it to fall into the hands of Silvio Berlusconi would have made his own political life so much easier? To this, the answer is that it was “more complicated”; Andreotti offers this as his own reply, too. So does the film.

The second key scene is the solitary one where the mask of inscrutability slips – though it is clearly framed as speculation on the director’s part, Andreotti ‘confesses’ his political sins almost straight to camera, revealing his strategy of deliberately antagonizing those terrorists who threatened to throw the country into anarchy in the 1970s. By making them resort to ever more extreme tactics, including the murder of Moro and other assassinations, they were marginalized to the point of isolation from the political mainstream, thus putting them in a context which would prevent their ever gaining any sort of real power. This strategy, making him personally seen to be iron-willed and cold-hearted, resulted in the relative stability the country now enjoyed.

There is a wider point being made here, and one which ties in with many of the film’s repeated references to opera, gothic horror, Catholicism, as well as the role of the body politic itself, and that is the nature of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ and their interlinking. Sorrentino ultimately suspends judgement on Andreotti not because he has any sympathy for him, but because his thesis is that his subject’s moral framework is centred around the notion that certain evils are necessary in order for other goods to prevail. This is quite distinct from moral relativism; in Andreotti’s world there is good and evil – he repeatedly makes reference to “the will of God” – but they must be based in pragmatic political realities.

Here is the coup of the film: it is a portrayal of a severely flawed man, one distant to the point of inhumanity, and seemingly bereft of anything which could be considered humane. Yet he is also a man whose personal history is so inexorably tied to Italy’s political history that if we are to condemn him and his political actions, then so too must we his country: the decision, then, is ultimately the viewer’s. Il Divo is no mere political biopic: as a meditiation on the nature of politics, and the sacrifices and apparently immoral decisions which come with it, it is a work worthy of mention in the same breath as Machiavelli’s.