Saturday, January 30, 2010

Ikiru (1952) - #221

I can't afford to hate people. I haven't got that kind of time.

I've lived this past week with different scenes of Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru running as nearly constant background loops in the theater of my mind. I've seen many emotionally affecting films over this past year's journey through the Criterion Collection and I expect that I'll see quite a few more in the years ahead - but I don't expect that there will be more than a handful that will hit as close to home with me... that will get me thinking I might be that guy who I'm watching on the screen up there.

Ikiru's impact on my consciousness was clearly heightened by the fact that just this week I was able to watch the film on a high quality video screen in the comfort of my own home. I'm now the proud owner of an HDTV and that will certainly improve conditions all around for further screenings. But my first look at Ikiru was on my old CRT, and my second was very early on a weekday morning on my computer monitor, before I went to work. Each viewing revealed new layers of meaning and application to my life, even when seen on those less-than-optimal surfaces. The third go-round, with the commentary track, on my new plasma just solidified my appraisal: this isn't just a movie to me, it's a revelation.

Ikiru is very much the work of a man approaching middle age and contemplating his coming old age and eventual death. Kurosawa says as much in notes that he wrote about the film. He was 42 years old at the time, feeling very full of life, with large ambitions of what he still had left to accomplish but realizing that he was approaching the halfway point of his life and now at an age when his existence could come to its end much more suddenly than expected, with the odds increasing every day that he might abruptly run out of time. That realization settled upon him as he was at the very peak of his creative powers. Ikiru was the 13th film of a career that would produce 30 features. He'd already released Rashomon, which vaulted him to international fame and lasting influence in the world of cinema. His next release would be Seven Samurai, arguably his pinnacle achievement, though many great films would follow over the next few decades. Ikiru itself is regarded by many as his finest work (it says so right on the DVD case!) but that's a matter of sujective taste of course, not an issue I'm going to weigh in on here. What matters most to me about Ikiru is what it says to us about life, about the choices we make for how we spend our days, and about how we allow ourselves to connect with others.

Ikiru (pronounced ih-keer-oo, not icky-roo, a Japanese verb that translates as to live) is the story of a man, Kanji Watanabe, who spent the last 30 years of his life creeping up the bureaucratic ladder until he arrived, some indeterminate time ago, at the esteemed title of Section Chief of the Public Works department. We learn (before he does) of his affliction with a terminal case of stomach cancer. After seeing a brief glimpse of his inert plodding daily routine, wielding his all-important official stamp as he sees fit on the endless flow of paperwork that crosses his desk and fills every nook of his work area, we witness his grim discovery of the illness, and the traumatic effects that its implications have on his long dormant self-awareness. Stunned by the imminence of his mortality, Watanabe is initially rendered speechless, retreating deep into his psychic interior, the only refuge available to him after spending so many years shutting out the rest of the world, operating from a protective, detached stance. His wife had passed away nearly twenty years earlier; his relationship with their only child, son Mitsuo, had deteriorated due to the father's emotional neglect and absorption into his career. A man without friends or confidantes, and ultimately without purpose, Watanabe is suddenly set adrift in society, recognizing that he's a doomed, drowning man and ready to clutch at whatever might give his remaining days a sense of meaning.

We follow Watanabe's wanderings over the first half of the film as he vainly seeks a way to break through the wall that's been erected between him and his son and daughter-in-law, who share the old man's house (but would rather share the inheritance they know awaits them on his passing.) Seeing no purpose in returning back to the empty routines of his job, he skips out on work without even bothering to call in sick, confusing his subordinates who marvel at nearly 30 years of perfect punctual attendance suddenly snapped without explanation. Instead of the office drudgery, Watanabe sets out to find whatever experiences of zest or vitality remain attainable to him. He makes acquaintance with a young writer, spontaneously choosing to divulge his illness. Impressed by the old man's fatalistic zeal, blowing wads of cash on expensive sake even as he knows it will only aggravate his illness and shorten his days, the writer views him as a Christ figure (a bit prematurely, as it turns out.) The two men plunge into the nightlife of Tokyo's entertainment district, running wild for a few hours as Watanabe gives release to 30 years of pent-up emotional needs and indulges in what he's denied himself for so long.

But their impromptu bacchanal can only yield little in the way of lasting fulfillment. After the initial burst of freedom, Watanabe discovers that a drunken spree offers just a temporary forgetting of his internalized pain, exposing the vast emptiness of the void when it's no longer possible to block out those thoughts. A pivotal turn (one of several epiphanies that Watanabe, and attentive viewers, experience in Ikiru) takes place in a piano bar, when the old man's croaking rendition of an old time love song drains the club of its festive atmosphere. It's a grim and utterly unforgettable moment as we see a glimmer of light enter Watanabe's eyes for the first time, a small spark of life that still must be fed before it can grow to the point of providing warmth.

Realizing that the loss of inhibition merely serves as an impostor for joy, Watanabe's gaze turns next to Toyo, a young woman who worked for him in his office, but has now quit due to her dissatisfaction with the stuffy atmosphere and oppressive grind of the department. Amazed to see her former boss strolling aimlessly on the street when he should be at work, she approaches him and is equally amazed to see his newly relaxed and self-effacing persona. They strike up a friendship, each intrigued by the unexpected entree into a life so different from their own.

But as much fun, novelty and interpersonal enjoyment as their new connection may provide, the serious differences and social obstacles that stand between them underscore the futility of anything that goes further than a casual, surface-oriented relationship. Watanabe, in his desperately infatuated state, has the harder time realizing that, and he pursues Toyo to the point that she's finally repulsed by him - not because he makes lecherous advances toward her, but because the profundity of Watanabe's realization and the depth of his stare into and through the abyss of Non-existence, is simply too intense for her to behold at her youthful, innocent stage of life.

Grabbing the toy bunny, an absurd totem that nevertheless points out Watanabe's way forward in this last gasp of a mediocre life, the old man staggers down the stairs and back out onto the street, a chorus of "Happy Birthday" sending off this born-again cancer victim to pursue his newfound purpose.

He returns to his job the next day, again surprising the underlings who were maneuvering into position according to the mandated line-of-succession, ready to slide their respective notches up the hierarchy. Watanabe's determination to get things done by setting his mind to it raises eyebrows and gets people wondering what got into the old man. But whereas most conventional films would dutifully unspool the events as we see the newly heroic codger go about his task, in Ikiru, Watanabe dies halfway through, and we're left to piece together the impressions that his last few months made on those who observed him, but never quite understood.

The narrative shifts, almost harshly, to the ritual wake in honor of Watanabe's passing, an assemblage of local political dignitaries (after all, the deceased occupied a semi-prestigious office, even if no one really understood or respected him as a man), co-workers and family members. Talk inevitably shifts to the remarkable events that concluded Watanabe's life, especially his peculiarly focused and unprecedentedly blunt efforts to turn a small patch of mosquito-infested cesspool (reminiscent of the fetid sump in Drunken Angel) into a neighborhood park. Disagreements over who should get primary credit for the achievement erupt as the influence of alcohol becomes more prevalent among the men at the wake - city officials opportunistically posturing and deferring the praise upward in pursuit of their own self-interests, diminishing Watanabe's role as prime advocate. Kurosawa mixes elements of political and social satire to puncture the hypocrisy of so-called public servants whose career success more often than not depends on their ability to obstruct progress and reap the material benefits of graft and corruption. The story's setting in democratized, postwar, reconstructing Japan puts the events in compelling context - Watanabe's park is not merely an aesthetic boost to the urban landscape, it's an important improvement to public health, especially for the children who live nearby - and a moral challenge to the supposed leaders of society who have the obligation to put the common interest above personal advantage. Watanabe's persistent struggles against obstinate and apathetic officials, greedy thugs who have more lucrative designs for the property, and even the rebellion of his own ruined body, are quietly depicted in a way that underscores the abilities we all have to make the small sacrifices that can add up to make a big difference for good.

These events lead up to the famous and memorable scene of Watanabe in his park on the playground swing, snowflakes drifting down upon his hat and shoulders as he quietly intones his theme song, an ecstatic moment that culminates his life's journey - for he would be found dead there the next morning by a local policeman. One man at his wake, a sensitive co-worker, seems to be the one person who not only put enough of the clues together to recognize Watanabe's due credit as the park's prime mover, but also realized the inherent challenge to conduct himself with that same sense of purpose and courageous dignity that he saw in the old man in those last days of his life. He's the man we see standing on the bridge, overlooking the park, pondering the task that he must address in his pursuit of learning what it means to live.

So what did I mean by thinking I might be that guy at the beginning of this review? Well, there are a few resemblances. I've worked for the same organization for 21 years now, and have moved up in the ranks over that span. I don't have an official stamp, but my signature does cause certain things to happen, and I have a few folks working under me that would almost certainly be interested in my job if I were to vacate for whatever reason. My work is ostensibly dedicated to the betterment of humanity (I'm a staff trainer for a non-profit social services organization) yet I sometimes wonder how much the system I work within puts our clients through the kind of runaround depicted at the beginning of Ikiru. The routines of my life and my basic temperament generally lead me to keep a lot of my thoughts and feelings to myself, especially when it comes to risking potential vulnerabilities with those I don't fully trust. In all of this, I don't think I'm so untypical, and I can just as easily point to a lot of differences between how I live and what I learned about old Kanji Watanabe. Doing so here would probably read as too self-congratulatory and in any case is irrelevant to me at the moment. My aim is to absorb the wisdom of Ikiru, and live within it as best I can in whatever weeks, months and years I am granted. Movies like this are the reason I spend so much time pondering the artistic and philosophic depths that cinema has to offer.

I'll leave you with this unique video mash-up I found of Radiohead's "No Surprises" and Ikiru footage referred to elsewhere in this review. It works best if you've seen the original first!

Eclipse Review: Nobody's Children 

Eclipse Review: Androcles and the Lion

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The White Sheik (1952) - #189

Yes, life is a dream, but sometimes that dream is a bottomless pit.

Well before the labels "fangirl" or "fanboy" had become shorthand reference for hero-worshiping daydreamers who abdicate large chunks of their real-life privileges & duties for the sake of spending time in the land of make-believe, Federico Fellini was tuned in to the basic impulse that drives so many of us into our chosen realms of escapism. His first solo directorial effort, The White Sheik, pokes gentle fun at that tendency to blur the boundaries between fantasy and reality, especially when reality rubs us the wrong way.

The White Sheik's premise is very simple. A newlywed couple arrives in Rome for a short honeymoon and first meeting between the bride Wanda and members of her husband Ivan's family. Ivan is a man with aspirations of significance and success in the world - presumably, he has the connections for all that to come to pass eventually, but in the meantime, he's a small-timer who hasn't accomplished much, yet assumes an air of pomposity and being in control, covering his underlying insecurities with an excess of directive attention to detail. Wanda is young, naive and apparently befuddled by the recent changes in her life. We're not given any information about their courtship, but Wanda's expressions don't give much evidence of a passionate romance that drove her to the altar. It's safe to assume that this was a traditional arranged marriage in which she had little choice in the matter. Wanda seems easily distracted as her husband blathers on about the itinerary for their trip. Her eyes wander out the window of their hotel room... she's gauging her whereabouts in the city and planning a little unscheduled (and secretive) solo adventure. Can it be, just a day or two into their marriage, that she already has some rambling on her mind?

Well, yes she does, but it's only of the most wholesome and innocent sort. You see, Wanda is a fan, and Rome is where her fantasies originate - in the office of a publishing company that produces fumetti, photographic serial comic books that were very popular at the time. It's to their address that she sneaks off while hubby takes a morning nap after their overnight train ride. She plans merely a brief drop-in visit to deliver a hand drawn portrait of her favorite character and, if chance allows, a personal meeting with the White Sheik, star of an Orientalist romance-adventure series set in the burning sands of Arabia (but actually shot on a beach just outside Rome.) But as things tend to go in the movies (and in life), a small deviation from the predictable norm turns into something much more complicated for everyone involved.

Happily taken in by a female editor at the publisher's office who is charmed by Wanda's naive enthusiasm and intrigued by her visual appeal, Wanda is easily manipulated to join in with a group of actors and extras just about to head out on location. Though Wanda has no intentions of ditching her husband, she can't resist the possibility of seeing her idol in person. But one thing leads to another and before she can apply the brakes, she's miles from the city, on location for a fumetti shoot and eventually in costume for a bit part in the latest chapter of The White Sheik.

The Sheik himself benefits from a well-executed narrative build-up (not quite as protracted as, say, the arrival of Harry Lime in The Third Man, but suspenseful enough) before making a spectacular entrance on a ridiculously high swing suspended from a branch of a very tall tree.

One can't help but wonder how he got up there, but he gets down easily enough and with that nimble descent, the movie launches in a moment outside the gravitational pull of orthodox Italian Neorealism. It's refreshing to see a film like this coming out of Italy just a few years after the grim burdens depicted in Bicycle Thieves, or even the mournful plight of Umberto D. from the same year that The White Sheik was released. As phenomenal as those films were, the ability to inject a note of frivolity and fantasy into the culture indicates progress to me. Even though The White Sheik struggled to find its audience early on (largely due to the lack of big stars and Fellini's as yet unestablished reputation,) the pieces are all in place to portend the momentous success that he would enjoy as a world-class auteur over the next few decades.

Here's a clip demonstrating Fellini's skill at staging, editing and generally souping up the energy level in a memorable "behind the scenes" scene, sans subtitles, but it's better just to look at the images and listen to the voices even if you can't understand a word they say. It shows the fumetti crew at work, setting up their scenes, getting into position and executing the moves. The energy, dynamism and sensual humor that comes through is quite winsome:

Having made the Sheik's acquaintance, Wanda quickly becomes the target of his desire. He can recognize the stars in her eyes - he's seen that look before - and he's not in possession of any scruples that would prevent him from exploiting such an obvious advantage. The Sheik maneuvers her into a boat, pushes it off shore and commences with his attempted seduction by weaving a ludicrous tale aimed at winning Wanda's pity. It's a very funny scene, but without subtitles to capture his manipulative dialog for an English-speaking audience, the clip I found isn't worth posting here. Still, the encounter ends productively for Wanda, as events lead to her snapping out of a daze when she realizes just what a shallow, lecherous lout her glamorous White Sheik turns out to be.

So that's Wanda's predicament - lost in the pursuit of her dream, but already feeling the hard tug of reality beckoning her back, and having to come to grips with how to make such a difficult re-entry. But what about Ivan? He's been thrown into a panic upon waking up from his own dream and discovering that not only has his wife disappeared, but through a letter he finds on the floor, he learns that she has gone off to "spend a few unforgettable hours" with a mysterious stranger who only identifies himself as The White Sheik!

Ivan handles the task of holding off his relatives' curiosity and not raising their alarm as he decides to conceal her absence with the ruse that she's sick in bed in her hotel room. Convinced that she'll be back in a short while, we see his eyes pop with increasingly hard to contain emotions as the stress mounts with every passing hour she's gone. Like Wanda, Ivan also has allowed his own allegiance to fanciful notions - in his case, the ideals of social respectability and patriarchal control - to leave him unprepared to deal with "reality as it is." The disconnect between actual events and the appearances he's trying to keep up in the eyes of his relatives creates pressure that Fellini parlays to great comic effect as Ivan bounces from one farcical deception to another, each situation punctuated by a close scrape at being found out as the emotional overload continues to mount - romantic serenades at dinner, a visit to the opera, an attempt to make a clandestine, anonymous report to the police about a missing woman that comes close to getting Ivan booked in the loony bin. Screenwriter-turned actor Leopoldo Trieste (recruited almost against his wishes by Fellini for this film) does a nice job of conveying his escalating sense of panic as the situation becomes ever more fraught, circumstances backing him into a very tight corner.

Still separated and alone, Ivan and Wanda each face their moment of truth in the middle of the night. Thoughts of ending it all cross each of their minds, the shame that fate has heaped upon them both simply too much to consider facing in the cold light of day. Ivan has a pathetic encounter in the vacant town square when two streetwalkers stroll by and give him just enough of a pep talk (with some literal fire-breathing tossed in for added emphasis) to bolster his resolve for one more day. One of them, named Cabiria, is played by Fellini's wife Giulietta Masima, who we saw in Variety Lights and who we're destined to see a lot more over the course of Fellini's career.

Wanda, meanwhile, hitches a ride into town, fending off the advances of her driver and continuing to preserve her honor - but dressed in her harlot's attire, having been gone so long and without legitimate excuse, she realizes there's no adequate explanation she can offer to her sure-to-be righteously indignant husband. After calling the hotel to deliver her last farewell and sincerest regrets, she takes the only steps that cruel, unrelenting fate has to offer:

Of course, since this is a comedy, the young couple has to reunite after enduring their various mishaps, and when they do, at the same asylum that Ivan was probably destined to wind up in before he escaped the police station, it's about as tender a reunion scene as one could ask for - such depths of emotion, beyond the power of words to express! But they can't wallow in that - the Pope is expecting them for lunch in an hour!

The White Sheik was definitely another pleasant surprise for me. I had little idea of what to expect, since I hadn't seen or heard anyone talk about it before, not even in discussions like this one. (Well, there is that one guy who mentions The White Sheik, but still...) I figured this film earned its relatively early inclusion in the Criterion Collection primarily as an early Fellini work with an easily affordable and obtainable license. But Orson Welles himself named The White Sheik as his favorite Fellini film, so that should count for something. I've seen 8 1/2 and La Strada in the past, but I don't think I got their full impact watching them out of context. I will enjoy seeing them again, with better appreciation of Fellini's developing themes, as my series continues. This film, and the one preceding it (The Importance of Being Earnest) provide a nice comedy respite in what's otherwise been a fairly heavy run of films. Now that we've had a couple of films to ponder the foibles of youthful romance and the entanglements it produces, let's turn our attention to what awaits us at the other end of life...

Next: Ikiru

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Importance of Being Earnest (1952) - #158

The very essence of romance is uncertainty.

If one is looking for family-friendly amusement sure to please a wide spectrum of movie-watching tastes, I can't think of any safer bet in the whole of the Criterion Collection than The Importance of Being Earnest. At least, that's how it works in my family. My wife and daughter, who frequently subject me to gentle taunts about the prevalence of "depressing" story lines in Criterion's library of important classic and contemporary films, both love this movie and were more than delighted to join me in watching The Importance of Being Earnest again as it came up for its turn in my multi-year project through all 500+ films. Even my 22-year old son, who like many of his generation has a taste for big budget action and escapist films, found the film quite entertaining. We had a great time the other night all bunched up on the sofa watching this cast of aristocratic British dandies and bedazzling ladies glide their way through comic and endlessly quotable dialogs, ingenious plot machinations and sumptuously decorated parlors, all filmed in the delectable vintage hues of three-strip Technicolor.

For anyone unfamiliar with this staple of popular theatrical fare from the high school level on up, now among the most widely staged English plays outside of Shakespeare, I offer a brief recap. Jack Worthing is a wealthy man of leisure in 1880s England who's gotten himself into a troubling predicament by presenting himself in London social circles as a man named Ernest. His alternate identity as Ernest, which happens to be the name of an imaginary brother he needs to frequently assist in conveniently timed moments of crisis, serves as an excuse for him to travel from his countryside home, where he watches over a sweet young ward named Cecily as part of the conditions of his inheritance, up to London whenever unwelcome social obligations impinge on his freedom. Under that name of Ernest, he's made acquaintance with a young heiress, Miss Gwendolen Fairfax, watched over like a prized jewel by her aged but utterly domineering mother Augusta, more prominently known as Lady Bracknell. Having won her affection, he seeks a means to escape the ruse of his altar ego Ernest and re-introduce himself as Jack, but she, living as she does in an age of ideals, has latched onto the ideal of loving a man named Ernest - for there's just something about that name... Thus Jack risks the ruin of his newfound romance if the truth about his name be prematurely revealed.

On top of this layer of confusion, the objections of Lady Bracknell also present a seemingly insurmountable obstacle to the happy union of "Ernest" and Gwendolen. Augusta epitomizes the prudish extremes of Victorian moralism, but only in the most comedic fashion, convinced that when an engagement occurs, the young bride-to-be should be the last to know, after the respective families have concluded negotiations in the best interests of all parties with a financial interest in the outcome. With impeccably intrusive timing, Lady Bracknell steps into the room just as "Ernest's" marriage proposal to Gwendolen is about to be sealed with their first kiss. Before the intimacies can be consummated, the young maiden, of course, is swiftly ushered outside to her waiting carriage, leaving Augusta and Jack alone in the drawing room so that she can interrogate her would-be son-in-law. In a script filled from start to finish with marvelously witty wordplay and quotable snippets, this sequence stands out as one of the film's pinnacles. For better or for worse, I couldn't find a clip on YouTube that offers much more than this memorable utterance by the wonderfully imperious Dame Edith Evans:

Which is funny enough in its own right, if you know the context!

Thus we have the basic set-up. Jack and his gadfly sidekick, Algernon, are a pair of self-satisfied idlers who slip through the clutches of Victorian mores by their reliance on highly cultivated facades aimed at creating just the right perceptions of propriety without the burdensome obligations of actually living within its limits. To complete the couplings, Algernon inevitably falls for charming young Cecily after he connives his way out to Jack's country estate, posing as Ernest and with a touch of gleeful sadism, throws everything into confusion. While there, we're treated to hilarious bit parts from a pair of perfectly cast old character actors, Margaret Rutherford as Jack's fastidious housemaid and Miles Malleson as a delightfully dithering parson, whose golden years flirtations with each other strain mightily to contain themselves within the bounds of proper decorum.

As a film, The Importance of Being Earnest might not have warranted a Criterion entry were it not for the part that director Anthony Asquith and leading man Michael Redgrave played in its production. Asquith and Redgrave previously teamed up in The Browning Version and this comedy makes a nice companion piece to Kind Hearts and Coronets (which also featured Joan Greenwood) as superlative examples of high British satire - the kind of ingenious humor that can be appreciated on multiple levels, with a surface reading that simply chuckles at the absurd pomposity of its central characters, and secondary layers of barbed insight that tweak, and in some cases thoroughly shred, conventional middlebrow presumptions about morality and the social order. It's a remarkable feature of the dialog that it is capable amusing prudes and libertines simultaneously!

And of course the play's prestigious lineage back to Oscar Wilde puts it on the same lofty literary plane as George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion (also directed by Asquith.) Wilde was, of course, a remarkable, notorious and tragic figure of the Victorian Age. An early example of the kind of celebrity status that's so central to contemporary culture, Wilde managed to find a route to success within the rigid moral confines of his era before falling to ruin when a personal dispute threw his private life under the harsh glare of legal scrutiny. Rather poignantly, Asquith was himself the closeted gay son of a British Prime Minister who was instrumental in the prosecution, shortly after this play debuted, for the "crime" of having a homosexual relationship. and subsequent imprisonment of Oscar Wilde, a hardship that the Irish playwright never recovered from before his death at age 46. Perhaps this circumstance, such an incredible twist of fate, provides the film an extraordinary enough back story to consider it a remarkable work of art.

Technically speaking, however, The Importance of Being Earnest is not a particularly innovative accomplishment. It's a job handsomely executed, by just about any measure, but played as a safe bet, lacking in cinematic imagination and relying on outstanding performances, eye-pleasing costumes and set designs and the obvious strengths of the witty source material - basically a film recording of a stage play, though of course the cameras move, the sets are more fully realized than any theater could hold and a light musical soundtrack adds subtle cues to accent the humorous passages. This version of The Importance of Being Earnest provides a valuable document of performances (and performers) whose accomplishments would be hard to duplicate in this era, the impulses to contemporize and paint with an ironic revisionist brush being so hard to resist nowadays. (Though I admit I've never seen the 2002 remake with Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon and Judi Dench - but I'll probably bring that version home sometime since my wife and daughter would probably enjoy it.) As a DVD, it's on the light side, and priced accordingly - no commentary, just a collection production stills and the trailer for special features. I'm glad to know that this delectable piece of fluff has found its way into the Criterion canon, but just as pleased to have it serve as more the exception than the rule.

This longer clip, from the end of the film, could be regarded as a spoiler of sorts, but a new viewer has little to lose by watching it. These scenes only get funnier the more we get to know the characters, so even if this is your first acquaintance with the play, give it a look and see if it invites you back for more:

From the looks of it, a splendid time was had by all involved with this production, and there's plenty of room for the rest of us to get in on the gag however we see fit - whether facetiously, or in earnest.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Forbidden Games (1952) - #318

And now my friends, a few words for a family carrying a very heavy burden.

First impressions of Forbidden Games can lead a viewer to see the film primarily as a poignant meditation on the traumatic effects of war on children, and it provides sufficiently ample material to draw that conclusion. Paulette, a pretty five-year-old girl orphaned in a tragic instant as her family flees the Nazi invasion of Paris in June 1940, briefly wanders the French countryside before she's taken in by a farming family. As she and the farmer's pre-adolescent son Michel become playmates, they develop a mutual fascination with death which leads them to the morbid pastimes alluded to in the movie's title. The two child actors, both visually appealing and emotively effective as performers, lure us in through their winsome expressions as they meander through the pastoral landscape to the accompaniment of a romantic solo guitar soundtrack.

This sentimental veneer, however, is best seen as a shrewd device employed by director Réné Clément to insinuate a subversive, troublesome message aimed at dispelling simplistic notions that audiences may hold regarding the myth of childhood innocence lost and the corruptions foisted upon them by blinkered, unaware adults. The fact that not all of Forbidden Games' admirers appear to have seen through that veneer doesn't imply failure or lack of clarity on Clement's part though - it merely serves as testament to his ability for drawing a larger audience than he may have first targeted when he expanded what was a short vignette into a (barely) feature-length motion picture.

Forbidden Games is a unusual move, unique in many respects and a pre-eminent forerunner of the cinematic subcategory of "children in war." In that regard, I think of subsequent films like Empire of the Sun, Life is Beautiful, The Tin Drum, Grave of the Fireflies and others that attempt (with varying degrees of success) to confront audiences with the misery and sadness that adults inflict on children when we fail to manage our destructive urges and allow our nations to be mobilized into armed combat. Almost invariably, these films end up reinforcing the point that War Is Bad and that We Must Not Allow It To Happen Again.

Far be it from me to play devil's advocate with such an earnest and obviously sensible editorial stance - but at the same time, I've reached that stage of life where ham-fisted morality plays don't deliver sufficient justification for the time spent receiving them. My basic ethical development has been established for some years now and I know where I stand on the subject of what constitutes a reasonable degree of "character-building suffering" that children should experience as a result of high-stakes conflicts and relational breakdowns, whether foreign or domestic. So watching movies to have these lessons repeated is of relatively little interest to me - and if you want to reach me on a simply emotional level, it will require something a bit more provocative than the mere appearance of cute, cherubic children shedding tears because they're scared, lonely or confused.

Where a film like Life is Beautiful fails to connect with me (because the underlying premise is simply too absurd, cloying and nakedly manipulative for me to abide,) Forbidden Games succeeds because it avoids the temptation to use the backdrop of war as much more than a plausible pretext to explain Paulette's abrupt departure from her family's cultured, citified routines (which we never see) into a semi-regulated (and as it turns out, temporary) limbo for a few weeks of crude country living. The basic insights provided by Forbidden Games into childhood consciousness, and by extension basic human nature, is not especially dependent on its wartime setting.

The film begins, after an initially mystifying "storybook" opening credit sequence, with a jarring opening act. A stream of evacuees winds its way down a long, open road. A swarm of German aircraft descends upon the hapless crowd, and those who happen to be standing or driving across a bridge recognize the added degree of danger they're in, since bridges are among the most obvious targets in aerial attacks. The people disperse, bombs are dropped, explosions wreak havoc. After the wave of destruction passes, a stalled vehicle belonging to Paulette's parents is shoved out of the way and ruined by panicked refugees who need to clear the obstacle from their path. This sets off a terrible chain of circumstantial coincidences that lead to the death of Paulette's parents and her puppy, while the girl herself escapes physically unscathed. The conveniently swift and bloodless death of her loved ones somehow leaves Paulette emotionally placid as she apparently internalizes the horrors for the time being, delaying her reckoning with the events until a later time in her life. (In reality, I can't imagine the response of any child her age to the sudden death of her parents by machine gun fire be anything less than screaming panic - but setting that aside, Paulette's mute appraisal does provide some compelling imagery and sets the stage for what follows.)

More coincidences unfold to set up the central predicament as a cart-horse, running loose with wagon still attached after its owner abandoned it (voluntarily or not, we never learn,) winds up on the Dollé family farm. The oldest son approaches the horse and suffers a terrible injury when it bolts away, kicking and dragging him under the wheels of the cart. Now the Dollés must tend to a wounded son, their most productive farmhand, and take on a new foundling. They're a struggling family, locked into a bitter, petty feud with their neighbors, poor, graceless, ignorant and surly. The father has problems with his anger, practically no resolution skills and lacking in self-awareness. The blunt and occasionally grotesque scuffles between the Dollés and their neighboring rivals make all involved look rather foolish. I can't imagine too many folks living out in the French provinces (or elsewhere in rural Europe) found much to appreciate in Clément's portrayal of agrarian manners and temperaments. But I think this film was aimed at a more affluent, urbanized crowd.

Here's a clip from Forbidden Games, splicing together a couple of key scenes, to give you an impression (or a reminder, as the case may be) of the atmosphere it conjures:

Once accepted into her new home, Paulette demonstrates her precocious mastery of feminine wiles, mostly to exert her pull on Michel but also on others in her household as the need arises. Watching the interactions of this immature young couple right after viewing Casque d'Or
made for some fascinating comparisons, as both Paulette and Marie show the powerful effect that pretty blonde hair and a soul-piercing gaze can have against a vulnerable guy's better judgment and instincts for self-preservation. Where attraction for Marie drove Manda into the teeth of confrontation with a gang of ruthless street criminals and later the police, Paulette's enchantment of Michel "merely" drives him to vandalize tombs and hearses and attempted burglary of a church altar in order to win his damsel's favor. His objective: to steal crosses of all shapes and sizes as the two children construct a secretive cemetery inside a semi-abandoned old mill. They come up with the idea when Paulette learns that dead animals are put in holes in the ground. Since she had retrieved and now buried the carcass of her slain puppy, they decided that companions were needed to help her dead pet not feel so lonely.

Michel, as men are often wont to do, goes way overboard in trying to impress his charming sweetheart, and in so doing, commits outrageous and indefensible act that lead to his downfall (which I won't spoil here, but relax, it's nowhere near as gruesome as the fate suffered by Manda at the end of Casque d'Or.) The story, really just a succession of brief incidents over the course of a couple weeks at most, arrives at an abrupt denouement when Paulette is tracked down by the authorities and sent off to an orphanage. The last we see of her is the sight of a confused young girl, chasing through a crowd after a woman who bears slight resemblance to her mother. A wisely abandoned ending sequence to the film (provided as a supplemental feature on the DVD) shows Michel and Paulette reunited again, but I think that's a futile, foolish hope. The two young lovers are from different world, and were never destined for each other. But they will always have the memory of that glorious moment, basking in the beauty. of their lovingly crafted pet cemetery!

This ironic and mildly perverse diminution of the fatalistic romance narrative so familiar in film noir and other genres provides more lasting intrigue to me than the more conventional and prosaic interpretation of "the negative effects of violence on children." My professional life has been largely dedicated to working with children who've experienced severe abuse and neglect, so perhaps that increased familiarity with real-life victims of trauma influences my view. Certainly there are moments of authentic childhood reactions and impulses infused all throughout the film - rendered with more genuineness and honesty than just about any Hollywood depiction of childhood that I've seen over the course of my lifetime. The Criterion DVD essay and several other reviews I've read mention the uniquely effective and evocative way that French filmmakers have with putting kids on film; I remember well the astonishment my wife and I felt ten years ago or so when we stumbled upon the 1996 film Ponette, which featured an equally striking and persuasive performance as the one Brigitte Fossey turned in here in Forbidden Games. Audiences accustomed to watching Hollywood's cutesy-pie/tear-jerking moppets or dishonestly cynical tots programmed to spout hip, profane zingers for our amusement can be forgiven if they're a bit too easily blown away by the lack of pretense shown by the child-actors in a film like Forbidden Games. My only encouragement is don't just stop there. Scratch below the surface and take the Forbidden Game to a deeper level, in order to discover the sharpness and resilience of its moral and satirical edge.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Casque d'Or (1952) - #270

I always think about you.

I sat down tonight to watch Casque d'Or again while listening to the commentary track, but I had to turn it off in the middle. The reliably dry insights of Peter Cowie weren't particularly offensive or irrelevant by any means. I just wasn't in the mood to have my newfound enjoyment of this heart-stirring romance dampened by an overload of scholarly erudition. At least not tonight, maybe not for a while. There's plenty of noteworthy background information to learn about this film. Director Jacques Becker has a good story as a longtime assistant of Jean Renoir whose late blooming career produced a few masterful works. Simone Signoret is certainly interesting enough as an actress and person for me to want to learn more about her. The sumptuous period detail crammed into just about every frame of the film bears the close scrutiny and fuller appreciation that a good commentator can bestow upon listeners. But that enhanced knowledge comes at a price I'm not ready to pay quite yet. Casque d'Or best achieves its sublime effects when experienced au naturel, just as its creators intended. I'm not ready to dissect and examine its delights with clinical detachment quite yet, preferring instead to let the film manipulate my feelings with its plainly delivered charm and directness. Casque d'Or is a powerful dose of cinema magic that cast its spell over me quite unexpectedly, given my very limited exposure and misguided perception as to what I'd discover when I finally got around to watching it. (More on that later.)

As the DVD cover implies, French star Simone Signoret and that impressive pile of blonde hair atop her head command our attention whenever she's on screen, but Casque d'Or's power isn't derived from tour de force acting by her or anyone else. The cast all conduct themselves with understated subtlety in a story that other directors, even great ones, would have inflated into a stagy, melodramatic costume drama. Set in a Belle Epoque milieu similar to that of Le Plaisir, the action revolves around a street gang of petty criminals at turn of the (20th) century Paris - back when even the lowest breed of street toughs had a debonair touch of class about them. We meet them as the thugs and their women pull ashore in rented boats for a little Sunday afternoon diversion at a riverside outdoor cafe. We see right away that one couple - tall, dapper Roland and his moll Marie (Signoret) - aren't getting along very well as he bosses her around and she indicates through word, expression and body language that she'll have none of it. Of course, she can't just up and leave him. The implied threat of violence is obvious (and dangerous) enough. But she has her ways of getting the point across that she's lost respect for her man and is ready to consider the competition.

Into the scene, quite unwittingly, strolls Georges Manda, a plain and unassuming carpenter who happens to be working at the cafe making minor repairs. He also happens to be an old acquaintance of one of the gang members, who introduces him to their company. Marie, pulled reluctantly into a dance with Roland, chances her gaze on Manda as she makes her turns on the floor. Their eyes meet and with a silent thunderclap, they're in love at first sight. It may sound corny, but the on-screen event is convincing. Her dance with Roland done, Marie rejoins the group, strikes a conversation with the new guy and the rivalry begins in earnest once Manda takes her for a spin himself. Here's the dance of Manda and Marie, a brief but consequential waltz that sets all the other fateful events to follow in motion.

It turns out that Manda isn't merely a simple woodworker - he's also an ex-convict who's changed his ways, trying to stay on the straight and narrow, knowing that his ruin is potentially just one misstep away. Georges isn't looking for trouble, but if trouble finds him, as it does when Roland tries to make a fool of him, Manda knows how to summon up skills from his roguish past to defend his honor... and his life. But for the time being and to keep things safely stable, he's taken up residence in the shop of an old tradesman, played by none other than my man Gaston Modot, a great bit player who appeared in Under the Roofs of Paris and Grand Illusion, among others. Furthermore, Manda is "spoken for" in regard to romantic availability, engaged in some sense of the word to his boss' daughter. But this seemingly settled arrangement is about to be challenged by the formidable Marie, who's set her sights on Manda, confident of her ability to hold his attention.

I won't bother reciting the mechanics of how the love triangle between Manda, Marie and Roland gets resolved. It's sufficient to say that fate works according to the terms it usually operates by in these kinds of stories - after the inspired young lovers find their way over and around the obstacles between them, they pass through an opening in the clouds, a brief yet blissful reverie, before the shadows gather overhead once more and darkness engulfs them. The joys of this film are found in seeing how each stage plays out, and the naturalistic ease with which the direction, sets and actors persuade us to care about their characters as if they were real people. Their portrayals strike a successful balance between wistful romantic escapism and a grounding in the world as we know it that makes each plot point resonate with moments in our own emotional experience, even if we've never run with a street gang, had to fight to the death in bare-handed combat, been part of a prisoner-escape situation or simply had our face slapped real hard by someone we offended. Casque d'Or makes its eloquent statement about the fleeting, usually futile yet irresistible nature of hot romance by taking us quickly through the process of finding, enjoying and finally losing love when we find ourselves bound by circumstances that make its sustenance ultimately impossible. This is a film best understood by anyone who's ever had their heart broken and isn't content to fall back on conventional explanations as to why it would have been better to avoid the entanglement in the first place.

Whatever description I could come up with to convey these dramatic movements of the heart would probably fail to approximate the effects of the film itself, but the nice thing about the movies is that we can revisit those golden moments (and their aching counterpoints) at our leisure, practically whenever we want, especially in this digital age. So here's a glimpse at Manda and Marie's blissful season in the sun. I think it's a very sweet sequence, though it may not move you quite as much, taken out of the gritty context of its urban underworld narrative.

Still, you gotta admit the simple nostalgic appeal of the images... waking up in that solid wooden bed, sleeping in after a tender romantic evening, sharing a big mug of coffee, kissing across the windowsill, strolling through the summertime woods, stretching out on the ground, kissing some more... Ahhhh - I'll take some of that!

Over the past few years, I'd seen this DVD when browsing through the retail racks at my local quality media vendors, wondering why this seemingly slight and unrenowned offering would command top of the line pricing - no second disc, mundane special features, lack of anyone I considered a cinematic heavyweight. I figured that it must be attributable to licensing fees or something like that, but in any case, based on packaging alone, there were many other better deals to be had when adding to my personal Criterion collection.

Then, last summer, over on website (a Criterion affiliate, basically a social networking hub for film aficionados) a discussion thread developed titled Can Colored Folks Get Some Love at Criterion Too? where Casque d'Or was cited in terms that seemed unfavorable to me, when it's inclusion was used to make the case that Criterion is unjustly neglectful of filmmakers from countries other than Japan, Western Europe and the USA. It's an interesting discussion that I won't pursue it here - follow the link if you're intrigued. But it did reinforce my perception that Casque d'Or was perhaps a bit too much on the dry and pretty side to have much staying power, catering mainly to aesthetes and Francophiles - a film to duly take note of and find something to appreciate as I continue plowing my way through to bigger and better things in the Collection.

Well I was wrong, and it's a pleasant rebuke for all that. The deftly delivered tragic romance is bracketed by a gritty and compelling story of honor and revenge amongst the riff-raff. Even the bit players and minor characters convey the sense of inhabitance that gives this production that (dare I say it?) je ne sais quoi which transports the viewer out of his or her mundane frame of reference. This is a good reminder to me to avoid judging a film by its DVD cover or a lack of fanboy buzz. In the impact it left on me, Casque d'Or lived up to its literal translation of "golden helmet," hitting me in the gut with multiple payoffs that affect me more deeply each time I see them. Besides the clips above, there's the most quietly gut-wrenching fight scene I've seen this side of Night and the City, and a stunningly effective juxtaposition of images at the very end I won't spoil here. All in all, I find Casque d'Or worthy of the $39.95 SRP, though bargains are waiting to be had in the marketplace these days, so don't spend your money needlessly!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Fanfan la Tulipe (1952) - #451

Fanfan will have lived like a rose, the brief life of a tulip.

Fanfan la Tulipe is one of those titles in the Criterion Collection that many if not most of their cinephile fans pass over rather quickly, if they even bother to check it out at all. With its cheesy cover art and lack of critical acclaim, few feel compelled to make the "blind buys" that vault more auteur-driven and fashionable releases to the top of Criterion fan discussion-boards. It's an easy film to mock for those whose response to film quickly veers towards the snarky. I have to admit that I was tempted to give this film a one-time glance, a quick write-up and a cheerful-enough recommendation for anyone looking for breezy entertainment with a classic, foreign twist, so that I could swiftly move on to weightier offerings further down my list. All the ingredients to regard this film as an insignificant trifle are here - action-comedy stunts and pratfalls that practically border on fantasy, pretty faces and frivolous romantic banter from leads Gerard Philipe and Gina Lollobrigida, gobs of commercial success in its original release, and especially rare and perhaps even scandalous among Criterion flicks, an unambiguously happy ending! Add to that the scorn infamously heaped upon this particular film (and others like it) by some of the leading voices of the French Nouvelle Vague (still several years from its emergence on our timeline here, but in its gestational stage nevertheless) and it's a wonder that this DVD didn't create the kind of backlash generated by releases like Armageddon, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or the recent lineup of European films released in the past few years that prompted a writer at Newsweek to weigh in with a weak and dubious critique.

Far be it from me to take issue with Criterion's judgment. They know a lot more about what films are worth issuing than I do, and given the other offerings from 1952 surrounding this one on my checklist, I think Fanfan la Tulipe not only fits just fine, it actually enhances my appreciation of the other films from that year, even as it diverges significantly from several of them in tone and temperament. Some reviews may reinforce the idea that Fanfan la Tulipe is mere escapism, an oldie aimed at a narrow market niche that either remembers this obscure (in America) swashbuckling adventure or has a thing for big-bosomed starlets of the 1950s, but I disagree. Three viewings in close succession stir my admiration for the sly wit, brisk pacing and clever construction of the story. I won't go so far as to stack up Fanfan la Tulipe measure for measure against Umberto D., Le Plaisir or (coming in a few entries from now) Ikiru in terms of its profundity or enduring significance as art - but I think it has enough substance to warrant a bit of reflection, and certainly has enough going in its favor in pure entertainment value that I'll say it outranks some of those art house gems when it comes to accessibility and its power to connect to with a mainstream audience. I'd also say it makes for an interesting study as a precursor to films like Pirates of the Caribbean or The Princess Bride (though not nearly so drenched in self-reflexive irony or parody as either of those films, which were made, after all, decades later after many of the then-fresh maneuvers of Fanfan la Tulipe and other romantic adventure comedies had been worn to shreds and needed that wry twist to wring out new laughs.) And, well, let me just say I now have a more vivid and appreciative sense of what was behind all that fuss about Gina Lollobrigida that I vaguely remember from my childhood back in the 1960s...

The story takes us back to the Seven Years' War, a conflict similar in scope to World War I, which took place throughout the heart of Europe in the mid-1700s, well before the American and French Revolutions at the end of that century. Other films set in this period include Kubrick's Barry Lyndon and The Last of the Mohicans. In terms of French history, the Seven Years' War was the beginning of the end of France as a colonial power in North America, and Fanfan la Tulipe's prologue takes a brashly sardonic view of the military leadership and its motivations: "War, the only recreation of kings which the people could enjoy"... "Battles are fought for posterity, to provide historical quotes for the classroom"... "With a song on their lips and love in their hearts, the regiments... fought eloquently, killing each other with grace, disemboweling in style." (all quotes accompanied by images of cannons firing, bombs bursting and scorched troops staggering, dropping and dying.)

Smack at the center of the satirical barbs were the French monarchy, specifically King Louis XV, and its generals, portrayed as simpering buffoons who manipulate their troop formations in opulent war rooms far from the battlefront according to the principles of an absurd, fatalistic logic that traded the lives of infantrymen in blocks of a thousand each for small patches of ground on their oversized maps. The edgy form of mockery that takes aim at France's pre-Revolutionary past seems nearly unimaginable for American films of the 1950s to direct at our nation's Founding Fathers or their colonial predecessors; the USA was still blandly reverential and patriotic, and of course stuck firmly in the grip of McCarthyism at that time.

The backdrop of war sets the stage for our introduction to Fanfan, a witty, charming, quick-stepping womanizer. Caught tumbling in the hay with a pretty farmer's daughter, he's seized and bound after a valiant escape attempt, marched into town and suited up for a shotgun, or make that a pitchfork wedding. Along the way, he has his palm read by a voluptuous gypsy girl who reveals to him his destined marriage to none other than the daughter of the King! Fanfan's ego takes a fancy to the notion that he's worthy of being a royal son-in-law - and it provides ample motivation for him to slip the bonds of matrimony to a farm girl so that he can pursue his worldly fortune as a soldier of the King. He leaps into the company of a military recruiter intent on replenishing the army's depleted ranks, and soon enough is off to experience firsthand the glories of war. But only after discovering that the fortune-telling maiden who planted the idea into his head is only Adeline, the daughter of the recruiter, who routinely resorts to such tricks to persuade gullible young peasants like himself into thinking they're something more than cannon fodder.

His ardor undampened by this revelation, Fanfan persists in his ambition to win the heart of the princess, and his confidence receives confirmation when his skills as a swordsman end up rescuing Lady Henriette and her traveling escorts from a bandit attack in the woods. Having stolen a kiss from Her Highness and received his emblematic floral jewelry from Madame Pompadour, Fanfan is now "la Tulipe" and the romantic triangle is established: Adeline will fall in love with him, Fanfan will continue to pursue the unattainable woman, and Henriette will remain utterly oblivious to her would-be suitor. But along the way, we'll enjoy some fine adventures, surprisingly visceral swordplay, amusing reversals of fortune, memorable character acting (I especially enjoyed the lecherous flourish as Louis XV of Marcel Herrand, who played the villain Lacenaire in Children of Paradise,) a pulse-pounding stagecoach-and-horses chase scene and overall high quality film-making from Christian-Jacque, one of France's leading commercial directors of the mid-20th century. Oh, and of course, that happy ending.

Here's a scene from Fanfan la Tulipe that provides a sampling of what you can expect if you decide to check it out. Most of the clips available online now are colorized so I went with this one in the original (and to me, preferable) black and white, inexplicably posted under a Russian text but at least it's not dubbed. The dialog remains untranslated but my hunch is that you can figure out not only what's going on but some of the racy innuendo and taunting that Fanfan directs at the appropriate targets. He's just escaped from the brig where he was sent for insubordination by his superior (and soon to be nemesis) Fier-a-Bras:

Besides the film, the DVD also offers a clip from the colorized version (Fanfan's original rescue of Henriette et al.), a lengthy trailer, an English dub version (which I found unlistenable but it may help hold the attention of younger viewers and those who struggle with subtitles) and most interestingly, a half-hour profile of Gerard Philipe, the French superstar who embodied the popular ideal of masculinity in postwar France. He died shockingly young, from liver cancer, just six years after this film was released, and remains something of a legend in French movie history. To me, he seemed like a young, less manic Mel Gibson type in this film; another reviewer compared his performance to a tuned down Jim Carrey - your mileage may vary. But I was glad to learn that he wasn't just a matinee idol glamor boy. Gerard Philipe lived a good and honorable life, carving out time for his family away from the movie business despite the demands imposed on him by his celebrity - apparently a rare stance for movie stars of his era who sacrificed all for the sake of their careers. Given the brevity of his life, he obviously made the right choice. Raised by a right-wing father who collaborated with the Nazis during the German occupation of France, he repudiated that disgraceful heritage and championed a variety of progressive social causes. Just one more feather in Fanfan's cap that makes this film truly Criterion-worthy.

Criterion Cast review: The Life of Oharu

Next: Casque d'Or

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Le Plaisir (1952) - #444

But my friend, there's no joy in happiness.

Happiness... joy... pleasure... words that convey what we humans routinely seek, or at least think we're seeking, once we're able to move past "survival" on the Hierarchy of Needs. Think of the "pursuit of happiness" mentioned in the Declaration of Independence - a fundamental right, held in high esteem right up there with "life" and "liberty." And yet, do we ever have a clear idea of what we're trying to find or achieve in that pursuit? Do we recognize the subtle distinctions between happiness, joy and pleasure when we hit those peak moments of our existence? Do we stop to consider the cost to others that our individual desires for fulfillment may inflict? Like all good art, Le Plaisir, a beautifully crafted French film based on three short stories by Guy de Maupassant, raises such questions more effectively than it seeks to provide answers. Even if the entertainingly opulent designs and fluid cinematography don't succeed in drawing us to ponder the deeper things of life all that seriously (which may say more about the viewer than the source material,) Le Plaisir offers plenty of surface warmth and amusement to hold our attention and justify the time spent.

Director Max Ophuls made this film as a follow-up to his highly successful La Ronde, experiencing a late-career revival after returning to Europe from Hollywood where he worked during World War II. Ophuls' original vision for Le Plaisir may have been the victim of his earlier film's success, as his choice for the third and final story to be told on screen involved subject matter that would have been censored in most other countries of the world (something about a man who drowns himself in a river after his girlfriend leaves him and he catches her with a group of lesbians.) When the first production budget was exhausted and new backers came in to complete the project, their financing was contingent on finding less scandalous material. Thus, the film was made as we now have it: a cinematic triptych, one long story (around 70 minutes) bracketed between two short episodes, each 15 minutes or so, all taking place in late 19th century France and staged with meticulous care to recreate even the most subtle Belle Epoque stylistic touches. Though Maupassant never intended these three tales to be linked together this specifically, their common theme focuses on the various ways our cravings for pleasure create both stability and restlessness in the lives of men and women.

After a brief prologue, built on the conceit that the disembodied voice of Maupassant himself is speaking to you as you sit in the darkened theater, we begin the first story. "The Mask" is set in Paris at le Palais de la Danse, a ballroom that attracts a diverse and frolicsome crowd. Ophuls, best known for his elaborately choreographed tracking shots, turns his camera loose as it sweeps over the gathering, upstairs and down and all around, creating an atmosphere of frenzied excitement. Into the throng bounds a strange figure. A man in top hat and tails, his face completely concealed in a dandified mask, runs into the ballroom and immediately jumps into a quadrille with a lively dancing girl named Frimousse. His initial steps keep time well enough but as the dance goes on, he falls out of sync, reduced to simply leaping around for a few moments before finally collapsing on the floor. A doctor in attendance at the ball is called away from his festivities to help the ailing man. You can see it all in this clip, though it takes a few minutes (after the opening credits roll past) to get into the action:

The scene is at once both energized by its constant motion and leisurely in Ophuls' exploration of the environment. We see dozens of revelers who add nothing to the story's brief narrative progression but reveal so much about the society they represent.

When the doctor accompanies his impromptu patient home, he meets Ambroise's wife Denise and learns about the amorously adventurous past of this pathetic old fraud. Denise married him in his youth when Ambroise was at the peak of his seductive powers, and remains loyal enough to tend his needs, because that's what good wives tend to do, but grew to despise him over the years for his refusal to cease his vain, philandering ways. He uses the mask as a ruse to anonymously retain his place in Parisian nightlife, decoying young ladies and maintaining the illusion of virility simply for the momentary thrills it provides. Having heard this account, the doctor departs the ramshackle household of Ambroise and Denise, convinced he has learned a valuable lesson, but still intent on returning to the pleasures of the dance. Though he may never go so far as to imitate the deceptions practiced by the old man, one can't help but wonder if the dapper physician has drawn the full measure of insight that his experience with Ambroise and Denise has to offer. And no doubt, the gasping, wheezing old codger himself is plotting his next bit of trickery even as he recuperates on his bed of convalescence.

The next story, La Maison Tellier, begins with another spellbinding flourish of virtuoso camera work. The house referred to in the title is a brothel that stands at the center of a provincial seaside town in Normandy. We first encounter the establishment through a breathtakingly complex track-and-crane shot as the camera passes over the building's exterior, peering in through its windows so we can get a glimpse of the women who work there and the value it presents to the clientele.

Though we never go inside la Maison Tellier itself, we do get a prolonged chance to learn more about the women it houses. But first we have to gain an appreciation of the effect it has on civic life when the town's leading male citizens are unexpectedly deprived of its services. One springtime Saturday night, the "regulars" show up only to see the lantern over the door extinguished, the doors locked and nobody home. The resulting dearth of frivolity induces a state of melancholy and irritation among men who were all geared up for a pleasurable night out. The sailors and ruffians who frequent its street-corner cafe entrance brawl for lack of anything better to do, while the more respectable patrons, normally accustomed to hanging out upstairs with Madam Tellier and the prettiest of her girls, console themselves by sitting on a bench watching ocean waves roll ashore - only to have petty arguments break out amongst themselves, convincing them that just going home is the best thing to do, given their dismal options.

We then learn the reason for the bordello's closure: Madam Julia's niece is about to celebrate First Communion in a nearby country village and this family occasion requires her attendance. Unwilling or unable to leave her girls by themselves, they embark together on an amusing train ride that eventually leads to a meeting with our old friend Jean Gabin, star of so many great old French films of the 1930s. Here he's put on a few pounds and weathered the effects of time, no longer the dashing leading man he once was but very effective and winsome in this supporting role. He plays Julia's brother Joseph, a simple carpenter and the father of Constance, the girl about to take her place with other village youth the next morning for the communicant service.

The appearance of five young, pretty and citified women in their own procession to church, decked out in most fashionable finery, makes for quite the spectacle in the small village, injecting a new level of excitement to the familiar annual ritual. The initial effect on us is to prompt a few chuckles as we see the rustics gawk and the mature men leer at the dainty mademoiselles, but the mood becomes more solemn as one member of Julia's harem, Rosa (beautiful Danielle Darrieux) begins weeping, her emotions moved to tenderness as she reflects on her own transition from youthful innocence and purity to the life she's now living. A magical circling pan shot of the congregation follows as we see the contagious effect of Rosa's feelings on the parishioners and her traveling companions. It's a lovely scene, played earnestly but neither overlong nor tendentious, just a poignant moment for us to make of it what we will. To me, the scene was the moral epicenter of the film, though possibly Ophuls and certainly the cynical Maupassant wouldn't have seen it that way. The original written story didn't present Madam Tellier's girls sympathetically, and it's clear from how the madame managed her charges that she was of no mind to let them linger on thoughts of simple piety and innocence lost a moment longer than necessary. Joseph's quip on their arrival probably sums up her views as well: "Children need religion. They can always give it up later."

More pleasantly sentimental moments follow - Joseph's drunken flirtations with Rosa, the ladies' cart rides through the sunny French landscape past wildflower fields and laboring quarrymen - finally culminating in a return to la Maison and the resumption of life's routine. We see the men's exuberance to learn that the Tellier house is back in business and are treated to one last swirling camera shot around the exterior - but no closer! The barriers remain intact - Rosa and her peers have had their visit to the countryside, enjoyed their day in the sun, found momentary pleasure in a brief return to old-time traditions, and now must resume the function that society has found for them: the entertainment of gentlemen who find a way into their company through one ruse or another, surrounded by fresh-picked flowers, bottles of champagne and all the other trappings of merriment that sustain their trade. All things, including the women, are in their right place, according to the world's order. Who knows when they'll be let loose again?

The final story, La Modele, draws the voice of Maupassant out of the shadows and onto the screen, in the guise of a wizened and bitter old Parisian columnist. As he sits on the beach smoking a cigar, he spots (off camera) an old couple, acquaintances of his from years past. The sight of them triggers some opinions and insights he has on the nature of marriage. He remarks to his companion that women "lie without knowing or intending or understanding. Yet there's a sincerity to their emotions and sudden reactions that puts our (men's) reason to rout and turns our plans upside down." I don't think I would put it quite so sharply, nor do I consider myself misogynistic - but I get where the guy is coming from! And with that provocative introduction, the nameless narrator proceeds to tell of the turbulent relationship between the artist Jean and his former model, now his wife, Josephine. (Ophuls must have enjoyed the chemistry that Daniel Gelin and Simone Simon generated in La Ronde, because he pairs them up again here in this final act of Le Plaisir.)

The story is, in its basic elements, quite familiar: Jean is a young man just beginning to establish himself in the world. One day his glance alights upon Josephine and he's captivated by her face, her figure, her feminine charms... the usual stuff. She becomes his model and the key to his artistic and commercial success. They fall in love and move in together as the sight of her snaps him to commitment for the pleasures and excitement she provides. With cohabitation comes possession, the sense of entitlement and obligation, the inevitable setting in of relational weariness. They become quarrelsome, with Josephine eventually locking Jean into their apartment physically just as securely as she's bound him up emotionally.

The artist flees their home, taking up clandestine residence with his friend, the columnist/narrator, assuming that Josephine will take the hint, give up on him and perhaps find someone else. She proves to be more resolute though, and eventually tracks him down. She enters the apartment, fiercely determined to win her man back, or at least press him to fulfill his obligations. She's informed that the narrator that Jean is destined to marry someone more to his family's liking. Met with Jean's apathetic passivity, Josephine ups the ante, making desperate threats that she's invoked (though less dramatically) earlier in the story. The action in this clip picks up from there, bringing the tale to its shocking narrative and cinematic conclusion.

Another Ophulsian jaw-dropper! The camera becomes Josephine and we get a first-person view of a suicide attempt, cutting immediately to the grim but complacent matrimonial aftermath, some thirty years later. The artist went on to success, he remained a loyal and devoted husband, and the model transcended her role to become a wife - at what cost to all involved? Only the sacrifice of joy, for the sake of domestic tranquility!

Though I don't want to lose focus on what goes on in front of the camera, the sheer mechanics of that shot, and so many others like it in Le Plaisir, deserves respect and attention. The bonus features on this disc provide helpful material in this regard and definitely enhance my appreciation and interest in seeing more of Ophuls' work. This series has two more of his films to enjoy in the months ahead, sure to deliver, if nothing else, more fleeting moments of pleasure that will flicker across our screens and slip through fingers of our memory. It will be up to us to see if we can gaze deeper still and discover something that will arouse that sense of joy.