Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Sansho the Bailiff (1954) - #386

Even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others.

Like the familiar legends that continue to inspire modern films about King Arthur, Robin Hood and other mythic figures, Sansho the Bailiff traces its lineage over the course of many centuries to anonymous storytellers who embellished a nugget of historical incident with details that suited their own agenda. For Western audiences who have not yet familiarized themselves with the cultural context from which Sansho the Bailiff emerged, this handsome Criterion DVD package offers a very helpful primer on the tale and at least a few of its numerous variations, including two literary versions of the story and a commentary track that emphasizes different ways the story has been told, including the original screenplay written for the film as compared to its final cut. The primary concern, of course, is the superb film by Kenji Mizoguchi, a powerful, emotionally gripping story of lost hope, noble sacrifice, moral perseverance and long-delayed redemption, crafted with impressive artistic subtlety - the kind of film that rewards close attention through multiple viewings, revealing new depths of beauty as the elements of the story become familiar and we're able to turn our attention away from plot and toward nuance. Each scene in Sansho the Bailiff contributes something significant in itself and essential to the overall unfolding of the story. Consider that Mizoguchi released this film just one year after the equally masterful (and exquisitely detailed) Ugetsu, with another film, Gion bayashi, in between! I find it impossible to not be amazed by his productivity and the sureness of his cinematic vision, and can only wonder at how he was able to achieve such sublime results. 

Of course, Mizoguchi had plenty of practice up to this point in his life. Sansho the Bailiff is the 89th of 94 films he's credited with directing in his 58 years of life, most of which were silents, now lost or practically unobtainable. Only a dozen or so of his films have made it to Western-friendly DVD releases, and yet from reading just a sampling of reviews written about these latter films of Mizoguchi's career, it seems that more ought to be on the way, if for no other reason than to see if we can retrace the steps that led this man to create such indelible masterworks that rival the accomplishments of his more celebrated peers among Japanese directors, Kurosawa and Ozu. 

The film version of Sansho the Bailiff presents a naturalistic, demythologized approach to an ancient story of a noble family's sufferings. It opens with a tranquil scene of a traveling party walking through the woods. We see Tamaki, a mother, her son Zushio and daughter Anju, and a servant woman who accompanies them, as they're embarked on a long, perilous journey to reunite with Taira Masauji, the husband, father and governor of a province who was sent into exile because of what his militaristic superiors regarded as excessive leniency toward the peasants in a time of war. Before his forced departure, Taira impresses upon Zushio the importance of living by this benevolent principle at all costs: "Without mercy, man is like a beast." As the family travels, intent on traversing practically the full distance from one end of Japan to the other to reunite, we see Zushio reciting his father's teachings and holding an effigy of Kwannon, a Buddhist goddess that somewhat resembles how the Virgin Mary functions within Christianity. This brief exchange between father and son is crucial to understanding all that follows afterward, so pay attention!

Naturally, once so much emphasis is placed upon the quality of mercy, it's put under serious strain as Tamaki, Zushio and Anju are cruelly tricked by a seemingly kind woman who offers her assistance in their perilous journey but turns them over to slave-traders after she's won the family's trust. The mother is separated from her children and they're sent not merely to different slave-camps but separate islands, adding another layer of hardship to their hopes of eventual reunion. After this heart-wrenching turn of events, the film focuses mainly on the plight of the children, with just a pair of brief scenes showing Tamaki's desperate attempts to escape her captors and the awful price she has to pay as a consequence for seeking out her children. This separation leads her to wail a mournful dirge, a song of lament that seems to be one of the primal elements of the old legend that ties the variants together and probably made the story more readily familiar to its original audience than it is to most of us today.

With Japan's traditional emphasis on patriarchy, it's natural for both the narrative and the audience to focus on what happens to Zushio; after all, he is the son, the first born, the presumptive heir to his father's title and dignity. Mizoguchi honors and follows that convention - to a point. Zushio is the child who ultimately redeems himself and survives to the film's gripping conclusion, but he's also the one who fails most catastrophically at following his father's admonishments. After a flash-forward of about ten years, the decade of captivity has worn down his resolve and turned him into an willing accomplice of Sansho the Bailiff, the harsh taskmaster who bought Anju and Zushio as children and works as manager of a large imperial estate that operates on slave-labor. Despite the film's title, Sansho the Bailiff only plays a support role, and we really don't get much information on what makes him tick. Sansho is a hard man, capable of cruel, relentless measures like branding captured runaways on the forehead with a hot iron if that's what's needed to keep the slaves in check. But for the most part, Sansho is unexceptional (other than that funky spiked-out beard, anyway): he's a middle-manager, an upholder of the status quo, a man just carrying out his responsibilities. I'm sure that Mizoguchi's original audience knew plenty of characters just like him serving in the supporting apparatus that facilitated Japan's slide into militaristic madness and the resulting devastations of World War II. 

Still, given Sansho's clout, authority and iron-grip on his estate, it's no surprise that Zushio would eventually capitulate, agreeing to brand an old man at Sansho's command - an order that Sansho's own son Taro had earlier refused, leading him to commit his own act of mercy on behalf of sibling slaves Anju and Zushio prior to abandoning his own birthright and leaving his father's estate in order to become a temple priest. Anju (played by Kyoko Kagawa, the youngest daughter in Tokyo Story) rebukes her brother, which only provokes him to reveal the despair he's fallen into. Realizing that her brother is on a path to ruin if he's not redirected, Anju seizes a moment of opportunity that facilitates his escape, but only at a great cost to herself, in this life anyway. Anju's beneficent gesture, one of the most moving and exquisite acts of compassionate self-sacrifice I've seen on film, haunts my visual imagination. 

Meanwhile, Zushio, unaware of his sister's demise, continues on the trek that his mother first led them to so many years previously. Taking refuge in a temple, he reunites with Taro, Sansho the Bailiff's son, reinforcing the uncanny ways that Heaven shows its benevolence to those who pursue its path. Taro's protection and influence helps Zushio, in a roundabout way, to win audience with an old associate of his father's, despite yet a few more discouraging setbacks, all seemingly aimed at thwarting Zushio's determination, pushing him to collapse into cynical rage or apathy. 

Masasue, the governor to whom Zushio appeals for clemency, recognizes the Kwammon figure that one of his ancestors gave to Zushio's family as a token for good service. This happy coincidence propels Zushio to a governorship of his own. He uses his newly advanced position to act upon the counsel of his late but not forgotten father, a final act of filial duty that extends blessings upon many, but only at great cost to his prestige, even risking his own life. Forced, like his father, to forsake the privileges of authority in order to serve his higher calling, Zushio finds himself once again stripped down to practically nothing - a lone figure wandering an impassive landscape, searching for his mother. He finds her at last, a survivor of a natural catastrophe after a tsunami has swept through a village, leading to a poignant, tear-inducing reunion that can probably only be fully appreciated by those who have closely followed the sufferings that both have endured and have their own stories of separation and reconciliation that can connect with the grievously joyful scene that concludes Sansho the Bailiff. 

If you haven't seen Sansho the Bailiff yet, I hope this write-up moves you to do so. Conjuring up such a depth of feeling and existential alertness within us is what art-house cinema is all about!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Touchez pas au grisbi (1954) - #271

After midnight I always feel like I'm doing overtime.

Like the gangsters this film portrays, I'm going to make swift, efficient work in writing up Touchez pas au grisbi, a pivotal entry in the canon of the crime film genre. Directed by Jacques Becker and featuring a cast that would become much more noteworthy over time than it appeared upon first release, Touchez pas au grisbi took film noir in a new direction, declaring independence from the conventions of fast pacing, overt plot machinations and the rags-to-riches-to-bloody-end narrative line, while establishing levels of interiority seldom explored up 'til then in that seedy underworld setting. The obvious attractions and motivations that drive some to a life of crime - fast cash, willing and beautiful women, power and prestige amongst one's peers - are all readily on display here, but viewed through a world-weary lens that reminds us all that even our most sought after pleasures are capable of growing mundane and unsatisfying over the course of time. Touchez pas au grisbi gives us a glimpse at what life becomes for those criminal masterminds who are unfortunate enough to survive past its peak into its inevitable decline.

The focal point of Touchez pas au grisbi is Max le Menteur, played by Jean Gabin, familiar to anyone who's been reading this blog for awhile. His presence in Criterion films dates back to 1936 in The Lower Depths, with other appearances in Pepe le Moko, Grand Illusion, Port of Shadows, La Bete Humaine and Le Plaisir. It's natural to assume that this was just one more leading role in one of French cinema's most illustrious careers. Gabin commands the screen with the ease and confidence of a master, whether its portraying the sense of ennui and fatigue that his exploits have induced after presumably decades in his illicit trade or summoning up the unflinching toughness on which his survival depends when its time to get down to business. However, Gabin was considered a has-been by the French film industry and its fans at the time, no longer quite capable of pulling off the suave, strong romantic leads that most scripts called for. In Touchez pas au grisbi, Gabin's "over the hill" aspects are transformed into strengths, incorporating both the enhanced intelligence that his years of life experience have earned him and the resigned awareness that he now has to work harder to see his plans through, most likely to less-than-satisfying conclusions. His extraordinary poise was a revelation to film-goers at the time and probably served as a template for generations of leading men to learn from as they went through their own aging process.

There's a great bit of dialog near the beginning that sums up Max's assessment of his situation.  It occurs right after he dispatches a young protege to do some drug running for Pierrot, the owner of the strip-club where he's hanging out with his pal Riton. The two men have just watched their two current girlfriends do their stage act. Drinks are on the house, another bottle of the good stuff is on the way, and Max has had it - he wants to go home. Riton tries to encourage Max to stick around for a bit, but Max won't have it:

We may end up having a bottle with Pierrot. Then the girls will want us to take 'em out for onion soup. Then we gotta get it on. I'm not in the mood. I'm beat. 

Yep, stuck in the rut of dating beautiful women half their age, hosted as VIPs at the nicest table on the floor, feared, admired and respected in their immaculate attire - just another drag-down drudge through the daily grind!

Though Max has seen through the illusions under which he's labored, he's far from resolving how to get out from under them. The likeliest means for his escape to a life of retired ease and comfort is kept in the trunk of an expensive sports car he keeps locked up underneath a rented apartment he's kept so secret that even his best pal Riton isn't aware of it. The trunk holds eight bars of gold bullion, stolen a few weeks earlier and worth about 50 million francs n the street, once the loot cools off a bit and he can fence it safely. At this stage of his career, Max is willing to be patient, but an inadvertent discovery that Riton's girl Josy is cheating on him with Angelo, a up-and-coming rival in crime, triggers a chain of events that forces him to speed up the timetable. Riton's efforts to impress Josy led him to disclose the secret of the heist that he and Max had pulled off. Now Josy had spilled the beans to Angelo, who mobilized his thugs to move in on Max and Riton in order to grab the grisbi (loot, in the hoodlum vernacular.)

Max realizes the danger they're in and does his best to keep himself and Riton, his partner of over 20 years, safe. By way of preparation, Max ushers Riton into his secret lair, after the safety of their publicly known homes has been compromised by unsolicited late-night visits from Angelo and his boys. A celebrated scene of domestic gangster tranquility features the two men sharing a midnight snack of white wine, pate and biscuits, then brushing teeth and donning elegant silk pajamas to get a good night's rest, knowing they've got some hard work ahead of them in the days ahead. The extended attention to these details is a Becker trademark - stripping away many of the flashier elements that other directors would have included to stimulate their audience, thereby grounding in reality characters who in many ways serve as figures upon whom we project our own escapist fantasies.

Speaking of Becker, another motif I noticed that carried over from his earlier Casque d'or is the juxtaposition between elegant, fashionable criminals and boring, oblivious "squares." Both films feature a scene where honest bourgeois types accidentally stumble into the gangsters' social milieu. In Casque d'or, they're lampooned as rubes out looking for excitement, while in Touchez pas au grisbi they're swiftly ushered out of the restaurant for no good reason other than they're just not welcomed. I'm not sure what, if any, message Becker was trying to send us middle-class types - maybe just another example of that snobby elitism that some of my suburban peers so often cite to reinforce their disdain for the French...

As with Casque d'or, we have in Touchez pas au grisbi a carefully crafted and convincing portrayal of a lived-in world where rough, unpleasant things happen and being a nice guy rarely works to one's advantage. Despite the material accoutrements of success, Max's comforts aren't found in his wealth (money never seems to be an object for him), flashy cars (the kind they just can't make anymore), his splendid wardrobe (what an array of sharp suits he trots out over the course of an hour and a half!), his women (neither Lola the dancing girl or Betty the American socialite seem to rival the affection and commitment he shows for poor inept Riton) or his status in the Montmarte neighborhood of Paris. He seems most at ease for only a few moments, sitting in an easy chair in his secret apartment, holding a cigarette and a glass of wine, listening to his plaintive piano and harmonica theme song that punctuates the film from start to finish. Even as he contemplates the news of Riton's kidnapping and the requisite violence that it will initiate, it's clear that what Max really wants is to maintain his present state of uninterrupted repose. And then the phone rings. Damn it all - the business side of life just continually gets in the way!

Besides telling a solid, suspenseful story that prompts viewers to reflect on what it is we're really striving for in our respective preoccupations, Touchez pas au grisbi also served as the launching pad of two great careers that will feature in upcoming Criterion films: Jeanne Moreau (Josy) and Lino Ventura (Angelo.) Neither of them were well-known at the time, and it was Ventura's film debut - a former wrestling champion who had no interest in the movies and actually turned down Becker's first request to perform, he was cast strictly on the basis of his physique and facial features. The film also serves as an indicative reference point for the emergence of more explicitly adult-oriented subject matter, with topless dancing scenes, brief cocaine use, molotov cocktails, machine gun battles and some pretty harsh slapping of women and subordinates going on. The trailer gives a fair representation of what to expect:

But despite the eruption of some rough stuff, Touchez pas au grisbi secures its place as a classic of gangster cinema through its exploration of the uneasy balance between retaining personal honor and dignity while engaging in the dirty business of staying alive in the aftermath of so many ethical compromises.

Support this blog: Purchase Touchez Pas au Grisbi here!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Diabolique (1954) - #35

Some things are hard to swallow, and I'm not talking about the fish!
Diabolique, like Henri-Georges Clouzot's previous film The Wages of Fear, features a very early scene showcasing a tire as it rolls through a muddy pothole. I'm not sure if that was a deliberate motif of Clouzot's or not, but it functions as an adequate metaphor for the baser elements of human nature that his films explore. From the resentful manipulation practiced by Le Corbeau's back-stabbing provincials to the seedy exploitations of lechery and jealousy on display in Quai des Orfevres and the nihilistic cashing in on human deprivation and misery that drove The Wages of Fear, Clouzot turned a baleful eye toward his assessment of the human condition. He can't be accused of taking it any easier on his peers in Diabolique either. Despite the frequent inclusion of grim jokes and darkly ironic juxtapositions that provoke chuckles even as they fly in the face of bourgeois mores, nobody comes off looking very admirable here. Not even the children are spared.

What's most remarkable about Diabolique, to me at least, is the way it seems to have cleared the path for so many stunt movies that followed, where the entire production can be seen at its conclusion as subservient to the director's intention to basically mess with the audience's mind by serving up an audacious, alarming and unforgettable plot twist very near to the conclusion - one of those "I never saw it coming" moments that causes all the pieces to fall into place very differently by way of explanation than what you thought you were watching. In recent years, films like The Crying Game, Fight Club, The Prestige and the entire early career of M. Night Shyamalan, among many others, refined and perfected this storytelling technique, often to great critical and popular success, with more than a few over-reaches and misfires along the way. I know that Alfred Hitchcock had been producing films of this sort for a number of years prior to Diabolique (and it's so conventional to invoke Hitchcock's name in reviews of this film that I'll consider that function to be complete now and won't go into it any further.) But I can't really think of any Criterion films I've seen up until now in this series that really match the narrative sleight of hand that Clouzot exercises here. Diabolique was unique enough at the time to warrant a trailer like this, which says so little about the movie, but clearly offers the prospect of raising serious goosebumps:

So given such clear and stern directives, I won't say anything about the ending here, even though I want to discuss it in some depth. In order to do that, I'm going to offer my thoughts on Diabolique's conclusion in a separate comment afterward - so if you've seen the film and want to know what I think about the implications of its story, look for that comment at the end of the post. For now, I'll just talk about what's safe to disclose based on the movie's overall atmosphere and the early stages of its plot development. Be forewarned though: some of the links I've made to other reviews of Diabolique are not quite so circumspect as I am!

Diabolique's setting, and the sociological significance of its story, aren't quite as interesting to me as the Clouzot films I've mentioned above, which all feature more complex and varied casts and characters and seem more intent on exploring particular facets of the societies they portray. In this film, the setting is primarily the campus of a small, poorly managed and probably overcrowded boys' school, the Institute Delasalle. The principal, Michel Delasalle, is married to Christina, a dimunitive Spanish heiress whose wealth financed the school's purchase. Michel quickly shows himself to be the most reprehensible of tyrants in his brutal treatment of his wife, the faculty, the student, and his mistress Nicole, who also teaches in the academy. Michel's authority is so absolute that he can behave outrageously without any concern for confrontation, challenge or sustained resistance from others. He's willing to get violent, obviously, and does so, but even the threat of his anger is usually enough to keep his minions in line. He forces his wife to eat rotten fish, upbraids his staff brazenly only to hear their groveling compliments in return, and bruises his mistress to the point where she has to wear sunglasses indoors to hide the marks. Furthermore, he makes no effort whatsoever to hide his adultery - Nicole and Christina are quite aware of each others status with Michel, and have even become confidantes of a sort, consoling each other as a way of enduring his savagery just a bit more comfortably.

Unfortunately for Michel, the bond that his cruelty has forged between the two women in his life, the one who supplies his bankroll and the other who shares his bed, has led them to conspire his murder. Clouzot pulls off his first major coup here by having Michel behave so outrageously that even the most prim and proper among his audience can hardly help but conclude that he deserves whatever retribution the two victims of his abuse can successfully execute. Though both women (Clouzot's wife Vera as Christina, Simone Signoret - La Ronde, Casque d'or - as Nicole) are attractive and compel our interest, the camera falls most sympathetically on Christina, often framing her face squarely center-screen in an expression of long-suffering complexity, eyes downcast, inviting the audience to fill in the conflicted thoughts she must be thinking. Christina is a pious, God-fearing woman whose religious values and respect for patriarchal tradition have to this point forbidden her from separating from Michel or publicly protesting his abuse. Her submissiveness has gone so far as to give him carte blanche to carry on his affair, to the astonishment of onlookers. Michel has, by now, taken her so much for granted that he can hardly suspect her capable of plotting revenge.

But through Nicole's encouragement, Christina is willing to explore that option. Nicole knows Michel well enough to recognize that she's now caught in his trap - the battery he inflicts on her, along with her economic dependence on him for her job, serves as a stern warning to take whatever he dishes out, or expect worse if she rebels. Now a school holiday offers Nicole the perfect opportunity to get out of town for a few days - and unbeknownst to Michel, Christina will accompany her, with a sinister plot in mind.

Having made her escape, Christina calls Michel on the phone, informing him of her plans to divorce him. The call and threat of legal action are a ruse aimed at luring him into their trap. They know Michel won't meekly accept his wife's departure. As he travels to the French village of Niort (Clouzot's own birthplace, it's worth mentioning), the women poison a bottle of whiskey and prepare their implements of murder: a bathtub to drown Michel in after he passes out, and a large wicker basket and waterproof fabric to wrap his corpse in after they've drowned him.

Christina continues to waver, wrestling between the dictates of her faith and the knowledge that life will be continual torment as long as Michel can call her to heel. With Nicole hiding in another room, Michel arrives, speaking words of peace and consolation as he's undoubtedly become skilled at over the years, just enough to melt Christina's resolve and get her to second-guess the carefully laid-out plans to kill the brute. But Christina's impulsive gesture to stop Michel from sipping the poisoned cup prompts his ire, leading him to slap her hard, restoring her determination to see the murder through. She pours him a second serving, then a third. Within minutes, he is flat out on the bed, woozy, veering on delirium, finally powerless. It's time to act.

Nicole and Christina lug the body to the tub, where Nicole goes about her terrible business, running the tub, holding Michel underwater, creating just enough noise to spoil the diversions of the upstairs neighbors (one of those funny bits I mentioned earlier.) The minutes pass and soon enough, Michel is no more among the living: the deed is done.

Now all that remains is to create the seamless alibi, by smuggling Michel's body in the wicker basket back to the Institute Delasalle, where they manage to drop it off in the wee hours of the morning in a murky, neglected swimming pool. When his body eventually floats to the surface, it will be clear: Michel fell in by accident and drowned - a death that the coroner and police will hardly have reason to call into question.

Of course, it can't go that smoothly. If murder were that easy to conceal and manage, it would happen much more frequently, don't you think? Of course it would! In this circumstance, despite Nicole's steely composure and best efforts to coach her accomplice in maintaining the same implacable front, it's Christina's scruples and frailties that threaten to unravel the conspiracy. Between her moral imperatives and a heart condition that has perhaps led to Michel's disenchantment with his wife, Christina has a hard time keeping her cool, especially after a couple of days go by and the body has still not been spotted in the pool. The pressures of guilt become unbearable; Christina has the pool drained - and when it is, no trace of Michel is found!

This discovery is made at just around the halfway point of Diabolique. For the next forty to fifty minutes or so, the film becomes an exercise in continuously mounting tension and weirdness. Mysterious things happen - Michel's dry-cleaned suit gets delivered, the same outfit he was wearing when he died. A student, known to be an exaggerator if not outright liar,  reports seeing him though nobody else does. A strange shadowy image appears in the window behind a photograph of the assembled students and faculty. Christina's haunted conscience begins tormenting her in maddening ways. Could it be that she's going insane, hallucinating all these strange omens? Or is Michel's ghost finding yet more ways to mistreat his debased wife? Clouzot keeps the audience on pins and needles, occasionally turning their sharp ends toward us as we try to figure out what's going on.

Aficionados of the "twist ending" movies of the last 20 years or so will probably not have as hard a time figuring out the conclusion as did audiences of 1954 - even though I was watching Diabolique for the first time ever this past week, I had a pretty good bead on it's eventual resolution. That didn't stop the ending from giving me the shivers though, and contrary to some reviews, I think Diabolique holds up just fine to repeat viewings even after we know how it will all end up. That's partly due to the fact that it's an excellently crafted film, featuring three very compelling star performances and a fine supporting cast. And partly due to the fact that watching each of the three lead characters go through their motions toward that inevitable finale prompts such interesting thoughts on the power plays that take place in so many marriages and romantic relationships. Further expansion of this angle, in light of the film's ultimate revelations, will be explored in my supplementary comments that follow.

Before I get to that though, a very quick word about the DVD itself. This is one of those bare-bones relics from Criterion's primordial past. All you get here is the movie itself - not even a trailer! Normally I'm a bit disappointed at a Criterion disc so bereft of extra goodies, and I'm all in favor of their practice of re-issuing these titles with better transfers and updated supplements. But in Diabolique's case, it seems kind of fitting that they would just present the film and nothing more. It doesn't require or necessarily benefit from any behind the scenes angles - it is what it is, a marvelously spine-tingling puzzle, and that's plenty enough.

Support this blog: Purchase Diabolique here!

Monday, March 22, 2010

La Pointe Courte (1954) - #419

They talk too much to be happy.

One thing I really enjoy about watching films from the Criterion Collection is how they can guide a viewer from watching bona fide masterworks of some of the greatest directors and other cinematic artists of all time, then just as easily steer us to examine small, relatively obscure works from talents we've never heard of. Such is the case here with Agnes Varda's La Pointe Courte, an impressive and even astonishing debut from a then-young woman who had never spent much time in movie houses but wound up shooting a film according to her own rules and sensibilities - which then went on to have a profound influence over a generation of more famous and widely celebrated male directors. As the first Criterion film released in 1954, La Pointe Courte follows up, in this series, on the heels of one of those canonical gems, Tokyo Story, an assured, definitive work by the venerable Ozu. How fascinating it was for me to see these two films in succession and reflect on what a pivotal juncture 1953/54 was in the development of cinema. In fact, before I get too much further into discussing La Pointe Courte, I want to pay my respects to the films of 1953 in particular.

1953 was a year in which at least three films were released that have a rightful claim to being among the greatest of all time: Tokyo Story, The Earrings of Madame de... and Ugetsu. Beside those three, we can cite three films that rank amongst the best ever in their respective genres: M. Hulot's Holiday (comedy), Pick-up on South Street (noir) and The Wages of Fear (suspense.) Add to that the emergence of two superior directors into their indisputable artistic maturity (Bergman with Sawdust and Tinsel and Fellini with I Vitelloni), and even a pair of lesser but still noteworthy features from Renoir (The Golden Coach) and de Sica (Terminal Station)... all I can say is Wow! and wonder if future "Criterion years" will boast such a richly consistent lineup. I welcome any comments below from anyone who wants to declare their favorite year for Criterion films, or for movie releases in general. I think '53 ranks as the very best I've seen so far in writing this blog. (But trust me, 1954 has some incredible titles in store too!)

La Pointe Courte, though not quite able to rank with the heavy hitters I just mentioned in terms of lasting reputation or depth of achievement, still manages to find a niche in that company through its precocious charms. As I said earlier, it was Agnes Varda's first film, and if that name isn't familiar to you, we'll both have a chance to get to know her a bit as we have three more features of hers to review. It will be awhile until the next blog post though - the Criterion 4 by Agnes Varda box set offers this film, two others from the 1960s (Cleo from 5 to 7 and Le Bonheur) and 1985's Vagabond. Varda also made quite a few documentaries over her career (and she's not done yet, having directed and written The Beaches of Agnes in 2008.) Apparently documentary projects were more readily secured by female directors, especially early in her career, and from what I've read, she consistently pushed that form in new directions. Certainly, poking into this boxset for the first time has aroused my curiosity about her work, but I have little to say about her at this time. I'm just responding to this unique, enchanting film on its own terms - the way I might view a lot of other films when I don't know anything about the director of that she (in this case) is someone with an enhanced reputation.

Seeing La Pointe Courte in the contextual setting I did, with films of its own era as the main basis for my comparison, worked in its favor, because the stylistic originality and innocence of the project stood out so clearly. As much as I admired the visual effects and camera work associated with A-list auteurs like Ophuls, Mizoguchi, Clouzot and of course Ozu, Varda aimed her lens and chose her subjects so freshly that I really felt like I was seeing something excitingly new and original. If I hadn't known better, upon just seeing the film at random I would have guessed that the movie was made several years later at the most, as it anticipates some of the mannerisms associated with the Nouvelle Vague - the non-pro actors, street locations and contemporary settings shared with established Neorealism but also some of the rule-breaking techniques like looking straight into the camera, mannered self-conscious performances and disembodied voices advancing the narrative in unconventional ways that became more familiar to fans of the French New Wave, still several years away in 1954 from emerging as a distinctive movement.

La Pointe Courte's title refers to the small French Mediterranean fishing village where Varda lived for awhile as a child and shot the film using local actors to portray slightly fictionalized versions of themselves. Numerous scenes of these hard-pressed, blunt, decidedly non-glamorous proletarians going about their life provide one-half of the narrative, a setting that serves as more than just picturesque scenescape though. Varda knew this way of life, though she'd left for a Parisian art-school education some years prior, returning to the village as a trained photographer with an idea for a film she wanted to make. Her concept was to alternate between two main stories, one almost documentarian in its portrayal of the everyday struggles of La Pointe Courte's inhabitants and the other, a more stylized rendition of a couple working through a marital crisis, asking hard questions of themselves and each other. The nameless couple (in the credits, the man is He and the woman is She) have been married a few years and are just reuniting in His home village, that she's never visited before. They live in Paris. He's been in La Pointe Courte for a week or so, patiently visiting the train station to see if she'll arrive that day, after a brief time apart - not exactly a formal separation, just travels that took place to give each other an opportunity to think things over, it seemed. We don't learn much about him until the two of them are together, though we get a few glimpses of how his townspeople see and think about him now. He has disappointed Her through a vaguely alluded to affair that is mentioned just briefly but doesn't seem to be the pair's main problem. He wants to stay together and work things out. She's the one with doubts, wondering if their continued cohabitation is really based on something substantial or is merely the extension of a long-term, convenient, but ultimately meaningless habit. Anyone who's spent significant enough time in a deeply felt but occasionally mismatched romantic relationship can probably find plenty to relate to in the tone of weary resignation, and the frequent switchbacks between rationality and warily repressed emotionalism that drive each character. It's a matter of taste as to how much one enjoys watching such relational concerns unravel on the screen.

Such dilemmas and ponderings can run the range from poignant to mundane for many of us, based on how aptly they pertain to our own circumstances and more importantly, how effectively they are presented on the screen. I think La Pointe Courte gets its point across quite strikingly, with visual compositions that entertain and impress us as they roll across the screen and stick in our imagination after the story's run its course. Here's a clip of one of the couple's extended dialogs, in all its ponderous, archetypal, flat-affected glory, to let you get a sense of what I'm describing:

As is the case with Bergman, the key New Wave auteurs and other art-house all-stars, the stiff postures, deliberate face placements and other visual manipulations can easily serve as set-ups for parodies, lampoons or simple dismissive ridicule. It's a mistake though to take La Pointe Courte's "archness" too seriously, even though Varda's effort may strike some viewers as a bit too enamored of its own cleverness or aspirations to strike the profound note. Don't fall into such an easy trap! This is about as genuinely indie as it gets, and she was still pretty young when she made it even though the filmmaking technique seems poised and confident. There's nothing wrong with a bit of young adult affectation when it's sincere and we know in hindsight that they eventually grow out of it. Varda funded the production mostly herself, using some money she inherited and getting as much support from the locals and friends as she could to keep the overall costs down. Because of its obscurity at the time, La Pointe Courte had no significant commercial success to speak of. The film's reputation grew over time, as Varda went on to greater achievements and status as the (grand)mother of the Nouvelle Vague, but even then, its availability remained highly limited. It wasn't until 2007 that Criterion reissued its early releases of Cleo and Vagabond as nice upgrades in the boxset that La Pointe Courte could easily make its way into appreciative hands. And given that the Varda box is probably still not that big a seller (owing to its expense and the more obvious allure of other Criterion titles), it wouldn't surprise me to learn that the film still hasn't enjoyed the kind of broad exposure that it might if Varda had pursued a more commercial, iconoclastic or sensationalist public image. Or if she'd been born a man!

Purchase here: 4 by Agnès Varda (La Pointe Courte, Cléo from 5 to 7, Le bonheur, Vagabond) - Criterion Collection

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Tokyo Story (1953) - #217

We came back at the wrong time.

I first became aware of Tokyo Story several years ago while flipping through one of those comprehensive, all-time greatest, best-movies-ever books that exert an uncanny appeal to me, at least when I'm in a mood for extended browse at my local independent bookstore. I can't remember the name of the book, or the critic who rendered this particular verdict, but I was completely oblivious to the existence of Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story up until the moment that I saw it listed as the #1 film on a list of 500 or so cinematic classics. I also remember that Rules of the Game was #2, but beyond that, the details are fuzzy. Still, for me to learn from a supposedly authoritative, or at least well-informed, source that a movie I've never even heard of is the supreme achievement in a medium I considered myself quite knowledgeable... It's the kind of experience I don't take lightly, hence it sticks out prominently in my memory.

It wasn't too long afterwards, of course, that I got my own copy of Tokyo Story on DVD. I simply couldn't let too much more time go by without seeing for myself what all the adoring fuss was about. I found a cheap used copy on eBay, had it delivered and eagerly plunked it into my DVD player, expecting to be deeply moved, impressed, maybe even overwhelmed by what I saw. But even before the images began appearing on my TV screen, I started to wonder if this was a film that would live up to the lofty expectations created by this critical appraisal. Just looking over the case, reading the liner notes, I got the sense that Tokyo Story was a subdued, naturalistic, family-centered melodrama - not exactly the kind of thing that would blow away a guy like me who tended to think of "greatest movies" in terms of "biggest spectacles." But I hung in there with it, and after a first viewing or two, way back in the early days of my Criterion collecting, I figured I had gained an appreciation for what made Tokyo Story such a significant piece of work in the minds of cinephiles presumably a bit more mature, reflective and knowledgeable than me. I wasn't ready to echo their claim of all-time #1, but a door had been opened to a different kind of movie-watching experience. For that, I'm grateful.

Still, I don't think I had an ideal introduction to this particular film. But I've managed to work my way out from under such a handicap, perhaps to the point where Tokyo Story now seems almost over-familiar, such a staple among art-house classics, so epitomizing the peculiar genius of Ozu that I am reluctant to simply offer another rehash of what seems to be the broad consensus among admirers of this film. The recap usually goes something like this:

A story of an elderly couple who travel from their small town to visit their two oldest children (a son and a daughter) in early 1950s Tokyo after some years apart, expecting to see them prospering and idealizing the level of mutual enjoyment that all would have as a result of the reunion. The son and daughter initially seem open to having the folks around for awhile, but quickly realize the inconvenience of having to host and entertain them. They're busy with their own lives and resort to selfish maneuvers to get out from under the burden. The couple senses that they're being shuffled off by their own children, but find an unexpectedly gracious welcome from Noriko, the widow of one of their sons, who's remained unmarried after eight years but shows a genuine fondness for her in-laws. Cutting short their visit by a few days in order to return home, where their youngest daughter still lives, the mother falls ill on the train ride home and lapses into a coma shortly after returning to her house. The children gather together hastily, including Noriko, and a short time later, the mother dies. A number of poignant conversations and personal encounters take place as each character grapples with the unfortunate circumstances, culminating in a brief exchange between teenage daughter Kyoko who plaintively declares, "life is disappointing, isn't it?" and Noriko acknowledging with her mannered, ingrained smile, "yes, it is."

The old father is finally left alone, gazing to the horizon and an indeterminate future after the funeral rites have concluded and the children have returned to their homes and routines. A tugboat chugs through the harbor. Life goes on.

So, summing it up that way kind of diminishes Tokyo Story's overall significance, I suppose. I don't intend any disrespect or trivializing of Ozu's film at all. I'm just offering that as a tidy acknowledgment of the emotionally moving surface reading of the film, the kind of impression that a first or second viewing are likely to leave on most viewers. Make no mistake, Tokyo Story is the kind of film that can easily move a viewer to tears as its message of the transitory nature of even our closest, most precious relationships is absorbed, and it got to me again the other night as I watched it once more. Anyone who watches Tokyo Story through careful and sensitive eyes will receive a substantial reminder to appreciate and connect with those we love the most, and that's a good thing! I think it takes a special kind of self-absorption to not feel some kind of disdain for the cold, shallow treatment that Shukichi and Tomi receive from their oldest son and daughter. But it also probably requires a special kind of self-deception to regard ourselves as that much more compassionate or loyal to our loved ones, whether they are older or younger, more independent or more needy than the specific sets of relationships we see in Tokyo Story. What makes this film so universally applicable, even in the context of a defined cultural setting that Ozu used to speak to his contemporaries, is that it illustrated more than just the deficiencies of our expressions of filial gratitude to those who deserve better. Ozu captures so many ways in which we are all disloyal to and distracted from ourselves, from being the people we'd really like to be, and the habits we fall back on in order to avoid coming to terms with the different forms of alienation that beset us all, especially as we settle into adulthood.

Since Tokyo Story takes place strictly in the present moment, without any flashbacks, the only back story we get is from comments the characters make in the midst of routine conversations. We learn some things about this family that shed a bit of light on various tensions, connections and motivations that exist between each member. Shukichi has had problems with drinking too much alcohol, and we see a relapse of sorts as he goes out one night with a couple of old friends. The tendency toward drunkenness was passed on to his late son, who put his young wife Noriko through the wringer back before he was sent off to the war that took his life. Oldest son Kurazo and oldest daughter Shige have invested themselves fully into the responsibilities of maintaining careers (he a neighborhood doctor, less compensated than we tend to think of that profession nowadays, she a hairdresser, both operating businesses out of their homes.) The common tendency to put parents and any other seldom-seen relatives "out of sight and out of mind," have taken a toll on their ability to reconnect when circumstances bring them back together. The ties of sentiment can't rival either the pressures of working class economic realities or the simple allure of entertaining social diversions - the old folks just aren't all that much fun, and they only serve to create tension when their needs conflict with the demands of the younger generation. Youngest son Koichi turns out to be an oblivious, easily distracted jerk who arrives too late, after his mother has passed away, due to vague business pursuits, even though he lived closer to his parents than any of his siblings.

Meanwhile, even an admirable character like Noriko, clearly the "fan favorite" among the actors in Tokyo Story, repeatedly admits her faults and does her best to dispel the notion that she is somehow better, more noble than the ingrate offspring of Shukichi and Tomi. Noriko's problem is that she has done such a good job of assimilating the various expectations of what makes for a virtuous and proper widow, who must now work to support herself and maintain dignity, that she now has no real outlet for the pain and sadness that her difficult circumstances have inflicted. Her smile, nearly continuous throughout the film except in the obvious mourning scenes and an earlier private conversation with her mother-in-law, is both the key to her social respectability (and Setsuko Hara's enormous movie-star appeal) and the trap that keeps her emotionally imprisoned and unable to establish a new identity for herself beyond her widowhood. This despite the pleas from her in-laws to move on and even forget about her deceased husband. Is it Noriko's personal hang-ups that keep her stuck, or is it the fault of society for imposing these expectations on her? Does it even make a difference to try and resolve that question? Ozu's just showing us a condition of life, a condition that we may wish to recognize, address and modify to whatever extent lies within our power.

I could continue sifting through various aspects of what makes the various characters tick, or how their personal failings relate to my own tendencies, provoke certain thoughts on my end. I'm at the stage of life where I reluctantly admit to relating more to Kurazo and Shige than anyone else in Tokyo Story - a middle class adult, busy with my career and social network. I consider myself a good ways off from being "old and in the way," but with my four children all now in early adulthood, that status probably isn't as distant as it seems. Having lived with the characters of Tokyo Story as a part of my consciousness for several years now, and with the refreshed awareness that comes with watching it closely once again, I'm conscious of the need and the value of showing love to my family on a daily basis, when the opportunity arises - while still understanding that even my best efforts toward that goal will not avert the sense of disappointment that comes when it's just not possible to overcome the barriers that exist, to some degree, between me and every other human being in this world.

OK, enough of my off-the-cuff philosophizing! I hope I haven't lost too many people just looking for a simple review and a bit of insight on Tokyo Story. I won't take time here to reflect on Ozu's film-making technique. I have nothing new to say on that topic beyond what I've already said in my comments on Late Spring or Early Summer. Those films form the first two-thirds of the so-called Noriko Trilogy (named because Setsuko Hara's roles all share the same name, even though they are not the same characters.) These three films are typically considered the very apex of Ozu's long career, but we still have a few more appointments scheduled in this series, so I'll be interested to see where he goes after he's been to the mountaintop. I'm fond of these three films - as a dedicated family man, I think they provide a valuable touchstone of wisdom on how to negotiate the perils of aging and renegotiating my relationships with children as they go through their own stages of adult development. And they're just beautifully made films at that!

However, I do think that it's time for Criterion to consider upgrading Tokyo Story to Bluray, if I may be so bold. Even though this isn't quite one of their older titles (it was issued on DVD in 2003), the print quality is spotty in some places and I think they could do a lot better. I note that Tokyo Story will soon have a BD release overseas, and as one of Criterion's signature releases, an upgrade at some point relatively soon seems not merely inevitable, but mandatory. As I settle into this new era of watching beloved films on my HDTV and getting accustomed to the superior quality of Bluray discs that I've been adding to my collection lately, I will probably have more reactions along these lines, but I'll try not to be repetitious here. It's just getting harder for me to ignore the limitations of DVD now that I've got a screen big enough to show them to me!

Here's the Tokyo Story trailer, with subtitles, for anyone who'd like to get introduced to or reminded of the tender wisdom that Ozu's masterpiece provides:

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Earrings of Madame de... (1953) - #445

Coincidence is only extraordinary because it's so natural.

The Earrings of Madame de... is a story revolving around a series of interpersonal exchanges that unfold with such excruciatingly poignant effect as to either belong entirely to the realm of fiction, or to those crucial, scarcely believable moments in real life that so often seem to determine our destinies - when small deceptions, manipulations and calculations we've made in order to secure some kind of advantage unexpectedly come to the surface, thwarting our plans and moving our hearts desires even further out of reach than they were before our schemes were launched.

The penultimate film directed by Max Ophuls (Lola Montes, two years later, would be his last), The Earrings of Madame de... is widely regarded as his great, undisputed masterpiece. It's the kind of film that can easily overload a reviewer - sumptuously crafted and filmed, featuring three wonderful lead actors, touching on a multitude of timeless and profound themes, worthy of long, close and careful study and capable of yielding many insights and "aha" moments over the course of several viewings. Of course, Criterion has served this picture well, with an immaculate transfer and a nicely appointed setting, complete with slipcase, illustrated booklet and informative features totally befitting a production noted for its opulent atmosphere, chronicling the affairs of a highly privileged and refined class of people.

The story takes place in Vienna, sometime around the end of the 19th century, an era apparently beloved enough by Ophuls to serve as the staging ground for other great films like La Ronde and Le Plaisir. Unlike those films, The Earrings of Madame de... takes place entirely within the upper reaches of European society (with a few merchants and servants appearing from time to time, serving their necessary functions, of course.) We meet Louise (Madame de..., her surname never disclosed, as if to avoid any taint of potential scandal on a family of the same lineage) at the film's beginning, observing her elegantly gloved hand sorting through an assortment of her possessions, trying to decide what she could sell in order to settle some debts that she's gotten into as a result of over-exertion of the credit that her wealthy husband's reputation effortlessly yields. Recognizing that it would take the sale of many lesser items to make up the 20,000 francs she needs, she chooses instead to cash in a pair of exquisite diamond earrings that happen to have been a wedding gift from Andre, the aforementioned husband, an Austrian general of high breeding and imperious demeanor. She takes them to Remy, a trusted family jeweler, who at first objects to the transaction, since he originally sold the jewels to her husband and understands both the monetary value and social significance they command. However, Louise has perfected an effective method of bending men's will to suit her own purposes, by fainting at just the right time to win their sympathy. It's a technique that works perfectly here, though not necessarily to her long-term advantage. We'll see a few more of her fainting spells before all the tale is told.

Having secured the needed funds, Louise now has to come up with a plausible explanation for the earrings' disappearance. She creates a stir one evening at the opera, claiming to have lost the jewels somewhere along the way. Andre dutifully excuses himself from the entertainment, tracing their steps, rummaging through their coach by lamplight, all of course to no avail. Given the earrings' substantial value and fame, when word of their loss becomes public knowledge and they fail to turn up after extensive searches, the popular conclusion is that they must have been stolen. This sudden notoriety presents a big problem to the jeweler, who recognizes the obvious difficulty of re-selling the gems. Violating the promise of secrecy that Madame de... demanded of him, Remy discloses the transaction to the general, who dutifully buys the earrings back from the jeweler, understandably puzzled as to why his wife would concoct the story of her loss in such a public manner.

Andre shows himself to be a man of strong emotional discipline as he draws Louise further into the web of deceit that she began that night at the opera. Her answers to his questions unwittingly reveal and confirm her lies, but he never gives her any indication of his displeasure or disappointment. A military man through and through, he gathers and guards his intelligence carefully, storing it away and using it to secure future advantage in confrontations, skirmishes and battles yet unknown in detail but anticipated nevertheless. Seeing now that the value of the earrings, and the relational transaction they represent, have been severely diminished in her estimation, Andre finds his own way of disposing with the costly but now inconvenient baubles - he impulsively gives them away to a lower-class mistress that he's sending away to Constantinople now that he's grown weary of her. The mistress, Lola, accepts the jewels, but eventually pawns them for gambling funds. The earrings are fatefully purchased by Donati (Vittorio di Sica), an Italian diplomat who travels in Andre's social circles and (you guessed it) eventually falls in love with Louise, bestowing upon her a gift of those very same earrings, unaware of course that she had ever before seen, let alone worn them or received them as a gift from an earlier lover.

With great subtlety and effectiveness, Ophuls and actors Charles Boyer (Andre) and Danielle Darrieux (Louise) draw us into the tangled and complex heart of a marriage that presumably had its happier moments in days gone by but has now settled into that sad, lonely condition of estranged but socially constrained stability. It's a pitfall that besets marriages across all strata of society, but placing it in this upper echelon of the "old Europe" works effectively in both narrative and cinematic terms. The circumstances of the marriage, including the material possessions, the effortless idleness of their daily preoccupations and the vainglorious whirl of social activites (balls, hunting parties, travels abroad and seemingly endless gala receptions) are trappings in the most literal sense of the word, while also providing a richly decorative context in which to visualize the flow of events. Large rooms, rococo decor, flowing gowns and the continual accompaniment of waltz-tempo string orchestra bathe the entire production in an aura of prestigious elegance. Some viewers may find it enjoyably seductive, even escapist in a way. While I was impressed by the lavish detail and abundance of black & white eye candy, it was difficult at times for me to get past the feelings of contempt I had for the wasteful extravagance of it all - not so much the film itself, but the very society it depicted. So I was gratified to read these words from Ophuls himself, in the liner notes that accompany The Earrings of Madame de...:
What was she (Madame de...) good for? And not only her, but everyone like her, that whole society, the women who gossip and flirt, the men who go to the club or hunt or play billiards. What do they do that's useful? Nothing. They are born, they live, they die, surrounded by valets, but without leaving a trace in the world. This is an existence, not a life. Even less; it's a nonexistence. And these people think they are the best of humankind, with their balls, their receptions and their mindless chatter. This film has to be indirectly very bitter, and a thousand times deeper than the anecdote it is based on.

That "anecdote" is the original novella, included in this package, written in 1951 by Louise de Vilmorin, who's interviewed in one of the DVD supplements. She doesn't care for the changes that Ophuls introduced to the story and even considers herself a bit of a misogynist, not at all intending for us to sympathize with Madame de... or to consider her narrative a love story in any conventional sense of the word.

And yet, it's difficult to not feel some sense of empathy for Danielle Darrieux's Louise and Vittorio di Sica's Donati, at least for those of us somewhat inclined toward romanticism. They make such a dashing couple! Here's a famous clip of their falling-in-love, employing the magic of cinematography to weave several dances together. The subtitles won't help English-only audiences, but the body language and voice tone speak volumes:

Even though they proceed from this happy encounter to enjoy a few more sublime moments together, one can easily see how badly circumstances work against them even before the film reaches its tragic, melodramatic climax. Louise and Donati both suffer terribly as they vacillate between the conventions and self-denial that their social roles and commitments demand of them and the forbidden love in which they find such deep (though ultimately ephemeral) satisfaction. With the passage of time, and further exchanges of the maddening Earrings of Madame de..., the symbolic and (as the commentary repeatedly points out) fetishistic appeal of the jewels becomes even more important than any human relationships to Louise. Is that due to some inherent defect of her character, or is her near-obsession just the most likely outcome of the kind of life she's been born and bred to? Ophuls never allows The Earrings of Madame de... to erupt into forthright denunciations of the old aristocratic customs portrayed on screen, mannerisms and mores that the ravages of the 20th century would grossly diminish if not altogether obliterate. (On several occasions, I could not help but think that the temperament of General Andre de... would have made him a good Nazi.) Nor does he allow the viewer the option of easily excusing Madame de...'s dishonesty. Her lies are not merely justifiable transgressions of repressive cultural norms, but rather based on a shallow condescension that presumes her charms and ingenuity will enable her falsehoods to evade detection. Her facile, practically superstitious employment of religious ritual in an attempt to control the outcomes can only be seen as either naive or trivializing. And are we to pity or lament her final sacrifice, revealed in Madame de...'s closing image?

Likewise, her husband comes across as a master of quietly sadistic manipulation, presenting little more than a hard-edged, calculating determination to prevail in any and every relational conflict he encounters. It's the quality that undoubtedly led to his high rank and also probably enabled him to secure his marriage to his charmingly fashionable and flirtatious wife, an ornament that serves her purpose in his life, but whose feminine needs are equally ignored through emotionally numbing condescension of his own.

So of the three main characters, it's Donati I identify with and admire the most, even though he is of course messing with another man's wife. Early scenes in the film indicate Andre's smug appreciation of Louise's prowess as a breaker of men's hearts, secure in the knowledge that he's the one who "tamed" her and can bring her to heel at a word. The undisclosed, but hinted at, terms of the bargain that brought them together as husband and wife point to the likelihood that she gave primary consideration to financial advantage and social prestige in choosing whom to marry, and now, a decade or so into the deal, she's realizing the dreadful price she's paid in sacrificing her passion. Donati plays the part of the man who recognizes a damsel in distress beneath the veneer of a prominent high society wife. His gallantry appeals to my own sense of wanting to help people find their happiness - and the guy is just so effortlessly suave! I find it fascinating that Vittorio di Sica, for whom this part was especially scripted, must have been directing Terminal Station, another story of disappointment and heartbreak between two mismatched lovers, right around the same time as he was acting in The Earrings of Madame de...

I want to finish this post with just a brief word of homage to Danielle Darrieux. Even though I've noted a flaw or two in the character she portrayed, let me declare my admiring infatuation with her as an actor! Her performance in The Earrings of Madame de... is simply magnificent, an amazing demonstration of finely calibrated emotions and what must be a deeply personal understanding of the inner agonies that Louise experienced. In her mid-30s at the time, Darrieux had already been making films for over 20 years. This is likely the last Criterion film she'll be in (unless they decide to release Lady Chatterley's Lover some day!) but her exceptional poise and beauty seems to merit mention before we part ways. I was especially delighted to discover the other day that not only is she still alive (at age 92) but she's still working, and has been a steady fixture in French cinema for nearly 70 years now! Here is a one-minute clip of a musical scene from early in her career, when she was typically cast in coquette roles similar to this one. Look at how the gents leer at her so unabashedly:

To see her growth as a performer from this cute but frivolous number to the marvelous nuances of what she accomplished in The Earrings of Madame de... - and so much more in the years since! Danielle Darrieux is quite an inspiring woman of the theater and it's gratifying to know she's not done yet.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Sawdust and Tinsel (1953) - #412

Let us be witnesses to this duel.

Even though it's Criterion's most recently released film by Ingmar Bergman (and no, Bergman Island doesn't count!), Sawdust and Tinsel marks the debut in this blog of yet another supreme name among the film directors - and artists - of the 20th century. Really, just a quick glance at the illustrious lineup of auteurs who released Criterion-worthy films in 1953 is enough to make one weep over the current state of cinema. On the night after Hollywood bestowed another truckload of Academy Awards on itself, is it even possible to consider that somewhere out there in the world we could assemble a collection of 2009 filmmakers to rival this list? Bergman . . . Fellini . . . Ophuls . . . Clouzot . . . de Sica . . . Ozu . . . Tati . . . and the only reason Kurosawa is not included is that he spent 1953 making Seven Samurai! Yeah, The Hurt Locker had its gripping moments and makes a relevant statement about today's world. Yeah, Up and Avatar would have been regarded as utterly supernatural achievements if we could somehow retroject them back to the Eisenhower Era. Maybe I'm just a hopeless classicist who can't recognize the cinematic riches all around me until they've been officially sanctified as time-honored masterworks. But I really do wonder how even the best of today's contemporary version of "art house" will stack up a few decades hence, assuming that people will have a similar interest in watching great old movies that many of us share at this time.

Anyway, as it turned out for Ingmar Bergman, Sawdust and Tinsel was not that well received upon its first release. It was hardly the big breakthrough he'd been building toward (though his eruption into international prominence was not that far off in time.) In fact, one incredibly terse critic dismissed it thusly, without even seeing the film:
"I refuse to examine the vomit that Ingmar Bergman has left behind this time, even though I can imagine that the menu was quite good to begin with. But I am of the opinion that one should not defecate in public even if one has a lot to get rid of–unless one can sublimate one's miseries like an August Strindberg."

At the time, Ingmar Bergman was recognized in his native Sweden as a skillful, intense and provocative young filmmaker who didn't hesitate to make harsh demands of his audience. He had yet to earn that reputation of heavy-handed "importance" that would soon attach itself to any film that bore his name and eventually threatened to overshadow his actual work with the aura of pretense of stultifying solemnity that was clearly the downside to his international fame. And because Sawdust and Tinsel has been relatively hard to see in the USA (its 2007 DVD release was the film's first uncut edition available in this country), I think it provides a great point of entry into the Bergman canon, freed up from the baggage that accompanies viewers new to The Seventh Seal and many of his subsequent, more famous works.

Sawdust and Tinsel was by no means the work of a novice; it was Bergman's thirteenth film, though now widely acknowledged as the first that crystallized most of his signature themes and emerged from his stylistic maturity. It presents an emotionally heavy storyline, lightened only temporarily in tone by the circus atmosphere - clowns, animals, laughing crowds, festive music - that ultimately serves to only deepen the pathos and sadness we feel for the pains its central characters endure. Set right around the turn of the 20th century, in a small seaside village near the Swedish/Danish border, the action takes place over the course of a day and involves a tangle of relational complications that afflict:
  • Albert, the boss of the circus
  • Anne, his younger mistress who works as a bareback horse rider and performer
  • Agda, Albert's wife whom he abandoned three years earlier, now a respectable shopkeeper
  • Frans, an actor working in the town theater
Things get plenty tangled enough for those four over the course of the film, but in addition, there's another subplot involving Frost, a grotesque circus clown, and Alma, his aging, formidable wife whose exhibitionist tendencies put her in a compromising situation with a troop of soldiers firing their cannons on a hot summers day at the beach. (Any Freudian/phallic symbolism you care to read into that scenario is entirely justified.)

The film opens with a solemn, rather creepy procession of the circus train, in this case horse-drawn wagons creaky ominously across the sparse Nordic landscape. Its a composition instantly familiar to anyone who's seen the ending of The Seventh Seal or any of the numerous parodies/homages to that famous "dance of death" scene. Inside one of the wagons, we see Albert and Anne, both asleep, though Albert is waking up. Without knowing who they are or what role they play in the circus, we quickly recognize that they are lovers, though obviously a bit mismatched. He is older, rumpled, overweight and haggard from the rigors of his perpetual travels. She is young, pretty, vigorous and relatively unblemished, a relatively recent addition to the troupe, it would seem. From this guy's perspective, he seems to have gotten the better end of the deal, but then, who can say what kind of situation Anne left when she decided to join the circus?

Albert rises from his bed, giving his lovely bedmate a long look and tender kiss, and clambers up to join the caravan driver. We learn that Albert is about to visit "the wife and kids," casting a cloud of illegitimacy over the affectionate scene we just witnessed. The driver relates the story of Frost and Alma that I mentioned above, a scene shot in garishly over-exposed high contrast as flashback, with eerie discordant circus melodies and raucous laughter foreshadowing more scenes of demented cruelty to come. The crowd falls silent as Frost plunges into the surf to retrieve his naked, humiliated wife, bearing her weight upon his shoulders as he makes his bare-footed trek across the rocky shore back to their encampment. The crowd glares at them, seemingly savoring their shame, unwilling to help. Frost passes out from exhaustion and is carried, almost like a corpse, to a sheltering tent. The storyteller sums up his recollection with a pithy moral to the story: "That's a woman and love for you." Presumably Frost would have done better to have just beaten her in front of all those witnesses - it was his husbandly prerogative, after all. But he took her suffering on himself - the fool!

Albert, still groggy and only half awake, can hardly be faulted for not taking adequate not of the story's portents for the ordeal he is about to face.

This clip jumps us a bit further into Sawdust and Tinsel's story:

In this segment we see a lot of interesting, significant things. It opens with Albert giving a pep talk to his downtrodden company. Business has not been good for the circus. The enterprise could collapse entirely if things don't turn around quickly. They pawned some of their costumes in the last town just to make ends meet. Albert has to strengthen their resolve. Having done so, we observe an interaction between him and Anne as they prepare to go ask a favor of Sjuberg, the head of a theatrical company that's also in town. Albert seeks to use Anne's beauty for practical purposes, exploiting her charms just enough to gain some advantage, confident that he can safely manage the risk. Her recognition of how she fits into Albert's plans stirs up the insecurity that Anne feels, knowing that Albert is soon to pay a visit to his estranged wife and their two sons. She's seen enough hints of his weariness with circus life and recognizes the attraction that Agda's prosperous bourgeois lifestyle and shared sentimental ties must hold for her lover. Albert's patronizing assurance and dismissal of Anne speaks of the brittle fiber that holds their relationship together, though its comforts are pleasant enough for the moment.

The next thing we see is Albert and Anne, absurd but entertainingly so in their garish attire, on a mission to secure a bit of material assistance from the theater in order to put on a better show for the townsfolk. That triggers a brilliant, scathing exchange between Sjuberg (the great Gunnar Bjornstrand) who speaks condescending truth from his lofty status as stage director to the lowly migrant carny chief. The effect is sufficient to whither away the last of Albert's bluster, rendering him a helpless supplicant as he recognizes now the abject state to which he's being reduced. Anne is quite aware of her role as a pleasantly distracting bauble, but she thinks its Sjuberg's gaze that she needs to guard against, not recognizing another pair of eyes that's fixed upon her: Frans, the vain, effeminate but also unscrupulously wily lead actor who's decided to make sport of the tantalizing lass. The clip concludes just as Frans has made his direct, unambiguous come on to Anne. The stage is now set, literally in Sawdust and Tinsel's theatrical milieu, for the players to drag us along on a torturous journey into dark, uncomfortable relational places that we rarely dare to explore.

Bergman, in his masterful way, used the angst and emotional convulsions of his personal life and experience to reveal aspects of the human character that those of us lacking in self-awareness, moral courage, or both, find painful or confusing. The critic who called Sawdust and Tinsel "vomit" is probably not alone in feeling revulsion at the harshness and manipulative brutality on display over the course of a hundred minutes. No one emerges as entirely innocent, but many people (and even a few animals) have to endure hard ordeals before Albert and Anne, having survived the day's torments, realize they are each others best hope, for now at least, and resume their relationship with an uneasy, wordless moment of truce at Sawdust and Tinsel's conclusion. Bergman achieved a degree of bluntness and interpersonal intensity that, Clouzot and others notwithstanding, was still far from the norm in the cinema of that time. His candor, coupled with a willingness to cast a voluptuous young woman like Harriet Andersson in scenes and costumes that put her physical assets on display, led American film distributors in the early 50's to backwardly promote his films as "sex romps" - and I suppose they must have been titillating to audiences unaccustomed to seeing women so casually undressed when they went to the movies, but still, talk about missing the point!

In setting his story among the "riff-raff" of circus and theatrical performers, Bergman also put himself on a collision course with middlebrow Swedish values. Peter Cowie's impressive and informative commentary notes that Bergman's fellow citizens routinely regard acting as the lowest, most disreputable of occupations. Presumably that's because their reputation for loose living provokes scandal, but even more poignantly, in my view, the profession itself violates the reserved, stoic sensibility that frowns on overt expression or even acknowledgement of long-repressed emotional needs.

Of course, Ingmar Bergman is famously a man of the theater, justifiably seen as a rebel son of his Nordic culture. Whether the forum is on the floorboards of the stage, the sand pit of a circus ring, or any number of fatalistic, fantastic scenes cast by lantern light upon the canvas screen, Bergman's art is never a mere entertainment (though he incorporates all the elements that make films so compelling.) He recognized that underneath the Sawdust and Tinsel, real matters of psychological, sometimes physical, life and death were being played out. Many writers more deeply versed and expert in Bergmanian lore have written on this topic and I'd do well to direct you there before I go much further in my own preliminary speculations of what made the man tick. I'll be learning a lot more as I go on watching his films and reflecting about them here.