Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Testament of Orpheus (1960) - #69

Poets know many awesome things.


The pending re-release (next Tuesday, as of this writing) of Jean Cocteau's Orpheus in upgraded DVD and Blu-ray editions makes this as good a time as I could hope for to review Testament of Orpheus, the last film he ever made, a sequel to his work of ten years earlier. Criterion lost the rights to both Testament and the first installment of his long-in-the-making Orphic Trilogy, The Blood of a Poet, in early 2010, making the original box set containing those three films something of a collector's item. However, they retained the rights to Orpheus, easily the most marketable and relatively conventional film of that trio, and are now on the brink of issuing what looks to be like a very nice upgrade of their initial offering. So having already reviewed the previous installments on this blog, I will do my part to draw a bit of attention to what is in a very real sense Cocteau's concluding statement regarding his artistic life and legacy.

Though it never makes any sense to watch the last part of a trilogy without first viewing the others, that rule applies even more heavily to Testament of Orpheus than usual. It opens with a scene from Orpheus' conclusion, one presumably intended as return the viewer to the mindset generated by the earlier film. While Orpheus clearly can function as a stand-alone film (The Blood of a Poet being so singular and discontinuous with the other two), Testament of Orpheus not only requires some familiarity with its immediate predecessor, it's also best consumed by those who have come to appreciate the artistry and career that it celebrates, namely that of Jean Cocteau himself. For this is, even in the most charitable interpretation of the term, a massively self-indulging cinematic exercise. Cocteau plays a version, or better yet, several versions of himself, speaking directly to the camera in the first person and through voice-overs, a practice that links all the Orphic Trilogy but is taken to new heights here. He conducts himself with an air of reflexive importance that, if taken too seriously, makes him insufferable to novices and contemptible to those who've decided they don't like his routine. There are numerous  reviews of Testament of Orpheus one can easily find that fall into this category, and I'm far from making a broad recommendation or defense of this film to those who find it difficult to accompany Cocteau on the journey he invites us to take.

However, if one sees his apparent grandiosity and willingness to toss out epigrammatic platitudes as evidence of a playful and creative spirit, as I do, then I think Testament of Orpheus holds immense value as both entertainment and food for thought. Cocteau himself, through the voice of a young child in the film, admits to "playing the buffoon," a clear enough indication for my taste that he doesn't intend for his film to be regarded as a profound dissertation on the significance and value of the True, the Good and the Beautiful, except wherever one may happen to find those qualities amidst the scattered mix of gems and rubble he presents in his Testament. As he puts it in a written preface, included with the DVD, "The Testament of Orpheus is simply a machine for creating meanings. The film offers the viewer hieroglyphics that he can interpret as he pleases so as to quench his inquisitive thirst for Cartesianism."

Or, as he elaborates at the beginning of this film:

It is the unique power of cinema to allow a great many people to dream the same dream together and to present illusion to us as if it were strict reality. It is, in short, an admirable vehicle for poetry. My film is nothing other than a striptease act, gradually peeling away my body to reveal my naked soul. For there is a considerable audience eager for this truth beyond truth which will one day become the sign of our times. This is the legacy of a poet to the youth in which he has always found support.
I suppose those statements themselves can serve as a valid litmus test to determine whether or not Cocteau's personal brand of aesthetic whimsy works for you or not.

As with his more universally hailed masterpiece, Beauty and the Beast, Cocteau shows an indisputable talent for conjuring up mythic images and archetypes, transferring his well-practiced skills in the realm of painting and illustration to the cinematic format through a full panoply of set designs, costumes, choreographed movements, contemporary celebrities (some of whom are still recognizable today, others who wind up as irretrievably dated inside jokes) and, most strikingly, camera tricks. There are more slow-motion sequences, appearing/disappearing acts and film loops run backwards than I could begin to count, again to the point where they may become annoying to some while endearing to others. Ashes rise from the flames to become whole objects, bodies pop up from the floor or out of the water, torn and mangled flowers appear to be mended through the careful caress of deft fingers.


At one point, a character even has his spoken words played in reverse. On top of all that, we have an absurd injection of pseudo-science fiction as Cocteau opens the film with a half-baked time travel scheme that requires either close attention or multiple viewings to make much sense of. Along the way he meets centaurs, the goddess Athena and the tragic figure of Oedipus Rex, endures a fairly lengthy interrogation and trial by the characters he inadvertently prosecuted himself (as director) in Orpheus, and even stages his own death (by a hurled javelin) and resurrection before setting out for one last walk through the rugged and myth-infused Mediterranean coastline that he called home for most of his adult life. Fending off portents of doom, accompanied by his guardian Cegeste (played by real-life adopted son and protege Edouard Dermithe,) Cocteau/Orpheus winds up facing what he thinks is his final judgment when he's accosted on a winding road by jackbooted motorcycle cops - but they turn out to merely be local police working their mundane beat, and they allow him the chance to disappear into invisible immortality while they go chasing after more important and relevant quarry, like a speeding convertible filled with teenagers listening to rock'n'roll - Cocteau's not-too-subtle acknowledgement that his time has passed and it's the turn of a new generation to carry the torch of artistic emancipation. (And it's fair to conclude that the always forward thinking Cocteau sensed the impending revolution of the Nouvelle Vague about to splash down hard with the next film I'll review here, Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless.)

Is there an obvious reason for all this visual goofing around? Sometimes it's just to revel in the unusual sights, to convey a sense of child-like astonishment, but for the most part, I think Cocteau simply wanted to capture for perpetuity a vivid image that impressed itself on his imagination, without thinking all that much or deeply about how it would fit like clockwork into an ingeniously constructed narrative. This is the essence of surrealism, as pompous and pretentious as can be if wielded as some kind of higher authority or secret wisdom, but also capable of wreaking subversive havoc on the strongholds of those who both assume and act as if they have a commanding part to play in the story of the universe, or human society, whichever domain you choose to take more seriously.

As essential as it may be to first watch Orpheus before venturing into Testament of Orpheus, even more important to appreciating the final film, in my opinion, is a short home movie that Cocteau made in 1952 titled Villa Santo Sospir. Shot on 16mm Kodachrome, it brings us even more clearly into the presence of Cocteau the man and artist, as he lived in the day-to-day, apart from the inevitable conceits of his Testament. In addition to seeing Cocteau's beautiful paintings and interior designs in color (slightly faded though it may be), the footage provides ample evidence that he was quite successful in creating a most amazing life for himself, in a most gorgeous landscape and geographic setting on top of it all. It's a real gem of a supplement for anyone who wants to know more about Cocteau and the interior vision that came to fruition not only in these films, but also in a rich repository of written and visual works that he left behind. I've embedded the middle section of Villa Santo Sospir just to focus on the art itself, though you can find the whole film in three sections on YouTube:



Just as The Blood of the Poet is situated between the visual bookends of an imploding industrial chimney stack falling to the ground (implying that all the action in that film took place in an instant of time), so Testament of Orpheus is framed by first, smoke coalescing to form a bubble at the tip of a dagger, and finally by that dagger intersecting with the bubble and re-releasing all the smoke it originally captured. Though Cocteau's name continues to appear in writing credits on films even as recently as 2010, for him, this film really is a supremely fitting...


Jean Cocteau, je vous salue.


Eclipse Review: Intimidation

Next: Breathless

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Virgin Spring (1960) - #321

A day can start out beautifully and end in misery.

Over the past 10 days or so since I watched The Virgin Spring again in preparation for this review, my normal routines have been disrupted by the simultaneous preparation for my son's wedding, which took place this past Friday. Thus, as I've been pondering what I would  have to say about this important transitional film from Ingmar Bergman, my thoughts have revolved more around the family dynamics at play. I found myself empathizing quite a bit with the grieving parents whose hopes and aspirations for their daughter were so brutally dashed by a chance encounter in a forest glen that led to immense grief and loss. I know that in some respect, "parenting issues" are just one of numerous subtopics of The Virgin Spring, which offers several broader and arguably more profound questions about morality, religion, revenge and culture to mull over. But that was my point of entry into this great movie, and mentioning the wedding and its surrounding  activities also serves as a quick explanation as to why it took me so long to write up my thoughts on this relatively brief and uncomplicated film.

Inspired by from a medieval Scandinavian folk ballad, The Virgin Spring bears numerous similarities to Bergman's international breakthrough sensation The Seventh Seal, and it seems like a safe assumption that the project was put together at least in part to build upon the popularity of that film, shot just three years earlier but still going strong as it made its way around the world, impressing audiences with its deft combination of impressively crisp black & white cinematography and a bold willingness to go deep in the philosophical weight of its subject matter. By placing their stories in far distant time periods, the high-minded dialog and overtly archetypal characters feel more plausible to modern audiences and better facilitate exchanges that might feel ponderous or unwieldy if voiced by actors in more modern dress and circumstances. At least, that was the conventional wisdom at the time, most likely. But even though The Virgin Spring won an Academy Award, a Golden Globe and Japan's Kinema Jumpo honors as "best foreign film," Bergman abandoned this kind of distant historical setting for the remainder of his career. It's possible that he didn't want to get pigeon-holed as a kind of formulaic director, but it's just as likely that he was put on alert by the disdain that the critical intelligentsia, particularly in Europe, felt for his film when it was first released. As the Nouvelle Vague was just on the brink of exploding into the contemporary film scene, with a decidedly cool attitude and a lack of interest in rehashing what seemed at the time like tired, worn out platitudes of religious debate, Bergman's archaic depiction of a man's crisis of conscience and vexation over the inscrutable will of God felt passe, indulgent and worst of all, irrelevant. Admiration for his technical skills and the visual beauty of the work was practically universal, but I was fascinated to see just how poorly The Virgin Spring fared among the Cahiers du Cinema crowd and others who saw this film as evidence of "Bergman in decline!" But back then, I guess they were looking for something a little more hip, cool and jazzy than the introspective Swede could muster. I'll be interested in learning more about how that school of critics responded to his "Faith Trilogy" as I move further into the 1960s on this blog.

But so much for the debates that followed The Virgin Spring's original release. Of course now it's regarded as a pivotal masterpiece, even an "early work" of sorts, since he went on to make so many amazing films over the course of the next few decades. And  the intervening decades have gone on to demonstrate that questions about God and ethics are still very much with us in popular discourse, not to mention a lingering intrigue with the medieval era, when the conditions of life were crude but so much simpler and motives of lust and vengeance were apparently easier to act upon than in the litigious, security-minded and constantly monitored society that's developed in recent decades.

For anyone who hasn't seen The Virgin Spring, or needs a refresher, the plot is pretty straightforward. A teenage girl named Karin, only child of Tore and Mareta, prosperous and upstanding Christian farmers, is sent one morning to deliver candles to the church some miles away from their isolated, fortress-like estate. The girl is pretty, conceited and naive, the result of a privileged and pampered background. She's accompanied for part of the journey by Ingeri, her dark-haired, unkempt and scandalously pregnant foster sister, but the two split up along the way after a brief spat and Ingeri's fears that something bad is about to happen (something she actually prayed to her pagan god Odin to make happen.) Karin, now riding alone, is met by a trio of brothers, two men and a boy, who herd goats in the wilderness. They charm her with flattering words and she agrees to spend a moment sharing her lunch with them. But they soon surround her, then savagely rape and kill her. Stripping her dead body of the fine garments that she'd worn to carry out her sacred delivery, the brothers arrive late that evening at Tore's farmstead. Keeping in custom with his status as a benevolent landowner, he agrees to give them lodging on a cold, frost-bitten night. In the course of their stay, Tore and Mareta discover evidence that proves the men killed their missing daughter. This revelation pushes Tore into a ritual of vengeance that runs contrary to his professed Christian faith. After he has completed his brutal acts of retribution, he leads his household on a trek through the forest to find Karin's corpse. Upon seeing her lying in her unnatural repose, Tore in anguish prays aloud to God, confessing his own sin in killing the men who abused his daughter and wondering why the Almighty allowed all this to happen. As the grieving parents lift Karin's head to begin the burial preparations, a stream of water miraculously begins to flow out from the spot on which she laid - the "virgin spring" for which the film was named.

That's the basic outline, but of course, there's so much more to be savored and contemplated. One of the most obvious and routinely noted tensions is the conflict between the old Nordic paganism and the emergence of Christianity that was in the process of becoming the established conquering religion as Europe's new order spread into the northernmost regions of the continent. Odin-worship is introduced immediately through Ingeri, in both her three-breath incantation-like lighting of the morning fire and her overt prayers to Odin as The Virgin Spring opens. She seeks his furious reprisals through invective curses she calls down on those who consider themselves her benefactors, and her superiors, though she regards them as inflicting torment on her lonely, forsaken existence. In sharp contrast to her guttural petitions, we cut straight to Tore and Mareta saying their own morning prayers, in front of a large wood-carved crucifix. In this scene, we begin to see more than the simple dualism of pagan vs. Christian that most commentators dwell on, for Tore and Mareta each show subtle distinctions in how religion fits into their lives. Mareta is earnestly sincere to the point of inflicting severe penance on herself for what she regards as insufficient piety, while Tore gives hints of being a more formal, and less emotionally invested, participant in Christian rituals, stifling a yawn in his prayers and seldom going beyond the minimal requirements of his (presumably) recently acquired faith.

Likewise in Ingeri and an unnamed pagan bridge keeper, we see different shades of the old heathen-style practice. For Ingeri, it appears that her embrace of Odin is as much an act of rebellion and rejection of the moralistic, shaming Christianity that has caused her to feel like such an outcast. I see it as not too different than the teenage heavy-metal "satanists" and goth kids who ascribe on a juvenile level to beliefs and customs aimed more at causing outrage from their parents than from a serious deliberation over the competing truth-claims made by various religious traditions. Ingeri is acting out her resentment and frustration in calling upon Odin and the dark spirits who accompany him, while the bridge keeper seems more like an adherent to the old ways, gathering his relics and reveling in the chance to show them off to a lusty young woman who obviously seems familiar and receptive to the now-forbidden fruit he seeks to offer.

And in Karin, we see another kind of spirituality of sorts, a self-satisfied, smug and presumptuous faith that has been largely untested by real trials in life - drawing from that lack of stress a sense of entitlement, privilege and divine protection that proves to be tragically ill-founded. She's aware of the growing power that her beauty can achieve, moaning pitiably or turning on the charm with a smile, a hug and a twinkle in her eyes, whatever is best suited to deliver the comfort she seeks. The contrasts between her, knowingly pampered by her parents and flattered by the gentlemen whose attention she effortlessly draws, and the reprobate Ingeri, are easily cataloged: light/darkness, indulgence/discipline, smugness/self-loathing, innocent/cynical, chaste/lascivious, water/fire... and so on.

The Virgin Spring divides fairly neatly into three distinct parts, each initiated by an elaborate set of preparations, though each are directed toward very different purposes. The first preparation ritual involves Mareta and Karin as the mother dresses her daughter in the most elegant finery they can assemble for her to take her doomed pilgrimage into the countryside. After more or less faking an illness as a pretext for sleeping in, Karin fairly bounds out of bed when her mother produces the sumptuous garments in which she'll be clothed. Tenderly brushing Karin's lovely blonde hair, Mareta unknowingly provides her daughter's last rites, as does Tore a few minutes later when he shares one last embrace and fond words of admonition with her before she sets out on her way.

A second preparation takes place after the three goatherds hear the whinny of Karin's steed and catch a glimpse of her, sunning herself in a mild ecstasy out in an open clearing of the forest. Instantly seized with lust for this unimaginably vulnerable maiden, the two older brothers pursue her like wild game, using their knowledge of hidden paths and shortcuts to promptly appear in her path. Quickly sizing up her enjoyment of flattery and the exploitable kindness of a young girl's heart, they easily persuade her to pause a moment to keep them company, and she does, hardly suspecting the terrors that await. Some of the comments I've read would lump the goatherds in with the pagan Ingeri and that bridge keeper here, as far as their spiritual frame of reference is concerned, but I disagree with any such conclusion. They are not acting out of any particular form of belief or moral code, but simply an unchecked impulse of raw lust and greedy opportunity. Despite her unreflective assumption of God's protection, given the holy errand she's been assigned to perform, she quickly finds herself surrounded and helpless to resist the diabolical whims that the two older men, and even the younger, astonished brother, give into as they pursue, restrain, ravish and murder her in the span a few horrific minutes. Even in today's relentlessly explicit popular culture, this scene retains its power to disturb all but the most calloused viewers. Despite Karin's obvious "spoilage" due to her parental doting, she retains a sweetness that is utterly sad to see cut down so heinously, so meaninglessly.

The third preparation sequence occurs in the middle of the night, after Mareta, internally wrought with dreadful anxiety over her missing daughter, is presented with the garments that she instantly recognizes and from which she draws the appallingly correct conclusions. The goat keeper seeks to make an exchange of the fine silken shift for some badly needed money. Exhibiting immensely calm and constrained self-control by not reacting to what she's just learned, Mareta responds simply to her guest that she needs to consult with her husband to determine the exact price that such a precious package demands. With great composure, she delivers the evidence to her husband, who instantly springs into action, knowing now what fate has befallen his dear Karin and understanding the task it requires of him.


That raven-haired woman who assists Tore in his ritual is Ingeri, and the words he utters to her at the end of that clip are a command from the Christian father to his pagan servant to bring him the butcher's knife, an implement both lethal in its intended purpose and dedicated (as evidenced by the idol carved into its handle) to deities whose familiarity long preceded the merciful and long-suffering Christ his household now officially serves.

His self-flagellation and ablutions now completed, Tore goes about his business with cold-blooded zeal, and its one of the most chilling demonstrations of visceral revenge that the cinema had ever seen to that point. Stabbing one of Karin's assailants in the throat, strangling another and pushing his body into a fire pit, and finally capping it off with the nauseating spectacle of a young boy's body hurled viciously into a wall, it's far from the kind of  feel-good score-settling that we've come to take for granted in the "rape revenge" genre that arguably grew directly out of The Virgin Spring. In particular, the boy's killing is a step too far that parallels Karin's senseless slaughter and ought to remove, or at least tarnish, the sense of sympathy that we have for Tore as he unleashes his inner fury. Along with the rough, unblinking rape scene, which was still censored in the USA and elsewhere, it helped to establish Bergman's strong reputation as a ground-breaker when it came to candor and realism regarding the visual depiction of life's most excruciating moments. Naturally, some of this was billed and advertised in exploitative fashion, but Bergman had an important role to play in the 1960s cultural revolutions, and it only helped that he was able to make these innovations in vehicles that could tangibly demonstrate artistic depth and credibility.

The final scene, involving the retrieval of Karin's body after a procession through the forest that briefly conjures a woodsy comparison to The Seventh Seal's "Dance of Death," leads to the wondrous sign of flowing water that follows Tore's anguished confession to God. It keeps faith with the enigmatic ballad, Tores dotter i Vange, reprinted in The Virgin Spring's liner notes, though it makes a significant dramatic improvement in postponing the bubbling forth of that fountain until the girl's body has been discovered by her parents, rather than immediately upon her death as implied by the original text. His vow to build a church on that now-holy site, and the apparent vindication of an overtly Christian interpretation to the myth may also account for some of the higher-critical drubbing that The Virgin Spring received in some circles, as well as its more popular embrace by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and others who probably appreciated Bergman's apparent endorsement of religious faith. However one personally applies the spiritual implications of this film, there's no disputing the fact that from this point forward, Bergman's wrestling with Christianity, and the shadows of his own personal past and present, would grow ever more complicated... and fascinating.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960) - #377

I hated climbing those stairs more than anything. But once I was up, I would take each day as it came.

I know there are serious cinephiles more experienced and resourceful than me who have had opportunities over the years to discover and appreciate the films of Mikio Naruse on the big screen, projected in a proper theatrical setting, the way they were meant to be seen and enjoyed. But to those of us left (for better or worse) at the mercy of the whims of commercial DVD distributers to see most of the great works of 20th century cinema in the comfort of our homes, Naruse is one of those names that, once we've made acquaintance with Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi and a host of more current Japanese filmmakers, has hovered tantalizingly in that limbo-land of "reputedly great but scarcely available, and only at forbidding expense and/or in low-quality."

Just as Criterion finally accomplished their long-awaited breakthrough last month by finally adding a film by Satyajit Ray (The Music Room) into their library, a few years ago they achieved a similar coup by securing the rights to issue their first, and so far only, Naruse film into the Collection proper, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs. I recall some of the grateful hubbub surrounding that release, though it took me until just recently to finally get around to watching it. Assuming for fairly obvious reasons that the 2007 edition of this DVD was many viewers' first exposure to Naruse, I decided that I'd take a slightly different approach than what seemed like the conventional route. Given the reputation of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs as Naruse's artistic pinnacle, I wanted to build up to seeing him at his best by watching all of the older stuff I could get my hands on. It's a plan that I couldn't have easily followed even last year, but one made conveniently possible in the past several weeks after Criterion dramatically expanded Naruse's reach into the American market through the inclusion on their Hulu Plus channel of several middle-period features he shot in the 1950s. That's in addition to this past spring's release, through their Eclipse subsidiary line, of Silent Naruse, a set of his five oldest films, the only works extant from seventeen he made in the early 1930s before entering the sound era. (I've reviewed a few of them over the past few months at CriterionCast.com.)

What I learned about Naruse over this past ten days or so of semi-immersion into his filmography (he still made many dozens of films which may never see the light of day in this country, what a shame) basically confirms the reports that preceded my actual viewing of his movies: he succeeded in creating an internally consistent and coherent cinematic universe, realistically based in his contemporary Japanese setting, portraying exquisitely vexing dilemmas that offer no easy or clean escape to the hard-pressed individuals, almost invariably women, at the center of these dramas. Treading similar terrain as his peer Kenji Mizoguchi (also under-represented in the Criterion Collection, with only two of his films Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff skewing novice's impressions to see him as primarily a creator of excellent historical costume dramas,) Naruse anchored himself firmly in the lower working class milieu of women whose options typically pivot between working as barkeeps or in geisha houses or giving themselves over to unhappy marriages to unworthy men; the basic choice consisting of which form of exploitation they find the least odious to endure.

As the ragged and brash Expressionist- and Eisenstein-inspired experimentation of his silent films receded into a more refined and polished sensibility in his mature works, Naruse developed his talent for conveying strong dramatic movements through rather subtle and sophisticated gestures: facial expressions, slight nods, averted glances and small bodily movements that said a lot without the need for overwrought music or emotional histrionics executed so routinely in the more conventional weepy melodramas that reached primarily female audiences in the days before TV soap operas captured that crowd. As I learned in the special features included with When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, he was notoriously reticent to let others in on his creative vision during the making of his films, amazingly economical in setting up his shots and knowing exactly how they would look and fit together when it came time to edit them into the finished work, and unswervingly determined to depict life's endless ability to disappoint those who dare to hope for the best, despite the depressing situation immediately confronting them.

Which isn't to say that watching a Naruse film is a dismal, joyless affair. Quite the contrary - I found these films quite absorbing and fully worth all the attention I could give them, even though in a compressed time frame of watching them all once through in close proximity, they tend to spill over into each other in memory. That's especially the case, more than most directors, because his films feature fairly minimalist plot lines, more intent on creating atmosphere and intrigue with the characters themselves than in stirring up an emblematic crisis and reeling us in through its resolution, whether happy or sad, according to the standard maneuvers of most popular movies. Naruse's world, if it turns out to be a place one basically enjoys and is curious to learn more about, is an easy place to meander around and get lost. Even after we've spent an hour or two going through life's changes with his characters, we're left with all sorts of nagging doubts as to how things will ultimately wind up with them. This open-ended quality will undoubtedly prove unsatisfying or frustrating to some, but it gives his work a remarkable verisimilitude, and on a purely aesthetic level, Naruse is as impeccable and masterly an auteur as one could ever desire, though flash and sensation are not really part of his repertoire at all.

So with all that long preamble, let me offer a few thoughts on When a Woman Ascends the Stairs. I can easily see why Criterion chose to release this one over Ginza Cosmetics, Mother, Wife or Flowing, the four 1950s films currently available on Hulu Plus that each preceded this film over the course of that decade. Working in widescreen Tohoscope, with  a swanky space-age cocktail bar soundtrack and the brilliantly charismatic Hideko Takamine at the center of the story, I doubt that Naruse made any films more instantly appealing to a Western audience. Rather than unfolding in the mysterious and increasingly archaic setting of a geisha house in decline, as in Flowing, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is set in the upscale surface glamor of Tokyo's Ginza district, where rich businessmen gathered in bars after hours to make deals, flirt with and be flattered by pretty young women and find temporary solace from the pressures of life through free-flowing servings of alcohol. It's an attractive set-up, both exotic and accessible without much need for explanation or acclimation to understand what's going on.

The story, such as it is, concerns Keiko, referred to as Mama with affection and admiration by the customers and employees of Bar Carton, where she works as the lead hostess. She's a widow who lost her husband years ago when he was hit by a truck (a favorite Naruse device, so I've learned) and now is trapped by circumstances in a role she hates but cannot escape. Her particular dilemma is that she's on the verge of turning 30, almost to the point of being too old for marriage to anyone respectable and stable, and also getting a bit over-aged to simply be an employee rather than the owner of a bar. Furthermore, both options entail a loss of independence and self-sufficiency that offer her the primary satisfaction she finds in her lot. She doesn't want to resign into a mundane wifely routine, especially given the compromised choice of men she has to choose from (too old, too chubby, too domineering or simply too contentedly married and settled to break up a happy home to be with her.) Nor does she want to concede her principles to become a kept woman, the mistress of some lecherous old tycoon who would gladly put up the cash she needs to underwrite her own business in exchange for free access to her personal intimacies. Keiko has maintained a degree of purity that, along with her charming manners and beauty, help her to stand out distinctly in her boozy and crass environs.

Besides Naruse's technical prowess, much of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs' pleasures derive from watching Mama navigate her way with crisp precision and intelligent skill through the numerous financial, amorous and psychological hazards surrounding her, from rivals, friends and would-be lovers alike, though the strains clearly take their toll on her over the course of the film. Rounding it all out is a wonderful ensemble cast, including then-rising star Tatsuya Nakadai, stepping away briefly from his massive performance in the first two installments of The Human Condition (part three would arrive in 1961, and he'd go on to greater heights in Harakiri the following year.) He plays the bar manager with a barely-contained yearning for Keiko that builds to a satisfying outburst for them both at the end. And a crew of eye-pleasing barmaids give evidence of the growing Westernization of Japan, as we see, in contrast to Keiko's stubborn yet elegant traditionalism, fashionably modern young women sporting hairstyles and wardrobe choices of a decidedly Sixties-ish cut, even if we're just into the earliest weeks of that decade when this film was released.


Like just about every other Naruse film I've watched over the past week, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs concludes with our protagonist not all that far removed from where she began the film, with little more than a bittersweet burden of dashed hopes and discouragement to process through before regrouping to face whatever her next bout with adversity turns out to be. Thus I can't really find the right words to wrap up this review; there's no pithy moral to the story, no patented wisdom or life lessons to be gleaned from this film, at least none that would fail to strike me as facile platitudes, given the nuance and delicacy with which Naruse and his talented cast paint their portraits. Just a challenge to persevere in standing up to our own troubles, since we're undoubtedly surrounded by people going through even tougher situations. Consider this review an invitation to take a similar journey as I did and just plunge into a steady stream of Naruse's films. Maybe if enough of us clog up the Hulu Plus bandwidth, we'll get another Eclipse set of his to explore, or better yet some well-deserved releases of films I've read about like Late Chrysanthemums or any of his "meteorological" films: Summer Clouds, Floating Clouds, Scattered Clouds, Sudden Rain, Lightning... Hmmm, it seems that, as Ozu was to the seasons of the year, Naruse was to the weather of a temperamental day.