Marie Antoinette (2006)

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Sofia Coppola knows what it feels like for a girl. When the officials at Versailles gave her the very big keys to open up the palace and reimagine a little Austrian girl lost in the vicious and foreign French royal court working from Antonia Fraser’s biography, they probably didn’t picture this — a portrait of teenage decadence in the pastel palette of macaroons (magenta, citron, mint) scored to a New Romantic soundtrack as if she were making an Adam and the Ants video.  Kirsten Dunst is the kid sold to the gormless dauphin (Jason Schwartzman) in a strategic alliance organised by her mother the Empress (Marianne Faithfull). Her father in law the King Louis XV (Rip Torn) is like a Texan cowboy carrying on with Madame du Barry (Asia Argento). Her husband has no idea what to do in bed and she’s a giggly kid who spends her nights drinking and gambling with her girly friends and it takes a visit from her brother Emperor Josef (Danny Huston) to explain to the mechanically-minded prospective king about locks and holes, and a year later, finally, the marriage is consummated and a baby girl is born.  Seven years of foreplay!  The life of conspicuous consumption of colourful costumes and cookies and candy is swopped for something almost rural and natural at Le Petit Trianon where the young mother holds a different kind of court and succumbs to an affair with the Swedish Count Fersel (Jamie Dornan) and frolics with her little girl in the meadows. The mood alters and the cinematography (by Lance Acord) attains the backlit flared quality of a nature documentary:  this is impressionistic and expressionistic all at once, reliant on Dunst’s face and the overall vision of a writer/director in sympathetic tune with her tragic protagonist whose perception of the vicious society over which she holds sway dominates the narrative. The final quarter hour is the nightmare:  people are starving because the peasants are bearing the cost of the war in America, and propaganda and lies, dead children and the baying mob are at the door. This is a fabulist film about fashion and feeling and food and it gets into your head and your heart. If you don’t like it, you know what you can go eat.

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Love and Death (1975)

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I fell over laughing when I first saw this on TV aged about 13 so I thought it was time to revisit and see if it holds up. With a screenplay by Allen, Donald Ogden Stewart and Mildred Cram you’d have a high expectation of this satire of Russian literature and the Napoleonic war being extremely funny and it is! Cram was a very popular short story writer and got the Academy Award for  perenially popular Love Affair (1939) which most of us know better from its modern iteration, Sleepless in Seattle. DOS of course was a famous humorist and wit, a member of the Algonquin Round Table and had a slew of movie credits to his name. He is immortalised as Bill Gorton in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. A member of the Anti-Nazi League prior to WW2, he was nailed by HUAC and had to abandon the US for the UK. Let’s just say he was a lot funnier than any of the censorious goons who hounded him out. Allen? He takes the concept of Monsieur Beaucaire and puts himself in the Bob Hope role, a coward running through swathes of Tolstoy with a disrespectful pitchfork in pursuit of real-life lady love Diane Keaton, playing the helpless trampy cousin he adores, and it’s an amuse-bouche for Annie Hall, that other devoted homage to anti-heroic schmuckery, sex and all-round meaninglessness in the face of egotistical slaughter. This is the film that birthed the exchange, Sex without love is an empty experience/As empty experiences go, it’s one of the best:  not necessarily what you’d expect in a piss-take of War and Peace. Supremely silly with screamingly witty lines and an abundance of hilarious sight gags – even the bloody battlefield scenes are a hoot. Gotta go watch it again and pretend I’m still 13. With Harold Gould, Olga Georges-Picot, Jessica Harper, and Death.

Match Point (2005)

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Who knew Woody Allen had it in him to make a tough sexy thriller? And here it is, a film that was transposed for financial reasons from NYC to London, featuring Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Chris Wilton, an Irish tennis pro on the make who weasels his way into British society and his plans are almost derailed by the vengeful wheedling American actress (Scarlett Johansson) with whom he has an affair. To a degree, we’ve been here before with Crimes and Misdemeanours (and Love and Death!) and the references to Dostoyevsky are writ large not least because Chris is reading Crime and Punishment and his preference for tragic operas and a belief in luck dictate his life. The Brit crits weren’t in love with this as they believed Allen’s use of London locations – opera, tennis clubs, posh bars and restaurants, theatres, and country houses – were classist. Did they seriously believe the Upper East Side to be representative of working class NYC?! When Johansson threatens Chris with revealing her pregnancy to his wife Emily Mortimer, whose brother broke off their engagement, there’s only one thing to do … The tension is stomach-churning, Rhys Meyers is superb in a very demanding dramatic role, a contemporary arriviste Raskolnikov, with ScarJo providing the eroticism in a field of wheat in the rain. All in all it’s a great exercise in life, sex – and luck. And just listen to Caruso …

Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948)

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Stupid teenage girl has a one-night stand with a musician, has his bastard and years later when she approaches him after a concert to tell him their offspring is dying of typhus he doesn’t remember her. No, this is not the sorry tale of some dumb narcissistic rock groupie but a startling adaptation of a novella by Austrian writer Stefan Zweig. Lisa writes Stefan a letter following their disastrous ‘reunion’ which he receives on his way to a duel and finally he remembers her from all those years ago. The duel is against Lisa’s husband following her death. He finally remembers the times that they met. Howard Koch’s screenplay manages to elicit an extraordinary response from the viewer, gifted with a most touching performance from Joan Fontaine playing opposite that cad, Louis Jourdan. There is a significant change from the novella, and that’s why this is so emotional. The way turn of the century Vienna is evoked in this one-sided romance is quite unforgettable and the direction by Max Ophuls, who had a talent for making wonderful films about women, is simply classic. A beautiful combination of filmmaking talents. One of the most moving films you will ever see.

Davy (1958)

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I grew up listening to the fabled Goon Shows on Radio Four when they were revived for Christmas celebrations – being a child of the Seventies/Eighties I was too young to know them first time around. Obviously Peter Sellers was the mega-star breakout from that stellar crew but Harry Secombe tried to get a step up the greasy cinematic pole in this Ealing production written by William Rose and directed by Michael Relph. He plays the star of a family music hall act whose tenor voice is so outstanding he gets the opportunity to audition at Covent Garden. Secombe has the charisma of a wet newspaper and I can confirm that in real life he was marginally less interesting, rude as hell and singularly ungracious to the people around him who struggled to make him look good. No wonder Ealing folded.

The Glass Mountain (1948)

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This is a sentimental favourite of mine, ever since I first saw it one rainy afternoon on Channel 4 many years ago. And now there’s snow and sleet in the air it’s time to break it out again. Broke composer Richard Wilder (Michael Denison) writes a hit song in collaboration with poet Bruce McLeod (Sebastian Shaw) which enables himself and his wife Anne (real-life Mrs Denison, Dulcie Gray) to move out of their garret and into their dream home. WW2 breaks out and they both enlist, he as pilot.  His plane crashes in the Dolomites where he is nursed back to health by Alida (Valentina Cortese) and she tells him the legend of the Glass Mountain which he promises to write as an opera to star fellow rescuer Tito (the great baritone Tito Gobbi). Back home in England he realises his heart is torn between wife and lover as he composes the opera. The plane carrying Anne to Italy where the opera is being performed crashes and he must choose …  A finely tuned story co-written by legendary British producer Joseph Janni, lovely performances and of course the magnificent Gobbi’s voice singing to music composed by Nino Rota. Mountains, music, romance. Fabulous.

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

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This came out right after I’d spent my first summer in New York City. Seeing it was like being immersed in a very warm welcoming bath. And what a cherishable film it is, a Chekhovian comedy drama about the impossible lives and loves of a trio of sisters played by the incredible Mia Farrow, Dianne Wiest and Barbara Hershey with Allen himself and Michael Caine and Max von Sydow rounding out the cast. This is on constant rotation chez moi. One of the greats.