Redoubtable (2017)

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Aka Le redoutable/Godard mon amour. You have to choose – either it’s politics or cinema. In 1967 during the making of his film, La chinoise, French film director Jean-Luc Godard (Louis Garrel) falls in love with 17-year-old ingenue actress Anne Wiazemsky (Stacy Martin) the granddaughter of François Mauriac, and later marries her. The 1968 protests lead Godard to adopt a revolutionary stance setting up the Dziga Vertov Group with critic Jean-Pierre Gorin (Félix Kysyl) and retreating from his celebrity while Anne continues to make films for other directors and his didactic attitude creates an irretrievable schism with other directors following his call for the cancelling of the Cannes Film Festival …  The future belonged to him and I loved him. Michel Hazanavicius’ biopic of Godard falls between two stools:  on the one hand it’s a knowing wink to a fiercely committed and politicised prankster who eventually became too serious for his own good or his audience’s enjoyment;  on the other it’s a partly serious examination of the evolution of the most significant filmmaker in Europe in the Sixties which invariably vibrates with politics and the issue of celebrity and how it drove him to make incendiary statements which reverberated badly. This is adapted from Un an après the memoir of Wiazemsky (who died in 2017) so the story of the director’s post-’68  retreat into the radical takes its lacerating prism from his resentment at her attempts to escape his stifling grip and gain a mainstream career as he becomes immersed in communal filmmaking. He abuses her co-workers, evinces contempt for his own films and their admirers and renounces his friendships in order to produce films without an audience. He pronounces on the necessity to consign the work of Renoir, Ford and Lang to the dustbin of history and insists only the subversive comedy of Jerry Lewis and the Marx Brothers be kept. He tells us that this is the beauty of Marxist-Leninist rhetoric – any old rubbish can make sense.  I’m not Godard. I’m an actor playing Godard. And not even a very good actor. It’s part pastiche too, indulging in many visual references to Godard’s work, leading to a lot of amusing moments as well as beautifully crafted design that can be appreciated in this multi-referential marital saga/romcom.  Every time JLG goes to a protest he gets trampled by riot police and his glasses are broken (see:  Take the Money and Run). He decides he needs different shoes and becomes obsessed with them, literally another running joke.  He attends a student rally at a university and makes anti-semitic declarations which embarrass everybody not just because he calls Jews Nazis but because he is stunningly inarticulate. He is invited by Bertolucci to a conference in Rome and ends up telling him his films are shit so Bertolucci tells him exactly what he thinks of him. The Situationists despised Jean-Luc. And he agreed with them. Garrel is brilliant as the lisping narcissistic self-absorbed pedant who is humorously unaware of the plethora of contradictions, ironies and paradoxes besetting his every statement. He flounces out of the Cannes festival and complains about having to stay in the luxurious beachside home of Pierre Lazareff, the Gaullist proprietor of France-Soir but lies back and enjoys the man’s library, bitching about the lack of petrol to get him back to Paris – despite avowing support for a general strike. He belittles the generous farmer who volunteers to drive him and the gang, plus former friend Cournot (Grégory Gadebois) whose film didn’t get screened at Cannes due to JLG’s antics, all 500 miles back to Paris:  this scene is laugh out loud funny, embodying the ridiculous idea of a filmmaker becoming a revolutionary by wanting to make films that nobody will ever want to see, above the common man whose cause he claims to espouse. The bore is now a boor. The irreverent approach sends up Godard but it also somewhat downplays his achievements and the deterioration of the marriage, the first casualty in his argumentative retreat from commercial cinema as friends and values are abandoned without care.  Martin makes the most of a part that puts her on the receiving end of both withering condescension and nasty put-downs from a man twice her age basically holding her hostage while trying to be a teenage activist and flailing for filmmaking inspiration. You make films. You’re not the Foreign Secretary. There is a sense in which Hazanavicius’ Woody Allen references (the early, funny ones,  see:  Stardust Memories) function in two ways, leaving us to wonder if this isn’t just about Godard but also about Hazanavicius himself, following a drubbing for his last serious drama set in war-torn Chechnya (also starring his own wife/muse Bérénice Bejo who features here as fashion designer and journalist Michèle Lazareff Rosier – who wound up becoming a filmmaker! And who also died in 2017) having made his own name with comedies and overt Hollywood homages (The Artist). Not altogether unlike Godard. So we see Godard enjoying pulp fiction and musicals but suffering through La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc while disavowing sentiment of all kinds.  Following his suicide attempt, the last sequence occurs during the making of Vent d’est, Godard’s Maoist western and his last collaboration with Anne before she left him. The voiceover is now his, just as he is outvoted by his automanaged bunch of commie cast and crew. He is no longer the auteur of note in this ménage à con.  Finally, he manages a smile. Perhaps even this arch ironist now understands the grave he’s dug for himself. We like him, but it’s too late. His gift is gone. With Jean-Pierre Mocky as an outraged diner at a restaurant, we realise we are in the realm of satire and this is a wonderfully clever lampooning of an anarchic cynic much in the mould of Godard himself, keen to distance himself from a decade of success, now in utter contempt of his audience. He clearly never saw Sullivan’s Travels. Or if he did, misunderstood it complètement. This is hilarious – a postmodern film about the cinematic revolutionary who invented the form that manages to be both serious and incredibly witty, all at once. Kudos to cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman for replicating Raoul Coutard’s beautiful work in Godard’s Sixties masterpieces. Definitely one for the bourgeois cinéaste. We’ll love each other later. Now it’s the revolution!

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The Barefoot Contessa (1954)

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On the screen you get ’em all, what about off? It’s pouring rain at the funeral of Hollywood screen star, the Spanish sex symbol Maria Vargas, and we learn about her life from the men who became beguiled by her … Washed-up film director Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart) is on the outs but gets a second chance at stardom when he discovers stunning peasant Vargas (Ava Gardner) dancing in a nightclub in Madrid. Goaded by his megalomaniac producer, strong-arming Wall Street financier Kirk Edwards (Warren Stevens), Harry convinces Maria to screen test for, and then star in, the next film he will write and direct. Publicist Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O’Brien) makes sure she’s a sensation. But as Edwards’ possessive nature and the realities of stardom weigh on Maria, she seeks a genuine lover with whom she can escape and takes refuge with a wastrel playboy Alberto Bravano (Marius Goring) before true love rescues her arriving in a white automobile … I waste my money with pleasure but yours is just a waste. Writer/director (and producer) Joseph Mankiewicz joined the ranks of those filmmakers (Wilder, Minnelli) who turned on Hollywood for this baroque exploration of directors looking for inspiration:  when all else fails, eat yourself, as Sunset Blvd. and The Bad and the Beautiful demonstrated. Despite the casting and the setting (the cinematography doesn’t come across well at this juncture) this doesn’t quite click in the first part: it isn’t as sharply attractive as those productions, with Bogart perhaps a little too laconic as the narrator of this introductory section which is all exposition and caricature. But Mankiewicz made Letter to Three Wives so he knows how to make things interesting and he plays with the narration. The entire mood lifts with the shift to the voice of brash publicist Muldoon explaining life in Hollywood, before moving back and forth to Harry; and then to the lover and husband Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini (Rossano Brazzi),  the Italian count who is last in his line and fails to declare a terrible secret, dooming their union. The overlapping and conflicting accounts combine to create a clever, arresting portrait of the industry and stardom after the first few story missteps, with Gardner ultimately endearing as her enigmatic character develops, desperate to find her true love when the fairytale disintegrates and her humanity destroys her. Naturally she looks utterly stunning in this vague take on the career of Rita Hayworth with touches of King Farouk, the Duke of Windsor and Howard Hughes figuring amongst the male ensemble. How much more like a dream can a dream be?

See No Evil (1971)

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Aka Blind TerrorHelp! Sarah Rexton (Mia Farrow) has recently been blinded in a horse riding accident.  She  moves in with her uncle George (Robin Alison), his wife Betty (Dorothy Alison) and her cousin Sandy (Diane Grayson), who live in a big house in the English countryside.  She adjusts to her new condition, unaware that a killer stalks the family. After her former boyfriend Steve (Norman Eshley) presents her with a new horse and suggests they resume their romance, she returns home after their date and doesn’t realise that her family’s bodies are left in various locations around the house. She gradually discovers her murdered relatives. A cat and mouse game commences as the sightless woman evades the killer while trying to learn his identity and she flees the house on her chestnut horse, the man’s bracelet in her grasp… Brian Clemens’ screenplay was written on spec and once Farrow liked it, it got the greenlight. It’s an enormously effective psychological thriller because the dice are so loaded against the heroine and we can see what she cannot – albeit the killer isn’t revealed until the last possible moment:  we just see low angle shots of his distinctive boots. Confining our knowledge of the scene evens up the odds somewhat for Farrow’s performing of her role which is relentlessly realistic and you might even find yourself squirming as Sarah deals so ably with the limitations of her new life and outmanoeuvres the killer in the one way she knows how – using a horse. Farrow is vastly impressive as the part requires her to be both visually impaired and physically resourceful and doing both without seeking pity.  Director Richard Fleischer paradoxically creates an uncanny physical and narrative structure which requires that we remember which door leads where in the house – compensating for Sarah’s lack of vision. We are also restricted in what we are shown and how the gruesome situation is revealed in the middle third is particularly impressive. We were here before to an extent in Wait Until Dark but the setting, the use of landscape and the relentless grip of the pacy storytelling all combine to make this a compelling suspenser.

They Shoot Horses Don’t They? (1969)

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Don’t forget your poor old mother. Yowza yowza yowza! In the midst of the Great Depression in 1932 wannabe film director Robert Syverton (Michael Sarrazin) encounters manipulative MC Rocky (Gig Young) when he wanders into a dance marathon on the Santa Monica Pier.  Rocky enlists contestants offering a $1,500 cash prize. Among them are a failed actress Gloria (Jane Fonda) whom he induces Robert to partner; a middle-aged sailor Harry Kline (Red Buttons); delusional blonde Alice (Susannah York); impoverished farm worker James (Bruce Dern) and his pregnant wife Ruby (Bonnie Bedelia). Days turn into weeks as the competition drags on and people either drop out or die. Rocky will do anything for publicity and initiates a series of gruelling derbies and nerves fray as exhaustion sets in … That soap’s a little hard. James Poe and Robert E. Thompson’s adaptation of the 1935 Horace McCoy novel plugs straight into its melodramatic core – a musical drama about economic despair. And the air of desperation hanging over these lost souls is like a fug, admirably sustained by director Sydney Pollack. Fonda is superb in a complex performance as the brittle cynic whose psychology is gradually broken while all around her succumb to the physical pressure. Her fear drives the story. How extraordinary to think that Charlie Chaplin had acquired the rights to the property eighteen years earlier, intending to cast his son Sydney opposite Marilyn Monroe in the roles played by Sarrazin and Fonda. It fell apart when Chaplin was refused re-entry to the US on foot of his political sympathies. When Fonda was approached by Pollack he asked her what she thought of the material and the character and she writes about it as a turning point in her career:  This was the first time in my life as an actor that I was working on a film about larger societal issues, and instead of my professional work feeling peripheral to life, it felt relevant. It also marked the beginning of Sarrazin’s years as a leading man – somehow he fell out of fashion in the late Seventies. He would die in 2011. There are some wonderful contrivances like the flash forwards that certain critics found irritating but it all works to build a mythic aspect. This is a stunning, disturbing indictment of social artifice and possesses a haunting quality, with its title becoming a catchphrase (and inspiring a hit song) and Gig Young’s fraudulent host inducing a kind of existential dread of showbiz ‘characters’. Maybe the whole world is like Central Casting – they got it all rigged before you ever show up

 

Boogie Nights (1997)

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We’re going to make film history right here on videotape. In LA’s San Fernando Valley in 1977, teenage busboy Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) gets discovered by porn director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), who’s on the lookout for new talent.  He transforms him into adult-film sensation Dirk Diggler. Brought into a supportive circle of friends, including fellow actors Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), Rollergirl (Heather Graham) and Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly), Dirk fulfills all his ambitions, but a toxic combination of drugs and egotism threatens to take him back down to earth.  As 1979 rolls into 1980 the business is changing and Horner is under pressure to switch to video despite his ambitions to be an auteur and he has to make a tough decision when financier The Colonel James (Robert Ridgely, who died shortly after production and to whom the film is dedicated) is caught with an underage girl who’s OD’d …  Diggler delivers a performance worth a thousand hard-ons. Bravura filmmaking from Paul Thomas Anderson which takes lurid content and spins it into a surprisingly sweet morality tale about the lowlifes behind pornos. The leading men are a study in contrasts:  Horner is a clever but kind director who doesn’t flinch from hardcore; while Diggler is the dumb box of rocks who has an enormous penis that dazzles. The running joke about Little Bill (William H. Macy) and his insatiable wife has an unbelievable climax; the revenge Rollergirl takes on a boy from high school is horrifying; and the wrap up sequence of redemption and closure for this makeshift family is fine drama. The final reveal is the money shot that we’ve all been waiting for. Reynolds won the Golden Globe and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Clever, amusing and humane, this is one of the best films of the Nineties.

On Chesil Beach (2017)

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We’re not two old queers living in secret on Beaumont Street. We’re man and wife!  It’s 1962.  New graduates historian Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) and musician Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) are nervously about to consummate their marriage in a seaside hotel in Dorset.  The waiters bring a roast dinner to their suite and make fun of them, practically sniffing the virginity in the ether. As the couple prepare to disrobe and attempt foreplay they recall the moments that brought them to this situation:  his chaotic home where his headmaster father (Adrian Scarborough) has to deal with a brain injured wife (Ann Marie Duff) and two twin girls;  her engineering company owner father (Samuel West) and academic mother (Emily Watson) who are on the one hand consumed with matters of class and on the other distracted, the wife looking down on her husband rather! Edward and Florence recall their first meeting at Oxford, when he had nobody to tell about his first in History from UCL and she’s the stranger at the CND gathering who lets him know she got a First too, but in music;  when she walked seven miles from the train to meet him at the cricket club where he works; when she got his mother to paint a ‘forgery’ of her favourite painter, Uccello. The memories come rushing in as she lies on the bed issuing instructions and he fumbles and then she rejects him and rushes to the beach … Ian McEwan’s novella was never going to be simple to adapt.  Part of its bittersweet sting lies in the acute choice of words which cannot be replicated on screen.  It’s a romance lacking in passion and the flashback structure literally interrupts the non-coitus. The suggestion that Florence has endured abuse at the hands of her nasty father on a boating trip is skilfully and subtly worked into the story but still doesn’t fully explain her frigidity. (The tennis match she observes between Edward and her father clues us in a little more.)  Her disgust at the contents of a sex manual suggests that of a child not a grown woman and isn’t sufficiently elaborated considering the company she and her family keep (her mother is a friend of Iris Murdoch) and her deep emotionality performing music in a quartet is surely not that of someone who doesn’t understand desire. The book does something extraordinary in demonstrating in just a few pages how Edward’s life pans out and it is utterly devastating, elaborating directly how this single night has sabotaged his life. This melancholy adaptation works on some levels:  for one,  the production design whose attention to period detail gives us an innate sense of the era’s propriety and indicators of class and behaviour.  There are brave performances too:  Ann Marie Duff spends half of hers topless, brain damaged from being hit by a train door on the local platform;  Ronan and Howle do very well in suggesting the naivete that seemingly plagued newlyweds of the era. In essence the relationship fails because of Edward’s pride and Florence’s prejudice and it’s hard to dramatise although his taste in music (jazz, rock and roll) versus hers (strictly classical) sums it up – together however they lack erotic obsession or straightforward lust and this tentative attempt flounders for the same reason as their wedding night:  nobody just goes for it and Florence just won’t shut up. But unsatisfying as this is there’s a porno shot you won’t forget in a hurry. Adapted by McEwan and directed by Dominic Cooke.

Black Swan (2010)

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The only person standing in your way is you.  Featured dancer Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a young NYC ballerina whose passion for the dance rules every facet of her life which is rigidly controlled at home by her disappointed domineering single mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) who says she gave up everything to have Nina (but she never made it out of the corps). When the company’s artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) decides to replace prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) for their opening production of Swan Lake, Nina is his first choice, perfect for the role of the White Swan. She has competition in newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis) however:  she personifies the Black Swan – her look, her clothing, her behaviour are literally delicate Nina’s polar opposite. As rivalry between the two dancers transforms into a twisted friendship and then into a fiercer rivalry as Lily is cast as Nina’s alternate, Nina’s dark side gradually emerges … Darren Aronofsky’s ballet film states its themes in the first frames:  a battle to the death onstage and then a hallucinatory trip tunnelling into the dark underground of New York City’s underbelly on the subway – a kind of diabolism seems writ large from the off. This psychological horror’s most recent comparator is probably Jacob’s Ladder and that’s three decades old.  But it’s really a film about femininity. The sheer repulsive physicality of it is offputting and not for the squeamish:  the bulimic purging; the bloodied squashed misshapen feet; ripping off of cuticles; continuous self-harming – Nina’s long nails tear at her shoulder and then she sees feathers sprouting in the holes; licking a spot of cake frosting constitutes a meal;  and when Beth takes the knife Nina has returned and stabs herself in the face. The sheer proliferation of close ups of skin is revolting. It’s also in the little things – Nina thinking everyone is talking about her (they are); the lights being switched off when she needs to rehearse;  the piano accompanist refusing to stay late; the need to please the director – when he asks her about her sexual experience and tells her to masturbate and she wakes up and does it in her bed only to find Mom in the chair beside her … Now that’s horrifying! The truth is when I look at you all I see is the white swan. Yes you’re beautiful, fearful, and fragile. Ideal casting. But the black swan? It’s a hard fucking job to dance both  Nina’s fragile mind is devastated by the pressure to perform with feeling rather than mere technical skill and first she thinks she sees herself everywhere in the form of a double – behind her own reflection, walking towards her in the subway – and her mind becomes fragmented in her own image. Then she sees … Lily. Lily the Black Swan. Lily who smokes, drinks, takes drugs and then goes down on her. Or does she?  The lines between dream and reality are blurred. Portman is great as the ingenue who needs to please and we are reminded of The Red Shoes, that classic balletomane’s film, and there are echoes of that madness and drive for perfection everywhere. Hershey, Kunis and Ryder are no less good in their supporting roles, buffeting the central thematic, the narrative’s corps de ballet. This is about obsession and we follow Nina right over the other side and into out and out madness and disbelief.  The climax brings everything together in the most devastating, logical fashion. Performance is all.  Mad, crazed and melodramatic, this is absolutely on the money when it comes to female (and mother-daughter) rivalry and is literally a danse macabre.  Written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin.

My Favorite Wife (1940)

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I bet you say that to all your wives. Nick Arden (Cary Grant) has waited seven long years after his wife Ellen (Irene Dunne) disappeared at sea before finally marrying Bianca (Gail Patrick) but wouldn’t you know it the day of their marriage (the same day he has Ellen declared dead), Ellen suddenly reappears.  At the insistence of Nick’s mother (Ann Shoemaker) she flies up to Yosemite to the hotel where Nick is about to embark on his honeymoon with Bianca. Nick is overjoyed but hides her reappearance from Bianca and becomes insane with jealousy when he learns that Ellen has had a companion on the island – handsome Stephen Burkett (Randolph Scott) whom Ellen has known as Adam… Loosely based on Tennyson’s Enoch Arden, this screenplay of remarriage by Leo McCarey and husband and wife team Bella and Samuel Spewack (with some uncredited additions by director Garson Kanin) is a high point of screwball. Grant’s character is a variation of the character established in The Awful Truth directed by McCarey, who produced this and upon whom Grant’s screen persona is somewhat based. Dunne is a delight as his flighty wife, also re-teamed with Grant, while Scott is ideal as the he-man. The scene between Dunne and the shoe fetishist salesman is a hoot and when she passes him off as Stephen, not aware that Nick knows precisely who Stephen is, it works brilliantly. Her Virginia drawl as the children’s nanny is as convincing as it is irritating to Bianca.  Patrick is fine as the flinty Bianca but Granville Bates steals his scenes as the judge. With Van Nest Polglase doing the design, Robert Wise editing and Rudolph Maté on cinematography, this is classical Hollywood at its smoothest. Remade as Move Over, Darling.

 

Mouchette (1967)

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At least I can die painlessly.  Immature young teenager Mouchette (Nadine Nortier) faces hardships everywhere in her difficult and impoverished life. Her father (Paul Hébert) is a cruel drunk who neglects her. Meanwhile, her mother (Marie Cardinal) is ill, slowly dying, leaving Mouchette to deal with her newborn bother. She is ostracised at school and flings mud at her fellow pupils on the way home. In a rainstorm she encounters Arsène (Jean-Claude Guilbert), a poacher with a violent streak. He lets her take shelter in his cabin but then assaults her and blackmails her to involve her in a crime when he believes he’s killed the local gamekeeper … Robert Bresson’s adaptation of a Georges Bernanos story is staggering – a totally devastating account of a desperate, rather unlikable child in a self-interested, amoral community. Its cinematic affect is compounded by the documentary style using non-actors to expose the brutality of this rotten village as it invariably claims its young victim. A small and austere masterpiece from Bresson, achieved with his customary rigour and deceptively simple shooting style.

Move Over Darling (1963)

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Suppose Mr Arden’s wife came back, like Irene Dunne done. Did. Five years after her disappearance at sea, Nicky Arden (James Garner) is in the process of having his wife declared dead so he can marry his new fiancée Bianca (Polly Bergen) when Ellen (Doris Day) materialises and the honeymoon is delayed but Nick finds out Ellen wasn’t alone on the island after the shipwreck after all …  A remake of one of the greatest screen comedies starring two of my favourite people? You had me at hello! This got partly remade as Something’s Got To Give with Marilyn Monroe and Dean Martin but got put on hold.  Her premature death led to this iteration of Enoch Arden and My Favorite Wife, which was written by Samuel and Bella Spewack and Leo McCarey (upon whom Cary Grant modelled much of his suave screwball persona for their collaboration on The Awful Truth, another ingenious marital sex comedy.) Arnold Schulman, Nunnally Johnson and Walter Bernstein reworked that screenplay for the Monroe version (she agreed to star in it because of Johnson, and then George Cukor had it rewritten which upset her greatly); and then Hal Kanter and Jack Sher wrote this.  We can blame Tennyson for the original. The set for the Arden home was the same from the Monroe version and it was based on Cukor’s legendarily luxurious Hollywood digs. We even get to spend time at the pool of the Beverly Hills Hotel. Garner and Day are brilliantly cast and work wonderfully well together, making this one of the biggest hits of its year (it was released on Christmas Day). They had proven their chemistry on The Thrill of it All and make for a crazy good looking couple. With Thelma Ritter as Nicky’s mom, Chuck Connors as the island Adam, and Don Knotts, Edgar Buchanan and John Astin rounding out the cast, we’re in great hands. The title song, co-written by Day’s son Terry Melcher and arranged by Jack Nitzsche, was a monster. Terrific, slick, funny blend of farce and sex comedy, this censor-baiting entertainment is of its time but wears it well. Directed by Michael Gordon.