Saturday, December 27, 2014

TOOTSIE (Blu-ray) - #738

Interesting fact: Blake Edwards’ Victor/Victoria and Sydney Pollack’s Tootsie, both comedies where actors cross-dress in order get a job, were released in 1982. I couldn’t say what was in the air around that time that two of the biggest hits of that year would involve performers of one sex--namely, Julie Andrews and Dustin Hoffman--pretending to be another sex, but it kind of blows my mind that I had contact with both films in their theatrical runs when I was a wee lad of ten years old. I’m not sure I saw all of Victor Victoria in that outing or just peeked in, later to pick up more of it on cable, but watching it again not that long ago during a visit with my family, I was kind of surprised at how frank the film was about homosexuality. My parents must not have really known what they were taking me to.

And now I am equally shocked by how smart and subversive Tootsie is. I know I saw the entire movie back then, but I also know now that I didn’t understand it. In my head, it was a dumb comedy, one that probably didn’t age well, because it was popular, wasn’t it? Could a crowdpleaser from over thirty years ago really stand up to the scrutiny of today? If nothing else, the politics should be all wrong.

Except that they aren’t, and Tootsie has aged incredibly well. In point of fact, it’s still incredibly funny, laugh-out-loud so. And there is nothing to cringe about while watching it because it lacks any meanness. It’s very human and very matter-of-fact and its characters are largely free of judgment. The comedy doesn’t happen just because Dustin Hoffman is wearing a dress, but rather because of the things that happen to him while he’s wearing a dress and the way it challenges his perceptions and what it exposes about everyone.

Written by Larry Gelbart (Oh, God!) and Murray Shisgal (Luv), Tootsie is essentially a rom-com that also has bits of showbiz satire and a social commentary but without hitting too hard on either. It stars Hoffman as Michael Dorsey, a pigheaded actor who, when told he’s too difficult to get work, decides to prove he can get along by dressing up as a woman and getting a part on a soap opera. I really like how the movie treats that decision. If you were to watch Tootsie without any foreknowledge of its premise, what a surprise you’d be in for! There is no telegraphing the scheme, no announcement that Michael is going to create a female alter ego. Instead, Michael is arguing with his agent (played brilliantly by Sydney Pollack), declares that he’ll prove the man wrong, and the next cut is to Dorothy Michaels walking down the street, fully transformed. No time is spent trying on wigs or getting the make-up right, we are told Michael has a proficiency for stagecraft right up front, during the opening credits. Whatever inspires the change, he hits the ground running.

And Dorothy gets the role, in large part because she stands up for herself, an essential component to the character she is intended to play. Earlier Michael tried to coach his friend Sandy (Terri Garr, who is amazing) for the audition, and she flubs it by being too easy to crumble. Michael has no such problem. Or should I say Dorothy. In fact, once she is on the show, Dorothy becomes a bit of a phenomenon. Her fellow castmates, including the soap’s lead actress Julie (Jessica Lange) and a bit player April (Geena Davis), like her because she doesn’t take any crap from their pig of a director (Dabney Coleman); the audience likes her because her feminist ad libs give them a character they can root for.

Though Tootsie’s comedic tone never quite escalates to the level of farce, its plot bears elements of the genre. Naturally, the deeper Dorothy/Michael gets into the charade, the more complicated it becomes. He has to keep up with the ruse, because getting found out would topple a lot of dominoes, not the least of which is that he’s become good friends with Julie in his Dorothy guise while also deeply falling in love with her. The only person to know what he’s doing besides his agent is his roommate, Jeff, played with typical aplomb by Bill Murray, who serves as a sardonic Jiminy Cricket throughout. Murray’s zingers are sharp and funny, as is Tootsie as a whole. It’s a witty movie, smartly written, timeless instead of timely. Some of the jokes are clever and sneaky, some are broad and altogether hilarious. The biggest laugh in the movie is one of its most obvious, a single line delivered by veteran actor George Gaynes (Punky Brewster) when he learns the truth about the woman he has been wooing. “Does Jeff know...?” I don’t know why it’s not a more famous moment, as it’s akin to the “I’ll have what she’s having” line in When Harry Met Sally...; my guess is it’s too specific.

Which is ironic for a movie that feels so universal. But then, that’s Tootsie.

There’s a fascinating incongruity in that this movie is very much of the 1980s and yet also well enough ahead of its time that you’d easily be forgiven for thinking that it came from some other era. While the technique can be groanworthy--that drippy montage out at the farm, for instance, or Dave Grusin’s score, which is so bad I found myself wishing it was somehow a sly subtextual joke--the portrayal of Dorothy avoids the “Ick! It’s a dude!” clichés one might expect while also making it so she is never the object of ridicule. Sure, there are jokes about Dorothy having to cover a mustache, but that gag is more about practicality and is a comedic red herring, a possible way to expose the truth, rather than anything degrading toward a man identifying as a woman.

Credit due to Hoffman, who likely can identify with Michael Dorsey’s commitment to method and craft, and so can play Dorothy Michaels with the same seriousness. It’s a marvelous performance, heartfelt and honest, and yet also...well, it seems wrong to say it’s not entirely convincing, because I am not sure it’s supposed to be. While it’s pretty much impossible to forget that it’s Dustin Hoffman under the wig and eye shadow, we’re not expected to. Pollack smartly lets context do the heavy lifting in terms of convincing us that Michael could be Dorothy without us ever forgetting that he’s also Michael. The other characters in Tootsie believe that Dorothy is a woman, and they treat her as such, and so we buy into the illusion. And because Dorothy has this dissociative confidence, this belief in herself, the folks around her actually treat her better than they would other women. Which is also part of the point.

Remember above when I said Tootsie was both timely and timeless? There’s something very casual about how the film portrays gender politics, and whether they meant to or were even aware of it, the filmmakers somehow collapse a lot of issues into what is essentially a very human portrayal, achieving a kind of “oneness” rather than a “one-or-the-otherness.” There is a surprising progressiveness in the fact that it’s not Michael’s masculinity that gives Dorothy added courage or strength, but something about Dorothy that makes Michael better. As a woman, he becomes free of his own hang-ups, and it changes his perception. His own battles as a self-involved male actor come into focus, and he somehow channels those frustrations so that he is now reacting as an actress coming up against all kinds of obstacles he never realized existed. In this, Michael manages the best possible trait a performer can have: empathy. He sees what women have to deal with constantly, and he pushes back. Absent of the go-along-to-get-along attitude that results from habitual oppression, he is able to react as any common sense person would and call bullshit everywhere it appears. In other words, he’s not better at being strong because he’s a man, but because it’s the first time he’s having to deal with things that women deal with every day and that he’s otherwise been blind to.

The great thing is that Sydney Pollack and his writing team (which also included several uncredited script doctors, including the legendary Elaine May) avoid the cardinal sin of allowing Michael to have his cake and eat it, too. They overturn the standard for this kind of romantic comedy--or any where the male goes undercover and is privy to the woman’s secret desires--so that when Michael tries to act on the things that he learns as Dorothy, it blows up in his face. Or, more accurately, it’s thrown back at him. Julie may have laid out the perfect pick-up lines to win her heart, but when put into practice, Michael ends up doused in champagne. He can’t benefit from his deceit. (And, honestly, how did you not know that, dude? In practice, the non-line becomes just another line!) In other instances, he’s desexualized. “My mother used to do that to me sometimes,” Julie says to him when Dorothy pets her hair in bed. And one senses that, underneath, Michael is not turned on, he’s legitimately expressing comfort and love. He’s forced to behave toward another human being without taking his own desires into account.

Hell, they even take it one step further: when thrust into the “traditional” feminine roll, like babysitting Julie’s kid, he’s terrible at it. You can put on the uniform, but you have to walk the walk, it’s not just about your undergarments.

It’s not just Michael, though; Tootsie is full of empathy through and through. Dorothy defends battered women in a brief scene on the soap. Julie’s lifestyle as a single mom with a career is never called into question. When the idea of being a gay man or a woman is introduced, no one denounces it. Julie says she’s not able to return another woman’s affection because she’s not together enough to experience broader emotions, and when Michael is asked if he’s gay, he responds, “In what way?” rather than outright refusing. Even Julie’s father (Charles Durning), who falls for Dorothy and then has to deal with finding out he proposed marriage to a fella,  is shown as a quaint old man who tries to see equality for what it is even if he has certain fundamental beliefs that can be seen as antiquated. They aren’t harmful even if they are somewhat wrong. He means well, and he’s trying, and frankly, isn’t that sometimes enough?

It’s that empathy, I think, that allows Tootsie to pull off what otherwise might be a hokey ending. Without giving too much away, the key to Michael making amends is not really explaining Dorothy away, but accepting that she was a part of him. She wasn’t an invention, but an extension. Amusingly, Hoffman gets two credits at the end. He is Michael and he is Dorothy, and both are important enough to get their own byline--even if it is slightly counter to the message that they are inseparable halves.

Which in itself feels rather simplistic now, but we can’t watch such things and judge by modern standards. To do so would be to miss how ahead of the curve Tootsie was and fail to acknowledge that, when it comes to smuggling such a lesson into the mainstream, simplicity is the best disguise. Hell, that’s right there in the movie, too. Michael could be more elaborate or more vain in creating Dorothy, but  instead he basically hides in plain sight. When it comes down to it, Tootsie is so triumphant in that it never really seems to try. All of the above are just natural components of a supremely entertaining movie. The politics are something we put on it as opposed to something Tootsie foists upon us. Like Dorothy, it just is what it is, and that’s also what Pollack and Co. are encouraging the rest of us to be.

For technical specs and special features, see the full article at

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

L'AVVENTURA (Blu-ray) - #98

For me, I think what is most compelling about Michelangelo Antonioni’s challenging 1960 drama L’Avventura is how it so effectively upends the mystery genre to serve the director’s own thematic purpose.

More than fifty years before Gone Girl, Antonioni crafted an oblique narrative about a young woman bored to death with her future husband and the state of love in general who in some manner orchestrates her own disappearance. Anna (Lea Massari) is a rich man’s daughter, engaged to Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), and yet disconnected from her own privileged existence. She tells her father she has no intention of marrying the man, but then makes her friend Claudia (Monica Vitti) wait outside while she has an afternoon quickie with him. The three of them then join other friends on an overnight boat trip to remote waters. While swimming, Anna lies about seeing a shark, presumably to see how everyone will react. She only confides this secret to Claudia. Thus, the other girl is understandably suspicious when Anna goes missing later that day. The travelers have docked at a desolate island. There is no one else on it with them, only an empty shack, and no other way off. Yet, when it’s time to go, Anna has disappeared without a trace. Someone thought maybe they heard another boat, but there is no real proof.

And so L’Avventura becomes a manhunt--at least, after a fashion. The police come to investigate, accusations are thrown, with the fiancé being the first suspect. Sandro and Claudia lead the charge--though separately whenever possible, Claudia does not trust him--and they remain the most dedicated, following whatever leads come up, pursuing a trail that may not be there. It’s along this search that they also derail their own efforts. Sandro kisses Claudia, she rebukes him...and yet, she is drawn to him. Eventually, their attraction takes over. The investigation becomes a romantic getaway. By the time the pair rejoin their other friends--who, bored and unaffected, have carried on with their perpetual holiday--they are behaving as a married couple, alternately bickering and being affectionate. Claudia hates herself just a little; Sandro, as ever, is nonplussed.

But ain’t that just like a man? At least in the way Antonioni depicts Italian society. The men are driven by lust, emerging in the streets as one predatory pack whenever a woman is left to walk unescorted. It happens first with the young American of questionable morals (Dorothy De Poliolo)--who herself claims to be lost and could be seen as a double for Anna--and then when Claudia decides to wait outside when Sandro goes into a shop where Anna had possibly been seen. It’s a reversal of the earlier scene, when Antonioni and cameraman Aldo Scavarda artfully framed Claudia through the crack in the curtains in the room where Sandro and Anna are having their tryst, the audience peering out at the girl peering in, as if perhaps she desires to be up there with them. She is isolated in both scenes, but in the later instance, she becomes the object of sexual craving rather than rebuked. And its Sandro who is now outside observing, witnessing the threat from inside a doorway. Of course, it’s significant that this is immediately after the two of them have made love; the wild animals sense the change.

It’s a split that runs through all the couples in L’Avventura. Anna is not the only one who finds the male/female relationship wanting. (It’s telling that she is reading both F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, a novel about adultery and the disappointment of marriage, alongside the Bible when she disappears; it’s one of God’s few appearances in the movie, faith is as absent as true love.) The wealthy older woman Patrizia (Esmeralda Ruspoli) tells her would-be paramour Raimondo (Lelio Luttazzi) that she was not made for love, and she rebuffs and belittles his advances. He, in turn, proves he can’t handle delicate things, dropping the antique crockery found on the island, a symbol of a lost civilization that the bored socialites argue over. Who owns it? How would you use it? Even knowing where it comes from makes you the object of ridicule. Why be smart or concerned about things long since dead?

Maybe this is why the woman who is made fun of for allegedly wanting to take the pot and put flowers in it is the one to truly transgress. Giulia (Dominique Blanchar) at first seems like the sweetest of the crew, but when Claudia rejoins her friends, she finds Giulia carrying on with a young painter. She is defiant about it, challenging others to judge her, even rubbing it in her husband’s face. The sweet has been made to run sour. There are no happy endings in love stories, only prison sentences. Which is why Anna gets out before she is locked in. Ironically, by doing so, she dooms her best friend to that same fate. Claudia and Sandro are bound together more by their shared concern over Anna’s vanishing then they are any true affection. The final images of L’Avventura show them unable to separate, subject to their roles (he the philanderer, she the long-suffering devotee), and filled with despair. By all evidence, there is nothing else out there for them because nothing is all that modern man truly has.

It’s been several years since I last saw L’Avventura. I wrote about it the last time, too, in connection with a showing of The Big Sleep to promote my comic book You Have Killed Me. It’s funny how much more obtuse the movie becomes with distance. (Perhaps I am remembering L’eclisse more?) Watching it again, I was struck by how much of a standard mystery the movie really is. Except for the missing woman, there are no strange goings on, no tricky editing or confounding digressions. Sandro and Claudia follow a pretty strict path, going from one clue to the next, the narrative adopting somewhat of an episodic structure. This makes it no less intriguing, though; on the contrary, the simplicity only heightens the tension, leaving wider spaces for the viewer to ruminate on Antonioni’s existential commentary, which he doles out sparingly. Each incident is almost like a prompt, a short philosophical riddle for the monastic cinephile to meditate on.

Monica Vitti proves a marvelous vessel for delivering these messages. She appears innocent and empathetic, truly curious and caring, defying her glamorous image, more like the blonde girl next door to Lea Massari’s more calculating woman of the world. It fits noir conventions, they are analogues to Rhonda Fleming and Jane Greer in Out Of The Past, though they are sadly stuck without a reliable Robert Mitchum. Gabriele Ferzetti makes for interesting casting. He appears too old for both of them and physically unremarkable. Not exactly handsome, you wouldn’t notice him without a spotlight. Not the way you would Marcello Mastroianni or Alain Delon, the stars of Antonioni’s next two movies, which form a thematic trilogy (and which I will be revisiting next).

This might be over rationalizing, but it’s possible that my seeing L’Avventura more clearly has as much to do with the new restoration as it does time. The 4K digital upgrade used for this new Blu-ray presents the film in a way that far surpasses any prior release (my screengrabs, for the record, are from Criterion’s 2001 DVD). The clarity with which one can now view the black-and-white landscapes of Antonioni’s movie is quite something. The desolation felt when stranded out at sea, or how small Vitti and Ferzetti appear in the final moments, is illustrated not just by the widescreen framing, but also the depth of detail that is now evident in high definition. That ocean goes on for miles, and the cliffs and balconies give way to a bottomless view. By contrast, the interiors are confining, whether the hull of a boat or a hotel room. Antonioni’s sad figures are at once trapped by their surroundings and humbled by just how insignificant they appear within them.

As an audience, we are left to feel the same way. I can’t imagine the added effect of seeing it in a theater, of the images writ large. The vastness of Antonioni’s vision would blanket the auditorium. L’Avventura is a haunting motion picture, teasing out answerless riddles while making us feel all the more lost for the fact that the lack of any solution is somehow a fault of who we are.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review. The stills shown are taken from the standard-definition DVD release and not the Blu-ray under discussion.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014


Cobbled together with excerpts from my review of The Premiere Frank Capra Collection:

"Of or evocative of the movies of Frank Capra, often promoting the positive social effects of individual acts of courage." - the definition of "Capraesque," as stated by the American Heritage Dictionary

"[Frank Capra] made you pay for those happy endings." - Jimmy Stewart

I find that most -esques are misunderstood and misused as time wears on, so I was surprised to do a quick Google search on "Capraesque" and find the above definition at the top of the list. I would say that, based on some of the director's most successful and beloved, it's a relatively accurate summation of what makes a Frank Capra movie tick. Usually, when I see the tag bandied about, the intention is to suggest that a movie is overly optimistic, that it shows a particularly cheery view of life where someone triumphs and learns a moral message. This particular shading is based primarily on It's A Wonderful Life [review], and it has some basis in truth. It's just not the whole enchilada.

You impressions might be different, though, if you stick with Capra films from his pre-WWII period. It's a Wonderful Life was released in 1946, but all of its important components were starting to be designed as early as 1932, when the director helmed American Madness, part of a string of movies at Columbia Pictures that would embody the true definition of Capraesque.

The more nuanced explanation of what that descriptive entails is as follows: in a Frank Capra movie, there is a clear distinction between the little man and the big man. Any big man who crosses over to try to lend a helping hand to the little man will often be scorned as crazy. Usually, the enemies of such social upheaval are the powers that be in business, the moneymakers who have no concern for the well-being of the common populace, not so long as their coffers are still being lined. When the hero goes up against these paragons of business, it's not just an economic battle, but one of common sense vs. a world gone mad. When the do-gooder is on the brink of absolute ruin, he discovers that his efforts have touched more people than he could ever have dreamed, and his friends and those who have clasped their needy mitts in his helping hand rally to rescue him from destruction.

That is probably the true message of a Capraesque movie, from American Madness onward. No man is poor that has friends. Many of the famous Capra characters say as much. In American Madness, Walter Huston's banker argues for extending loans to those in need because they are decent people who will help the greater good in return, and the message is locked right in the title of You Can't Take It With You. But perhaps Gary Cooper sums it up best as the eponymous Mr. Deeds in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. As he looks over the New York skyline, lost deep in the romance of the city and Jean Arthur, he wonders what a great world it might be if folks everywhere just remembered to like each other. In Capra's way of things, the mob is its own worst enemy as well as the greatest agent of change. It's all a matter of choice. It could just as easily go bad, and it's up to an individual dreamer to be the catalyst for it going right.

That's actually where most modern storytellers who tilt at the windmill of Capraesque go wrong. They mistake Capra's belief in the power of the individual for a simplistic worldview. Frank Capra didn't trade in blind optimism. His characters don't stupidly grin through the rumbling as the walls tumble around them. Because in Capra's movies, the walls do indeed tumble, and the threat of failure is a real and heavy one. His heroes are often struck down as low as they can possibly go. Huston contemplates suicide, Mr. Deeds would rather be declared insane than deal any further with a savage, heartbreaking existence. To put them up against any less would be false bravado. We can only tell who you can count on by how they fare life when it's hit the absolute bottom.

And then there's It Happened One Night, released in 1934.

The movie responsible for Bugs Bunny! Friz Freleng has noted on several occasions that the fast-talking manner of the rascally rabbit is based on Clark Gable's performance in this picture, right down to how he eats a carrot. This is a fitting development, as It Happened One Night is often cited as setting the standard of screwball comedy.

Claudette Colbert plays Ellie Andrews, an heiress who has eloped with a rich aviator. When her father (Walter Connolly, Twentieth Century) vehemently disapproves, she runs away, starting an interstate search stretching from Miami to New York. On her bus ride, she meets Peter Warne (Gable), a tough-as-nails, take-no-crap reporter who begins the picture quitting his job during a drunken phone call. Realizing who Ellie is and seeing she has no idea how to function in the real world away from daddy's money, he attaches himself to her and promises to get her to her husband if he can write the exclusive story. Their many high-speed arguments are delightful, and the pair handle the razor sharp dialogue with aplomb. They also get the emotion right, and filmmakers and actors are still trying to replicate the way Peter and Ellie go from hating everything about each other to being absolutely in love.

In It Happened One Night, the social element isn't nearly as prevalent. The ills of Depression-era America do show up, particularly when the couple donates the last of their money to a starving mother and child on the bus, but this is more of a private revolution. Ellie is going to have to learn to be a real person, to care about what happens around her, something even her father will push her towards. He'd rather see her follow her heart than hook up with some oily flyboy. Capra and Riskin play it smart, avoiding one-dimensional characters. Peter believes in the common good, but he's also not above being self-serving, and though Ellie is out of touch, she has a heart. Being able to capture multiple dimensions is why Capra and Riskin's work together still endures.

Included in this edition is the 1997's Frank Capra's American Dream. Ron Howard narrates this feature-length documentary about the filmmaker made for the American Movie Classics cable channel. It features a host of critics, colleagues, and contemporary actors and directors discussing their love of Capra's movies. The roster of directors alone is impressive: Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Oliver Stone, Arthur Hiller, John Milius, Amy Heckerling, and many more.

The documentary traces Capra's life from a young Italian immigrant growing up in California to his early days as a director, the films he made for Columbia, his service in WWII making films for the Army, the post-war success, and his twilight years. Where Frank Capra's American Dream succeeds tremendously is in rooting out the various events that influenced the director's world view, how an incredibly complex person came to make movies about such complex ideals. In many ways, his heroes were cast in his own image: a man who fought on despite self-doubt and personal failure, who wasn't sure he believed in what he was fighting for but had to see it all the way through. It's a fitting capper for the Premiere Frank Capra Collection, bringing the definition of "Capraesque" all the way to the front as not just an genre aesthetic, but one man's personal storytelling philosophy.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014


There are many scenes in La dolce vita that get referenced over and over, including its bizarre ending and Anita Ekberg’s famous dance in the fountain. But there is none more indicative of the impact of Federico Fellini’s 1960 motion picture than its opening sequence: a helicopter flying a statue of Jesus high above Rome. Up in the whirlybird sits Marcello, as played by Marcello Mastroianni, a reporter who peddles gossip, a prince of the Italian nightlife. As bikini-clad women look up past the towering Christ, Marcello waves down at them and asks one for her phone number. Our hero has arrived.

Grappling with La dolce vita for analysis is a daunting task. Fellini’s film has a large reputation, but you’ll find that when watching La dolce vita, the reputation is inadequate. The movie itself is larger still. It encompasses so much, yet does so with such clear storytelling and verve, one barely knows where to begin. Slicing off a piece to investigate feels trivial; La dolce vita is an uncarvable whole. It embraces and critiques modernity, celebrity culture, the nouveau riche, religion, business, art, ambition, and ennui. It is more vital more than half a century later than most films released today and set in the here and now. In fact, watching it in 2014 and considering how much Fellini’s Rome resembles a more sophisticated version of our own culture of decadence and scandal, it’s hard not to feel like we are all a bunch of rubes. The Italians did it so much better, and so long ago, and wearing much better clothes.

The plot of La dolce vita follows Marcello over several days as he navigates endless parties, difficult romances, and even tries to get a little work done. As we’ll learn, Marcello is somewhat of a gossipmonger, at once proud of it and defensive of the work, while secretly mourning the abandonment of his own literary pretensions. Folks remember him as a serious young writer, he prefers not to remember much at all. When Marcello describes another character, he may as well be describing himself. “Maybe he was just afraid,” he says, before clarifying, “Maybe he was afraid of himself, of us all.

That the man being discussed is the perpetrator of a murder/suicide where he killed two small children before turning the gun on himself should tell you how deep and dark this fear goes. As Marcello had said earlier of his city, it’s a “peaceful jungle,” but it’s a jungle all the same. Wild and fun...until it’s not.

Which isn’t to say La dolce vita is a dour affair. Even when the drunken fatigue sets in, it’s still buoyant and flashy. And, of course, before that, we are along for the ride, partaking of the spectacle right along with the charming rogue who serves as our guide. The first half of the movie is almost entirely on an upswing. Marcello canoodles with the wealthy heiress Maddalena (Anouk Aimée, Lola [review]), he frolics with the Swedish actress who is turning everyone’s head (Ekberg), and he wends his way through nightclubs as if he owns the joints. Like Ray Liotta in GoodFellas , doors open for him. His only real trouble seems to be the tumultuous relationship with his fiancée Emma (Yvonne Furneaux, Repulsion [review]). Emma is a manipulative drunk, and Marcello’s philandering drives her to attempt suicide as a way of getting his attention. Yet, for as contemptible as that is, Emma is indicative of the sickness that is in the air. She is the consequence of this lifestyle of no commitment. Marcello envisions setting down as a kind of deathtrap, and so he keeps the woman he is to marry at arm’s length, in much the same way he holds off his own talent. The Roman partiers are like swifts, the birds whose legs are too weak for them to land and ever take flight again. They must stay up high or come down for good.

Fellini constructs La dolce vita almost like one would a musical. There are certain anecdotes he shares, and then he connects them with song-and-dance numbers. These all take place at the nightclub, and include clowns--one of the director’s passions (see his film I Clowns [review])--who offer a bit of commentary through their routines. Marcello sees himself reflected in the sad buffoon. He and his friends are like the comedic performer’s balloons, airy and insubstantial, following a pied piper to goodness knows where.

I mentioned above that we can see our current culture reflected in La dolce vita. This is true be it in the grisly violence (in addition to the murder/suicide, there are references to domestic abuse) or the press’ obsession with the same. The scenes with Paparazzo (Walter Santesso) are so familiar, the legions of photographers that hound celebrities and public figures have taken their name from the character. If there is any one character that we might be, however, whose shoes we might understand walking in, it’s Marcello’s father (Annibale Ninchi). He doesn’t live in Rome, and on a rare visit, he goes out with his son, partakes of his life, and finds it’s too much for him. Like us, he is the casual observer who can only become engorged on the experience rather than be a part of it.

The contrast between Marcello and his father ties in with other generational divides that Fellini shows us. Not long after, Marcello is at a party in a castle (which he goes to with future Velvet Underground-singer Nico, who is playing herself) that has historical significance far beyond the way the man who is set to inherit it treats the estate. His mother and his father both chastise him, unable to understand how the younger Italians can be throwing away history with such ease. It’s also the site of La dolce vita’s most tender and saddest scene, when Marcello confesses his true feelings to Maddalena, only to lose her in the moment even more than he realizes, an unseen cuckold ridiculing his raw emotion.

By that point, though, Marcello’s defenses are down, and his own nausea (as Sartre might call it) has begun to settle in. His father’s excess was contagious, and after tat particular outing, the fun slowly drains from Marcello’s life. Each successive soiree grows more somber, ending in the bad party to end all bad parties, Marcello engaging in a sad cabaret of his own to try to reignite the musical element and keep the festivities going.* It’s a lurid display, and mean-spirited, and mostly directed at his own disgust with himself. He can no longer deny the bitter irony of Maddalena’s words back when things between them were good: “It’s not so bad. So few of us unhappy people remain.” It’s the truth in opposite. It is that bad, and everyone is unhappy.

Which is why Marcello finds himself where he is at the end, staring at the bizarre sea creature that has been drug up on the beach, his friends unable to appreciate this monstrosity with the appropriate shock or grandeur. It’s a kind of call back to earlier, when the revelers were listening to a friend’s recordings of nature, and nonchalantly declaring, “Birds. That’s exactly how they sound.” They are so deep in their own false constructs, they no longer have any connection to the natural world except as something abstract that can be trapped and held in some way. As the movie closes, Marcello sits between the aquatic behemoth and a little girl who previously told him of her own modest ambition. He is caught between something unidentifiable and grotesque and something pure and hopeful, and Marcello can’t recognize either. So he just carries on with what he’s doing.

Ever the master illusionist, Fellini presents all this as if it were a spontaneous happening, without any structure, as unpredictable as the behavior would appear. This is false, of course, that’s part of the trick. The mirrors and the wires must remain invisible. As a piece of Italian cinema, it’s an expansion of possibilities, a fully widescreen endeavor. There is a joke in the movie when someone asks Anita Ekberg if Italian Neorealism is dead. Her translator doesn’t bother to translate the question, he just quickly tells her to say it’s alive. Fellini is, of course, being cheeky, because La dolce vita is moving beyond Neorealism into something more like hyperrealism, a style more appropriate to the changing times. Fitting, then, that Otello Martelli, who also shot such Neorealist classics as Paisan [review] and Stromboli [review], should be behind the camera for this one, allowing Fellini to keep one foot in tradition while remodeling cinema for the future.

If you’ve been waiting to visit La dolce vita again, or have yet to partake at all, there is no better time than now. After years of inadequate DVDs, Criterion brings us a full restoration, shown in splendid high-definition, struck from a 4K master. The picture is marvelous, with a pristine surface image and just the right amount of grain to maintain the cinematic feel. There are also a ton of extras celebrating La dolce vita, including a tour through one man’s collection of ephemera relating to the movie and interviews both new and old.

* Does anyone else think of the scene in Mad Men where they are riding the lawn tractor at the office party when Marcello mounts the drunk farm girl?

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review. The stills shown are taken from the standard-definition DVD release and not the Blu-ray under discussion.

Monday, October 27, 2014


Serge Bourguignon's Sundays and Cybèle, a 1962 drama that went on to win the Best Foreign Language Oscar the following year, is a unique movie. The only other film it brings to mind is René Clément's Forbidden Games, the tale of two young children living in hiding during World War II, only Sundays and Cybèle is set in peacetime and one of the children has been swapped out for an adult. Regardless, Clement’s remarkable film is excellent company to be in.

Hardy Krüger stars in Sundays and Cybèle as Pierre, a traumatized soldier who has returned from combat with no recollection of who he is and a vague feeling he did something terrible to earn this affliction (we know more than he does, having seen some of what went down in a stylized, dream-like flashback). Pierre lives in a remote French town with Madeleine (Nicole Courcel), a nurse who fell in love with him while he was in the hospital. She gives him a place to stay and tries to encourage his recovery, letting him spend his days in convalescence. He kills some time working for a local artist (Daniel Ivernel), wanders around looking for clues to his identity and trying not to be waylaid by his chronic vertigo.

Things change when Pierre meets Francoise (Patricia Gozzi) and her father at the train station one night while he’s waiting for Madeleine. The girl is being dropped off at a nunnery, and when Pierre finds out the father has no intention of returning to visit her, he decides to look after Francoise himself. The girl is allowed to leave the school every Sunday, and so she and the older men start meeting each week. Francoise’s mother is dead, so without this man posing as her dad, she'd have no one. She swears her love to Pierre and promises to marry him when she is eighteen. The one thing she won’t do, however, is tell him her real name. It’s a secret. The nuns have started calling her by a French name because they don’t like her birth name, which is Greek and has connotations that are not Christian. They rightly understand that names are power.

The subject of an adult and a child finding kinship in itself is not controversial (consider, for instance, Claude Berri’s The Two of Us [review]), but Sundays and Cybèle walks a provocative line. It makes no bones about the closeness of the twelve-year-old girl and her troubled thirty-year-old companion. While the two never cross the line into anything sexual, there is a physical affection between them. They are essentially playacting. They are two orphans playing house. How their friendship is interpreted depends on how they are observed. The act of watching is what Bourguignon is inviting us to partake in, and he crafts Sundays and Cybèle's visual language to emphasize this.

Pierre often appears encircled or framed by objects that draw our eye in his direction and isolate him simultaneously. At other times, he is observed from extreme vantage points, looking up or down. In one intriguing shot, we spy him from the side mirror of a passing vehicle. These images have the dual effect of encouraging us to consider a different way of viewing things, but also of containing him, as if bringing focus to his scattered thoughts. The shapes are often circular, reflecting Pierre's vertigo, but they are also an important clue to Pierre's past, repeating patterns buried in his subconscious. These things are indicative of the future, as well, the act of seeing through the circle intended to remind us of the crystal ball Francoise mentions belonging to her grandmother. When Pierre sees an actual fortuneteller mid-way through Sundays and Cybèle, she has little to say. Yet, he so believes in her powers, Pierre steals a magical dagger from her, believing it will provide access to another world.

Bourguignon offers up various conflicting visions of Pierre. The man who doesn’t even know himself contains multitudes. In one scene, he is like St. Francis of Assisi, innocent and kind, with birds perched on his shoulder and head. Of course, it's also ironic that Pierre is standing in a giant cage that he has built around himself, and that he will soon step out of, leaving the birds behind. Later, Madeleine will realize her own predicament, that she has also built an emotional trap with herself at the center, while walking around the studio where that and other cages have been kept. In her moment of epiphany, she is flanked by one such cage, as well as its shadow, the image blurring behind her, appearing like double vision. Like the two different Pierres.

Because for as benign and childlike as he can be, Pierre can also appear monstrous. In some of the nature scenes--trees and water both frighten him, the stuff of dark fairy tales--I am reminded of Boris Karloff playing Frankenstein's Monster. Pierre is almost too brutish, too unaware, the girl must teach him how to behave, her purity standing in relief to his--though her own innocence is balanced by the mature trappings she adopts as self-preservation. The scenes are strikingly familiar. They throw things in the water, she plays dead and let's him carry her, etc. Consider this in direct contrast to the man on the horse that Francoise imagines as a kind of romantic hero, capable of the chivalry she'd push Pierre toward, but that we fear he is not equipped for. Even when he takes the sorcerer's dagger at the carnival, when he walks away with it concealed under his jacket, Bourguignon places a knight's armor in the background, in our eyeline if not Pierre’s. The knight doesn't readily have a sword, but if he did, its size and sharpness would surely put Pierre's illicit dagger to shame.

Carrying on with this idea, Francoise abhors brutishness. She despises Pierre for hitting another child when he's jealous, and she is also frightened to see him in a drunken brawl, itself spurred on by his reacting with an open hand to a kiss from his ersatz girlfriend. The warrior frozen in the moment of his greatest shame and defeat can only react with force.

Both Krüger and Gozzi are exceptional performers. The tricky thing about their roles is that the are basically swapped. Krüger is playing, for lack of a better description, a kind of dimwitted manchild, a beast who needs taming; on the other hand, Gozzi is a kid who has had to grow up too fast. Hers is the more delicate balancing act, because she must also maintain a certain naïveté. Francoise is still manipulative and selfish, the way a child would be, even as she invents adult scenarios for the two of them. The young actress actually looks like a middle-school version of Juliette Binoche, and frankly, shares some of the talent, as well. Her ability to be so emotionally open is incredible, while Krüger ends up being equally impressive for his restraint. The actor makes Pierre's hurt and confusion visible without pushing toward Of Mice And Men territory. His difficulties seem genuine, and not an impression.

There is much debate from other people in the town over the appropriateness of the relationship between the man and the girl--though not all of it serious. Bourguignon creates quite a bit of comedy out of how the other townspeople observe them on their own Sundays out. Some, such as the couple who refer to Pierre as a "satyr," are rather nonchalant about the creep factor; others not so much. This will ultimately be the downfall of their union. If a magic spell is being cast, it can only last so long. Indeed, the film ends at Christmas, and shortly after Francoise has revealed her true name (spoiler: it's in the title). She writes it down on a piece of paper and puts it in a box and gives it to Pierre as a present--another act of magic. To know a spirit's true name is to possess that spirit, something you should keep in mind when you get to the final scene. (That I won't spoil.)

These differing points of view are meant to challenge our own perceptions of this relationship. That's the daring thing of Sundays and Cybèle, that Bourguignon would dare to confront what is "normal" and suggest that maybe the more disgusting implications of the pairing only exists because the common folks project those possibilities onto it. Because, really, aren't these just two people who need one another? Their bonding method is unsettling in its way, but no moreso than the sad fact that it's a shame that the world has only given us more reasons to be suspicious in the years since Sundays and Cybèle was first released. The movie’s central difficulties aren't easy to dismiss, but then, neither are all the other possibilities the script raises. Nor can one ignore the honesty of the emotions on display, which is what makes Sundays and Cybèle so genuinely intriguing.

For technical specs and special features, see the full article at