Sunday, August 31, 2014


For the final selection in The Essential Jacques Demy, we don’t exactly go back to the start, but at least back to the high point of the director’s career.

1982’s Une chambre en ville is a distant cousin of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg [review], taking that film’s musical stylings and applying them to a more realistic aesthetic, complete with political underpinnings. Set in 1955, this operatic motion picture stars Richard Berry as Francois, a metalworker on strike with his union brothers. Une chambre en ville opens with a clash between the workers and the police, switching from a black-and-white newsreel style to color as the first blows are thrown. Francois escapes unharmed, but his life is put in jeopardy regardless. With no money to pay the rent, he risks eviction from “the baroness,” Margot (Danielle Darrieux), who lets him a room in her apartment.

Margot doesn’t care for politics, she has problems of her own. Her daughter Edith (Dominique Sanda, The Conformist) is in a loveless marriage to an impotent man (Michel Piccoli) whom we will also find out has a violent temper. Granted, Edith taunts him, leaving the house wearing a fur coat and nothing else and selling herself on the streets. Edith is stubborn and flighty. She consults a fortune teller before making any decisions, and it’s through the tarot that Edith is informed that she’s destined to fall in love with a metalworker.

Unsurprisingly, this puts her on a collision course with Francois, who falls for her completely. It’s an added complication he doesn’t need. He is already in a relationship with sweet Violette (Fabienne Guyon, Life is a Bed of Roses [review]), who is trying to find the right time to tell him she’s pregnant.

Une chambre en ville takes place over the course of two days, though two days intensely lived. Love is lost and gained, as are jobs. And lives. Demy’s scenario has the same exaggerated romanticism as his more famous breakthrough, but he has traded Cherbourg’s candy-colored set decoration for the drabness of real life. Margot’s apartment may be dressed in red, and Violette’s frock may also be a lovely pink, but the dominant color here is the brown of Edith’s hair and her fur coat. The streets where Francois and his comrades fight and bleed are grimy and dark. Une chambre en ville combines cinematic conceits with more down-to-earth concerns.

It works fairly well, even if it’s not as invigorating or swoon-worthy as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Une chambre en ville lacks much of what made that movie remarkable. Dominique Sanda is fine, but she’s no Catherine Deneuve. Likewise, composer Michel Colombier (The Model Couple [review]) is no Michel Legrand.  The music in Une chambre en ville is absent of the sweeping melodies of Legrand’s score, and it’s also missing a memorable theme. I’m not too sure how I feel about more modern electric instruments creeping in, either.

Even so, there is a vibrancy to Une chambre en ville that is still quite impressive, despite it being a later period effort from the filmmaker. For those wondering why the boxed set skips more than 10 years between movies, the documentary accompanying this disc sheds some light on the topic. Released in 1995, five years after Demy’s death, The World of Jacques Demy is a loving tribute put together by his wife, Agnes Varda (who, of course, is an accomplished filmmaker in her own right). A loose biographical portrait cobbled together with film clips, archival interviews, and new conversations with friends and admirers, The World of Jacques Demy offers insight into the man’s unique passions, revealing his origins as a child of war and an early film buff. Varda covers all the hits, but also a few of the misses. There are some intriguing glimpses of lesser-known Demy movies, including his mid-60s American picture, Model Shop, a sequel to Lola [review] and originally intended as Harrison Ford’s film debut. (Varda includes his screen tests, as well as tracking the actor down to talk about what almost was.) There is also a manga adaptation called Lady Oscar and a rock ’n’ roll musical that earned Demy little traction between Donkey Skin [review] and Une chambre en ville. The only notable release I had heard of from his latter period was the Marcello Mastroianni and Catherine Deneuve comedy A Slightly Pregnant Man. Perhaps we could get an Eclipse boxed set of the lesser Jacques Demy? Because, honestly, I’m intrigued enough to track some of these down.

The World of Jacques Demy actually makes for a nice capper to The Essential Jacques Demy. Though Varda promises a discreet glimpse at her lover, the affection is evident. She views her husband with the same romantic sparkle that made all the movies here so vital. He was a man who lived his fantasy, and then did his best to share it with us.

Jacques Demy, 1931-1990

This disc was provided by Criterion for purpose of review.

Thursday, August 28, 2014


Yet another film in the long list of titles I learned about through Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert on “At the Movies,” though one I had not seen up until now. I would have been a senior in high school or a freshman in college when Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! would have been released, and it would have likely been a little too perverse for me, farther off the beaten track than I was ready to go. I was still only dabbling in foreign films, had not seen a Pedro Almodovar picture, and was a bit skeeved out by the clip they showed of the toy scuba diver swimming between a woman’s legs. That’s, of course, the most infamous scene in Tie Me Up!, the one that tested the MPAA system and helped lead the way to the NC-17 classification.

Now that I’ve seen the film, that’s one of the least disturbing elements. At least in that little bit, Marina (Victoria Abril) is enjoying herself and having fun under her own volition. In fact, it’s the last moment of freedom, really, before a man of another kind will invade her life.

Marina is an actress who has just completed filming a movie. It’s a good time for her. Prior to this, she struggled with heroin addiction and starred in adult films. It’s these past issues that will give her friends and family cause to worry when she disappears, but also indicates the darker aspects of her personality. It was likely on one of her drug-fueled benders when she first met Ricki (Antonio Banderas) a year prior, himself on one of his many escapes from a mental institution. The 23-year-old is out again, but this time legally, having been cleared for regular life. His first order of business is to find Marina, follow her home, and trap her there, kidnapping her and holding her hostage long enough for her to see what kind of a guy he really is and fall in love with him.

Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is a strange movie. Its subject matter is dark and serious, but its execution is practically frivolous. I suppose the best indication of what kind of genre Almodovar is attempting is signaled by the on-set scenes for when Marina is making her own film within the film. Almodovar is having a metafictional lark here, poking fun at himself and his reputation as a director who favors women, but he’s also calling attention to the odd, uncategorizable nature of Tie Me Up!. The film Marina is starring in is “a spin-off of the horror genre,” and so it is with Tie Me Up!. It is a sexualized Misery, with maybe Ricki channeling a little bit of Humphrey Bogart from The Desperate Hours. The fact that Marina escapes her would-be lover (and also killer) in the fake film by strangling him with a phone cord is a bit of misdirection. It’s Marina who will be tied up with a cord, and eventually she won’t be looking for revenge. Ricki’s plan works. Stockholm syndrome sets in, and Marina ends up loving her captor.

It’s hard to imagine Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! being made today. Or at least being released via any mainstream channels. There’s plenty of gross stuff ending up going straight to disc, but most studios would balk at a film that opens with its hero being released from a mental hospital, stalking a woman, and then becoming her lover with no consequence. Almodovar approaches the scenario with a macabre glee, teasing us with the trappings of a Hitchcockian psychological thriller but then going deep to really get down into the muck of it all. His trademark Technicolor fetish lends Tie Me Up! a bizarre surreality, almost as if Marina and Ricki are in an otherworldly wonderland where his sick fantasies lose their dangerous edge. In a similar fashion, the music by Ennio Morricone toggles between sinister Bernard Hermann-esque themes and more grandiose Hollywood swells. Are we watching a beautiful romance or Norman Bates being let lose to pursue his vision of Madeleine Elster?

The young Banderas is pretty incredible here, cat-like in his predatory movements, but then strangely sweet. He hints at the broken little boy that still lurks somewhere underneath all this grown-up desire. He also has a smoldering sexuality, the quality that had Madonna chasing after him in Truth Or Dare, which would have been shot around the same time. He’s handsome and charming but also just downright weird. In a way, his brokenness fills in the fissures of Marina’s own fractured personality. She exudes sexuality right from her first scene, when she decides to forgo wearing underwear because the lines will show; as a performer, Abril is absolutely comfortable in her own skin, and so she manages to show Marina as someone completely attuned to her own pleasure. As her anger dissipates--aided a little by her lapse back into drugs, it should probably be noted--we can see how she would come to crave the intensity of Ricki’s affection. Almodovar keeps her wrestling with her feelings right up until the end. She can’t make up her mind whether to go along with Ricki or to break out.

And as a viewer, you won’t always be clear on her intentions, either. Even up to the last shot, where for a second it appears Almodovar might borrow from The Graduate [review] and end on an ambiguous expression, I was ready to believe she had realized she had made the wrong decision. The momentary jitters help salvage a final sequence that is maybe a little convenient a turn of events, the director unable to resist giving in to his more melodramatic urges and tacking on a quick resolution.

Yet, it may also just be the act of a prankster. There are a lot of playful gags littered throughout the movie. Banderas outside the sweet shop window with the “O” in the sign over his face and looking like a diver’s mask, the S&M-like garb of the villain in the horror movie, Marina captured between Ricki’s spread legs when he’s standing on his head just before he turns her whole existence upside down--Almodovar’s subversion of conventional sexual imagery is key to subverting our own expectations of what makes a healthy relationship. Holding hands is replaced by handcuffed wrists, and a kidnapper might fix your plumbing (and not just metaphorically). If we were entirely comfortable with it, the trickster would be deprived of his fun. It suggests Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! maybe owes as much to John Waters as to Alfred Hitchcock. We should never stop laughing any more than we should stop guessing.

This is Criterion's first foray into Almodovar's filmography, and hopefully it won't be the last. With a crisp, colorful high-definition transfer and a well chosen selection of extras, including new interviews with the cast and crew, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is an excellent presentation, bringing the singular Spanish director into the fold of a singular company.

This disc was provided by Criterion for purpose of review.

Sunday, August 17, 2014


Though all of his musicals had fairy tale elements to them, Jacques Demy waited until 1970 to embrace the genre in full, adapting Charles Perrault's Donkey Skin for a big-screen, live-action version of a Disney cartoon.

Catherine Deneuve once again stars, playing both the Queen and the Princess, a smart device given the film's darker plot developments. As Donkey Skin begins, the Queen passes away, her illness the price to be paid for the good fortune that has otherwise befallen the kingdom. The land is rich, thanks to a magical donkey that poops money and jewels; however, the royal family has no male heir, and the Queen makes her King (Jean Marais, Orpheus [review]) promise he will only remarry if his new wife is both a princess and as beautiful as she. This, of course, proves impossible as no one is as beautiful as Catherine Deneuve except...well, Catherine Deneuve. Seeing no other alternative and suddenly smitten by the child he previously ignored, the King becomes determined to marry his daughter.

Suspecting that this is not kosher, the Princess goes to her fairy godmother (Delphine Seyrig, Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles [review]) seeking advice. When the fairy's first challenges to test the King's devotion fail, she has to get drastic. She suggests her goddaughter request the skin of the magic donkey, assuming killing the golden ass will be too much to ask. This too fails, and so as a last resort, the fairy has the Princess hide away as a scullery made in a nearby village. She wears the donkey's hide, head and all, as a cape, and never washes, a trick to keep suspicious noses away.

On paper, this set-up is grotesque, something Demy is well aware of. Unlike most modern retellings of fable and folklore, the French filmmaker doesn't scrub the narrative of its more difficult elements. His script mines the original for its most transgressive taboos. Not just incest, but vanity and prejudice, as well. How people treat the girl they call Donkey Skin exposes their own petty bigotry. As is the nature of Cinderella stories, the beautiful Princess can be hiding in the dankest of corners.

It's the person who can see past the superficial that is rewarded with love and treasure. The Red Prince (Jacques Perrin, the artist in The Young Girls of Rochefort [review]) from the next kingdom over sees past the enchantment and falls in love with Donkey Skin. The second half of Donkey Skin is devoted to his manipulating his  parents into letting him marry the disguised monarch.

Stylistically, Donkey Skin is fascinating. Demy establishes a kind of shabby chic. As befitting the late 1960s, he is adopting an old form for new aesthetics. The opulent fashions behind castle walls seem gaudy and inauthentic next to the grungy reality of medieval life. One has an almost sensory reaction to the dirtier aspects of serf living even while being enchanted by the gorgeous magic of the glamorous fairy. Seyrig is an excellent choice to play a mystical seductress. Her fairy godmother has her own selfish motives to keep the King from finding his bliss. It's suggested there is some dalliance in their past that left her betrayed. The Princess is like a child of divorce caught between two bitter parents. The Lilac Fairy also provides Demy with his most potent symbol for the skewed point-of-view of his aged allegory: as the years pile up and overtake the fairy, so do her powers fade. Just as most of us lose our imagination the longer we grow in the tooth.

The surreal set designs in Donkey Skin, including the use of actual human beings as furniture and props, recall the exquisite art direction in Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast [review[. This is probably not a coincidence. Nor is the fact that Demy's King was Cocteau's Beast. Both auteurs challenge our grown-up notions of magic and illusion. We see the magicians at work, we hear that the Lilac Fairy is losing her fairy dust the older she gets, but our desire to believe and be swept away wins out. Unlike Cocteau, Demy indulges in a few anachronisms, the most notable of which is the appearance of the helicopter in Donkey Skin's finale. Is it possible a young Alex Cox was sitting in a theater all those year's ago taking notes, or is the end of Walker [review] just one of those things...?

Jacques Demy mostly works with a new team here, though he does reunite with Michel Legrand, who wrote the music and the songs. Donkey Skin comes off as both a natural transition from what came before and also the realization of a dream. It's the kind of movie Jacques Demy had to make. A sincere fairy tale that serves double-duty as a commentary on the same.

This disc was provided by Criterion for purpose of review.

Saturday, August 16, 2014


This is my second write-up of Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited. You can read my older review here. What is below isn't actually a legit review, or even a finished piece. These are my rough notes for an introduction I made last night before a screening of the movie, complete with "Hotel Chevalier," as part of the NW Film Center's "Wes's World: Wes Anderson and his Influences" festival. It features some old ideas cribbed from my previous write-up, and some new ones based on my re-watching the film. The piece is still a bit ragged, as it was just meant to act as a guide for while I talked, so there are likely some typos; each time you encounter one, imagine me saying...

The Darjeeling Limited has become the default Wes Anderson movie that no one cares about. You bring it up, everyone’s got an opinion about it.

To me, it’s one of the more interesting and challenging of his movies. It’s a eulogy for the Anderson movies that came before it, ending one phase of his career and setting the stage for the next.

As Marc Mohan said last week introducing The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou [review], the filmography of Wes Anderson is almost like one giant film, the way Susan Sontag described the 1960s work of Jean-Luc Godard. It’s all connected, and if not literally one volume to the next, it’s at least a shared universe. Thus, there are treads and characters that connect: to all of his other movies. You have Max Fischer, Richie Tenenbaum, maybe a little Eli Cash.

You have Steve Zissou, being left behind, almost like a phantom. To my way of thinking, the bit part Bill Murray plays here is actually their father, whose passing has prompted the journey the three brothers at the center of the movie are taking.

In essence, the father figure is dead. It’s time to move on in search of the next thing. This makes for one of the more emotionally raw of Anderson’s films. It wears its heart on its sleeve.

Which means it gets personal in ways Anderson movies haven’t before. There are three writers behind this: Wes Anderson, his filmmaking compatriot Roman Coppola, and actor Jason Schwartzman, who is also Roman’s cousin. Each writer has created an avatar for himself in the three brothers in the movie, and infused their mannerisms and fetishes with coded symbolism.

In fact, the whole movie, like much of Anderson’s work, has kind of a secret code that you have to break. The filmmaker is often accused of being precious, but every detail matters. He is precious in that he is like a little kid trying to build what he sees in his imagination, and he cares deeply about getting it right.

Owen Wilson plays Francis, the eldest, and he serves as a stand-in for Wes Anderson. Francis is the beleaguered ringleader, unappreciated and beaten-up--which was probably how Wes felt following the tepid reception to The Life Aquatic. Like his creator, Francis also wants to get it right. He wants to contain the chaos, but finds he can’t. You can’t manufacture a spiritual journey. He tells his brothers to “say yes to everything,” but then hands them an itinerary.

Jason Schwartzman plays Jack, and in doing so represents himself: the arty romantic looking to stake a claim.

I’m glad they are including the prologue of “Hotel Chevalier” because Darjeeling is really incomplete without it. Particularly in regards to Jack. He is essentially Max Fischer looking to be grow up and be taken seriously, stuck in a fugue at a time where the fictions he has created have become too real and have overtaken him.

Look around his hotel room, you’ll see he has essentially built himself a replica of his childhood bedroom, a la Edward Appleby, the dead romantic figure in Rushmore. [review] There are toy cars, art pieces, and objects that are important to him. He’s locked away, indulging in books and movies.

He’s watching Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 on the TV. In that film, William Holden’s character is like the Max Fischer of the POW camps: he has the whole place wired. He built a racetrack and runs mice on them. He has a telescope for looking at the women in the neighbor camp. He is both separate and apart.

You also might spot a Nancy Mitford book on his bed. It’s a twofer, one of my favorites, the combined The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. Mitford is a bit like F. Scott Fitzgerald as a woman, known for beautiful prose and writing thinly veiled fictions about her and her sisters; Jack does the same about him and his brothers. No matter how much he claims it’s all made up.

Things go wonky for Jack in his exile when that his estranged lover--played by Natalie Portman--shows up unannounced and invades his space. Bad for him, lucky for us, in that it’s easily the sexiest a Wes Anderson movie has ever gotten. But Natalie Portman also utters the first of many portents in Darjeeling: “Don’t you think it’s time you go home?” He can’t escape his past any more than he can escape her.

“Hotel Chevalier” ends with a song by Peter Sarstedt, “Where Do You Go To My Lovely,” which is the most Wes Anderson of songs. It’s all references--Marlene Dietrich, the Rolling Stones--using these superficial details to get into a lover’s head. There’s something so self-conscious about it, it’s hard not to think Anderson is toying with us. “Where Do You Go To” becomes Jack’s love theme.

Finally, we have the most complex character to decode: Roman Coppola, as represented by Adrien Brody. Peter is also trying to establish himself as his own man, and his real-life parallel maybe has the most to overcome in that regard. Roman Coppola is a film director himself, he made a movie called CQ many years back--about, surprise, a young filmmaker trying to avoid turning into a hack. His resume also includes a lot of second unit work for his famous father: Francis Ford Coppola.

Francis Coppola one of the more influential titans of the 1970s. He was surely an influence on Wes Anderson. The Conversation, the Godfather films [review], Apocalypse Now.

Keep that in mind when you observe Adrien Brody in Darjeeling: he is the one who keeps stealing his dead father’s clothes for himself. He wears the old man’s glasses, so as a metaphor is looking through his eyes, despite it being a different prescription than his own. As the offspring of a famous man, it’s hard to establish your own vision.

This carries over into the theme of fathers. I think it’s Peter, Brody’s character, who gives the best evidence that Bill Murray is their dead dad. Watch how he looks at the Bill Murray in that first scene, both when he passes him, and once he’s on the train.

Peter is also dealing with his own issues: he could the next Royal Tenenbaum or Steve Zissou. His wife is pregnant, and he is running away. Sadly, later, he’ll be the one who fails in saving another child. Not a good omen.

The fact that Wes Anderson is trading some of his daddy issues to focus on mommy issues is kind of fascinating. Anjelica Huston as the mother in both Tenenbaums [review] and Zissou was still invested in what the men were doing, she’s the one who takes care of things, even reluctantly. Not this time. For the first time in Anderson, the mother has abandoned her post. (Not counting the late Mrs. Fischer.) Maybe in that sense the German women on the train are supposed to make us think of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. [review] She can’t help but get out of there, and you can’t blame her. She’s had enough.

Extending the Coppola comparison, for a second, and sticking with fathers and mothers: there is a journey here akin to Apocalypse Now. In looking for their mom, the boys are seeking the rogue who has gone native.

There is also Hearts of Darkness, the documentary about the making of that film, where we see it was Roman Coppola’s mother, Eleanor, who kept the movie--and his father--on track when Francis Ford’s mad boyish adventure went off the tracks.

Also in Apocalypse Now, there is the threat of a tiger attack, which we have repeated here. Francis Ford Coppola himself was referencing William Blake: “Tyger Tyger, burning bright, / In the forests of the night; / What immortal hand or eye, / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

This maybe wasn’t intentional on Anderson’s, but if you were here for Shawn Levy’s introduction to Rushmore, these things extend back whether it’s planned or not. Shawn quoted Borges stating that artists create their own precedents, even if by osmosis or coincidence. And one of the major reasons for this series is to make these connections, we want to see how the themes all lock together.

I was struck watching this last night, actually, that the train porter serves as a kind of father figure, immediately usurping Owen Wilson’s authority the moment they step on his train. If we want to go a little silly, then that means Jack/Jason Schwartzman sleeping with the porter’s girlfriend has some Oedipal overtones. Not to mention Natalie Portman and Anjelica Huston have matching haircuts.

But that may be going to far. It’s still worth considering, thought, that Owen Wilson’s Francis might want to take over for his dad, but what we end up seeing is that he’s just like his mother. All his habits are from her. I like the line he says, “Did I raise us...kind of?” She won’t validate him, he’s hoping his brothers will.

Moving on from that...

The other important film connection to make here is to India. India provides Wes Anderson an opportunity. Where I think Darjeeling provides a bridge between the two phases of Anderson’s career is he steps outside of his own uncanny valley in away he hasn’t before. It’s his first time away from an entirely curated world.

We left the city in Steve Zissou, sure, but Zissou still lived in an imaginary landscape, one that he could control, it was his Life Aquatic.

In Darjeeling, while the characters still bear a stylistic connection to the Anderson aesthetic, they have been moved into a world that is beyond their control, where they don’t fit. While cinematically, it’s the India that the director saw in early Merchant-Ivory movies and Satyajit Ray, it still resembles something other than Anderson’s common landscape. The Darjeeling Limited both as narrative and as process is an adventure of displacement.

As I mentioned, Francis is trying to manufacture and manicure the spiritual experience, but it’s way to controlled for a legitimate epiphany. To the point that to have a real experience, the boys have to be thrown off the train and see life as it’s really being lived, away from the conveniences of privileged travel. It makes me think a little of Lost In Translation, [review] and Scarlett Johansson leaving the hotel where she’s been hiding and viewing Japanese life as an observant witness. (A film, of course, made by Roman Coppola’s extremely talented little sister.)

These guys are presented with a real awakening moment out at the river and in the remote village, but of course, they kind of miss it. Anderson makes the connection for them, he goes from one funeral back to another, letting us see the events prior to burying their father, but these guys are dense. They immediately fall back into their old tricks once they return to the city, and have no choice but to go back out again and finish what they started.

After this, we would see Anderson retreat back into his own environment, and even take it to new extremes. Moonrise Kingdom [review] and to a greater extent Grand Budapest Hotel [review] has moved him even further from reality. There is a kind of magical realism, a cinematic illusion a la Georges Méliès, that has taken over his material. It’s actually hinted at in this movie with the very obviously fake tiger. There’s a part of him that wants the illusion to appear as illusion

I don’t know if the poor reaction to Darjeeling inspired it, but there is almost a sense that Anderson decided to take his ball and go home. If we didn’t want him stepping out into a recognizable world, then he wasn’t going to. He would create his own. I imagine him sitting in his studio listening to the Beach Boys’ “In My Room” and dreaming up this new fantasy life, untethered and unrestricted. It’s what’s made his latest films so fresh, but what also makes The Darjeeling Limited so effective. As they say, you have to leave before you can come back.