Sunday, August 18, 2019

THE MIRACLE WOMAN - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review was originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2014.


The 1931 drama The Miracle Woman is the kind of movie that few folks besides Frank Capra could pull off. It's a film that manages to simultaneously be a sincere portrayal of faith while maintaining a healthy skepticism in regards to human nature. While other directors might find a hard time striking a balance between these two themes, their own personal interests or agenda causing them to lean heavily one way or the other, Capra deftly works between them without ever seeming like he's pushing a message.

Barbara Stanwyck stars in The Miracle Woman as Florence Fallon, the daughter of a preacher who is being run out of his church by the congregation he devoted his life to because they prefer a younger, flashier style of clergy. When the old man dies the day he is meant to give his final sermon, Florence delivers a blistering lecture instead. Bob Hornsby (Sam Hardy, King Kong), a con man passing through town, happens to catch the performance. Impressed by Florence's guts and her knowledge of the Bible, he takes advantage of her lost belief to convince her to join him in running a fake revival scam. Florence soon becomes a popular traveling preacher who reaches a huge audience by broadcasting moral lessons on the radio.


One person who hears her message is an aviator who was blinded while serving his country. John (David Manners, Dracula) is about to throw himself out the window and commit suicide when Florence's voice calls him back from the ledge. He goes to one of her revival meetings, a circus-like spectacle that even includes live lions on stage, and ends up meeting Florence by volunteering to join her in the lion's den. A friendship develops, and then romance, as John's natural goodness reminds Florence that she once believed in providence, too. The only thing standing between them being together is Bob, who isn't keen on seeing his meal ticket run off and get married. It's one thing for Florence to make others believe in her message, but a whole other thing if she starts believing it herself.


The script for The Miracle Woman is by Jo Swerling (The Pride of the Yankees [review], Lifeboat [review]), working from a play by John Meehan and Robert Riskin. It's nicely paced, cutting time between the exaggerated world of Florence's operation, including swinging backstage parties run by Bob, and the isolated quiet of John's apartment. The relationship between John and Florence progresses naturally, with the blind man offering her a respite from her troubles. Stanwyck does quite a job here, managing to keep the bluster of her performances and her diva-like attitude off-stage from overshadowing the more honest emotions of Florence's true character.


The big finish that brings down Florence's invented church plays just as well as the angry sermon she delivers at the start in the very real one, and though the film's closing scene is a bit sappy, Capra otherwise maintains the earnestness of the narrative without ever straining. The Miracle Woman both shows respect for true believers and pity for how their beliefs can sometimes be taken advantage of. Hardy's onscreen villain may be a bully and a brute, but the real evil in Capra's tale is how people seeking answers and solace often end up juked by the very system they've gone to for help.



LADIES OF LEISURE - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review was originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2013.


An early effort from director Frank Capra, Ladies of Leisure was adapted by Capra and Jo Swerling in 1930 from a popular play. Barbara Stanwyck leads a fine cast, including comedic supporting actors Lowell Sherman and Marie Provost, playing a prissy playboy and a sassy gal pal, respectively.

Stanwyck stars as Kay Arnold, a professional party girl who is rescued from a bad night by amateur party pooper Jerry Strong (Ralph Graves). Jerry is the son of a wealthy railroad man who is trying to buck the family business and become a painter. He hires Kay to be his model with the goal of capturing the hopeful look he saw on her face the night he picked her up. For Kay, this is a stroke of good luck, as steady employment will keep her out of trouble, but the streetwise gal has a hard time replicating the naive optimism Jerry is looking for. Plus, she feels increasingly hopeless as she begins to fall for the artist. He's already engaged to a woman more fitting his social standing.


A pre-code picture, Ladies of Leisure tackles some fairly scandalous subjects. Kay's initial career is basically being a paid escort, though the script frames both her and her roommate Dot (Prevost) as modern independents looking to get by on their own. One of the more fascinating scenes comes mid-movie when, hoping to catch Jerry's attention, Kay attempts to prove she's capable of more domestic duties, donning an apron to fry some eggs and play the wife. His failure to notice her efforts is heartbreaking. The actress was an expert at playing women with moxy whose gumption often masked true vulnerability. Kay is basically an early version of the grifter Stanwyck later portrayed in The Lady Eve [review], though without Preston Sturges' whip-smart writing.


Ladies of Leisure is an imperfect affair. Pacing is a big problem. Long chunks of the movie are dragged down by an awkward stiffness. Capra's direction seems stuck somewhere between the traditional stage and silent pictures, he hasn't yet mastered the art of the talkies. Luckily, there is plenty of comic relief from Prevost and Sherman that gooses proceedings back to life. There are also some surprisingly dark twists in the final act, when Kay is convinced that she really is bad for Jerry and makes increasingly drastic choices to free him from her and then liberate herself from her own bad decisions. There is an excellent tension building to the finale, even if the very end feels tacked on rather than organic.




Saturday, August 17, 2019

CHRISTOPHER STRONG - CRITERION CHANNEL


Dorothy Arzner was a pioneer. She was the only female film director in the Pre-code era, amassing a solid resume that featured both comedy and drama. Her 1933 picture, Christopher Strong, is definitely in the latter category. It’s a dual romance: a middle-aged husband steps out on his wife at the same time his coming-of-age daughter is learning her first lessons of the heart while pursuing a married man.


And it starred another pioneering woman of cinema. Christopher Strong is only Katharine Hepburn’s second film, the actress may not snag the title--Strong is her lover, not her character--but it’s still her show. Hepburn stars as Lady Cynthia Darrington, an independent aristocrat with a yen for adventure. Cynthia is a pilot whose exploits earn headlines, as she wins races and breaks records. She comes into the orbit of the Strongs by accident--literally. She runs Harry (Ralph Forbes, The Barretts of Wimpole Street), the lover of young Monica Strong (Helen Chandler, Dracula), off the road with her car. He is out looking for an impossible treasure for a scavenger hunt: a woman over 21 who has never had a love affair. Cynthia fits the bill.

At the same time, Monica is rushing across town to grab her father, who is the other prize of the night. Sir Christopher (Colin Clive, Frankenstein) represents a man who has been married more than five years who has never cheated on his wife. Amused by their mutual exploitation, Christopher and Cynthia immediately hit it off. Cynthia also befriends Monica and becomes a bit of a mentor. It’s all seemingly innocent enough. Only Lady Strong (Billie Burke, The Wizard of Oz) sees what’s really going on.


Naturally, Cynthia and Christopher fall for each other. Their growing attraction runs parallel to the Strongs discouraging Monica from dating Harry--one romance goes up, the other is encouraged to go down. It’s only as Sir Christopher indulges his passion for this other woman that he comes to understand his daughter’s emotional turmoil, finally relenting to Monica’s wishes when Harry himself gets a divorce. Ironically, though, once Monica discovers what is going on, she does not approve of her father and her friend making a fool of her mother. The girl’s judgment raises questions of which affair is more hurtful, and forces Cynthia to make a decision.


Hepburn is a vision here. Young and dreamy, and every bit the icon we know today. Decked out in chic pantsuits and exuding an alluring confidence, this feels very much like the performance upon which Cate Blanchett based her Oscar-winning portrayal in The Aviator. Katharine Hepburn already has a natural command of the screen, and her revelations of Cynthia’s vulnerability feel less like a dismantling of the character’s defenses and more of an organic relaxation--falling in love is the one bold adventure she has yet to embark on.


Since Christopher Strong came several years before the Hayes Code, Arzner does little to gloss over or obfuscate the full extent of the scandal that drives the film into its final act. The melodrama is heavy, even if the execution is not. Though the script is sometimes clumsy, the emotion is real. Surprisingly enough, the most effective scene is the one where Arzner and writer Zoe Akins (How to Marry a Millionaire) pull back the most. It’s a two-hander with Hepburn and Burke, where Cynthia must face the woman she’s deceiving but who doesn’t know she’s being deceived. Burke is so understated and yet so knowing in her own way, it’s the only scene that Hepburn has stolen.


Though the controversial plot of Christopher Strong is certainly tame by today’s standards, the authenticity of the heartache means it’s still relatable. People hurt the same, regardless of the era. It’s also kind of refreshing to watch a film that values the romance over the sex. Christopher Strong would never be made now without a few steamy scenes between both couples; hardly anyone has the confidence to play sex and violence offscreen anymore. Granted, Christopher Strong also feels a little slow, it’s at times dialed back too much, but for fans of good drama--not to mention students of early cinema--it still has plenty to offer.




Wednesday, August 14, 2019

KLUTE - #987


How well do you know yourself?

It’s a question that a pretentious agent poses to Bree Daniel, the would-be actress and call girl played by Jane Fonda, midway through 1971’s Klute. It’s attached to a muddled metaphysical philosophy about performance, and we are clearly meant to dismiss the guy as a charlatan, but this jerk has inadvertently asked the most important question in Bree’s life--and in the movie. Bree’s quest for self, and her denial of the same, is central to Klute, a sometimes thriller that ultimately ends up being about character and, in its own odd way, a modern romance.


The set-up is pretty much a classic crime scenario: a rich businessman from Pennsylvania has gone missing, with the only suspicious clue being dirty letters he wrote to a prostitute in New York. When the police investigation goes stale, the family and the man’s company send John Klute (Donald Sutherland, Don’t Look Now [review]) to follow up. Klute begins with the girl, Bree, who honestly doesn’t remember the missing man. Her best guess is someone who beat her up two years prior, but she doesn’t have his name or contact. Klute pushes Bree to take him through her contacts to try to trace her steps back to that violent john. Along the way, the pair develops a strange relationship, entering a game of manipulation, sex, and trust--all three most often wrapped up together.


John Klute is a bit of an enigma; ironically, he is the more confident yet also the more buttoned-up of the two. Sutherland plays him as alert, but distant, always watching but with his head up and his leaning back so he’s looking down. The film, which was directed by Alan J. Pakula (All The President’s Men; Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing [review]), practically invites the audience to not like John Klute. He seems like a hypocrite, always judging, yet quietly indulging his own kink. He’s a voyeur who wants to follow in his quarry’s footsteps.

No, the film may be named after Klute, but it really belongs to Bree. We follow her in her private life as an added observer. Bree is watched by us, Klute, the unseen villain, and just about every man in every room she walks in. Fonda is fierce and complex, moving naturally through the character’s contradictions. Though Bree is trying to step away from being a call girl to focus on acting and modeling--a life we are shown to be even more degrading via a few nicely done scenes--in her mind, hooking allows her to maintain a semblance of control. This is, of course, a self-delusion that Klute will break down. The more we see of what Bree has been getting away from, including her oily pimp (Roy Scheider, All That Jazz [review]), the more we respect the façade she has built for herself. Klute’s forcing her to take a tour through her past does less to find the disappeared businessman and more to uncover Bree’s foundations.


Setting is used for psychological effect in Klute. New York is a big city, but Pakula makes it feel cramped. People live in small spaces, overcrowded by stuff; bigger rooms, like nightclubs and brothels, are packed with people. Where there is not people, there is stuff; where there is not stuff, there is people. This ties in to John Klute’s distaste for the city, something Bree often pokes fun at. He’s a country boy--albeit from a wealthy countryside, not exactly a hayseed. By contrast, the office of Klute’s boss, Peter Cable (Charles Cioffi), is sparse and clean, like a minimalist James Bond villain. Metal, glass, and shiny surfaces but with none of the bombast. There’s no hiding in there, even if the place is full of secrets.

Yet, there is hiding in the city--which is what Bree is doing. She isolates herself, letting her private life be private, showing each paying client a different personality. It’s no wonder she’s maybe gotten a little lost or forgotten herself. Pakula and his writers, Andy and David E. Lewis, grant us access to all aspects of Bree’s life, including her therapy sessions, where she puts up a good fight only to willingly spill her guts. Again, there is an irony here to how much we get to know and how little the detective actually figures out. He is cerebral whereas Bree is better rounded, more emotional, but her stock in trade is playing those emotions smart. It’s only when the deadly plot she finds herself mixed up in forces her to really look in the mirror that things fall apart. Luckily for her, this is a movie, so even if the ending isn’t entirely happy, we can at least imagine her putting those pieces back together.


Klute’s central mystery takes a backseat to all of this. The character work is clearly what Pakula is more interested in, and what he’s good at. Though Klute does get a climax where the true culprit emerges and threatens Bree’s life, it’s really just a means to an end, the last act to push Bree out of her comfort zone and embrace what’s next. The violence itself is handled clumsily, to the point I had to rewind to make sure I hadn’t missed something. It almost appears like Pakula shot something more elaborate, lost the footage, and had to cobble together something with what he had. It’s not enough to derail the movie, because by that point you probably don’t care what happened to ol’ what’shisname anyway. It’s the girl we’re after, and the girl who wins the day.


This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.


Sunday, August 11, 2019

THE BAKER'S WIFE - #986


It’s funny to watch the 1967 taped introduction to The Baker’s Wife, in which writer/director Marcel Pagnol explains that the 1938 film was practically an accident. Written in haste to fill some time that had become available at his studio, in an effort to keep the place running and the staff employed, it blossomed from a makeshift short feature to a near-perfect full length. It’s hilarious and charming and a rather sharp document of human nature.


The great Raimu plays Aimable Castagnier, a baker who has moved to a small town. It’s his first day of his shop being open, and the locals discover that Aimable lives up to his name (“Amiable,” in English). He’s chatty, generous, and damn good at his job. He also has a gorgeous wife, a fact that just about everyone but the priest comments on. Aurelie (Ginette Leclerc) is indeed lovely, though also an enigma--at least to her husband. The woman does her job perfunctorily, without speaking, alternately appearing snooty and bored. As time rolls on, we’ll get a better sense that it’s the latter. Amiable consistently insists that she is not a sexual woman, not prone to base urges.

Is it any wonder then, that when the handsome shepherd (Charles Moulin) looks her way, she quickly jumps into his arms, hatching a plan to run away that very morning. (As if giving flesh to her moral choice here, she is weighing a basket of bread in order to get the count right for the shepherd’s delivery; balancing her current life in opposition to her next one.) This sudden departure leaves Aurelie’s chores undone, the most important of which is to wake Amiable when it’s time to take the first batch of bread from the oven. The bewildered husband wakes to a bakery full of smoke and a head full of confusion. As the townspeople realize what is going on, they see that the baker’s spiraling depression means they will go hungry unless they figure out how to get him his wife back.


Raimu is a marvelous actor and Amiable is an equally marvelous character. He is likable and sympathetic, but also foolish and at times pathetic. Being much older than his wife, he lives in tribute to her, but also in denial of his own reality. That latter state has a strong hold on him, as he searches for any reason to explain where she has gone, anything other than her having jilted him for a field worker. Even as the mayor (Charpin), the priest (Robert Vattier), and Amiable’s most understanding friend (Charles Blavette) try to steer him in the right direction, he holds strong: Aurelie has not run away, she’s gone to visit her mother. The husband’s façade only starts to crack as the tee-totaler indulges in a bottle of Pernod--an absinthe-like, licorice-flavored drink that has to be cut with water--and gets absolutely soused. Raimu is easily one of the best onscreen drunkards. He convincingly stumbles over his feet and his words, changing moods on a dime, and singing in bastardized Italian, besting Adam Sandler’s Opera Man act by about 50 years or so. It’s here where you’ll fully commit to Amiable’s side, not matter how delusional he may seem or the foibles that got him to this place. He’s 100% vulnerable, letting it all show.


While it’s definitely Raimu’s show, The Baker’s Wife is rounded out by an impressive cast of characters, populated by the filmmaker’s regular acting troupe. Pagnol loves to depict provincial life, and his scandalous set-up allows for each individual personality to show themselves, both in how they interact with one another and how they react to the moment. For instance, the mayor is a libertine who lives with four women, his “nieces,” yet he is a friend to the priest, who alternately counsels the sinner and turns a blind eye. There is an aged spinster (Maximilienne Max) who still insists on her good looks, but who runs screaming the moment a man pays her attention. The wives cluck their tongues at the harlot, the husbands gently rib their jilted cohort, and yet everyone rallies around when it’s required. Work and community are the two important things in this town, and when the former is disrupted, the latter has to do something about it. This can make strange bedfellows. The populace is quickly shown to be up in each other’s business from the get-go, but feuds are quickly mended when it means hungry bellies. There is also the incredible image of the village schoolteacher (Robert Bassac) working with the priest, literally carrying him across a muddy river--intellect supporting faith--when earlier they had argued the validity of Joan of Arc’s “voices.” There is room for all!


The Baker’s Wife is effortless entertainment. The story construction is tuned with a flawless precision, where all the pieces matter, yet without any one piece being so obvious it spoils or makes apparent its own later importance. Amiable’s missing cat or his zinging the addled fisherman Maillefer (Edouard Delmont) when in his cups may not seem important in the moment, but everything happens for a reason, and all those reasons pay off. Often with laughs, but also with empathy.


But the really big payoff is how much you’ll have your faith in human nature restored. Marcel Pagnol loves the species’ inherent contradictions, how we can be both selfish and selfless in the same breath, and shows how that is okay. Remember what it was like when we could all agree to disagree and move on? Likewise, kindness is not weakness, and buried feelings can come out even stronger for indulging one’s own good nature. The final scenes of The Baker’s Wife show Amiable at his best, while intimating his worst, and once again, you’re on his side, thinking, “Good for him.” Because regardless of everything else, the man never betrays his true nature. Even when it hurts him. Because if you listen to what he says about Aurelie, you realize that the guy isn’t really giving his wife her due. It’s likely from insecurity that he has allowed his marriage to become sexless--though, her agency may be in fostering this belief--but you can’t help but think he kind of drove her into the other man’s arms by denying her vitality.

Thus, kudos also to Leclerc for delivering in the moment, though I suppose it may be up to interpretation exactly why she is crying...it’s tough to make tears ambiguous, but she really does.


The 2016 restoration of The Baker’s Wife is impeccable, making the feature look brand new, and it shines here on Blu-ray. Extras on the disc aren’t big in number but notable for their quality, including a 1966 interview with Pagnol and a 1970s-era tour of the town where the move took place.


This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

TWO-FACED WOMAN - CRITERION CHANNEL


A self-important magazine editor from New York climbs a mountain with a no-nonsense ski instructor and comes back down with a wife.

This is the meet-cute of Two-Faced Woman, a 1941 romantic comedy from director George Cukor. It sounds harmless enough--and truth be told, it is--but it’s also the film that ended Greta Garbo’s career. So maligned was the picture upon release, the screen legend left Hollywood for good.

Garbo plays Karin, the aforementioned ski instructor, a lover of the land more at home in the freezing temperatures than anywhere else. She’s an improbable match for Melvyn Douglas’ Larry, whose dry wit sits atop his dandyism in a way that can be charming sometimes, but is a little gruff here. This is the third time the pair starred together, so it’s a wonder that the chemistry between them takes a while to mix in Two-Faced Woman. It’s the film’s #1 problem. Perhaps the coupling would not seem so improbable had Cukor and his three writers not decided to leave most of the courtship off screen. The would-be lovers meet, bicker, and then after some slapstick, Larry falls into a snow bank. Cut from a concerned Karin to a more concerned ski lodge where panic has set in over their disappearance. Even Larry’s business partner (Roland Young) and secretary (Ruth Gordon) have come looking for him. When the “lost” skiers finally do re-emerge, they reveal little about where they have been, but wherever it was, they fell in love and got married.


Problems ensue almost immediately. Larry’s initial promises to change his life and stay with Karin are quickly overtaken by his workaholic tendencies, and Karin refuses to go to the city with him. Larry leaves anyway, months pass, and fed up with his constant excuses for not returning, Karin goes to him. The surprise she has planned for her husband is trumped by the surprise she receives, however; it appears her man has taken back up with his former flame, playwright Griselda Vaughn (Constance Bennett). Humiliated but not beaten, Karin decides to impersonate her own twin sister so she can spy on Larry and potentially lure him into a trap. Is it possible he’ll love the bawdy sibling more than the down-to-earth gal he married?

Here is where the title Two-Faced Woman apparently comes in, though it’s a bit misleading. The negative connotations of being “two-faced” would actually probably apply to Larry more than Karin--he’s the cheater, after all! It’s of little consequence, I suppose, and easy to overlook, since this is the point in the picture where the story really starts to take off. In this invented persona, Garbo cuts loose, and the stakes start to matter. Two-Faced Woman’s best scenes come when Larry and Karin are finally alone, each playing the other for a fool, but the mutual seduction actually working rather than just being a petty ruse. Cukor plays with reversals here, bringing each lover to the brink of temptation, only to have them hold back, to tease, each one not yet ready to give up the game.


It’s an exquisite bout, a drunken tug-of-war, with Douglas and Garbo at their most charismatic. They both play very good boozehounds. Things only get sillier and more fun as the back-and-forth escalates, with the pair racing back to the ski resort, each determined to reveal the truth first. It’s too bad the script lets us down once again, returning to slapstick rather than finding a more meaningful ending. I get that Larry tumbling down a mountain brings them back to a place where they initially fell in love, but since we didn’t get much of a glimpse of that love the first time, it comes off as meaningless the second.


MVP honors go to the exquisite supporting cast. Fans of Harold and Maude [review] will likely enjoy seeing young Ruth Gordon give it her all as the fastidious Miss Ellis. But the whole of Two-Faced Woman is stolen by Constance Bennett, whose smart, sharp-tongued Griselda cuts through every scene, taking scissors to the film’s would-be heart strings. Bennett’s performance is a scream--sometimes literally. Griselda’s penchant for letting out a high-pitched cry when her stress and anger reach a boiling point, sometimes filling the space between words, at others pure punctuation, is Two-Faced Woman’s top gag.


Which isn’t all that abnormal, for a supporting player to upstage the main stars. It’s just too bad here because one would have hoped for better from Garbo’s final bow. In the early scenes, she seems as baffled by the script as the rest of us, and her performance suffers for it. Two-Faced Woman should have reminded audiences why they fell in love with her in the first place instead of being slightly relieved the relationship is over.



Wednesday, July 31, 2019

OUR BETTERS - CRITERION CHANNEL


A comedy of the upper classes with a “they’re just like us” message knotted together with a “but they’re also rather perverse” chastisement. Based on a stageplay by W. Somerset Maugham (Of Human Bondage), Our Betters is a fun trifle, a bit meandering and at times stiff, but generally entertaining thanks to a diva turn by Constance Bennett (Topper). She plays Lady Pearl Grayston, an American socialite who married into her title, but who is quickly turned hard by the discovery--on her wedding day, no less--that, for her husband, it is a union of convenience and not love. Accepting this fate, Pearl is fine to have her husband go on an extended vacation and, in his absence, twist England to her will via fashionable outings and well-curated parties.


Directed by George Cukor (The Women) and released in 1933, before Hollywood adopted the Hayes Code and started minding its manners, Our Betters is a rather frank look at the trysts and turns of high British society. From a rich older woman keeping a much younger lover (Violet Kemble Cooper and Gilbert Roland, respectively), to Pearl’s own sister, Bessie (Anita Louise) pursuing her own place in the upper classes, everyone in Pearl’s circle has some kind of affair underway, ones we are to surmise are pursued out of loneliness and convenience, but never love. This is shown to us via the bewildered American boy Fleming (Charles Starrett, a.k.a. The Durango Kid), who has been jilted by Bessie and yet hangs around to marvel at the freak show.

Our Betters is essentially a string of loosely connected vignettes, following several gatherings, flitting in and out of the various relationships and breaking off couples on their own to give us time to get to know them. Occasional moments of despair seep through as lifestyle choices backfire. Bennett is the glue holding it together, not just arranging the parties but manipulating the aftermath to keep her little circle from disintegrating. It’s very light stuff, even if Cukor’s direction is often weighed down by the material’s theatrical origins. Unfortunately, as enjoyable as the individual bits may be, the conclusion fizzles. The final scene doesn’t feel very final, making Our Betters come off more like an episode in a larger narrative than a wholly formed entity unto itself.



Tuesday, July 30, 2019

CAMILLE CLAUDEL 1915 - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review was originally written in 2014 and published on DVDTalk.com


Camille Claudel was a French sculptor from the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. She has been portrayed on film before, most notably in a popular 1988 film starring Isabelle Adjani. Where Bruno Nuytten's biopic, simply titled Camille Claudel, concerned itself with Claudel's long relationship with Auguste Rodin, this new effort by another Bruno, director Bruno Dumont (Twentynine Palms), chooses a few days in her life twenty years after she and her famous lover had split.

Camille Claudel 1915 finds the artist, played this time around by the marvelous Juliette Binoche (Trois Coleurs: Blue [review], Flight of the Red Balloon [review]), exiled to an asylum in the countryside. In the time since she left Rodin, she had increasingly sequestered herself, succumbing to delusions and paranoia. Dumont constructs his film from Claudel's medical records and her letters with her brother Paul (Jean-Luc Vincent), zeroing in on a trio of days at the institution. The first two are Camille waiting for a promised visit by Paul; the last day is Paul's visit, when we learn that he is a deeply religious person who masks his failure to be accepted into seminary with a strident self-righteousness. What he presents as compassion and kindness for his sister could also be seen as cruelty.


Except she also has real problems. The tightrope Dumont attempts to walk here is between the perception and reality of mental illness. Between how Camille sees herself and how others see her. It tugs at our sympathies and our allegiances. There is an immediate discernible difference between Camille and the other patients at the asylum, which is run by nuns and priests rather than doctors. The patients are hunched, inarticulate, possessed of a certain childishness, most with bad teeth; and Juliette Binoche is, well, Juliette Binoche. She is tall, beautiful, and above all, able to express herself. She can go to the head priest and make a case for herself and how she does not know why she is there. She can also undermine that with her insistence that Rodin is having her poisoned, rich men are stealing her art, and the frequent crying jags that cripple her.

Binoche is, unsurprisingly, spectacular. Much of Camille Claudel 1915 is dialogue free. With few people to talk to, Camille can only listen, react, and feel. Binoche can command any camera to watch her with just her face. She is in her element here. Dumont also casts the rest of the parts well. I am unaware of the backgrounds of the supporting players, but they portray the mentally ill with convincing empathy. It sometimes borders on the grotesque, as if the filmmaker is stacking the deck, but this is also likely historically accurate.

The only question is: what's it all for? Very little happens in the short span of time. Camille Claudel 1915 is literally just three days in the life of a famous woman with mental problems, and outside of a surprising knife twist at the end, not even a very remarkable three days. If Dumont's goal was to show us the harsh conditions of mental health facilities one hundred years ago and communicate the despair of one unhealthy woman then...yay? Success? One can extrapolate that he is attempting to shed light on modern society's current treatment of the mentally ill, suggesting that we similarly shun people with mental problems and lock them away rather than deal with their unique issues, and if so, then okay, I get it. Camille Claudel 1915 is, in that light, a quiet, sparse portrayal of a very challenging scenario. But many, including this reviewer, might feel that explanation is a stretch. Camille Claudel 1915 ends up feeling like sadness just for the sake of it. Dumont is too removed, too intent on saying nothing and only showing, and it means his film ends up feeling as cold and isolated as...well, damn, I guess as Camille Claudel herself. Again, yay...?


Wednesday, July 10, 2019

THE GIRL ON A MOTORCYCLE - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review originally written in 2009 for DVDTalk.com.



"Love is a feeling."

"So is a toothache."

So is watching this movie! Not love, but a toothache. Long, agonizing, painful. The cover declares that Jack Cardiff's 1968 wankfest The Girl on a Motorcycle is a "A film that encapsulates the sixties." You mean it's a bunch of nonsense and self-indulgence followed by a cop-out ending?

Hmmmm...probably not what you meant, but it'll do.


Words are really wasted describing this snoozer, but I'll give it a go anyway. '60s chanteuse Marianne Faithfull stars as Rebecca, a bookseller's daughter who is one night liberated by a sneaky professor named Daniel (Alain Delon, Le samourai [review]). Moments after she rejects her fiancé's pre-marital advances, Daniel climbs in her window and makes mad, passionate love to her. As if that weren't enough, for her wedding present, he gives Rebecca a Harley and teaches her how to ride it. He is her liberator, whereas her future husband, the meek and bookish Raymond (Roger Mutton), is stifling. His idea of her being free is never putting his foot down, always saying, "Whatever you want, dear," whereas Daniel is cruel, disinterested, and selfish--in other words, manly. He is a professor who teaches grown-ups and so he does grown-up things; Raymond is a school teacher, working with children, and a child himself.

All these thoughts, all the details of her affairs, run through Rebecca's mind as she rides her motorcycle from Switzerland to Germany for the last time, determined once and for all to leave Raymond and give herself to her macho, macho man. Spurred on by a laughable psychedelic dream, she zipped her naked body into a leather jumpsuit. Once it's unzipped, look out world! Rebecca's going to make it after all!


I have no idea if Jack Cardiff and crew really had it in mind that they would create a liberated portrait of the sexual revolution, but one look at the groovy theatrical trailer for The Girl on a Motorcycle should make it pretty clear where they ended up. Marketed as exploitative trash, full of sex and co-opting the counter culture (such as it was), whoever put the campaign together really understood what they had to work with. Though Cardiff is a legendary cinematographer, he was really out of his depth with this movie. The journey on the open highway is hard to take seriously when half the time it's shot with blatantly awful rear projection and in most of the other half it's obvious the actors are being towed. The trippy scenes are silly, and the sexual innuendo even more so. It doesn't take a diabolical sex fiend to figure out what we're supposed to get out of seeing Marianne Faithfull straddle the front wheel of her bike. (Personally, I prefer the shots of her leather-clad derriere bouncing on the seat.) What about when that man sticks his gas nozzle in her tank? When is a cigar not a cigar, Mr. Freud? When it's anything in The Girl on a Motorcycle!


For fans of Ms. Faithfull, it's hard not to be curious, seeing her so young and, well, shall we say full of life? She is definitely an alluring woman, and this movie was obviously designed to exploit that. Jack Cardiff's photography skills really pay off when it comes to long, lingering shots on her visage. I have some doubts of how much we're really seeing her naked, though, since a lot of the more exposed shots are framed so we don't really see her face. In terms of acting, I suppose she pulls off a decent job. There isn't really all that much for her to do. Most of the movie is just long scenes of her riding her motorcycle, accompanied by trite voiceover (which apparently took a third writer to come up with). On the male side of things, Mutton barely distinguishes himself, and Delon pretty much sleepwalks through the picture. He probably knew what most people would be looking at and smartly decided not to waste the effort.

Cap all of this palaver with a perplexing ending, and The Girl on a Motorcycle is a whole lot of nothing. Is this really a parable of female empowerment? A woman must choose between boredom and passion, between milquetoast and bitter whiskey? Or are we to assume that it's not up to her at all, and the big finale is the brazen hussy being neutralized. It's not possible Jack Cardiff had a psychic flash forward to the comedown that was just around the corner, the disappointing end of the decade...is it? He does beat the similar ending of Easy Rider by a year [review]. At least the aimlessness of Dennis Hopper's film was kind of the point, though; here it's the unfortunate side effect.


Tuesday, July 9, 2019

SELECTED SHORTS VII: THE RETURN - CRITERION CHANNEL

The Criterion Channel is back, and so is my review column focusing on short films presented on the channel. Periodically I will gather together my takes on the shorter films I’ve watched. One of the fun things is looking at the variety of subjects and styles available, since a shorter film also means a smaller budget but generally more creative freedom. Low financial stakes, high creative reward.
You can read the previous columns here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.


Uncle Yanco (1967; USA/France; 18 minutes): The late Agnès Varda helmed this playful, rule-breaking documentary to chronicle meeting a distant uncle who, prior to this, had just been a legend in the Varda family. Yanco was a Greek immigrant who left the clan after a move to France, traveling to the United States and taking up residency in the years before World War II. Varda finds the painter--who previously had been mythologized by Henry Miller--living in an innovative aquatic community near San Francisco.

Blending fact and fiction, and exposing the cinematic process while doing so, Varda lets the natural raconteur share his experiences, indulging his idiosyncrasies, and giving him multiple takes to play around with the “happening.” It’s a charming time capsule, perfectly reflective of the time period, but also a great example of Varda’s propensity for improvisation.

[Also available in the Agnes Varda in California box, Eclipse Series 43.]


Saute ma ville (Blow Up My Town) (1968; Belgium;13 minutes): Avant-garde filmmaker Chantal Akerman’s debut, the initial spark of experimentation: a brief story about one woman, played by Akerman herself, living out her last night on Earth. She indulges herself, resorts to mundane tasks, and carries on a private internal conversation while slowly sealing herself in her apartment to isolate herself from the outside world, whatever it may hold. Akerman creates a disconcerting tone, seemingly at play within the visuals, but with an (intentionally?) fake sounding audio track distracting from the reality of the action. I am not sure Saute ma ville ultimately adds up to much, but is worthwhile for seeing a developing artist grappling with her craft.

[Also available on Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles; and previously reviewed which much kinder eyes here.]


All These Creatures (2018; Australia; 13 minutes): Charles Williams tackles topics as broad genetics and hereditary madness, parental disappointment, and one young man’s existential crisis over his place in this world that is both potent and fragile, and he does so in a self-contained, personal manner.

A teenager meditates on a time his backyard was overtaken by cicadas, a portent for his father’s imminent disappearance. In the boy’s head, he ties the two things together, theorizing that the insects were summoned by his father’s foolish attempts to dig a swimming pool in their backyard, a pointless scheme he was ill-equipped to execute. It is a metaphor for the father’s suicidal tendencies, digging a hole toward something he can’t find. All These Creatures accurately captures that childhood feeling that all things are connected, and where our parents go, so shall we go. As someone who has had to contend with mental illness in his own family, it’s something I can relate with all too well. How do we break the patterns? Are we meant to? Or is there a fundamental flaw in human design that means we don’t belong on this planet at all?

Williams picks his moments carefully, showing the father’s most dangerous and troubling actions in quick glimpses, a brief snatch at lucidity, answering no questions but offering a kind of closure nonetheless. All These Creatures is dreamy and heartbreaking, a prose poem captured on film. The images are compelling, even as they strain against the narrator’s grounded explanations, hinting at an unknowable psychology, the secrets that power us all.


Tidy Up (2011; Japan; 15 minutes): When his mother dies, Akira (Kan Takashima) decides that it’s time to clean out his childhood home. Only, when he arrives, he discovers his sister Moe (Misa Shimizu) is already there, and she’s insisting they keep the place as it is, piled high with trash and the detritus of the many years the family lived there.

A quiet battle plays out over an afternoon, with each sibling pushing his or her agenda. Akira has come with movers, so his argument is more forceful, but in the end, it’s the home movies that Moe discovers that brings the pair together. The power of cinema as memory evoked!

When it comes down to it, writer/director Satsuki Okawa takes no sides, even if it’s clear which one the audience will likely take--Akira evokes public opinion and social mores to suggest hoarding is crazy. What Tidy Up comes down to, though, is how each sibling processes grief and how they choose to remember what they’ve lost, and how the distance between seems shorter when they take the time to consider the woman to whom they are both there to say farewell.