Monday, 18 March 2019

Belle de Jour (1967)


Dagens skønhed
“Belle de Jour” is the first of four back to back movies in French. It is not as bad as it sounds, only one of these is by Godard, and the first to feature Catherine Deneuve and that cannot be a bad thing.

“Belle de Jour” is a movie by Bunuel, who seemed to travel the world to make movies. Knowing Bunuel we are in for something out of the ordinary and he does not disappoint on that account. The opening scene alone where Deneuve’s Severine dreams she is taken for a ride in a horsecar only to be dragged out by three men, stripped, bull-whipped and then “had” by one of the men, is so spectacularly different from standard fare that we know we are in for a ride here.

Severine is married to Pierre (Jean Sorel), a surgeon, and live a comfortable upper, or sub-upper, class life. Severine is a controlled ice queen who has difficulty being physical with her husband. Instead she phantasies about being sexually humiliated and losing control, essentially the opposite of her real-life situation. Severine is painfully aware of this dichotomy and is trying to find some way to realize this fantasy without compromising her ordinary life. Instinctively she feels that exploring that avenue can unlock her sexually.

When she hears about a brothel, she decides to try it out and become a prostitute, only, living out your fantasy is not an easy thing and being a prostitute is not a romance. Yet Severine persevere and find fulfillment in being degraded from two to five every weekday. It actually does wonders to her relationship with her husband. That is, until the gangster Marcel (Pierre Clémenti) shows up. He falls in love with Severine and wants her all the time, not just between two and five. This comes to a clash where Marcel shoots and cripple Pierre only to get himself killed by the police. Pierre being helpless and learning about Severine’s “fall” apparently sets Severine entirely free.

There is a lot here I do understand and is very interesting. Severine’s attempt to unlock her sexuality through degradation oddly enough makes sense. There is a part of her she is suppressing and somehow she has to deal with it, her marriage depends on it. It is not the easiest thing to go up to your husband and tell him you want him to throw mud at you, but that is not what this is about. Sexual interaction is forbidden by Severine in her virginal state. She must crush that shell to unlock her sexuality and become a “bad” girl. Being degraded makes her “bad”. Freedom is not to have to be clean. I also understand that Marcel is a personification of her “bad” side, while Pierre is her “good” side and their annihilation means that she can reconcile her two parts, but this part of the movie did not work as well for me as the first part. On the face of it it seems that we are leaving the story of Severine trying to heal herself through the rather dangerous double life she is living, to jump into a deadly love triangle with guns and violence. It is a change of pace and topic that feels out of touch with the preceding part of the movie. Only by reading it symbolically does it fit together, and I am not entirely enamored with these literary tricks. Also, I think it is a bit excessive that Pierre has to be ruined for Severine to be healed. Less should do it.

“Belle de Jour” is a beautiful film. The restored Blu-ray version I watched has bright and sharp colors and the people, Deneuve particularly, look gorgeous. I am certain that is intended, Severine has to be a fallen angel. Considering the topic this could easily have been a very lurid movie, but we actually see remarkably little actual action. Even the discourse avoids the vulgar and coarse and I suppose this is why the movie actually works, rather than being an exposé on depravity.  It is tempting to link this movie to the much later movie “La Pianiste” where Isabelle Huppert is a woman with a similar problem, but that one does go overboard in sexual excess and becomes very uncomfortable to watch, something “Belle de Jour” never does.

It is a recommendation from me.


Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Samurai Rebellion (1967)

Off-List: Samurai Rebellion
The second off-List movie of 1967 is “Samurai Rebellion” by Masaki Kobayashi, recommended to me by Bea at Flickers in Time.

This is a period piece taking place in the middle of the Shogun period (18th century), a time where Japan was totally dominated by the feudal relationships between masters and vassals. Isaburo Sasahara (Toshiro Mifune) is samurai and vassal to the daimyo of the region. He is apparently a fearsome swordsman, but also under the thumb of his wife. When the daimyo decides to dump his concubine Lady Ichi (Yoko Tsukasa) on Isaburo for her to marry his son Yogoro (Go Kato), his wife insists that he refuse. There must be something wrong with the girl if she has been dumped after she has given birth to a son. There are serious repercussions to such a refusal for Isaburo and while he disagrees with his wife, she insists and he tries to refuse, but they are forced to take her in to Isaburo’s wife’s surly chagrin.

The match turns out to be a good one. Ichi and Yogoro truly loves each other and they get a little daughter, Tomi. Then the daimyo dies, leaving Ichi’s son as the sole heir. The steward calls Ichi back to the palace since it is disgraceful that the heir’s mother is married to a mere vassal. Ichi refuses, Yogoro refuses to let her go and Isaburo, recognizing their love, supports them. Only the wife and Yogoro’s brother want to get rid of Ichi and tricks her to go to the castle. This makes Isaburo and Yogoro mighty upset and they demand her back. The steward cannot honorably back down and it ends in massive bloodshed.

The issue under discussion here is the feudal loyalty bond versus the moral right. Isaburo is bound to his liege lord as is everybody in Japan at this time and the obedience expected is absolute. But what happens when the orders become immoral? Isaburo is a good and obedient vassal, but is forced to make a call between the feudal loyalty or the moral right. In his honor codex the moral right here takes precedence, but as there is no room for this in feudal Japan he places himself outside society and becomes a rogue.

Isaburo as representative of the moral right is also underscored by the feudal master’s use of immoral methods. They blackmail Ichi, they threaten to kill her, they show up, cowardly, in force to apprehend him and in the end,  they have musketeers shoot him. To the samurai guns were dishonorable weapons and it takes dishonor to fell him. In opposition to this, Isaburo has a fight with his friend Tatewaki Asano (Tatsuya Nakadai), who guards the ports of the fiefdom, in honorable hand to hand combat where Isabura wins because he has the moral right on his side.

There is a lot to like in this movie. The depiction of the samurai era is fascinating in its own right, and this is one of the best I have seen. There is something about the formalism of everything in samurai life, talking, eating, moving, even the living spaces, that is tremendously fascinating. A highlight is of course is the swordplay. Where a western brawl may resemble a dog fight, two samurai facing off is more akin to a cat fight. The moves, jerky and sudden, the slow guarding, circling each other and the strikes, clean, fast and decisive. This is a dance and beautiful to watch, despite its horrific purpose. Compared to this, gunfight is dirty, crude and ugly.

This is not a happy movie. In fact it is terribly tragic and sad, but there is a moral beauty here that is undeniable and I thoroughly enjoyed watching it.

It is highly recommended.  

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Hombre (1967)

Paul Newman is quickly becoming a staple on the sixties part of the List. 1967 features two films of his as far as I can see, and Hombre is the first one of these. I never heard of this movie before, so I was very curious to see it.

In this movie Paul Newman is John Russell, a white man in the old west who has been growing up with the Apache Indians and feels more related to them than the settlers encroaching on their lands. He receives a notification that his father has died, leaving him a boarding house and a gold watch. With a haircut and a new set of cloth John returns to the land of the whites to claim his inheritance.

John immediately decides to sell the boarding house which means the eviction of the long-time warden Jessie (Diane Cilento) and the boarders including a young couple. John sets out to leave town on the stagecoach together with Jessie, the young couple, Dr. Alex Favor (Fredric March) and his wife, Audra Favor (Barbara Rush) and Cicero Grimes (Richard Boone), an unpleasant man who insists on joining the ride.

What happens next is a road trip where facades crack and real characters emerge for better or worse and in that respect this movie has a lot in common with the classic “The Stagecoach” from 1939. Instead of John Wayne’s Ringo Kid we have the Apache-minded John Russell and instead of an Apache attach the stagecoach is held up by white and Mexican bandits, but the pattern is much the same. Some of the people on the coach ride a high moral horse and falls deep. Some that look decent turn out to be the worst crooks and stereotypes are there to be broken.

In all this John Russell is a Christ figure who is sacrificed for the sins of others. He is doubted and ridiculed, but he is also above the others and the angel of justice. It is not difficult to see this movie as both being deeply entrenched in the western tradition with its tropes and stereotypes and turning it upside down with Christ character and a condemnation of the very western myths it is feeding on. Here the Indians are not the wild scourge of the West, but the victims of avarice and broken promises. Life in the Western hamlet is not one of opportunity but a dead-end that everybody wants to leave behind. Even the common notion of decency is perverted and abused. Leaving Audra to roast in the sun is inhuman, but the same people who complains would happily let the Apache die of starvation.

It is this juxtaposition of the classic and the modern western that makes an otherwise simple and straight forward western interesting to watch. It is an easy watch and pleasant enough at that, but these deeper motives elevate it above the standard fare. In that way it reminded me of “Hud”, another movie by director Martin Ritt.

Paul Newman himself I thought was less convincing as a white Apache. He tried, but at times it just looked weird. Something about his gait that made it look artificial.  Still, it did not ruin the movie even if this was not the performance of his career.

“Hombre” definitely deserves a recommendation from me. Especially if you would like a different take on the classic western.


Friday, 1 March 2019

Report (1967)

“Report” is another one of the many wonderful experimental movies on the List… ahem…

While the soundtrack consists of tv and, presumably, radio reports on and around the murder of John F. Kennedy, the visuals is an odd mix of tv clips from the shooting and short clips of all sorts. Some of these clips relate to death and destruction while others are of a more peaceful nature.

The whole thing lasts 13 minutes.

I did not dislike this movie, which is a huge improvement over most of the experimental movies on the List, but I cannot say that I actually get it.

The murder on John F. Kennedy was a major event and this is obviously at the core of this film. It is tempting to think it is a media critique, relating to the coverage and even obsession with the murder, but I suppose it is open for interpretation.

I watch this with a bemused interest, but it does not generate anything but a slight uncomfortability, telling me that life can be hard and brutal.

There is not much else for me to say about “Report”.

Thursday, 28 February 2019

Playtime (1967)

“Playtime” is the third Tati film on the List, following “Mon Oncle” from 1958. I loved “Mon Oncle” as I also liked “Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot” and so I was expecting great things from “Playtime”.

This time Monsieur Hulot, Tati’s character, is visiting an ultra-modern environment in Paris. First there is an airport, cool, straight and soulless. Then we visit an office building in glass and steel with cubicles, uniformed attendants and everything kept in grey and black tones. Hulot is visiting this place to ask for a job, but he keeps missing the man he is supposed to meet and in this extremely streamlined place Hulot sticks out like a sore thumb.

Hulot proceeds to a trade fair where he keeps being mistaken for being someone else. He is invited into an apartment home where his host is intent on showing off their material wealth and finally, he ends up in a fancy restaurant, the Royal Garden.

Meanwhile a tourist woman, following a tour group, visits more or less the same places and their paths cross each other a few times.

This is not much of a story, but that is also the point. With “Playtime” Tati was apparently rebelling against the idea that a movie needs a screenplay. “Playtime” is a series of tableaux on the modern world alienating humanity and the progression through the movie is not that of a story, but the gradual breakdown of the streamlined world into a human world.

This unique and innovative idea is what makes “Playtime” special. It is its strength and it is its weakness. Tati gives himself the freedom to compose exactly the scenes he wants, letting his Hulot character stand in contrast to the uniformity of modern life. That means we get a fairly complete vision and many of these tableaux are truly interesting. But it is also its fundamental problem. This is a 119 minute long movie without a story. How long can you actually watch scenes where nothing is actually happening? Sure, this is a comedy, and Hulot is charming, many of the scenes are curious, but few are outright funny, at least until we get to the restaurant in the end where the movie enters into slapstick. Yet this restaurant scene is 45 minutes long! It has to be tremendously funny to be worth that long a watch. ¨

This does make me strangely torn on this movie. I had to break it up in pieces not to get bored, yet many of the scenes are truly brilliant. I cannot for the life of me see why the restaurant scene has to last 45 minutes, yet it is magnificent. Much of what is great in this movie are in the small details. Guests sitting in the restaurant get a stamp on their backs from the poorly designed chairs, the doorman holds a doorknob to pretend there is a door after it is gone, the dishes the restaurant serves are all the same and the food never leaves the trays. Much of this is not laugh out loud funny, but comical in a quieter way. That is nice, but is it good enough to carry you through so long a movie without a progressing story?

I get the criticism of modern life and it is well placed and executed. It is visionary in scale and style, with enormous and expensive sets built for the movie. Apparently, Paris did not yet at the time of filming have such a neighborhood, Tati built it from scratch. I just wonder if Tati is not shooting sparrows with cannons here and thus over-do it.

I must recommend this movie, it is one to have seen at least once, but personally I much preferred “Mon Oncle”.

Friday, 22 February 2019

The Dirty Dozen (1967)

Off-List: The Dirty Dozen
For 1967 I will only be reviewing two off-List movies. This is partly because 1967 is such a strong year on the List, I think the largest number of movies for a year so far, and partly because I was not able to find any Danish movies from 1967 I wanted to see and much less write about.

The first of these two movies is “The Dirty Dozen”.

On the page from where I select my off-List movies “The Dirty Dozen” is listed as the most popular movie of 1967 and it was one of the highest grossing movies at the box office in 1967. It is easy to se why. Even now, 52 years down the line “the Dirty Dozen” remains a very watchable movie. Until near the end it keeps a tone and style that would make it very accessible even to a younger audience, especially if you do not think too much about what is going on. I saw it when I was very young and I have seen it numerous times since and it still kindles that boyish excitement of playing soldiers I remember from my childhood. It is tough, yeah, but not overly horrifying (for the first two hours) as if it is mostly a game.

The always great Lee Marvin is the tough as nails Major Reisman, the epitome of the American hero, a confident, resourceful no-nonsense cowboy who is at odds with his superiors but gets the job done. He has pissed off his superior so much that they are sending him on a suicide mission: Attack and kill German brass hanging out on a French chateau deep behind enemy lines prior to D-day. As a team he gets 12 convicts either with a death sentence or decade long imprisonment. These scumbags Reisman has to beat into shape and then take on the mission.

The kicker here is that team. This is a who-is-who in Hollywood: Charles Bronson, John Cassavetes, Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland and so on, not to mention Ernest Borgnine as General Worden. A very competent and interesting ensemble. The usual danger is such ensemble movies is that each star needs enough space, but still drown out in the group. Here there are no such problems. All these characters fit into their roles perfectly, and none more than Donald Sutherland as the half-wit Pinkley. That man was born to play an idiot.

There are four stages to the movie. The introduction where we get to know the primary characters. The training, where all these men has to be turned from undisciplined convicts into a semblance of army material. The war game where in slapstick fashion the rabble kick the ass of the arrogant colonel Breed and finally the actual mission in France. It is a long movie, but never boring and the 143 minutes pass surprisingly fast.

There is an adventure to this movie that has been forgotten since, or rather, the recipe is now the stuff of cheap TV-series. An adventure for boys at all ages that makes it so fun to watch. Sometimes it is almost too much, like the laughing sequences that feels pretty dated, but in general it still works.

Not all is perfect though. The premise of the movie, that the army decides to send a bunch of unreliable felons on an important commando mission is laughable, but honestly several armies, not least the German army used convict units for particularly dirty jobs and Hollywood has since loved the general concept.

A second problem, which is actually worse when considering the appeal of this movie to young boys, is how the Germans and their women are herded into the basement and then blown up. The scene where they see the grenades dropped down on them and then get drenched in gasoline is reminiscent of the gas chambers in the death camps and not fun at all. Yeah, it was their mission, but it is also horrifying in the extreme.

Somehow my younger self must have forgotten about this, because I have fond memories of this movie and overall, I feel the same about it today.

Recommended for boys of all ages and probably for some girls too.


Monday, 18 February 2019

The Graduate (1967)

Fagre voksne verden
I have been looking forward to “The Graduate” for a long time. It is one of those iconic movies most people know of, though probably not as many have actually watched. Well, I had not until now. Its reputation is massive, and its Academy awards and nominations seem to confirm that.

It does do a lot of things right.

Right from the outset there is a modernity to the style. The first-person camera, the rambling dialogue and the norm-defying attitudes all points toward the seventies and beyond and is so different from the classical Hollywood style. Maybe a bit of French New Wave there…

The music as well with a soundtrack based on actual songs that would have been known to the audience and certainly is today. Using Simon and Garfunkel for this movie was a stroke of genius, and I would dare say that this would have been a very different movie with any other scoring.

Yet, it is probably the story itself and how it unfolds that has made this movie as famous as it is.

Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) is a 21-year-old Graduate who has returned to his Californian home after college. He is aimless and confused, only knowing that the road laid out before him is not the one he wishes to follow. His parents however do not seem to sense this confusion and urges him forward, causing some alienation. Into this pictures steps Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), the saucy wife of Ben’s fathers partner. She is a cougar on the prowl and she wants Benjamin.

At first Ben is scared and resists, but after having fended her off once he is intrigued enough that he offers himself to her and they start a purely sexual relationship. When Robinson’s daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross) appears, the families urge Ben to take her out, but privately Mrs. Robinson forbids it. When Ben takes her out anyway, he falls in love with her and we have a very spicy triangle.

It was super awesome to see a young Dustin Hoffman. He is one of those actors I always associate with more mature roles, so seeing him as a young man was a revelation. Anne Bancroft, whom I am familiar with from her roles in the fifties was stunning as the icy cold temptress and this is a pretty cool story.

Yet, there was something about this movie that made it hard for me to watch. I have some difficulty putting my finger on it, but I figure it has something to do with the rambling style of the movie. It seems to creep forward at glacial speed only to pick up pace in the end. I found it difficult to actually keep focus on the movie. Another reason may be that I did not actually like any of the characters. We are supposed to root for Benjamin Braddock and in his confused and shy frame of mind that is not too hard, but when he becomes obsessive, he is much harder to follow. At Berkeley be becomes effectively a creepy stalker and that makes it rather unbelievable that Elaine forgives him and give in to him.

Well, in the end it works because he rescues her from her wedding so they can leave be behind their bourgeoise lives and ride off into the sunset, but it did not sit entirely well with me.

“The Graduate” fits well into the late sixties with its themes of sexual freedom, but more pronounced, the youth rebellion of their parent’s lifestyle. I can imagine it being a rallying point for that transformation that took place in those years.

Personally, I am a bit on the fence with this movie, which surprises no-one more than myself. I should love this, but I do not. Yet, it does have so many qualities that I must recommend it anyway.