980 (112). Central do Brasil / Central Station (1998, Walter Salles)

Screened Sunday July 26 2009 on Sony Classics DVD in Brooklyn, NY TSPDT rank #966   IMDb Wiki

The Sundance aesthetic was vindicated - at least in terms of awards and box office - by this Sundance Labs project that announced Brazilian cinema's resurgence in the late '90s (culminating in 2002's City of God). This story of the unlikely bond between selfish city dweller Fernanda Montenegro compelled to help lost child Vinicius de Oliveira find his father in the countryside becomes a parable for a nation in search of its soul. It's a journey that delivers its protagonists from a compressed cityscape of random violence, organ trafficking and overall nastiness to an expansive pastoral oasis decorated with familial empathy and spiritual exaltation. Central Station is a work of rehabilitation, for a nation's soul as well as its film industry.

Setting aside the film's significance to its nation's cinematic emergence, I can't say I can drum up much enthusiasm for this film beyond faint praise. As expected of a Sundance Labs project, it seems to do everything it sets out to do, checklist wise: unlikely cross-generational pairing of adorable child who unlocks a curmudgeon's redemptive maternal instincts; adrenalin-churning crime movie episode; picturesque countryside road trip; unassailable social consciousness agenda. Add to that some Oscar-worthy acting and impeccable lenswork and its as polished and audience-friendly as it can be.

I don't begrudge this kind of film for what it is, let alone its value in opening its nation's filmmakers to greater opportunities to produce work of all kinds. But as far as what I think a movie should do, which is to reflect its reality as honestly as possible, I could do without all this packaging; it gets in the way of what's there. Even the "real life" non-professional actors at the beginning of the film, shot in a real life Brazilian location, feel like they're on a movie set. Ironic that Pixote, another landmark film about delinquency in Brazil, one that was shot on sets more than Central Station, is the more raw, immersive experience, one whose jagged narrative doesn't feel like it's being nudged towards a pre-assigned grace note.

The following citations were counted towards the placement of Central Station among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?

Carlos Eli De Almeida, Epoca (2000) Celso Sabadin, Epoca (2000) Leon Cakoff, Sight & Sound (2002) Luiz Carlos, Barreto Epoca (2000) Rubens Ewald, Filho Epoca (2000) Walter Carvalho, Epoca (2000) Alliance of Women Film Journalists, Top 100 Films (2007) Film (Eyewitness Companions) What to Watch (South America) (2006) Halliwell's Top 1000 Films (2005) Rough Guide to Film, Latin & Central America: 5 Essential Classics (2007) The Guardian, 1,000 Films to See Before You Die (2007) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films

Synopsis of film provided by Robert Yahnke, University of Minnesota

Central Station 1


A sensitive art film of the old school, Walter Salles' "Central Station" is a melancholy Brazilian road movie shot through with gently stressed cultural commentary. Strongly reminiscent of the work of Vittorio De Sica, with whom current producer Arthur Cohn worked several times, this handsomely crafted study of a search for family connections and, in a larger sense, personal and national hope, doesn't quite manage the climactic emotional catharsis at which it aims, but will involve and move most viewers nonetheless. Well received at its Sundance world preem and set for competition in Berlin, this will be a solid specialized attraction for discerning audiences internationally.

The entire film feels a tad too cautious and minutely controlled. The land-voyage format and entirely on-location lensing approach pay homage to the neo-realist/Cinema Novo tradition, but Salles' fastidious style doesn't allow any spontaneity to creep into his exquisitely composed frames and concentrated dramatic scenes. As a living mural of life across a certain section of Brazil, pic hardly lacks for interesting things to observe and absorb, but its somewhat airless quality prevents it from fully realizing its potential in its hallowed genre.All the same, the film is affecting and pointedly unsentimental in its portrayal of the often grudging relationship between the gruff, callused Dora and Josue, who only abstractly grasps the importance of the search they've undertaken and doesn't realize, as the audience does, that its result will determine whether he will join the ranks of the country's millions of street kids or manage to get a shot in life through a family connection.

- Todd McCarthy, Variety

Beautifully observed and featuring a bravura performance by the Brazilian actress Fernanda Montenegro, it gracefully watches these oddly paired characters develop a fractious bond that winds up profoundly changing both of them. Mr. Salles's background as a documentary filmmaker also gives this lovely, stirring film a strong sense of Brazil's impoverished rural landscape once its principals take to the road.

Mr. Salles brings great tenderness and surprise to the events that punctuate this odyssey, from the boy's drunken outburst on a bus to Dora's shy flirtation with a trucker she meets along the way. By the time the travelers are caught up in a religious pilgrimage, the film has taken on a Felliniesque sense of spiritual discovery just as surely as Ms. Montenegro resembles Giulietta Masina in both feistiness and appearance. Her performance here is superbly modulated as Dora begins rediscovering herself in ways she could never have expected. Though eternally gruff, she finds herself regaining a long-lost faith in life and in the very humanity she scorned when those letter writers came her way.

The film eventually views these strangers' faces in the rapt, joyous spirit that is the story's greatest reward and that becomes Dora's saving grace. And it is the filmmaker's elegant restraint that makes such sentiments so deeply felt. Mr. Salles directs simply and watchfully, with an eye that seems to penetrate all the characters who are encountered on Dora's and Josue's journey. His film is also scored with a gentle piano melody that intensifies its embrace of the world that ''Central Station'' sees.

- Janet Maslin, The New York Times

You may want to resist this movie as much as Dora resists Josue. You may say to yourself, "Not yet another movie about an aging curmudgeon melted by an irresistible kid." But that is to discount the profound scope and vision that Salles brings to his story. "Central Station" belongs to the grand humanist tradition of Italian neo-realism and has been made with the care and concern for values and emotions that have always characterized the films of its producer, five-time Oscar-winner Arthur Cohn. It is also to underestimate the power of Montenegro, widely regarded as Brazil's greatest actress, and the remarkable natural acting ability of De Oliveira, who in fact was spotted by Salles at Rio's airport, where he had been spending several hours a day shining shoes to help out his poor family.

The world of "Central Station" is all too universal--a place where older people, even those who've led responsible, respectable lives, are in effect discarded, left to fend for themselves, and a place where children are even more vulnerable at a time when families seem increasingly far-flung and fragmented. Indeed, a few deft plot developments propel Dora and Josue on a long railroad journey in search of the father he doesn't even know. (It has been suggested that their journey represents on another level a kind of quest for a sense of Brazilian identity.)

- Kevin Thomas, The Los Angeles Times

Central Station starts from the eponymous station and radiates outwards. People and trains move past with equal smoothness, making their random trajectories through the umber light that permeates the film. Characters collide with one another with seeming incoherence, like the letters which Dora posts, keeps or destroys according to her whim. Life is not linear. Dora tells Josué that one should always take buses because they have regular routes and preordained stops. She associates taxis with instability; her father's unfaithfulness; her mother's death. Dora's world contains its own insecurity: a perpetual liar whose lies are never believed, she imputes her own untruthfulness to others. "How do they measure a kilometre?" asks Josué during their journey. "They make it up," replies Dora.

Vinícius de Oliveira is extraordinary as the proud, vulnerable Josué, chin raised as the tears fall, dictating Dora's clothes and make-up and initiating macho sex talk as he tries to seem grown up. Like a teacher brushing up on a rusty foreign language, Dora relearns her moral grammar for his benefit and posts the letters she used to jettison. The film takes religion as its point of stability, replicating the developing country's conflict between industrialisation and tradition. The two travellers bounce from evangelist truck drivers to places of pilgrimage. In a stunning visual depiction of faith, the screen fills with points of light from pilgrims' candles. The family unit, seen as irrevocably lost, is idolised: Dora becomes a virgin mother to Josué, while his brothers create a shrine commemorating Ana and Jisus. When Dora leaves, the image which remains to comfort her and Josué for their mutual loss is a photo of them taken with a picture of a saint, a parody of the nuclear family, suggesting the duplication which replaces intimacy in a fragmented society. Salles takes this one step further: the result, a random microcosm of Brazilian life both intimate and eloquent, is Central Station.

- Nina Caplan, Sight and Sound

Salles doesn't underplay the religious subtext of his tale, and the results range from the clumsily obvious to the unexpectedly moving... For the most part, though, the religious motifs -- like Salles's half-baked symbolism of a wooden top and a lost handkerchief -- serve only as window dressing for his limpid road movie, distracting from the bereft scenery outside and the even more harrowing faces of the pair passing through it. Central to the film is its universal tale of faith, of striving and persisting in love before the inevitability of solitude and death. When Salles sticks to that itinerary, Dora and Josué's stations of the cross prove a ritual worth following.

- Peter Keough, The Boston Phoenix

Salles also pays homage to a 1960s Brazilian film movement called Cinema Novo. This group of politically motivated filmmakers tried to show a side of Brazil that was always ignored or made invisible by the elite. Films by these directors depicted the poor, the dispossessed, the rural peasants, and others living in the interior of Brazil, called the sertao (hinterlands). By shooting in the state of Bahia (the birthplace and location of many films by Cinema Novo pioneer Glauber Rocha), Salles shows that he has not forgotten the national legacy of socially conscious filmmaking in Brazil. The truck driver, Cesar, who gives a lift to Dora and Josué, is in fact the well-respected Cinema Novo actor Otton Bastos.

In contrast to Cinema Novo's mission to depict the "aesthetics of hunger," however, Salles' film has been described by film critic Fabiano Canosa as an "aesthetics of affection" or an "aesthetics of solidarity." The crux of the film lies not so much in whether Josué is able to find his father, but rather, how the unlikely paring of a dour, initially unfriendly woman with a lost, confused young boy can blossom into a strong bond of mutual caring and interdependence. Both are alone in the world, and both are struggling to survive under difficult circumstances. Walter Salles has stated that his film is about Brazilian identity, and that it is an allegory for how the nation is developing and surviving, despite its financial difficulties.

Tamara L. Falicov, Film Reference.com


It's strange about a movie like this. The structure intends us to be moved by the conclusion, but the conclusion is in many (not all) ways easy to anticipate. What moved me was the process, the journey, the change in the woman, the subtlety of sequences like the one where she falls for a truck driver who doesn't fall for her. It's in such moments that the film has its magic. The ending can take care of itself.

- Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times

In the early '80s, it looked as if there might be a new wave of Brazilian filmmaking, but it fizzled the moment director Hector Babenco (Pixote) went Hollywood. Now, like a wildflower growing in long-scorched earth, we have Central Station, the breakthrough feature from the Brazilian director Walter Salles, and it's a richly tender and moving experience.

- Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly

This shrewd, tough, and bighearted Brazilian movie, directed by Walter Salles, moves surely and convincingly from utter negation to something like guarded optimism. A great star in Brazil, Montenegro rivals such legendary actresses as Jeanne Moreau and Giulietta Masina in her ability to alter her moods from mask-of-tragedy woe to childish pleasure without apparent calculation.

- David Denby, The New Yorker

It's difficult to write or even think about such a movie without falling into sentimental cliches, and that gives me pause—though this 1998 film held my interest for two hours, even taking on an epic feel when it turns into a road movie. It's not bad by any means, but it also happens to resemble a lot of other movies. Walter Salles directed with a good sense of wide-screen open spaces.

- Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader

At its best, Central Station is a movie of small textures and fleeting moments, the intangibles that pass between people.... Central Station is a film that shares the weight of reality with the fragility of the intangible. Despite its ultimate narrative predictability, the combination is a nice blend.

- Marjorie Baumgarten, The Austin Chronicle

Central Station crosses predictable terrain en route, but it's hard to fault the director's vision and assured sense of pace. His film is well served by the touching and wholly unaffected performances of its leading actors: Vinícius de Oliveira gives Josué a solemn intensity while Fernanda Montenegro endows Dora with a sense of ingrained inertia.

Chris Wiegand, BBC4

The main reason to watch this film is Fernando Montenegra's great lead performance as Dora. Her character is a cynic, and that cynicism helps disarm us as we're made to watch the inherent sentimentality of seeing a little kid suffer. What could easily descend into trite emotionalism doesn't, mostly because of her work. There is something lamentable in seeing her cold exterior inevitably melt, but it gives was to the the uplifting sense of purpose we see during her pilgrimage. The film's got an epic feel even though it's well under two hours long, and we get a good sampling of Brazilian culture, including some surprisingly incisive skewering of the country's religious preoccupations. The film seems to be telling us that religious transformation happens not at festivals or in chaste environments, but rather in the unpredictable world itself.

- Jeremy Heilman, Movie Martyr

The strongest point of the film is the documentary type of cinematography that went into showing the parched Brazilian countryside, making the barren land throb with life. The most exciting shots were reserved for the religious pilgrimage the two weary travelers stumbled into. They were caught in the light coming from the bright torches of the believers, as the two wanderers search for themselves in the darkness of the night.

The film was too much stuck in its sentimentality and had an uninspiring and a contrived plot that kept me from warming up to the story. That the woman being transformed from a spiteful person who made fun of the letter writers and despised children to an almost angelic figure, someone capable of bringing great joy to the world in such a short time, was too much for me to accept. Though, I must say, the acting by Montenegro was grand. She is the reason for seeing the film, along with the fine cinematography.

- Dennis Schwartz, Ozu's World Movie Reviews

It's just so refreshing to stumble across a film that's hardcore natural, common sense to its heart. A piece somehow separate from the conventions of mainline cinema, even when it's artificial in the way that only fiction can be. That's not to say though that there's anything inherently wrong with the typical Hollywood blockbuster; on the contrary they can form the centrepiece of a decent night's entertainment. It's just that when you look past the flashy pyrotechnics, to places never considered by the filmmakers, those spaces are vacant. The pictures don't mean anything beyond a self-justification of their own existence. Central Station is, in its predictable but very realistic fashion, an antidote to the vacuum.

- Damian Canon, Movie Reviews UK

"Central Station" is still a formula picture, however, that falls back on a lot more clichés than I would have liked. Its atmosphere and acting are what make it worth seeing, with the director, Walter Salles, and his cinematographer, Walter Carvalho, skilfully setting up their shots to capture the hustle and bustle of urban Brazil. Thus, the journey Dora and Josue take is an effective vehicle to show the poverty, isolation and desperation of many of the country's people.

- Ian Waldron-Mantgani, The UK Critic

Fernanda Montenegro (best actress, Berlin, Havana, Los Angeles critics, National Board of Review) is impressive, but Salles’s film is easy, convenient, at times ridiculous. Rather than a serious study of poverty or of spiritual growth, it is a sentimental tear-jerker—like Kramer vs. Kramer or Places in the Heart

- Dennis Grunes


Salles's idea for Central Station came directly from his experience filming his last documentary, Socorro Nobre (Life Somewhere Else), about the correspondence between a semi-literate female life prisoner and the sculptor Frans Krajcberg.

'I saw her letters and was so moved by them that I did a documentary about them with the negative I had left over from previous films,' says Salles. 'I never forgot the difference those letters made to these people's lives. And it was the exact opposite to the lack of communication I was seeing in Brazil at the time. That fostered the idea of Central Station.' Salles says the film is a reflection of contemporary Brazilian society - most of his crew had missing family members, many as result of the mass emigration of the early nineties (over a million left the country as a result of President Collor de Mello's disastrous plan to restructure the economy) - and his documentary background imposed a form of film-making that was closely linked to what was going on around him.

'We got accustomed to urban violence in Brazil,' says Salles. 'There are a lot of unofficial police still operating. But that was part of a larger malady. In the eighties and nineties, like in many other countries, the only criterion was efficiency. In the name of that, we had unemployment and social violence. Individually, it causes you to ignore others, and there is a loss of identity. Dora in the film is typical of that.' His ace card was casting Fernanda Montenegro, Brazil's greatest theatre actress, as Dora, the hard-faced retired teacher, a childless survivor amongst millions of others, who pens letters for a constant traffic of people for a dollar a time, but rarely sends the outpourings of love, grief and greetings, callously betraying the trust put in her by the gallery of hopeful faces.

'I wanted to do a film with her for 10 years,' says Salles, 'but the plays she does are so successful that they can last for three to four years, so scheduling is a problem. But I also wanted to use non-actors, mainly because they can reach into themselves without pretension and let their experiences show on screen.' Having found his lead actress and a crew of enthusiastic novices - including first-time screenwriters Joao Carneiro and Marcos Bernstein - the director struggled to find a boy who could play the orphaned Josue. Three weeks before the start of filming, and with more than 1,500 auditions already conducted, he was in Rio airport when he was approached by Vinicius de Oliveira, a nine-year-old shoe-shine boy desperate for business. 'I realised he was exactly the kid I was looking for,' says Salles. 'He was streetwise but also innocent, and I asked him to do a screen test. He told me that he couldn't do that because he had never been to the cinema before. Then he asked if he could bring the other shoe-shine boys along to give them a chance. Ultimately the film is about solidarity and discovering compassion, and he had those qualities ingrained in him.' The next day, the shoe-shine boys of Rio airport laid siege to Salles's production offices. Salles tested every one, but Vinicius was a natural and the boy who had never seen a film became the co-star of Brazil's finest actress.

'Gradually we took pride in losing control of the film,' says Salles. 'It changed as we went along and we incorporated whatever and whoever we found on the road. You should be open to encounters, and it's only the film it is because we found so many co-authors, or co-auteurs, along the way.' From the chaos of Central Station to a hypnotic candle-lit religious pilgrimage in the far north-east territories, Salles and his crew drew on the landscape and locals. They travelled 10,000 kilometres, a journey in which, Salles says with a laugh, 'We endured the same thing as the characters on the film.'

- Bob Flynn, The Guardian

Did you throw away the script at that point and use what they said?

We used a lot of what happened on the spot as if we were in almost an experimental film. This was a script that was really developed through several months of hard work and suddenly we were hit by reality to such a point where we had to incorporate it. When those people started to talk to Fernanda Montenegro, they did so in such a poetic manner that it was really overwhelming to see it.

Why did you have Dora and Josué take to the road?

The main interest that I have in road movies is that the psychological arc of the main characters is always extremely interesting. They have to escape from that shelter they live in at the beginning and face the unknown. And the idea of facing the unknown, breaks the mold in which they feel secure and they have to respond to a world that they cannot control anymore.

This film is about a woman who learns the importance of sharing in life and the importance of having common experiences. I think that cinema is about that also. Fellini used to say that the beauty of film for him was the possibility to come into the theater as you enter a chapel and have the experience of sharing, by watching a film with a great number of people that you have never met. That common experience is something that is very rare today. There is a generosity in the act of going to the movie theater and sharing that common experience that makes cinema something that's so precious and so unique. When people are moved by similar emotions, then it's as if a small miracle was happening again and again and again.

- Walter Salles, interviewed in Central Station website for Sony Pictures Classics

Give me an example of an improvised element in "Central Station."

The pilgrimage is totally improvised. It started with non-actors, with 800 actual pilgrims who were called to do that scene in that very remote area of Brazil. We reenacted a pilgrimage we had [videotaped] eight months prior. The specific pilgrimage we reproduced was the one of the virgin of the candlelight that brings light to darkness, meaning the cinema. And suddenly what had started as a reenactment became the pilgrimage itself. The scene gained a momentum that could hardly be controlled. I had two choices: Either we would mingle with it and make the crew work so fast that we would catch everything that was happening on the spot, or we would have to stop and start all over again. Obviously we opted for the first solution, which was the most organic one.

The same thing happened with the letters at the beginning of the film. The first day where we installed the little table in that area, 300,000 people walked through the station every single day, the people came to us and took it for real and they forgot about the camera, they were camera-innocent, and they asked to dictate true letters. And those letters exposed a poetry that was so raw and so emotionally truthful that we started to incorporate them into the film. That immediately changed the texture of the film.

What was the biggest challenge for you as a director? You've got a world-class actress playing against a total non-actor. Give me a sense of how you were able to orchestrate that interaction.

We rehearsed the film as if it were a play six weeks prior to shooting it. Secondly, I knew the geography [for each scene] because I had done the location scouting, so I knew where we were going to shoot, and therefore we rehearsed according to a specific geography. We would draw the locations with chalk on the floor so that we could do the blocking, and characters would evolve within the geography. Little by little you eliminate the writers' voices in the dialogue, you polish the acting and you get to know so well the characters, they become your friends. And when the actual shooting period starts, it's just an extension of that family quality.

I brought in two young screenwriters who had never written before -- I believe much more in talent than in experience. Also what drives you in film is curiosity. Sometimes when you're dealing with someone who has written 125 screenplays, he does that mechanically. But in Brazil there was no other chance. One of the writers was still in law school and the second one was a literature graduate, but they were writing shorts and documentaries and I knew their work. I had given some master classes in Brazil and one of them was my student in directing and writing for documentary and fiction. The other one was involved in a documentary I produced in Brazil. We put them together and it worked beautifully. From '90 to '95, almost no films were made in Brazil, so when we started to do films again, we had to start from scratch. But the beauty of it was that the [new filmmakers] were passionate about it, because at that point you had to be really courageous to opt for cinema, because it was a medium that had almost died. The fact that these people came with an almost visceral desire made the whole thing like a new wave.

What was the key thing in '95 that made it possible for a new surge of cinema production to take place?

First of all, the fact that the students from all over Brazil and workers went to the streets, and by popular pressure managed to have the Congress impeach a corrupt president that had totally destroyed culture in Brazil.

How did that affect cinema?

Because the new president established laws that protected cinema and a tax shelter system that managed to re-create -- I wouldn't call it a film industry, but the possibility to do films again. Now we're doing 40 films a year. We've won nine international prizes so far with this film, including three at Berlin.

- Interviewed by Liza Bear, Salon

“Jean-Luc Godard was the one who opened my eyes to the importance of sound in the sense that he did not treat sound as it was in all other films. With Godard, sound was never in full synchronicity with the image. But it furnished an additional layer of understanding. That’s when I realized that sound did have a very powerful narrative potential. In my films, the first time when I managed to apply that concept, or rather find a concept that would work for me, was in Central Station.

Central Station is the story of two people who get their identities back, and the film starts in the chaos of a train station in Brazil. Little by little, the narrative drifts towards the interior of the country where one of the two characters—a young boy—is striving to find his father. In thinking about that film, we soon realized that sound design could add a lot to the perception the spectator would have of the story, in the sense that we needed to convey the chaos in that station, we needed to use sound to show that that was the starting point—the space of lost identity, the space where people were just numbers, part of a mass. Gradually, as they move further and further away from that environment, they can understand much better the world that surrounds them. This prompted us to work with 25 or 30 different layers of sound in the station.

“And the further the story penetrates into the heart of the country, the closer and closer you get to the boy’s hypothetical father, the more defined these layers of sound become, and the more specific they get. We started to search for sounds that would have more ‘focus,’ that were actually definable, whereas in the station you have the noise of the trains, the loudspeakers, the echo of conversations of hundreds and hundreds of people, and then you have the voices of those characters who are dictating their letters to this woman who takes notes for them and “posts” them off.

“All these layers add to one another and sometimes they collide with one another. The further you go across the country, the fewer layers we use and the more defined the layers become. For example, you could very distinctly hear a dog barking now. You could hear a child sing something in the background. We clearly diminished the layers when we wanted to show that the characters were recuperating their understanding of the world around them.

“So sound played a very important part in defining the concept of the film. Every step of the way, it went in synchronicity with the image, because at the beginning there’s very little depth of focus in the image and as you go closer and closer to the hypothetical father, we used more and more depth of field. Therefore it’s about being able for the first time to listen and see the world surrounding those characters.

- Walter Salles, interviewed by Peter Cowie, Dolby


Walter Salles' background explains how he is able to make a film that is so attuned to commercial factors, while remaining sensitive to artistic considerations. He started his career making documentaries and advertisements, which he made with the company that he founded in 1986, Video Filmes. These two facts are significant, as they reveal a man interested in the representation of social issues and stories of human interest, yet who knows how to sell an idea. Central Station incorporates all of these skills. As has been seen, it is a film with a powerful human interest, while a documentary approach is used in the filming of key scenes, such as the letter writers at the station (Central do Brasil), and the pilgrims at Bom Jesus do Norte. The greatest spectacle of the film, the pilgrimmage, was nota reenactment, but the actual event. This documentary approach means, for Salles, that such scenes stop "being the representation of the thing and becomes the thing itself." The cinematographer, Walter Carvalho, captures both the realism and the power of the atmosphere by using the natural light from the pilgrims' thousands of candles.

The flexibility of this kind of filmmaking lends a folkloric power to the film and provides a dramatic visual stage for the actors. There is a sense here of cultural tourism, both for the international audience and for the urban Brazilian viewers. Salles has claimed that he wanted to put northeastern Brazil back on the screens, to represent "a physical and human geography that has been absent from Brazilian cinema for a long time." The film does this in a visually and emotionally appealing way, by focusing on the faith, hopes, and hospitality of the people, not their poverty or misery. Nevertheless, despite the selective use of documentary techniques, Salles has not cultivated a documentary approach in the ways that [Hector] Babenco has done in Pixote. The line between fact and fiction is thus more obviously delineated in Central Station, with the narrative clearly located within the realms of romanticized fiction...

Despite Babenco's insistence that his is not a political film, Pixote can be seen to be a more radical film than Central Station, in its representation of social reality and in its conceptualization of gender relations. Pixote relies on a broadly reflectionalist model, in that, within the conventions of realistic drama, it aims to represent life as it is for Brazil's street children. Although it does not present any answers to the problems of the street children, it exposes many injustices that they face and shows a face of the country unseen in tourist images of carnivals and beaches. The film also offers a critique of the gender systems that sustain social relations within this class in Brazil and offers a realistic representation of the expression of sexualities, exploring the relationship between gender, sexuality, and power. Central Station differs from Pixote in that it uses a transformative mode; that is, the filmmaker and the collaborators use the medium to suggest an idealized, romanticized reality. Thus, the child is rescued before he turns into a Pixote, with the film eager to create a romanticized, audience-friendly, rural Brazil, and not focus on the country's dark side. The film takes a conservative view of gender relations, and through Dora's journey, it is suggested that in women's rediscovery of their traditional femininity and mothering instincts lies the key to personal and national redemption.

- Deborah Shaw, Contemporary Cinema of Latin America. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2003. p 164-165, 175

It is clear right from the beginning of the film that a contrast is being set up between the ideology of the city and that of the provinces; life in Rio de Janeiro is characterised by perpetual movement. Dora works in Central Station and much is made of the endless pairs of legs walking past her stall in a site which is, in Salles' own words, a 'Darwinist place' (quoted in Shaw, p. 166); the brutalising effect of her commuting trips from Central Station home is underlined, and the inescapability of the urban rush is emphasised by the fact that, even when she gets home, an open window shows that the train is never far away. Dora symbolises the 'loss of identity' characteristic of the urban environment of the eighties and nineties where 'the only criterion was efficiency', causing the individual to 'ignore others' (Salles, quoted in Shaw, p. 167). In this restless urban environment, travel becomes a central metaphor, sometimes used in incongruous ways. The metaphor that Dora uses to describe the difference between the boredom of marriage and the excitement of an extramarital affair (a bus journey compared to a trip in a taxi) works well in the context of the film, but it seems a little forced that the image that should plague Dora's mind during her sleepless night should be that of wheels turning and sounding like knives being sharpened. Whatever one thinks of these images, they indicate that the recourse to the metaphor of travel is relentless and inescapable throughout the film; some would see this as one of the film's strengths.

- Stephen M. Hart, A Companion to Latin American Film. Boydell & Brewer Ltd, 2004. Page 183

In Central do Brasil Walter Salles offers an alternative, admittedly romanticised and idealistic view of Brazilian society. A conservative message of the importance of family values is clearly espoused at the end of the film, and the sertao is once again idealised as a site of purity and authenticity: a strong sense of community still exists in the region and therefore such values can still be found there. Central do Brasil paints a positive picture of life in one of the poorest regions on earth. In doing so it struck a chord with the cinemagoing public in Brazil and beyond, making it one of the most successful films in recent years, despite competing at home with the Hollywood blockbuster Titanic (1998).

- Stephanie Dennison, Lisa Shaw. Popular Cinema in Brazil, 1930-2001. Manchester University Press, 2004. Page 213

The protagonist Dora's bad conscience towards the poor is evident and her oscillation constitutes the film's main motivational force. To betray or not to betray the people is a dilemma that appeared constantly in Brazilian films of the 1960s, though these films dealt with greater existential questions in less melodramatic ways. The 1990s, however, provide no fuel for the existential-political tragedy. Political action with the power to transform no longer appears on the horizon, giving way instead to the sordid and the incompetent.

- Lúcia Nagib. The New Brazilian Cinema. I.B.Tauris, 2003. Page 63

Let's say that today's camera, almost always on the tripod, writes just as yesterday's camera, almost always hand-held, spoke; that stories like Dora's and Josué's write not what was said, but the way things were said in Brazilian Cinema in the 1960s, with the same passion. Brazilian cinema, after a vacuum lasting three years, between 1990 and 1993, has something from the 1960s' desire to make cinema anyhow. The retaking took place as fast as it did because of the existence of a cinematographic culture, a cinematographic language that we began to speak in the 1960s and did not disappear with the suspensions of the means of production.

For all these reasons, it is especially significant that Central Station communicated so immediately and easily with Brazilian (and not just Brazilian) viewers. A retired teacher who makes a living writing letters for people who can't read may also be seen - even though not so intended - as a metaphor for the process of the reinventing Brazilian cinema in the 1990s. By reinventing itself, it discovers a common and shared language (each one with its own manner of telling stories, but all telling stories using the same language) of a specific space and time, like Dora. She goes through a process of re-sensitisation.

The film passes across landscapes and through characters that mark on the films of the 1960s - the northeast, the hinterlands, the migrants, the pilgrims, the average worker from the outskirts of the big city - following the path of a woman who, gradually, by turning into writing what is said to her, undergoes a process of re-sensitisation. This expression used by Walter Salles is a perfect definition of Dora's experience and, by extension, that of Brazilian cinema in recent years. Cinema as a whole, films and their viewers, also went through a process of re-sensitisation. An uninterested distant woman who writes letters that she does not send, winds up, on her journey in search of Josué's father and, reconciled to the memory of her own father, she ends, in a certain way, as part of Josué's family.

Central do Brasil.
Central Station (Central do Brasil, 1998)

Something similar is happening to Brazilian cinema today. Writing is a process of sensitisation, just as speaking was in the 1960s. It is also a process of re-encounter with a symbolic father (the old Cinema Novo?); a re-encounter made with all the ambiguity and tragedy that the story of Central Station confers on the image of the father. He is at once the figure that Josué admires without having met, that Moisés despises for destroying himself with drink and that Isaias expects to see return home, to the family and to working with wood. Dora does not forget that her father is the half crude drunk who abandoned his family and who tried to chat up his own daughter one day when he met her on the street and failed to recognise her; but he is also the train driver who (Dora finally remembers) treated his daughter tenderly and who one day let her (then a little girl) drive the train he worked on. Just as the father in the story of Dora and Josué becomes the starting point for a journey that leads to a reunion of brothers, so too is the spoken cinema of the 1960s a point of reference, the challenge, that makes writing possible.

- Jose Carlos Avellar, FIPRESCI

Central Station epitomizes the passionate rediscovery of Brazil, and was celebrated internationally as the landmark of the Brazilian Film Revivial, coincidentially in the symbolic city of Berlin, where it won the Golden Bear at the 1998 Film festival. Back in his native land after his adventure with High Art (A grande arte, 1991), an international production in English, and Foreign Land (Terra estrangeira, 1995), filmed in Brazil, Portugal and Cape Verde, about Brazilians in exile, Walter Salles and his co-scriptwriters found in Wim Wenders (already a strong influence in Foreign Land) a good road to the journey back home. The chosen model for the storyline was Alice in the Cities (Alice in den Stadten, Wim Wenders, 1974), a transnational plot about a German pre-adolescent girl who lives in Holland, is abandoned by her mother in a New York airport and falls into the hands of a German journalist suffering from writer's block, who takes her back to Germany to look for her grandmother...

Both films revolve around improbable encounters between a lost child and a solitary adult, both of whom, after a long period of estrangement and rejection, regain the feeling of family. Clear though the connection with Wenders may seem, it is just part of a wider strategy. Marcos Bernstein and Joao Emanuel Carneiro's minutely elaborated script actually contains a number of incidents aimed at accommodating references to Brazil's cinematic past as a means to legitimize their current approach to the nation and draw the film towards its conciliatory ending. Wenders had also gone back to his cinematic fathers, such as Fritz Lang, Godard and John Ford, to forge a style entirely based on homage. But for Salles, going back to Brazil meant, above all, re-enacting Cinema Novo's national project, structured by two poles of poverty: the rural backlands in the northeast and the urban favelas in Rio.

And so the film's journey begins in Rio, whose slums and train station, Central do Brasil, had once been the locations of Nelson Pereira dos Santos's Rio, Northern Zone (Rio, Zona Norte, 1957), and it culminates in the northeast in such locations as Milagres, already utilized by Ruy Guerra in The Guns (Os fuzis, 1963) and Glauber Rocha in Antonio das Mortes (O dragao da maldade contra o santo guerreiro, 1969). Salles even managed to insert a reference to Glauber's birthplace, Vitoria da Conquista, through the actor Othon Bastos, a Cinema Novo icon, who, in Central Station, plays a Protestant lorry driver (Glauber also had a Protestant background) born in that town.

Thus the romantic nostalgia for an undefined homeland, typical of Wenders's characters, is substituted by the euphoria of the re-discovered fatherland. In the process, the written word is also recovered: instead of a blocked journalist, we have a professional scribe whose pen, at the end of the film, flows freely in a letter that details her own story. The restoration of the narrative gift is intimately tied to the retrieving of 'Brazilianness' and the effusive enthusiasm for the rediscovered homeland, something totally absent in Alice in the Cities and other Wenders films, in which the theme is precisely the impossibility of a nation or a fatherland. The allegorical title of Central do Brasil asserts a belief both in the country's wholeness and its point zero, its core, which is the Rio station where migrants from all over the country converge.

- Lúcia Nagib, Brazil on Screen: Cinema Novo, New Cinema, Utopia. I.B. Tauris, 2007. Pages 37-38



For a director more interested in following his creative intuition than calculating his career, Brazilian-born Walter Salles has won several awards and international acclaim, and earned a reputation as one of Brazil's leading filmmakers. Born in Rio de Janeiro into a well-to-do family-his father was a prominent banker and diplomat-Salles lived in France and the United States before resettling in his native country. After a stretch as an award-winning documentarian in the 1980's, Salles turned to feature films with "Exposure" ("A Grande Arte", 1991), a thriller about a photographer avenging the death of a prostitute. Though he continued to make documentaries-mainly for European television-Salles began to thrive in the feature world, starting with his second effort, "Foreign Land" ("Terra Estrangeira", 1995).

Co-directed with fellow Brazilian Daniela Thomas, "Foreign Land' was a beautifully filmed drama set in Brazil during the economic crisis of 1990. The film toured the festival circuit-including Rotterdam, Vancouver and Sundance-and furthered Salles desire to tell stories about Brazil's history of economic hardship. His next film, "Central Station" (1998), earned the director a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film and a nomination for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Made with grants from the Sundance Institute among other sources, "Central Station" helped establish Salles as prominent member of a new wave of filmmakers emerging from Latin America-a group that included Alfonso Cuaron ("Y Tu Mama Tambien"), Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("Amores Perros"), and Guillermo del Toro ("Cronos").

Salles teamed up with co-director Thomas once again for "Midnight" ("O Primeiro Dia", 1998), Brazil's entry into '2000 Seen By...', a series of millennium-themed films commissioned by French television. With "Behind the Sun" (2001), Salles enhanced his reputation as a prominent foreign director. Set in a remote Brazilian farming community in 1910, this drama about a young man caught in the middle of an age-old family feud earned nominations for Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes and Academy Awards. Then in 2004, Salles directed "The Motorcycle Diaries", a coming of age road film about a young medical student, Ernesto Guevera-who later became celebrated revolutionary Che Guevera-and his friend Alberto Granado, and their journey to discover the real South America. Five years in the making, Salles credited the Sundance Institute and executive producer Robert Redford for being crucial in getting the film made-studios weren't interested in backing the film, not for political reasons, but for an apparent lack of structure and external conflict. The struggle to get "The Motorcycle Diaries" made paid off, as another Salles film earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Film. Meanwhile, Salles made his first foray into the Hollywood system with "Dark Water" (2005), a remake of the Japanese film by Hideo Nakata, starring Jennifer Connelly, John C. Reilly, and Tim Roth.

- Screenrush

Many quotes by Walter Salles at BrainyQuote


Well, what is a political film? I think that is a good question to start with. I think it is a film that is not only about character, it is about a character that is changed by the social and political climates surrounding it. If you take a look at all the important film movements, let’s say the Italian Neorealism, or the Nouvelle Vague in France, or the Cinema Nuevo in Brazil, the great independent cinema of the 1970s in the US for instance, these were never films only about characters. This is what Hollywood normally does, films only about characters. But these were films about characters that were in a transition, that would never be the same at the end of the story because they would confront a social and political reality they had to deal with. So maybe what we should say is, what is politics?

I have put together five or six extracts of what I consider to be really great political films of different extractions, starting with an Eisenstein film of 1929 called THE GENERAL LINE (Sergej M. Eisenstein). These are films that I really love, and they are so diverse in terms of tone and style, and yet they have a unifying quality.

[Various film extracts are screened.]

THE GENERAL LINE is a film about the importance of collectivism and it really questions the religious principles at that time. It is a film that collides against the possibility of bowing to religion. The religious orthodox priest is promising rain here, and the peasants bow to this possibility, they still believe that this will come. And Eisenstein starts to question it. Of course the rain is not going to come, and a revolt against the religious powers is going to start. Now THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS (LA BATTAGLIA DI ALGERI, 1966) by Gillo Pontecorvo. This is about the Algerian resistance against the French invaders, and if these images were in colour today, they would remind us of something that we are watching daily on television today in Iraq I think. Roberto Rossellini’s film ROME, OPEN CITY (ROMA, CITTÀ APERTA, 1945) that launched the Italian neorealism. The camera is brought to the streets, and Rossellini creates not only an aesthetic revolution but an ethical revolution in cinema as well.

This is a Cuban film by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, MEMORIES OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT (MEMORIAS DEL SUBDESARROLLO, 1968). It is a film about a man who in 1961 in Havana decides not to leave the country that was undergoing the Cuban revolution, but his family goes and he stays behind. What I find interesting about this film is that many scenes are filmed in such a way that you don’t know if you are watching a documentary or if you are watching a fiction film. Godard used to say that the best fiction films drift towards documentaries, and that the best documentaries drift towards fiction, and this may be a very good example of that. And THE GREAT DICTATOR (Charlie Chaplin, 1940), finally. The only true genius in the history of cinema. He wrote it, acted in it, edited it and did the music.

Peter Cowie: Walter, were you influenced by Cinema Nuevo when you were young? Like Antonioni and Robert Altman, you waited until your late 30s to make your first feature film, but when you did finally FOREIGN LAND it almost echoes that Cinema Nuevo tradition.

Walter Salles: Yes, I was influenced by it, and how could you not be coming from where I come. But at the same time I had seen Antonioni, and the questioning of identity became very central also to my life because I was born in Brazil but my father was a diplomat during part of his life, so I bumped from country to country, and city to city. Really right at the beginning I was trying to answer the question, where am I from? Cinema Nuevo sort of answered that question. It showed to me what the country not only was but what the country eventually could be. And it is not by accident that I started doing documentaries. I got to fiction pretty late. I never thought I could be a fiction filmmaker. I just wanted to do documentaries and this is how I started. As a desire to actually understand really what country I am from, what kind of culture do I belong to.

- Walter Salles at the Berlinale Talent Campus, interviewed by Peter Cowie

971 (113). The Pillow Book (1996, Peter Greenaway)

Screened May 25 2009 on Sony Classics DVD TSPDT rank #931 IMDb Wiki

Largely received with diffidence upon its initial release, Peter Greenaway's tour de force can now be respected as a bold vision of movie art in the multimedia age. Taking inspiration from Japanese courtesan Sei Shonagon's 17th century novel of the same title, Greenaway tells a story of a Japanese-Chinese woman's efforts to transform her childhood fixation on bodily calligraphy into a career as a writer, while avenging her father's sexual humiliation at the hands of his publisher. These themes of the artist's struggle to express herself while taking revenge against the abuses of the older establishment are nothing new to Greenaway's filmography (see The Draughtsman's Contract, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover). What is new is a distinctly feminine narrative voice that enhances the innate sensuality of the project; an unabashed mixing of languages and cultures in a stew of chic global mongrelism; and a hypnotic flow of screens within screens and texts used as creative adornment. (The film toys with foreign film viewing conventions, foregoing subtitles for some scenes in Japanese while deploying them elsewhere in ways so artistic you wonder why no one else bothers).

Early reviews expressed dismay at the film's stylistic audacity, dismissing the multi-screen displays as more akin to CD-ROMs, Power Point slideshows, or computer windows than to cinema. A dozen years later, the falseness of this dichotomy is plain to see, and the foolish puritanism of this way of defining cinema may account for what's held back the medium's evolution, while the Internet has all but revolutionized people's audiovisual experience of reality, not to mention art. Besides, it's not that Greenaway turns his back on the more established approaches to sculpting his images: a uniquely filigreed lighting design constantly redefines interior spaces and turns interiors into walls of illuminated text. Whether through old or new school techniques, one can only hope to have more films that are as curious about exploring the sensual experience of cinema.


The following citations were counted towards the placement of The Pillow Book among They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? 1000 Greatest Films:

David Robson, The Cinematheque Top 10 Project (2005) John Greyson, PopcornQ (1997) Jorge Gorostiza, Nickel Odeon (1997) Michaela Boland, Sight & Sound (2002) New York Times, The Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made (2004)

The Pillow Book tribute site by Tama Leaver offers The text of The Blessing from The Pillow Book, some images from the film, some recommended readings directly on The Pillow Book, related readings more broadly on Peter Greenaway, and a list of the most useful of the web resources on the film and Greenaway (this entry notwithstanding).

A list of quotes from the film, taken from a multi-page site of Peter Greenaway quotes

PeterGreenaway.org.uk boasts an entry with many photos from the film

Trailer for 1996 UK release:

Trailer for 1997 US release:


Greenaway, whose work includes "The Draughtsman's Contract," "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover" and "Prospero's Books," uses an essentially Japanese technique. He likes to build up his images in layers, combining film and video, live action and paintings, spoken narration and visual texts. He shoots in color, b&w, and subtle tints. Here he tells a lurid story of sexuality, fetishism and betrayal, in an elegant and many-faceted way.

One of the most elegant parts of the film comes toward the end, as Greenaway illustrates the pages of Nagiko's pillow book. She has used each part of the body for the appropriate texts, even writing on ears and tongues, and here the words (Japanese, English, printed, spoken, Kanji) take on a sort of mystical, abstract quality. The talkies chained pictures to words; Greenaway finds a way out by using words as pictures. Greenaway once said something that perfectly describes his work: "I don't make pictures that have a sell-by date." Most new American movies have a limited shelf life. They're put in the theaters to sink or swim. If they haven't sold in a week or two, they're yanked like stale bread. Greenaway's notion is that his movies stand outside the ordinary distribution channels. You may see them today or in 10 years, as you choose. And when you are ready.

- Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times, July 4 1997

As ''The Pillow Book'' carries its strange preoccupations to their fullest expression, it's clear at times that the emperor is as naked as the the actors who bear Nagiko's writing. A core of surprising banality lies at the heart of this daughter's drive to reinvent and avenge her father, but then plot is never the essence of Mr. Greenaway's work. The film is best watched as a richly sensual stylistic exercise filled with audaciously beautiful imagery, captivating symmetries and brilliantly facile tricks. Traces of the filmmaker's supercilious misanthropy, as in his views of vulgar Americans and the Yiddish language, are also part of this mix.

- Janet Maslin, The New York Times, June 6 1997

Any Greenaway film is a complex word-and-picture game--of stories within stories, images within images, like a Chinese puzzle box. The director also insists that his actors throw themselves, soul and especially body, into his complex revenge scenarios. Wu is a fine, supple tabula rasa; McGregor (Trainspotting) shows again that he is one of the boldest, most charming young actors.

It's lovely that, in an age when pop culture dances with the dunces, someone has the mandarin urge to arouse and test his audience. Lovelier still when, as in The Pillow Book, text and texture meet so exquisitely. Sex is a visual art, Greenaway says, and writing is a matter of life and death.

- Richard Corliss, Time

A Japanese calligrapher marks his daughter Nagiko's every birthday with two rituals: he paints a greeting on her face, and then his sister reads from Sei Shonagon's 'Pillow Book', a 10th century diary of reminiscences, observations, and list upon list of exquisite, precious and graceful things. Nagiko (Wu) grows up with a fetish for calligraphy - demanding that her lovers paint hieroglyphics on her flesh. She keeps a pillow book, too, but her lists reflect a growing frustration. Then an affair with a bisexual British translator, Jerome (McGregor), opens up possibilites. Jerome's scribbling cannot satisfy her, but he offers his own body as her canvas. They fall in love, and he strips to present her texts to his gay lover, a publisher. This is as defiantly esoteric as any of Greenaway's films, and as visually dense as Prospero's Books, with frames within frames, computer graphics, subtitles, projections and superimpositions all vying for the eye in a sumptuous, seamless collage of gold, red and black. The result is ravishingly gorgeous, but such aestheticism is itself a kind of perversion, an idea embodied in Nagiko. The actors are models, fetishised objects, and sometimes they seem utterly at a loss, but, by way of counterpoint, this is also both a very intimate, sensual film, and a torrid, lurid melodrama, full of passion, jealousy, hatred and revenge.

- Time Out Film Guide

Despite its arresting visual style, its wave after wave of creative and hypnotic images, "The Pillow Book," as its name hints, slowly but inexorably leads to sleep.

There can be no doubt that Greenaway, working as usual with veteran cinematographer Sacha Vierny (who shot both "Hiroshima Mon Amour" and "Last Year at Marienbad" for Alain Resnais), is an exceptional visual stylist with an aesthetic that prides itself on being self-consciously artistic.

But "Pillow Book" demonstrates, as do the others, the limits of style as a filmmaking be-all and end-all. A director who communicates sparingly with his actors if at all, Greenaway doesn't notice or care about the dramatic weakness of his films. If they look spectacular, as they inevitably do, that is enough for him.

In this, Greenaway can be seen as the art-house equivalent of blockbuster-oriented French director Luc Besson, whose "The Fifth Element," the most expensive film ever made in Europe, is similarly contemptuous of all but the flimsiest forms of emotional connection. For these directors and the audience they appeal to, surface sensation is all that matters.

- Kenneth Turan, The Los Angeles Times

I can't say that I've ever entertained fantasies of writing on someone's body. But Peter Greenaway's The Pillow Book does, at least, succeed in making it look like an erotic activity. Greenaway has always been an armchair fetishist of the perverse, a kind of English De Sade in tweed. His movies, notably The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, feature mutilation, cannibalism, and an extremely haughty brand of sexual power tripping. Yet all the nasty business is filtered through layers of ''literate'' avant-garde puffery.

In the '90s, Greenaway has shown a unique gift for getting actors who are on the verge of stardom to cavort in the buff. In The Baby of Macon (still unreleased in the U.S.), Ralph Fiennes and Julia Ormond tussled like nude wrestlers, and now Ewan McGregor displays his. . .uh, considerable gifts on camera. Sad to say, The Pillow Book's mood isn't sustained. The film gets bogged down in a cryptic revenge plot, and the ugly side of Greenaway comes out of hiding (you won't want to see what happens to Ewan McGregor's skin). For a while, though, it's a true erotic caprice.

- Jim Ridley, The Nashville Scene


Admirers of Peter Greenaway - and I trust a few remain despite the blink-and-you'll-miss-it release of his last, grossly misunderstood film The Baby of Macon - will be in for a shock from his new film. In The Pillow Book, there are aeroplanes. There is pop music. And - are you sitting down? - there is a healthy generosity of spirit. After all these years! It's rather like finding that Santa Claus does exist.

There's immense warmth, too, in Greenaway's fluid eroticism. The camera enjoys the elegant motion of the hairs of a brush as they caress smooth plains of skin. Even the ink itself has presence, emerging from a man's mouth like a long black tongue, or snaking into a plughole as though it were a sash of hair.

Everything about The Pillow Book suggests that Greenaway is progressing. He has written a film in which a woman searches for positivity - "things which make the heart beat faster" - and finds it. That gives a fair indication of where this once misanthropic artist is heading. He's moving forward now, not inward.

- Ryan Gilbey, The Independent

Music video for song "Blonde" by Guesch Patti, from the film's soundtrack.


The Pillow Book is one of Greenaway's more thoughtful features: a multi-layered, mind-massaging tale that is at once highly literate and deeply erotic. Greenaway's heroine is Nagiko (Vivian Wu), a young Japanese woman, and his story spotlights how she develops the desire to have her body painted and thus transform herself into a living, breathing work of art. As he weaves his tale, Greenaway explores the relationship between art and eroticism. At one point, Nagiko declares, "I was determined to take lovers who would remind me of the pleasures of calligraphy." Among the filmmaker's other concerns are father-daughter bonds, and how the past relates to the present.

The Pillow Book is (yet again) stunningly photographed by Sacha Vierny; the images are dazzling, and there is abundant use of split screens and other visual devices. Part of the dialogue is in Japanese and is translated not so much by traditional subtitles as calligraphy, which blends into Greenaway's imagery and becomes an integral part of the film's overall design. Indeed, watching the film is the equivalent of viewing a moving painting.

Saul Frampton, updated by Rob Edelman, Film Reference.com


One of the most accomplished chapters in Peter Greenaway's quest to turn movies into books, this 1997 feature may be the writer-director's metaphorical autobiography. Atypical for Greenaway in its emphasis on drama and linear narrative, this audacious and seamlessly successful formal experiment provides a revealing glimpse into the emotions of a filmmaker who usually keeps a vast intellectual distance between himself and his material. The story chronicles a woman's ambition to redress her father's exploitive relationship with his publisher and establish herself as a writer--and both endeavors are understood by Greenaway in psychoanalytic terms to be variations on the same theme. The filmmaker's picture-in-picture techniques merge with the painstaking production and sound design, editing, and use of subtitles--as important for how they look as for what they say--to add several dimensions to the medium of cinema. The result is a lucid exposition of Greenaway's idiosyncratic ideas about transcending the medium and a compelling narrative with empathic characters that reveals the sexual nature of something not often associated directly with sexuality--the act of writing.

- Lisa Alspector, The Chicago Reader

While there's nothing especially groundbreaking or difficult to grasp in The Pillow Book, Greenaway's experimentation here still has the power to alienate audiences who aren't prepared for what the film offers. As has been true in his past efforts, there are copious amounts of full frontal nudity, and it seems that lead actors Vivian Wu (The Joy Luck Club) and Ewan McGregor (Trainspotting) perform half of their scenes without any clothes on. Nevertheless, by keeping the audience at arm's length, Greenaway manages the impressive feat of de-eroticizing the nudity.

For the most part, the director seems more concerned about technique than narrative and character development. The plot functions more as a series of markers for Greenaway's stylistic riffs than a necessary aspect of the movie. Indeed, The Pillow Book is so visually arresting that it's capable of holding our attention for two hours largely on the strength of its images. There are pictures-within-pictures, French song lyrics rolling across the bottom of the screen, multiple aspect ratios, color bleeding into black-and-white scenes, and other intriguing methods of composition. Even simple shots, such as a swirl of ink-saturated water being sucked into a drain -- a color image that's all black-and-white -- can be striking. And, for those who enjoy a little bafflement, there's a sequence near the end where the dialogue is in Japanese, but Greenaway intentionally does not use subtitles.

There's something admittedly fascinating about the way Greenaway explores this mixture of calligraphy and the human form. However, as unique as this combination may be, it's actually one of The Pillow Book's few original ideas. Other directors may hesitate to venture into such unfamiliar territory, but Greenaway has been here before. In its approach to sexual obsession, art, and revenge, The Pillow Book often recalls The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, sometimes almost to the point of cannibalization. Visually, however, The Pillow Book erupts in a manner that causes The Cook (which was stylistically memorable in its own right) to pale in comparison.

- James Berardinelli, Reel Views

If The Pillow Book demands that we feast our eyes on a literal "body" of written work, the technological aspirations on display are even more fascinating than the reams of human flesh. Like Prospero's Books, The Pillow Book is a film made in layers, opening windows on top of windows and placing frames within frames. (Don't wait for the video.) Subtitles appear and disappear on the screen, rendered in fancy script that translates the original Japanese. The backdrop for the opening scenes is page after creamy page of Japanese writings, presumably taken from the titular volume, and sex between Jerome and Nagiko is quite nicely played out behind a smaller cinematic window featuring erotic Japanese artwork that underscores the literary appeal of sex. When the disparate layers of sight and sound actually coalesce to creating something fresh and overwhelming, it's enough to take your breath away. Elsewhere, The Pillow Book is simply ponderous -- as smugly indulgent an exercise in style as you're likely to see in a movie house this year. Most tellingly, the film is stimulating but never seductive. The audience is kept at a remove from the action, never allowed to feel intimacy with the characters or even with the subject matter.

Arguing that cinema is a 100-year-old technology nearing the end of its natural life span, Greenaway claims in interviews that he's striving toward a new way of telling cinematic stories. But in that, his hubris is nearly as annoying as his audacity is gratifying. The presence of Vierny makes for an unflattering comparison -- working with Resnais and the writer Alain Robbe-Grillet, Vierny was a party to a theoretical deconstruction and interrogation of cinematic narrative itself that Greenaway is no doubt aware of. Regardless, The Pillow Book's pretty stylistic tropes seem to exist only for their own sake. Interestingly, I found myself missing the stately elegance of Michael Nyman's scores for The Cook, The Thief and Prospero's Books. (After all, with such a lovely score, Greenaway might even have gotten away with the wantonness of The Baby of Macon.) Instead, the selection of music for The Pillow Book is both portentous and jarring -- who would have thought that U2 would ever show up on the soundtrack of a Greenaway film?

Finally, I sense a feeling of duty that belies The Pillow Book's moments of quiet beauty and tragedy. After dishing out visual poetry, an uncharacteristically traditional narrative, and dazzling but icy visual stylings for about half the film's length, Greenaway once again turns on his audience with a spiritedly grotesque sequence involving a suicide and the exhumation of a spurned lover's grave. But after the ensuing virtuosic presentation of 13 different bodies painted with 13 different "books," this bizarre tale reaches a rote, unconvincingly optimistic conclusion -- you get the sense that, for the first time, this most contrary of directors may give a damn whether the general audience cares for his film. Worse, the effort may be in vain -- for a film that takes such a painterly approach to the canvas of a nude body, The Pillow Book itself is cloaked in too many stiff layers of ostentatious experimentalism.

-Bryant Frazer, Deep Focus

The inherent drawback of The Pillow Book is that it requires two viewings to unravel the complex web of past/present, image/word and life/death. Typically, the first encounter reveals a fabulously attractive but empty film, obtuse, confused and pretentious. It's only on the succeeding attempt that the pieces snap into place and the story takes shape (the delicate construction then becomes obvious). The key to this transformation is that all of the secondary prompts can be recognised when the main picture has been seen before (and it's in these visual fragments that fleeting but vital clues are given). With thought and effort expended upon the plot behind the images, clarity awaits. Once this point is reached, The Pillow Book unfurls like a flower in the dawn, baring a tale of power, resonance, closure and great (if subdued) emotion.

- Damian Cannon, Movie Reviews UK

Vivian Wu, in particular, deserves praise for her enthralling performance. She infuses the protagonist with a wonderfully sophisticated sensuality and a distant severity that are sure to captivate the moviegoer. Moreover, while her character, Nagiko, is a vain, manipulative, and self involved individual who is, consequently, unsympathetic as a person, she is, because she is so unlikeable, absolutely perfectly suited to eliciting an emotional reaction from the viewer. By presenting the moviegoer with such an unpleasant character, Greenaway frees him from sympathizing with a particular individual and allows him to concentrate on the emotions evoked without connecting them to particular objects. The viewer is filled with sorrow because of the events depicted and feels compassion as such. Without having a specific object towards which his compassion is directed, his emotions are universalized and come to encompass all persons, even one as unsympathetic as Nagiko. Thus, because it is centered upon such an individual, the film elicits a far more intense emotional response than it would have had it been focused on a more likeable person.

The Pillow Book arouses a sense of terrible tragedy, but the film's sadness is imbued with a wonderful beauty. Instead of creating a vision of a world of boundless torment and inevitable misery, Greenaway exposes the loveliness underlying even sorrow. In doing so, he ultimately evokes feelings of peace, contentment, and an enjoyment of beauty. Having guided the viewer through the charms and pleasures of existence, and through its tragedies and horrors, the director reveals to him both what is to be loved and what is to be endured, as well as reminding him that each is to be appreciated. The result is a happy sense of calm and repose rather than an experience of despair.

- Keith Allen, Movie Rapture

The Pillow Book lists two directors of photography, three production designers, four costume designers, and two calligraphers in the opening credits, and indeed, the movie comes closer than any other to constituting its own elaborate, absorbing museum—one where you're encouraged to sniff and caress the artwork, to strip the clothes off the models, to run the paint along your tongue like it's a spice. This unparalleled mise-en-scène, the creatively embedded frames, and the arresting sonic mix of Japanese pop, monastic chants, and avant-garde rock together yield a new kind of movie, a three- and almost four-dimensional environment. Customary film grammar hardly accounts for how the movie works, either when it's scoring or when it's flailing, and if its structural repetitions ultimately grow a bit tedious, its fearless peculiarity and almost aphrodisiac blend of skin, music, and curvaceous lettering make it worth digesting in multiple doses, even if they're small ones.

- Nick Davis, Nick's Flick Picks

There seems to be a determined effort to be witty, even if the humor is not scaled to what the story is saying.

The result is a startling film with gorgeous photogenic shots, superimpositions, amazing computer graphics, a splash of intriguing gold and red color patterns, but with everything ending up so perverse and lost in a melodramatic intimacy that even the scenes that do mean something still seem to be too absurd to really mean much. But the film did have plenty of fire, hatred, passion, jealousy, and mystery. For those who like to see a film that is both unique and unforgettable: this one's pure Greenaway.

- Dennis Schwartz, Ozu's World Movie Reviews

A list of splendid reasons to watch THE PILLOW BOOK: for its beautiful images; for its power to send eyes, ears and brain spinning; for its moments of emotional warmth (more frequent than some of Greenaway’s other films); because it is extravagantly pretentious and unashamedly arty; because it is awesome, rich and strange.

- Julian Lim, The Flying Inkpot

To differentiate time and place, Greenaway shot The Pillow Book in three different speeds: slow for Japan in the 1970s and '80s, very slow for the same country a thousand years earlier, and frenetic for contemporary Hong Kong.

- Mark Harris, Straight.com

Perhaps the motto for this film should read: soon to be playing in film school Deconstruction 101 classes everywhere.

- Matthew Hays, Montreal Mirror

I have seen the future of movies, and it is picture- in- picture.


How did you first discover The Pillow Book? I was trained as a painter. And while my European, London-based training very sensibly, very obviously accentuated Western art, I was particularly interested in all that painting at the end of the 19th century, which had a very strong Oriental influence. Painters like Gaugin, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec were very much interested in that sort of world. It was no particular requirement of my educational background to examine the literature as well, but just out of curiosity I did. And I worked my way back through the Edo period all the way right back to the Heian and found this extraordinary book. I was very much aware that a whole series of women were writing at this time and in some senses creating the Japanese language, writing quietly in their very dark interiors, incredibly circumspect in their thousand and one robes, not allowed to move, basically being, I suppose, wombs, and nothing else. So it was really a personal discovery.

I understand that you're an advocate of film as an autonomous medium. Yet Pillow Book is based on an ancient Japanese text. One shouldn't start a discussion of this film by referring to a set text because the origins of the project are much deeper than that, and respond to, I suppose, my general sense of anxiety and disquiet about the cinema we've got after 100 years -- a cinema which is predicated on text. So whether your name is Spielberg or Scorsese or Godard, there's always a necessity to start with text and finish with image. I don't think that's particularly where we should organize an autonomous art form. That's why I think that, in a way, we haven't seen the cinema yet, all we've seen is 100 years of illustrated text.

My films are very much based on the notion of the grid. The grid has determined the paintings of Mondrian, Jasper Johns, and is relative to the notion of 20th century art, which is intimately related to the edges of the frame, it's a very frame-conscious notion. That's another whole ballgame which I would like to continue to explore. The screen is only a screen is only a screen; it's only an illusionary space and I would quarrel seriously with Bizan on the knowledge that cinema is a window on the world. It is not. It is an artificial construct which is contained within its own conventions and devices, and I think we should acknowledge that in a very self-conscious way.

But the framed orientation of film seems to almost contradict the free-flowing nature of Japanese text. Why merge the two together? I was drawn to the hieroglyph, because it is both an image and a text. The Oriental notion of culture is not divisive like ours is in the West, where we separate the painters and the writers, and that is very appealing to me. You would think that cinema would be the ideal place to put these two things together. Yet all cinema is predicated on the notion of being text-driven and not image-driven. There are very, very few films that I can think of that have actually created true cinema. Last Year In Marienbad, perhaps, is about the closest I can feel. It approaches a notion of real, true cinematic intelligence. It is not a slave to text. It is not a slave to narrative. It deconstructs all these phenomena and creates a product which is truly and absolutely cinematic because it cannot exist in any other form. Whereas the majority of cinema can always be explained in other mediums, which is a true indication, I feel, that it hasn't yet reached that essential autonomy. But maybe I'm being very churlish and impatient. Cinema's only 100 years old and I'm talking about languages and calligraphy which are 4,000 years old and the history of painting, certainly in Europe, is at least 2,000 years old. So maybe my impatience is unfair. I noticed that the use of hieroglyphs in The Pillow Book strays slightly from your previous use of systems. What drew you to use the hieroglyphs as your main focal point of The Pillow Book? I wanted to explore the possibility of metaphor or a module for the reinvention of, or a search for, the cinema. Why can't we bring image and text together in a way that the hieroglyph has? I mean, you might argue that we are already talking about a system of communication whose days are numbered because the whole world now is horribly slated on the notions of the Western alphabet and the conveniences of the computer and the fax machine. But I am very much interested in the gestural notion, the highly physical idea of the hieroglyph, which is made by the body and not made by a machine. I can draw a figure of a man, and that single gestural movement which is made by the body can express the notion of man in a thousand different ways in terms of its masculine or feminine nature, whether it's bold, or rich or poor or decaying or dying, etc. I can't make the letter 'A' do that in the same sort of way. There's a great excitement about the sheer visual energy that's contained in this sort of idea. So that takes me back to this extraordinary book again, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. It was diary or journal which used to be kept inside the wooden pillow that the Japanese used to lay their heads on when they went to sleep at night. The Pillow Book has certain characteristics which excited me, so without any attempts to illustrate the book in any way, I took some of its sensitivities, primarily where Sei Shonagon said, "Wouldn't the world be desperately impoverished if we didn't have literature and we didn't acknowledge our own physicality?" And the movie's just about that. It's all an excuse for me to indulge, in a thousands different ways, on lots of different levels, in a celebration of text and sex. When you see the sex you see the text. When you see the text you see the sex. It's sort of an ideal way to bring together these two extraordinary high points of our experience.

So you're trying to draw a parallel between the human body and the creation of text? Lacan in his famous French essay from 1953 talks about how the body makes the text. And I would facetiously answer in this film if the body makes the text then the best place for that text is back on the body. I'm not serious in that, it's metaphorical. But what he does argue is how the mind is influencing the arm and the arm is influencing the hand and the hand the pen and paper. So the body makes the text, very, very physically. Now, in the 20th century, although you have written text here, ultimately your product will be typed up on keyboards, so we've broken that magic connection by this mechanical reproduction between the notion of physically making a mark that signifies. Which leaves us lots of other propositions. Let's suppose, as our new Prime Minister in Great Britain has promised, that every child of 5 will be given their own free computer. Does this mean in three decades we won't need to learn to handwrite anymore? And then what happens with the collapse of our physical energy? We'd all be totally and absolutely bereft.

Is that why you employ such video techniques as overlays, insets, shifting screens, and freeze frames in your films such as Prospero's Books and most recently in The Pillow Book? Why should the devil have all the best tools? There's a way in which television now -- and though we could all be very critical about its social and political uses and its dumbing down and its appalling, I suppose, mediocrity of presentation -- is actually at the same time developing the most extraordinary post-production technology. Very amazing ways that I could put you inside of a glass, stick you on the moon, I can change your sex, I can do absolutely anything to the visual world now. And it seems so tragic to me that so many filmmakers are making movies up against this extraordinary revolution with one eye closed and two hands tied behind their backs. Why is this the case? Why do we feel somehow so dubious about the shock of the new? Why, as I suppose again that Godard suggested, do we look up at cinema, but we look down at television. But then I'm English and I come from the golden land of television, so maybe I should be careful of my criticism. But we keep talking, keep paying lip service to the multimedia revolution. We should try and do something about it, harness its energies, utilize it, try and make the artifacts for the next millennium. Again, alas, Woody Allen suggests if you're going to choose heroes, choose the very best ones. There is a way that we ought to be able to become Picassos and Michelangelos on our own, to utilize this vocabulary. I don't say that lightly, because I think the whole democratic processes of art desperately have to change. We now have very post monarchical systems in the democratic Western world, but our artistical renaissance is still very much predicated on Stravinskys, and Spielbergs, and we have to break all that down and become very much associated with the social and political ideals of democracy. We should all become film directors.

- Interviewed by Spencer H. Abbott

Lawrence Chua: You’ve been very critical of a kind of cinema that’s based specifically on conventions of the 19th century novel. How is the relationship between text and body different in The Pillow Book? In showing the pleasures of the text, aren’t you also running the danger of reducing the body to a narrative?

Peter Greenaway: Maybe drawing an intense concentration onto the conditions of cinema and its relationship with a notion of image and text is a good way to do the very opposite. Perhaps we have to progress slowly. John Cage suggested that if you introduce more than twenty percent of innovation into any artwork, you immediately lose 80 percent of your audience. He suggested this might remain the case for a subsequent fifteen years. He was being optimistic. We have to travel slowly, since I want to continue making movies. They’re expensive. I don’t know why they have to be so expensive, but that’s the way things are. They’re also complex collaborations. I can’t make movies on my own. I think we have to travel at a certain pace, to accommodate the introduction of radicalism or exploratory ideas embracing both old and new technologies.

LC You’ve said that one of the ideas that fueled this reductive story was a fetish, perhaps a sexual fetish. How do you imagine and image that fetish, because for me the fetish is something that, like the novel, emerged entwined with the history of colonial expansion. You can see that throughout The Pillow Book. On a very superficial level Nagiko and the Publisher take pleasure in the white body of Jeremy and not in other black bodies. Certainly not in the body of the photographer, Hoki, whose dark skin Nagiko dismisses as unsuitable for her calligraphy. For me, the fetish that is expressed in The Pillow Book is a residue of the colonial encounter. It’s a reminder of how text has been used to distinguish the civilized from the savage mind.

PG I think there’s also a subsidiary text in the notion of the Madame Butterfly complex. The film sets off an association with the Western fetish for the notion of the Oriental, which was not only relative to the celebrated opera but to general 19th century ideas of sexual exploitation of colonial imposition. I would like to think that we have negotiated that particular hurdle by indeed throwing the idea of the Western exploitation of the East on its back. We start with a heroine who begins as the page, but she indubitably ends up as the pen. She takes the responsibility into her own hands and reverses the strategy on her predatory masters, developing a knowledge of her own identity. Those notions may be relative to your theory of colonization.

LC Or body and mind. I was struck by the way that you understood Sei Shonagon’s original text. You were talking about how many writers in world literature today are challenging the idea of what the story is, of what narrative actually is, and Sei Shonagon’s text predates the arrival of the 19th century novel by almost a millennium. In many ways it may be the first form of Japanese vernacular literature. At a time when Japanese literature was written almost entirely in Chinese, Sei Shonagon wrote in this very vernacular form for which she was mercilessly critiqued. How does the vernacular inform your idea of cinematic language?

PG There are resonances. For example, we use just one Yiddish word in the film, when Jerome writes the word “breasts” on the appropriate anatomical part on our heroine. It’s interesting also that Yiddish was a 19th century vernacular language, which in the latter part of the century began to develop a written form. That has certain parallels with the creation of the Japanese language. There’s something about Sei Shonagon’s use of the diary form with its continual fragmentation of narrative ideas which is so completely different from her exact contemporary Murasaki who wrote the famous The Tale of Genii, which in some senses precedes the notion of the English, French or Russian grand saga novel. So I suppose if we were to regard The Tale of Genii being more associated with Tolstoy or Zola, we could think of Sei Shonagon as much more related to Baudelaire. We tried very hard in the film to represent this fragmentation in the different ways we used black and white, high color, low color. We borrowed not just the notions of the creation of a new language as she was doing in the year 995, but also made correspondences to what the creation of a new language would be about.

So the film itself is very much a palimpsest of what’s happening now at the end of the 20th century with the fragmentation of the relationship between cinema and all the post-televisual medium: the CD-Rom, the Internet… French intellectuals have criticized the film, saying The Pillow Book is not a film, it is a CD-Rom. I could think of no higher compliment. There is a way that our contemporary vernacular in the business of making images has become television. Godard suggested that there is a disastrous cultural snobbism about television. Indeed, we physically and metaphorically look up to cinema but look down at television. But in terms of what MTV has to offer with the video clip, with the use of the talking head, that continual change of perspective of time, event, idea, action and intended use of tense, there is a brand new vernacular language which is being developed day by day almost incidentally and accidentally, much as I suspect in the way that the early Japanese language was created by Sei Shonagon. She was often accused, certainly by her contemporaries, for her excessive use of Chinese quotation. Television certainly recreates or reprises or “quotes” the celebrated so-called fossilized forms of cinema. Television, shall we say, takes cinema as the Japanese vernacular did the Chinese language of the 10th century. We have new languages that are attempting both to erode the old languages, but also to deliver like a phoenix, knowing that the new languages have to be a combination of the old and the new.

LC There is a moment in the movie where the writing slips, where the paper that the texts are inscribed on shifts gender and Nagikio becomes the writer and passes into a kind of agency. At the Digiforum in Rotterdam last year, you talked about the erosion of the artist, where not art but communication stands at the center oft he creative endeavor. Could you talk a bit more about what you meant by that?

PG I suppose it’s to do with the idea of audience participation and interactivity. I’ve chosen to put most of my ideas of the last 15 years into cinema which is a very passive medium. Far more passive than literature for example. There is a way that now the western world ascribes to notions of democracy. There is a way in which our art, our culture is still remarkably concerned with notions of absolutism. Renaissance ideas of the artist as king. So we still genuflect before figures like Picasso and Le Corbusier and Stravinsky, whereas our general political systems are far more sophisticated in terms of interactivity. I do think that one of the things that these new languages will give us is a necessary shift away from the notion of the artist as some Nietzschean supergod and we’ll make the whole process of cultural rapport far more democratic. We ought to consider this seriously and not hide behind the notions of artist’s egotism and embrace these notions of interactivity not frivolously, but very seriously indeed.

LC For me the potential of interactivity is more about dialogue, a response to perfect translation, a space between the screen and the audience where antiphony is possible.

PG The cinema we have now has precious little space for dialogue. There’s a way the audience bows before the screen and puts their imagination in the hands of the cinema maker. I suppose my particular anxiety also is related to the phenomenon that you can look at the Mona Lisa for two seconds, two minutes, two days, two hours, two centuries if you so feel fit, which gives you, the viewer, the circumstances for a true contemplation, rumination, expansion of your imagination. Having been trained as a painter I can understand that view point, but having spent so many years being a cinema practitioner I can see the opposite, and have found it to be so unsatisfactory. Many activities I would now take into making three dimensional cinema by curating exhibitions. I’m fascinated by the idea of a film as an exhibition, and the exhibition as a film. It brings in notions of time and space in ways which the cinema cannot possibly handle. My enthusiasm is for the notion of the exhibition as an art form in itself using the new technologies and an expanded cinematic vocabulary. A lot of people are engaged in this in lots of ways, sometimes on the periphery, sometimes as a prime concern. Very shortly the notion of Jurassic Park and Mission Impossible will certainly end up looking like an early 19th century lantern-slice experience.

- Lawrence Chua, Bomb Magazine



Why a female protagonist?

That's particularly interesting because I think it's about language ... it was the women, sitting in their dark little houses, as basic concubines for the pleasure of men, who were inventing the Japanese language. That's where it came from, it came from the female writing, not from the male writing. What became Japanese was the privatized language of the country, spoken basically at home. That's what finally produced the fully fledged language. It was exactly the same in England.

What are your feelings about the state of contemporary film?

Well I don't go to the cinema very much, because I find it boring and uninteresting. When I do go and see something which is amazing, then I'm filled with a great sense of envy and jealousy. So my cinematic viewing experiences are always very negative. I remember seeing [David] Lynch's "Blue Velvet," which I thought was a magnificent film, some years ago now, of course. I pay it the highest compliment by saying I wish I'd made it myself. In a sense I think it's already too late: Cinema is an old technology. I think we've seen an incredibly moribund cinema in the last 30 years. In a sense Godard destroyed everything -- a great, great director, but in a sense he rang the death knell, because he broke cinema all apart, fragmented it, made it very, very self-conscious. Like all the aesthetic movements, it's basically lasted about 100 years, with the three generations: the grandfather who organized everything, the father who basically consolidated it and the young guy who chucks it all away. It's just a human pattern.

And where do you fit into that pattern?

Let's keep me out of this! For me, the three big guys of the history of cinema would be Eisenstein, who virtually made the language, Orson Welles, who consolidated it, and then Godard, who threw it all away. But each of those people was very much influenced by the guy who went before, and you'll find that Godard's admiration for Orson Welles is extraordinarily high, and Orson Welles' admiration for Eisenstein is extremely high. So they're working in tandem, if you like, they're the three big conspirators: Let's make, let's perfect, now let's chuck it away.

"The Pillow Book" is a very accessible film, easily your most accessible since "The Cook, The Thief." Do you still have hopes of breaking through commercially?

I think -- initially unself-consciously, but maybe in a more self-aware way now -- I've tended to make films on the A-B-A-B-A-B principle. The A film was a little more commercial. Not because I planned it that way, but because it turned out that way; and that way I could get aesthetic credit and certainly financial credit in the bank, and that allowed me the space to be more experimental. So it was A-B-A-B until suddenly I made two Bs in a row, which are "Prospero's Books" and "The Baby of Macon," and my credit in Europe began to be more and more dubious. I still think there was a certain respect for the filmmaking, but the audiences would have probably gotten smaller, and it would have probably been much more about me making films for the converted as opposed to the unconverted, so it was almost a necessity to make another A picture. We probably have succeeded in that. The final proof in the pudding is that my producer already has all the money for the next project.

Can you describe the process on the set of having to cover the actors' bodies every day with this elaborate calligraphy?

It takes a long time, and a lot of these Japanese calligraphers were great perfectionists. The feeling is that you must only draw a character once. You can't rub out, you can't erase, and if it all goes wrong you have to strip the body down and start all over again. So it would take a long time, as you can imagine. If we wanted to start filming by about 11 o' clock in the morning, we'd start putting up the set much earlier, and there'd be rehearsals and lighting to do, so Ewan McGregor and Vivian Wu would have to get up at about 4 in the morning, and we'd bring them drowsy and comatose and still half asleep, put them on a hard bench of some kind so that their body was in full view of the calligraphers, probably turn on the heat lamps, since we were shooting in the [Japanese] outback a lot of the time, in the freezing winter. And four calligraphers would start on the feet and work up, and maybe two would start on their head and work down. The process might take up to five hours, but I think both of the actors would say it was a halfway enjoyable experience, and that all of us should have a go at it.

- Interview by Christopher Hawthorne for Salon.com


Greenaway's use of the body as a canvas makes the surface as unique as the marks placed upon it. Not only does this incorporate the performance aspects of theater into the calligraphic process, it also creates a product that is irreproducible. The same text written elsewhere would have a profoundly different effect. “From a Japanese point of view, the unique manuscript is far more a part of their experience than it is over here,” he says. “It is the West that invented the printing press, after all. In Japan, the one-off was held as a sacred sort of talisman, the basic icon of which was the actual physical mark of the author, and its form was as significant as what that author had to say.”

As the central character Nagiko matures, she begins to travel outside of her culture to sample new alphabetic traditions, seducing calligrapher after calligrapher by offering her body as a page. As the alphabets pile up, she becomes a sort of living Tower of Babel, with the babble of 20 tongues about her. As the director said, “In a sense I really have gone to the edge in terms of total comprehension, because I would demand of my audience that they could speak 10th-century Japanese, contemporary Japanese, a little Filipino, some Vietnamese, Manchu, Mandarin, Cantonese, Latin, Sanskrit, etc. Now, that audience doesn't exist.”

For Greenaway, this is not only a statement about the problems of communication, but is also “a social and political act” coming out of his feelings that, “Before long the world's cinema will all be made in English. It's happening now. In Spain for example, 50 percent of all the productions are being filmed in English. A language is a culture, and if you lose it, it's a bit like cutting down the South American rainforest; it's totally unreclaimable.”

Greenaway is also very interested in having the audience pay attention to the language as a sound. “I deliberately did not translate the Japanese,” he says. “So you as an audience are forced to listen to the cadences, the rhythms, the characteristics of the language.”

- Yves Jaques, The University of Washington Daily



Besides making movies, Greenaway has also worked extensively as a painter and visual artist, curating exhibitions and museum installations across Europe. Some of the ideas and techniques he has employed in these installations, specifically involving lighting effects and projections, have been brought to the production of The Pillow Book. And the person most responsible for their adaptation to film is Reinier van Brummelen, a Dutch gaffer who has worked on many of Greenaway's films, and who also lit an opera he directed, Rosa, a Horse Drama.

But van Brummelen wants to make one thing clear: Director of photography Sacha Vierny is the one who is really responsible for the look of The Pillow Book. Vierny, a veteran of French New Wave classics such as Alain Resnais' Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad, Muriel, and La Guerre Est Finie, Luis Bunuel's Belle de Jour, and films for Marguerite Duras, Bertrand Blier, and Raul Ruiz, has shot every Greenaway movie since A Zed and Two Noughts, in 1985. But Vierny, who is in his 70s, is disinclined to talk. He will only praise, via fax, van Brummelen's abilities as an "artist who manipulates light and the computer," adding that he wishes he could have shot films for Georges Melies and a young Orson Welles.

Van Brummelen's background is firmly in film, including every Greenaway feature since Drowning by Numbers, in 1988, and his own projects as DP. "I sort of rolled into the other type of work through Greenaway," he says. "He was asked to do a curatorial exhibition in a museum. He had the idea to do something special with the lighting, and out of that grew bigger and bigger installations which are more and more light-conscious and theatrical, with lots of mood changes, and synchronized to sound. Those exhibitions were a lot of times about water, and playing with projections."

Van Brummelen has a more collaborative role with Greenaway on the curatorial exhibitions, while on the films he is usually assisting Vierny in giving the director what he wants. But there is never any question about who, ultimately, is in charge of the image. On The Pillow Book, where the Super 35 format made the frame more flexible, there is even evidence that Greenaway is wrestling some visual control from the cinematographer during postproduction. "He reframed a lot of shots in the editing process," says the gaffer. "That's done a lot in commercials and things which go through digital. But he did it on this and it was all finished off optically. The raw stock was really raw stock--it's for the director to play on it. Some of that magic of the cinematographer--'this is the frame, and that's what it's always going to be'--is changing."

On the other hand, van Brummelen marvels at Vierny, who goes along with Greenaway's innovations and supports them in the continuing spirit of avant-garde. "It's interesting that someone like Sacha, who is not a young dog, but who is an old master, is involved in such things. It's pretty amazing that of all the cinematographers I have worked for as a gaffer, he is the most modern, the most fresh, and the one to take the most risks and to try the weirdest things."

- John Calhoun, Live Design Online



Deriving his inspiration from Sei Shonagon's literary "pillow book," Greenaway has fashioned an elusive series of vignettes combining text, flesh, and eroticism into an uneasy but ultimately transcendant whole. Fortunately, the DVD edition preserves the nuances and colorful schemes of his compositions very well. Letterboxing pursits will balk at the claim on the packaging that the film, "while filmed in multi-aspect ratios, has been re-formatted to fit your TV." In fact, this is the same fullscreen transfer supervised by Greenaway himself which first debuted on British video some time ago. Like much of his television work, The Pillow Book was created with digital Japanese technology and involves layer upon layer of images interacing in various aspect ratios (ranging from anamorphic Cinemascope to 1.33:1). This version looks far more satisfying than the film's theatrical showings at 1.85:1, which constantly lopped images and subtitles off at the top and bottom of the screen. Occasional shots framed at even slighter aspect ratio than 1.66:1 seem slightly clipped on the left side of the screen (notably the end titles and an occasional title card), but this in no way affects the compositions. This is a marked contrast to Greenaway's other digital Paintbox epic, Prospero's Books, which was shot hard-matted at 1.66:1 and completely collapsed under Fox's pan and scan video transfer. The Dolby Surround tracks for Pillow Book are also very effective and show off the eclectic soundtrack (ranging from Buddhist chants to techno) with plenty of directional presence. The DVD also includes the fairly explicit U.S. theatrical trailer.

- Mondo Digital


"It seems so tragic to me that so many filmmakers are making movies up against this extra-ordinary revolution with one eye closed and two hands tied behind their backs." - Peter Greenaway

Scorning cinema as being mere 'illustrated text', Greenaway brings his artistic values, intellectual esoterica, visual richness and documentary approach to movies. They often result in intellectually stimulating, obscure, pretentious, bizarre and beautiful visual feasts with metaphors, clues, cerebral puzzles, symmetries, lists, numbers, puns, obsessions and nudity galore. His movies are usually layered or self referential and cannot be watched as simple entertaining narratives. He likes to explore abstract concepts comprehensively, dissecting all of their facets and extremes in a very detached way. Another of his passions is exploring new ways to deconstruct a narrative and tell a story, using multi-layered multimedia to obsessively explore the details of an event or scene. Even his lesser movies have striking visuals, beautiful painting-like photography, and intriguing, precise strangeness. Not included here is his somewhat ordinary drama 'Belly of an Architect', and numerous shorts and artistic documentaries, many of which are esoteric, over-obsessive bores with some impenetrable intellectual humor. A fascinating and unique film-maker.

- Zev Toledano, The Worldwide Celluloid Massacre

There are contradictions in Greenaway's works, a fact that seems to openly provoke divided opinion. Some would suggest that the fecundity of his vision and intellectual rigor are the stuff of great cinema; others, while admitting his originality, would still look for evidence of a deeper engagement with film as a medium, rather than as a vehicle for ideas. Lauded in Europe, under-distributed in the United States, loved and reviled in his own country, Greenaway is, nevertheless, in an enviable position for a filmmaker.

Saul Frampton, updated by Rob Edelman, Film Reference.com

It's just about impossible to listen to Peter Greenaway talk about his work for more than five minutes without experiencing an intense desire to punch him in the jaw. In interviews, he's liable to make such irritating, condescending remarks as "I would say there has been no cinema yet. Nobody has yet made a film" and "I find cinema extremely boring. The exciting, investigative things are not happening in cinema, although they continue to be happening in painting. Certainly in literature, and in still photography, too; but it's very, very rare indeed to find an exciting film." Implicit in such comments is the notion that only he, Greenaway, is striving to take advantage of the unique possibilities that film offers, and that everybody else -- Scorsese, Campion, Jarmusch, Cronenberg, Zhang, you name 'em -- is a backward-thinking Neanderthal hopelessly and pathetically trapped in the narrative quagmire inherited from literature. Indeed, Greenaway routinely speaks of the movies with such vitriol that one wonders why on earth he would deign to toil in such a trivial, unrewarding medium. What's most irritating, though, about all of this highfalutin', pretentious claptrap is that the guy has something of a point. Truth is, Greenaway is unique; love him or hate him, you can't deny that there's nobody else out there doing anything remotely like what he does -- at least, not in the mainstream (which Greenaway, just barely, does inhabit, mostly thanks to the success of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover seven years ago). Employing unorthodox visual tropes, frequent onscreen text, varying aspect ratios, multiple images layered one atop another, and conceits that vary from the merely eccentric (the sequential numerals that pervade Drowning by Numbers) to the incomprehensibly bizarre (the "Violent Unexplained Incident" that causes avian-related mutations in 19 million people in The Falls), Greenaway is the point man for the narrative avant-garde. (The adjective "narrative" is crucial: however much Greenaway may sneer at directors who depend upon literary precedent, most of his own work is inextricably tied to the same traditions and conventions, however tangentially. He and, say, Stan Brakhage [who makes genuinely abstract movies] are essentially working in different media.) He's obnoxious and arrogant, but at least he has cause; while there may be, as I would argue, many more accomplished filmmakers working today, there is certainly nobody half so ambitious.

- Mike D'Angelo, The Man Who Viewed Too Much

- Richard von Busack, Metroactive

The French have loved Peter Greenaway for 20 years, ever since his film The Draughtsman's Contract was released. The only British films we encountered at the time were social commentaries or nonsense comedies - Ken Loach or Monty Python. And here was something completely different: a UK director who put art before entertainment (we have always loved that) and was clearly immensely cultured (we adore that as well).

· Jean Roy, The Guardian

No, I don't much like Greenaway, thank you very much - though I did enjoy The Draughtsman's Contract. It may just be that Greenaway is too smart, too wicked, too artistic for the British. I mean, he is nakedly pretentious - and the dread of being pretentious is a British disease that can lead to such things as the amiable but monstrous self-effacement of, say, Stephen Frears, who might be better off if he ever said: "Me!"

I know the vital texts in this matter, and I agree with them - indeed, I am a hearty "Hear! Hear!" rumbling up from the back benches on the musical farts of a good Simpson's lunch. I remember how Ken Russell asked: "What is it about Greenaway's films that make the flesh crawl? I think it's his apparent loathing of the human race." And then there was the fine and noble John Boorman, who once lamented the director's seeming lack of doubt, as well as "the sadism, the sex-hating, the food-hating, life-hating, child-hating, woman-hating, excrement-loving" in his work.

To be very fair, Boorman saw things to admire in Greenaway: "prodigious skills". He thought that the director had high abilities in the musical, the visual and the architectural. But he was not cinematic. I feel very much the same way, and it's important to note that being spectacular and obsessed with movement is not necessarily "movie-like". Yet I'm bound to admit that when it comes to doing dirt on life, or being obsessed with odious people, the movies as a whole have rather come to Greenaway's aid.

For isn't it the case nowadays that most pictures are made by people who hate or fear other people, and who have no faith in the better things of life? Yes, I exaggerate a tad, but still, the mindless nihilism of so much film-making only points up how original, how piquant, how vicious, how masterly the cruelty in Greenaway can be. For who could ever call this gloating thinker "mindless"?

So, yes, I hate Peter Greenaway's films. They make me feel the need to take a long hot shower - but then, I usually feel that way. And meanwhile, let me whisper this: we need him; he is a thrilling, insolent corrective to so much "Englishness". I fear he may be necessary.

- David Thomson, The Guardian

954 (96). Starship Troopers (1997, Paul Verhoeven)

Screened January 30 2009 on Crackle TSPDT rank #898 IMDb Wiki

A commercial and critical flop upon its release, the virtues of Paul Verhoeven's satirical take on Robert Heinlein's Cold War sci-fi novel are stunningly clear in the context of 9-11 and the Iraq War. Few recent films tap into the underlying forces shaping today's world as piercingly as Verhoeven's vision of a thoroughly Americanized global civilization that exploits media and youth culture to wage endless war against an appointed enemy. With perverse, knowing affection, Verhoeven mashes cliched elements from 1940s war movies ("Come on you apes, you wanna live forever?") and 1990s teen soap opera (football game, senior prom) and splashes them with a futuristic paint job in an effort to link together the past, present and future of youth cultural propaganda. Most prescient is the framing device of an internet-type visual console that bombards the viewer with requests of "Would you like to know more?", paving a perpetual rabbit hole of Information Age captivity.

Verhoeven's Hollywood career can be divided between his wildly successful early half (RoboCop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct) and a wildly misunderstood second half (Showgirls, Starship Troopers, Hollow Man). Each successive effort found increasingly outrageous ways to subvert the sex-and-violence tropes simultaneously being exploited for entertainment profit, that is until the box office failure of Starship Troopers collapsed this ill-advised project of cultural signal jamming. Many critics (see Roger Ebert and Janet Maslin's reviews below, among others) counted Starship Troopers as endemic of Hollywood crassness, oblivious of the ways the war and teen movie genres were being inverted into critical reflections of themselves.  One might abjectively dismiss Verhoeven's send-up as another case of Hollywood having its cake and selling it. Further complicating the issue of satire, Verhoeven isn't adopting a scorched-earth approach to his subject matter; instead there's an odd, loving attention paid to the innovative special effects and the straight-faced execution of ersatz melodrama.  Reflecting a more complicated - and honest - fascination with Hollywood genres, Verhoeven interrogates both the seductive fantasy surfaces and the horrific real world outcomes of its mythmaking. In other words, this may be one of the few Hollywood blockbusters that functions as a work of film criticism as art.


The following citations were counted towards the placement of Starship Troopers on They Shoot Pictures 1000 Greatest Films:

Frank Schnelle, Steadycam (2007) Jurgen Egger, Steadycam (2007) Kevin Prin, ymdb.com (2002) Lars-Olav Beier, Steadycam (2007) Cinema-Scope Best Films of the 1990's (2000) Cinescape The Top 100 Sci-Fi, Horror & Fantasy Films (2000) Halliwell's Top 1000 Films (2005) Kent Jones, Film Comment: Ten Most Underrated of the 1990's (2000) Michael Atkinson, Counter Cultural Programming: The 50 Best Election Year Movies (2004) Nicole Brenez, Cinema-Scope: Best Films of the 1990's (2000) Online Film Critics (OFCS) Top 100 Sci-Fi Films (2002) Peter Travers 1000 Best Movies on DVD (2005) Premiere 100 Best Action Movies on DVD (2003) Rough Guide to Film Sci-Fi: 5 Lesser-Known Gems (2007) Stuff Magazine 50 Most Dangerous/Forgotten Movies (2001) The Guardian 1,000 Films to See Before You Die (2007)

Time Out Critics' Choice: Monsters (2006)

Full Text of Screenplay Adaptation by Edward Neumeier


Trooper PX: "The World's Most Complete Starship Troopers Reference Collection"

Starship Troopers.net

Visual Effects Headquarters (VFXHQ) has a couple of invaluable articles detailing the extensive, Oscar-nominated special effects work of Starship Troopers:

- Visual Effects Overview

- Behind the Scenes


``Starship Troopers'' is the most violent kiddie movie ever made. I call it a kiddie movie not to be insulting, but to be accurate: Its action, characters and values are pitched at 11-year-old science-fiction fans. That makes it true to its source. It's based on a novel for juveniles by Robert A. Heinlein. I read it to the point of memorization when I was in grade school. I have improved since then, but the story has not.

Heinlein intended his story for young boys, but wrote it more or less seriously. The one redeeming merit for director Paul Verhoeven's film is that by remaining faithful to Heinlein's material and period, it adds an element of sly satire. This is like the squarest but most technically advanced sci-fi movie of the 1950s, a film in which the sets and costumes look like a cross between Buck Rogers and the Archie comic books, and the characters look like they stepped out of Pepsodent ads.

The action sequences are heavily laden with special effects, but curiously joyless. We get the idea right away: Bugs will jump up, troopers will fire countless rounds at them, the Bugs will impale troopers with their spiny giant legs, and finally dissolve in a spray of goo. Later there are refinements, like firebreathing beetles, flying insects, and giant Bugs that erupt from the earth. All very elaborate, but the Bugs are not interesting in the way, say, that the villains in the ``Alien'' pictures were. Even their planets are boring; Bugs live on ugly rock worlds with no other living species, raising the question of what they eat.What's lacking is exhilaration and sheer entertainment. Unlike the ``Star Wars'' movies, which embraced a joyous vision and great comic invention, ``Starship Troopers'' doesn't resonate. It's one-dimensional. We smile at the satirical asides, but where's the warmth of human nature? The spark of genius or rebellion? If ``Star Wars'' is humanist, ``Starship Troopers'' is totalitarian.

- Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times, November 7 1997

The Sun-Times also has a collection of blurbs from different reviews that came out upon the film's release, including these two:

"...Starship Troopers is fatally lacking in lightness, play, invention. Human bodies are gutted and eviscerated, the limbs pulled off, the heads drilled. Are children supposed to enjoy this literal-minded, grisly bloodbath? As you watch the endless carnage, you become sure that Hollywood has gone completely, utterly mad. But how can you fight the success of 'ironic' stupidity? Verhoeven may have had his brains removed, but it's the audience that winds up with a hole in the head."

- David DenbyNew York Magazine (November 17, 1997)

"Verhoeven and Neumeier are alive to the absurdity and excess of Heinlein's military world, and though the sexy young male and female soldiers of the movie -- played mostly by TV hunks and babes from Melrose Place andBeverly Hills 90210 -- accept that world almost unconditionally, the filmmakers don't.... [T]he pulverizing good looks, high energy and skin-deep styles of these characters makes another comment -- not on the future world but on our own, where looks, packaging and self-salesmanship are so crucial. Starship Troopers begins and ends with satiric recruiting commercials, which send up the whole idea of the 'recruiting poster' movie, like Top Gun, which this one sometimes resembles."

- Michael WilmingtonThe Chicago Tribune (November 7, 1997)

Welcome to the retrofuture. It's a time when they're fighting a high-tech intergalactic war but talking about it in the kind of lowbrow rhetoric--hysterical jingoism--we haven't heard issuing from movie screens since World War II.

Besides the weaponry and the enemy--monstrous, profoundly malevolent bugs--a few other things have changed. There's a world government now, and the combat troops are fully gender integrated--to the point where they take showers together. This implies, of course, that more saltpeter than ever is being dumped into their rations...

Pretty funny. But not always very funny. For Starship Troopers contains an unexplored premise. There are two classes in this futureworld: civilians, who have sacrificed voting privileges for material ease, and warriors, who earn the right to rule by their willingness to die for the state. In short, we're looking at a happily fascist world. Maybe that's the movie's final, deadpan joke. Maybe it's saying that war inevitably makes fascists of us all. Or--best guess--maybe the filmmakers are so lost in their slambang visual effects that they don't give a hoot about the movie's scariest implications.

- Richard Schickel, Time, November 10, 1997

Not for the arachnophobic, this intergalactic Raid campaign is surely on Verhoeven's wavelength. After Robocop and Total Recall, Basic Instinct and Showgirls, the transplanted Dutchman has become something like our Fritz Lang - Hollywood's comic-book artist deluxe, the suavely brutal purveyor of hardcore pulp. Verhoeven may lack Lang's visionary conviction and cultural pessimism, but he has a boldly cartoonish graphic sensibility and a corresponding gusto for caricatured postmodern shibboleths. Somewhere beyond irony, Starship Trooper's clever opener dares the viewer to position the movie as kissing cousin to a Hitler Youth recruitment ad.

The most intense sci-fi combat film since James Cameron's Aliens, Starship Troopers subsumes a plot-driven class struggle between infantry and air force in the visceral excitement of all-out, hand-to-tendril interspecies warfare - most spectacularly in the sensationally animated, artfully corpse-splattered, nerve-wracking attacks of the scuttling, screaming crustacean-spider hordes

That the move has no more depth than the early eighties video games that were based on Heinlein's novel is Verhoeven's ultimate joke. Every planet not only resembles the Dakota badlands but has an earthling-compatible atmosphere. Oxygen is everywhere. Considering that the spider-monsters are apparently capable of targeting earth cities with meteors launched from deep space, it takes the Terra Federation a remarkably long time to realize that the Bugs might actually be intelligent.

- J. Hoberman, The Village Voice, November 11 1997

'Starship Troopers'' is the film version of Robert A. Heinlein's rabidly militaristic novel about a human infantry battling giant insects from the planet Klendathu. Speaking of other planets, where exactly are the hordes of moviegoers who will exclaim: ''Great idea! Let's go see the one about the cute young co-ed army and the big bugs from space.''

No doubt they're here somewhere, since the director Paul Verhoeven does have a way with crazed, lurid spectacle, from ''Total Recall'' to ''Showgirls.'' But ''Starship Troopers'' looks like reason to wonder how the big-ticket exploitation film mutated into its present form. The movie for everyone is, in this case, only for everyone who likes raw meat for breakfast. Still, it certainly can pander, what with pretty actors, grisly critters, brains sucked out of skulls, buckets of green slime and a plot that is half beach blanket bingo, half Iwo Jima. Gung-ho patriotism is also big here, what with cries of ''The only good bug is a dead bug!'' and ''You kill everything that has more than two legs, you get me?''

As written by Ed Neumeier, who also wrote Mr. Verhoeven's much tighter ''Robocop,'' ''Starship Troopers'' never gets over its 180-degree swivel from teen-age love story to murderous destruction. But coherence does not appear to be a major concern. This film simply piles on the bugs, lops off the limbs and provides a flaming catharsis that suits its ideology. By the end of the film, arachnid butt has been duly kicked and back-patting is in order. We won't have to worry about marauding bugs until, thanks to Hollywood, the next batch comes along.

- Janet Maslin, The New York Times, November 7 1997

Human culture and insect culture duel to the death in "Starship Troopers," a spectacularly gung-ho sci-fi epic that delivers two hours of good, nasty fun. The scope and abundance of the special effects --- from the countless and incredibly vivid marauding bugs to the plethora of agile aircraft of the Earth's space fleet --- may well surpass anything seen before, while the "just war" against an implacably hostile foe supplies plenty of rooting interest. The frequent violence has a grisliness that will put off some older viewers and may create a backlash against the picture in certain quarters, but sci-fi fans and younger general audiences always looking for the latest edge to be pushed will eat it up, creating strong B.O. worldwide for the first holiday blockbuster out of the box.

- Todd McCarthy, Variety, November 9 1997

What the hell is Starship Troopers? Is it a mindlessly violent slab of future jingoism:Melrose Place goes to war in space? Or is it a sly bit of leg pulling on the part of director Paul Verhoeven? Here's what I think:Starship Troopers is exactly what Star Warswould have looked like if Germany had won World War II.

Unfortunately, most audiences don't know how to do anything but take their movies straight up, and that gives an elitist stench to Verhoeven's little in-joke. But then, this director has never played according to the rules of either the art house or the megaplex. He was as controversial in his native Netherlands as he has been in Hollywood, and curiously, many of his early films have their later, American analogue. Basic Instinct (1992) is a bluntly obvious reinvention of his best film, 1984's The Fourth Man: same blond fatal femme, same flummoxed male victim, same kinky sense of play. 1981's Spetters (a crass, unpleasant tale about three guys on the motocross racing circuit) was as savaged by Dutch critics as 1995's Showgirls (a crass, unpleasant tale about two women on the Vegas show circuit) was in the U.S.

Following that logic, Starship Troopers could be read as Verhoeven's Hollywoodization of Soldier of Orange, the 1979 WWII Dutch Resistance drama that helped bring him international notice. Both films are about upper-class kids hardened by wartime experience, and both — realistically or sadistically, take your pick — mow their pretty young characters down one by one. But the predations of Nazis cut emotionally deeper than the carnage of F/X-derived insects, and Soldier's lead character, Erik (Rutger Hauer), comes to a more adult understanding of the world's complexities than the comic-book triumph of Johnny Rico.

Of course, maybe that's because the ''heroes'' in the later film are the Nazis. Verhoeven loses his feeling for tone toward the end of Troopers: It becomes more plainly satirical, especially when the Earth scientists start gleefully torturing an agonized-looking Brain Bug. Only a particularly twisted sensibility would spend $100 million to kick moviegoers in the keister while telling them it's entertainment, but Verhoeven is even more perverse than that. He's serious on both levels — and on neither.

- Ty Burr, Entertainment Weekly. Related interview with Chris Nashwaty

Based on a novel by classic, conservative SF writer Robert Heinlein and directed by Paul Verhoeven (you'll recall that he made Showgirls, another apocalyptic vision), Starship Troopers is something of a paradox, an exercise in and examination of mindlessness. I mean, it's not rocket science, but its cynicism is simultaneously smarmy and smart, exacting a cost for any pleasure you may take in its nasty-ass violence. In this respect it's not unlike Verhoeven's remarkable Robocop (1987), which was good gory fun as well as an astute look at Reaganomics, '80s corporate politics, privatization and the uncomfortable legacy of the Hollywood Western. The new film is less weighed down by major iconography (the robosuited Peter Weller seeking his identity had its heavy-handed moments), more relaxed and self-reflexive. For example, it lifts those "commercial spots" directly from Robocop: here these comedic insertions—appearing as if on television, commenting ironically on the progressively brutal action—make the point that the military's recruitment campaign is perpetual, that war is business, that bugs and recruits are similarly expendable.

It's not a little funny that Verhoeven calls it his most "romantic" film, noting that a character says "I love you" and means it, but the fact that the cast is (relatively) fresh meat lifted quite literally from Aaron Spelling's TV-soap-land, suggests that the director is either messing with his interviewer or seeing romance as one big cliché. Either way or both ways, the film does do a number on those romantic clichés that constitute traditional war imagery.

Starship Troopers may be less overt about its politics than Robocop, but any movie that turns Doogie Howser into a fascist has some serious cultural analysis going on. Its glib depictions of dismemberment, decapitation and horrendous evisceration can be alarming, but they can also be understood as the film's (rather visceral) assessment of—for instance—the current U.S. drive toward escalating militarization, incorporation and globalization. This picture is not pretty. "Whoo-hoo!"

- Cynthia Fuchs, Philadelphia City Paper

The question of how satire operates (if it operates at all) in starship troopers is also evidenced by a series of enlightening articles in the Los Angeles Times that appeared at around the time of the film’s premiere. An initial review of starship troopers by Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan on November 7, 1997 describes a “…jaw-dropping experience, so rigorously one-dimensional and free from even the pretense of intelligence it’s hard not to be astonished and even mesmerized by what is on screen”. Turan’s lukewarm review of the “cheerfully lobotomized” film that “offers no shortage of all manner of carnage” prompts a rebuttal a few weeks later in the Los Angeles Times by a guest writer named Jon Zelazny in an article entitled “Counterpunch: Amid ‘Troopers’ Gore, it’s Easy to Miss the Message”. Zelazny, in a call to recognize an especially audacious form of satire in starship troopers, argues that “[W]hat Verhoeven has created is nothing less than a total replica of a propaganda film that the futuristic government of earth would itself create, if in fact its goal were to recruit young men and women to swell the ranks of the starship troopers if they were engaged in a distant war”. Paramount to Zelazny’s argument is the understated nature of the satire in starship troopers, and he states that “…the oh-so-subtle warning Verhoeven slips us is that people can be swayed by even ‘dumb’ movies into supporting war and violence”. One week later, writer Michael Voss pens a response to Zelazny’s piece in the Los Angeles Times. The article questions the importance of Zelazny’s contention that viewers are taken in completely and do not comprehend satirical elements in the film. To Voss, Verhoeven’s entire project fails because the satirical aspect of the film is not clearly delineated for a “mass” audience: “[p]ity the poor, misunderstood filmmaker, who had to actually live under Nazi occupation as a child, yet who somehow fails to clearly present the satiric focus of his movie in a manner that the masses can appreciate and understand”. Presenting satire in an ambiguous way becomes problematic for Voss, who questions Zelazny’s claim that 99.9% of moviegoers missed the satire in the movie. Voss raises an interesting point in his criticism of the film’s satirical elements when he states, “is it no longer the director’s task to integrate his audience, to bring meaning to them, rather than the other way around?” The ideal for Voss is a film that removes ambiguity in relation to satire, so that a consistent reading of the film is possible. In the above debate, interpretations of starship troopers by the viewer are crucial, as is the possibility that contradictory readings of the film can coexist. An important question to ask regarding starship troopers and all of Verhoeven’s films is in relation to this acutely divided reception: is it still satire if the audience does not recognize satirical elements inherent in the story?

Roger Ebert’s oft-quoted and provocative line in his review that “starship troopers is the most violent kiddie movie ever made” suggests a level of violence surpassing socially acceptable standards for films aimed at youths. While some note that the violence of starship troopers is excessive for the genre, Sacramento Bee writer Joe Baltake contends that the violence has a satirical function. He writes, “while other contemporary movies sanctimoniously tell us that violence is a bad thing and then hypocritically wallow in it to prove their point, starship troopers giddily celebrates its own viciousness”. Film Journal International, in a decidedly negative review, finds blame and a twisted pleasure in the film’s supposed failure to fit into its genre:

"[p]erhaps the sole pleasure moviegoers over the age of 11 will derive fromstarship troopers […] is finding inventive ways to describe it to curious friends and loved ones. But even such attempts as ‘Leni Riefenstahl Meets Melrose Place,’ ‘Ayn Rand’s top gun 2,’ and ‘Gidget Goes gattaca’ fail to convey the staggering mindlessness of this huge-scale exercise in neo-Orwellian kitsch."

...For better or for worse,starship troopers is truly a film made for the people. As his films reach a mainstream audience, they reveal similar contradictions in the society that receives them. starship troopers is undoubtedly a film made for younger viewers with plenty of disposable income, but just as writers are unsure of how to place starship troopersstarship troopers is unsure how to place the viewer. A seemingly totalitarian film made by someone who lived under an oppressive Nazi occupation as a child, starship troopers leaves it unclear whether viewers will appreciate the bleak satire or “eat this gooey sci-fi thriller up with a spoon”.

Raising the issue of ‘communication to the masses’ is vital to Verhoeven’s work here; the message to the viewers is therefore deliberately compromised. For Verhoeven, this holds true especially for Hollywood summer blockbusters, films expressly made for wide audiences and which can easily be shaped into shameless propaganda. Thus, the discussion around the filmic text, the controversy, becomes as important as the film itself. Eliciting a varied response may support an audacious project that links the Hollywood product (of which starship troopers is a part) with blatant propaganda, Nazi and otherwise. I think that the reason for making a film in the vein of starship troopers may well be a wish to produce an opening to expose this problematic, to drive an alien probe straight into the forehead of the mainstream.

- Owen Livermore, Synoptique


Whatever else it is, which is plenty, Paul Verhoeven’s eye-popping 1997 epic Starship Troopers has to be the most misunderstood and underappreciated sci-fi blockbuster of all time.

What didn’t dawn on everyone at the time of Starship Troopers’s abbreviated theatrical run was that it was a comedy – a vicious, all-barrels-firing piece of social satire and by far the funniest Hollywood film of 1997. All satire runs the risk of evading an inattentive audience and being mistaken for the very thing it mocks, but few American movies have been as extreme in their methods and at the same time as miscomprehended as Verhoeven’s. In this film’s pointed but absurd idea of the future, the world has one fascist government, society is divided between the rabble "civilians" and the elite, vote-bearing "citizens," and the former can become the latter only by performing a term of service with the Mobile Infantry, an interstellar army devoted to battling "bugs," an alien race of house-sized arachnids who hurl their spore into space and thereby direct meteors toward Earth. If all that isn’t ludicrous enough, our protagonists are idealistic high schoolers hot to do their part: the jock, his bodacious girlfriend, the nerd, the opportunistic schemer, the dumb goofball, the girl who loves the football star but who stands silently aside. They train, travel the galaxy, combat monster-bugs, mature, experience casualties, triumph.

There were loads of cheesy pulp novels intended for 12-year-olds like this written in the ‘50s, but Heinlein’s book wasn’t one of them. Rather, the novel is an outrageous tract that rather unambiguously expounds the virtues of militaristic might, fascist order, violence and "earned" (not our Constitution’s "self-evident" and "unalienable") social rights. An ultra-conservative ex-Naval officer and vocal arms-race proponent, Heinlein had caught a lot of static for it over the years, but Verhoeven’s movie, made over a decade after Heinlein’s death, amounts to a flat-out rebuttal. The subversive wit on display is startling. (The screenplay is credited to Edward Neumeier; Verhoeven, for his part, says he tried to read the novel but got bored and tossed it aside.) In the film, a war-mutilated high school history teacher walks about the classroom dead-seriously extolling the virtues of naked violence, officers wear Nazi headgear, troopers freely paraphrase Hitler, drill sergeants regularly mutilate their troops to make a training point, and whole scenes and hunks of dialogue are robbed from the paradigmatic colonialist melodrama Zulu (1964)...

Starship Troopers certainly faced the problem of any satire of political war-mongering – that the vivid depiction of militaristic chaos can be so exciting that the scolding intention of it is obscured by the mayhem. And make no mistake, the film is vivid and appalling in ways that few films have been before or since. America needed a little distance, it seems, and since Verhoeven’s film went to video, it has been universally reappraised and hailed as a culty landmark. It certainly can lead you to reconsider the director’s other films – the entirety of Starship Troopersis the satirical TV commercials from Robocop (1987) writ large, and by the way, didn’t Basic Instinct (1992) andShowgirls (1995) also cakewalk the edge of absurdity in ways we couldn’t bring ourselves to believe were intentional? Doesn’t the whole does-he-mean-it-or-is-he-a-muttonhead? aesthetic hearken back to Verhoeven’s career-making font of nervous laughter, The Fourth Man(1983)? Verhoeven may be the bravest and most assured satirist in Hollywood, insofar as he succeeds in making big genre movies no one knows whether to take seriously or not. Maybe the interface with the humorless screenwriter Joe Eszterhas is what make Basic Instinct and particularlyShowgirls seem crude and dumb, even as they quite obviously mock themselves with every laughable line of dialogue and leering innuendo. However you slice it, Verhoeven has gotten a bum rap as a directorial miscreant, because there’s nothing misjudged or self-indulgent about Starship Troopers. It’s pure laughing gas.

- Michael Atkinson, TCM

Ironically, Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers – a special effects-infested sci-fi saga about humanity’s war against a race of giant bugs – is more effective as a satire than as an action extravaganza. Like in Robocop, Verhoeven employs the basic trappings of genre as a ruse to sneak in cynical criticisms about contemporary society, and his film’s first half – a parody of90210-style high school teen romances as well as rah-rah 1950s WWII films – is at once incisive and hilarious, in large part because his cast of bland, pretty ciphers (including Casper Van Diem, Denise Richards and Neil Patrick Harris) play their tongue-in-cheek material with straight faces. Given that Michael Ironside kicks things off by preaching about violence as the surest means to achieving peace, and Harris ends the film decked out in SS-style military garb, it’s not hard to grasp Verhoeven’s hit-you-over-the-head point about the inherent fascism of war. Yet his spot-on replication of both barking war movie dialogue and trademark love story moments nonetheless gives the film an entertaining cheesiness. Unfortunately, the combat-heavy latter half – despite some impressive CG work on the steroidal insects, especially during shots of them creeping across the rocky desert by the thousands – proves tepid and monotonous, and somewhat diminishes the overly long (130 minutes!) Starship Troopers' sardonic punch.

- Nick Schager, Lessons of Darkness

Starship Troopers is at once a thrilling, ultra-violent, energetically paced sci-fi action flick, and a viciously clever, uncompromising satire of exactly the kind of movie it purports to be, and of the militaristic, proto-fascist attitudes and assumptions underlying such films. It's the story of a war between an intelligent alien species of bugs and a human society of the future, when the world has been united under an international government in which citizenship is not assumed but granted only to those who earn it by serving in the military. The nature of this society is never thoroughly explored in the film, which instead focuses on the military itself, but director Paul Verhoeven makes it very easy to read between the lines and imagine the kind of society he's depicting here. It's a totalitarian world government with an iron grip on the media, which is used as a tool of indoctrination, encouraging military service and vilifying the enemy bugs to the extent that kids on earth senselessly stamp out harmless cockroaches as their mother enthusiastically cheers them on. The military leaders are the only figures of authority shown in the film, suggesting that the military and government are closely related if not interchangeable. And the leaders take no real responsibility for their actions; after a particularly grave military disaster, the "sky marshall" who had been in charge makes a show of calmly stepping aside, ushering in his replacement and then standing behind her on the podium as she delivers the newest commands. It's as much of a blatant mockery as the reasons for the war in the first place: the media continually blames the alien bugs on their distant planets for sending meteors towards Earth, but this never makes much sense even if the film neither explains nor explicitly questions it. The absurdities peddled by the media and the government are simply allowed to stand, their ridiculous contradictions and blatant non-sequiturs obvious to anyone who looks...

Still, Verhoeven keeps subtly reminding his audience that the aliens are not simply expendable cannon fodder: a bombing raid on their planet emphasizes the way huge swaths of the creatures, who are seemingly doing nothing aggressive for once, are simply obliterated by the waves of fire. It's the bug equivalent of a civilian massacre, and Verhoeven's composition deliberately recalls popular representations of the Pearl Harbor attack and of American napalm bombing raids in Vietnam. The bugs also cease being quite so intimidating in the film's increasingly lurid final sequence, in which the troops are tracking what's known as the "brain bug," the central intelligence driving the creatures. This turns out to be a massive, nearly immobile lump with a nakedly vaginal face, a row of curiously soulful black eyes surrounding its labial, muscus-squirting mouth. Once the troops capture this creature, Carl reads its thoughts, triumphantly declaring that "it's scared" to the cheers of the soldiers, who rejoice at the revelation that their enemy can feel emotions, and that they've frightened it. Finally, the scientists who study this captured bug complete the vaginal metaphor by inserting metallic probes into the creature's mouth, accompanied in the media propaganda by censorial black bars, a subtle joke that links top-secret military intelligence and low-grade smut. The victors complete their victory by literally fucking the enemy, a final act that definitively establishes Verhoeven's sympathy for the bugs rather than humans. At the same time, the human specificity of the film's actual protagonists is de-emphasized, not only by the wooden acting but by the way that human life is so casually expended in pointless battles. At one point, the military commanders knowingly send a small group of soldiers onto a planet where they're pretty sure the troops will be slaughtered — "that mission had a very low probability of survival" is the euphemistic explanation — just to prove a theory. The film is all about the low value of life in militaristic and totalitarian society, and the high costs of pointless wars fought by a docile, brainwashed populace.

- Ed Howard, Only the Cinema

Starship Troopers is so seamless and so unflinching in its vision of teeny-bopper totalitarianism that it's understandable why those going to a mindless bug-killing movie were confused when they had to check their heads afterwards: "Are we supposed to like these people?" But for anyone with an eye for parody, it still is baffling as to how they couldn't get the film's slick, WWII-inspired recruitment ads ("Join Now!") in which laughing soldiers hand bullets out to children, or little kids enthusiastically smash bugs while an approving mother looks on, as just one part of the film's clever caricature...

But let us not forget that Starship Troopers is saying something, commenting on the lure of fascism, the gung-ho ridiculousness of so many stupid action films and the plastic world of perfection. Many critics don't want to live in a world where women have smiles as gorgeously huge (and creepy) as Denise Richards', and yet part of them probably do, making Starship Troopers all the more cunning.

- Kim Morgan, DVD Journal

Starship Troopers was no big hit in 1997, but it has its fans, many of whom — judging by review postings on Amazon.com — confuse the film for a serious sci-fi epic with a "war is hell" message. (Not surprisingly, post-9/11 postings are more likely to "get it".)

But the clueless are out there. Unfamiliar with the book, smitten with the sexy stars, and repelled by the bugs, many didn't get the jokes. In practical terms, until 9/11 Starship Troopers was a satire without a target. The war hysteria following 9/11 provided just that; the players and events stepping tailor-made into the film's sites with amazing prescience, granting the film a powerful resonance that was lacking when it was first released.

There is the film's black female Sky Marshall, a kooky but satirically pointless joke in 1997. Yet it's a role tailormade for Condoleezza Rice. There are the TV war correspondents, absent in the book, but today stationed in Iraq. They pester the soldiers in battle, don't appreciate the threat, and are killed by the bugs. There are the TV pundits who would understand the bugs, woolly and ineffectual as seen through the film's fascist prism (the New World Order likes to see itself as tolerant).

Starship Troopers is a penetrating satire of post-9/11 war hysteria as might be imagined by an idealistic New World Order fascist. It's hard to believe it was made pre-9/11 and impossible to think it could be made post-9/11.

- Thomas M. Sipos, Blog Critics

Based on Robert Heinlein's well-received science fiction novel, Starship Troopers holds true to the tone of his pro-war writings. In this period fascist rule is a way of life, the price paid for a safe and crime-free society. Only citizens are allowed to vote and, almost, the sole route towards achieving this status is by serving in the forces; perpetuating the plethora of uniforms worn by those in power. No longer is there individual freedom and the sense that resolution can come from discussion, here violence is the solution. Such a scenario fits director Paul Verhoeven like a glove. The force behind Robocop and Total Recall, he is familiar with the idea of taking conservative US tendencies to their furthest extent. The bait for these journeys was satire and Starship Troopers is no exception to the trend. Stuffed full of inspired and often sick humour, Verhoeven's film is an entertaining ride for those who share in his vision.

- Damian Cannon, Movie Reviews UK

Starship Troopers is a movie that wants to have it both ways and fails miserably. The movie's structure is based on conventional ways of garnering excitement, in this case danger during war for a naive young man, but the movie then turns around and claims that audience interest in these conventions is reason enough to call everyone watching a fascist. Heinlein's original novel treated these themes in a serious manner (see myreview of the book), and fans of the book have every reason to feel betrayed by the utter inversion of this in the movie. I happen to dislike Heinlein's book intensely -- in my review, I argue that it posits the world of Orwell's 1984 as a good thing -- but I'm hard-pressed to think of a more disingenuous adaptation than this one. Starship Troopers the movie is actively undermining everything Starship Troopers the book stands for. Heinlein's book at least had all of its narrative points in order; Verhoeven's movie calls anyone who enjoys the surface story a moron or worse! Verhoeven himself is clearly not a militarist or a fascist, but he does have the greater handicap of bad storytelling.

The excessive violence of Starship Troopers is fairly typical of Verhoeven's science-fiction films. As mentioned, the satirical aspects of the film don't work, whereas they did in Verhoeven's Robocop, a movie which is arguably even more violent than this one. Violence is only one of the gadgets in the storyteller's toolkit, and you need to know how to use it; you can't safely ignore any one gadget, and you can't safely mistake the gadget for the story itself. Verhoeven often forgets that constant violence is in fact boring, and useless as a narrative device (he makes the same mistake several times with special effects development, such as the same bug attack over and over again, and how Carmen does the same spaceship moves more than a handful of times). Robocop made us care for its main character, the tragic ex-cop Murphy, and the violence seemed to reinforce this feeling. If anything, the death and dismemberment in Starship Troopers removes us further from the story.

Starship Troopers clearly does not care for scientific rigour, and it may be somewhat pointless to examine all of the logical flaws of the movie. This critic-proofing process has happened in too many recent science fiction movies to count, but Starship Troopers is based on a book that clearly cared about this material. Verhoeven tosses out the more meticulous speculation in the military tactics Heinlein devises, and gives us nonsense instead: ground troops with not a single tank in sight, air support only once, and not a single advanced bit of weaponry. Most of the crises on the human side seem to be self-induced, such as lining up capital ships in orbit like sardines in a can and then waiting for incoming fire. The whole race of bugs in this movie raises many questions. How did they fling an asteroid across the galaxy if they don't have starflight? What did these bugs eat if they live on such gritty planets? What use would a plasma bug, capable of firing projectiles into orbit out of its rear, have in normal life? I would have forgiven the movie a great deal if genetic engineering or some similar buzzword were mentioned, but one of the first things we are told (while Johnny and friends are still in high school) is that the bugs are the product of years of evolution. If Starship Troopers is in search of spectacle, it succeeds. The movie is simply spectacular and simply dumb.

- James Schellenberg, Challenging Destiny

Starship Troopers is a milestone film, if only because it shakes Sci-Fi free from the limp mythology of the Star Wars series, with its hand-me-down swashbuckling and wholesale borrowings from authors like Robert Heinlein and Frank Herbert.Troopers goes in for violent gore and grotesque images straight from old horror comics, as when a "Brain Bug" pierces a man's skull and sucks his brain matter out through a siphon. Audiences were shocked by jolts like that one, but they resented other aspects of the film. As in RoboCop the main object is political satire, but the dark ironies sailed over the heads of disgruntled critics, some of whom thought the film glorified fascism.

The world of Starship Troopers isn't an extrapolation of the Third Reich, it's an extension of today's post- Cold War realities. The world has been unified under an all-powerful Federation that limits democratic input and restricts voting to military veterans. The government controls all media. Racism has been abolished but minority cultures and languages have been eliminated: Carmen's last name is Ibanez, not Ibañez. Buenos Aires is as "American" as Beverly Hills. High School indoctrinations preach a kinder, gentler form of fascism: all political power stems from military power, in short, brute violence.

- Glenn Erickson, DVD Savant

Paul Verhoeven and his entire film crew seemed in on a joke only they knew the punch line to, if it was a commentary on media propaganda in a time when a war was being waged (Desert Storm), then that joke was lost on an worldwide audience that only saw green blips on a radar screen, which actually was the birth of a very popular news channel named CNN. An inherent problem was that it certainly featured a lot of blood and guts, and was as far removed from the actual perception of the conflict than it even is now, when the propaganda machine of the modern day news cycle makes itself more obvious than it did during the actual birth of the 24 hour news channel. Either way, the hilarious news segments certainly make more sense now than they did then.

He was a 'maverick' of sorts, because when all Hollywood was asking him to do was direct a big budget and thoughtless sci fi flick (at 100 million, this was a big film in 1997), he actually seems to have somehow subversively placed social commentary within the film itself, which only proves that probably many of the critics that originally reviewed the film and accused of either being blatantly racist (fascist) or downright dumb either didn't see the film, or (more likely), were completely oblivious to the type of media manipulation and BS he was trying to take a punch at. Either way, Hollywood can be confusing that way, either it is some independent film trying to seem mainstream, or it's the mainstream trying to seem indie. Either way, it confuses the audience. You may as well take the Oliver Stone route than try to hide subversive or unconventional attitudes into a blockbuster.

Starting with "Total Recall" in 1990, Verhoeven created a whole new era as far as intelligent science fiction based on credible source material (this being one of the first films rather loosely 'based on Philip K. Dick material). And the film was a groundbreaking and critical success here in the states (many of us reading can perhaps recall where they were when they first saw the film), it also started a rather interesting directing technique that included clips of fictional news stations based in a science fiction universe that appeared to not only mimic current foreign policy (the original Gulf War AKA 'Desert Storm', but also delved deeper into the origins of war and since we currently live in a world completely saturated with news networks, the joke is almost lost on us these days because it is simply so horrifically realistic, the sarcasm that was lost on a society blind is also lost on a society distrusting and aware of media manipulation.

- Chris Thompson, DVD Review


When did American action blockbusters stop being American? Sometime in the last two decades, in between the genocidal adventures of George Lucas's Star Wars and those of Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers, the national pedigree disappeared. True, Starship Troopers is a simplified, watered-down version of Robert A. Heinlein's all-American novel, and it's consciously modeled on Hollywood World War II features (as was much of Star Wars); it even boasts an "all-American" cast that could have sprung full-blown from a camp classic of Aryan physiognomy like Howard Hawks's Red Line 7000. But the only state it can be said to truly reflect or honor is one of drifting statelessness. If the alien bugs that populate Verhoeven's movie wanted to learn what American life and culture was like in 1977, Star Wars would have served as a useful and appropriate object of study; but if they wanted to know what American - or even global - life was like in 1997, Starship Troopers would tell them zip. Both movies might be loosely described as odes to American values set in a fanciful future mixed with the half-remembered midcentury past, but the similarity is only skin-deep--and not just because Verhoeven hails from the Netherlands. (Starship Troopers is probably even less Dutch than it is American.) Star Wars was made at a time when American pop cinema still belonged mainly to Americans; now it belongs mainly to global markets and overseas investors, and because so-called American cinema is the brand that sells best in international markets, that's what it says on the label. But what's inside the package is, properly speaking, multinational, not national--which in thematic terms involves subtracting ideas rather than adding them. Maybe that's why loss of identity was the very theme of Face/Off--another recent multinational action special, and one whose success perhaps marked the end of John Woo's career as a director of Hong Kong action films.

Verhoeven's 1987 RoboCop and 1990 Total Recall represent successive steps toward Starship Troopers; wacko fantasies like his Basic Instinct and Showgirls offer variations on the same rootlessness. All five films project different versions of the same hyperbolic comic-strip iconography, the same garish, overblown characters, and the same sarcastic and gloating contempt. In fact it was arguably Verhoeven's awkward attempt inShowgirls to say something about America--Hollywood in particular--that spelled its commercial doom: this is a film that fundamentally said "We're all whores, aren't we?" The American public answered, in effect, "Speak for yourself." Starship Troopers modifies that statement to read "We're all stupid apes and cannon fodder, aren't we?" And this time audiences all over the world, more accustomed to receiving such epithets as a natural part of their action kicks, are somewhat likelier to agree (though, depending mainly on gender and age group, some might disagree). But whether this movie excites the desired euphoria among potential warmongers, American and otherwise--at least to anything like the same degree as Star Wars--is another matter. In the Lucas scheme of things wiping out entire planets is clean, bloodless fun that never threatens the camaraderie between fuzzy creatures and humans, who trade affectionate wisecracks while zapping enemies from afar; mythical conceits derived from Joseph Campbell only enhance and ennoble the fun. Verhoevian genocide, by contrast, has no such pretensions: it's a messy affair involving extensive dismemberment on both sides, loads of blood and goo, loss of privacy and comfort, and only a modicum of emotional satisfaction--in short, none of the media pleasures offered by demolishing Baghdad. Most of us Americans probably know as little about Iraqis as the starship troopers do about the alien bugs they fight, and the topography of the bug planet, as Dave Kehr pointed out in the New York Daily News, "suggests the scene of the Gulf War." But there the similarities end--especially after one factors in the anachronistic weaponry and forms of combat in Verhoeven's movie, most of it derived from 40s and 50s war films, and the enemy's power to retaliate.

- Jonathan RosenbaumThe Chicago Reader

News tickers, streaming video, live feeds, web links: television news has truly embraced all that new media has to offer, resulting in the still-unfulfilled promise of viewer interactivity and, ultimately, content control. It’s no accident that FedNet (in and of itself titularly reminiscent of a website) is designed to resemble a network news homepage, complete with a spectral spectator guiding our digestion of Starship Troopers’s news with the visible click of a mouse. The film’s continual info-rally cry of “Would you like to know more?” is not merely a rhetorical question, it’s a commentary on society at large: past, present, and, in this case, future. We wouldn’t merely like to know more, the modern news consumer demands to know more. The news’ preoccupation with “liveness” (vampirically feeding off of the spectatorial paranoia of “missing something”) comes under close scrutiny in Starship Troopers. The public’s (real and fictional) ceaseless desire to be fed information takes on the apparent quality of media binging, with no purge in sight. There’s always more to know, thus there is more to fear, thus there is more to learn about what we have come to fear, and round and round the news ticker goes. What Starship Troopers promises, then, is a future where new media is no longer “new,” simply “media,” while simultaneously questioning what such technology has wrought, namely a news consumer who (much like the bugs themselves) is seemingly never satiated.

- Suzanne Scott, Reverse Shot

Verhoeven revels in his fascination with media presentation. Scenes like the parallel representations of the Klendathu attack, seen both from the mediated perspective of a news broadcast and the actual event taking place show how the media serve a "derealising function...how reality is distanced from us" (Telotte 1999-2000, 34). Shifting his focus away from television broadcast and video imaging, Verhoeven turns to a media technology that flourished after the release of Total recall: the internet, and particularly the central function it plays as a tool of propaganda. A Federation Mobile Infantry advertisement suggests: "to ensure the safety of our solar system, Klendathu must be eliminated". This is followed by a news story showing Bugs brutally attacking and dismembering humans, information that withholds the fact that the Terrans initiated the attack on Bug territory. Another net commercial (entitled "A world that works") shows the military displaying its latest weaponry to schoolchildren. As the kids take turns in fighting over the weapon and the soldiers laugh and distribute bullets, a voiceover narrator states: "citizen rule. People making a better tomorrow." Likewise, executions are advertised and broadcast through FedNet. Kids, through advertisments, are told to "do Your Part" and are seen hysterically stamping and squashing Bugs. Verhoeven states: "the point is simple, as well as a simply violent one: in this world, perceptions are always carefully guided, controlled, even obscured by video, teachers, by all of our training" (Telotte 1999-2000, 34).

In predicting future outcomes, Verhoeven also retraces the myth of America's frontier past. We are presented with Western allusions that include John Wayne-style dialogue ("saddle up!" and "come on you apes. Do you wanna live forever?"); the desert backdrop of Klendathu (that recalls the iconic wilderness expanses of Western landscapes such as Monument Valley); and dances and music, complete with toe-tapping fiddle music that plays to tune of "I wish I were in Dixie", harking back to movies such as John Ford's She wore a yellow ribbon(US 1949). In addition, we are also presented with battles that establish visual parallels between the American Indians and the Arachnids; forts such as Fort Joe Smith, which directly conjure images of the Western forts that housed cavalry communities and ensured protection from the Indians. The Arachnid planet, like the land of the American Indians, has been invaded by aggressive colonisers.

- Angela NdalianisScreening the Past


Video: Of course, the sight of multiple battles with swarms of giant insects shows up Blu-ray's capabilities nicely. The Sony engineers use an MPEG-4/AVC, 1080p encode spread out over a dual-layer BD50 for maximum picture quality. Like its standard-definition counterparts, the high-def, 1.85:1 ratio transfer is bright and clear, with excellent object delineation, deep black levels, and strong contrasts and shadings. In addition to the movie's sharp focus, its hues are vivid and natural. Although facial close-ups are a tad soft, a fine film grain provides enough texture to add to the picture's realism.

But the clincher is comparing it to the Superbit edition, which I had previously thought was quite good. And I guess it is...for standard definition. But switching between the Superbit (upscaled) and the BD, the high definition refinement becomes even more apparent. The Superbit looks faded, washed out, blurred, and jaggy by comparison. The Blu-ray looks crisper, cleaner, sharper, richer, deeper, more detailed, you name it. Faces look a bit smoothed out in both editions, so nothing seems lost in the new translation.

- John J. Puccio, DVD Town

The audio is equally impressive, as it features a bombastic and immersive Dolby TrueHD track that quite simply rocks the house! The surrounds are constantly active, and since this absurd futuristic thrill fest features so much bug splattering mayhem and outrageous violence (not to mention explosions), it is a disc you will want to put in to impress. The dialogue always comes through clear, never rendered inaudible and it sounds better than I even expected. This is certainly the version of "Starship Troopers" fans have been waiting for.

- Chris Thompson, DVD Review

In a clear improvement over the UK disc, Sony's Blu-ray carries over almost all of the bonus features from the out-of-print 2-disc Special Edition DVD released in 2002.

  • Audio Commentary with Paul Verhoeven and Ed Neumeier – Recorded for the original laserdisc and DVD releases of the movie back in 1998, this track finds the director and screenwriter spending a lot of time defending the film from criticism. Verhoeven's commentaries are often hit-or-miss in quality. He needs a strong moderator to keep the discussion on track, or else he tends to lose focus and let the conversation drift into dull tangents. Neumeier does a pretty good job in that regard, though there is an infamous stretch where Verhoeven gets stuck in a "Digital Johnny, real Johnny, digital Johnny, real Johnny, digital Johnny…" loop for a few minutes when explaining how a big visual effects sequence was created.
  • Director and Cast Commentary – Verhoeven returned for this later track recorded in 2002. Here he's joined by stars Casper Van Dien, Dina Meyer, and Neil Patrick Harris. The group has a good rapport, but nobody came prepared with anything in particular they wanted to say about the movie, and they all wind up straining to remember anecdotes about the production. NPH (before he came out!) makes a few wisecracks about the hot chicks in the cast.
  • Death from Above (SD, 32 min.) – This excellent documentary from Automat Pictures covers the movie's WWII influences, its use of irony, the changes made from the Robert Heinlein book (which is referred to respectfully, even though the movie ruthlessly satirizes everything Heinlein wrote about and believed in), and the negative critical reaction. Screenwriter Neumeier explains his concept for the picture: "I just had in mind that Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue go to outer space and fight giant bugs and become Nazis." That pretty much sums it up.
  • The Making of Starship Troopers (SD, 8 min.) – Recycled from the first DVD, this is typical EPK fluff with the expected cast and crew interviews. The piece provides a cursory look at the models and visual effects, as well as a glimpse of Verhoeven acting like a maniac on set.
  • The Spaceships of Starship Troopers (SD, 4 min.) – Coverage of the concept and design for the starships, the use of miniatures, the CGI, lighting, and early animatic renderings.
  • Bug Test Film: Don't Look Now (SD, 1 min.) – A pretty cool proof-of-concept test sequence featuring a random actor interacting with CGI bugs.
  • Know Your Foe (SD, 17 min.) – Broken into five segments that can be watched individually or with a "Play All" option, here we're given information about the design and execution of each of the bug species. The brain bug is referred to as "a cross between Orson Welles and a grub."
  • FX Comparisons (SD, 29 min.) – Raw production footage and animatics are shown contrasted against the final visual effects. It gets kind of boring after a couple minutes.
  • Scene Deconstructions with Paul Verhoeven (SD, 8 min.) – Preliminary scene animatics, storyboards, and behind-the-scenes material. In his commentary, Verhoeven likes to point out the difference between live action and digital footage over and over again.
  • Deleted Scenes (SD, 8 min.) – All five of these scenes that were deemed unworthy of the final cut feature Denise Richards. Are we expected to believe that's a coincidence? Casper Van Dien gets to feel her up in one of them. I bet he needed a lot of takes to get that one right.

In addition to all of the above, Sony has added a few new interactive features to the Blu-ray. In order to access all of them, your Blu-ray player must be Profile 2.0 compatible.

    Will Work in Any Blu-ray Player

  • Blu-Wizard – A common feature on previous Sony Blu-rays, Blu-Wizard allows you to select a series of the supplement featurettes from a checklist to watch in uninterrupted sequence rather than one at a time. You can also choose to view them during the movie playback. However, this is not a picture-in-picture function. The movie will pause and then branch out to each video segment, ultimately dragging out the length of the movie.
  • Recruitment Test – This silly set-top game asks a number of questions to determine your rank in the future military. The better your knowledge of the movie, the more likely you are to make pilot or Military Intelligence. The game is rather pointless and dumb.
    Bonus View: Requires Profile 1.1

  • FedNet Mode – This Picture-in-Picture feature places a border around the screen cleverly designed to mimic the FedNet broadcasts seen in the movie. Interviews and trivia facts will pop-up in small windows while the film plays. Some of the interviews are recent and others are extensions of those seen in the older featurettes, but all are new to the disc, with no outright repetition of content from the other supplements. Verhoeven states right up front that he thinks the Heinlein novel is Fascist propaganda. Pretty much everyone interviewed has a funny story to tell about working with the director (especially when it came to the famous shower scene). There are a few frustrating gaps here and there, but overall this is one of the better PiP features available on Blu-ray to date.
    BD-Live: Requires Profile 2.0

  • Put Yourself in the Movie: Join the Fight! – Kudos to Sony for incorporating genuine BD-Live content on the disc. Unfortunately, the "Put Yourself in the Movie" feature is just about the cheesiest thing I've ever seen in my life. Here's how it works: Via the disc's BD-Live option, access the Sony web portal. Using an agonizingly slow keypad simulator, you can register and have instructions for uploading a personal photo emailed to you. Follow the sizing recommendations as carefully as you can. Then go back into BD-Live and align your face onto an animated trooper's body (male or female). When you return to the disc's main menu, you will find a new option in the Bonus Features menu to view a half dozen clips from the movie (about 20 seconds each) where your cartoon avatar will pop into the frame, pasted on top of the live action footage, usually out of scale with the surroundings, and standing there stiff as a board. In some scenes it shoots a gun… while pointing towards the camera, even though the bugs it's supposed to be shooting at are behind it. It looks utterly stupid and ridiculous. To accomplish all this takes about an hour, and the affected clips run for a grand total of two minutes.
  • Download Exclusive Ringtones – Seriously, who cares?

Also included are some previews for unrelated Sony titles.

The Cutting Room Floor: What Didn't Make the Blu-ray?

A few items from the Special Edition DVD didn't make the transition to Blu-ray. Missing are some filmographies, storyboard comparisons, a theatrical trailer, the isolated score with commentary by composer Basil Poledouris, and a rather extensive gallery of conceptual art drawings. The Poledouris commentary is a big loss, considering that he has passed away since recording it. The conceptual art galleries were also quite interesting, and featured a number of preliminary designs (including power armor!) that were radically changed by the time the movie went into production.

- Josh Zyber, Hi-Def Digest

Additional reviews:

- Matt Brighton, DVD Authority

- Clark Douglas, DVD Verdict

- Dan Lopez, Digitally Obsessed


Video ****

The first Starship Troopers disc release was one of the very first discs I bought not long after getting my very first DVD player, and I remember labeling it as the first great looking movie on DVD I had experienced. This superb re-release is very much, from what I can tell, no different from the first disc, therefore remaining one of the most superior transfers you will ever encounter in this format. The picture image is nothing short of astonishing, never faltering for a single second. The futuristic setting is perfectly rendered and enhanced for this superb digital viewing, and colors deliver in every detail, as well. Quite simply one of CTS’s most shining moments in the history of DVD.

Audio ****

Again, no different from the original release, and Starship Troopers remains one of the true best, if not THE best, audio tracks I’ve ever heard. The 5.1 audio mix delivers in every imaginable aspect. First off, Basil Poledouris’s brilliant score to the film stands out as perhaps the single best musical score ever transferred to the DVD format. The sound of gunfire acquires about a good 70% of the movie, providing a remarkable opportunity for immense and rapid pick up. The attack sequences alone are one of the history books in terms of audio quality. Once again, illustrative proof that CTS is proud of this film, because they have applied perhaps their best transfer of all time here.

Features ****

The original disc did have its share of extras, but none exactly at four-star level. This new Special Edition 2-disc set delivers the goods, with a galaxy-conquering feat of superbly conceived extras.

Disc 1 contains three commentary tracks: the original commentary by Paul Verhoeven and screenwriter Ed Neumeier, a new commentary track with cast members Casper Van Dien, Dina Meyer and Neil Patrick Harris, and a new isolated music score with commentary by Basil Poledouris.

Disc 2 is endless with extras. Included is a new documentary titled “Death from Above”, two featurettes: “Know Your Foe”, and “The Starships of Starship Troopers”. Also featured are special effects and storyboard comparisons, a Vintage Featurette: “The Making of Starship Troopers”, conceptual art galleries, Scene Deconstructions with commentary by Paul Verhoeven, Deleted Scenes, Screen Tests, and trailers.

This Special Edition release also contains by far the most impressive use of menu screens I have seen thus far this year, making it a solid candidate at next year’s DMC Awards.


Sci-fi movies hardly get as fun and entertaining as Starship Troopers, which for me, forever remains of the best discoveries of the genre. Credit should to Paul Verhoeven for going all out with this bloody good masterpiece of visual effects and violence.

- Gordon Justesen, DVD Movie Central


DRE: I spoke to Takashi Miike a few years ago and I was surprised to find out that his favorite film is Starship Troopers.

Paul: That’s very nice. I always thought the movie was badly understood. There was an article in The Washington Post when it came out that was not written by a movie critic. One of the editors wrote it saying that this was a neo-Nazi movie and I was promoting Fascism. That same article was published in all the European newspapers. When I went to do the publicity tour in Europe, everybody was already looking through that lens. The Washington Post is not a reliable newspaper anyway but they said the film was written by a neo-Nazi or a Fascist and directed by one. I strongly disagree with that. I saw it as a critique of American society. It is done in an ironic way but not pushing it very hard, which I hate because then it becomes dogmatic and becomes something else other than filmmaking. It was more that the novel by Robert Heinlein is very militaristic and has a tendency to be pro-Fascist a bit. We took a lot of cues out of American society at that time, which was [President Bill] Clinton, not realizing that a couple years later this whole situation would be much more acute and now you can put the film as a blueprint over Iraq or Afghanistan. But of course, I didn’t know of bin Laden at that time.

- Interviewed by Daniel Robert Epstein for Suicide Girls

Basic Instinct was a terrific film noir and a vivid portrayal of contemporary American society. But you got flak for having a lesbian villain, the homicidal novelist played by Sharon Stone. Making science-fiction films solves the problem of the villain, doesn't it? Whoever you have as a villain today, some group will be upset, but if you have bugs--

We were very well aware of that. At least we had a politically correct enemy here. We could all say, "These guys are really evil, and killing them is good." We cannot say that about any human enemy anymore, because everybody is seeing the other side now, at least a bit more than they did forty years ago. But Starship Troopers is reflecting a little bit the situation in the second World War, when the Americans were fighting the Japanese and the Germans. Basically, the enemy was evil and had to be destroyed. Nobody had time or even could bring himself to [face] the fact that these were also human beings, motivated by other thoughts, but as human as ourselves. People had a strong tendency and inclination to deny that. The line in the movie, "The only good bug is a dead bug," was applied to the Japanese, wasn't it?

Originally it was applied to American Indians by General Philip H. Sheridan in 1869: "The only good Indian is a dead Indian."

Well, that's basically the same kind of thinking, that the enemy is not human.

When the bugs attack the fort in Starship Troopers, it's just like a scene in a Western, such as the scene in John Ford's Drums Along the Mohawk when the Indians are coming over the walls of the fort and the pioneers are trying to stop them.

It is a Western. It's a classical Western situation, absolutely. A lot of these cues were taken from Westerns and from movies like Gunga Din and The Charge of the Light Brigade. We studied these films. That is really American thinking, going back of course to the scriptwriter [of Starship Troopers, Ed Neumeier], who is American. I probably wouldn't have even thought about it that way. I know these movies, but it's a stronger part of his culture than mine.

The fascist society you portray also has some good aspects--racial mixing and the equality of men and women--which seems odd because in a fascist state you'd think they would be discriminating against people of color or against women.

Yeah, that's the interesting, disturbing thing. It's also a little bit looking at the fascist possibility even of American society. Because it's saying, "Under the surface there is always this possibility that you would get to a much more and more puritan state. Yes, you might abolish crime and, yes, you might get rid of all these things, but then are you aware how that can be achieved?" It doesn't interfere with the story, because I think the story is more about people that are really caring about each other. I don't think any of the characters, with the exception of Carl, express themselves in any fascistic way. They only believe in the citizenship [status awarded to warriors]. But they are supportive to each other; they are warm to each other; they sacrifice themselves for others. Our focus group in the movie is much more what you would call human, and not really, in my opinion, fascistic. That's the interesting thing--these [aspects] are correlated. And basically that's what I think about big societies like the American society. Look at the McCarthy period; that's a kind of a fascistic statement that was put forward, isn't it?

Even though the movie is R-rated, you know a lot of young kids are going to see it. Adolescents and teenagers will love this picture. Do you think they'll get the point about fascism?

No, not at all. I saw it in Sacramento with a very normal audience, and also in Granada Hills [California]. I feel that the most [young viewers] see is the kids with the guns. They all got the message; they all start laughing. They realize we're saying, "Everybody has a gun in this country." I think they all see the irony.

You don't think they will misinterpret it and think the young troopers are cool?

No, I didn't get that feeling at all. The exaggeration in the style goes so over the top, they realize we were, not spoofing, but looking at a hyperbole of reality. When I saw them getting excited in the movie, it was never about that. They got excited when Johnny [Casper Van Dien] was jumping on the Tanker Bug and blowing it to pieces. And when the bugs were attacking and the troops were holding the fortress. That's where I saw them really getting excited. That's where they participated. So I don't have the feeling that they would see it as a stimulation of fascistic feelings.

- From interview with Joseph McBride, Industry Central


IMDb Wiki

Paul Verhoeven Fan Page

Despite being embraced by the mainstream Hollywood system, Verhoeven has managed to retain a European sensibility. He has noted the lack of social critique in Hollywood product of recent years, viewing them as "all action, science fiction and over sentimental love stories". Then again, whereas European cinema may have more of a focus on social commentary, Verhoeven "finds these films exceedingly boring" (Van Sheers 1996, xii). Drawing on the best of both worlds, many of his American works immerse audiences in action and science fiction (SF) worlds - even "over-sentimental love stories" - but this always drapes itself over a biting social critique.

With the exceptions of his foray into film noir with Basic instinct and the underrated Showgirls, it is the SF works - RoboCopTotal recall,Starship troopers and Hollow man - for which Verhoeven is best known, and which form the subject of this essay. On his attraction to the SF genre, he has stated:

when I went to the United States to work, I knew that I did not know enough about the nuances of American culture to reflect it in film. I didn't want to have to worry about breaking rules of American society or making mistakes because I was not aware of certain expressions or social behaviour. I felt more secure working in science fiction. (Hollow man: Production Notes, n.p.)Like other European directors who were embraced by the Hollywood system - Fritz Lang, William Wyler, Douglas Sirk and, more recently, Roland Emmerich - Verhoeven's strength lies in his manipulation of generic systems, reflecting both an insight into and a ruthless critique of the American culture that has embraced him. Verhoeven's primary subversive tool comes from creating a dialogic relationship between SF conventions and other generic codes, in particular those of the Western.

- Angela Ndalianis, Screening the Past


Wikipedia entry for Heinlein's novel

Paradoxically, Heinlein's tiresome but genuinely American 1959 novel reveals a good deal more of international life than Verhoeven's ersatz American movie. But that's because 38 years of American history--including the cold war and its aftermath and the passage from both nationalism and internationalism to multinationalism--separate these two versions of the Good Fight. In the novel, boot camp for the fighting youth of earth's galactic empire includes the son of a Japanese colonel working on his black belt and two Germans with duelling scars; Johnnie Rico himself, also known as Juan, is the son of a Filipino tycoon and in one of the novel's delayed revelations turns out to be black. Boot camp in the movie, by contrast, is basically American white-bread with a few multicultural trimmings--a reflection of neither the 50s nor the 90s but an incoherent mishmash of the two. Boot camp is also coed, which is presumably supposed to reflect the future. (The novel featured women pilots, but not unisex showers and sleeping quarters.)

As critic H. Bruce Franklin rightly points out in his 1980 book Robert A. Heinlein: America as Science Fiction, the writer's "right-wing" militarism actually reflects the liberal ideology of John F. Kennedy, who was elected president a year after the novel was published. The armed force in Starship Troopers anticipates the creation of the elite Green Berets; Kennedy's signature "Ask not what your country can do for you" speech also seems to come straight out of the novel. Written as Heinlein's 13th in a juvenile series for Scribner's (a series celebrating the conquest of space whose first filmic incarnation was the

1950 DestinationMoon, adapted from Rocket Ship Galileo), the book was rejected for its extreme and unapologetic militarism, then published as an adult novel by Putnam. It's another indication of how much we've changed in 38 years that adults in 1959 had the quaint notion of shielding teenage boys from this sort of thing--though the novel lacked most of the movie's graphic gore (which is now aimed at them).

Franklin also points out that Starship Troopers--which is as steeped in cold war ideology as Heinlein's 1951 The Puppet Masters, and thus in striking contrast to his neo-hippie and neo-communist Stranger in a Strange Land (1961)--suggests that the alien bugs represent Chinese communists and that another humanoid race (the "Skinnies," omitted in the movie) reflects Russian communists. In fact the novel is crammed with pompous lectures about the communist menace and the errors of KarlMarx, most of them linked to the bugs' "hive" mentality--which makes it all the more ironic that the classless military utopia Heinlein proffers as an ideal alternative is no less socialist and totalitarian. The movie actually intensifies this paradox by showing how impossible it is for Johnny to speak to his girlfriend or his parents on the videophone without all his bunk mates being present.

- Jonathan RosenbaumThe Chicago Reader

I can't say that Heinlein's vision of war as the best crucible for the formation of good character ever persuaded me, but it was sobering, powerful, consistent and impossible to dismiss -- and it made "Starship Troopers" memorable to this day. The author's twists on old military-adventure-tale clichés were merely imaginative; the severity and anger behind the book's ideas were, in the field of science fiction, unique.

I know how tiresome it can be for critics to compare movies unfavorably to the books they're based upon. But in this case it's essential for an understanding of what goes wrong with Paul Verhoeven's new movie of "Starship Troopers." In this bizarrely discordant mixture of ultraviolent action footage, bad acting, crisp special effects and futuristic camp, the remnants of Heinlein's rhetoric of military pride stick out like a grimy Marine uniform at a high-toned Hollywood party.

Heinlein's writing sneered at the soft, easily deluded civilians and celebrated the male-bonded esprit de corps of his futuristic Mobile Infantry -- Green Berets of the future who dropped, paratrooper-style, onto enemy planets in powered suits, kept to tight formations, rained destruction on their foes and returned to their spaceships, all in a matter of minutes. Verhoeven's contempt draws no such distinctions; everyone in the movie is kind of dumb -- not least the Mobile Infantry themselves. Far from an elite, they come off as hapless, ill-disciplined grunts who can't wait for the battle to end so they can discard their machine-guns-on-steroids, roll out some beers and hop in the sack with their svelte comrades. (For a far more imaginative vision of a gender-blind military, see "Aliens.")

There's nothing wrong with good satire -- but it's self-defeatingly stupid to inject it into any story that expects us to care what happens to the characters. The creators of successful latter-day space operas, from "Star Wars" to "Independence Day," have always understood this. Nothing in "Starship Troopers" carries the conviction of the Force or even "Independence Day's" rah-rah-for-mankind idealism; the movie can't commit to the militarism it inherited from Heinlein, and it never finds a different ideal to substitute.

- Scott RosenbergSalon, November 7 1997

Paul Verhoeven's film Starship Troopers is on target for depicting Robert Heinlein's novel as a "fascist utopia." Did that get your attention, Heinlein fans?

Now, before you track me down and send me hate mail, yes, I have read the book.

"A lot of casual readers of the novel have a vague militaristic, fascist idea. It's not supported by the book," says James Gifford, a writer and publisher of numerous works about Heinlein.

Bill Patterson, editor of the Heinlein Journal, agrees, saying that "it's hard to find anything in the book that tends in the direction of fascism."

People hear the word "fascism" and get angry. It conjures images of an oppressive police state that's out to conquer the world -- Hitler, Mussolini, eugenics, the cult of the nation, 1984.

What do the dictionaries say?

Militarism, totalitarianism, aggressiveness, nationalism, plus a racist doctrine. By these definitions, Heinlein's Federation is a fascist government -- seductively, perhaps compellingly portrayed.

Aggressive, racist and belligerent. What I found most alarming -- and fascinating -- about Heinlein's novel was how he imagined a fascist society that incorporated these awful ideas, but worked all the same.

Heinlein showed me an intensely nationalistic, aggressively militaristic, totalitarian and racist ("speciesist?") society, and in spite of everything I believe in, I liked what I saw. When Verhoeven's film demonstrated the same traits in the source material, fans rejected it.

- Robert Peterson, Space.com

Starship Troopers isn't really a book about the military, being a soldier, or even government; it's a book about civic virtue, and what distinguishes a citizen -- in the sense of one who recognizes that with rights come responsibilities, and that the two are proportional -- from a non-citizen. The military is a good model for this discussion, because it involves (at least theoretically and, I think, usually in practice, at least in the US) a relatively straightforward instance of consciously placing the interests of your society above your own personal interests.

The differences between Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers and Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers can be grouped into two major categories: material and philosophical.

Materially, there are several ways in which Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers is an inaccurate rendition of Starship Troopers. First, and most noticeable to anyone who has read the book, is the total absence of powered armor. Verhoeven et al claim that it was left out of the $100 million movie because it would have been too expensive, and because they were unable to "do it right." So, instead of battlesuited MIs dropping from orbit, we have fairly conventionally equipped soldiers landed in contraptions that look an awful lot like freight containers.

Second, great liberties have been taken with the characterizations. Pivotal characters have been left out, unimportant characters have been "promoted" to star status, and new characters have been added. With the possible exception of the recruiting sergeant in the Federal building -- a role diminished in the movie to about three lines of dialogue -- none of the characters are recognizable as their book counterparts.

Third, the plot has been totally rewritten, so much so that only a few scenes here and there are reminiscent of the book, and in most cases even those scenes have been substantially reworked.

Overall, though, I am going to go on record -- against the vast majority of the Heinlein fans who have expressed outrage against the movie -- and say that these changes do not matter. Sure, I would love to have seen troopers with powered armor in a one-for-one translation of the book, but I understand why that couldn't happen. Different media have different strengths and weaknesses, and Starship Troopers, as written, makes a better book than it would a movie. Heck, one of the major surprises in the book -- that the fleet sergeant who captures the brain Bug during Johnny's OCS tour is Sergeant Zim -- works only because Heinlein doesn't tell us it's Zim until after the battle is over.

The differences that I think are important, on the other hand -- the differences which turn it from the same story told in a different medium into the book's Evil Twin (tm) -- are philosophical in nature, and are numerous and profound. The group making this movie clearly had their own agenda, and being faithful to their source wasnot part of it.

To begin with, while the Terran Federation in Starship Troopers is specifically stated to be a representative democracy, Ed Neumeier decided to make the government into a fascist state. This was not "doing justice to the author," no matter how many times Neumeier and Davison repeat this absurd claim. [Persons 1997; Sammon 1997; Warren 1997]

Second, the book was multi-racial, but not so the movie: all the non-anglo characters from the book have been replaced by characters who look like they stepped out of the Aryan edition of GQ.

Third, there is real element of sadism present in the movie which simply isn't present in the book... Sergeant Zim starts things out by asking the assembled recruits if any of them think they can beat him in a fight. One recruit, a good ol' boy named Breckinridge, accepts the challenge. In the process of sparing, Breckinridge is injured.

As presented in the book, the injury is clearly an accident:

The same scene in Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers plays out very differently. Zim has Breckenridge pinned by his arm, and he deliberately breaks the recruit's wrist.

Recently, though, it was pointed out to me that there was one area where Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers might actually be faithful to Heinlein's original: its treatment of women. In this movie, women and men appear to participate -- in sports, in academic work, and in the military -- on an equal footing. This is to be commended, even if it illustrates exactly how far short the movie falls in most other ways.

Christopher Weuve, kentaurus.com

924 (65). Un coeur en hiver / A Heart in Winter (1991, Claude Sautet)

screened August 12, 2008 on Fox Lorber DVD in New York, NY TSPDT rank #904 IMDb Wiki

A deceptively modest triumph in guileful storytelling and poker-faced acting, Claude Sautet's late career hit is unabashedly bourgeois to the bone, concerned with little more than the romantic miscues between a trio of classical violin professionals (one plays them, one fixes them, one works with one and sleeps with the other) in between rigorous rehearsals and cozy cafe catchup sessions with friends. Thoroughly embedded within this milieu, Sautet presents a scenario that thoroughly vivisects this subculture from within, exposing the contending values and asumptions that make its characters tick, the most dominant - and destructive - being middle-class politeness. When Camille (Emmanuelle Beart) falls for Stephane (Daniel Auteuil), the friend and partner of her lover Maxime (Andre Dussolier),  all Maxime can do is step aside and let love take its course (after all, he dumped his wife for Camille). Camille, a young ingenue violinist, sees in Stephane one with a kindred passion for the art, as his fine tuning of her instrument unleashes in her a higher level of virtuosity. After initial intimations of romantic interest on Stephane's part, he abruptly spurns her; his flat answer, echoed by the what-you-see-is-what-you-get camerawork, is a renunciation of intimacy so blunt that it leaves the viewer scouring Auteuil's expressions for the slightest hint of self-betrayal.  Auteuil's performance, in his quizzical reactions (or non-reactions) to the experiences and expressions of love and pain presented to him by others, may feel one-note at first, but it goes considerably well beyond the gimmicky blankness of Peter Sellers in Being There or Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, or the sentimentality of Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump. Unlike all of them, Stephane straddles a gaping paradox between social sophistication (affably holding his own at dinner table conversations and cafe chitchat) and the most contemptuous, self-alienating sociopathy.  The most critical distinction of Stephane over other movie simpletons is his capacity for machination: Sautet's script lays several clues as to his motivations in disrupting the affair between Maxme and Camille, but leaves him as much as an enigma as when it found him.  But perhaps none of this would matter, neither the script nor Auteuil, if it weren't for Beart's youthful conveyance of Camille's passion and insecurity. It is through her heartbreak that we learn what's at stake in the movie: she must discover her own rules for navigating through the bourgeois world of art and love, or else succumb to a comfortable nihilism that, as embodied by Stephane, threatens to occupy its center.

want to go deeper?

The following ballots were counted towards the film's placement on They Shoot Pictures Top 1000 Films:

Bill Craske - Senses of Cinema (2001) Claire Binns - Time Out (1995) Hulya Ucansu - Sight & Sound (2002) Phillip Lopate - Village Voice: Best Films of the 1990's (1999) Village Voice - The Best 100 Films of the 1990's (1999) Wes Anderson Film Comment - Ten Best of the 1990's 2000)

Original Trailer:

On the surface, an unassuming, low-key study of a ménage à trois that never really takes off physically; dig deeper, however, and it's filled with dark, disturbing emotions and unsettling power-games. Stéphane (Auteuil) and Maxime (Dussollier) are old friends and partners in a violin-making business; Camille (Béart) is a concert violinist and Maxime's lover, who comes increasingly to dominate the taciturn Stéphane's thoughts. As time passes, while she seems to respond to his apparent interest in her, he remains reticent: out of shyness, loyalty to Maxime, or something more perverse? What distinguishes the film is that Sautet and his excellent trio of leads manage to convey complex emotional nuances without resorting to explicit dialogue, plot contrivance, or hackneyed visual metaphor. Everything is underplayed, made manifest through subtle glances, brief but pregnant silences, the rhythms of the editing, the moody qualities of the lighting, and the occasional bursts of Ravel played by Camille. There's not an ounce of fat on this deceptively quiet movie, which at times achieves a real sense of pain and confusion.

- Geoff Andrew, Time Out

One of the key writer-directors associated with the upper-middle-class and middle-aged French, Claude Sautet has never had a strong impact in this country. This feature, A Heart in Winter, his 13th, gives a fair sense of his craft and his limitations; I find it ably made but a bit on the dull side. Loosely inspired by "The Princess Mary" story in Lermontov's novel A Hero of Our Time, the plot concerns two violin makers played by Daniel Auteuil (Jean de Florette) and Andre Dussollier (Melo, Le beau mariage), who work as partners, and the changes wrought in their lives by a young violinist (La belle noiseuse's Emmanuelle Beart) preparing to record a Ravel trio. Other significant characters include a music teacher (Maurice Garrel) and the older woman (Brigitte Catillon) the violinist lives with. A major thematic interest is the wintry heart (lack of feeling) of Auteuil's character, and what makes the presentation of this theme relatively novel for American tastes is the lack of psychology underlying it. The performances are all quite good, Beart's in particular, but whether one really cares about these characters is another matter.

- Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader

Any story focused on a lonely, loveless character risks allowing its viewer or reader to draw back, convinced that he or she will never share the protagonist's pitiable state. Hence Mr. Sautet's willfully aloof direction of "Un Coeur en Hiver" comes as an interesting surprise. This director, best known here for films he made 20 years ago ("Cesar and Rosalie" in 1972, "Vincent, Paul, Francois and the Others" in 1973) makes no effort to wring pathos out of Stephane's plight. Nor does he encourage Mr. Auteuil to reduce the character to two dimensions. "Un Coeur en Hiver" accepts Stephane's remoteness as something clinical, and adopts a Rohmeresque detachment in observing and analyzing its consequences...There is both fascination and frustration in watching this odd story unfold, since the director avoids commenting overtly on his characters' inner lives. Working from a screenplay by Yves Ulmann, Jacques Fieschi and Jerome Tonnerre, Mr. Sautet makes this story powerfully vivid without often penetrating its smooth veneer. The film's settings, invitingly evoked, are used as landmarks in the lives of the principals: the atelier, several bistros, recording studios and concert halls and a large, handsome house in the country. Yet Stephane can travel this landscape quietly and inexpressively, except in the remarkable moment when he describes his isolation. "You're talking about feelings which don't exist for me," he tells the ashamed and astonished Camille. "I can't feel them. I don't love you."

"Un Coeur en Hiver," the winner of Cesar awards last year for Mr. Sautet's direction and Mr. Dussollier's polished performance as Maxime, offers satisfactions that go beyond the scope of its strange story. Within its atmosphere of intelligence and precision, the film makes deft use of the Ravel sonatas and trio that are actually performed by Jean-Jacques Kantorow, but feigned captivatingly by Ms. Beart. This actress is an esthetic delight in her own right, and she gives a carefully measured performance that suits her role. Mr. Auteuil, prim and watchful, conveys the delicately calibrated changes in Stephane's nature as fully as the material allows him to. And he manages the remarkable feat of commanding attention even when Ms. Beart is at center stage.

- Janet Maslin, The New York Times, June 4 1993

Emmanuelle Beart in Bed:

"Un Coeur en Hiver," directed by Claude Sautet, has the intensity and delicacy of a great short story. It reveals how superficial most movie romances are - because they make love too simple, and too easy a solution. The heart has needs that love does not understand, and for Stephane, perhaps the comfort of his routine and the consolations of his craft are more valuable than the risks of intimacy.Daniel Auteuil plays Stephane. He has an inward-looking face, a repose; he tells us more about himself in the narration than he tells anyone in the film. Camille is Emmanuelle Beart, beautiful, yes, but required here to be a convincing violinist and a theorist about music. She is given a difficult role, and avoids its hazards brilliantly. She must throw over one man and be rejected by another (many of the crucial scenes are in public), and yet seem not foolish but simply unlucky. She must maintain her dignity, or the film will become the story of a woman scorned, which it is not. It is the story of a man not scorned - of how Stephane psychologically cannot take the woman from Maxime.

As a general rule, the characters in French films seem more grownup than those in American films. They do not consider love and sex as a teenager might, as the prizes in life. Instead, they are challenges and responsibilities, and not always to be embraced. Most movie romances begin with two people who should be in love, and end, after great difficulties, with those two people in love. Here is a movie about two people who should not be in love, and how they deal with that discovery.

- Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times, July 2 1993

American movies are all talk, no listen. Jabber jabber, feint feint -- conversation is combat, a schoolyard dissing contest, a slightly more sophisticated version of "Your mother!" "No, yours!" In real life, and in French movies, people pretend to get along when they talk. They keep things light, genial, talking around the issues that burn them up inside. Some love affairs never begin because people are afraid to reveal what they feel; "I love you" is so hard to say. Some marriages can last a lifetime on the tacit agreement that hostilities will go unexpressed. The static is in the silences.

By the chatty U.S. criterion, Un Coeur en Hiver (A Heart in Winter) is no great shakes. Even by French standards, Claude Sautet's drama tends to dither a bit. Yet the film displays a wonderful attention to the spaces between what people say and what they mean. Because the business of its main characters is making music, we spend many rewarding moments watching people listen. And then, because this is a kind of love story, we watch a woman watching a man. Here, the actors are the audience; they do what we do.

Auteuil's performance is heroically blank. He doesn't explain Stephane's emotional numbness, nor does he editorialize against it. He allows his lure for dear Camille to remain a mystery, like so many romantic attractions. But then Beart (Manon in Manon of the Spring, the painter's model in La Belle Noiseuse) is an actress of such extraordinary beauty that any time she falls in movie love she seems like a goddess slumming. Her radiant face is , therapeutic. A glance from her should thaw the frostiest heart.

- Richard Corliss, Time, June 21, 1993

Un coeur en hiver

Claude Sautet's subtly haunting Un coeur en hiver is a film about the deepest human feelings and fears, especially fear of intimacy and fear of rejection.

At the opening of Un coeur en hiver, it is observed that violins are the "most precious possessions" of violinists. This declaration has profound meaning as the scenario evolves. If the instruments are such, they are so because they are safe. They have no free will. They will never abandon their owners. If they fall apart from usage, they always can be repaired. They are dependable and reliable—unlike human beings...

Emotions are complex, inexact, ever-changing; in human relationships, feelings are dependent upon the responses of others. Stéphane is keenly aware of all this, and it is for this reason that, despite his feelings, he distances himself from Camille. He is afraid of allowing himself to love her, because of the pain he may be forced to endure. As a result, he presents himself as passionless, which even plays itself out during an intellectual discussion in which he professes to have no opinion on the subject at hand.

The relationships in Un coeur en hiver are not only between lovers. Camille has for many years roomed with Régine, her manager. As Camille prepares to move in with Maxime, Régine must adjust to a new and more solitary lifestyle, a fact which she acts out by becoming angry at Camille. Later on, Stéphane tells Camille that he considers Maxime a business partner, and not a friend. Camille retorts that Stéphane's attitude is "just a pose." "It's strange how you enjoy giving yourself a bad image," she adds. Of course, Stéphane is not cold-hearted. He and Maxime are in fact friends, and he truly values their relationship. What Camille does not understand is that Stéphane simply is fearful of facing his emotions.

In the end, Stéphane is a lonely figure, one who is "unconnected with life." His solitude shelters him, keeping him protected from the hurt feelings that are the offshoots of human connection. Is he better or worse off? To answer this question, Sautet points out that, while we all are solitary souls, if we do not choose to be brave and risk connecting emotionally with others, our lives can never be complete.

—Rob Edelman, Film Reference.com

Studio Clip:

From the first moments of Un Coeur en hiver we are engulfed by the long takes, the stillness of his images and the whisperings of his characters. It is as though we are bound by some secret affinity to the lives of these characters.

In an interview Sautet revealed that this film was more based on his memories of the story, rather than an adaptation of Lermontov's short story “Princess Mary,” from his book A Hero of Our Time. This aspect, coupled with Jean-Jacques Kantorow's recording of Ravel's sonatas (a gift from his son, which he was listening to at the time), allowed Sautet's film to develop deeper and richer dimensions in the three main characters. The novelistic quality in the detailed study of his characters, who reveal themselves slowly but precisely, through conversations, gestures, looks, are all Sautet's doing. He and writer Jacques Fieschi worked on the first third of the dialogue for no less than four months in order to pare it down to perfection.

But there remains an opacity to his characters: we learn of Stéphane's (Daniel Auteuil) thoughts about winning over Camille (Emmanuelle Béart) through snippets of his conversations with Hélène (Elisabeth Bourgine), but his gestures and behaviour belie his stated intentions (standing silently in the dark watching his old professor argue with his wife). We do not know whether we should believe in what he says, or even if he himself understands his own actions.

Cafe Clip:

The yearning, or suffering, of Stéphane's heart in Un Coeur en hiver is revealed to us through Sautet's close-ups of Auteuil. His choice of a sombre palette of winter tones, grey-brown and desolate, rather than steely blue tones, and the grace and melancholy of Ravel's music all infuse the film with a kind of warmth which seem to suggest that Stéphane's heart is capable of love. Most of the time his unyielding exterior is echoed in his gestures, although if one studies his behaviour closely, one will find that these are also gestures which give him away: his immobility in the presence of Camille and his silent repose beside Maxime may suggest a steely heart, but he is ultimately betrayed by those burning eyes of his when they are fixed on Camille, and by his patience and fine ear for Maxime and music. And, finally, an act of kindness he kills his sick old professor. Though morally wrong, Sautet believes that this is the only “compassionate and loving thing he does” in the film, because his character is “incapable of any positive action in a conformist sense.” Sautet goes on to say that although it is impossible to know how deep Stéphane's love is for Maxime, one is able to get a glimpse of this love through his look of childlike bewilderment when Maxime comes to visit him in his new studio and from the gravity of these short words Stéphane says to Camille at the end of the film: “You've missed me, and I've lost Maxime.”

- Janice Tong, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography

Claude Sautet often explored the unresolved nature of triangular relationships. In Les Choses de la Vie (1969), Pierre's (Michel Piccoli) accident becomes a conduit for re-evaluating his relationships with his wife and his mistress. In Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud (1995), personal inhibition and fear of rejection prevent Nelly (Emmanuelle Béart) and Arnaud (Michel Serrault) from pursuing their tacit romantic connection, despite Nelly's failing marriage. They exchange knowing glances and carefully selected words, but inevitably, never reveal what is in their hearts. These films depict the process of discovery, as the characters find themselves captivated by the novelty of falling in love at the expense of an emotional investment in maintaining their current relationships. In Un Coeur en hiver, the "incompleteness" lies solely within Stephane's ambivalent behavior, and it is his underlying ambiguity that creates Camille's perceived dilemma.

The selection of the Ravel Sonatas and the Trio effectively captures the essence of the triangular relationship in Un Coeur en hiver. With equal measures of subdued longing and passionate intensity, the soundtrack embodies Stephane and Camille's increasing attraction and emotional vacillation. When Camille delivers her finest performance at the recording studio, the moment proves to be a turning point, not only in her professional career, but in her personal life as well. In essence, her performance becomes a validation of her connection with Stephane. Stephane has perfected the precious instrument entrusted to him, and now Camille has realized its exquisite potential. The passionate music becomes a recorded testament of Stephane and Camille's creative union - an intimate expression of their unrealized bond.

Un Coeur en hiver is a sublimely sensual and provocative film on the complexity of human relationships. Through the technically brilliant, but emotionally flawed Stephane, Sautet presents a fascinating character examination of the subtle, yet profoundly relevant dichotomy between mechanical creation and art, polite conversation and intimacy, attraction and love. In chronicling the lives of imperfect people, Claude Sautet compassionately captures the quiet longing of the soul, and in the process, composes a subtle and graceful contemporary ballad of the human heart.

- Acquarello, Senses of Cinema (abridged version on Strictly Film School)

The Love Triangle Begins:

This is my favorite movie. It feels very personal to me, as if it were somehow my film. It unites my favorite music and my favorite actress with a gifted, sensitive director. It's about a violinist (Emmanuelle Beart), and a violin maker (Daniel Auteuil), who meet over the recording of two sonatas by Ravel. As we watch them speaking together, and watching each other, we feel the space between them becoming increasingly more charged. The film feels smooth and perhaps a bit muted, but so much runs under its surface that it concludes with surprising power. Recently I heard that this film is loosely based on a Russian novel, Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time. I hadn't noticed the similarities -- the novel is quite different! -- but it adds an interesting perspective from which to view the film.

- Darcy Paquet

Veteran French filmmaker Claude Sautet (of the Oscar-winning César et Rosalie) has made a powerful film here expressed in the smallest of gestures, just as one might tune the strings of a violin ever-so-slightly to achieve perfection. Sautet indeed employs such a sonorous motif in this story, in which violins always seem to be playing and suggesting that the principal characters look at life as they do music: something to be tinkered with and manipulated for effect.

--Tom Keogh, Amazon.com

Here is an example of the script's fine dialogue (and I should mention here that the characters of Un Coeur en Hiver are uniformly of the French petite bourgeoisie). There is a gently ironic scene near the film's beginning in which a smart but pompous dinner guest, a writer, holds forth on his theory of popular culture versus true art. When he is lightly challenged by another guest, he responds, "So, I'm a reactionary?" "No," says a wiser, older fellow "you speak for an anxious elite in a world of democratic excess." The writer responds with, "I've fought elitism all my life. There's too much bleating today." But then he continues by saying, "Museum's today are full of clueless clodhoppers." Is this kind of wit and dissection of class to be found anywhere in today's American cinema? This snippet of the scene, for all its interest, is mere filigree to the core of the story's concerns. Yet as the scene continues, the three main characters are drawn into the conversation in a way that illuminates their relations to one another up to this point in the film. The small dinner scene is a good example of the intelligence and mature vision that suffuses the whole movie.

Stephane's seduction is subtle, passive, and ambiguous. Does he have a genuine affection for Camille, or is he subconsciously manipulating her as if she were one of his specialized violin tools, a tool to repair his apparent ennui and emotional coldness? I have to write "apparent" because he is not a sociopath or obvious emotional cripple. Perhaps he is unable or unwilling to renounce his solitary nature because his work and love of music is more important to him than the distractions of human fellowship. For that matter, the movie seems to ask if there is anything wrong with his hermetic existence. Are "true love" and carnal fulfillment, as most romantic American cinema would have it, the only goals worth seeking, or is Stephane's violin-making craftsmanship an equally worthy life pursuit? The director does not deliver us pat answers. The viewer's personal inclinations will likely determine his or her conclusions.

- Russell Engebretson, DVD Verdict

Stephane rejects Camille's love:

An open-ended bout with a tragic love triangle, Un Coeur en hiver uses subtle and convincing performances to project its emotional pain. Stephane (Daniel Auteuil) and Maxime (Andre Dussollier) are partners in a Parisian violin repair and sales operation, successfully catering to a wide range of famous musicians. Maxime handles the customer relations and new clients (he's a real charmer and smooth talker) while Stephane is the master surgeon, delicately working on the innards of a cherished instrument. This arrangement suits both perfectly, although it doesn't stretch as far as friendship (although Maxime would like to think that it does).

A film which approaches the subject of love in a decidedly adult fashion is unusual in itself, but one which embraces the contradictions inherent in Stephane is special. For he is the owner of the title organ, a man who typifies the characteristic of reticence. Outwardly he is an enigma, avoiding all emotional entanglements and reliance on others. Inwardly it's impossible to comment, since it's entirely plausible that even Stephane doesn't know why he acts in certain ways. Acting the martyr he claims not to have led Camille on, when she starts to react to his presence, yet this is entirely false - he just seems to be playing games. When Camille falls into obsession, as Stephane cuts off from her, his behaviour is atrociously cruel. Yet how can one feel anger for Stephane, since he somehow suffers the most of all - a victim of his own introversion.

Damian Cannon, Movie Reviews UK

Argument Clip:

Camille is no less a complicated character, but her feelings are simpler to read. She hides nothing, and when she recognizes that she loves Stephane, there is no doubt in her mind -- or ours -- of the truth. Especially noteworthy is the manner in which Camille's sudden, intense passion for Stephane intertwines, and at times conflicts with, her lifelong love of music. The stunning Emmanuelle Beart gives an astonishing, unaffected performance. Emotion is often displayed in the most subtle gestures, expressions, and vocal inflections. Before beginning production of Un Coeur en Hiver, Beart had never played the violin. After the film's release in France, director Claude Sautet claimed that she "fooled everyone" with her "perfect motions" (violinist Jean-Jacques Kantorow does the actual playing). Not only are her hand movements proficient, but the look of rapture on her face as she loses herself in the music of Ravel is an example of how accomplished Beart's acting style is.

Un Coeur en Hiver is yet another case of real-life chemistry translating well to the screen. At the time when this picture was before the cameras, Beart and Auteuil were companions away from their acting, and the spark of this intensity, even unfulfilled as it is here, is too obvious to miss.

- James Berardinelli

At first sight "A Heart in Winter" is the story of a love triangle, a variation of the basic and often filmed competition of two men for the affection of a woman. At second sight, however, the film is a treatment of the philosophical question "What is love?" Unlike typical Hollywood movies, "A Heart in Winter" is not based on such popular premises as: love is the answer to everything, sexual consummation is the ultimate closure, or monogamous commitments are tantamount to happy endings. Sautet's film subverts any such clichés by wondering about the nature of what people call "love," by showing, for example, how much more weighty a passing glance can be than wild cohabitation, or by exploring the possibility that a quiet, solitary life can be as rich and deep as one that is crowded by emotional demands and relentless instinctual pressures.

Any interpretation of the film will run into the following question: Is Stephane's state of mind and way of life the expression of some shortcoming or even pathology, or does his conduct represent a plausible ideal--a way of life for which even philosophical reasons can be offered? Does Sautet tell the story of a sad failure, or does he give us the outline of a kind of life that is attractive in an unusual way?

Under the influence of Hollywood movies and pop psychology, most viewers will be inclined to look at Stephane as a person who suffers from "psychological problems." Instead of pursuing the woman to whom he is attracted, and instead of responding to her reciprocating interest in the way any "normal" men would, Stephane does not act on his initial impulses, and even withdraws when Camille shows a keen interest in him. It seems obvious that he is "inhibited" in some way, that the "healthy" or "natural" expression of his feelings is blocked by some inner obstacles. The reasons why he does not follow up on his initial advance are not moral, after all; Stephane does not adhere to any code that would prevent him from approaching another man’s woman. The reason for his abstention seems to be an inability to feel. "There is something dead in me," as he puts it himself, and it seems to be this "deadness" that causes him, a good looking heterosexual male in his best years, to be a bachelor, to be thoroughly wedded to his work, and to be entirely content with furthering and enjoying excellence in the realm of music and the arts. What else but some sort of lack of vitality could it possibly be?

Stephane's own mentioning of "something dead" in him may prompt them to think of his demeanor as something inflicted on him, as a pathological condition that was caused by traumatic events. But Stephane's refusal to become intimate with Camille in the usual way is a choice, a choice that makes sense--even if psychologists should be able to connect it to some story of early trauma. The film provides enough material for the viewer to see that a life entangled in worldly human affairs can be much less attractive than the calm and detached life that Stephane lives. Sexually intimate love, after all, does not only have the enchanting and beatific aspects that typical Hollywood romances emphasize, and that at first are in the foreground of the story of Stephane and Camille, but also unpleasant sides that grow out of the instinctual and often brutish constitution of human beings as part of the animal kingdom. Throughout "A Heart in Winter" Sautet placed a number of scenes that deliberately depict intimate relationships at their less than palatable moments.

- From Jorn K. Bramann: Educating Rita and Other Philosophical Movies. Reprinted on his website Philosophical Films

About the DVD

Koch Lorber - Nov 2006 - Quite a spectacular difference in brightness/color between the two releases. The Koch Lorber states - 'restored HD transfer supervised by the film's director of photography, Yves Angelo', so we believe that the NTSC edition is most accurate in representing the color scheme of the film. Aside from that the Second Sight, although also being progressively transferred, shows more digital noise and some minor speckles that are not apparent on the Region 1 release. Part of this could be compression as the PAL is on a single-layered DVD where the Koch Lorber is on a dual layered disc. The audio is also improved from the initial release with a 5.1 track as well as the optional mono. Koch have stacked the supplements with some interviews and an excerpt from Claude Sautet ou la Magie.

- DVD Beaver

In a welcome change, Koch Lorber present the film with a newly restored high definition anamorphic transfer. Given some of the poor transfers they have released previously, the treatment here is to be applauded. The transfer of the film is very sharp and captures the slightly subdued look of the film well without it seeming too dark or colourless, it does seem some colour and contrast boosting has occurred. There is minimal noise in the transfer and this knocks the previously grainy R2 Second Sight release out of the park. The icing on the cake visually is that the film is also in the original aspect ratio of 1.66:1. Given the film was transferred under the eyes of the films' DP, Yves Angelo, I suppose the product is unsurprisingly good.

Soundwise this is 95% perfect with music and dialogue never sounding anything other than clear and dynamic. There are two mixes, a mono track and a surround track, but no option for the original stereo mix. The tracks are well restored and you will struggle to hear any distortion or soundtrack noise. However there is two large buts. Firstly, the audio as the film moves into the closing titles sounds stretched to me and this effect is especially disturbing in the surround track. My final criticism is that of the new translation given to the subtitles. Remembering the film from its theatrical release and the R2 disc there are some crucial lines which are translated differently and in my opinion less effectively. In the R2 version Stephane's almost penitent line "je n'arrive pas", literally I don't get there, is translated as "I always get there too late", whereas here it becomes "I never manage..." - the R2 translation seems closer to the sense of the dialogue and the emotional core of the film rather than the prosaic fumbling for words suggested by the R1 disc.The extras include some French TV interviews with Sautet and Dussollier. Sautet is an agreeable interviewee who seems content to accept his interviewers views on his work, but he does look as if he is co-operating so he isn't tortured too long. He agrees that the film portrays a world where men have learnt to avoid feeling and that women find themselves punished by their search for true emotion. Dussollier's piece is a hotel room junket interview and short and uneventful. Sautet is interviewed again about his previous film, A Few Days With Me, and talks about that film, this film, and Nelly et Monsieur ArnaudUn Coeur En Hiver, it feels like a largely irrelevant extra. There is an excerpt from a documentary on Sautet where colleagues praise and discuss this film as his best and reveal the preparation for the film such as Beart's year long violin training. The extras on the disc are completed by the original French trailer. The final extra is a very short piece by critic Michel Boujut about Sautet which is included in the small insert that comes with the disc. There are no stunning insights in the piece but some background on Sautet's influences and intentions in film making. Overall, the extras give an impression of a film maker who was a modest man and whose intention was to produce strong dramatic films with great human insight.

- John White, DVD Times

In the four-page printed insert included with the DVD, film critic Michel Boujut writes that "…Sautet, like many French directors of his generation, was deeply influenced by post-war American films. His first great masters were John Ford, Howard Hawks, and John Huston." That probably accounts at least in part for the clean, old-school framing of shots on this film. The cinematography is calm and deliberate: over-the-shoulder shots, medium close-ups, gliding shots that follow the actors naturally. There are no jittery hand-held cameras, fast MTV-like cuts, or any of the novelty film techniques that force the viewer's eye to follow the lead of the director and editor. It was a refreshing change of pace—especially after the last few hyperkinetic American films I've seen—to watch a movie that emphasizes acting and dialogue over camera trickery. The slow, steady cinematography gives the viewer time to linger over the frame and take in the sumptuous detail, the facial expressions, the play of light and shadow.

- Russell Engebretson, DVD Verdict

About Claude Sautet

IMDb Wiki

There is a sense of melancholy and a certain quietude that permeates Claude Sautet's cinema, and it is in keeping with its pace, a languid but deliberate slowness, that we are able to enter into his world. Sautet's world is a richly textured one, and requires attentiveness and a careful eye to its details. Populated by fully formed and complex characters, its skein of images is the weaving together of a series of looks, gestures, annunciations, utterances and moods of its inhabitants. Both limpid and opaque, this world and its denizens ask us to be thorough and mindful not only of what we see, but also what we hear -- to listen to the conversations, the music, the ambience, as well as the silences. In this way, his films ask us to surrender our senses, to give ourselves over to them, so that we do not remain on the 'outside' as mere viewers or voyeurs to the intimacy on screen.

Described as a “discrete and elegant man,” for many this director is a humanist whose films may be described as “intimate-realist” films, a meticulous study of lived lives whose characters, despite their social standing, are nonetheless part of the quotidian. Who is to say that the bourgeoisie are immune to the falterings of friendship or the failings of love? For others, his films are scrutinised for their lack of criticism of the bourgeoisie and their mores, and whose films always seem to be “as pleasant, polite and polished as the man himself” and are “very French in that attractive, fashionable people prepare and eat a lot of attractive food, while grappling with life and love” kind of way. It is these kinds of split considerations that have haunted Sautet's career and driven a rift between the two French film journals, Positif and Cahiers du cinéma, in their views and opinions of this French director. It seems that, for the latter, Sautet has simply vanished out of sight -- especially in death, with the noticeable absence of obituary on this important director.

For me, his films have the ability to consume us entirely, by stripping back our emotions we come face to face with something truthful in his films.

This is what Sautet's films do best, to reveal to us that “the other is not to be known; his opacity is not the screen around a secret, but, instead, a kind of evidence in which the game of reality and appearance is done away with.” He achieves this through carefully constructed dialogue and the way he frames his characters: never in the middle of the action, but always on the sidelines, waiting and watching silently, humbly and without judgement. It is in these ways that his images allow us to approach the other without eroding their opacity. For the enigma of the other is precisely what intrigues us; we need them to be different from ourselves, so that we may be “seized with that exaltation of loving someone unknown, someone who will remain so forever.” Like the closing of a violin, “[e]verything, all the work that has gone on underneath, is hidden. The skill of the craftsman is such that it takes two people to close up the instrument.” (13)

- Janice Tong, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography

About Daniel Auteuil

IMDb Wiki

Biography on About.com by Jurgen Fauth and Marcy Dermansky

Algerian born Daniel Auteuil spent his teenage years traveling with his father, who was an opera singer, and claims to have grown up in the theatres of provincial France. Now one of France's most popular and well-known male actors, Auteuil began his professional acting career in the theatre before making his big-screen debut in 1975 in Gérard Pirès's L'Aggression, and going on to act in several stage and screen comedies. Auteuil's career was slow to gather momentum, but in 1986 he starred in Jean de Florette and its sequel, Manon des sources, the success of which launched him into a select group of leading French character actors, alongside Gerard Depardieu and the late Yves Montand.

Writing in The Daily Telegraph, Jasper Rees describes Auteuil as "the new Depardieu—but thinner," and it is true that since Jean de Florette the two men have vied for the affections of French cinemagoers. Yet as actors Auteuil and Depardieu could hardly be more different. While Depardieu excels as a romantic lead, Auteuil prefers more ambiguous characters, such as the landowner, Ugolin, in the "Manon" films, or the wronged lover in numerous other movies such as La Femme Française, Un Coeur en Hiver, and La Separation.

In the 1990s, Auteuil had the pick of some of the best films to have been produced by the French film industry. Un Coeur en hiver saw him co-starring for the third time with his then wife Emmanuelle Bèart in a bitter love story, and won him the Felix award for Best Actor.

Often cast in roles involving troubled relationships, conspiracy, and pragmatic moral choices, Auteuil manages to attract audiences to unpleasant or difficult characters with his laconic style, and an obvious commitment to the parts he plays.

—Chris Routledge, Film Reference.com

About Emmanuelle Beart

 IMDb Wiki

The Emmanuelle Beart Site