Screened November 14 2009 on DVD rip of Video Yesteryear VHS (dubbed in English), purchased on AmazonTSPDT Rank #903 IMDbWiki
Andre Bazin called it "the first and most exemplary psychologically realistic film" in French cinema. Francois Truffaut singled it out as a prime culprit of "le cinema du papa" against which he and other members of the French New Wave would rally. It was both censored and defended in France for sympathetically portraying a adulterous couple, yet reviled by the likes of Truffaut for gussying up the illicit affair with "the cinema of quality" to make it palatable to bourgeois audiences. Devil in the Flesh is a fascinating historical lightning rod, straddling both the moral and aesthetic conflicts of its time. (As of now I'd say there's more going on in this film on different levels than, say, the tasteful stiff upper lip adultery of Brief Encounter.)
Because of its contradictory significances, its best to consider the film without that largely unhelpful label "cinema of quality" (one that unfortunately is still invoked today) and consider the tensions within the film itself. It starts with French heartthrob Gerard Philipe and his strange blend of adolescent swagger and sulky introversion. Or the way the characters are seen through multiple filters. There's the extended flashbacks, summoned aurally by a strange grinding sound, as if it were the gears of a machine [a film projector?] being wound back then forth. The prominence of all sorts of frames (windows, doors, mirrors) that continually give the sense of encasement and self-consciousness. And the frequent rain that operates as more than just for typical, sentimental exclamation during emotional climaxes, but underscores the characters' physical exertion as they move through wet spaces to see each other.
The film isn't without its questionable flourishes, such as a 180 degree shot of the bed as the couple is about to consummate their affair, that ends with one of their hands turning out the light (if this is the first instance of this romantic movie cliche, then the film has a lot to answer for). It wouldn't be half as bad if a later climactic scene didn't reprise this same shot to spell out in boldface that the affair has come full circle. Such impositions speak to the complaints from the likes of Truffaut, that this is filmmaking that looks down on both the characters and the audience. But this shouldn't discount the moments of light from within, most notably in the intimacy achieved between the leads - whose fragility may actually be enhanced by Autant-Lara's insistence on boxing them in with his frames and devices.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?
The following citations were counted towards the placement of Devil in the Flesh among the 1000 greatest films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? Andre Cayatte, Cinematheque Belgique (1952)
Barthelemy Amengual, Positif (1991)
Claude Autant-Lara, Cinematheque Belgique (1952)
Francis Bolen, Sight & Sound (1952)
Helmut Kautner, Cinematheque Belgique (1952)
Marcel L'Herbier, Cinematheque Belgique (1952)
Marc-Gilbert Sauvajon, Cinematheque Belgique (1952)
Noel Coward, Cinematheque Belgique (1952)
Brussels Referendum: Filmmakers, The Ten Best Films (1952)
Daniel & Susan Cohen, Book - 500 Great Films (1987)
David Thomson, Have You Seen...? A Personal Introduction to 1000 Films (2008)
Georges Sadoul, Best French Films Since the Liberation (1965)
They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films
Daniel & Susan Cohen Book - 500 Great Films (1987)
David Thomson Have You Seen...? A Personal Introduction
to 1000 Films (2008)
Georges Sadoul Best French Films Since the Liberation
They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films
Devil in the Flesh, a French film which features the gifted young actors above, is a story of adolescent love that runs its course to disaster in the topsy-turvy world of a nation at war. Beautifully directed by Claude Autant Lara, it has aroused cries of jubilation from the critics and rage from the censors, who object to the film's compassionate attitude toward the sinful lovers. It is one of the two or three movies to be released in the U.S. in the past half year that are worth going to see more than once. A few years ago it would have been practically impossible to see it, or a movie like it at all, outside of New York and half a dozen other big cities. Motion picture exhibitors were generally convinced that anything which broke away from the standard Hollywood formulas was box-office poison. What they rather contemptuously referred to as "art pictures" might, they said, get rave reviews in the big-city papers, but they would never be in a class with Betty Grable when it came to reaching for the customer's pocketbook.
But since 1946 there have occurred such extraordinary phenomena as Olivier's Henry V, which has already taken in $2.5 million in the U.S.; the grim Italian picture Open City, which played in towns where no foreign language picture had been seen before and grossed a million dollars, and the even greater financial successes of the British Hamlet and The Red Shoes, and the Italian Paisan. The lesson is sinking in, and perhaps people in all 48 states wil soon be getting a chance to see Devil (although only after censor's cuts)...
An extraordinarily frank and understanding contemplation of a tragic love affair between a 17-year-old French schoolboy and the wife of a soldier during the first World War is beautifully and tenderly accomplished in a most formidable new French film, "Devil in the Flesh," which was presented at the Paris Theatre last night.
Already celebrated by the controversies it has aroused on the Continent, where it was presented under the title "Le Diable au Corps," and also by some slight embarrassment in its admission to the United States, this film is plainly one for starting impassioned discussion, pro and con. And its merits will likely be debated on other than artistic grounds. For not only does it have forebearance for the youthful principals in an adulterous romance but it lays bare the merciless irony in certain conventional attitudes...
Produced by Paul Graetz, this picture is perhaps the finest, most mature from post-war France, and its admission for exhibition by our assorted censors is a triumph to be hailed.
Devil in the Flesh (Graetz; A.F.E.), when it first appeared in France a couple of years ago, caused the devil of a row. Like the celebrated autobiographical novel on which it was based,* it was rough on French national dignity (the municipal council of Bordeaux denounced it as "shocking, painful and scabrous") but enthusiastically received by the public (it ran to packed houses for more than a year).
Devil in the Flesh is a profoundly moving film because it is profoundly honest. With an ear for dialogue as accurate and intimate as a wire recorder in a bedroom, Writers Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost (who also collaborated on Symphonie Pastorale) have provided a script that is at once ruthless, compassionate and quietly penetrating. Working in the same low natural key, Director Claude Autant Lara has produced an extraordinary fluoroscopic effect of life-in-depth. The lovers' moments of clandestine passion (as frank as any that have recently reached the screen), their childish gaiety, their anguish and fears have an almost unbearable intimacy. Sensitively conceived and superbly acted—notably by Micheline Presle and Gérard Philipe—Devil makes most cinema explorations of the human heart appear strictly two-dimensional.
Le diable au corps was certainly the French film of 1947. Winner of several European awards, the film was also banned in communities across the Continent. While a proud tribute to the French literary tradition, it posed as the most avant-garde example of postwar cinema in that country.
There is no paradox here, for the aesthetic ideology of the "cinema of quality," of which this film serves as an outstanding example, openly mixes an interest in iconoclastic subject matter, high art tradition, and a refined studio treatment. Aurenche and Bost's careful reworking of a youthful and rebellious novel points up its key social and psychological oppositions. Claude Autant-Lara was then able to put these oppositions into play through the psychological realism of his handling of actors, and through the narrational commentary wrung out of decor, music, and cinematic figures.
Their grim intelligence and determined passion made Gérard Philipe and Micheline Presle an instantly legendary couple; he as a precocious teenage malcontent, son of an upright bourgeois, she the older woman whose husband is off at the front in World War I. Autant-Lara evinces sympathy for their questionable moral position by rendering the action through a series of flashbacks from the boy's point of view. The war is over and the town celebrates the return of its veterans, but he must hide in the room of their forbidden love and go through the anguish of recalling that love. This flashback structure, together with the doomed love of the couple, reminded critics of Le jour se lève , and made the public see Gérard Philipe as the heir of Jean Gabin. But the limpid expressiveness of the prewar realism had been complicated after the war. Philipe's gestures were calculated to display his passion and anguish, whereas Gabin had moved and spoken instinctively, without the hesitation of either good taste or intelligence, hallmarks of the postwar style. The same holds true for the direction. While Carné and Prévert had devised a number of highly charged objects, Autant-Lara multiplies effects wherever he can. The incessant play of reflections in mirrors and by the ferry insists on the significance of the drama, but does so from the outside. Similarly the famous 360-degree camera movement that circles the bed of the couple's lovemaking demands to be noticed as a figure supplied by an external narrator, especially since it begins on a crackling fire and ends on dying embers. This is more than a metaphor for passion, it is a poetic display that lifts an ordinary drama into telling significance.
Altogether Le diable au corps stuns its audience with the cockiness of its presentation as well as with the audacity of its subject matter. This is its conquest as well as its loss; for in only a few years the New Wave critics, led by Truffaut, would clamor for the downfall of psychological realism and of the paternalistic, elitist narration that preaches a liberal morality. If Radiguet, the novelist, likewise condemned a suffocating society, he did so from within, from the perceptions and language of his hero. Autant-Lara has used Radiguet's rebelliouness, has packaged it approvingly, but has made of it a mature, stylish film. Radiguet, legend has it, put everything of himself into this novel and then died. The movie pays tribute to his effort and his views, but is just another very good movie.
For (Francois Truffaut), Aurenche and Bost are essentially literary writers and he aims his ultimate reproach at them: they show contempt for the cinema and underestimate its potential. "They behave vis-a-vis the scenario, as if they thought to reeducate a delinquent by finding him a job; they always believe they've 'done the maximum' for it by embellishing it with subtleties, out of that science of nuances that make up the slender merit of modern novels." According to Truffaut, a valid adaptation can be written only by a "man of the cinema."
In Radiguet's short novel, written in the first person by the young narrator, the central character-narrator recounts how he met Marthe, the heroine, for the first time as she got off a train on the platform at a train station:
When the train drew into the station, Marthe was standing on the step of the railway carriage. "Wait till it stops!" cried her mother... The girl's recklessness delighted me. Her dress and hat, both simple, evidenced her lack of respect for the opinion of outsiders.
Aurenche and Bost transposed the action to the courtyard of a lycee, or secondary school, transformed into a military hospital. Marthe is a volunteer aid, helping the seriously wounded soldiers arriving from the front. This change in location allows the scriptwriters to introduce a very bitter indictment against educational, military, and medical authorities, on the one hand, and against the matriarchy, on the other: the professor is a guard dog, the military doctor is a sadistic brute, and Marthe's mother-in-law is a real harpy. Thus, from these few details we can readily see how the adapters introduced via transposition a number of motifs completely absent from the original novel, whose anti-militarism, while real, was signified in a totally different, and more subtle, manner. "What is the point of this equivalence? It's a decoy for the anti-militarist elements added to the work by the screenwriters, in concert with Claude Autant-Lara. Well, it is evident that Radiguet's idea was one of mise-en-scene, whereas the scene invented by Aurence and Bost is literary."
Finally, Truffaut defends the idea that it is impossible to appreciate simultaneously those directors belonging to the tradition of quality, such as Autant-Lara, Jean Delannoy, Rene Clement, Yves Allegret, and those considered auteurs, principally Jean Renoir, Max Ophuls, Jacques Becker, and Robert Bresson, because he does not believe in the "peaceful co-existence of the tradition of quality and the cinema of auteurs." The fundamental opposition established by this young critic between these two antagonistic categories rests in their directors' attitudes towards their characters: for the former, there is an all-powerful attitude in which the protagonists are only puppets manipulated by the director. "In the films of 'psychological realism' there are nothing but vile beings, but so inordinate is the authors' desire to be superior to their characters that those who, perchance, are not infamous are, at best, infinitely grotesque."
Director Claude Autant-Lara presents a faithful adaptation of the novel published originally in 1923 by Raymond Radiguet, supposedly semi-autobiographical, when the author was only 20 years old. He died of typhoid fever later that same year. The film is linked to the school of cinema known as "cinema de papa."
Sensitive performances by the stars and atmospheric footage from the period keeps the fires going, in this otherwise overcooked romantic drama.
The script feels like it was written by an eighteen-year-old. It wasn't, but it was adapted from a semi-autobiographical novel written by an eighteen-year-old, Raymond Radiguet. Radiguet died two years later of typhoid fever. The two lead characters are never more than shallow archetypes: a hormonal teenage boy and an attractive but lonely older woman. It's never evident what either one sees in the other beyond pure carnal desire. They are given no personalities.
The best thing about the film is its atmosphere. The sets are elaborate and impressive in their period detail. Michel Kleber provided lots of rainy or misty days, giving the film an ethereal quality. There're some artistic shots and interesting camera angles. The music by René Cloërec is very romantic and would have worked had the love story itself been more profound and moving. As it is, the music feels overblown. The VHS copy that I purchased is very poor quality, both for the video and the audio. The film available in America is also dubbed rather than subtitles, so the poor sound quality is a major deficit.
I sought out this film on the basis of one sourcebook rating it at 4-stars (our of 5 possible) and, most especially, from a desire to see Micheline Presle in her heyday. I had enjoyed her work at a later stage of her career in The King of Hearts (1966), one of my all-time favorite films. Presle gives a nice performance, but her character is so shallow that I had no sense of experiencing anything of her beyond her surface beauty. Although Gérard Philipe went on to be a popular romantic lead in France, until his untimely death at just thirty-nine, his casting here at age twenty-four as a seventeen-year-old destroys the credibility of the story. Although Philipe manages to convey the lack of depth and immaturity of a smitten seventeen-year-old, he never looks less than his real age. Since a significant part of the story's point was the mismatch in ages of the lovers, the casting mishap is a major deficit for the film. Philipe later appeared in La Ronde (1950). I thought the best performance in the film belonged to Jean Debucourt, in a small role as François's father. His other work included Mayerling (1936) and The Earrings of Madame de . . . (1953).
Claude Autant-Lara, whose talent was revealed during the war by Douce[Love Story, 1943] and Le Mariage de Chiffon [The Marriage of Chiffon, 1942], is an uneven filmmaker whose critical or analytical faculty is uncertain (witness Le Bon Dieu sans confession [God without Confession, 1953] and Marguerite de la nuit [Marguerite of the Night, 1956]), but whose dour and biting personality affirms itself brilliantly when his subject is well chosen (as in La Traversée de Paris[Four Bags Full, 1956]). We also owe to Autant-Lara the first and most exemplary psychologically realistic film, Le Diable au corps [Devil in the Flesh, 1947], which was adapted from the famous novel by Raymond Radiguet.
A director's highest duty is to reveal the actors to themselves; and to do that, he must know himself very well. Cinematographic failure generally occurs because there is too wide a disparity between a filmmaker's temperament and his ambitions.
From Diable au Corps (Devil in the Flesh in the United States) to Marguerite de la Nuit, and in between - in L'Auberge Rouge, Le Ble en Herbe, and Le Rouge et le Noir (The Red and the Black) - I have consistently attacked Claude Autant-Lara and I have always deplored his tendency to simplify everything, make it bland. I disliked the coarseness with which he "condensed" Stendhal, Radiguet, Colette. It seemed to me he deformed and watered down the spirit of any work he adapted. Autant-Lara seemed to be like a butcher who insists on trying to make lace.
But I admire, without any real reservations, La Traversee de Paris. I think it's a complete success because Autant-Lara has finally found the subject he's waiting for - a plot tha tis made in his own image, a story that his truculence, tendency toward exaggeration, roughness, vulgarity, and outrage, far from serving badly, elevates to an epic.
Claude Autant-Lara, the director who made his name with films like ''Devil in the Flesh'' and ''The Red and the Black'' and who made an infamous foray into far-right politics late in his life, died on Saturday in a clinic in Antibes in the south of France. He was 98.
One of France's most prolific directors, Mr. Autant-Lara made more than 30 films, many of which are classics of 1940's and 50's French cinema. His work, characterized by emphasis on plotting and dialogue and often based on literary adaptations, frequently attacked or ridiculed social institutions and made provocative jabs at bourgeois society. But in his lifetime, his politics veered 180 degrees. As a young man he was an avant-garde left-wing atheist. By the time he left politics in 1989 he was a member of France's far-right National Front party.
Mr. Autant-Lara's career as a filmmaker reached its height in the 1950's with films like ''Le Diable au Corps'' (''Devil in the Flesh''), which scandalized France with its steamy account of an adolescent's affair with a young woman whose husband was away at war. The sensation of its day, the film condemned those who glorified adultery and tacitly criticized the war. The British banned it for six years, finally releasing it with an X rating. But the movie, starring Micheline Presle and Gerard Philipe, was also seen as capturing the cynical mood of the post-war generation and won several awards.
By the 1960's, Mr. Autant-Lara and his contemporaries in the French ''tradition of quality'' films came under sharp attack, notably from Francois Truffaut, who argued that their films were ''stale'' and relied too much on adaptation of old material. Though Mr. Autant-Lara continued making films into the 1970's, he was effectively eclipsed by the more vital French New Wave filmmakers. His last film, ''Gloria'' in 1977, was largely ignored by critics.
Active in the 1950's as a spokesman for the film industry and later as the head of several film trade unions, he emerged on the national political scene in the late 80's. He was elected to the European Parliament in 1989 as a member of the National Front, though he soon resigned after the monthly magazine Globe quoted him as saying that a French politician who survived a concentration camp had been ''missed'' by the Nazis. He also cast doubt on the existence of Auschwitz and said he was glad the Israelis had a home and that he wished they would stay put there.
The so-called qualite francaise may sound abstract and overly comprehensive, but in fact it included mostly prestige productions (classic literary adaptations, costume dramas, and historical reconstitutions), whose actors, principally from dramatic schools, were adorned with elaborate attires and surrounded by magnificent studio sets. The works of the directors who emerged from the dark hours of the Occupations had become, by the middle of the next decade, quite imposing in the number of their achievements and the prestige of this so-called quality. They contributed significantly to the reputation of the French film industry throughout the world. As the years went by, however, most of these experienced filmmakers progressively lost their own idiosyncratic artistic creativity and cinematographic originality, which had been their determining trademark fifteen years before. They had simply fallen prey to their own triumph due to the constant demand from film producers for bigger budgets and an invariable need to satisfy the expectation of new spectatorship. French cinema focused less on its spiritual and moral correlation to viewers and more on its own methodology to engage a subject matter. Although the works they performed were ingenious and academically stimulating, there was little change in the concept of cinema itself. This was a scenarist cinema, the genre and rules of stagecraft seemingly fixed within an agreed perception of what constituted literature, history, or vaudeville. The films of Claude Autant Lara epitomized the literary adaptation trend of the late 1940s and mid 1950s, Many of the literary adaptations of the postwar era were inspired from realist or contemporary literature, such as Raymond Radiguet's novel Devil in the Flesh (Le diable au corps), Andre Gide's The Pastoral Symphony (La symphonie pastorale), and Jean-Paul Sartre's The Chips Are Down (Les jeux sont faits). The ringleader of the qualite francaise was Autant-Lara, with adaptations of Colette's The Game of Love (Le ble en herbe), Stendhal's The Red and the Black, Georges Simenon's Love Is My Profession (En case de mahleur), and Marcel Ayme's short novel Le vin de Paris. Honorable attempts to transfer the involvements and density or classic French novels to film were sporadically made but logically remained incapable of capturing, entirely and in depth, the full dramatic fortune of the novel. French cinema was focused too much on an imaginary past (adaptations of literary classics) and remained clearly disconnected from France's current events and its preoccupations. For film historian Roy Armes, the constant dilemma for directors was between realist venture and quality impulse:
French cinema has always been at its richest when it has direct contact with the world of the arts in general, but the major currents of thought and literature hardly find their reflection in the cinema of the 1950s, whose concerns remain, essentially, professionalism, attention to detail in setting and acting, and commercial viability. In this sense it was a cinema without risks, which could hardly attract the young aspirants who were nurtured by the growth of the cine-club movement in France after 1945, by the activities of the Cinematheque francaise, which maintained a lively and eclectic approach under Henri Langlois, and by the new generation of film critics.
The cinema des scenaraistes reached its heyday with productions such as Children of Paradise (premiered in 1945), thanks to the team of Marcel Carne and Jacques Prevert, clearly experiencing its slow decline by the beginning of the 1950s. A new team of scenarists, Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, marked the soaring postwar era. Their specialty was the adaptation of literary oeuvres labled de qualite. Unfortunately, although many of the works produced reached a high level of quality (such as The Pastoral Symphony and Devil in the Flesh), they generated an overly academic approach, the rigidity of which hampered the creative process that indirectly opened the door for the future New Wave of 1958-59. Representative directors Autant-Lara and Christian-Jaque removed themselves from France's current preoccupations by their impersonal works and their rejection of the ecumenical character in their films. Although assisted by expert technicians - Jacques Natteau, Robert Juillard, Oswald Morris, and Louis Page, to name a few - they were unable to capture any sense of rejuvenation within their visual style. In 1954, a young journalist named Francois Truffaut wrote what remains today a landmark in cinematographic history, an article entitled "Une certaine tendance du cinema francais" in Les cahiers du cinema, which vehemently reevaluated the cinema de qualite and all other concepts of film studies of the 1950s. Truffaut accused directors and scenarists of the qualite francaise of conforming to established standards so closely that they eventually destroyed the spirit of their original work. This devastating position would essentially give the world the New Wave. The evolution toward a new concept of filmmaking had become a necessity.
In a brilliant but sadly brief career, Gérard Philipe was celebrated as the most talented and most loved screen and stage actor of his generation. An enormously gifted, intelligent, and committed professional, he possessed a fine voice, a handsome, youthful appearance, and a charming freshness which suggested both residual innocence and emotional intensity. Encouraged by Marc Allégret, he trained under Jean Huret and later Jean Wall before making a promising stage debut at Cannes.
Philipe's film career was launched by Marc and Yves Allégret in their romantic comedies La Boîte aux rêves and Les Petites du Quai aux Fleurs , but his first leading role came in Le Pays sans étoiles as a dreaming clerk uncannily acting out a crime of passion. A more demanding part, executed with discerning subtlety, followed as the reforming, idealistic, and deranged Prince Myshkin in L'Idiot . However, in Le Diable au corps , as the adolescent passionately and perhaps irresponsibly involved with a nurse who, although engaged to a soldier, bears his child, he triumphed with a public deeply conscious of the personal moral dilemmas posed by wartime separations. The successful partnership with Micheline Presle led to a laborious romantic farce, Tous les chemins mènent à Rome and a later lesser variation on the adulterous couple relationship in Les Amants de la Villa Borghese .
In a remarkable career, Gérard Philipe worked with the leading directors and actresses of his day and was never less than accomplished. With his handsome looks, seductive voice, and engaging personality he endeared himself to audiences as the noble but often humble romantic hero. Through his dedicated craftmanship, he won the respect of his fellow professionals to become one of the legendary figures of French cinema.
Among a myriad of new talented actors, it is worth considering several heroes of the 1950s generation. One of the best known illustrations is, of course, Gerard Philipe (1922-59), who died at the age of thirty-seven (a fate similar to American actor James Dean) but whose few roles made him one of the most identifiable icons of postwar French cinema. Although many have argued that his celebrity status came from the simple fact that his image of rebel youth remained untarnished by age and universally appealing for future generations, Philipe proved on many occasions the extent of his repertoire and the depth of his acting potential. He is described by film historians Olivier Barrot and Raymond Chirat as a "hero to whom the gods o fhte arts as well as the public, have bestowed... a legendary providence." Autant-Lara's Devil in the Flesh led Philipe to become the most celebrated of all French actors following his first success, which garnered the Grand Prix for Best Actor at the Brussels International Festival in 1947. Philipe concomitantly pursued a second career in theatrical drama and was consecrated with national glory at Jean Vilar's TNP in 1951. During the 1950s, thanks to his seductive talent and panache in popular cape-and-sword productions (reminiscent of Errol Flynn's performances), he became the enchanting emblem of the cinema de qualite as well as the favorite male actor among the French female public. His most memorable roles include Roger Vadim's Dangerous Liaisons (Les liaisons dangereuses, 1959), Autant-Lara's The Red and the Black, Christian-Jaque's Fan-Fan the Tulip, and The Charterhouse of Parma (La chartreuse de Parme, 1948).
Ingmar Bergman stumbles out of the '60s, his most creatively expansive and emotionally exhausting period, with one final attempt to channel New Wave stylistic vitality into his foursquare obsessions with individual angst. As with the other entries in his "Island Trilogy" (including Shame and Hour of the Wolf), it's fractured, dissonant and despairing. The sensual glow of Sven Nykvist's cinematography (in their first color film) blazes into a vision of apocalypse, rife with animal slaughter, tortured fornication and a marriage verging on homicide.
Max Von Sydow plays an unassuming island yokel who's emotionally corrupted by three Bergman regulars: his neurotic wife (Liv Ullmann), a neurotic adulteress (Bibi Andersson), and a controlling patriarch (Erland Josephsson). Von Sydow's slide into a flailing rage at modernity is mirrored by Bergman's slapdash employment of self-conscious techniques: interviews with the cast about their roles, voiceover narration by the director, a dream sequence explicitly referencing Shame. The interviews are especially unsatisfying, suggesting a dynamic interrogation of the space between actor and performance that's left largely unexplored.
The film is most successful in its project of mining for the ugly truth when it's simplest: two extended, soul-baring monologues by Ullmann and Andersson that stare down the camera. These moments complicate Bergman's characteristic misogyny, daring the viewer to call out these naked displays of emotion as so much female wiliness. They also point to the maturity of the more modest, person-to-person realism awaiting Bergman following his late 60s creative burnout.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?
The following citations were counted towards the placement of The Passion of Anna among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?
Antonio Castro, Dirigido Por (1992)
Peter Harcourt, Sight & Sound (1982)
Robin Wood, The Manitoban (2008)
? New York Times, The Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made (2004)
? Take One, Best European Films of the 'Decade' 1966-77 (1978)
The Passion of Anna is one of Bergman's most beautiful films (it is his second in color), all tawny, wintry grays and browns, deep blacks, and dark greens, highlighted occasionally by splashes of red, sometimes blood. It is also, on the surface, one of his most lucid, if a film that tries to dramatize spiritual exhaustion can be ever said to be really lucid. However, like all of Bergman's recent films, it does seem designed more for the indefatigable Bergman cryptologists (of which I am not one) than for interested, but uncommitted filmgoers...
There is no confusion in The Passion of Anna between reality and fantasy—it is all fantasy. That, at least, is the effect of a device by which, at four points in the film, he steps back and asks each of his principal actors about his conception of the role he is playing. The result is not so much enlightenment as it is an expression of Bergman's appreciation to his stars, particularly von Sydow, Miss Ullmann, and Miss Andersson, who have contributed so much to so many of his films.
They are all superb here, and Bergman gives each of them extraordinary moments of cinematic truth, monologues of sustained richness and drama that are the hallmarks of Bergman's best work, when the camera, without moving, records the birth of a character largely through facial expression and dialogue.
All Bergman's films in the late '60s centre on isolated social groups (often the partners of a marriage) and show them under attack from both inside and out: Laingian fissures and cracks open up between the characters, and their precarious security is challenged by irruptions from the outside world. Bergman preserves and extends his private mythologies (witness the way that images and names recur from film to film), but in a broader (less precious, more honest) context. Liv Ullmann says it all in The Shame when she dreams of 'living in the truth'. Here, another bold step forward in Bergman's analysis of human isolation, the public and private manias of Hour of the Wolf are brought down to earth among middle class intruders in an island community.
– Tony Rayns, Time Out
"Ingmar Bergman's film about the impossibility of purity and consistency in a world where to live is to contradict yourself. The passion of the title is not sexual, but the ability to live with the contradictions of life and to bear them without resignation. A tentative, plotless film that pulses with the rhythms of life rather than the rhythms of drama.
Ingmar Bergman’s 1969 drama En Passion / A Passion (in the U.S., mistitled as The Passion of Anna) is a great film — in fact, it may be the best of Bergman’s mid-to-late-1960s efforts dealing with human relationships and the Self — e.g., Persona, Hour of the Wolf, Shame.
Of the three films that show von Sydow and Ullmann as lovers — Hour of the Wolf and Shame are the other two — the portrayal found in A Passion is the most realistic and multi-faceted. Cinematographer Sven Nykvist makes a smooth transition from black-and-white to color, and some of the symbolism early in the film, such as a sundog that fades to clouds, is superb. Such a shot would be impossible to distill so powerfully in black and white. Von Sydow also looks better in color, as his features smooth out, making him look younger.
The Passion of Anna is one of the difficult Bergman psychodramas of the sixties, and while it is not the best Bergman film of this period it nevertheless has many things in its favour – an intelligent script, impeccable acting and Sven Nykvist’s beautiful colour photography. The characters are complex and can be interpreted in any number of ways depending on the individual viewer, but the film’s argument isn’t that difficult to follow – while the characters themselves are somewhat fragmented, the storyline itself, at least on the surface, is fairly linear.
The film’s apparent linear narrative actually conceals a circular pattern, each of the characters displaying a propensity for recurring patterns of behaviour and playing-out roles that they have previously enacted with their previous partners. Anna’s previous husband Andreas and Max von Sydow’s character, tellingly with the same name Andreas, both have had an affair with Eva which seems to have been conducted and ended in similar circumstances. The story of Anna’s break-up with her husband also resembles the story of Andreas’ estrangement from his wife. Bergman appears to be examining the recidivist nature of people to fall back into familiar patterns of behaviour, but he also blurs the lines between what actually happened and what people believe happened, how they interpret events for themselves according to their experience and memories of past events. This gives the film a confused, dream-like quality where we are never quite sure whether something is actually happening or is being forced to fit a predetermined sequence of events based on the perceptions or delusions of the damaged minds of the characters in this isolated community. The strange unresolved subplot of the killer and the islanders’ search for someone to blame could be an external representation of madness that reflects the suppressed madness of one or all of the characters, but it is difficult to interpret.
What makes this somewhat less confusing and particularly enjoyable to watch is the attention to detail and the sheer emotional force that each of the characters brings to their role. All of the actors at this stage have long been part of the Bergman’s company and very familiar with working together on this type of material, but they bring a particular intensity to this film which often frames them in close-up, capturing every flicker of emotion and passion. Sven Nykvist’s photography is in this respect simply marvellous – somewhat looser than the fixed, studied head poses of earlier films, the film also benefits from the warm colours that bathe the characters and landscapes in orange glows and is able to draw the full visceral effect from an image of blood on snow. It all contributes to the unspoken language that gives this film particular force despite the ambiguities and confusions inherent within the story.
The Passion of Anna has not dated as well as some other films of this period and compared to Shame or Hour of the Wolf it seems laboured and predictable. The use of then fashionable post-modern devices doesn’t really work either. The film contains interviews with the actors about their views on the characters they’re playing, snippets which tend to achieve little other than make you reflect on how much younger Max Von Sydow looks without his beard. There’s also a narration from Bergman which doesn’t help much either – although the final line of this is probably pivotal to understanding his conception of the world as a place where we, no matter how hard we try, we can’t hide from ourselves. Overall, however, it is a powerful and disturbing film which contains scenes that resonate in the mind even though you’re not always sure why – Elis’ collection of photographs of violent acts by people, the love scene in silhouette, the blood of the animals against the mud of Faro’s winter. It also reminds us that we are all prisoners of our pasts, a theme which recurs at the very centre of his next major film, Cries and Whispers.
Although this movie is identified as En Passion, the card in the title position on the film itself simply reads L 182. There's no other title given on the DVD. I found no explanation of this in the docu, the commentary or on the IMDB. Oddness or inconsistencies in a Bergman film always feel like misreads ... it comes from being intimidated by world-renowned, serious art filmmakers, so I'm assuming that there's a story behind this that I've yet to catch up with. 1 In the context of the film, "L 182" would seem to correspond to the neat boxes of photos that the Erland Josephson character stores in the creative office in his windmill. The thousands of filed images corresponding to specific subject matter - happiness, violence - seem to either be Bergman's criticism of the 'organized' mind, or the unconscious repository for the feelings of man who shows no feelings ... sort of a variation on the hidden rooms with terrible secrets in the house belonging to Peeping Tom.
The Passion of Anna is more accessible, less frustrating and less mysterious than some of Bergman's previous studies in psychological opacity. In bringing his inner concerns to the surface, Bergman uses readily-interpretable symbols and situations. The characters spend less time gazing at the camera in blank-faced introspection and there are fewer indigestible unknown factors. The film is also photographed in color, something we didn't expect from the Swedish master of stark, ascetic grays.
Anna is definitely a visual departure for Bergman. The interesting color is often warm and mellow, radiantly so in Bibi Andersson's big scene with Max's old swing record. The hues are intense without being exaggerated, like old Kodachrome home movies. I am told that original prints used grain interestingly; it's less visible here except in the final scene. Perhaps the grain was only on duped American prints.
Bergman's thematic use of color is actually rather commonplace - the color red bounces between fire trucks and flames, signaling alarm and panic in the Anna Fromm character. At one point, Ullman's red scarf is used to mirror the pools of crimson blood from the throats of slaughtered sheep.
Bergman's dream sequences are vivid - one with Ullmann in a boat resembles a situation in Shame and could almost be an unused sequence from it. Bergman cuts away to format-disrupting false interviews for all four main actors, a gambit that isn't any more successful than it would be in anybody else's avant-garde film. He probably felt something was needed to break up the rather conventional drama. There's plenty of disturbing content here, but often conveyed with atypical technique for the Swedish master, including overlapping dissolves in the barn-burning scene. The film is more accessible and less mysterious - one doesn't necessarily have to read a film book or peruse a critic's exegesis to follow what's going on.
There is no perfect analogy for the relationship an actor has to the character, but the connectedness they have makes the ones’ commentary on the other a form of introspection. This is interesting for Andreas/von Sydow because his character is so wrapped up in himself. His perspective, the film’s perspective can best understand the character/actors by how they understand themselves.
This representation makes the film dynamic. It brings the meta-narration that Bergman was hashing out in Hour of the Wolf and Persona to the forefront, and involves it directly in the plot and character of the film.
Although not one of Bergman's most popular efforts, The Passion of Anna is a complicated work from an undeniable genius. It's execution is at times muddled and confused, certain turns in the plot end up feeling unnatural and forced, yet this only adds to the disjointed knowledge that we are, in fact, watching a constructed story. At several points in the story the plot evaporates and the actors speak to us about their characters. This device works wonders for the female cast members who have improvised their statements, adding insight to their characters' development and future, yet the males read speeches prepared for them by Bergman, and in doing so they falsify their interviews. These abstract moments do distract from the functional use of the film as entertainment, making it a flawed yet effective work of artistic experimentation.
Shot in color, The Passion of Anna (1969) takes place -- like its predecessors Hour of the Wolf and Shame -- on a remote island, where Andreas (Max Von Sydow) lives a solitary existence, until widowed Anna (Liv Ullmann) comes along. She tries to convince herself that she had a happy marriage, but Andreas knows differently. When Anna accidentally leaves her purse behind, Andreas reads a letter from her husband attempting to end the marriage. Nevertheless, Anna moves in with him and the cycle repeats. Bibi Andersson adds another layer as a confused married woman who has a brief fling with Andreas. Strangely, Bergman occasionally cuts away from the action with on-camera interviews of the actors explaining their characters' motivations. I generally prefer Bergman's black-and-white films, but Sven Nykvist's color cinematography makes Ullmann's blue eyes a thing to behold.
Colors are the most notable change in the first of Bergman's films to escape the realm of black and white. What a difference a few hues make! In the beginning you are introduced to Andreas Winkleman, (played by the wonderful Max von Sydow). He is a forty something year old man who is living alone on a slightly inhabited Swedish island. We watch as he applies stone tiles to the roof of his humble abode during the hazy, snowy days of winter. Silence seems to pervade the area with only a few sheep clopping around the hilly snow banks in the distance. It's here in the film that the viewer gets a look at an amazing cinematic shot of the horizon. But suddenly, the orange sky becomes darkened by a mass of clouds and the bright sun changes into a dull gray sphere. A telltale sign of things to come?
I can definitely respect this film's honesty. Yet, the constant subtle sadness never lifts and I felt a bit weighed down by it's empty outlook. Also, the characters have already lived through all their hardest times and trials before the film begins so as a viewer you feel as though you missed out on all the main reasons underneath their sorrow. Never in Bergman's career has he created a film with characters so heartbreakingly devoid of hope. The four seem to know that the sun will never shine brightly for them and even more, they cannot push away the dark clouds from their view. Anna Fromm has a passion, but it's only held together with old happier memories that serve to keep her spirit from dying.
There's two ways “The Passion Of Anna” (released in Sweden under the less exclusionist title, “Passion”) can be viewed: in the eyes of Bergmanites, it's a radical, triumphant work of deconstructionist cinema; or because of the real-life break-up between director Ingmar Bergman and star Liv Ullman, it's a therapeutic exercise, affected by major creative blocks.
Even co-star Erland Josephson admits in his interview segments for the DVD's documentary that some of Bergman's impulsive ideas harmed the final film, citing on-camera mock interviews with the four stars, edited into the film; tearing the viewer away from the drama, it's either a distraction, or a delightful twist in a film that's actually more challenging than “Persona.”
The Passion of Anna is another of Bergman's diegetic efforts, it is a film which draws attention to it's medium, a counterpart to his 1966 masterpiece, Persona. Although there are many similarities between these two psychodramas, there are also many through lines between The Passion and his film made the year before, Shame. Aside from the obvious similarities, namely the lead actors and the black and white footage of Liv Ullmann on a boat which Bergman pulled from Shame and inserted into The Passion of Anna, there are parallels in the depiction of the brutalization of more-or-less harmless citizens. With Shame, it is the horrors of war and the government's complicity in such horrors which visit upon them, while The Passion of Anna indicts society's blind thirst for justice and obscene love of "truth."
The passion here springs from the emotion over isolation and not being able to live in harmony in a community. It concerns four troubled souls living on a remote Swedish island. Ingmar Bergman's ("Through a Glass Darkly"/"The Shame"/"The Silence") second color film is stunningly filmed by master cinematographer Sven Nykvist on Faro island. This outstanding psychological drama is one of his better and more poignant films; it's never less than fascinating, even when it falters; it's well acted by his stock company and bears the filmmaker's usual unique stylistic expressions and high middlebrow symbolism. It's the final film in the "island" trilogy that includes Hour of the Wolf and Shame.
In what strikes me as something gimmicky and unnecessarily staged, during the film Bergman breaks from the action as he conducts “interviews” with his stars and pries from them their thoughts on the characters they play. The responses are revealing, but it seems to be an effort to force-feed us on how the characters were scripted and not allow us to determine for ourselves what the characters were all about.
"I'm sorry to say that those [interviews with the actors] are very unsuccessful. I just wanted to have a break in the film and to let the actors express themselves. Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann improvised their interviews, but Max von Sydow and Erland Josephson had no idea what to say, so they said what I told them to. This led to two different films, and I no longer understand why I left the whole batch in, because I always realized that they wouldn't work. But I like coups de theatre, things that make people wake up and rejoin the film. This time, however, it wasn't successful."– Ingmar Bergman (1971)
"The Passion of Anna could have been a good film, had the traces of the 1960s not been so evident. They leave an imprint, not only because of the skirts and hairdos, but, even more essentially, because of the important formal elements: the interviews with the actors and the improvised dinner invitation. The interviews should have been cut out. The dinner party should have been vastly different, much tighter. It is regrettable that I frequently became so worriedly didactic. But I was scared. You are scared when you have, for a long time, been sawing off the branch upon which you sit. Shame was truly not a success. I worked under the pressure of a firm demand that my film be comprehensible. I could possibly defend myself by saying that, in spite of this, it took all my courage to give The Passion of Anna its final shape."
– Ingmar Bergman, Images: My Life in Film
During a seminar at the American Film Institute in 1973, Liv Ullmann (who played Anna) recalled working with Bergman and how he experimented in this film by allowing the actors to deviate from the script. "He has always been very strict in wanting us to keep to his sentences. There was the dinner party in The Passion of Anna where the four tell their own story. In that scene, we had complete freedom. But we had to stick to the character. One day a lady arrived and made a beautiful dinner. Max von Sydow drank red wine and all of us asked him questions. He had to answer as the character and the camera was on him all the time. Bergman did the same thing with all four of us. Then he edited it. Bergman further experimented by interviewing the actors during the film, The characters sort of came out and spoke as the character. [A]fter the picture was finished he asked us to come to the studio and to speak as actors. Bibi Andersson used the text from her character."
According to Peter Cowie in his book, Ingmar Bergman: A Critical Biography, shooting the film (from September to December 1968) was full of difficulties. Max von Sydow was under pressure also, for he was appearing at the Royal Dramatic Theater for two performances each weekend during the forty-five day production schedule and had to commute by boat during the late fall season. Sven Nykvist [Bergman's cinematographer] and Bergman frustrated each other; Bergman felt a recurrence of his old stomach ulcer and Nykvist suffered dizzy spells. In the final stages even the editing proved difficult, and over eleven thousand feet were left on the cutting room floor. [..] Conditions for the crew were similar [at the studio] to those on any location. They worked from 7:30 AM to 5 PM except for Monday, and in their free time they could play ping-pong, bathe in the icy sea, drink wine and eat cheese, and amuse themselves at the holiday campsite of Sudersand, when it was open.
If the challenge of color inspired innovation, the film's temper and issues continue to form part of the common denominator which subtends 'sixties Bermgan. The filmmaker himself has remarked that A Passion follows "a line of development" stretching from Through a Glass Darkly, and it is clearly the terminus for that segment of the line, beginning with Persona and passing through Shame, in which the island settings serve as metaphor for a besieged consciousness. Although any script Bergman might have written in 1968 would probably have shown a similarity, A Passion evolved directly from Shame; indeed, he looked upon it as virtually a sequel.
A Passion is a product of [Bergman's] dream machinery - and after a quarter century of filmmaking, Bergman had cause to wonder whether he really controlled its levers or the machine controlled him. It is not only Andreas who is sucked into reproducing a preexisting patern. When Bergman was asked to explain his pronouncement at the very end of hte film, he replied, "It means a sort of giving up... You must feel behind the [ostensible] meaning another you cannot define. For me, it expresses a feeling of boredom. I mean, 'This time his name is Andreas'; but I will be back and next time my character will have another name. I don't know what it will be, but this boring character will be back.
The Passion of Anna is an amazing movie, in some ways pursuing the quest for a new, open film form beyond even the experimentations of Persona. The hard-edged, precise brilliance of the former gives way to a loose, freewheeling, almost haphazardly structured film text breathing the indeterminate and the elusive, in a world still dominated by the experience of nothingness.
Bergman... is sharing the "text-in-process-of-becoming" with us. The actors seem to be sharing in creating the plot and the character: there are possibilities, probabilities; this could happen or that. Here is a kind of cinema of virtualities, showing us various potentialities, and in that, reflecting the filmmaking process. Alain Resnais was doing something of the sort in a number of his films (especially Providence later one), but with an aggressive and overt brilliance. In The Passion of Anna we have a leisurely and "open text," deliberately "imperfect," "unfinished," much as Eco was suggesting in The Open Work. Without the showy super-intellectualism and super-craftsmanship that exploded in Persona, Bergman has found a way of directly addressing his audience, as it were, sharing with us the awareness of what the nature of film, this film, really is. The final image may be of the actual visual disintegration of the central character, commented on by "author" Bergman; but we are very much aware that we are witnessing an artificial act of artistic legerdemain. Bergman makes us feel the nothingness, but also he makes us distance ourselves from it with the consciousness that it is an art object we are contemplating, and a highly complex one. Perhaps, because of the visible structuring of the film, we are prevented from taking the ending literally, at face value. For there are, after all, four factors in the equation, each with his or her possibilities. And so for life: we are watching Bergman work out some of the feasibilities. The context may still be grim, and nothing is clear; but here are four types of people reacting, each with his or her virtualities.
The Seventh Seal presented different kinds of fates for different individuals. But there one felt Bergman personally involved, working his way to some kind of affirmation and imposition of order. This would be pursued with growing clarity, as we have seen, in succeeding films. But with The Passion of Anna Bergman no longer feels the compulsion to be the prophet seeking the answer. For better or for worse, having faced the unbearable anguish of ingenting, he is now able to step back, seeing all options represented by the characters as data or possibilities (or maybe not!). Maybe ingenting itself is just that, one of the possibilities and maybe, braced by that conviction, one can surivive, can get on with one's life... Perhaps.
NOTES ON THE BERGMAN "ISLAND" TRILOGY: HOUR OF THE WOLF, SHAME AND THE PASSION OF ANNA
The Passion of Anna completes a loose trilogy of films in which director Ingmar Bergman examines how external factors can influence a person’s psychology and result in the break-up of a close male-female relationship. It follows the expressionistic Hour of the Wolf (1968) and the wartime drama Shame (1968), with Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann playing the lead characters in all three films. Each of the films continues Bergman’s exploration of existentialist themes – the nature of identity, the meaning of reality and the difficulty of living in a world filled with irreconcilable contradictions.
Stylistically, these three films could hardly be more different. Whereas the first two are filmed in high-contrast black-and-white and have a grim claustrophobic intensity, The Passion of Anna is shot in colour and feels much looser, less confined, and far more naturalistic. However, the similarities between the films are as striking as the differences and lead one to conjecture that they depict not three separate stories, but the same story, seen from three different perspectives. One possible clue to the relationship between the films is in the inclusion in The Passion of Anna of a short sequence from Shame to represent part of a dream. The hint is there that, perhaps, the whole of Shame is a dream, or maybe a twisted reinterpretation of the world as seen by Anna.
Mental derangement features heavily in all three films, and in each film Liv Ullmann plays a character who is either obviously unhinged or else looking as if she might be teetering on the brink of insanity. Assuming that Ulmann's character is the linchpin to each film, it is plausible that what the films are showing are a single mind that is fragmenting into various pseudo-realities – states that exist between reality and imagination. For this character, reality as we know it (or rather, as we think we know it) has ceased to have any meaning.
A more evident connection between the films is the idea that an individual's identity can be strongly affected by external forces. In Hour of the Wolf, it is the bleak, solitary landscape in which the story takes place which results in the mental collapse of the main protagonist. In Shame , the experience of war completely changes the way a husband and wife behave towards one another, ultimately ruining their relationship. In The Passion of Anna, it is the senseless killing of livestock by an unknown maniac that leads to the breakdown in trust and affection between Andreas and Anna.
The transfer is very good, with strong colors and accurate fleshtones. There's a lot of detail in the image, and the source print contains occasional speckles. For the most part, grain is not a problem, although it does pop up in the occasional darker scene.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
The mono sound is fine, with no trace of harshess or hiss. While limited in fidelity, it's perfectly serviceable, and the occasional sound effects come through clearly.
Audio Transfer Grade: A-
While The Passion of Anna is probably the least interesting film in MGM's The Ingmar Bergman Collection boxed set, its supplements are the most insightful and revealing of the lot. Liv Ullman's 4m:05s interview is an amusing anecdote about her dachshund "Pet", and reveals the truth about the writing behind Bergman's films. In the 4m:53s allotted to Bibi Andersson, she comments on Bergman's dedication to his art, how the filmmaking climate in Sweden has changed and how it has affected her, and explains why it's not a good idea to invite Bergman to dinner. Erland Josephson speaks of his enduring friendship with Bergman in his brief (2m:25s) interview.
The Photo Gallery consists of the Swedish release poster and 17 production photos, which are duplicated from the Supplemental Materials disc. The U.S. theatrical trailer is in poor shape, with scratchy sound and a damaged source print, but the transfer is adequate.
University of Montreal film professor Marc Gervais contributes the commentary track, as he does for most of the films in the set. It's probably his least interesting talk, which is fair enough because there's simply less the say about this film than the others. He places it in the context of Bergman's other "disintegration" films from the 1960s, and discusses how the film reveals aspects of Bergman's character and personal life. The deconstructive elements of the film are analyzed, including the last shot of the film, where the image of Andreas is gradually obliterated, but this shot is almost certainly an optical effect and not a simple zoom as Gervais claims.
The documentary, Disintegration of Passion, is a bit shorter than the rest in the set, but follows the same format: clips from the film, interview snippets with the actors, comments by Gervais, and excerpts from a 1970 Bergman interview. Gervais mostly repeats observations from his commentary, but the remarks by the other actors provide insights into Bergman's unhappiness at the time, his hesitancies during filming, questionable use of improvisation, and indecision at including the interview segments in the film. If you can ignore the inclusion of the unrelated segments from the 1970 Bergman interview, this is a revealing, insightful documentary.
There's one supplement that breaks away from the formula used on the discs in this set: Elliott Gould reading the story treatment on which The Passion of Anna was based. Bergman typically writes out a detailed version of the story before shooting begins, then shares it with his cast and crew, who use it as a basis for their work. Over the course of more than an hour and a half, Gould reads the story, and it provides a fascinating glimpse into Bergman's working methods.
The following quotes are found on the TSPDT director profile for Ingmar Bergman:
"Bergman has never set out to be less than demanding; and as an artist his greatest achievement is in digesting such unrelenting seriousness until he sees no need to bludgeon us with it...Bergman has seen no reason to abandon his faith in a select audience, prepared and trained for a diligent intellectual and emotional involvement with cinema." - David Thomson (The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 2002)
"Although he may be faulted for an occasional cold, humourless pessimism that may seem contrived, both his intellectual gravity and his uncompromising devotion to cinema as a serious art form are undeniable." - Geoff Andrew (The Film Handbook, 1989)
"Bergman's unique international status as a filmmaker would seem assured on many grounds; his prolific output of largely notable work; the profoundly personal nature of his best films since the 1950s; the innovative nature of his technique combined with its essential simplicity even when employing surrealistic and dream-like treatments; his creative sensitivity in relation to his players; and his extraordinary capacity to evoke distinguished acting from his regular interpreters." - Roger Manvell (International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, 1991)
"Human laughter, sorrow, joy, and anxiety are analyzed and compellingly illustrated by Bergman, one of the great directors." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)
"Film as dream, film as music. No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls." - Ingmar Bergman
"I write scripts to serve as skeletons awaiting the flesh and sinew of images." - Ingmar Bergman
When you think of Scandinavian movie stars, the first name that comes to mind is Max von Sydow. Since his screen debut in 1949 in Alf Sjoberg's Only a Mother, he has appeared in countless films, including titles as diverse as Hannah and Her Sisters and Conan the Barbarian, The Emigrants and The Exorcist, Pelle the Conqueror and Judge Dredd. The actor is easily recognized by his gaunt appearance: he is tall, with a long, lean face and sharp features. These physical characteristics have been an asset in both aspects of his screen career, comprised of the character roles he has played in English-language films and his status as a principal on-screen interpreter of Ingmar Bergman.
Von Sydow has co-starred in a number of European productions by prominent directors, including Mauro Bolognini, Bertrand Tavernier, Jan Troell, and, most recently, Bille August. But it is his work with Bergman for which he will be best-remembered. He earned his initial international acclaim in Bergman-directed films, particularly The Seventh Seal (as the tormented knight who rides through the plague-ridden countryside in search of a good deed he might perform before the figure of Death takes him away) and The Virgin Spring (as the father who avenges the rape-murder of his young daughter). Indeed, in his best roles for Bergman (in which he has, more often than not, played husbands and artists), von Sydow has embodied the anguished soul who suffers as a result of his desires, or guilt, or the guilt he feels because of his desires.
From the mid-1960s, Liv Ullmann represented to American audiences a sensual and sophisticated screen presence that did not exist within Hollywood. Her earthy beauty was best utilized in a series of provocative films directed by her mentor, Ingmar Bergman.
Her film credits were few and minor—she had appeared in several little-known Norwegian features—when Ullmann first met Bergman in Stockholm. He offered her the principal role of the mute Elisabeth Vogler in the psychologically complicated and exacting study Persona. There followed not only an artistic collaboration between the director and actress, but for a time, a deep personal and emotional relationship. Persona gave Ullmann a great acting opportunity, and was both an artistic and personal success for her. "It was difficult," says Ullmann. "I prepared myself so that I read the script several times and I tried to divide it into certain sections. Bergman helped me a lot. He differs very much from what the majority of people think of him. People say that he is a demon, but it is not true at all. He simply knows whom to engage. He listens and then he tries to get the maximum from an actor."
Under Bergman's influence, Ullmann became an internationally recognized actress. In the films Persona, Hour of the Wolf, Shame, Cries and Whispers, Scenes from a Marriage, and Face to Face, she creates immensely complicated portraits of contemporary women. Able to communicate an entire range of emotions through minute details of action, she relies neither on sharp mimicry nor intensified vocal intonation in her portrayals. Nevertheless, she is capable of expressing urgency, sensitivity, and agitation by the slightest movement of her eyes. Ullmann interprets the feelings and inner actions of her heroines by suggestion. Although trained in the theater, her experience there is not evident, except perhaps in some long Bergmanesque dialogue passages in which, through her ardor, she is able to draw the audience into her own inner conflict. Ullmann's mastery of the dramatic consists precisely of the simplicity and realism of her expression.
Like other European-trained actors, Andersson's work is not an emotionally cathartic experience, but rather an exercise of knowledge and technique, as her versatility proves. Following her role in The Seventh Seal, as the wife in the pair of fairground innocents who survive the destruction of the knight and his family after the apocalypse, she played the hitchhiker in Wild Strawberries, again projecting a youthful hopefulness and innocence. Her portrayal of the unmarried mother in Brink of Life revealed a broader range and won her an award at Cannes (along with Ingrid Thulin for the same film).
With the exception of a role in Now about All These Women, Andersson did not work with Bergman for six years. Their collaboration resumed with her most important film, Persona, in which she established herself as an actress of international stature. This masterpiece owes much to Andersson's brilliance and is evidence of her greater emotional experience than was apparent in her earlier work. Playing opposite Liv Ullmann as the mute Elisabeth, Andersson was required to carry the dialogue of the film. A mutual transference of personae occurs, signified by the merging of their images on screen. The film required of Andersson an enormous extension of her talent; her submission to the film's somewhat cruel objectivity attested to Andersson's dedication—not only to the aims of Bergman's films but also to the demands made by a role of extraordinary emotional complexity. The characterization did much to erase the rather condescending view of her as a pleasant, lightweight actress, and elevated her to the first rank of Bergman's ensemble, along with Thulin and Ullmann.
Andersson then made a number of films with other Swedish directors, and worked again with Bergman in a supporting part in The Passion of Anna, in a central role opposite Elliott Gould in The Touch, and in a brief appearance in one episode of Scenes from a Marriage, which would be the last films they made together. In The Touch she turned in a performance that established her, according to one critic, as the warmest and most free-spirited of Bergman's women, both robust and compassionate.
This autobiographically intoned life account of America's most genteel philanderer amounts to a series of paradoxes: a World War II production touting an unheroic, passive cad; the director who practically invented Hollywood urbane sophistication and suavity applying his trade on quaintly mannered, occasionally rustic Americana; and the famous "Lubitsch Touch" applied so gently here as to be almost touchless. The three paradoxes are linked by Lubitsch's desire to make a film both celebrating and sending up the moral absurdities of his beloved adopted country while having to toe the puritanical line of the Hays Code. It amounts to a celebration of obliqueness, where the offscreen shenanigans of Don Ameche are perpetually alluded to but never shown, leaving the portrait of this Gilded Age Casanova vaguely sketched. We can't tell to what degree he's successful at his romantic pursuits, or how much of it is a vain attempt to inflate his ego. Of course Lubitsch is all about reading between the lines, but almost too much here needs to be inferred by verbal references and the reactions of characters to unseen events. In other words, it's the first Hong Sang-soo movie ever made.
All the same, there's plenty of fun to be hand in the innuendo of Samson Raphaelson's screenplay ("Here was a girl lying to her mother. Naturally that girl interested me at once"). And they find a priceless visual counterpart in two moments where Lubitsch lets his actors' eyes do the describing of what they're seeing, and the spectator watches through them with heightened emotion. There's also a pleasant musical incorporation of sneezes, coughs and hiccups that convey the inner states of characters where words can't. Generally Lubitsch moves the proceedings in an ambling, almost plodding style that saps the film of forward momentum; on the other hand seems to anticipate the static, almost non-narrative tableaux of late Carl Dreyer and some Terence Davies. It's a rhythm that seems to resist moving forward, which fits a film that's about a man gently coming to terms with his advancing age, the futility of his sexual exploits, and the eternal embrace of family love.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?
The following citations were counted towards the placement of Heaven Can Wait among The Shoot Pictures Don't They's 1000 Greatest Films:
Guillermo Altares, Nickel Odeon (1994)
Lorenzo Codelli, Positif (1991)
? Bertrand Tavernier, Most Important American Films (1977)
? Cahiers du Cinema, Best American Films of the Sound Era (1963)
? Daniel & Susan Cohen, Book - 500 Great Films (1987)
? Danny Peary, Guide for the Film Fanatic: Must-See Films
? Francois Truffaut, Most Important American Films (1977)
? Gavin Lambert, Most Misappreciated American Films (1977)
? Halliwell's Top 1000 Films (2005)
? Jonathan Rosenbaum, 100 Favourite Films (2004)
? Jonathan Rosenbaum, Essential Cinema: Favourite 1,000 Films (2004)
? Jose Luis Guarner, Genre Favourites: Comedy (1993)
? Leslie Halliwell, A Further Choice of Entertainment Movies From the Golden Age (1986)
? Luc Moullet, Most Important American Films (1977)
? Marcel Ophuls, Most Important American Films (1977)
? Peter Bogdanovich, 52 Classic Films for One Full Year (1999)
? Taschen, Books Movies of the 20s-90s (2003-2007)
?? They Shoot Pictures Highly Recommended Films
It is an amusing anomaly that Twentieth Century-Fox displays a particular fondness for the nineteenth century and wolves. Never is the studio quite so profligate as when it has a film in which the background is fin-de-siècle and the hero is a lady-killing blade. The settings then ooze a horse-hair flavor and Technicolor rainbows the screen. And the hero has a patent-leather polish that would have dazzled Delmonico's.
No wonder, then, that the studio has been chortling with so much advance glee over its latest package of entertainment, "Heaven Can Wait," which came to the Roxy yesterday. For here is a shined and scented chromo which Ernst Lubitsch has produced for it with all the ornamental excess of the period so dear to the heart of the studio. Here is a nostalgic nosegay in which the hero is quite a wolf, indeed. And here is a comedy of manners, edged with satire, in the slickest Lubitsch style. The Twentieth Century-Fox has got a picture about fin-de-siècle conduct which rings a bell.
For this time Mr. Lubitsch (and his playwright, Sam Raphaelson) is not concerned with the present, as he was so embarrasingly in "To Be or Not To Be," but is poking very sly and sentimental fun at Eighteen Nineties naughtiness. He—and Mr. Raphaelson, who based the script on a Lazlo Bus-Fekete play—are laughing with gentle affection at the pruderies of yesterday. Their picture has utterly no significance. Indeed, it has very little point, except to afford entertainment. And that it does quite well
Heaven Can Wait was praised by a large cross-section of critics, but the most sensitive notice was from James Agee, who wrote that, while it was not up to Lubitsch's best (he preferred the silent Lubitsch, "It has a good deal of the dry sparkle, the shrewd business, and the exquisite timing... It brought back a time when people really made good movies... the sets, costumes and props are something for history... [and] the period work, in these respects -as in Lubitsch's modulations in styles ofposture and movement - was about the prettiest and most quietly witty I had ever seen." Even D.W. Griffith put aside his old jealousy to pay tribute when he told Ezra Goodman that "I liked the way Lubitsch used color in Heaven Can Wait. And the way he used sound, too."
As Andrew Sarris has observed of Heaven Can Wait, "the timing of every shot, every gesture, every movement was so impeccably precise and economically expressive that an entire classical tradition unfolded... Contemporary sloppiness of construction brought on by the blind worship of 'energy' as an end to itself make it almost too easy to appreciate Lubitsch's uncanny sense of the stylized limits of a civilized taste. Almost any old movie looks classical today: Lubitsch's movies are nothing short of sublime."
- Scott Eyman, Ernst Lubitsch. Published by JHU Press, 2000. Page 319.
WONDERFUL TRAILER PRODUCED BY FILMBUFF2000 ON YOUTUBE
Ernst Lubitsch's only completed film in Technicolor (1943), the greatest of his late films, offers a rosy, meditative, and often very funny view of an irrepressible ladies' man (Don Ameche in his prime) presenting his life in retrospect to the devil (Laird Cregar). Like a good deal of Lubitsch from The Merry Widow on, it's about death as well as personal style, but rarely has the subject been treated with such affection for the human condition. Samson Raphaelson's script is very close to perfection, the sumptuous period sets are a delight, and the secondary cast--Gene Tierney, Charles Coburn, Marjorie Main, Eugene Pallette, and Spring Byington--is wonderful. In many respects, this is Lubitsch's testament, full of grace, wisdom, and romance.
Centered in a Fifth Avenue mansion left over from 19th-century New York, the film is Lubitsch and writing partner Samson Raphaelson's valentine to "an age that has vanished, when it was possible to live for the charm of living." Spanning more than half a century, it chronicles the high points of Henry's life so delicately that--in a variation on the strategies of Lubitsch-Raphaelson's risque '30s classics--it leaves some of them entirely offscreen, their emotional impact measured by what the characters feel and say about them afterward. We'll leave it to you to find out what they are. Suffice it to say that Ameche and Gene Tierney--as Martha, the love of Henry's life--give performances far subtler than anything else in their Fox contract-player careers, and there are sublime opportunities for those peerless character actors Charles Coburn, Eugene Pallette, and Marjorie Main.
For once, it seems that Lubitsch - who prided himself on never having vulgar run-ins with the censors and on outsmarting them more consistently than almost anyone else - had outsmarted himself. He set out to make a case for a kind of life that everything in the climate of American piety around him seemed to be discounting. But Heaven Can Wait is the story of a philanderer in which no philandering ever occurs, at least so far as we can tell. If it had, the hero would have been required to be punished in some way (the Production Code) - which was not the kind of movie or moral that Lubitsch had in mind. Since he means to forgive, even to eulogize, this amiably lecherous hero, he has to seem at least to deny the lechery. And so a pattern is set up. From the French maid to the Follies girl, Henry always turns out to be innocent, in spite of initial appearances. The only one he seems to make any real headway with is his wife. And he seems indeed a very contented sort of husband. And yet the implication of adultery - of even a habit of adultery - is clear, if carefully handled. Martha discovers a bill for a diamond bracelet and leaves him. And we discover in the scene that follows that there have been many such quarrels before this. But when? And over what exactly? We know even less about Henry's infidenlities than he contrives to let his wife know. But since this is a problem the film is importantly about, the effect is of a peculiar smarminess: as if there were things you never discussed, no matter how insistent or obtrusive they became. Lubitsch and Raphaelson undoubtedly felt that their techniques of eloquent reticence would carry the day. But never before had these techniques been required to carry so much - so much necessary meaning and information left out. The film gives less a feeling of double entendre than of massive denial.
Amazing what Lubitsch could get from actors who seldom shone as bright elsewhere. Kay Francis gave the performance of her career in Troublein Paradise; Jack Benny, so great in radio and TV, never equalled To Be Or Not to Be on screen. The immensely likable Don Ameche was a second-string star all his life, but in Heaven Can Wait you could swear you were watching one of the greatest light comic actors of all time. Gene Tierney, young and a bit tremulous as Ameche's great love, still manages to show her character's gathering strength.
There is Laird Cregar, the sinister detective in I Wake Up Screaming, here playing a Satan so sophisticated and well-dressed that the Siren's host asked, "is that Anton Walbrook?" Henry Van Cleve (Ameche) goes to Hell (and a very elegant Hell it is, too, decorated in what appears to be Deco's Last Gasp) and attempts to explain to His Excellency why he deserves eternal damnation. His Excellency, for his part, sits down to vet Henry, since he doesn't want the place getting all touristy. "Sometimes it seems as though the whole world is coming to Hell," he laments.
Charles Coburn plays Hugo Van Cleve, living vicariously through his grandson's peccadillos; and Allyn Joslyn is Cousin Albert, in looks and demeanor rather reminiscent of Ralph Reed. Excellent exchange, mid-movie:
Albert: The family understands your humor, but it's a typical kind of New York humor.
Hugo: In other words, it's not for yokels.
We have Eugene Pallette as Tierney's Kansas City pa. The Siren hereby issues a big mea culpa for not mentioning Pallette in her post about voices. There is no one, absolutely no one with a voice like this actor's any more. If you put a double bass through a cement mixer, you might get the voice of Eugene Pallette. He and Marjorie Main have the Siren's favorite scene in the movie, a fierce dispute at the marital breakfast table over who gets to read the Katzenjammer Kids. The butler, forced to mediate between the warring funny-paper fans, was played by pioneering actor Clarence Muse. Mercifully, he has no "humorous" dialect tics or cutesy gestures.
Films like Heaven Can Wait make us think about our own lives and legacies. The introspective viewer sees the life of Henry Van Cleve and starts to wonder how his own would measure up if such a devilish meeting ever took place. Van Cleve’s ultimate fate in Heaven Can Wait makes us feel better about ourselves and our lives. If you believe in an afterlife as a reward for the life lived on Earth, it’s nice to have movies such as this one to reassure us that no one’s perfect and we’re not expected to be either.
Lubitsch manages to wedge in a few funny scenes among the supporting players, including one about Eugene Pallette and the Sunday funnies. But his famous "touch" seems to have dulled here while dealing with the stagy material, and while patiently filming Ameche in various layers of makeup representing the passing years. As beautiful and colorful as it is, Heaven Can Wait has an overwhelming despondency, dealing as directly as it does with old age and death. Those things, it seems to me, would make a crackerjack comedy, but this time Lubitsch merely wallows in them.
Don Ameche is nothing short of wonderful, and it's a shame that postwar fashion would push him aside in favor of a diet of he-man types and younger blood. That makes his late-career return almost forty years later all the more pleasing. Gene Tierney is appropriately ravishing and handles her comedy well. Her incredible looks got her through a few ordinary pix until a couple of positive hits like this one led to Laura and mainstream stardom. Coburn is a hit as the randy granddad and Spring Byington cute as Henry's mom. Allyn Joslyn makes a perfect dullsville cousin, the kind who can be cruelly cheated and we don't care a bit. He has a nice scene where he re-proposes to Martha by describing himself as an old suit of clothes. Martha smiles, but cousin hasn't a prayer.
The film itself is nimble, spry, and as effervescent as an Alka Seltzer thrown into a champagne cocktail. But I don't want to mislead you into thinking it doesn't pack some powerful emotional punches. Henry Van Cleve is a man who is railing against time, and trying hard to bury his pain inside the women he comes across in his time. The love affair between him and Martha is compelling, probably because the Gene Tierney character is allowed to see her husband's faults. She knows exactly what he is, and loves him regardless of it. If the movie were made today it would probably fall apart, because it would show sordid details of an over-sexed man cheating on his beautiful wife. Luckily, because of the extreme censors of the '40s, the story is made more palatable. We never get the impression that anything sordid is happening—but here's where Lubitsch is sly and crafty. He insinuates more with a look or a closed door than most modern filmmakers can with an outright fleshy orgy of sweaty close-ups made up of select body parts. It's a thinking man's comedy; an exemplary personification of the "Lubitsch touch." He finds a way for us to root for the callow man, and even root for Martha and him to find happiness any way they can. He's tricking America into opening its peculiar Midwestern morality and trading it for a more permissive European sensibility. It's a deep, beautiful film masked in a light, airy comedy, and it's wonderfully subversive.
Ernst Lubitsch's comic fantasy begins with a cheery conceit, but underneath lingers a fear of loss. Guilt-ridden Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche), newly deceased, bypasses heaven for hell, where he finds a skeptical Satan. In lusciously restored Technicolor, Henry recounts his mottled life from the 1870s to the 1940s, as he woos and betrays his wife, Martha (a radiant Gene Tierney), and wins her again. Lubitsch nimbly conveys the passage of time (whiskers change; elderly characters disappear and children arrive), but the chuckling humor is sometimes too genteel for its own good. Although Henry is referred to as a ''Casanova,'' the light ''Lubitsch touch'' and period censorship never let his lechery register as a serious blot on his character.
Being made in 1943, Heaven Can Wait lacks some of the naughty innuendo of Lubitsch's pre-Code films such as Trouble in Paradise (1932), but it moves far beyond that Art Deco fantasy world to sketch out a gently mocking, yet complex character portrait. In its warmth and humaneness it recalls The Shop Around the Corner (1940), which is to say it's one of Lubitsch's richest and most moving films. I would argue that these two films, together with To Be Or Not To Be (1942), represent the true peak of Lubitsch's career, as much as I love his films from the silent era up to the early Thirties.
Putting his lead foot first, director Ernst Lubitsch saddles his story with a script that never properly uses its complete potential. Henry feels that as part of his interview process, he must go through the story of his life, which would have generally been a decent idea, except that he led a pretty uninspiring one.
This 1943 production from director Ernst Lubitsch's long partnership with playwright Samson Raphaelson has accrued fame for being one of the pair's most enduring collaborations, even though the "Lubitsch touch" is more subdued here than in the pair's Trouble in Paradise and Shop Around the Corner, and barely recognizable from the director's silent works. From the opening scene, where Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) arrives in Satan's executive suite in Hell, this is a decidedly restrained picture for the duo. Besides providing film history with one of its most memorable interpretations of Hell, the scene sets the bar for the movie: witty dialogue is exchanged for witty circumstances; the overt Lubitsch opulence, for discrete indicators of social class; biting sexual humor is given over to a decidedly chaste rendering of pleasure; and homespun Americana, instead of Continental sophistication.
Even the movie's structure is more drawn out and nuanced than the partners' previous pictures. Assuming his wandering eye and lies has warranted eternal suffering, Henry insists to a confused and comically conversational Lucifer he deserves a spot in Hell. He relays his life's story and all its damning events, which provides a fairly original narrative framework. Of course, in each segment he, instead, displays a good-natured and earnest quality that shows why he belongs in Heaven, providing Lubitsch and Raphaelson with a platform to discuss sexuality and morality in subtle and subversive detail.
Much has been written over the years about the "Lubitsch Touch." For a solid example of that touch, look no further than the setup. By beginning his story in Hell, Lubitsch is both endorsing and mocking the idea of Henry's paying for his sins. Then, for the next hour and a half, Lubitsch sets out to prove that no sin was really committed. In Lubitsch and screenwriter Samson Raphaelson's eyes, Henry brought no shame to others while also providing a lot of good clean fun to the many women in his life. In examining this point, the writer and director play with the notion held in society at the time that women may have needed to be chaste within the confines of a relationship but that philandering was merely a part of man's nature. In Heaven Can Wait, such an idea is reduced to what it really is: An excuse for men who've never grown up to do whatever they want and with whomever they please. Here, women represent the maturity of fidelity while men, though charming, wouldn't know maturity if it kicked them out of bed.
On the surface, everything sparkles: Heaven was the first film Lubitsch shot in Technicolor, and cleaned up for DVD, its rich colors and ornate backdrops shimmer like Champagne in crystal; set in the upper class fin de siècle milieu of ball gowns and cocktail parties, the film is beautifully shot and elegantly designed. But, buried somewhere underneath all those portieres and chandeliers a spirited idea was suffocated, and what could have been one of the era's great black comedies, with a premise begging for the acid tongue of a George S. Kaufman or Billy Wilder, settles instead for being a parlor jaunt: badinage in topcoats and tails, jokes about yokels and showgirls. Potentially one of the cinema's immortal comic creations, Henry Van Cleve – a philandering post-mortem playboy so enamored of his own dissipation and amorality he angles to convince the devil to let him into Hell – is reduced to a low-grade rake by the somnolent Don Ameche and the sentimental dialogue of writer Samson Raphaelson.
On an extra feature on the DVD, critic Andrew Sarris notes that light comedies such as "Heaven Can Wait" tend to be underrated. I have to agree with him, but I also must plead guilty as charged. I admire the extraordinary craft involved in making such a film: it requires a lot of hard work to make comedy seem so easy. Raphaelson´s script is tightly structured, snappy and clever; admirable craft, but also part of the problem for me. As in many modern sitcoms, the characters always seem to know how a scene is going to end before it begins, and mug their way through it as they lead up to that oh-so-meticulously timed punch line. There is little attempt to create plausible characters here: it is never Henry or Martha speaking, but always Don Ameche or Gene Tierney winking at the camera as they deliver perfectly written, perfectly-rehearsed lines. I can´t help but see the whole affair as pleasant but rather slight entertainment; in Douglas Adams´ words, the movie is "mostly harmless."
Few of us get to write our own epitaph. HEAVEN CAN WAIT masquerades lightly as the beyond-the-grave recollections of the aged roué Henry Van Cleve, but the film is in fact Ernst Lubitsch's own death foretold, his own life summed up.
It was wartime, and Lubitsch despaired over a Europe in flames. His heart was failing, partially the fault of the gigantic cigars he chain-smoked, partially (his friends believed) the result of his long good fight against studio tyranny and hypocrisy. He realized, he told Samson Raphaelson, his friend and collaborator on nine films including HEAVEN CAN WAIT, that he had made many films about Americans, but none about America, a place he loved even more dearly for all its peccadilloes and false prudery. As the two set about to make Lubitsch's first film in color, Lubitsch suffered a series of heart attacks. Raphaelson was told that Lubitsch could not survive, and so began composing a eulogy. As he dictated, his hardboiled secretary wept. As Raphaelson contemplated the homely German in the ill-fitting clothes whose lacework wit had transformed Hollywood from a provincial town on the edge of a desert into a (at least occasionally) civilized and creative place, the phrases poured like Rhine wine:
"I never saw, even in this territory of egotists, anyone who didn't light up with pleasure in Lubitsch's company. We got that pleasure, not from his brilliancy or his rightness. . . but from the purity and childlike delight of his lifelong love affair with ideas. . . He had no time for manners, but the grace within him was unmistakable, and everyone kindled to it, errand boy and mogul, mechanic and artist. Garbo smiled, indeed, in his presence, and so did Sinclair Lewis and Thomas Mann. He was born with the happy gift of revealing himself instantly to all."
But Lubitsch survived to shoot HEAVEN CAN WAIT, and Raphaelson happily put away his tribute, swearing his secretary to secrecy about his flood of sentiment. For Lubitsch, the film that resulted from this dire period is surely one of his most lovely, an unassuming, casual announcement that death held no fear for him. The amiable, emphatically American Don Ameche as Henry van Cleve stands in for Lubitsch quite nicely, and the ridiculous world over which he presides is a fantasy of provincialism outraged (the preposterous Mr. and Mrs. Strabel, nouveauboors just in from, hopelessly, Kansas), and European sexual matter-of-factness (the worldly Mademoiselle, every adolescent boy's French maid). In Lubitsch's version of the afterlife, everyone is as civilized and expansive as he is; even the devil (His Excellency), as played by Laird Cregar, is a patient sophisticate. The screen directions tell us that Henry van Cleve speaks of death "as if talking about a charming social affair," a typical Lubitsch combination of naiveté and élan.
In the end, heaven could not wait, and the death forestalled during the making of the film arrived to claim Lubitsch in 1947, after his sixth heart attack. Sadly, Raphaelson had reason to bring his eulogy for Lubitsch out of his file cabinet. Only then did he discover that his secretary had broken her vow of secrecy; Lubitsch had read the loving obituary when he had recovered from those first heart attacks, and had been deeply touched. By then he must have known that Raphaelson's feelings for him had already found a lighter but equally powerful voice in the screenplay for HEAVEN CAN WAIT.
To Ameche he was "dedicated"; to Tierney he was "a tyrant." Tierney was seraphically beautiful but deeply closeted emotionally, and invariably seemed to be acting in a glazed trance. Around the Fox lot, she had a reputation for responding to any emotional scenes by going slightly over the top in a cloying, sentimental way. In trying to spark some emotional immediacy out of her, Lubitsch had terrified the actress. The day after their contretemps, Tierney sought him out and explained that "I'm willing to do my best, but I can't go on working on this picture if you're going to keep shouting at me."
"I'm paid to shout at you," he retorted.
"Yes, and I'm paid to take it - but not enough." They laughed and Lubitsch modulated his approach for the rest of the shooting.
- Scott Eyman, Ernst Lubitsch. Published by JHU Press, 2000. Page 319.
EXCERPTS FROM THE ESSAY BY WILLIAM PAUL FOR THE CRITERION DVD
Lubitsch’s comedy had been sufficiently idiosyncratic for him to become a model for other directors, such as Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges. Nevertheless, he was not immune to stylistic currents, clearly responding to the ascendancy of screwball comedy with two works that appeared toward the end of that subgenre’s efflorescence: Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938) andThat Uncertain Feeling (1941). But screwball was not an agreeable style for Lubitsch, whose work was becoming more contemplative, quieter. It is that thoughtful quality that pervades HeavenCan Wait, inscribed in the flashback structure of its narrative. And this shift was in keeping with other changes in Hollywood movies of the time: with the Depression and the impending political catastrophe in Europe, American high comedy was becoming more realistic in manner, more middle-class in milieu, and more political in its concerns. Lubitsch was deeply affected by these changes.
In this light, then, Lubitsch’s move to Twentieth Century Fox—a studio specializing in historical films and nostalgic evocations of small-town America—is not as surprising as it might at first appear. Lubitsch could never embrace the small town, but he could reasonably make New York the focus of his venture into Americana. And with his very American ordinariness, Don Ameche, then one of Fox’s leading male stars, could help move Lubitsch in this direction.
While eschewing specific historical events, the film finds its own distinctive way of defining how the outside world is developing and how characters are developing in relation to it. Lubitsch’s first film in Technicolor, Heaven Can Wait uses color to record historical change: color grows increasingly muted in the ever-transforming settings and costumes as the film progresses up to the present day of its audience, with bright reds and deep blues, both fairly saturated and vibrant in their contrast of hot and cold tones, yielding to ivories and finally pale whites. The elliptical structure of the film’s narrative never permits us to see characters effecting these changes, and the characters themselves never remark on them. As a consequence, every change seems to happen mysteriously, as if of its own accord. Just as a child may view changes in his universe as miraculously self-generating because he does not have the knowledge or experience to know how they come about, change is presented in this film as self-generating because it is a view that belongs to the narrator, Henry himself.
Like the unacknowledged changes in set design and fashions, the ellipse in Heaven Can Wait take on a mysterious quality, mysterious in the profoundest sense of something great and unknowable. Where the ultrasophisticated characters in Lubitsch’s earlier films have a firm grasp on the world, in the elusive world of Heaven Can Wait, a world beyond absolute understanding, Henry is most blessed by his innocence. Because the individual exists within this larger, impenetrable order, the examination of any individual life, however restricted in focus—and Heaven Can Wait’s is very restricted—must also be an examination of the world in which the individual lives. Henry might be an innocent, but he tells his story to an urbane devil who would be right at home in the world of Lubitsch’s thirties comedies, and, from his knowing perspective, the devil can finally make something different of Henry’s life story than Henry himself. Henry’s innocence, then, is cast within a sophisticated worldview that both echoes and enriches Lubitsch’s earlier work. While the individual life of Henry is unimportant to the course of history, by the simple act of living he takes in the whole world and the history in which he lives. Heaven Can Wait might be nothing more than the life story of a man who did not amount to much, as Lubitsch claimed, but it is also nothing less. Heaven Can Wait brilliantly maintains the exquisite balance between tragic and comic impulses, between shifting views of man as an individual and man as an element of society, that marks Lubitsch’s best work.
ABOUT THE CRITERION DVD
Video *** ½
Heaven Can Wait is presented in its original full-frame, color format.The transfer was created from a 35mm interpositive and encoded on a dual-layer DVD-9 disc.The video bit transfer rate averages 6 Mbps.As with all Technicolor films, the visuals are bright, with vibrant hues that almost leap from the screen.There are some minor emulsion fluctuations and a slight softness of the picture quality, but otherwise, there is nary a dust speck in sight and this film looks quite good for its age.
Heaven Can Wait is presented in English monaural.Dialogue is clear and never muddled without intrusive background noise.The score is by noted composer Alfred Newman and utilizes a plethora of old-time tunes.
Extras Review: A surprising amount of supplemental material rounds out this release. In typical Criterion fashion, an insert containing information about the DVD's transfers and credits starts things off. Featuring an essay by William Paul, the insert is a welcomed addition as the essay gives a good introduction to the film for those who may not be familiar with Ernst Lubitsch's work. On the disc itself, there are a variety of features showcasing 20th Century Fox's publicity campaign for the movie. The theatrical trailer is presented with its original narration by Robert Benchley, who delivers some very clever taglines for the film. Additionally, the Press Book and a Publicity Gallery are included, with still images that are selected via remote control. Neither gallery is particularly engaging, but both are fairly brief and easy enough to navigate through.
A much better supplemental feature is the conversation, Molly Haskell and Andrew Sarris (24m:41s). Videotaped for this DVD, the two critics offer many insights into the film and Lubitsch's entire career. Sarris is particularly interesting to listen to, since he attended a screening of Heaven Can Wait during its original release. Practically every element of the film is touched upon here, from Raphaelson's script to censorship to its themes, and both people are very articulate. Following that is a presentation of the PBS broadcast Creativity with Bill Moyers: A Portrait of Samson Raphaelson (29m:07s). Featuring an interview with Raphaelson, as well as clips of him teaching scriptwriting, this is a brief but informative look into the man's life. It chronicles his major career achievements and offers many of his ideas about how to write a script. If you are interesting in screenwriting, make sure to take a look at this feature.
Continuing with Raphaelson, the audio recordings of him and Richard Corliss at the Museum of Modern Art in 1977 are included as well. Corliss gives an introductory lecture (07m:44s) prior to the screening of Heaven Can Wait, but it is the conversation between Corliss and Raphaelson after the screening that is so interesting. Running just over 26 minutes, the conversation covers lots of new information on the script not repeated elsewhere. Raphaelson is full of humor as he recalls his experience with Hitchcock and others. There is also a question and answer session with the audience (18m:12s) that gives more information, although it is difficult to hear what the audience member is asking.
Rounding out the supplemental features is a tribute to Ernst Lubitsch's musical skills. Ernst Lubitsch: A Musical Collage (04m:31s) contains pictures of the man from the set and in his office as a recording of him playing different piano tunes occupies the front sound stage. It's nothing extraordinary, but the introduction to it by his daughter, Nicola, (03m:57s) is a touching addition worthy of a listen.
"As Hollywood recedes, Lubitsch's role as a creative entrepreneur and as the germ of European sophistication becomes more fascinating. Considering the way he was rebuffed by Mary Pickford on his first American film, Rosita, and so wittily mocked for his Teutonic stubbornness, it is remarkable that he achieved such eminence in Hollywood and that his reputation rested on the supposed delicacy of "touch"." - David Thomson (The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 2002)
"After joining Warner Brothers, he directed five films that firmly established his thematic interests. The films were small in scale, dealt openly with sexual and psychological relationships in and out of marriage, refrained from offering conventional moral judgments, and demystified women. As Molly Haskell and Marjorie Rosen point out, Lubitsch created complex female characters who were aggressive, unsentimental, and able to express their sexual desires without suffering the usual pains of banishment or death." - Greg S. Faller (The St. James Film Directors Encyclopedia, 1998)
"Lubitsch was always the least Germanic of German directors, as Lang was the most Germanic. The critics were always so obsessed with what Lubitsch naughtily left off the screen that they never fully evaluated what was left on... Lubitsch was the last of the genuine continentals let loose on the American continent, and we shall never see his like again because the world he celebrated had died - even before he did - everywhere except in his own memory." - Andrew Sarris (The American Cinema, 1968)
"The man with the cynical, delightful touch created an aristocratic world of yesteryear, then poked fun at it. Lubitsch could say volumes by implication and innuendo." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)
"I sometimes make pictures which are not up to my standard, but then it can only be said of a mediocrity that all his work is up to his standard." - Ernst Lubitsch
"I let the audience use their imaginations. Can I help it if they misconstrue my suggestions?" - Ernst Lubitsch
The most widely imitated comic filmmaker of the sound era, Ernst Lubitsch perfected an urbane, graceful directorial style so original and so distinctive that the phrase "Lubitsch Touch" was coined simply to describe it. Combining elegance and wit to bring a tremendous warmth and humanity to even the thinnest of screenplays, he set a new standard of achievement for the light romantic comedy, largely defining the genre while also helping to revolutionize the movie musical as well as various recording techniques.
In Hollywood’s “golden era,” most directors were considered mere worker bees, not artistes. It was the producer who took primary attribution for a movie, impresarios like Thomas Ince and Adolf Zukor, and of course the stars who claimed primary fan-mag space. Nobody went to a movie because it was directed by so-and-so … because they would be hard-pressed to name one more specifically than, er, “so-and-so.”Ernst Lubitsch was a shining early exception, and stayed one to the end of his career. The famed “Lubitsch Touch” was a catchphrase filmgoers came to associate with “Continental” wit, sophistication and sauciness unique to the director himself. He was imitated but never matched.
In 1932 Lubitsch directed his first non-musical sound comedy, Trouble in Paradise. Most critics consider this film to be, if not his best, then at least the complete embodiment of everything that has been associated with Lubitsch: sparkling dialogue, interesting plots, witty and sophisticated characters, and an air of urbanity—all part of the well-known "Lubitsch Touch." What constitutes the "Lubitsch Touch" is open to continual debate, the majority of the definitions being couched in poetic terms of idolization. Andrew Sarris comments that the "Lubitsch Touch" is a counterpoint of poignant sadness during a film's gayest moments. Leland A. Poague sees Lubitsch's style as being gracefully charming and fluid, with an "ingenious ability to suggest more than he showed. . . ." Observations like this last one earned Lubitsch the unfortunate moniker of "director of doors," since a number of his jokes relied on what unseen activity was being implied behind a closed door.
Regardless of which romantic description one chooses, the "Lubitsch Touch" can be most concretely seen as deriving from a standard narrative device of the silent film: interrupting the dramatic interchange by focusing on objects or small details that make a witty comment on or surprising revelation about the main action. Whatever the explanation, Lubitsch's style was exceptionally popular with critics and audiences alike. Ten years after arriving in the United States he had directed eighteen features, parts of two anthologies, and was recognized as one of Hollywood's top directors.
"The Lubitsch Touch" – it was as famous a monicker as Hitchcock's "Master of Suspense" – but perhaps not as superficial. The phrase does connote something light, strangely indefinable, yet nonetheless tangible, and seeing Lubitsch films – more than in almost any other director's work – one can feel this spirit; not only in the tactful and impeccably appropriate placement of camera, the subtle economy of his plotting, the oblique dialogue which had a way of saying everything through indirection, but also – and particularly – in the performance of every single player, no matter how small the role. Jack Benny told me that Lubitsch would act out in detail exactly how he wanted something done – often broadly but always succinctly – knowing, the comedian said, that he would translate the direction into his own manner and make it work. Clearly, this must have been Lubitsch's method with all his actors because everyone in a Lubitsch movie – whether it's Benny or Gary Cooper, Lombard or Kay Francis, Maurice Chevalier or Don Ameche, Jeanette MacDonald or Claudette Colbert – performs in the same unmistakable style. Despite their individual personalities – and Lubitsch never stifled these – they are imbued with the director's private view of the world, which made them behave very differently than they did in other films.
This was, in its own way, inimitable – though Lubitsch has had many imitators through the years – yet none has succeeded in capturing the soul of that attitude, which is as difficult to describe as only the best styles are, because they come from some fine inner workings of the heart and mind and not from something as apparent as, for instance, a tendency to dwell on inanimate objects as counterpoint to his characters' machinations. Certainly Lubitsch was famous for holding on a closed door while some silent or barely overheard crisis played out within, or for observing his people in dumb show through closed windows. This was surely as much a part of his style as it was an indication of his sense of delicacy and good taste, the boundless affection and respect he had for the often flighty and frivolous men and women who played out their charades for us in his glorious comedies and musicals.
Lubitsch had a terrific impact on American movies. Jean Renoir was exaggerating only slightly when he told me recently, "Lubitsch invented the modern Hollywood," for his influence was felt, and continues to be, in the work of many of even the most individualistic directors. Hitchcock has admitted as much to me and a look at Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise and Hitchcock's To Catch A Thief (both plots deal with jewel thieves so the comparisons are easy) will reveal how well he learned, though each is distinctly the work of the man who signed it. Billy Wilder, who was a writer on a couple of Lubitsch films – including the marvelous Ninotchka – has madeseveral respectful forays into the world of Lubitsch, as have many others with less noteworthy results. Even two such distinctive film makers as Frank Borzage and Otto Preminger, directing pictures which Lubitsch only produced – Desire (Borzage), A Royal Scandal and That Lady in Ermine (Preminger) – found themselves almost entirely in the service of his unique attitudes, and these movies are certainly far more memorable for those qualities than for ones usually associated with their credited directors. (Actually, Lubitsch is credited for That Lady in Ermine, but this was a sentimental gesture since he suffered a fatal heart attack and only shot eight days of it before Preminger took over.)
Lubitsch brought a maturity to the handling of sex in pictures that was not dimmed by the dimness of the censors that took over in the early Thirties, because his method was so circuitous and light that he could get away with almost anything. And that was true in everything he did. No other director, for example, has managed to let a character talk directly to the audience (as Chevalier did in The Love Parade and One Hour with You) and pull it off. There is always something coy and studied in it, but Lubitsch managed just the right balance between reality and theatricality – making the most outrageous device seem natural and easy; his movies flowed effortlessly and though his hand was felt, even seen, it was never intrusive.
After Lubitsch's funeral in 1947, his friends Billy Wilder and William Wyler were walking sadly to their car. Finally, to break the silence, Wilder said, "No more Lubitsch," and Wyler answered, "Worse than that – no more Lubitsch films." The following year, the French director?critic, Jean-Georges Auriol, wrote a loving tribute that made the same point; titled "Chez Ernst," it can be found in Herman Weinberg's affectionate collection, The Lubitsch Touch (Dutton). After comparing the director's world to an especially fine restaurant where the food was perfect and the service meticulous, the piece ends this way: "How can a child who cries at the end of the summer holidays be comforted? He can be told that another summer will come, which will be equally wonderful. But he cries even more at this, not knowing how to explain that he won't be the same child again. Certainly Lubitsch's public is as sentimental as this child; and it knows quite well that 'Ernst's' is closed on account of death. This particular restaurant will never be open again."
Even on brief acquaintance with Ernst Lubitsch’s films, one observes that his actors come to a dead stop after every line, and that a beat of silence separates each bit of dialogue from the next. The actors further emphasize the artifice by using a rise-and-fall delivery that makes every line a set-up or a summation, stylizing any hints of psychology into elements of rhythm. By contrast, directors like McCarey, LaCava or Capra try to preserve psychology, and create rhythm more between lines than within them. Compare, say, the scene in LaCava’s Bed ofRoses (1933) in which Constance Bennett impersonates a journalist in order to seduce wealthy John Halliday, and the scene in Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise (1932) in which Miriam Hopkins impersonates a secretary to gain access to the house of wealthy Kay Francis. In addition to the startling resemblance of Bennett and Hopkins in their mousy working-girl disguises--was LaCava “quoting” the Lubitsch film?--the dialogue in both scenes snaps back and forth in similar ping-pong style. But the scenes play quite differently: Bennett embroiders her charade with little bits of characterization that take her speech patterns in many directions, whereas Hopkins’ moments of concealment and unwitting revelation are confined within a narrow tonal range that emphasizes the musical aspect of the repartee.
This acting style, which occurs throughout Lubitsch’s sound films (and, in spirit at least, in the silent films as well, where actions and gestures are similarly discrete), reminds us that Lubitsch had his start in the theater. Though Lubitsch the actor eventually ascended to Max Reinhardt's theater company, the acting in his films evokes “lower” forms of comic theater: operetta of course, but also farce and vaudeville skit humor. The resemblance between the measured, often exaggerated acting style found in these comic traditions and in Lubitsch’s films points to a more interesting correspondence: Lubitsch's actors, like their theatrical counterparts, tend to establish a direct relationship with the audience, an understanding based on a shared knowing perspective on the fiction. In the most pronounced instances (such as Maurice Chevalier's characters in the thirties musicals), Lubitsch characters feel free to address the audience directly, and walk through the plot with the smiling detachment of vaudeville entertainers; they are as much narrators of as participants in the drama. One can see the same tendency, in a more restrained form, in other Lubitsch characters--like Herbert Marshall in Trouble in Paradise or Charles Boyer in Cluny Brown (1946)--who remain more or less within the boundaries of the fiction but express the same amused overview on the action that Lubitsch encourages in the audience.
Another example, from a later period of Lubitsch's career: in Heaven Can Wait (1943), Gene Tierney breaks down crying over her imminent marriage to Allyn Joslyn, and tells Don Ameche the story of her engagement. Though she goes out of her way to express her affection for her parents and her home state in the course of this story, she lets slip one phrase after another that shows her true dislike of each.
Tierney: Well, you see, I always wanted to live in New York. I don’t want to say anything against Kansas, but--life on my father’s estate...Don’t misunderstand me, we have all the modern conveniences and luxuries, but...oh, and you don’t know Father and Mother.
Ameche: Well, I’ve only just met them.
Tierney: Don’t you think they’re sweet?
Ameche: Well, yes, very sweet.
Tierney: Yes, they are. But it’s not very easy to live with them. You see, most of the time they don’t talk to one another. And whenever a young man--and there were some very nice ones...
Ameche: Oh, I’m sure of it.
Tierney: ...if one of them asked for my hand, and my mother said yes, my father said no. And when my father said yes, my mother said no. But Albert came at one of those rare moments when they were both on speaking terms. And if I hadn’t said yes, who knows when my parents might have been talking to each other again. I might have spent the rest of my life in Kansas. Don’t misunderstand me--I love Kansas. It’s just that I don’t feel like living there. Besides, I don’t want to be an old maid. Not in Kansas!
As with the scene from The Smiling Lieutenant, there are two usual approaches to such material: Tierney's hostile feelings toward family and home could slip out without her meaning to reveal them; or she could show an awareness of her emotional contradictions by acknowledging them. Instead of either approach, Tierney delivers both positive and negative feelings in identical tones of tearful confiding; she is completely untroubled at moving from one extreme to the other without transition. Tierney the actor realizes the contradictions of which Tierney's character is plainly unaware, demonstrating this by leveling her affect to heighten the contrast between content and delivery. If we look at the scenes discussed above and the three alternative acting approaches that I've suggested--the poles of unawareness and awareness, and Lubitsch's actor-aware/character-unaware strategy--it's interesting to note that, in the context of the scriptwriting, only Lubitsch's approach is obviously comic. Both the other approaches tend to illuminate the character's psychology; if we try to apply them to the scenes in question, the tone moves a notch toward drama, mitigating against big laughs. This is not to say that psychologically oriented acting can't be funny--there are almost as many counterexamples as there are comic directors--but it does suggest that Lubitsch's comic style is built into his material, and that his acting strategies work only because they are set up at the writing stage.
Perhaps Lubitsch’s only reason for drawing on the conventions of theater is the opportunity they provide him to insert his overseeing viewpoint into the fiction. His actors acquire an all-knowing aura which is nonetheless curiously life-sized: they sit in the privileged seat of the film spectator.
Samson Raphaelson's great talent was in making true love seem so much more than a boy-meets-girl plot device, while at the same time cherishing the delicate patterns and structures of that device. Music and camerawork celebrate the artifice in One Hour with You and are elaborate in design; the revelation of an affair is given in soliloquy.
They worked most often with a Hungarian play as a springboard and finished with something entirely different, save for the bare bones of the original plot. Raphaelson himself tended to dismiss "writing in the Lubitsch vein," as his theatrical and literary concerns were most important to him, but the two of them (and let us not exclude Ernest Vajda) inspired one another "past all sanity."
Exotically beautiful debutante whose Broadway and then film career was fueled and promoted through a company owned by her insurance-broker father. (He sued his daughter for breach of the family corporation in the early 1940s.) Tierney's best roles include the hauntingly beautiful faux-murder victim in the noir classic "Laura" (1944); the neurotically possessive bride in John M. Stahl's 1945 melodrama "Leave Her to Heaven" (for which she received her only Oscar nomination); Vincent Price's young bride in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's period thriller "Dragonwyck" (1946), and the serene widow in Mankiewicz's lovely romantic fantasy "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" (1947).
Divorced from designer Oleg Cassini in 1952, Tierney fell in love with Aly Khan but suffered a nervous breakdown when he left her during the filming of "The Left Hand of God" (1955). She was promptly suspended by Fox and did not return to acting until "Advise and Consent" in 1962. In 1960 Tierney had married Texas oilman W. Howard Lee, former husband of Hedy Lamarr. She penned a candid autobiography, "Self Portrait", in 1979.
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.
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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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For the uninitiated, The Pillow Book is an ideal introduction to his work, the cinematic equivalent of Peter Greenaway's Greatest Hits: visually, it repeats more than expands upon the technical innovations he developed for Prospero's Books (1991), and an elaborate revenge motif late in the film calls to mind the final banquet in The Cook, the Thief.... Longtime aficionados, on the other hand, may be a bit disappointed to find their favorite maverick in something of a holding pattern. I haven't yet seen all of Greenaway's films, but this is the first one I've seen that struck me as familiar.
As it happens, The Pillow Book is often immensely enjoyable for its own sake, even if its pleasures remain largely on the surface. Greenaway crams so much visual information into each frame -- sometimes there are as many as half a dozen tiny picture windows obscuring the primary image -- that there's a danger of sensory overload; imagine yourself standing in front of a bank of television sets in a department store, each one tuned to a different channel, and trying to follow all of them at once. "Aiggh!" is one possible reaction, and "Please can we go look at the towels now?" another; if you relax, though, and simply allow the kaleidoscopic whirlwind to wash over you, without fretting that you might "miss something" (you won't), the effect is hypnotic. So, too, is Greenaway's use of recurring images, dialogue, and music (you'll hear the sampled fanfare that precedes U2's "Daddy's Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car," for example, no fewer than three times), which transform what is really a fairly simple tale into something almost talismanic.
As always in Greenaway's work, there are moments in The Pillow Book that startle and amaze, but perhaps none so surprising as the one in which I realized that Greenaway actually expected me to care about the relationship between Nagiko and Jerome. Character, like plot, tends to be secondary in his movies, and his lack of interest is apparent in the functional-but-no-more performances he elicits from great actors like Brian Dennehy, Juliet Stevenson, Helen Mirren, and Tim Roth. (Michael Gambon, in The Cook &c., is a notable exception, as he's playing a man so outrageously despicable that the frame can barely contain him.) Vivian Wu is allegedly a huge star in her native country, but all that she's required to do here is look petulant while naked. (Occasionally, for a change of pace, she gets to look petulant while clothed.) Ewan McGregor, meanwhile, is one of the world's hottest young stars -- he's just been signed to play the lead role in the new Star Wars trilogy, fer chrissakes -- and yet the charisma and intelligence he fairly radiated in Shallow Grave and Trainspotting are nowhere in evidence in The Pillow Book, largely because his function is to look vaguely smug while naked. I found both of them intensely boring...which was fine, most of the time, because the movie is only superficially about them anyway. About two-thirds of the way through, however, Greenaway unexpectedly and uncharacteristically attempts to crank up the emotional stakes, and a couple of scenes that I imagine were supposed to be powerful and affecting came across as simply ludicrous.
Watching the films of Peter Greenaway, from "A Zed and Two Noughts" to "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover," you get the overall impression of a cold-steeled aesthete who’s incapable of sentimental feelings. As a filmmaker, Greenaway finds his passion in numbers, coincidence, stone-cold logic and a certain blindness to cruelty. He’s the grown-up version of a boy with a bee, a bottle and a razor blade. He can slice that insect into several sections -- which he will dutifully catalogue in a grimy notebook -- but it won’t occur to him that the bee is in agony. So it’s strange to see him getting positively tender in "The Pillow Book." Although this movie, about a woman’s obsession with body painting, has most of his cold, intellectual hallmarks, its central story is a relatively syrupy romance. Has Greenaway gone soft and fuzzy on us?
The images, filmed as always by cinematographer Sacha Vierny, are painterly and supple. Befitting the theme (something between "You are what you write" and "I can read you like a book"), there are shots layered within shots; and elegantly inscribed words are superimposed on the screen, so that text and image become one.
But the story, which includes a prolonged display of McGregor’s no-longer private parts, is simplistic and banal rather than exacting and mannered. And when Greenaway attempts to express the love between Nagiko and Jerome in an extended, visually multilayered musical sequence, the effect is cloyingly empty. Greenaway, whose mind is one of the most impressive, complicated organs that ever sat on the shoulders of a filmmaker, seems to be playing connect the dots to himself, almost dumbing himself down to be commercial. "The Pillow Book" finds the British director both unlike himself and too much like himself. It’s the kind of bizarre conundrum Greenaway would have delighted in, if it weren’t at his expense.
In his new movie The Pillow Book, Peter Greenaway cites the two reliable pleasures in life: "the pleasures of the flesh, and the pleasures of literature." And so they are--everywhere but in Greenaway's films. In The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, Greenaway viewed human sexuality with all the fondness and fervor of a clap specialist. In Prospero's Books, when he wasn't taking a leaf blower to the pages of The Tempest, he mangled the text with pissing cherubs, prancing nudes, and superimpositions of feet. Only a masochist would suffer this kind of pleasure.
Greenaway has always had a striking graphic sense: His 1982 debut, The Draughtsman's Contract, a sort of 17th-century Blow-Up, made novel use of fixed frames. Since then he's tried to expand the visual possibilities of the screen by piling on smaller screens and plastering text over images. Sometimes the technique conveys the idea of montage as images in conflict--one picture may linger over subsequent events in a postcard-sized box onscreen. Sometimes it just looks like Windows 95. Both are true of The Pillow Book, which is spectacular and silly in equal measures. Graphically, the movie is often stunning, as when a solarized jet and a woman's silhouette blur into ideograms. Other times it's just laughably literal-minded. If someone mentions a child eating strawberries, then, by God, Greenaway's going to flash you a child eating strawberries.
But he still can't create believable emotions or people. Greenaway's characters may work fine as painting surfaces, but they have no interior life or independence that would arouse passion, and the director practically handles their couplings with tongs. Even the lurid revenge story becomes abstract and tedious--it's like a James M. Cain potboiler adapted for shadow puppets. Greenaway folds and shapes the screen in intriguing ways, but this whole exercise in cinematic origami is so airless and fussy that when it ended, I was left wondering exactly what he thinks the pleasures of the flesh and literature are.
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.
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.
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.
As one of the leading visual stylists in the world today, Greenaway infuses his work with maddeningly rich designs and set-pieces. Everything is related to everything else on screen, and this time out, more so than ever before, and more thrillingly to boot. In fact, as ambitious as The Pillow Book is, Greenaway has redefined the configuration of the screen entirely. Frequently, the director will have up to five different images running at once, although never in a format as banal as DePalma-style split-screen. Instead, he records several camera angles of the same shot and relegates them to the four corners of the movie screen, leaving the middle wide open for the master shot. On top of that (or below that, actually), run an unending series of subtitles, song lyrics, and other texts... Against all odds, it works, magically, transcendentally, perfectly. It's the shock of the new, once more, with feeling.
Greenaway has found a lush topic for his exotic sensibilities. The Pillow Book is an exquisite work of art--one nearly unsurpassed in the history of cinema. This film is "art" in the truest sense of the word. Greenaway has constructed a dense, multilayered moving canvas. By weaving together text and image, by piling image upon image, frame upon frame, he has created the first truly multimedia motion picture. In some scenes, slides are projected upon the actors, the sets. In others, Greenaway creates an eyeboggling split-screen--editing two, sometimes three or four, moving images on the screen at the same time. Some sequences are shot in glowing black and white like some delicate silver gelatin print. Others are done up in a rich sepia tone--from luminous saffron to deep indigo. What initially seems like an experimental work, slowly coalesces into an steady rhythm of image, text, word and action.
The subject of The Pillow Bookis, of course, ripe for visual fetishization. While most of Greenaway's previous works retain a certain creepy edge throughout, The Pillow Book allows itself plenty of long, sensual passages without a hint of darkness. The Asian world has a long history of erotic literature, and Greenaway has created some heady sexual vistas that match the history of sex and sentence. Actress Vivian Wu (The Last Emperor, The Joy Luck Club) is delicious as Nagiko, inhabiting her role like ... well, a second skin. Ewan McGregor comes off less well, mumbling his lines like an embarrassed soap star. McGregor is normally a magnetic actor, but he seems too far out of his element here. Still, he's a fine-looking lad, and there are plenty of glimpses of his dangling participle, if you're into such things.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Pillow Book depicts a world- Japan, Hong Kong - where the East/West clash has been radically transformed, in which notions of exoticism, center, fringe and modernity have lost their reassuring clarity. The camera no longer poses the question of "the Other" when it presents relationships between East and West; it explores a melange of worlds inflected by Greenaway in every form. This is his way of describing - by filming - and conceptualizing - by engendering - a mestizo phenomenon that is normally so difficult to grasp. The results are unsettling, but perhaps that is the very mark of mestizo processes. Is The Pillow Book a Japanese-style European movie or a parodic pastiche? Is Greenaway seeking to render Japan exotic, or has he allowed himself to be absorbed by Asia? His vision is clearly "under the influence" - but is it English or Japanese? Mestizo processes do not permit unambiguous answers. Although Greenaway draws his imagery from the distant tenth-century roots of a non-Western society, there is nothing archaeological about his relationship to Japan's past - it immediately appears in the form of appropriation and re-creation.
Greenaway employed various techniques to achieve this end. He selected and combined three distinct screens: a CinemaScope format, in color, when relating Nagiko's life in Tokyo (the camera is placed at ground level, as in Ozu's films); a smaller screen that recounts - in black and white - Nagiko's earlier life and subsequent end; and finally, even smaller incrusted images of highly refined color, which illustrate passages from Sei Shonagon's original Pillow Book like so many animated miniatures from that distant period. Instead of melding into the primary image, these precious scenes exist alongside it; the interconnections produce a series of visual effects that transfigure the action. This juxtaposition of periods sheds light on and validates Nagiko's plans, while the refined colors of the past underscore or counteract the grayness of modernity.
In a different manner, though to similar ends, Greenaway's film appropriated the art of calligraphy to create a visual universe that is constantly reinvigorated through new languages and alphabets. Writing systems and languages - of which there are nearly twenty - intertwine. Calligraphy abandons its purely decorative dimension, lending body to the space through which the characters move. The ornamental sidetracking frees the screen for borrowings of all kinds - the actors' bodies are inscribed with ancient Roman characters, Chinese ideograms, Indian and Islamic learning. The singular relationship between text and image established by Greenaway provides a framework for global mestizo phenomena whose components never lose their own singularity.
- Serge Gruzinski, Deke Dusinberre. The Mestizo Mind. Published by Routledge, 2002. Pages 81-82
Adding an extra visual layer to the action portrayed on the main screen, Greenaway's views within views draw attention to the filmic surface, to the film as skin, and to the flattening effects of representation. Throughout The Pillow Book Greenaway stresses surfaces, drawing our attention to the skin of bodies, the pages of books, and the bed-sheets that Nagiko's maid is constantly changing and that Nagiko and Jerome use to print their body-writing. At many points throughout The Pillow Book, Greenaway deliberately arranges the surface composition and texture of the film to resemble Japanese prints and poetry from the Edo period, as we see images through a screen of calligraphy on decorated paper. Even the small inset screens are positioned in a way that is reminiscent of the seals placed on many prints. It is this tendency to embroider, embellish, and layer, albeit in a relatively sparse Japanese style in the case of The Pillow Book, that has tended to alienate those critics who define depth in terms of psychological identification. The charge that Greenaway's movies are emotionally cold or empty, despite their rich surfaces, can be illuminated by placing it in the context of debates that go back to the late nineteenth century concerning the relative merits of form versus content and decoration versus function. Emerging in a particularly lively form around the Wester reception of Japanese art, such debates are worth briefly revisiting.
In The Pillow Book, Greenaway addresses the dnager associated with the marked body. The painted body can be a site of desire, but the body marked with permanent ink is even more desirable; the female creator of this human tattoo discovers how one reader's or publisher's desire to read the text results in a n obsession to contain and possess the text. The publisher violates the textual body and transforms and mutilates the human body into a different kind of tattooed book consisting of individual pages of skin. However, one crime of passion - the theft and mutilation of this human text - is countered by another crime of passion: the eventual murder of the publisher. Thus, The Pillow Book articulates the message present in many other tattoo narratives - art is desirable but dangerous.
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.
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.
LCYou’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.
PGI 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?
PGThere 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.
LCThere 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.
LCFor 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.
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.”
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."
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.
"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.
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.
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.
Greenaway gives his films structure through cataloguing and enumeration. And so, following his example:
Six Reasons Why I Hate Peter Greenaway's Movies and One Reason Why I Like Them
Reason 1: I hate the fact that his movies have a reputation as erotica...
Reason 2: I hate Greenaway's movies because of the way he degrades his actors...
Reason 3: I hate Greenaway's films because his work isn't as innovative as most of his fans think...
Reason 4: I hate his films because they're missed opportunities to illuminate interesting parts of history...
Reason 5: I hate Greenaway's films because of his conviction that movies are lagging behind fine art...
Reason 6: It's always the same damned thing every time in his movies, no matter how thinly disguised with a few symbols.Always, always the same story: Humanity is just rotting meat with pretensions, but we know how to produce that precious commodity, Art. Unfortunately, this commodity is soon taken from the artist by wealthy, powerful filth. As revenge for their lack of talent, the powerful figures blind, bugger, rape, gut or skin the artist.
Greenaway's main theme is nothing more than an art student's tirade stretched into a two-decade-long career...
But: I like Greenaway because he's an obsessed grade-A eccentric who obviously doesn't care what anyone else thinks.
The deliberate perversity of Greenaway's films is a strong contrast to cinema that aims to please and gross big. How does he survive? The world lost a great grant writer when Greenaway turned filmmaker. The Pillow Book, like Prospero's Books, sports the multimedia gimmicks that impress the dress-in-black crowd: calligraphied captions, insets and supratext. It's not so much a film as it is a big-screen CD-ROM.
Somewhere inside Greenaway is a director who wants to craft a hit at war with a voice that keeps asking, "Who wouldn't want to see a 10-minute-long gang rape?" And for this kind of wild misunderstanding of the popular audience, I salute him; he may be revolting, but at least he's not a sellout.
- 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).
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.
A fairly simple break-up story told through a dizzyingly baroque narrative flashing back and forth, Bad Timing is a buzzing paradox, revealing Nicolas Roeg at his most controlled and most unhinged; this study of a relationship on life support is both coldly clinical and emotionally raw, sometimes in the same scene. Roeg slices and shuffles his film like a puzzle, putting the viewer in an obsessive mystery-solving mode not unlike that of Art Garfunkel's psychoanalyst researcher Alex as he tries to impose order on Milena, a wild-eyed, beautifully impulsive Theresa Russell. The two have next to no romantic chemistry, which is just as well since the film aims to be the ultimate depiction of breaking up in all its brutal truth. It's obvious that the two have next to no business being together: Russell as a wolverine of an aimless twentysomething wishing for unbound adulthood but who falls apart without a steady paternal presence; Garfunkel (impressively understated) as a intellectual whose attempts to convey rational authority give way to smugness and acts of male insecurity. But the leads give in fully to the frustrations of their characters, making their frequent miscommunication painfully compelling, especially in the erotic charge to their desperate attempts to connect.
The eroticism of disconnection is also scored brilliantly through Roeg's associative editing: Garfunkel's raising of a cigarette in one shot recalls a similar moment in another (him catching Russell lighting up with another man) and whose emotional subtext (jealousy, insecurity) loops back to the first. The piece de resistance is one of the most unromantic yet cinematically sexy love scenes ever filmed, cutting between Alex and Milena's emphatic fornicating and a comatose Milena undergoing a bloody tracheotomy on an operating table. She's is a numb body being vivisected, not unlike like her dead-end relationship under the surgical scalpel of Roeg's editing.
Bad Timing is as obsessed with sex as Don't Look Now was with death, substituting the moody gothicism of Don't Look Now's Venice with a Vienna that evokes a Freudian commingling of civilized living and ominous sensuality. In both cases, the strenuous leaping to and fro of the narrative leads to a stark naked moment of confrontation where one's dark dreams erupt into full enactment: in the case of Bad Timing, a climactic rape scene of unapologetic frankness, ugly, brutal, and heartbreaking.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?
The following citations were counted towards the placement of Bad Timing on They Shoot Pictures list of 1000 Greatest Films:
Dominik Graf, Steadycam (2007)
Frank Arnold, Steadycam (2007)
Lee Hill, Miscellaneous (2004)
Simon Ward, Independent Cinema Office (2005)
David Thomson, Have You Seen...? A Personal Introduction to 1000 Films (2008)
Sight & Sound, Fistful of Five: Amour Fou (2006)
Wonderful Bad Timingphoto essay from Rotating Corpse that showcases Theresa Russell's many looks and the often exquisite compositions.
Nicolas Roeg's Cuisinart cutting strains to create the impression of meaning in this rather dishonest 1980 thriller about a Freudian psychiatrist's destructive involvement with a mystery woman. Apparently the decision to jumble the time scheme was made after shooting was completed, which may explain the mysteriously misplaced emphases in the playing, yet the film's real problem is Roeg's willingness to sacrifice the logic of situation and character to facile shock effects. In his way he isn't much different from the director of Friday the 13th.
When a film is structured like a puzzle, qualities that are merely bewildering can be made to seem mysterious, if only for a while. Nicolas Roeg, who habitually structures his films this way, has again relied on jumbled time sequences, allusive cutting and a wealth of similar techniques to give ''Bad Timing/A Sensual Obsession'' its suggestive, secretive air. But ''Bad Timing,'' unlike Mr. Roeg's ''Performance,'' ''Walkabout,'' ''Don't Look Now'' and ''The Man Who Fell to Earth,'' has a ponderous, trumped-up feeling. It lacks the shimmer of Mr. Roeg's best work. And it manages to seem both weighty and insubstantial.
The problems of ''Bad Timing'' can be traced, in part, to a screenplay that ascribes equal importance to all the incidentals of the love affair; they also stem from Mr. Roeg's confidence in the shaky proposition that these two characters hold a fascination for his audience. Dr. Alex Linden, played by Mr. Garfunkel, and Milena Flaherty, played by Miss Russell, are too often an unremarkable team. Alex, a celebrated professor of psychology, encounters Milena at a party, where she looks drunk and behaves brazenly; this is virtually her constant condition during the course of the film. ''If we're going to meet, it might as well be now,'' she says, blocking the doctor's exit with her leg. ''Why spoil the mystery?'' asks he. With that, they are off and running.
The struggle between Alex and Milena has to do with her desire for secrecy and his desire to know her, and with the contrast between her wantonness and his reserve. As the film begins, Milena has attempted suicide, which would suggest that their effort to bridge their differences has been unsuccessful. (If the suicide attempt doesn't do that, it at least gives Mr. Roeg occasion to cut repeatedly to the operating table, where Milena undergoes a grisly tracheotomy, and to juxtapose her cries of ecstasy with gasps from the operating room.) However, the events that lead her to such a desperate measure have no discernible momentum. The film is so jumbled it lacks a steady rhythm, and the story offers few clear highs or lows.
Mr. Garfunkel does a very creditable job of conveying Alex's reserve, but there is little in his performance to suggest a man in the grip of an obsession. And Miss Russell, who has also made memorable appearances in ''Straight Time'' and ''The Last Tycoon,'' brings to her role a reckless physicality that is both overwhelming and overused. Miss Russell makes gestures that involve her whole body, gestures that are almost frighteningly carefree; she is also capable of making almost any kind of behavior seem lewd. Her performance is hugely effective for a while, but Mr. Roeg allows her to repeat herself, and eventually monotony sets in. She and Mr. Garfunkel are given ample opportunity to connect, but they never manage this. Even in its moments of greatest urgency, their affair remains lukewarm.
Mr. Roeg goes to great lengths to make ''Bad Timing'' as exotic as he can. In a typically strained flourish, Alex and Milena are transported to Morocco, a transition Mr. Roeg accomplishes by letting sand pour out of a hollowed-out stone in Vienna, then cutting to the desert. And Alex is driven to commit a crime of passion, which is meant to be shocking, but hardly seems disturbing at all. The crime is uncovered by a detective, played by Harvey Keitel, whose movements are carefully integrated with Alex's, as if to establish a parallel, a duet, a duel. Like too many aspects of ''Bad Timing,'' this point is elaborately detailed, repeated frequently, and barely of any interest at all.
Bad Timing (1980) is one of Nicolas Roeg's least seen films. The studio, Rank, hated it, publicly disowned it and briefly banned it from its own cinemas. This is particularly unfortunate, since it is a pivotal film in Roeg's career. The experiments in non-chronological storytelling that stretch back to Performance (co-d. Donald Cammell, 1970) blossom here in a film which is, on first viewing, difficult to follow, but is ultimately extraordinarily insightful and moving in its painfully close examination of a destructive love affair.
Abandoning chronology, Roeg jumps around, taking cues from objects, pieces of music, habitual gestures and various artworks, all of which link one moment in time to another. This makes the film a little disjointed at first, but also gives the relationship more of a sensory impact, as we go from highs to lows with little warning. The explicit sex, a Roeg commonplace since Performance, is interesting here for how un-erotic it is. There is a disgust throughout, about sex and about the human body, frequently distorted in mirrors, glass and paintings - the key moment being the intercutting of a bloody operation on Milena's throat with a particularly passionate sexual encounter.
The film marks the third collaboration between Roeg and Anthony Richmond, and the cinematography of Vienna is suitably cold and oppressive, which contrasts well with the brief excursion to Morocco. Tony Lawson's editing is exemplary, fracturing the narrative without rendering the film incoherent. Also noteworthy is the soundtrack, which mixes Pachelbel, The Who, Billie Holiday and, most memorably, Tom Waits, whose poignant 'Invitation To The Blues' sets the perfect tone.
Bad Timing is a clear example of a film way ahead of its time. What seemed obscure in 1980 is now crystal clear, and we follow Roeg's non-linear cutting patterns without the slightest confusion... The boundaries of normal flashbacks are clearly marked, allowing no confusion between the past and present. Roeg doesn't use flashbacks in the normal sense, but adapts film grammar to express a flowing state of consciousness. Past events become alive as we recall them. Colors, actions and dialogues trigger specific memories. Through the clarity and richness of Roeg's vision, they take on patterns that encourage meaningful interpretation. Artworks, music and objects are woven into the memory-fabric. Roeg 'encourages' some of these patterns to comment on the neurotic love relationship of Alex and Milena - the Kilmt paintings, for example, that center on brooding, intertwined lovers. At other times our attention is drawn to details given compositional stress, such as the pattern in a bed spread next to Linden's conflicted face. How many of our memories of important places and events are inexplicably dominated by images of unimportant details like wallpaper patterns, or cracks in a tile floor?
The density of Roeg's visuals enables reality to be eclipsed by an ever-changing set of visual interpretations. Alex Linden looks at a room, which pops back in forth between tidy and messy states, with and without Milena's drugged body as part of the decor. In his jealous delirium, a glimpse of her face will trigger memories of earlier moments - enigmatic smiles, provocative pouting. Netusil finds some photographs lying on a table, and comes up with another incorrect interpretation to add to Linden's own. Also, entire scenes are warped by a character's subjectivity. Linden confronts Milena in a college corridor, and her close-ups alter radically to match his inner turmoil - the focus becomes shallow, the background diffused.
Roeg also elects to change subjective viewpoints when he shows Milena's back story with her sad Czechoslovakian husband Stefan Vognic (Denholm Elliott). Lest we think her a helpless victim in this psychosexual drama, we see Milena toying with Stefan's affections. She pretends to be concerned, when she's actually amused by her ability to walk away from a man so hopelessly in love with her. Milena cherishes her sexual freedom, whereas Alex is rooted in the need to possess her, to make her exclusively his. Alex doesn't realize that he already 'has' Milena as much as she can be 'had', and it's his damning flaw (shared by most men) that he wants excusive rights. The conventional Alex is obsessed with Milena and can't stand the thought of her being with someone else, an attitude that naturally drives her into the arms of others. The movie is less about bad timing then it is about bad sexual chemistry. During a trip to French Morocco the lovers are in total harmony. She's ready to see their relationship go on forever, just as it is. But he wants to hurry to a position of control - a bill of sale in the form of marriage. Milena accuses Alex of being greedy in love, of demanding too much. Her continual question is, "What do you want?"
Art Garfunkel's poised inexpressiveness is perfectly suited to an intellectual accustomed to hiding his feelings to the point where he's not sure he still has any. Theresa Russell's performance is outstanding and as brave as can be imagined - one can picture a thousand actresses terrified by her ability to be truly uninhibited. Harvey Keitel would seem to be a terrible choice for an Austrian policeman. He underplays the role so thoroughly, we accept him without question.
Bad Timing is perhaps the culmination of the 70s idea of a director's picture. Ex-cameraman Roeg expresses more with his camera and cutting than any dialogue script could - the characters' attempts to use words to psychoanalyze each another repeatedly fail. Inspector Netusil bears down with a rational approach to the truth, like a Monk who has never seen a manifestation of God but knows his lot in life is to keep searching. Roeg and his cameraman Anthony Richmond get the maximum from their images. The visually precise Bad Timing outpaces even Roeg's earlier 'masterpieces' The Man Who Fell to Earth, Don't Look Now and Walkabout.
Nicolas Roeg's Bad Timing is one of the most harrowing looks at human relationships ever told as a movie. In terms of sheer emotion and fortitude it ranks with Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage as a marvelous portrait of male-female relations, but it is far more cinematic than Bergman's film. The claustrophobic, hermetically sealed cinematography and performances are so strong, and the subject matter so compelling that the film will remain with you long after it finishes.
Art Garfunkel and Theresa Russell are stunning in the lead roles. Garfunkel is utterly convincing as Alex. He captures well the intellectual prowess of a psychologist and the primitive desire of men; the controlled aggression of Alex towards Milena is quietly portrayed in Garfunkel's performance. Russell is even more impressive, however, being utterly captivating every moment she's on screen. Her performance is filled with remarkable courage, but not merely because Russell is willing to display her body with tremendous candor. The strength in her portrayal of Milena comes from her willingness to play the emotional dichotomy of the character. Denholm Elliott and Harvey Keitel are also effective in their roles, though they receive little room to develop their characters. In terms of the narrative's focus on the disastrous relationship, the underdevelopment of the supporting characters is understandable. However, part of me wishes that Keitel's Inspector Netusil received more attention in order to make the final scenes stronger.
Bad Timing is another excellent study in human nature from Roeg. His unique visuals and storytelling style never feel forced, but aid the themes of the film. Indeed, the cinematography and production design are uncomfortable, but they reflect the events on the screen. This is not a picture interested in utilizing Vienna's beautiful scenery to achieve visceral effects; rather, Roeg and his crew prefer to externalize their characters through the film's look and sound. The music is an eclectic mix of classical music and pop songs of the 1970s, but it almost always strikes the underlying purpose of a scene.
Some viewers may be turned off by the emotionally exhausting experience of viewing this movie, while others will see it as a rewarding experience chronicling human flaws. I belong to the latter group, having been stirred by Roeg's film in a manner similar to Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris. If you are willing to commit yourself to these characters, you'll find they provide a fountain if insight.
For me, Bad Timing, Roeg’s tale of erotic obsession starring Art Garfunkel and his wife, the actress Theresa Russell, has always been less of an unqualified success... Screenwriter Yale Udoff said that he wanted the film to be “Antonioni with humor,” but Roeg’s finished piece is not funny at all. It’s queasily disorienting, a film that feels like a hangover in which the good times are only hazily remembered.
Seen, however, 25 years after its release and in comparison to Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, which also invoked the Vienna of Sigmund Freud (that movie was based on Arthur Schnitzler’s Vienna-set novel Traumnovelle), Bad Timing seems the more truthful take on sexual obsession and the question of how much we can ever really know about a partner in a relationship.
To hide the fact that this is all much ado about nothing (well, very little), Roeg cuts the film together so it's impossible to figure out what's going on until midway through the film. (Once you get there, you shrug -- "That's it?" -- and most viewers will tune out.) He also saddles the movie with subplots and side stories that never pay off: Milena is still married and her estranged husband (Denholm Elliott, the classiest thing in this movie) pops up from time to time. Milena is also under investigation by the American military, and Alex is called in to evaluate her file. Neither of these plots amount to anything. In fact, the whole government investigation thing is all but dropped midway through the movie.
Roeg was probably right to try to salvage the film this way, attempting to create a mystery with few other options left to him. But given his two leads, there's really nowhere special he could have gone. Russell is indistinguishable here than in nearly any other movie she's made, and Garfunkel, a bad actor of epic proportions, is impossible to believe as the lover of such a brazen hussy. Even Keitel overdoes it: It's impossible to believe he'd spend so much time trying to reconstruct this case (which ultimately turns out to be a question of rape), when the victim will be up and around in a few days to simply tell him what happened. Do cops in Austria have this much free time?
Roeg gives the film a unique look, and the snappy cutting at least gives it some energy. Less can be said for his penchant to suddenly zoom in on random objects in the frame (an out of focus lamp?), but as an example of what was both good and bad in 1980s filmmaking, Bad Timing is at least instructive.
I didn't enjoy watching Bad Timing. It is, indeed, a sick film, sick to the core (though made by nonsick people for nonsick people, despite the famous quote). Its sickness will invade you as you watch it. If you've had a bad breakup, been a bad man or woman, or ever been with one, this film will open up old wounds and pour cheap liquor into them. It is voyeuristic, yet seems so personal that it makes you feel narcissistic. Even if you personally would never throw a mentally ill woman down onto the stairs and ravish her in front of her neighbors, Bad Timing makes you feel like you might. Top that uncomfortable dose of perceptive insight with an overly convoluted narrative and visual style, mix in a healthy dose of padding—Bad Timing becomes one bitter pill.
With that nastiness out of the way, let's step back a second and evaluate this thing clinically. Bad Timing is exceptionally multilayered; you could literally write volumes on the themes within its deeply nested plot. It is helmed by a great, if unfairly marginalized, director. Bad Timing is honest, gritty, and dense, with intense visual imagery. If you can get past the unwholesome core and irritating trappings, Bad Timing offers a challenging artistic experience.
In Bad Timing, Roeg elevates Walkabout's creepy Agutter riff into an in-your-face refrain. It is intentionally voyeuristic, intensely intimate, and highly creepy. Perhaps films should be judged solely on their own merit and not in comparison to similar works. Nonetheless, the temptation to compare Bad Timing to Walkabout is hard to ignore. Both films had intense sexual politics set within forbidding social environments. Both films highlighted voyeurism and victims. But Walkabout featured innocent victims who did not choose their circumstances. Bad Timing has the same undercurrents, but with consenting adults who are free to take different paths. If you took Kramer vs. Kramer's sunny interpersonal banter, then mixed in some psychological rape and the bunny from Fatal Attraction, you'd be close to the feeling you'll get from Bad Timing.
Despite Roeg's best attempts to keep us off guard, Bad Timing wears itself out by the middle act, which seems to go on forever. We're long past the point where we "get" Alex and Milena's interpersonal dynamic. Nonetheless, we must suffer through Alex's tedious path of clinical discovery, a side trip to Africa, several breakups and get-back-togethers, and exhaustive police questioning before the twist-riddled denouement arrives. It all piles on top of itself to make Bad Timing a draining journey..
Roeg graces these scenes with powerful visual style. Bad Timing is carefully rendered throughout, telling us what undercurrents are present simply through lighting and set decor. The interplay between characters and environment is nuanced and complex. It should come as no surprise that Criterion's transfer flawlessly captures this style. The famous 1970s film stock degradation, if it even exists in this 1980 print, has been erased. Colors are muted but saturated well, with deeper black levels than I expected. The detail is passed through without molestation. There are some strange blurred effects in the last few reels, and I cannot tell if these are intentional or not.
If something in the scheme of things has put them down for each other, then something else might equally have kept them apart—something called chance. As Roeg has said of their initial encounter at the party: “If he had left a little earlier or a little later—it’s just bad timing.” There are so many ambivalences in the scheme of things—so much shifting between the operations of hazard, choice, and predestination—and the dazzling, fragmented style of the film is designed to catch this play.
There’s play as well around the concept of “bad timing,” when it ceases to signal a romantic collision and becomes a matter of police investigation. A problem emerges—it becomes the framing drama for the story of the love affair itself—about Alex’s own timing, what he did and when, on the night that marked the convulsive end of their affair, when Milena was rushed to the hospital in a coma, from a drug overdose. This triggers the intervention of police inspector Netusil (Harvey Keitel), who is the third point in what becomes an unusual triangular relationship, as well as the man who owns a ball-in-a-maze puzzle to match Alex’s. There is a case to be solved here, but like the impasse that confounds Alex and Milena, Netusil also has his own identity puzzle to solve. In part, this is a doppelgänger story, but an incomplete one. The detective sees himself in the psychiatrist, but imperfectly reflected: the two men dress alike, but Netusil’s suit is, as Roeg puts it, “off the peg”; the policeman has a diploma from Harvard, but it’s for athletics. Netusil’s struggle—to better, to transform himself—seems almost to be a physical one, whereas Alex works only through mind games.
Roeg plays on the similarities between the two men in dress and mannerism, and in their disdain for the messiness of Milena’s life. But they have arrived at different points in life; at that moment they are, as Roeg puts it, “on opposite sides of the mirror.” For Netusil, “his demon was leading him somewhere else. I don’t know where he’d go, but I know he was in a lot of pain in the end, Inspector Netusil.” The name itself is a key. Roeg tells how it came from a visit to a painter friend, in the Ariadne Gallery, in Vienna. The owner of the gallery was Frederick Netusil, a Czech name. “He said, ‘Do you know what it means? It means “the man who didn’t know something.”’ And he laughed—that’s why he’s a gallery owner, because he doesn’t know about painting. I said, My inspector must be Inspector Netusil.”
Roeg’s achievement, through the seventies and eighties, was to construct a form that might not have approached Greed in physical length but whose glittering piecemeal construction was another way to create this density of suggestion. Many critics who only noticed the glitter accused Roeg of being merely a glorified cameraman, dressing up the job he had previously carried out for other directors. But photography is no more important in this scheme than editing and production design. The turn-of-the-century Viennese art world is part of the emotional texture of Bad Timing, the contrast between the romantic shimmer of Gustav Klimt and the psychological darkness of Egon Schiele.
Udoff has talked about how his and Roeg’s conceptions of the project did differ slightly in one respect. According to Udoff, some humor was lost. “I wanted to be the Antonioni with humor,” but Roeg’s drive was to make it more intense. “There was always a push to make Garfunkel really a heavy, to make him unbearable. As the script evolved, I got the feeling that Nic thought of himself as the Theresa Russell character, and I was, in his eyes, the Garfunkel character. Nic is always being pursued by the studios, by people with scripts, just as, in Garfunkel’s mind, Theresa is being pursued by all these people. And I think he felt, in a way, in his own career as a director, a fear of being devoured by people who want him to do their work rather than his work. That was, in a sense, what he saw in the Theresa Russell character. It’s in how he directed her.”
The tragic reality of Alex and Milena’s affair is beautifully hinted at in the opening scene. As Tom Waits sings ‘An Invitation to the Blues’ (’She’s a moving violation from her conk down to her toes…’) on the soundtrack, Milena stands in a gallery, studying Klimt’s painting, The Kiss. At first, the artwork appears to be a study of an amorous clinch. But closer inspection reveals a chilling undercurrent: the man in the painting is passionately kissing the woman but his lover’s cheek is slightly turned, a disengaged gaze in her eyes. Klimt captures this fleeting moment forever. And in that suspended beat, the couple have never been further apart.
Like Klimt, Roeg is fascinated by these momentary incidentals. In his films, the edge of the frame, the split second is where the truth is hidden, or briefly held. This can be nothing more than a humorous aside: as in the scene where Alex meets with a tea-drinking diplomat to discuss the legalities of divorce in a foreign land. Roeg’s camera glimpses a bowl of heart-shaped sugar cubes: a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cry for sweet love perhaps. But Roeg also uses these flashes for unsettling purposes. And he does so with devastating effect early on in Bad Timing.
Alex is stood talking to a nurse in the hospital corridor, while a team of surgeons try to revive Milena. Netusil is led by the night duty officer past Alex. The two characters have not yet been introduced: they are strangers. Alex briefly looks up at Netusil and in that fraction, Netusil winks directly at him. It is nothing but, at the same time, everything. A link is made between the two: they are now somehow complicit in the events about to unfold. It is random, dazzling and confrontational. Just like the film.
A corresponding sense of pressure-leading-to-fracture informs Roeg's visuals. At first it looks in Bad Timing as if Roeg has gone for baroque, or, more accurately, for art nouveau. A Gustav Klimt portrait of a woman, her softly outlined head emerging from a razzle – dazzle mosaic representing the sitter's dress, looms over the art gallery interior where Garfunkel and Russell meet. And it's not the film's last nod to that fin de siècle Austrian artist. Klimt was a painter who broke up the classical contours of oil painting into rainbow – hued fragments. In much the same way, Roeg has splintered and rearranged the linearity of orthodox movie storytelling.
If Klimt is a taking – off point for the film's style, the paintings of his pupil Egon Schiele add force and meaning to its content. Schiele's swirling expressionist couples, bound in a morbid frenzy of lovemaking, were an offspring of art nouveau, and it is no accident that Schiele's work is constantly glimpsed in the background of Roeg's Vienna-set meditation on love and death.
The film's eye-blink editing and sudden juxtapositions create a running concatenation between Eros and Thanatos: Scenes of lovemaking between Garfunkel and Russell cut (in flash-forward) to scenes of Russell lying on the hospital operating table after her suicide attempt. And throughout the movie, structure is dictated less by the demands of linear chronology than by the polar attraction of opposite themes.
Furthermore, where Garfunkel and Russell are set against each other in the film, Garfunkel and Keitel – two observer-investigators – grow mysteriously together during the film as hero and doppelgänger, ghostly comrades. "One of the basic ideas of the film," says Roeg, "is observing, spying. In the scene where he lectures a university class, Garfunkel talks about the voyeur impulse. And he himself, an analyst, is a spy of sorts. Everybody watches everybody. That's what we all do – not least film audiences. There's a voyeuristic appetite for detachment, for the vicarious, that's a key part of people's personalities. "
Roeg adds, "Keitel and Garfunkel in the film are really aspects of the same character. Keitel's a kind of alter ego. They're both watchers and analysts – men who want everything to be tidy, obedient, pliant to their wills."
This theme of moral manipulation runs right through Bad Timing. Allied to the film's recurring voyeur motif and to Roeg's use of erotic angles in the love scenes – the camera shooting over thighs or between legs – it virtually invites us to see an analogy with cinema itself, and perhaps with Roeg's own cinema in particular. More than any living director, Roeg makes an audience feel that his film is not so much taking place on a flat screen, in finite space and time, as exploding multidimensionally around them.
Roeg pursues this multidimensionalism right from the beginning of his planning on a film. I asked him if he story-boarded or meticulously prepared his films. He replied, "No, no, no, no. Not meticulously in that way. I like to get who the people are safely in my head, what their problems or their happiness or their sadness is from. After that, I like to keep a certain plasticity about them. Otherwise, they're no longer living. I like to keep them living right up to the time the print comes out of the lab."
To conclusively detail all this film’s stylistic quirks would be impossible in anything less than novella form. As previously stated, flashbacks are integral to the film’s construction, and come in many forms: as quick two-or-three frame intercuts, as flashbacks within flashbacks and even flashforwards within flashbacks. At one point Alex brutally reprimands Milena and then his mood abruptly changes...and we realize we’re watching the moments preceding the outburst we’ve just witnessed. Disorientation seems to be Roeg’s overriding goal. Note his preference for jarring music cues, in particular the song that plays over the opening shot: a view of a museum painting whose serene mood is broken by Tom Waits at most gravelly. Waits’ voice is in turn cut off by the even more discordant tones of a siren...a perfect lead-in, it turns out, to a singularly bleak story.
"The ground that makes me nervous in Bad Timing," says Roeg, "the thought that makes me tremble, is that I don't want to see in this love affair that sentimental middle area that I think we all know. It's a real, very painful love affair. When one's in love, the moments of lyrical love are to me implicit in people's behavior. It's actually something in that other, public manner that makes you understand that they have those moments of lyrical love.
"I remember when I'd finished Don't Look Now, I was cutting it and looking at it. There's a love scene between Julie and Donald – it's only an interlude – and I wanted to see what I was doing with that scene, whether the intention was right. So I tried taking it out. Now, in that film the emphasis is on a state of mind; things aren't necessarily what they seem in life. Without that love scene, you never see them get happy together; they're always rowing, Julie's always grumbling and running beside this tall chap saying, 'You don't understand.' They seem so miserable all the time! But most people do seem miserable: Love is a very miserable affair. And when I put that scene back in, suddenly you can't get confused about them. They're like a married couple. They are a proper married couple. They don't get up and open doors, they don't have candlelight dinners, but – in that scene after they've made love – he washes his toothbrush in her bathwater, she brushes up against him, he touches her. It makes you safe that they're happy, or, anyway, that they're real."
Four days into the shoot his two tyro stars begged Roeg to let them leave, and he knew he was on the right track. "Theresa came first. She said, 'I don't think I'm up to this. I'm terribly nervous. Please let me leave.' I said, 'No. I won't let you. I'm glad you feel that way.' Then I asked Art in. I told them, 'This isn't like another movie. We're shooting fragments of scenes; there's nothing to rehearse. We're in a city none of us knows, an empty landscape. I must ask you to trust that I know where I'm going. It's a maze, but there is an end to it.' We had some Martinis, and they agreed. Somehow, it was a release. I felt all right about pushing them further and further."
One of the many emotional scatterbombs stumbled over was that Roeg and Russell fell in love (they later married). I wonder if the fearless chaos of her performance is what he fell for. "When you admire someone's work, you are amazed by who you think they are," he says. "But their real secret is masonic: they keep it right to the end. Very few people are prepared to let you all the way in - to Kafka's 'point of no return'. We went very far. As it turned out, not all the way. Theresa knew it was too dangerous. That's all in the movie."
It was worse for Garfunkel. Like his repressed character, he had little idea what was in store. "As we worked, I think he recognised a truth in his character's obsession in himself," says Roeg. "Then he had to decide whether to play it so people he knew would recognise it. It was like coming out. The actors were all nervous and guilty."
The actors' immersion into their parts became painful. At the film's half-way point, when Russell vengefully demands sex with Garfunkel on the stairs, and he looks up at what's on offer like a naughty schoolboy, fearfully grabbing her, her skin mottling and flushing, the old claims that there was real penetration on the set of Performance seem small beer: here, psyches are stripped. And soon the fever spread through the crew.
"Everybody was peeling themselves open," Roeg remembers. "It was a wild time, there was a great feeling of release - sexually, emotionally. It was exhilarating. I remember one day we shot for 24 hours. I think I was the one who said, 'I can't take it any more. I've had enough.' We were shooting six or seven days a week. It was claustrophobic - play the part, go to sleep, go back. I abandoned control, and something magical came in. Bad Timing began to live itself. I kept out of the way of its forcefield. It was a bit of suspended time. A parallel universe."
Everyone caught their breath when Garfunkel and Russell's characters took a break in Morocco. Shooting on the edge of the Sahara, they felt free, adventurous. But it was the calm before the storm - the long day, back in Vienna, spent filming the rape. It looks deeply uncomfortable - Russell's head hanging back from her bed, while Garfunkel tears her clothes with a penknife, and enters her over and over. Shooting it was "shocking", Roeg remembers. 'The actors were frightened when they realised the disgust you feel when you can't control yourself. It's an extraordinary, horrible crime, rape. And you don't often see the rape of the unconscious. Usually it's someone dragged screaming into the bushes. There's a lot of acting going on. There wasn't a lot of acting in that scene."
After a break, some of the crew reassembled for a final scene in New York. But Garfunkel's performance was distant. They'd left their parallel universe and couldn't go back. Roeg scrapped the scene. But he began post-production thrilled at the work they'd done, sure audiences would recognise the characters' emotions.
But, Roeg recalls, "it was received for the most part very poorly." At the first test screening in America, I was going to meet a friend, a quite well-known actor. Afterwards, he got into his car, drove it at me, and swerved off. He wouldn't speak to me for three years. I didn't realise till then how seriously people resent you holding a mirror to their face."
Keitel and Garfunkel became firm friends from the experience. Roeg and Russell returned to Bad Timing's themes in other undervalued work such as Cold Heaven (1993), in which Russell's half-dead, cuckolded husband recovers from the surgeon's scalpel to test their love.
One of the most film-like transfers I have seen from Criterion. I don't even think the screen captures give it true justice in this case. Everything seems perfectly balanced and exacting in the color dept. with a clean anamorphic, progressive transfer that produces a sharpness that appears acute. Extras speak for themselves - and I was most keen on the enigmatic Roeg being interviewed and discussing the film (I do suggest watching it after the film itself as it does give away a lot of the film's plot details). Theresa Russell comes across is a far better light as a serious actress than a lot of the T&A fluff that has become associated to her through her career. Strongly recommended DVD package from Criterion.
The deleted scenes are interesting for historical context, but it is obvious why they were cut. The photo gallery and liner notes booklet seem to have taken uppers and turned into mega-gallery and super-booklet. The liner notes are particularly impressive, with an informative essay and a telling interview with Art Garfunkel from Rolling Stone, and more.
The interviews are the real heart of the extras. Theresa Russell is luminous and salty while discussing this soul-rending film. She seems refreshingly normal in comparison to the intensity she shows in her scenes. This is one of the most peppy, informative, and involving actor interviews I've seen. It goes on forever, and gets more interesting as the interview goes on. Roeg and producer Jeremy Thomas somehow manage to seem stuffy and maverick at the same time, which goes along with their jocular dismissal of the intense pain and frustration involved with Bad Timing's distribution. Their interview also goes on forever, and is as informative as Russell's but not as engaging. Maybe it has to do with Theresa's considerable screen presence, so the comparison is hardly fair. The point to take home is that this pair of interviews is as detailed as a full-length commentary, but even richer for the face time and stills from the production mixed in.
Roeg appreciators will be in heaven with this DVD package. This is one of his most hotly contested films, and it was a turning point for him artistically and commercially. For these reasons, Criterion's interest in the film is understandable. Nonetheless, some of the stylistic decisions are best left in the seventies—and it is a psychologically brutal film that will terrorize you if you've ever been in a bad relationship, or been the bad one yourself.
Magician with a Movie Camera: Nicolas Roeg tribute at the 2009 British Academy of Film and Television Awards, with video clips of Roeg's acceptance speech, on-camera tributes by numerous directors and a tribute video by Steven Soderbergh
"A former clapper boy, lighting cameraman and cinematographer who belatedly moved into directing, Roeg never seemed totally at ease in front of the camera (or, perhaps more accurately, beside it). His visuals are often wonderful, but his later scripts can be woeful, particularly in the case of Eureka (1983)...If this all sounds unduly critical, it shouldn't be taken as such, for Roeg's standards and his expectations of himself are high, and his is a genuinely eclectic talent which can provoke, puzzle and satisfy in roughly equal measures." - Mario Reading (The Movie Companion, 2006)
"Nicolas Roeg is a visual trickster who plays havoc with conventional screen narratives. Choosing an oblique storytelling formula, he riddles his plots with ambiguous characters, blurred genres, distorted chronologies, and open-ended themes to invite warring interpretations." - Joseph Lanza & Rob Edelman (The St. James Film Directors Encyclopedia, 1998)
"From his directing debut Performance (made with Donald Cammell) onwards, Roeg deployed a fragmented, associative editing style to shift between reality and fantasy, fear and desire, past, present, and future in diverse genres...Excepting Walkabout and Don't Look Now, the results, while intriguing, have often lacked coherence; the narrative complexity and bold, baroque images can seem a gloss imposed on conventional stories." - Geoff Andrew (The Director's Vision, 1999)
"When I was 12 years old, my father said the most extraordinary thing to me. 'The day you're born is your only chance to really have tomorrow, because by the day after you've got yesterday.'"
"I don't like the film business. I don't like the British film business. I don't like the American film business, I don't like the French, German … I don't like the film business. I like filming. I'm a filmmaker."
"I've always wanted to get my thoughts over in film visually, without the intermediary of literature. I actively prefer to be in the cinema, but not the cinema of literature, which is like Victorian picture books. Faced with that, I'd rather stay at home and read."
"Before the whole Gutenberg galaxy thing, storytelling was more intimate, more immediate – like film. Printing confined a story within a binding and imposed artificial limits. It made stories into lengths. But before that, in the oral tradition, stories could continue forever. It's one of the basic concepts of living that stories are one great story of which all stories partake."
"When I was in India," Roeg continues, "I watched storytellers on the street corner. They used a very different form from that postulated by the printed page. Although I couldn't understand a word, I was fascinated! The storyteller would entice his audience, first putting a hand in his pocket and then gradually taking out a packet of matches, then a candle, then a knife, and an old flower. And he talked, gradually telling a story of death – some old extraordinary raja, you know. And then the story would develop in his, and out of his, own personality – and that was the storyteller's life and world."
Another 1980 interview, from the Toronto Film Festival (where Bad Timing won the Audience Award) by Gerald Peary
Your work also has a marked juxtaposition of fantastic and realistic scenes. Is this unusual mixing of styles conscious or once again an intuitive thing?
Well, more a mixture of the two. At times I've consciously wanted to get within the 'mind' of the story, which has meant getting away from realism. In other times it has happened unconsciously, evolving from the situation, location or the direction of the performances, all of which have taken on an unreal state.
Do you bring any influences to bear when creating these juxtapositions?
I really liked the work of Michael Powell, and in particular films such as A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and Peeping Tom (1960). When you think of his work, it was also a mixture of realism and extravagance. I thought he was an extraordinary figure and a very daring director.
When you began experimenting with this gap between fantasy and reality, was 'realism' still deemed to be the 'accepted' form of British filmmaking?
Well, there was this idea of 'naturalistic' cinema, but it was very falsely realistic. It wasn't that true to the outside world because it was very controlled. You must remember that a film production is a living thing, as it is being shot it begins to have a life of its own. The director's role then is more like a jockey who is impatient to start the race; he just wants to go. But a film can never fully be controlled in any sense. Too much control kills anything!
- Interview with Roeg by Xavier Mendik for kamera.co.uk
"Everything has a price," reflects Roeg. "Is it the right price? I don't know. It depends what you want in life. I've never been rich and I've always done okay. The price I've paid is that I haven't been able to do all the pictures I'd have liked to do. That's the price. Maybe I've stuck with things too long that haven't been made, and the thing has exhausted itself or the idea has been done by somebody else. Sometimes people say to me, 'oh whatever happened to that old thing you were working on?' and I've dug it out, and found that its time has gone."
On the surface it would appear that Roeg has fallen distinctly out of fashion, but one only has to list the four films he made in the '70s to be reminded how important Roeg was and still is. In Walkabout (1971), Don't Look Now (1973), The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) and Bad Timing (1980), Roeg rendered the very real and specific locales of the Australian outback, the canals of Venice, the American Southwest, and Vienna with both an appreciation for their exotic appeal and a dread of their terrifying unknowability. Behind all of these films is a question about landscape: how can we even think we can understand the ones we love, when we can't even feel at ease in the places we live in? To the chagrin of many critics, Roeg did not delineate this existential paradox with the austere moralism of Bergman or the godlike minimalism of Bresson, but instead seemed to revel in the beauty of this horrifying enigma. In Roeg's films, characters don't realise they are in hell because they have been having too much fun for the most part. And by the time they do realise what is happening, they have resigned themselves to the fact that they are past the point of no return. When I first became enamoured of Roeg's work as an overenthusiastic teen cinephile in the '70s, I called him a "romantic nihilist." I think the label still applies and I think this combination of overreaching expressionism and elegant despair is what makes him such a fascinating director.
Dissolves were a technique used during the early days of cinema that lead viewers from one image to another without losing the audience’s train of thought. The logic, thus, was to ease the viewers into scenes without startling them by a cut. However, if executed properly, viewers can certainly follow a story that is cut and mangled. On example is in Bad Timing, where a young woman and a doctor have a relationship that goes terribly wrong. The film opens with the young woman is in the hospital, and we watch as a doctor dances around the questions posed by the police. During this sequence, the doctor remembers aspects of his relationship with the young woman; a fight, a look, them having sex, etc. By the end of the film, we can piece together what happened to this young woman; although it feels disjointed and erratic, it’s actually quite logical. Roeg pointed out that the film is constructed according to the shape of human memory and, thus, doesn’t develop as one complete story but, rather, in pieces.
Order is something that Roeg likes to play with frequently, especially the flash-forward. In Performance, Mr. Turner is shown early in the film, long before he’s introduced. We don’t hear any dialogue, nor do we encounter any other significant information about him. But a connection is being created here between Turned and Chaz. Roeg uses the flash-forward in a way to temporarily disrupt continuity, or to give the illusion that things are out of sync when, in actuality, they aren’t.
There’s a particular scene in Don’t Look Now where John and Luara are having sex, but while they having sex the continuity is intercut with them dressing right after and it goes from them having sex to each of them dressing and back and forth until both acts are completed. Here, the illusion of time is suspended between the couple having sex and then re-dressing, but the cutting blends together the time of the couple having sex and of them dressing into one time frame, comparing the routine of their having sex with getting dressed.
There’s a definite arc to Roeg’s early films - from a visual director who captured counter-culture and beatniks in Performance, to a director who blended images and content to convey story and emotion in Walkabout, and to a complete dismantling of how continuity works in relation to what we are seeing. Roeg’s early work is a testament to a strong visual story and the progression of someone who wants to astound the audience by making them not want to look away from what they are seeing.
Made in the middle of his underrated Mexican period, Luis Buñuel's perverse comedy about the world's most inept (or most psychically potent?) serial killer finds Buñuel settling into the style that would dominate the remainder of his career: a deceptively banal mise-en-scene of deadpan performances and surfaces occasionally yielding to eruptions of psychologically charged surreality. The pattern is set from the stunning first scene: as a boy, the title character is captivated by his nanny's harmless fantasy that their music box has murderous powers. But his imagination is catapulted into a lifelong obsession with sex and murder when, after the boy plays the music box, the nanny is randomly killed, her body sprawled before him, her legs exposed to the garters.
Now a respectable middle class adult, Archibaldo tries to kill the women in his life, but is thwarted by circumstances, ranging from the mundane to the melodramatic, in which the women die before he can act on his impulses. Panged with guilt over the possible potency of his hidden moties, Archibaldo tries to confess his would-be killings, but the police chief, who acts as a father confessor to his flashbacks, dismisses him by suggesting that his impulse is no greater than those who satisfy their blood lust by reading mystery novels. As the opening scene establishes, the film constantly depicts stories, as well as fetishized objects, as the chief mediators between a world of respectable appearances and the violent desires of sex and death raging underneath. The film's centerpiece is a bizarre seduction/attempted murder scene involving a menage a trois with a mannequin that the two lovers take turns dressing and undressing.
Characters are always in the act of narrating as a way of exerting control on others: in suicide notes, bedtime stories, confessions, pardons; even a tour guide seems to play to her group's fantasies of discovering a Mexican culture that they had essentially brought with them, if only to keep them occupied. Whether it's Archibaldo's superstitious suspicion that his desires magically caused the women's murders, the police inspectors' eagerness to seek an easy explanation for death to facilitate an early coffee break, or even the American tourists impositions on their host country, the behavior of these characters share an underlying impulse to colonize the world around them with their limited and selfish capacity to comprehend it. It's to Buñuel's credit that he depicts this absurdist human comedy within the stylistic conventions of classical narrative filmmaking; it only serves to weave the craziness of humankind more inseparably with the appearance of normalcy.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?
The following citations were counted towards the placement of The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz on The Shoot Pictures' list of 1000 Greatest Films:
Alex Grant, Miscellaneous (2002)
Cesar Santos Fontenla ,Nickel Odeon (1994)
David Trueba, Nickel Odeon (1994)
Gertrud Koch, Sight & Sound (1992)
Charles Tesson, Nouvel Observateur: Best Films 1953-2002 (2002)
Francois Truffaut, Favourite Films (1979)
Jean-Louis Leutrat, Positif: 10 Favourite Films 1952-2002
Slant Magazine, 100 Essential Films (2003-2007)
They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films
Only intermittently amusing black comedy, made in Mexico by Luis Buñuel. Directed rather indifferently, though the story has a Bunuelian perversity - perhaps a little more giddy than usual. It has a wonderful start: Archibaldo finds a music box which reawakens his memories of a childhood experience. His governess had found him dressed up in his mother's clothes, and while she was bawling him out for it, a stray bullet from the revolution going on outside had killed her. Later, Archibaldo keeps trying to recapture that sexual pleasure, but his attempts to commit murder are continually frustrated by the deaths of his intended victims.
Buñuel made some-not-so-good films after "Archibaldo" and before the classic "Viridiana" (1961), but "Archibaldo" is the film that really begins his extraordinarily productive late period in which he has given us such masterpieces as "Tristana" and "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeosie," with the possibility of another coming up, "That Obscure Object of Desire," his newest work, which will be seen at the forthcoming New York Film Festival.
One might be tempted to call "Archibaldo vintage Buñuel except that that would imply the film recalls a talent since lost, worn thin, run out. "Archibaldo" is Buñuel in the peak form with which he has continued to dazzle us in recent years. It doesn't have the superb European actors who have given "Tristana," "Discreet Charm" and "Phantom of Liberty" their box-office chic, but it has the wit, the simplicity of style, the directness and, above all, the total command that make his later films seem virtually perfect realizations of the director's particular visions.
Archibaldo is innocent of the crimes he tries to confess to the chief of police but though this film is high comedy, his innocence is not much different from that of the delinquents of Buñuel's "Los Olvidados"—the slum kids who commit unspeakable atrocities but feel no guilt whatsoever. Archibaldo and the slum children inhabit very different kinds of films though the social orders are equally bankrupt in both.
Not unlike Él, Ensayo de un Crimen (The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz) is a twisted tragicomedy on male obsession. It's also the closest Spanish auteur Luis Buñuel ever came to directing a bona fide suspense thriller.
Buñuel sees a certain existential crisis in a murderer's incompetence to murder. By repeatedly foiling Archibaldo's murderous schemes, Buñuel forces his anti-hero to renegotiate the meaning of desire and his confused notions of pre-determined will.
Though Archibaldo is set to marry the innocent Carlota (Ariadna Welter), he nonetheless pursues mannequin-model Lavinia (Miroslava Stern) after spotting her through the fire of a waiter's flaming drink at a local bar. Just as Buñuel uses mirrors and reflections as windows into Archibaldo's soul, fire comes to fascinatingly represent his voyeuristic gaze.
Past the shockingly flippant admission by the film's police officers that Archibaldo cannot be held responsible for wishing death on others lies an evocative, "uncomplicated" finale that sadly suggests Archibaldo can free himself of his murderous fetishes should he willingly toss aside his memories of childhood. But that may be too painful, because Buñuel once said: "You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all, just as an intelligence without the possibility of expression is not really an intelligence. Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing."
Luis Buñuel creates a macabre and insightful comedy on obsession, machismo, and bourgeois hypocrisy in The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz. Using the repeated imagery of mirrors and reflections, Buñuel provides a figurative window into his own sardonic humor and personal idiosyncrasies: a foot fetish suggested through the death of the governess (that is subsequently manifested in Diary of a Chambermaid and Tristana); a sense of voyeurism that arises from vigilant observation, revealed through Archibaldo's discovery of a lovers' quarrel (shown through an angled mirror) and Carlota's (Ariadna Welter) rendezvous with her lover; an obsession to capture the essence of the perfect woman through Lavinia (Miroslava Stern) and her mannequin likeness (the doppelganger imagery is also examined in his final film, That Obscure Object of Desire). In a playful homage to the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, Buñuel further illustrates his droll and incisive wit by creating a surreal twist to pivotal Hitchcockian images involving a glass of milk (Notorious) and a straight razor (Spellbound). Through Archibaldo's bizarre and unorthodox dual life as a serial killer, Buñuel subverts the conventional devices of a suspense film and creates an irreverent and audacious personal statement on the conundrum of sexual politics.
A black comedy about an upper-class gentleman would-be murderer, who is always thwarted before the crime. It's the last film of Luis Buñuel's ("Nazarin"/"The Exterminating Angel"/"Él") Mexican period and though minor it still has a few witty bizarre touches and some great imagery to hang its hat on (a toy music box that supposedly can kill, a wax mannequin of our hero's girlfriend Lavinia (Miroslava Stern) that goes up in smoke after our hero fails to murder his spiteful loved one he puts on a pedestal, and the mirror in a room, acting as a look into our hero's soul, reflecting his unfaithful bride Carlota's rendezvous with her suave married lover Alejandro).
Buñuel has some laughs at the expense of the decadent hypocritical bourgeoisie, dumb Yankee tourists, the complacent priests, the capricious artist and at the Latin male lover image, while including his obsession with foot fetishism. It never amounts to more than a cheaply made one macabre joke movie that was only slightly amusing and only somewhat more effective as satire, but it paved the way for his later more productive period of creating many masterpieces.
Both a comedic and chilling film by famed director Luis Buñuel. The last of his “Mexican” period dubbed by some as a time that his films were more commercial… certainly true in comparison to his later works in which he was granted much more artistic freedom. “The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz”, “El” and “Los Olvidados”, all made in Mexico, brought Buñuel international acclaim and it was in these films that he developed his style with trademark surreal, unpredictable imagery with biting and often grim social observations.
Gripping you with his depth of characterization and lack of fear as a director, Buñuel creates sublime artistic cinema merely touching on dark perversions, eroticism and criminal intent. Archibaldo feeling that the re-found music box is compelling him to indulge the practices of a serial killer, finds his careful plotting and scheming continually falls short of its intended target. The plot walks the fine line between true horror, bizarre sexual lust and cynicism over Buñuel’s usual foibles of the rich, macho men and sexual and religious perceptions. Unaware of the direction the film will take us next we sit quietly pondering while being treated to some excellent well-choreographed cinematography.
IT is a screen moment so delicious that Pedro Almodovar could not resist snipping it out and inserting it into his magisterial film, Live Flesh (1997).
A spoiled little boy hears from his governess the disquieting tale of a king who, with the aid of a toy, a wind-up musical ballerina doll, can magically vanquish his enemies. The governess is interrupted by sounds of violent fighting in the street and goes to the window to investigate.
Instantly the boy concentrates on the doll, starting up the tinkly music and wishing malign fate upon his innocent governess. A bullet penetrates the window; immediately the woman lies dead, blood running from her neck. The seemingly omnipotent boy stares in awe at the exposed black stockings on the corpse's legs, he confesses (in adult voice-over) that he felt a "morbid sense of pleasure".
It is all over in a few seconds. But this introduction to Luis Buñuel's The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955) is indelible in its provocative mixture of elements: sweet music, sudden death, cold eroticism. The scene announces that anything, no matter how strange or crazy, can happen in a narrative, and it also indicates that the logic of events belongs to the realm of wish or dream, a fantasy made real.
And the Spanish filmmaker, ever the showman, has a final touch up his sleeve - a way to "top the topper", as comedians call following a punchline with another, crowning joke. From this tableau of death and sinister imagination, Bunuel cuts to a nun, who is obviously none too pleased to be hearing this confession from the adult Archibaldo propped up merrily in his hospital bed. The nun declares that she finds the story distasteful, and Archibaldo is pleased - as pleased, no doubt, as Bunuel himself, who never wasted any opportunity to scandalise the clergy.
Even for a film from Luis Buñuel’s Mexican period, The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz—the on-screen title for which translates as Rehearsal for a Crime—is surprisingly obscure. Though this 1955 film came out on the artsy VHS label of Waterbearer Films in the late ‘90s, I only encountered it thanks to the tantalizing clips from it in Pedro Almodóvar’s Live Flesh (1997). Those sent me in search of the film, which turned out to be available on a French DVD. It was worth the effort, if only because it is perhaps the lightest and most purely playful film of Buñuel’s career. It’s an oddly charming black comedy dressed up as a kind of thriller.
Aspects of it may remind you of Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and Preston Sturges’ Unfaithfully Yours (1948), but in reality it more closely resembles a dark-humored variant on Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait (1943). Indeed, the structural device of having Archibaldo de la Cruz (Ernesto Alonso from Buñuel’s Wuthering Heights) confess his “crimes” to a police commissioner (Carlos Riquelme) is almost identical to Don Ameche presenting himself to Laird Cregar’s Satan in the Lubitsch picture—as are the results. In essence, de la Cruz is a delusional man, who dreams of committing the perfect murder—an idea born of a childhood incident. And, as presented, he has some fairish—if somewhat misogynistic—reasons for these ideas. He plans and schemes and rehearses, but things never go right—or at least they never go right in the way he intends. Saying more would be unfair to the film, since much of its charm comes from the surprise of how what goes wrong manifests itself. Yes, it’s Buñuel lite, but it’s nicely tasty in the bargain.
The creation of stoic objects involves both first movements and emotions: objects generate first movements by implying or suggesting an idea to us; emotions substitute and efface first movements when, as Stoics, we consider that objects not only suggest ideas, but also manifest them. For the Stoic, the object corresponds to the idea. The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955) exemplifies how first movements devolve into emotional attachments to objects. Archibaldo, a rich and spoiled boy, is fascinated by his mother's music box. When his governess' death seems to confirm that the music box will execute any killing he wishes, Archibaldo assigns his feelings of omnipotence and narcissism to the music box. Years later, as an adult, Archibaldo (Ernesto Alonso) finds the music box at an antique shop. By rekindling Archibaldo's narcissism, feelings of omnipotence, and murderous desires, the music box thwarts his relationships with women. Archibaldo can overcome his narcissism and initiate a healthy romantic relationship only by renouncing to the music box.
"Perhaps the easiest way to deal with Buñuel's career is to suggest that certain avatars of Luis Buñuel may be identified at different historical periods. The first Luis Buñuel is the Surrealist. The second Luis Buñuel is the all-but-anonymous journeyman film professional. The third is the Mexican director. The fourth is the Luis Buñuel who gradually made his way back to Europe by way of a few French films made in alternation with films in Mexico. The last Luis Buñuel, following his emergence in the mid-1960s, was the past master, at once awesome and beloved." - E. Rubinstein (International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, 1991)
"Though the Church and bourgeoisie were his prime targets, beggars might be thieves and rapists, blind men paedophiles, virginal cripples harridans, and housewives afternoon whores; all were calmly and coolly examined as if insects under the microscope, with the fascinated, bemused Buñuel never hammering home a moral sermon, but merely revealing, in a strange spirit of sympathy, the fundamental comedy of the human condition. He was, in short, one of cinema's greatest, most unassertive masters." - Geoff Andrew (The Director's Vision, 1999)
"Although Buñuel made some haunting films in the early 1950s - most notably El Bruto and El, the richest period of his work runs from 1958 to 1970, years in which Buñuel produced a series of shattering works that could almost claim to be considered masterpieces of the cinema." - David Quinlan (Quinlan's Film Directors, 1999)
"Surreal comedies laced with complex psychology are representative of Bunuel's talents." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)
"Fortunately, somewhere between chance and mystery lies imagination, the only thing that protects our freedom, despite the fact that people keep trying to reduce it or kill it off altogether." - Luis Buñuel
Luis Buñuel was a singular figure in world cinema, and a consecrated auteur from the start. Born almost with cinema itself, his work moves from surrealist experimentation in the 1920s, through commercial comedies and melodrama in the 1950s, to postmodernist cine d'art in the 1960s and '70s. Claimed for France, where he made his celebrated early and late films, for Spain, where he was born and had his deepest cultural roots, and for Mexico, where he became a citizen and made 20 films, he has more recently been seen as a figure in permanent exile who problematises the very idea of the national in his films.
A surrealist, an iconoclast, a contrarian and provocateur, Buñuel claimed that his project was to pierce the self-assurance of the powerful. His work takes shape beneath the “double arches of beauty and rebellion”, as Octavio Paz put it. Recently, his sons have reasserted Buñuel's view of Un Chien andalou, as “a call to murder” against the “museum-ifying” of the celebrations of his centenary. While this exaggerates somewhat his radicalism and outsider status, there is considerable consistency in his attacks on the bourgeoisie, whose hypocrisy and dissembling both amused and enraged him. “In a world as badly made as ours,” he said, “there is only one road – rebellion.”
Buñuel is in fact satirising his own class, to which he comfortably and unabashedly belonged. He understood the neuroses and pettiness of his middle class Catholic upbringing well. “I am still an atheist, thank God”, he famously said. It is one of his many paradoxes: he was both inside and outside. While a ferocious critic of the ideologies of the powerful in his films (the unholy trinity of bourgeois complacency, religious hypocrisy, and patriarchal authority), he enjoyed the fruits of this social order in his personal life. His wife's memoirs Mujer sin piano (Woman without a Piano), written to fill out Buñuel's own, in which she and her children are mentioned hardly at all, reads like the remembrances of a Stockholm-syndrome afflicted captive. Jeanne Rucar, who met Buñuel in 1926 and married him in 1934, tries to tell a love story but the pain and losses he inflicted on her, including that of her beloved piano, to a bet made by Luis without her consent, constantly shine through.
More than other directors, Buñuel has etched indelible images into film culture. The “Buñuelian” can refer to shots of insects, a sheep or other farm animal appearing in posh settings, cutaways to animals eating one another, bizarre hands, odd physical types and, especially, fetishistic shots of feet and legs (said Hitchcock of Tristana: “That leg! That leg!”). The term also implies the confusions of dream and reality, form and anti-form, an irreverent sense of humour, black, morbid jokes that hint at the constant presence of the irrational, the absurdity of human actions. Buñuel shares this sensibility with the Spanish esperpento, the distancing black comedy that has been considered an authentic Spanish film tradition.
He also shares with the esperpento an acid view of the powerful and their excesses, as well as a sense of sexuality as debasing and enslaving. Desires, sexual and political, are continually intertwined in his films. More than a call to murder, his best films are a call to an attempt at anarchist freedom, however futile, both in love and society.
Buñuel was a director whose career ended several times, only to re-emerge from the ashes in unusual or spectacular fashion. He was among the youthful rebels of European surrealism in the 1920s and '30s, making three classics in quick succession: Un chien andalou (An Andalusian Dog, 1929) and L'Age d'or (The Golden Age, 1930), both in collaboration with painter Salvador Dali, and the original mockumentary, Las Hurdes (Land Without Bread, 1932). These films, far from being museum pieces, have lost none of their hallucinatory force. Then things stalled. Bunuel spent more than 15 years tinkering on various projects in Spain and the US, but brought none of his most cherished, darkest dreams to the screen.
Mexico, to where he moved in 1946, offered a new start. Buñuel entered the commercial industry there as a consummate B-film professional, churning out in record time musicals, westerns, thrillers, melodramas and romances. He was also able to slip in, now and again, a more personal production, such as Los Olvidados (The Young and the Damned, 1950) and Nazarin (1959).
It was during this chapter of Buñuel's working life that, as French critic Jean-Andre Fieschi put it, he "dedicated himself to indirections characterised by a persistent deployment of cunning". In other words, Buñuel became a sly fox. He began to expertly insinuate his personal viewpoint into even the least promising material.
Indeed, Buñuel was perfectly correct when he said that, although he might have made "three or four frankly bad films" in his Mexican sojourn, "I never infringed my moral code". The anger against social oppression, the subversive humour, the idea of revolt through love: all these hallmarks of his surrealist youth still burned bright, as they were to do until his death in 1983.
Why does Buñuel's work endure? In the 21st century, when MTV has exhaustively recycled the originally shocking opening of Un chien andalou - a razor slicing an eyeball - and the art-house scandals generated by Catherine Breillat (Romance) or Gaspar Noe (Irreversible) go far beyond any sexual scenario that Bunuel ever hinted at, shouldn't his films seem quaint, fussy, tame? Nothing could be further from the truth.
Buñuel was right to claim that his films eschewed symbolism, metaphor and allegory, which belonged, in his view, in the whole sorry baggage of overly meaningful and self-aggrandising art cinema, which he associated with the "phony surrealist" Jean Cocteau. Buñuel's slyness went hand-in-hand with his classicism, his love of patterns and connections subtly woven, then left for the viewer to notice and interpret.
That is why Buñuel's legacy is still carried by the Cronenberg of A History of Violence rather than the Lynch of Mulholland Drive; by the quizzical, low-key surrealism of Chile's Raul Ruiz (That Day) rather than the strenuous sex-and-violence visions of Mexico's Carlos Reygadas (Battle in Heaven). Buñuel understood that, in the quest to revolutionise the minds of viewers, indirection and understatement were more powerful weapons than shock or awe.
Over the past few years several Latin-American friends and acquaintances have expressed their dawning perception that the greatest of Buñuel’s three periods is the one he spent in Mexico, the one that yielded by far the most films. It’s an intriguing hypothesis, overturning the more common position that Bunuel’s extended stint in the Mexican film industry was basically a holding action, a way of “keeping his hand in” while awaiting the opportunity to make his own pictures with relative freedom again. But since this “commercial” period yielded films as personal and as accomplished as The Young and the Damned, Mexican Bus Ride, El bruto, The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, El (this Strange Passion), The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz, Nazarin, The Young One, and The Exterminating Angel–to come up with only a short list–it surely has to be seen as something more than a period of retrenchment. And there are undoubtedly still other jewels from this period waiting to be rediscovered.
Another way to categorize Buñuel’s work–more thematic than geographical or chronological–would be in terms of its surrealist and Marxist elements. One might describe the three initial avant-garde films as Surrealist (as in the official Surrealist group) and pre-Marxist, and the late art-house films as surrealist and post-Marxist; the Mexican films that were made in between include various combinations of Marxism, Surrealism, and surrealism. Part of the power of El bruto, a melodrama about a slow-witted thug who works for a slum landlord, is the manner in which an acute understanding of power gradually creates a feeling of sympathy for this bully, whose mother was a maid and who turns out to be the landlord’s unacknowledged bastard son. (Though he came from a well-to-do family, Buñuel is one of the few major filmmakers who never shows the slightest trace of condescension toward the poor; it’s one of the central facts about his work that makes it endure.) It’s equally impressive to see how Bunuel injects surrealist dream sequences into The Young and the Damned (my favorite of the Mexican films) and Robinson Crusoe in a way that enhances and even clarifies these films’ social agendas.
Buñuel’s other virtues include an absence of sentimentality, a poetic sense of irony, and a skeptical preoccupation with purity in various forms that can be traced all the way back to his early writing. A 1927 review begins, “Here is Buster Keaton with his latest film, the wonderful College. Asepsis. Disinfection. Freed from tradition, our gaze revels in the juvenile, tempered world of Buster, the great specialist in fighting sentimental infections of all kinds. The film is as beautiful as a bathroom, as vital as a Hispano-Suiza.” There’s also, a Latino friend points out, a preoccupation with ecology long before that word came into common use, often signaled by the recurring significant roles played by insects in his films.
A 'system'... underlies the series of Bunuel films which vary the motif of what Buñuel himself calls the 'inscrutable impossibility of the fulfilment of a simple desire.' In The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz, the hero wants to accomplish a simple murder, but all his attempts fail; in The Exterminating Angel, after a dinner party, a group of rich people cannot cross the threshold and leave the house; in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, we have the opposite case of three upper-class couples planning to dine together, but unexpected complications always prevent the fulfilment of this simple wish; in Nazarin, where the narrative follows a pattern of endless on-the-road humilations and entrapments, the idealist priest Nazarin, to whom life is a sort of journey in the footsteps of Christ, witnesses how his hopes of liberation are dashed on the very road to freedom that he has chosen. His final insight, of course, is that what he has hitherto dismissed as mere distractions on his road to freedom - the contingent, unexpected humiliations and entrapments - provide the very framework of his actual experience of freedom. In other words, the structural role of these humiliations and entrapments which seem to pop out of nowhere is the same as that of the unexpected complications which again and again prevent the group in The Discreet Charm from dining together... The ultimate example which, perhaps, provides the key to this entire series is, of course, That Obscure Object of Desire, in which a woman, through a succession of absurd tricks, postpones again and again the final moment of sexual reunion with her aged lover... The charm of the film lies in this very nonsensical short circuit between the fundamental, metaphysical Limit and some trivial empirical impediment. Here we find the logic of courtly love and of sublimation at its purest: some common, everyday object or act becomes inaccessible or impossible to accomplish once it finds itself in the position of the Thing - although the thing should be easily within our grasp, the entire universe has somehow been adjusted to produce, again and again, an unfathomable contingency blocking access to it.
screened Thursday October 30 2008 on NYFA VHS in Astoria NY
TSPDT rank #827 IMDb
One of the seminal works of silent cinema, this love-triangle melodrama among vaudeville acrobats was lauded by no less than the likes of Jean Mitry and Gilles Deleuze for infusing German expressionism into the norms of classical film grammar (i.e. shot/reverse shot and subjective-objective cinematography). Historical importance aside, it's a conventional affair with a cheap salvation ending, graced with excellent performances by Emil Jannings (a hard sell as a 250 lb. acrobat, but fun to watch for his strenuous conviction) and proto-vamp Lya de Putti as his cheating wife. Dupont would apply his considerable talents to a more interesting script with 1929's Piccadilly, but the innovative lensing of the immortal Karl Freund, especially during the thrilling acrobatic sequences, keeps the mise-en-scene lively. Imagine having never seen a shot fly through the air before and you can get a sense of what audiences, critics and subjective lens film theorists went crazy about.
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The following citations were counted towards the placement of Variety on the TSPDT 1000 Greatest Films:
Alexander Korda, Cinematheque Belgique (1952)
Campbell Dixon, Sight & Sound (1952)
Carol Reed, Cinematheque Belgique (1952)
Connery Chappell, Sight & Sound (1952)
David Lean, Cinematheque Belgique (1952)
Willi Forst, Cinematheque Belgique (1952)
They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films
Well guess what - you can watch Variety in its entirety on YouTube! And it appears to be the original European cut (see explanation and significance as follows):
When American audiences were permitted to see German filmmaker E.A. Dupont's silent masterpiece Variety, it was the story of a carnival concessionaire (Emil Jannings), his alluring wife (Lya de Putti), and the handsome acrobat (Warwick Ward) who comes between them. Feeling doubly impotent because he himself had been a famous aerialist before suffering a crippling accident, Jannings fantasizes about killing his rival -- and, finally, does so. After serving a long prison term, Jannings is released by a compassionate warden, who feels as though the poor cuckold has suffered enough. This, again, is what Americans saw. In the original European version of Variety, which ran nearly twice as long as the U.S. print, Jannings deserts his wife (Maly Delschaft) when de Putti enters the scene. Moreover, he never marries de Putti, meaning that his only hold over her when Ward steals her away is an emotional one. Dupont had fashioned an ironic tale of a man suffering betrayal after having himself betrayed. The American censors wouldn't swallow that, nor would they pass the charming domestic scene wherein Jannings helps de Putti disrobe, unless the prologue involving Delschaft was chopped out and de Putti was transformed from mistress to wife. Though this sort of bowdlerization might seem like an artistic outrage, the American version of Variety is in fact superior to the original, especially in terms of pace; what seemed interminable in the German version zips along at an entertaining clip in the revised print.
The strongest and most inspiring drama that has ever been told by the evanescent shadows is at the Rialto. It is a German film known as "Variety" and was produced by the Ufa concern in Berlin about a year ago under the direction of E. A. Dupont. In this picture there is a marvelous wealth of detail; the lighting effects and camera work cause one to reflect that occasionally the screen may be connected with art. While there may be some speculation concerning the appeal of this striking piece of work, because use of the tragic climax of the actual story, there is no doubt regarding its merit. Scene after scene unlocks a flood of thoughts, and although the nature of the principal characters is far from pleasing; the glimpses one obtains are so true to life that they are not repellent.
Emil Jannings, who is best remembered for his acting in "The Last Laugh" and "Passion," fills the principal rôle. He is theatric at times, but his performance is a masterly one. He is not alone in this feature, and it may be a matter of opinion as to whether Lya de Putti and Warwick Ward, an English actor, are not even better than Mr. Jannings in their portrayals. Certainly Jannings has the least conventional rôle and more to tell by his expressions. However, Miss de Putti and Mr. Ward give an extraordinarily brilliant account of themselves and they rise to the occasion in episodes that are by no means easy to handle
This is a production which not only shows the way in which a story should be unfurled, but impresses one with the magic of the camera in picturing effects, such as the torrent of thoughts rushing through a maddened mind, and the views of the audience from the eyes of a hurtling trapeze performer.
This 1925 film remains the textbook example of German expressionism with its moody lighting, intimations of decadence, and fluid, subjective camera work (by the great Karl Freund). Yet the blatancy that makes it so easy to teach is also its chief drawback as art. Expressionism needed the taste and insight of a Murnau to be transformed from a manner to a style; this film, untransformed, is the work of the negligible E.A. Dupont. Emil Jannings, the standard-bearer of German masochism, stars as a trapeze artist betrayed by his mistress (Lya De Putti) for his younger partner (Warwick Ward).
Dupont's most celebrated film (it was one of the most famous films in the world in 1925) unfolds in a long series of flashbacks from a prison straight out of a Van Gogh painting: prisoner No 28 (Jannings, with his back to the camera more often than not) is granted remission, and in return tells the story of his crime to the governor. The story itself is a banal triangle melodrama: a trapeze duo in the Berlin music-hall becomes a trio, and the lady switches gentlemen, driving the cuckold to murder his rival. The treatment, though, is something else again. Impressionistic lighting, lingering expressionist imagery, and giddily mobile camerawork are all pushed to unprecedented extremes, like Murnau on speed. Hard to take it too seriously, but the bravura style and Lya de Putti's coquettish performance remain as impressive as ever.
The plot of "Varieté" is a rather trite and conventional melodrama of heated passion and seething jealousy. However, this has always been popular subject matter with audiences. In Dupont's hands, the film became an immediate success, and it won rave notices throughout Europe. It was a tremendous hit in New York City where it did a sensational business for over six weeks. Many cites in the United States were shocked by the film's immorality, and Paramount deleted the first two reels (twenty minutes) entirely. The subsequent viewers in the other parts of the United States saw the censored version that was missing the opening scenes where the owner of the carnival meets the new dancer, deserts his family and moves to Berlin with his new girlfriend. The American sanitized version has him and his girlfriend as man and wife. Even in its censored version it retained its power and went on to become "the Best Picture Of The Year." This film was also listed on the N.Y. Times "Top 10 Films of 1926."
Variety (film reviews), June 30, 1926, states, "Opened at the Rialto, New York, June 27, for a run limited to six weeks, running time 92 minutes. "Variety" is a corking picture, made anywhere as it has been much in Germany. It has variety, so much, so many an American director may be only to eager to watch it the second time . . ."
"Varieté" was directed by Ewald Andre Dupont (E.A. Dupont), and the cast included Emil Jannings, Lya de Putti, Maly Delschaft, Warwick Ward, and Georg John. The screen adaptation of the novel was done by Dupont who once had been the manager of a vaudeville theater and was acquainted with carnival atmosphere. The film was also notable for its unconventional impressionistic use of swirling light and movement and spectacular camera effects. It was a tremendous success, stylistically influential, and brought Dupont to the attention of Hollywood, where, rather sadly, he ended up making mostly B-movies.
It was not until The Last Laugh (Murnau, 1924) and, in particular, Variety that the subjective image passed into the language of the cinema, when the "objective-subjective" or "onlooker-lookd upon" equation became identified with shot-reverse-shot, both being used more and more extensively...
This method of narration, constantly opposing - or juxtaposing - the objective and the subjective, or, to be more exact, the descriptive and analytic images, has been the one most frequently in use since it was first established in Variety.
- Jean Mitry, translated by Christopher King. The Aesthetics and Psychology of the Cinema. Published by Indiana University Press, 1999. Pages 207, 214. Also see pages 345-346 for a brilliant examination of subjectively expressive framing in one sequence from the film.
It is significant that Variete embraces the most up-to-date technologies in its presentation of this spectacle; for in the 1920s, the measure of a groundbreaking variety act lay in its use of technological innovation. As Michael Esser explains, for the filming of the scenes in which the camera follows the artists as they fly through the air on trapezes, a camera was strapped to trapezes opposite the actors in order to capture the movement and path of the acrobatics. Similarly, it was necessary to install many more lights than was usual in the Wintergarten to achieve the play of light that mimics the actors' vertiginous movements through the air, and the rich star-filled sky of the cupola. To photograph a potential fall of Artinelli later in the narrative, the spotlight and camera running at slow speed were lowered by a cable; thus, when projected, the motion of the falling body would be fast. As Esser explains, Variete served as a vehicle for all of Ufa's high-production values and aesthetic trademarks, including a rhapsodic display of the moving camera and a rich, drmaatic use of lights and lighting: "The moving camera, shadow-rich, dramatic light, the star quality of Emil Jannings, the erotic radiance of Lya de Putti, the rich, detailed architecture, the exotic fairground and, the finishing touch of German sentimentality" are all in the interests of publicizingUfa's production potential. Notwithstanding the important role played by the studio in the produciton of Variete, it is also significant that Karl Freund was the cameraman, and was thus involved in the lighting compositions and constructions for the film. As in hiscollaboration with Paul Wegener on Der Golem, Freund used the material of the story to experiment further with the possibilities of his medium. These sophisticated technical strategies, in particular the use of light and lighting to mimic the movement of bodies through the air, are among the innovations of Variete. In this film, it is not only the camera, but also the potential movement of electrical light that creates a new, modern form of variety entertainment. These explorations of artificial light, in their marriage with the film camera, articulate the uniqueness and fascination of the film for contemporary audiences. As in the historical examples, when Boss, Bertha-Maria, and Artinelli perform in the Berlin Wintergarten, the excitement, energy and precision of their performance is reiterated in the most vanguard of technologies: through the conjunction of light, lighting, and camera...
...Seen in its entirety, then, Variete sustains this tension between the moral decadence of modern industrial life and a celebration for the technological phenomena - such as cinema and variety shows - that produce it. This is not to say that through this irresolution Variete equivocates either its critique or its celebratino of a technologically inflected mass entertainment. On the contrary, the conflict adds a vibrancy and complexity to the film that makes it neither simply radical nor reactionary. By creating narrative tensions through eruptions of technological spectacle, Variety represents the Janus-faces advance to a technologically inflected modern Germany. On the one hand, the advent of such spectacular entertainment was genuinely thrilling to its audiences. On the other hand, such wonders disturbed preexisting value systems, namely, a moral universe underwritten by family and sexual fidelity. Thus, in Variete we see an outstanding example of the German silent film's tendency to displace the mystical search for transcendental knowledge through representations of light onto an exploration of conflicts in the moral fabric of the secular, historical world.
While the film celebrates the modernity of its own camera and editing techniques, it remains very ambivalent about the urban modernity, upward mobility, “Americanism,” and destabilization of traditional gender identities it so sensationally depicts. Variety, despite all its citation – and mobilization – of the forms of mass spectacle and entertainment associated with Weimar modernity, remains an “art film.” The German “art cinema” of the 1920s is characterized on the one hand by a certain aesthetic conservatism that reflects the ambivalence about film and mass culture on the part of intellectuals so well documented in Anton Kaes’s Kino-Debatte (“Debate About the Cinema”). On the other hand, the art cinema often manifests a political conservatism typical of large German industries during the 1920s, including the film industry, which was becoming ever more concentrated throughout the decade. By “political conservatism” I mean the generally anti-democratic, class-based hierarchical elitism characteristic of the dominant social gropus in the Weimar Republic. Hence the rather cynical (and strategic) contradiction of producing films ambivalent about mass culture and modernity that were themselves stunning spectacles made with all the technical expertise money could buy…
The German “art cinema” began around 1912 and is often called an Autorenkino, or “cinema of authors/auteurs”. By the 1920s, the German art film was only one of many products – and strategies – of a large, commercial film industry. It was certainly nothing very similar to the concept of a low-budget Autorenkino with oppositional ambitions that we associate with the “new German Cinema” of the 1970s. Certainly for Variety it is a debatable term, at least if the director Dupont is supposed to be the film’s “author”; the producer Pommer and the cinematographer Karl Freund were both arguably much more important for the film. Pommer intended Variety to capitalize on the mobile-camera techniques Freund ahd developed in The Last Laugh, the film Pommer wanted to use Freund again to film Variety, but for the director he chose Dupont over Murnau, apparently because hefelst that the latter was unsuited to directing a melodrama so focused on (heterosexual) sex. It was also Pommer who persuaded Dupont to film the story in the new dynamic visual style that he wanted to market.
For although The Last Laugh had been a critical success, and while it had wowed and intimidated Hollywood with its technical virtuosity, it had not been an overwhelming box office hit. Proving Pommer’s calculations right, Variety did become such a hit, both in Germany and the United States. Early on German critics aw it as the film the German film industry had long awaited, one that could compete with American cinema; the German trade journal Kintematograph asserted that the film was sure to conquer “even the aloof Americans”… Variety was for a long time the one great success Ufa managed to achieve in the United States…
Although Kracauer writes about the film’s “realism,” neither the film’s rather generic melodramatic plot nor the dizzying effects of its camera work and editing for the trapeze sequences appear to today’s sensibilities to be especially “realistic.” Kracauer is right, however: in 1925 Variety was famous precisely for its realism. This reputation had much to do with its impressive “documentary” shots of Berlin and Hamburg: for example, the carnival in Hamburg’s St. Pauli district, and in Berlin the Friedrichstrasse railway station, certain street scenes, and the interior shots of the Wintergarten. Shooting on location was still relatively rare in the German art film, which was famous primarily for its carefully constructed studio sets that could be illuminated so precisely and expressively. In this way Variety is clearly related to New Objectivity and associated trends of the middle and later 1920s in German film, photography, theater, literature, and painting. In which the attempt to move toward a documentary approach was noted.
…As Kracauer wrote in Die Angestellten (“The White Collar Employees,” 1929), the secret of New Objectivity was precisely that behind its modern façade, something very sentimental was often lurking. For all Variety’s modern technical virtuosity, the film is not merely sentimental, but very conservative in its critique of aspects of modernity. It participates in the cynical strategy of dressing its conservative message in the most modern of forms – given its commercial success, one might say that it is one of the most successful examples of the strategy. For the evil that destroys the good-natured family man, Boss, is clearly connected to his desire to be a star of the trapeze again – to be at the center of the spotlight of mass entertainment, the beneficiary of the appetite of the modern masses for spectacle and distraction…
The film’s cynical ambivalence about its own project creates a distance between narrative and spectacle that is reflexive. Its technical virtuosity is typical of New Objective fetishization of technology, and its use of a lurid, sensational melodramatic plot mirrors the move in New Objectivity toward more accessible narratives and toward an apparent embrace of mass culture. The film’s most famous cinematic techniques involve the use of mobile camera from subjective points of view, most impressively in the dizzying shots of the acrobats high above the audience in the Wintergarten, and these techniques tend to foreground themselves through a virtuoisity in excess of the needs of the plot. In addition, the film’s own constructions of looking are foregrounded, thematized quite explicitly – even melodramatically – in a collage of eyes that is intercut with shots of Boss on the trapeze at his most conflicted moment, as he is indeed being watched by everyone in the huge hall. It can be argued that even the melodramatic narrative itself reflects on the institution of the cinema (although perhaps unintentionally so): the protagonist’s precipitous rise from his origins as a “vulgar” carnival performer to a performer in a glamorous hall in which the upper classes ogle him is a trajectory that parallels the rise of cinema itself from despised lower-class entertainment to a more bourgeois one. But the comment on cinema is in that case quite negative, for it becomes a part of a topsy-turvy world of glittering mass celebrity that is marked as clearly dangerous and destabilizing.
… Although my emphasis here on reactionary, anti-democratic attitudes in the film would seem to align my reading with Kracauer’s overall verdict on Weimar cinema, I would like to stress where I differ with him: Kracauer (at least in his famous postwar book From Caligari to Hitler) has more or less the same take on “male retrogression” / “decadence”/”degeneracy” as the right wing in the Wiemar Republic did, namely, that it is bad, one of the serious flaws in Weimar culture. Variety sends a very clear – and anti-modern – message about modernity, democracy, and popular culture; linked to these targets is also another target: the emerging fluidity of gendered and sexual identities that many of us celebrate now (and rightfully so). Variety is in tune with elite opinion in Weimar when it demonizes that fluidity as “degenerate.” But perhaps this film’s fascinated obsession with that fluidity is ultimately of more interest than the strident attempt to make its disapproval clear.
German director E. A. Dupont was involved in his country's movie industry almost before there was an industry; as early as 1911, Dupont was Germany's foremost film critic. He began directing in 1917, with his first major commercial success, The Ancient Law, coming along six years later. In 1925, Dupont directed the influential German sex-triangle melodrama Variety, which still retains its classic status seventy years later, even in the heavily edited and severely reshaped version prepared for American release (in which, among many other alterations, the hero's mistress was transformed into his wife). On the strength of Variety, Dupont was signed by Hollywood's Universal studios; but only one Universal film, the saccharine Love Me and the World is Mine (1927), would be completed before Dupont headed for England. In 1929, he directed the Anglo/German epic Atlantic, a retelling of the Titanic tragedy significant only as the first European all-talkie. Dupont returned to the States in 1933, where he was assigned a dispiriting progression of "B"-pictures and programmers. Unhappy with the lack of opportunities afforded him in Hollywood, Dupont became a talent agent in 1940, a profession he pursued for nine years. Back in the director's chair for a strange melodrama titled The Scarf (1949), which he also wrote, Dupont resumed his directing career in the '50s once more with such results as 1955's The Neanderthal Man. Just before his death in 1956, E. A. Dupont wrote and directed The Magic Fire, a biopic of composer Richard Wagner.
Some directors are able to maintain a steady flow of talent in all their work. Others, like E.A. Dupont, are remembered for one outstanding moment in their career. Variété, or Vaudeville as it is also known, was one of the most exciting films to come from Germany in the 1920s. Dupont made many other good films, but his career as a whole is a rather tragic one. This was partly due to personal deficiencies and partly due to circumstances over which he had no control. Some European directors flourished in Hollywood; Dupont was not one of them.
Dupont worked outside the then-current German expressionist style, being more human and realistic in his approach to filmmaking. This was evident in his tour de force Variété, a tale of jealousy and death amongst trapeze artists. Its powerful realism, visual fluidity, and daring techniques, coupled with the superb performances of Jannings, Lya de Putti, and Warwick Ward, made it stand out in a year rich with achievement. The virtuoso camerawork of Karl Freund contributed not merely to the spatial and temporal aspects of the film but in the revelation of motive and thought. The uninhibited sensuality depicted by the film led to censorship problems in many countries. Inevitably, Dupont went to Hollywood, where he directed a not entirely successful Love Me and the World Is Mine for Universal. In 1928 he made two stylish films in England: Moulin Rouge, which exploited the sensual charms of Olga Tschechowa, and Piccadilly, with Gilda Gray and Anna May Wong (Charles Laughton made his film debut in a small role).
With the coming of sound, Atlantic, made in German and English, proved a considerable version of the Titanic story. But the two British sound films that followed suffered from weak acting that belied the striking sets. With Salto Mortale, made in Germany in 1931 and featuring Anna Sten and Adolph Wohlbruch, Dupont returned to the scene of his earlier Variété. Two more films were made in Germany before he found himself a Jewish refugee in Hollywood. Here his career was uneven. Factory-produced B pictures gave him no scope for his talents.
Dupont was dismissed for slapping a Dead End Kid who was mocking his foreign accent. This humiliating experience played havoc with his morose and withdrawn personality. He became a film publicist, a talent agent, and wrote some scripts. He returned in 1951 to direct The Scarf, a film of some merit for United Artists. Dupont also dabbled in television. He wrote the script for a film on Richard Wagner that was directed by his former protege William Dieterle in 1956. In December of the same year he died of cancer in Los Angeles. A sad case. Sad too to see the name of his great photographer Karl Freund on the credits of I Love Lucy.
Lya de Putti was born in 1899 in Hungary to wealthy parents, her mother a former countess, and her father a Baron and a cavalry officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army. She began as a dancer in vaudeville and eventually became a ballet dancer in Berlin. She starred in many of the films produced by the German UFA company playing vamp roles. She went to Hollywood in 1926 where she starred in several films and died at the beginning of the sound era.
Emil Jannings ran away from home at the age of sixteen to become a sailor. After serving as an assistant cook he returned to Germany and became a professional actor on the stage. When he made his screen debut in 1914, he was an established and well-known stage actor. "Varieté" was made after his appearance in Murnau's "The Last Laugh" (UFA, 1924), and he was acclaimed as the world's greatest actor. His international reputation won him a Paramount contract in 1927. His thick German accent ended his American career with the coming of sound. He immediately went back to Germany to continue making films during the Nazi regime. He died in 1950.
One of the great pleasures of film-going in the mid-1920s was to see the latest film starring the well-known German actor Emil Jannings. Of all the theater people who lent their talents to the new
medium, he was arguably the greatest. In the 1920s he created a gallery of historical characters as well as people of his own time. Just after World War I, German films were not welcomed in the Allied countries, a fact advertised by numerous distribution companies. One of the first films to break this embargo was Ernst Lubitsch's Madame DuBarry. Made in 1919 by an industry remarkable for its technical skills and the high artistic quality of its product, it was not released in the United States and western Europe until years later. Jannings portrayed Louis XV of France, making an impact that was to continue through his career.
Jannings furthered his popularity and status by making a number of films with the actress Henny Porten and the director Dmitri Buchowetzki. By 1924 he had established a worldwide reputation as a great actor. He starred with Conrad Veidt and Elisabeth Bergner in Paul Czinner's Nju and as the jealous trapeze artist in E. A. Dupont's Variété. His association with F. W. Murnau lead to the three masterpieces which will be his monument: Der letzte Mann, Tartuffe, and Faust. In Der letzte Mann he gave what most consider his greatest performance as an old hotel porter too weak for his job, who is reduced to working in the basement lavatories. His smug Tartuffe was full of subtle nuance, while his Mephistopheles was played with a slightly humorous cynicism that still suggested the blazing anarchy underneath. Even with an ego as great as his talent, Jannings subordinated himself to the disciplines of his art.
No finer tribute could be paid him than that from his old director, Josef von Sternberg: "Jannings had every right to the universal praise that was his for many years, and his position in the history of the motion picture is secure, not only as a superlative performer but also as a source of inspiration for the writers and directors of his time. This in my opinion is the highest compliment within the scope of an actor to earn."
During a career that lasted nearly 50 years, cinematographer Karl Freund contributed his artfully innovative camerawork to more than 100 German and American films, including the classic Metropolis and the solid Key Largo. Unfortunately, superlative examples of filmmaking are not the sole entries in Freund's filmography. Numerous forgettable or already forgotten comedies, romances, and musicals are also present, a perhaps inevitable consequence of Freund's long career. Symptomatic of his commitment to perfection was his refusal to discriminate a "programmer" from a masterpiece, which provided many of the films he lit and shot with their only noteworthy feature: excellent cinematography.
In the 1920s Freund worked at Ufa, Germany's great government-supported film studio, where he collaborated with Murnau, Lang, and others on a number of the films that collectively created the golden age of the German cinema, films such as Murnau's Der letzte Mann and E.A. Dupont's Variety. For the revolutionary Der letzte Mann, the camera became both narrator and character, relating and interpreting the story of the demoted doorman so lucidly that title cards were superfluous. Freund and scriptwriter Carl Mayer enriched the simple plot of Murnau's film with artistically purposeful camera movement and lighting that set the expressionistic sobriety of the film proper against the high-key clarity of its controversial epilogue.
Pommer, who had won an international success with Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920), gave his directors a large degree of freedom, preferring to concentrate on increasing Ufa's export business by guaranteeing a cinema of quality, which would be saleable abroad. As a result, Ufa directors produced some of the greatest films of the era, including Die Nibelungen (Fritz Lang, 1923–24), Michael (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1924), Der Letzte Mann (The Last Laugh, F. W. Murnau,1924), Varieté (Jealousy, E. A. Dupont, 1925), Ein Walzertraum (The Waltz Dream, Ludwig Berger, 1925), and Geheimnisse einer Seele (Secrets of a Soul, G. W. Pabst, 1926). This was accomplished by hiring Germany's best directors, expanding the Babelsberg studios outside Berlin to become the most modern facility in Europe, and bringing together a team of technicians, art directors, and cameramen who were encouraged to experiment. Among the innovators were cameramen Karl Freund (1890–1969) and Fritz Arno Wagner (1891–1958). The giant studio sets, innovative lighting designs, optical tricks (Schüfftan process), and daring camera movements in the films of Murnau, Lang, and Dupont would not have been possible without an atmosphere Kreimeier has described as that of a medieval "Bauhütte" (cathedral builders' guild). Unlike American studio stars, Germany's best known actors, including Conrad Veidt (1893–1943), Emil Jannings (1884–1950), Werner Krauss (1884–1959), and Brigitte Helm (1906–1996), were never contractually bound to the company, each working only intermittently for Ufa.
Special thanks to Preston Miller, director of Jones, for his fastidious commentary and contributions to these video essays. Expect one more in the coming days, edited by Preston and featuring an exclusive interview with Soumitra Chatterjee, star of the film.
Introduction to the film:
screened August 4, 2008 on DVD in Weehawken NJ
TSPDT rank #988 IMDbWiki
This mid-career effort from India's most celebrated filmmaker shows his craft firing on all cylinders, from the deft dialogue and orchestration of a talented ensemble through several subplots to his lithe camera and shifting, multifaceted perspectives on class and sex. Four young urban businessmen take a jaunt to the countryside to act like frat boys one last time before adulthood inevitably sucks the life out of them; with grace and subtlety Ray is able to celebrate their rebellious drive to individual expression against stifling social norms, while simultaneously pointing out their selfishness and abusiveness towards less privileged countrymen. Events unfold with a symphonic complexity, each character an instrument: Ray mainstay Soumitra Chatterjee's jazzy restraint as a self-absorbed playboy, Rabi Ghosh's ebullient comic relief, and Sharmila Tagore's fragile yet hypnotic sensuality as Chatterjee's romantic counterpart are only half of the ineffable performances on display. But the greatest performance of all is Ray's camera, relentless in its perpetual explorations of space and reconfigurations of people within any given scene, dissecting and re-animating a society that is essentially frozen in its stratified customs. By the end, the only profound change experienced by any of the characters is the kindling of a private love between two people and connection beyond one self. Their fragile naissance is juxtaposed by an act of lust followed by violence between one couple, and an embarrassingly failed seduction between another. Such variety in expressing the vertiginous distance between people seeking love exemplifies Ray's mastery as both dramatist and cineaste.
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The following ballots were counted towards the film's placement on They Shoot Pictures' Top 1000 Films:
Mari Kuttna - Sight & Sound (1982)
Penelope Houston - Sight & Sound (1982)
Richard Barkley -John Kobal Book (1988)
Halliwell's Top 1000 Films (2005)
Jonathan Rosenbaum Essential Cinema: Favourite 1,000 Films (2004)
"On the surface, this Satyajit Ray film is a lyrical romantic comedy about four educated young men from Calcutta, driving together for a few days in the country, and the women they meet. The subtext is perhaps the subtlest, most plangent study of the cultural tragedy of imperialism; the young men are self-parodies--clowns who ape the worst snobberies of the British. A major film by one of the great film artists, starring Soumitra Chatterjee and the incomparably graceful Sharmila Tagore.
- Pauline Kael in Reeling
"... every word and gesture is recognizable, comprehensible, true ... Ray's work at its best, like this, has an extraordinary rightness in every aspect of its selection and presentation - the timing, performance, cutting, music - which seem to place it beyond discussion."
- David Robinson, Financial Times, 15 October 1971
Ray's most overtly Renoir-ish film, this might almost be a remake of Une Partie de Campagne, transposed to another time and place and through another sensibility. Instead of the French bourgeois family setting off for a picnic, four young men leave Calcutta for a few days in the country, trailing their westernised careerist attitudes, a middle class indifference to the lower orders, a self-satisfaction that leaves them closed to experience. Out of a series of delightfully funny mishaps as the visitors eagerly try to pursue acquaintance with their two promisingly attractive neighbours, Ray gradually distils a magical world of absolute stasis: a shimmering summer's day, a tranquil forest clearing, the two women strolling in a shady avenue, wistful yearnings as love and the need for love echo plangently. Elsewhere jobs have to be won or lost, problems faced and solved, but not here; an illusion of course, revealed as time lifts its suspension but leaves one of the quartet a changed man, the other three assailed by tiny waves of self-doubt. Beautifully shot and acted, it's probably Ray's masterpiece.
From this beginning, aided by the beautiful, luminous black-and-white cinematography of Soumendru Roy, Ray contrives an extraordinary world, at once Arcadian and yet possessed of utter, unforced naturalness and reality. Ray's language of cinema is a kind of miraculous vernacular, all his own. It has mystery, eroticism and delight. Critics have compared this film to Renoir and Chekhov. To those two masters I am inclined to add a third: Shakespeare. The phrase "must see" is bandied about very casually - but this deserves it.
Satyajit Ray always insisted that his films were made first and foremost for his own fellow-Bengalis, adding that foreign viewers, unless exceptionally well up on Bengali language and culture, would inevitably miss a lot of what was going on. Despite such claims, several of Ray's films found more appreciative (and, it could be argued, more perceptive) audiences outside India. One such was Days and Nights in the Forest, widely hailed by Western critics as one of the director's finest films, but received by his compatriots with puzzlement and indifference.
Indian viewers, by all accounts, were put off by the loose-limbed, seemingly random flow of the narrative. "People in India kept saying: What is it about, where is the story, the theme?" Ray observed regretfully in a Sight & Sound interview. "And the film is about so many things, that's the trouble. People want just one theme, which they can hold in their hands." He likened the structure of the film to a fugue, in which different elements appear and reappear developed, interwoven, transformed, and subtly balanced against each other.
But there's also a political dimension to the film. Days and Nights can be seen as a prelude to the three films often grouped together as Ray's "City Trilogy": The Adversary, Company Limited, and The Middleman. In these films Ray engaged, for the first time in his career, the social and political upheavals that were then shaking Bengal, and in Days and Nights he hints at the kind of class- and caste-based attitudes that underlay this unrest. The four young men from the city are not unlikable, but their treatment of the local "tribal" people reveals an unthinking arrogance that at times verges on brutality. Hari, having mislaid his wallet, at once accuses the villager co-opted as their servant of stealing it, and hits him—an injustice which later rebounds on him. Even Ashim, the most intelligent and politically aware of the four, browbeats the caretaker of their bungalow into accepting a bribe, then mockingly comments (in English, significantly), "Thank God for corruption."Days and Nights in the Forest marks a transition in Ray's filmmaking career, turning his talents for social comedy, emotional nuance, and quiet, understated irony towards more contemporary concerns. At the same time it demonstrates the subtlety of his narrative control, concealing a carefully devised dramatic shape beneath the seemingly casual flow of everyday life. Far from being shapeless or lacking a theme, as its first audiences imagined, the film is subtly orchestrated throughout: there isn't a scene or incident, barely even a gesture, that doesn't contribute to the overall purpose.
One of the overriding themes of the film is the clash of polarities as represented by the urban and the rural; the rich and the poor; the sophisticated and the tribal; the corrupt and the innocent. But Ray, being the compassionate master that he is, refers to the theme obliquely, in swift and deft brush strokes and does not address it as an agenda like the so-called art filmmakers of the 70s who made an issue out of it. It stays at the level of subtext. We retain our sympathies with the characters despite their double standards and narrow mindedness; the characters come across as rounded and believable, and a reflection of ourselves maybe in many cases.
No discussion of the film would be complete without the memory game sequence that is played out by the six major characters. Each player has to choose the name of a famous person and also remember, in sequence, all the previous choices. Subtle and elegantly structured, each character reveals himself or herself in the way he or she plays. Ray’s mastery of the misce-en-scene comes out in full steam as he cuts between the different characters and tracks from character to character as they engage in this wonderful game that throbs with sexual undercurrents. It is a brilliant piece of cinema played out in a surefire style and marks him out amongst the masters of world cinema.
Mention must also be made of the wonderful cross cutting sequence towards the end of the film when all the four male characters are engaged in their respective pursuits. With a tribal fair as its central setting, the director intercuts between the different sets of characters: Ashim trying to forge a relationship with Mini; the voluptuous Jaya trying to seduce Sanjay; Hari running amongst the wilderness with the svelte and dusky tribal girl before they end up making love under the trees and Sekhar gambling away with borrowed money. The entire sequence is interspersed with shots of tribal women dancing to primitive rhythm as the central characters are engaged in their primitive pursuits. It is another piece of beautiful cinema that raises the film to extraordinary levels of artistic expression as the music rises to a crescendo.
Bansi Chandragupta’s re-construction of the interiors of the forest bungalow and the country liquor shop and recreation of the tribal fair are other highlights of the film that point to a superb craftsmanship in the annals of realistic cinema. His teaming with Ray was a winning companionship that is sorely missed in Ray’s last films after Bansi’s death.
Conjuring an atmosphere both Shakespearean and Chekhovian, and borrowing Antonioni’s signature theme of alienation, Satyajit Ray achieved a complex, poignant result with Aranyer Din Ratri—like Ray’s Kanchenjungha (1962), a “holiday film.” Ray’s apprenticeship to Jean Renoir is richly evident here; Une partie de campagne seems an especial influence. Like Renoir, Ray portrays Nature as a moral force one can either resist or submit to; unlike the men, their pair of picnic partners already seem to have taken Nature into their lives, perhaps along with their joint loss (brother, spouse), but, as likely, steadily, gradually. The sparkling forest in Aranyer Din Ratri exudes the mystery that would elude the Mirabar caves fifteen years hence in David Lean’s A Passage to India... This ravishingly beautiful black-and-white film is quietly momentous about love—few films are so driven by erotic undertows—and about the ways we open up to others and the ways we stay shut.
When I was writing a biography of Satyajit Ray in the 1980s, I received a magnificent letter about him from the great Akira Kurosawa. “The quiet but deep observation, understanding and love of the human race which are characteristic of all his films, have impressed me greatly… They can be described as flowing composedly, like a big river. Mr Ray is a wonderful and respectful man. I feel that he is a ‘giant’ of the movie industry.” Many years earlier, in an interview Kurosawa even went so far as to say: “Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon.”
For Scorsese, “Satyajit Ray’s ability to turn the particular into the universal was a revelation to me. I had grown up in a very parochial society of Italian-Americans and yet I was deeply moved by what Ray showed of people so far from my own experience. I was moved by how their society and their way of life echoed the same chords in all of us.” For Mike Leigh, “coming back to Ray’s cinema has been like returning to a succulent banquet, or experiencing a series of clairvoyant flashes. I emerge from each of his films with a newly sharpened view of the world.” And for the writer and Nobel laureate V. S. Naipaul, a severe critic indeed, Ray’s period film about the ‘clash of civilisations’ during the British Raj, The Chess Players (Shatranj ke Khilari) is “like a Shakespeare scene. Only three hundred words are spoken but goodness!—terrific things happen.” In my view, there is no director in cinema who can express what is going on inside a character’s head—his or her psychology—more acutely than Ray...
As if this were not enough, Ray has a strong claim to be the most versatile of film-makers. He was personally immersed in every aspect of production. He wrote the scripts of all his films, which were often original or near-original screenplays. He designed the effortlessly convincing sets and costumes down to the smallest details. He acted out the roles for the actors and actresses with consummate nuance. He operated the camera throughout the shooting (after 1963). He edited each frame of the film. He even composed and recorded the music after scoring it in a mixture of western and Indian notation, for all but his earliest films. The songs he wrote for The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha in 1969 are as well known on the streets of Calcutta as the best of Lennon & McCartney. The only activity he avoided—despite invitations from Hollywood producers like David Selznick—was acting in front of the camera, because “it would be too tedious”, as he told a mildly offended Marlon Brando...
I think the main reason for Ray’s comparatively low critical profile must be that genius takes time to be fully appreciated, in any culture. Those critics who try to diminish him as a simple third-world humanist lacking in cinematic sophistication demonstrate only their own ignorance of his films. In 1958, the chief film reviewer of the New York Times, Bosley Crowther, dismissed Pather Panchali as a film that would “barely pass for a rough cut in Hollywood”. So many people disagreed that Crowther saw the film again, changed his mind and published a second review; soon he was an aficionado of Ray, writing of The Postmaster that “It says almost all that can be managed about the loneliness of the human heart.” Yet as Ray himself realised: “the cultural gap between East and West is too wide for a handful of films to reduce it. It can happen only when critics back it up with study on other levels as well. But where is the time, with so many other films from other countries to contend with? And where is the compulsion?”
“I never had the feeling of grappling with an alien culture when reading European literature, or looking at European painting, or listening to western music, whether classical or popular,” said Ray in 1982, the first time we talked. The breadth of his knowledge staggered me then; now I find it unique.
- Andrew Robinson, author of Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye, for MovieMail
I think he [Ray] chose actors who were slightly cerebral so they'd be able to follow his instructions. Speaking personally, I never found him difficult to follow. The way he spoke was crystal clear--it was never anything like "imagine you're a sunset, a flower blooming in the wind." It was "open that drawer, stand by that curtain." It was much easier.
- Sharmila Tagore, from interview in Metroactive, October 16, 2003
About Sunil Gangopadhyay
Essay by the author of the short story after which Days and Nights in the Forest is adpated
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.
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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)
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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 andthe 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
Imagine a Japanese version of The Godfather where Michael, Sonny and Don Corleone were all trying to sleep with Talia Shire's Connie, and you have an idea of how brilliantly perverse The Ceremony is. A radical subversion of two stalwart genres, the family saga and the historical epic, Nagisa Oshima's critique of post-war Japan centers around Masuo (Kei Sato), a Manchurian repatriate and sole remaining heir to the powerful Sakurada clan. His coming of age under his domineering grandfather leads him to bear witness to the family's decades-long disintegration behind the most impeccable of outward appearances. Masuo's Oedipal longings for both a quasi-aunt and her daughter are foiled by both his grandfather and cousin who molest the women while Masuo looks the other way, becoming an example of Oshima's contempt for the individual's subjugation to the will of authority.
Oshima uses a framing narrative to flash back to rituals and ceremonies throughout the family's history, all of which are presented as farcical displays of hypocrisy and prejudice. The most unforgettable instance involves Masuo's wedding, in which the bride is nowhere to be found but the ceremony is held anyway, with Masuo escorting his invisible bride in a haunting matrimonial kabuki. Other rituals and activities such as funerals, nostalgic brooding, and even baseball are lampooned as empty mechanical routines in which their participants are excused from having to confront their present problems. Blending both emotionally devastating melodrama with absurdist satire, The Ceremony feels as refined and disquieting as the art camp of Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life, sharing that film's outsized ambition and intricate self-awareness.
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“Brilliant and haunting . . . a truly modern film, but with classical echoes, and it is not to be missed” -Andrew Sarris, The Village Voice.
A thinly disguised commentary on Japan's post-war history, using ceremonial family gatherings (mainly weddings and funerals) as a key to the changes in Japanese society: individual characters represent specific political factions, just as events in the narrative mirror the twists and turns in the country's domestic and foreign policies. However dense the allegory, though, Oshima keeps it very accessible to his audience by stressing individuals' feelings as much as ceremonies; their dreams, aspirations, frustrations and agonies are all too familiar. A significant political film for the time.
If you were bored by In the Realm of the Senses, this 1971 film by Nagisa Oshima offers much more convincing proof of his talent. A deadly parody of one of Japan's most beloved genres, the family saga, The Ceremony uses the story of the Sakurada clan as a mirror for the cultural decay of Japan in the wake of World War II. Influenced by Godard, Oshima employs a collapsing montage technique that transforms melodramatic cliche into metaphysical horror.
The Ceremony pulls together themes and devices from several of Oshima's previous films into a masterful summation. As in Night and Fog in Japan, the flashbacks qualify and condition our understanding of the present: the family, for all its outward prosperity, is rotting from the inside out, and from the top down. Kazuomi is a fearsome patriarch whose cruelty and love of power have stunted the succeeding generations. Also like the earlier film, the traditional rituals of Japanese society (the wedding in Night and Fog, and nearly every flashback scene here) are shown to be shams, empty ceremonies masking broken spirits and wasted lives. Though much of the story is presented in a relatively (for Oshima) conventional way, there are frequent detours into the Brechtian anti-realism of Death by Hanging: in one extraordinary scene, Masuo's arranged marriage to a woman he's never met is about to be cancelled once the bride-to-be sends word that she will not be arriving, but Kazuomi insists the ceremony continue as planned. Bride or no bride, the forms of tradition must be obeyed, so the gathered guests watch as the humiliated Masuo stands at the altar alone, “marrying” nothing but air. And, as in so many Oshima films, the path to personal freedom is blocked by crippling psychic compulsions: The Ceremony ends with Masuo reliving a childhood memory, taking part in an imaginary baseball game with his absent cousins. Masuo's escape into childish fantasy seems poor compensation for his ineffectiveness in the real world. The film suggests that modern Japan, like the Sakadura clan, is trapped between past and present. The older generation, authoritarian, patriarchal, supporters of the nation's imperialist and militarist traditions, continues to hold power over Masuo and his contemporaries, who have no new ideals or beliefs with which to resist the old order.
In its idiosyncratically alchemic fusion of bituminous humor, fractured narrative logic, bracing social interrogation, and sublimated depictions of perverted sexuality, The Ceremony is a provocative and excoriating satire on the amorphous nature of modern Japanese identity that could only have been forged in the wake of Nagisa Oshima's increasing disillusionment with the impotence of the left movement: a cultural inertia enabled by the fateful personal and historical intersection of the once radicalized postwar generation's inevitable maturation, indirection, and complacency - if not collective amnesia - over the nation's dramatic transformation, public rehabilitation, and international re-emergence as an economic (and consequently, political) world power... The film is also a sobering allegory for the intrinsic corruption, social conformity, and incestuous politics that continue to exist beneath the country's seemingly profound transformation and inexhaustible economic miracle.
Oshima establishes an intrinsic parallel between Kazuomi's obsession for the integrity of ritual with the narcissism inherent in maintaining the integrity of the family bloodline. Framed within the context of the Sakurada family as a surrogate reflection of Japanese society, the correlation may also be seen as an indictment of the country's repressive cultural conformity, monoethnic sameness, and xenophobia... Moreover, from the early juxtaposition of Masuo and his mother's repatriation from Manchuria (and subsequent aborted flight from the Sakurada household) with the first ceremony commemorating the death anniversary of Kazuomi and his wife's (Nobuko Otowa) only child, Masuo's father (who is later revealed to have committed suicide), Oshima establishes an integral connection between culture and death that not only reflects Japanese postwar sentiment, but more intriguingly, reinforces the idea of the societal role of the ceremony - the formality of gesture - as a self-perpetuating (and implicitly, self-inflicted) death ritual: a regressive (and terminal) cycle of deceptive, veiled appearances that is further reinforced in the film's oscillating narrative structure between haunted past and unreconciled present. Concluding with the recurrent image of Masuo ritualistically straining to hear his brother's subterranean cries, Masuo's desperate and impassioned, yet impotent gesture becomes a poignant metaphor for the moral inversion and suffocated humanity of delusive enlightenment and hollow restitution.
One of the twelve greatest living narrative filmmakers - Jonathan Rosenbaum ("Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism" - 1993)
During the years leading up to the great disruptions of 1959-60, Oshima was learning his craft at Shochiku, waiting for the opportunity to make a feature. He had also started writing film criticism. In a 1958 essay called “Is It A Breakthrough? (The Modernists of Japanese Film),” he assessed the new crop of Japanese directors (“modernists”) – most of them, except for Yasuzo Masumura, unknown to Western audiences today:
The modernists are at a crossroads. One road would lead to gradual degeneration of their innovations in form into mere entertainment, bringing about their surrender to the premodern elements that are subconsciously included in the content of their films. In that case, they would simply live out their lives as mediocre technical artists. Another road requires them to exert all of their critical spirit and powers of expression in a persistent struggle that strongly and effectively pits the content of their works against the premodern elements of Japanese society.
There are several things to note here. First, the condemnation of the “premodern” Japanese mentality: feudalistic, xenophobic, undemocratic, hostile to personal liberty, mired in dead traditions. Second, the importance granted to cinema: the belief that Japanese cinema can profoundly influence the direction of the Japanese nation. (For the better, and for the worse: Oshima has always disdained the great humanist tradition of Japanese film, seeing it as the artistic embodiment of those “premodern elements of Japanese society” he opposes). Third, the warning against “degeneration” and “surrender”: the fear that bold, innovative young filmmakers might lose their nerve and become “mediocre technical artists” (this from a man still in his twenties, whose first feature would not appear until the following year). Finally, the notion of persistent struggle: the awareness that in the war against a reactionary and repressive society, no true and lasting victory can be won. One must be forever vigilant, must will oneself constantly forward, or be dragged down into corruption and waste.
Through the 1960s and into the early '70s, Oshima put his youthful theories into practice with a series of films that retain their power to provoke and surprise. Politically and formally radical, they are remarkable documents of their era and constitute a major contribution to the various “new waves” that swept through world cinema during the '60s. As a director, Oshima never settled into an identifiable aesthetic, a particular mode of address; the films range from neorealist naturalism to pseudo-documentary to avant-garde modernism to surrealist farce. There is no such thing as a “typical” Oshima shot or scene. As a result, his detractors have accused him of lacking a style or voice of his own. But form, for Oshima, serves as a vessel for content. His subject matter was new: post-war alienation among Japanese youth, the failures of left-wing political movements, the rise of capitalism, the hangover from the imperial past. These new stories could not be told in the old ways; new content demanded new forms. Traditional forms – the classical style of conventional studio filmmaking – reflected the political and cultural status quo. To critique and reform a corrupt society, to change the way people think and act, would require a change in how they see and hear. The lack of a signature style, the search for new forms, is part and parcel of the never-ending struggle to see contemporary Japan with fresh eyes. Restlessness equals development and growth; repetition leads to self-satisfaction and the weakening of the will. From a 1961 essay:
This accumulation of new images [discovered during shooting] becomes a work and thereby gives the filmmaker a new consciousness of reality. When he is preparing for the next work, it shapes his total dynamic vision of the inner person and outer circumstances. The filmmaker goes on to discover new images as he works on each production, testing and negating his vision....
Reality, however, is always changing. Thus, the filmmaker who is unable to grasp it immediately ceases being a filmmaker and degenerates into a mere crafter of images.
Constant self-negation and transformation are necessary if one is to avoid that debilitation and continue to confront circumstances as a filmmaker. Naturally, that means preparing a new methodology. Moreover, those transformations and that methodology must not themselves be made into goals of the ego, but, as weapons used to change reality, must always follow through with their objective of revolutionizing consciousness. With this in place, the law of self-negating movement is not merely a law of production or of the filmmaker, but a law of human growth and of the development of the human race – a law of the movement of all things.
The filmmaker must uphold that law.
“Reality” in this passage stands for the thing to be resisted, struggled against, overcome. Reality is the way things are, the received wisdom of the social order. The artist pursues a personal vision that will lead to a new consciousness of reality, but once that vision has expressed itself in a particular work, an act of self-negation must occur, to clear the way for new visions. The creation of an oeuvre, the ego-gratifications of artistic success: these are mere by-products of the true quest, to change reality, and to revolutionize consciousness. However: the radical filmmaker seeks these goals, but knows that ultimately, they can never be achieved. It is not a question of reforming a certain law, or bringing a particular issue to light. There is no victory over the horizon, only the persistent struggle, the movement of all things.
This was how the young Oshima defined his mission. But, as we shall see, even in his earliest films, theory did not always walk hand in hand with practice. The films display tremendous anger at social and political corruption, but also great scepticism about the possibility of effecting positive change. The aspiring revolutionary becomes a brilliant anatomist of failed revolutions; the rebel youth who set out to reform society ends up making film after film exploring the twisted, murky psychology of the rebel.
Nagisa Oshima, the Godard of the East, spent much of the 1980s engaged in international co-productions. He directed Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence in 1983 for Jeremy Thomas, who was later to produce The Last Emperor for Bertolucci, and he combined with Luis Buñuel's old scriptwriter, Jean-Claude Carrière, on Max, Mon Amour—an Ionesco-like anatomy of bourgeois mores in which Charlotte Rampling has an affair with an ape.
These European excursions seem a world apart from the early work of the former student activist and leader of the Japanese New Wave of the late 1950s. Back in those days, Oshima was telling cruel stories of youth, using the ingredients of American teenage exploitation movies, namely sex and violence, to make a trenchant critique of postwar Japanese society. Railing against the U.S.-Japan Security Pact, and despairing of the old left communists' ability to make a meaningful intervention as the country experienced its "economic miracle," Oshima mobilized delinquency and nihilism. Unlike the French nouvelle vague, who tended merely to aestheticize the exploits of their young petty criminals and misfits—the Antoine Doinels and Jean Paul Belmondos—and who took until 1968 to become obstreperously political, Oshima was engaged from the outset.