Dogme 95 is the only contemporary avant-garde film movement that comes to mind. Its founders included Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, and the requirements set forth in the manifesto are simplistic and humble. However, they're often cited by cineastes as pretentious and narcissistic. For some, myself included, they are refreshing classics in the world of unconventional cinema and some of the most telling works in regards to the filmmakers behind them and audiences drawn to them. My personal favorite for a very long time was Dogme #6, Julien Donkey-Boy, directed by Harmony Korine. Dogme #2, The Idiots, by the versatile Lars von Trier, not only surpassed my expectations – as it is the most revered film meeting the requirements – but shook me in a way that was both disarming and enlightening.
The film has two protagonists who could easily be taken as characters to represent the stance of audience and artist. It unfolds as a sort of mockumentary. We start with the “audience,” made tangible by the character of Karen (Bodil Jorgensen), a soft-spoken, lost and almost infantile woman who finds herself drawn to a group of people after a chance encounter. The group, though at first not unified on this revelation, gives the founding title to Stoffer (Jens Albinus), a charismatic, proud and egotistical participant in the act of “spazzing” or releasing one's inner idiot. Here we find our caricature of the “artist.”Continue Reading
There were three points of interest for me when hearing about Crumbs. I had yet to see an Ethiopian film, admittedly. It being a sci-fi film made it even more intriguing. Lastly, it is the debut feature film of Miguel Llansó, a Spanish filmmaker who previously directed several shorts and seems to have an affinity for journeys, both mentally and spatially. I suppose it's always refreshing to become aware of an up-and-coming artist for a cineaste. However, since it is an independent film, the limitations attached were given consideration and my expectations were not necessarily lessened but most certainly lenient to what is reasonable and pragmatic. Perhaps that stance allowed for such a surprising and enjoyable experience.
As made evident in my review of Children of Men, there lacks a personal interest for me in science fiction on a broad scale. The unrelatable plots and inadequate or non-existent social commentary often makes me feel like a moth fumbling around a bright light that fails to burn hot enough for me to combust. That being stated, films that successfully remind me of my own mortality and culture leave a most-welcome impression--even if they are sci-fi. While it is a Spanish-Ethiopian production, Crumbs is a bizarre and oft-hilarious tale of Western influence and its global permanence. A permanence that, in theory, cannot even be washed away by an apocalypse.Continue Reading
Love & Anarchy
Assassination and anarchy are two terms that are almost absent in our current use of language. They are historical terms. Bold terms that suggest justice by ugly, self-sacrificing means. Now we say that someone of power, who is perceived threatening and unjust, has been slain, killed, etc. Love & Anarchy sheds a bit of light on why the terms and practice of such measures have gone out of favor - even among the most militant activists.
The protagonist of this film is Tunin (Giancarlo Giannini), a freckled country boy who looks like a caricature and behaves more like a sheep than a herder. Though meek, he has only one thing on his mind: assassinate the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. It’s hard to root for him on sight alone or take his quest seriously, which is the predicament that Salome (Mariangela Melato) finds herself in. Salome is one of the most sought after prostitutes in Rome at established brothel of high esteem. She is also a spy for the Communist regime and contact for young men sent to carry out the grandest feat of their lives. She’s currently bedding Mussolini’s head of security, who has confided several key bits of information that seem uninteresting but can be used to an anarchist’s advantage.Continue Reading
When I was 13, I was asked to play a peculiar game in class. At the request of our teacher, my peers and I were asked to draw four squares on a piece of paper. Inside each square we were to write the name of a loved one. We were then given a hypothetical scenario to consider: imagine being swept away to an island after a plane carrying you and your loved ones crashes - but you can only take one person with you. Everyone chose a parent or sibling. In retrospect, I suppose the point of the game was to make us realize that the person we chose could not meet all our needs in life. We could not propagate with this person, or grow to understand certain aspects of the human condition. The wise choice, we were told, would have been to look deeper into our futures and save the last square for a future partner. The whole thing confused and terrified us for weeks.
Lena Wertmüller’s Swept Away puts an endearing, comedic and political spin on such a scenario. A small group of wealthy adults are vacationing on a private sail boat far at sea. At their service is a modest company of poor Sicilian men. The rich are mostly comprised of married couples of no particular importance, but the most outspoken and vivacious of them all is Raffaella (Mariangela Melato). Raffaella loves to start political arguments or complain about the service, food and the state of Italy in the same breath. When not doing that, she’s gambling below decks or immodestly sunbathing. All to the outraged disbelief of Gennarino (Giancarlo Giannini), a proud servant with whom she seems to enjoy fleshing out an example of everything wrong with socialism and communism. The two practically hate each other, for Gennarino is a defensive member of the Party she so fiendishly puts down. She is also, to his standards, morally bankrupt--and his machismo spirit is rapidly downtrodden when at odds against the “liberated” female.Continue Reading
To open a film with mischief is to prepare an audience for unknown degrees of tension. One is unaware of its magnitude or meaning at first, but hyperaware of its presence throughout the work. Tony Richardson's Mademoiselle begins with the breathtaking Jeanne Moreau (Elevator to the Gallows) tampering with the village sluice gate, causing a flood. She walks away from this menacing act only to stumble upon another opportunity for destruction; she crushes eggs in an onlooking bird's nest. This immediate and blatant portrait of sadism--outlined by serenity and juxtaposed with glimpses of the annual springtime procession through the fields--is one of the most powerful first impressions of a character that I've yet to behold. It's enough to make one utter "And this is only the beginning...."
Richardson keeps an impeccable pace throughout the film. We are thrust into one of many chaotic scenarios as farmers try to save their livestock from drowning. Here we are introduced to the town "hero," a strapping Italian named Manou (Ettore Manni, City of Women) who has developed a bit of a bad reputation despite his valiant efforts. His good looks have placed him with several women from the town, all of whom are either married and/or Catholic, and therefore expected to maintain their chastity until being so. His perceived weak morality and status as an immigrant has made him and his preteen son despised in a small town that is already in arms over their unknown and dangerous vandal.Continue Reading
Based on Patricia Highsmith's book The Talented Mr. Ripley (the first of her five Ripley novels known as the "Ripliad," she is also the author of the book that became Strangers on a Train), which of course was also filmed later by Anthony Minghella in ’99, the French version Purple Noon (Plein Soleil) proves to be a much more entertaining ride. That’s not to say that the American version isn’t also very good. I like it a lot and I don’t know which version is closer to Highsmith’s book, but where Minghella tried to ring psychological complexity out of simplicity, often making it feel overstuffed, director René Clément (most famous for Forbidden Games from ’52) goes for a more straightforward suntanned noir. And as much as I admired Matt Damon as Ripley, Clément’s ace-in-the-hole is the young French superstar Alain Delon who doesn’t wear his acting on his sleeve like Damon did--instead he just naturally oozes charisma, making the character less a super-geek psycho and more a smooth criminal.
The film starts right off with two American buddies (strangely, played by the French stars) living the cafe life in Italy. It’s casually mentioned that the father of the rich one, Philippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet), has hired the other, Tom Ripley (Delon), to convince his party-boy son to return home to San Francisco (?!) and finally face his adult responsibilities. Of course, Minghella’s Ripley starts in the States, with the setup played out on camera; score this to Purple Noon for cutting to the chase. None of Philippe’s other rich friends care much for Tom, including his girlfriend Marge (Marie Laforêt) and his pal, Freddie Miles (Billy Kearns, an actor actually born in America, though most of his career was in French cinema. He’s fine but the American version’s Philip Seymour Hoffman steals the movie in the role). But the ever cruel Philippe enjoys having Tom around where he can pick on him and taunt his lack of sophistication. (Ronet is much more mean-spirited and less charming than Jude Law’s take on Dickie). Ripley envies Philippe’s lifestyle, his money, his clothes, his freedom and his relationship with Marge. The American version gives Ripley an obvious homosexual obsession with his idol. Here it’s only lightly hinted at; Ripley’s main obsession is more financial and materialistic. The French version does not linger on their relationship long enough to get into those matters, and by the end of the first act, Ripley has purposely killed Philippe in order to steal his money and even woo Marge. The murder in the American version is a fit of passion; here it’s premeditated. The suspense comes in how he covers it up. It’s on a boat and it’s not easy. And the rest of the film is a cat and mouse game between Ripley and the police investigating the murder (and later Ripley is forced to kill Freddie), as Ripley pretends to be Philippe to keep the investigators and Marge off his trail.Continue Reading
The Baader Meinhof Complex
Stunningly shot and perfectly conceived, the best historical political thriller in recent years is director Uli Edel’s The Baader Meinhof Complex, a film about the West German radical group, the RAF—Red Army Faction—who reigned from 1967–77. Inspired by cultural revolutions in Paris and Czechoslovakia they took the baton from American outfits like the Black Panthers and the Weathermen and raised the stakes by about a hundred. Unlike other great political films like Z, State of Siege, Bloody Sunday, Che, and even Munich, Edel, best known for his American film Last Exit to Brooklyn back in ’89, does not go with the traditional handheld docu-realism style but a slick look, with long dolly shots (ala Boogie Nights) and a smooth editing style. In this age of terrorism paranoia, here is a film like Battle of Algiers that tries to explain the motives behind the action, but not justify them or even glamorize them. These were true believers in the cause but also groovy party rebels who just didn’t want to be like their parents and broke from the longstanding rule of German conformity.
German counter-culture radicals of the ’60s and ’70s have been portrayed in both real life and fictional accounts in films a number of times before; most famously there was Volker Schlondorff's The Legend of Rita and Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Third Generation. Schlondorff also directed with his then wife, Margarethe von Trotta, the classic The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, while Marco Bellocchio’s Good Morning, Night covered the Italian counterparts in the same period. And more recently the story of Uschi Obermaier, the ’70s German terrorist/supermodel, had her wild life made into a movie, Eight Miles High. And then there was Olivier Assayas’s epic Carlos about the international super criminal. So this is fertile ground that has been covered from many angles for the last 30-something years, but The Baader Meinhof Complex feels like the most authoritative, final statement on the subject, at least from the German side of history.
The Wild Child
"I wish that my pupil could have understood me at this moment. I would have told him that his bite filled my soul with joy."
—Dr. Itard reflects upon his discovery of the feral boy's sense of justice in Truffaut's 1970 film.
The Farewell is an account of the final days of the poet, playwright, and theater director, Bertolt Brecht (played by Josef Bierbichler). It recounts a single day of his vacation miles outside of Berlin where he prepared, alongside his reviser, wife, daughter, and mistresses, for the new theater season. The interests of everyone present clash on several matters, most importantly Brecht's health, which was in rapid decline. His wife Helene/Helli (Monica Bleibtreu) stands by as others dote on him. Many, including Kathe (Jeanette Hain), a young actress who seems to be his latest muse and mistress, take priority over his own wife and daughter, Barbara, in terms of attention. Also present on the estate for the vacation is Wolfgang Harich and his wife Isot. Harich is a political reformer who openly shares his wife with Brecht. To complete the picture is Elizabeth, his reviser, and Ruth, an old mistress past middle age who is now an alcoholic and an emotional wreck over the fact that Brecht no longer takes interest in her.
On the morning of their last day of vacation a Stasi officer comes calling and wishes to speak with Brecht's wife in private. He asks if the Harichs are present in their company, and once this has been confirmed, he informs Helli that by sundown they plan to arrest their friends for high treason, no doubt due to Wolfgang's radical activities. The officer asks that everyone on the estate clear out by six o’clock that evening and gives her a number to call and a signal to recite when it's safe for them to take action. He also asks her to not inform the Harichs of the arrest or their conversation, and in doing so, she will keep herself and Brecht out of danger.
“It’s not the fall that kills, but the way you land.”
—Hubert’s philosophical metaphor of falling is emotionally applied to survival in the projects in 1995’s La Haine.