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 always quite special when you can see a film on the big screen for the first time. This was especially true of Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale, which, until its recent run at a revival theater here in L.A., had never been given a theatrical release in the U.S. The film is in the tradition of movies such as The Most Dangerous Game, Lord of the Flies, and Punishment Park—a series of circumstances unfold that places a group of people in a deserted space to either be hunted or turned into animals in captivity who must redefine “survival of the fittest.” Besides the ultra-violence laden with dark satire, the film is unique because those playing the game are a bunch of ninth graders from modern Japan, equipped with bizarre, sometime useless tools, and forced to kill each other or be killed by their own government. Even more bizarre is that the person to initiate them into the game is a former teacher, pushed to the edge by their insolence. The final flare comes in the form of two mysterious transfer students, each a willing participant in the hunt.
The story begins with an announcement about the new BR (Battle Royale) Act, in which students will be chosen at random to be pitted against each other due to their lack of respect for adults. This announcement is followed by a glimpse of reporters shoving to get a glimpse of a young girl, the latest survivor of a BR course. We then cut to a ninth grade class that's a bit more anarchic than usual. After writing on the chalkboard that they've decided to take the day off, Noriko (Aki Maeda), a kindhearted favorite in the class, approaches her befuddled teacher Mr. Kitano (Takeshi Kitano), seeking an explanation for the absence of her peers. Kitano exits without comment only to meet a ballsy student with a knife that slashes him. The teacher leaves the school and everything returns to normal for the most part. At the end of the year the school organizes a class trip in which everyone is loaded onto a bus for a retreat, including drop outs who've come back to school just for the field trip. The knifer is one of those students, and he is close friends with Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara), who recently lost his father to suicide. The students are thoroughly enjoying themselves, and Noriko even gathers up the courage to approach Shuya with a bundle of cookies she's baked just for him. Everyone takes a little nap and Shuya wakes to find his peers and teacher gassed while two menacing people wearing masks navigate the bus. Once he's found awake he is knocked unconscious.
As stated in the previous review of Sister My Sister, Murderous Maids is a biopic on the Papin sisters. I listed the flaws of the former, and surprisingly found few to no flaws in this production. Alluding to the various interpretations of the sisters' lives, this film is more complete due to the fact that it goes into their childhood and background as maids, beginning with the convent where they were raised and educated. There's a hefty age difference between the two, and Christine is shattered when her mother informs her that her father, who's away at war, raped their older sister Emilia, who later became a nun. When the young Christine, who is also very religious, expresses her desire to also be a nun, her mother revolts out of spite, telling the child she would be a servant like her.
While Lea (Julie-Marie Paramentier) was still in school the adult Christine (Sylvie Testud) slaved away in various households as her mother collected most of the earnings and found her new positions. When Lea became a teenager her mother put her to work as well, and Christine's protests to this were due to the fact that she wanted a better life for her and because Lea informed her that the men in the current house she worked at took certain liberties with her and their mother. When their mother informs them that she plans to find work for them in the same household, the two are very pleased. They learn how the place works and do a splendid job until the volatile Christine ruins it and they're back at square one. She's forced to split from her sister, who she has a sexual attachment to, and finds work alone in a wonderful estate with a fairly nice woman and her adult daughter.
Sister My Sister
Lately I've been stuck in a cycle of comparability within mediums, mainly in terms of literature and film. History itself is interesting to me for that very reason. Depending on who won or lost a war, for example, we can be given two entirely different perspectives on that war's history. Biographies and biopics do the same, which brings me to the different perspectives in film and theory on the Papin sisters—two French chambermaids in the '30s who carried out an atrocious crime that shocked a nation. Their lives, and the crime in question, has been of interest to both psychoanalysts and social theorists, yet given the facts and testimonies during their trial, each person comes away with a different motive.
On one hand you've got doctors and historians approaching the sisters within the context of class, in fact calling their actions a class-crime—no more than two underpaid, often humiliated, servants in a harsh class system who took out their rage on their employer and her daughter by murdering them. This theory touches on the assumption that the two were lovers from a broken home, but only as a side note. They consider the slaying premeditated. The opposing outlook deals almost entirely with their sexual identity, sexual relationship with each other, and their disturbing family life. Here theorists make the claim that the two were mentally disturbed, that there could have been unreported instances of sexual abuse, and that the crime was one of passion, or at the very least of a sexual construct. The two films that I've discovered that chronicle their lives best are Murderous Maids, a French production, and a British production, Sister My Sister.
Re-released in the U.S. as Honor Among Thieves, Farewell Friend is essentially a buddy flick masked in a slow-paced action movie. There’s the quintessential rift between two rogues, one extroverted and overly talkative and the other introverted and dependant on one-liners while desperately trying to keep the former at arm's length throughout the majority of the film. The introvert in this film is Dino Barran (Alain Delon), a military doctor who has just been discharged. Oddly enough, the extrovert is his cohort Franz Propp (Charles Bronson), a mercenary who has also been discharged and once worked with Barran in the French Foreign Legion.
Now that they’re free to go about their lives, Barran can’t wait to shed his uniform and avoid anyone and everyone from the past while Propp wants to be chummy with Barran and reminisce about old times. And as buddy films usually will have it, the two end up sharing a small slice of life regardless of their attitudes towards each other, only to realize towards the end that the other isn’t so bad. Think Planes, Trains & Automobiles with muscular soldiers who’ve been discharged and find themselves heading for the same turkey.
Elevator to the Gallows
Combining the splendid black and white photography of Henri Decaë, the magnetic force of Jeanne Moreau, and a superb jazz score by Miles Davis, Louis Malle’s directorial debut is incomparable in terms of mood and style.
The film was poorly received by critics but has since been deemed a masterpiece, both in terms of direction and pre-new wave modernity. The score by Miles Davis, accompanied with then unknown players and bop drummer Kenny Clarke, would fuel Davis to take on certain conventions within jazz—most notably, the kind heard through his album Kind of Blue that followed two years after the film’s release. Decaë’s work would also become prominent in the works of several new wave directors, specifically Truffaut and Chabrol. Perhaps the most interesting quality to the film is the fact that it is a rarity from Malle. It marks the first and only time that the director tried his hand at noir, or worked so tightly in the confines of a genre. As it goes with films like Riffifi and Le Cercle Rouge, the criminal aspects of it are somewhat downplayed by a wonderful cast and outstanding photography.
Who Wants to Kill Jessie?
Who Wants to Kill Jessie? is an underrated gem from a Czech New Wave director that hardly anybody has heard of. It plays on the conventions of comic strips, the mystery of dreams, and communist efforts in Czechoslovakia—with mad scientists who represent brainwashing.
Ruzenka (Dana Medricka) and Jindrich (Jiri Sovak) are a married couple who are both scientists. Each is trying to come up with an invention that will lead them to a Nobel Prize, and both are fairly eccentric. Ruzenka is in the medical field and has found a formula that she's named “KR VI” that can take undesirable qualities about dreams and replace them with pleasant ones. Jindrich is an engineer trying to find a way to increase production in his otherwise incompetent firm.
Songs from the Second Floor
This film is one in which everyone is a spectator, being human is extremely difficult, and the viewer is given a looking-glass into the sordid lives of characters who function in a gray existence.
Many compare the film to Swedish Opera, but for me it is like a blend of performance art and visual poetry that takes everyday life and heightens your awareness of its many disappointments to the point that it is both painful and funny.
Set in the rapidly changing times of 1960s England, Billy Liar tells the story of a young man who's impervious to change and weak from imagination. Most teenagers go through a phase of deception—one in which they exaggerate their circumstances and experiences in order to get respect and acceptance from their peers. Young boys and girls brag about certain sexual encounters or invisible spouses, or some claim that generic items bought on sale were expensive. These claims at excellence are sometimes made out of boredom, but oftentimes are done just for the chance to exercise their imaginative muscles. When they reach adulthood, these traits are usually written off as juvenile and grown-up mentalities eventually set in. Our protagonist, Billy Fisher (Tom Courtenay), is one of those young adults who can't seem to make that transition.
His town accentuates his conflicting views towards change and offers a great metaphor. The majority of the people there don't change, nor do they stray from their safety zones as far as relationships and employment. Housewives wait on edge to see if someone has dedicated a song to them on the popular radio station, “Housewives’ Choice.” Young men scuffle for employment and young ladies work towards becoming their future housewives. But as these people carry on their daily routines, change invades them via demolitions of prized structures and the increase of blacks in many positions. Billy is constantly trying to play by the rules and bend them at the same time, but what he really wants to do is tear down the entire foundation and start anew.
Loves of a Blonde
New Wave filmmakers are given credit for the way that contemporary cinema has developed. French and Italian directors in the '60s were, and still are, given the most attention abroad for their work, but there are many films from Iran, East Asia and Czechoslovakia that are lesser-known gems. Milos Forman's filmography consists of many acclaimed films, including One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus, but Loves of a Blonde marks the beginning of his worldwide popularity and his first Academy Award nomination. When the film premiered at the New York Film Festival, it was considered to be as endearing and classic as Truffaut's The 400 Blows, which had its premier a few years earlier. The prevailing formalistic approach to filmmaking is absent here; the film is simple, realistic, and shot in real-time.
The story takes place in Zruc, a desolate Czech town adjusting to Communist rule. The war has rendered the female to male ratio 16 to one, and women of all ages are more or less forced into factory labor making shoes and textiles. The factory manager is sympathetic to the changing times and their needs, and he's concerned about the town's fate. Like a doting father, he worries about the hundreds of girls under his employ and approaches an army officer for help. He asks him to bring a regiment of soldiers into town in order to cure the longings of the young ladies.