Son of Saul
Any list of the most audacious feature film directing debuts would be headlined by Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. Continuing on it would probably include John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, Charles Laughton’s The Night of The Hunter, Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, David Lynch’s Eraserhead, The Coen Brother’s Blood Simple and Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, and maybe even Mel Brooks’ The Producers, Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Only Laughton and Hopper did not go on to have major directing careers, but since their reputations were equally made as actors, they still fit on the list. Time will tell, but Hungarian director László Nemes’ debut, Son of Saul, the Academy Award winning for Best Foreign Film, one day may be included on said list. It’s certainly the very definition of audacious.
The Holocaust film does not usually inspire as fresh material. Since Spielberg’s masterpiece Schindler’s List in ’93, the most notable title would be the totally over-rated Life is Beautiful. The most embarrassing would be the Robin Williams opus Jakob the Liar, and maybe the best would have been the German film The Counterfeiters. That is until Son of Saul came along. Nemes’ film, which he co-wrote with Clara Royer, brings a totally fresh approach to the material. Though only covering a 24-hour period, this is a new side of the Holocaust I have never seen in a film before. Set in the Auschwitz concentration camp, the film, shot in mostly moving long takes, follows a Jewish-Hungarian prisoner, Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig, powerfully played, an actor and poet who had previously only appeared a couple of films in the '80s) who works cleaning up dead victims in a crematorium, hiding the burnt evidence of the mass murder that is taking place daily. He is constantly shoved around, if not by the Nazi guards, then by his fellow Jews, who scramble to stay alive with a sort of command pecking order. His life appears to be a daze of a nightmare, with constant suffering, trauma and the a wait to join the others in the ashes.Continue Reading
As was the case with Louise Malle and Murmur of the Heart, Le Souffle (Deep Breath) has, according to its maker, a distinct autobiographical identity. For Odoul, memories of time in the French countryside were far from idyllic. These areas are usually depicted, in a variety of artistic forms, as breathtaking splendors. Few artists, outside of a handful of filmmakers, flesh out the unsettling aspects of being surrounded by nature. Le Souffle is not only an eerie, carnal experience in this regard, but it is also exemplifies the magnetic force of nature as a backdrop in the coming-of-age process.
The serenity of nature is often an accompaniment to youth, sexual awakening and so much more in a film. You can see it in films like Blue Lagoon, for example. In a simplified metaphor, you can look but you cannot touch; you cannot relate to this fantasy. In Le Souflle we find the complete opposite, and so we find a far more invigorating experience.Continue Reading
Mother Joan of the Angels
There is a great amount of history and text surrounding the Possession at Loudon and the death of Father Urbain Grandier in 1634. The priest was one of the many sent to a convent in Loudun, France, where nuns were reportedly possessed by demons. But after confessing to fornication with said nuns, among other things, the poor lad was tortured and burned at the stake.
Mother Joan of the Angels is not only a direct adaptation of these events, but a haunting tale of ambivalence. It poses a very relevant question for people of faith as well as non-believers: How contagious is conviction, and does it have the power to thrust us beyond reason? This question isn't directly asked by the subtext, and the director openly referred to the plot as a retold tale of repressed love, one in which a man and woman of the church were not allowed to love one another. And while that may be true on the surface, I'd argue that something larger and far less romantic is revealed.Continue Reading
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.