Movies – Abuse Of Weakness


Isabelle Huppert in “Abuse Of Weakness.”

I used to post foreign film reviews on the now defunct I’ll start to make some of those reviews available here to preserve them online.

The title of French director Catherine Breillat’s excellent film, Abuse Of Weakness (Abus De Faiblesse) (France, 2013), is taken from legal terminology; it’s a designation of law designed to protect people of diminished capacity from being manipulated, misrepresented or swindled by opportunists. (It’s a fascinating law that is intermingling, for better or worse, with parallel prosecutions against brainwashing scams and religious cults.) Nicolas Sarkozy, and the de Védrines family, have both had experience in the application of this law, and so, incidentally, has Catherine Breillat. Breillat, like her character here, suffered a debilitating brain hemorrhage, and went through grueling physical therapy (and a fair amount of personal isolation) in order to fight her way back to something like her previous creative prowess. Her swindler’s name was Christophe Rocancourt, who, like his filmed counterpart, was already well-known as a scoundrel, and yet continued his conning exploits well after his initial scandals over a long course of years.

How much of the film portrays the real story, and how much of it is fictionalized-to-her-purposes, of course, is the variable here. We witness the traumatic onset of film director Maud Shainberg’s (Isabelle Huppert) debilitating hemorrhagic stroke before we really know anything else about her – she’s obviously fairly successful, living in a spacious loft-like home, with a number of filmmaking administrative assistants and co-producers available to her. But contact with her direct family – brother, sister, her own child – had been erratic even before her attack, and seems no less tenable after. Resuming work on an ongoing project soon after her rehab, Maud sees the semi-legendary swindler Vilko Piram (French rapper Kool Shen) on a TV talk show, and is taken by his confident air of self-possession and his stern refusal to show remorse for his crimes. He has just emerged from a lengthy jail sentence – that’s done, it’s behind him, and he’s moving forward now. Maud resolves that this is the guy she needs for her film, and shortly afterwards meets up with him at her loft. He agrees to perform in the film (a dark portrayal of a sexual relationship laced with cruelty and violence – in other words, a Catherine Breillat film…), and declares that he’ll be a frequent visitor day-to-day while the project is coming together.

Maud is no pushover, though – she constantly works the line between desperately depending on the help of others and taking manipulative advantage of that same help. Her physical difficulties are profound, and yet she charges forth from place-to-place undaunted. Stairs and chairs are fraught with danger – standing and sitting are stable, but any unbalanced stage in between could result in a nasty fall. Yet, once standing, she hobbles along precariously quickly, at times practically skipping on one leg. When Vilko helps her down stairs, or lifts her into a chair, she’s practically panic-stricken with fear; afterwards, she taunts him about all of the things she talks him into doing for her.

Vilko, on the other hand, doesn’t work nearly as hard, or in such gamesmanlike fashion, as Maud. He knows how to present an identity, a presence, that’s rock-solid, almost irreproachable. He creates a world around himself (mostly fictional) where he’s always in the middle of four or five big projects – big money and big personal stakes. Dealing with Maud is just another ball he keeps in the air. For example, he suggests taking co-author credit for Maud’s next book – his notoriety will increase sales for her, and associating with her work will enhance his socio-cultural credibility. Everything he suggests is always targeted at the Bigger Context, the Bigger Mutual Benefit, even though, unbeknownst to the mark, it doesn’t exist. Two other ‘projects’ have left him illiquid – cut me a check and I’ll repay you next week when the other deal cashes in. If you come with me for a day-trip to Switzerland, I can land a million euros for both of us. You had a relapse and couldn’t go? You cost us money. Cut me a check for my trouble. I’ve got a wife and kid to support. Maud thinks she’s constructing mutual interests between them to suit her purposes. But Vilko knows ‘mutual interest’ is already there, from the start, and he plays her like a violin – cutting him checks almost becomes reflexive to her.  But she’s also renovating her home, and cutting check after check to her contractors as well. Vilko, ironically, asks her if she can really afford this – “I wanted a garden,” she shrugs.

Are these decisions and activities that Maud would normally be inclined to commit to, or is there a lot of unconscious overcompensation happening here due to her diminished circumstances? Many of us have had elderly family members, or severely disadvantaged friends and acquaintances, whom have fallen prey to bad investments, performed ill-conceived financial favors, fabricated untenable ‘get-rich-quick’ schemes, or spent money they didn’t have on TV or radio deals that just seemed too ‘good’ to pass up. We’re stunned, and a little embarrassed, that their judgment has gone so seemingly astray. But Breillat also takes great pains to analyze the foundations of Maud’s behavior outside of her present trauma – the insistent indulgence of her creative prerogatives, and the counter-cultural frisson of meeting the lower-class Arabic Bad Boy striver, putting herself at his mercy while presuming to mold him to what she needs. I don’t think it was an arbitrary decision to give her protagonist a Jewish last name – it’s just another of the tiny socio-psychological land mines that Breillat loves to scatter her narrative landscape with.

Isabelle Huppert is superb here, both in the thoroughness of her character’s conception and the actual physical rigor she commits to the role – she’s never a victim, never an outright sucker, and her Maud Shainberg is a fascinating and energetic woman with real gravity, intelligence and a sense of humor. And Kool Shen, while exhibiting little if any actorly flexibility, is nonetheless well-cast here – he fills his function in the narrative credibly and seamlessly. Eventually, of course, Maud finds herself at the end of any financial resources of any kind. Surrounded by her astonished family at the film’s conclusion, she can only say “It was me, but it wasn’t me. No one else spent that money, so it was me. It was me, but it wasn’t me.” Breillat, who has made a fascinating and provocative film here, won a pretty sizable judgment from Christophe Rocancourt in the real world, and he’s in jail now. The fictionalized Vilko is the obvious villain here, but we can’t help imagining what his response might be: “It was her, it was always her.” And I can’t help but think that, in an odd way, Breillat might not disagree with him.


Movies – A Touch Of Sin

I used to post foreign film reviews on the now defunct I’ll start to make some of those reviews available here to preserve them online.


Tao Zhao in “A Touch Of Sin.” credit: KinoLorber

Even the sunniest cockeyed optimists among us are going to be able to relate to Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke’s jaundiced survey of ascendant capitalist absolutism and the globally waning sense of commonwealth in his film, A Touch Of Sin (天注定, Tian Zhu Ding) (China, 2013). The four stories Jia relates here are, in fact, based on true stories that occurred in four distinct corners of continental China, and each story carries with it implicit questions – When does civility give way to survival? What is each person’s breaking point? When must we lash out at personal injustice, despite knowing that our own self-preserving counterattack will do little, if anything, to change the things that gave rise to it in the first place?

Jia’s films tend to focus on individual people as cogs in a much larger gear-driven machine: the displaced workers and associated adjacent businesspeople of a factory that’s being torn down to make way for a giant residential complex, amusement park employees who emulate the landmark entertainments and environments of the rest of the non-Chinese world, the inhabitants of a town who are dismantling it prior to it being buried underwater by the Three Gorges Dam. The films, up until now, have always blended individual people-portraits with documentary-style overview, scrupulously observed but undeniably humanist. But here, Jia is taking the predominantly fictional style of wuxia stories – heroic tales of lone warriors fighting against historical injustice – and applying those genre tropes to very modern purposes in uncharacteristically bloody fashion.

One of the four stories concerns Zhou San (Wang Baoqiang), who is almost entirely defined by his relationship with the handgun he carries at all times. Early in the film it helps him repel an attempted robbery. Later, at a New Year’s celebration with his young nephew, he fires it in complement to a barrage of celebratory fireworks. Finally, it assists him in commiting his own seemingly cold-blooded robbery of a conspicuously rich couple. As the sword, the bow-and-arrow and the martial arts defined the usefulness of the historical warrior, so too here Jia seems to proffer the quiet and sullen San as an identical figure of comparably fearsome resource in the modern age. But what in the modern world is shaping his moral philosophies? What is the noble ideal he can refer to that enlarges, or transcends, his own sense of self? What is he preserving? That larger view is disturbingly conspicuous in its absence.

A pair of avengers comprise two of the other stories. Xiao Yu (Jia regular Tao Zhao) is yet another good-hearted woman having a love affair with a man who will never leave his wife, and she carries the ongoing anxiety and resentment of that situation with her to her thankless job as a receptionist at a retail-franchise sauna-spa in Hubei. Dahai (Jiang Wu) lives in a small, remote mining town, Shanxi, and insistently engages his long-suffering neighbors and fellow workers in hot-blooded diatribes against their greedy bosses, their corrupt local officials, and the arrogant corporate-types whom, Dahai preaches, are pulling all of the others’ strings. Jiang Wu (like his equally talented actor-director brother, Jiang Wen) does great work here, always keeping us guessing whether he’s right about it all, or just a malcontent crank. But when his proselytizing turns from verbal outrage to violence (in response to violence he may, or may not, have brought on himself), we must make up our own minds whether he’s abhorrently gone off his nut or acting as a truly justified equalizer for his less courageous comrades. Xiao Yu, as well, endures an escalating cascade of small humiliations, in the affair and at work, which results in a similarly grisly episode. Here our sympathies are far more deliberately directed towards Xiao, but do those sympathies still warrant what happened? With both Dahai and Xiao, Jia elicits an undeniable satisfaction with each of their acts, even as we lament that things had to come to that.

The fourth story, on its face, seems to be the mildest, but eventually traffics in such conflicting moral ambiguities that it’ll no doubt be the one I think of the most days after viewing the film. Xiao Hui (Luo Lanshan) is an amiable, easygoing young man who floats from job to job, pursuing his own self-interested path to steady work and security in a manner that Ayn Rand herself might reluctantly applaud. When he causes a problem at the factory job that starts the story, he simply relocates to another part of Dongguang province, and takes another. Eventually he ends up on the waitstaff at a very high-end businessmen’s hotel, which is discreetly but clearly also a very high-end businessmen’s brothel. He meets one of the hostesses, Lianrong (Zhang Jia-yi), and cultivates a friendship with her that he hopes will escalate. But, ultimately, relentlessly, business is business, and job-to-job, place-to-place, paycheck-to-paycheck, Xiao is tragically undone by that simple, relentless fact.

Generally, Jia’s film is seen as the story of how encroaching capitalism is eroding centuries of humanistic common cause and the general welfare of the citizenry of one of the largest and most populated countries on Earth. And there are many parallels to our own situation here in the United States. But Jia is doing far more than just presenting a they-did-it critique of capitalism; he’s indicting those on the receiving end of its ill effects as well. “People get depressed when they’re confronted by examples of enduring privilege and social injustice… our society lacks channels of communication; when people don’t have the habit of communicating with each other, violence becomes the fastest and most efficient way for the weak to protect their dignity.” Jia Zhang-ke is no great fan of corporate capitalism, but he’s even less enamored with the idea that violence is the only thing that will counteract its effects; that’s on us as much as it’s on them. He’s not indicating the line where those responsibilities transfer, but he wants us to feel thrilled and vindicated when, at last, the knives and shotguns come out, but then wonder to ourselves later why we think that’s really going to change anything.

The Giallo Project – Emilio Miraglia

From the early fifties to the late sixties, Emilio Miraglia was a script supervisor, unit director and assistant director for a pretty varied series of Italian genre films, from sword-and-sandal epics and sex comedies to political thrillers. His first directorial efforts were two Henry Silva vehicles, Assassination and The Falling Man. (Frequently cast as a classic villain in Hollywood, Actor’s Studio-alumnus Silva made a number of westerns and poliziotteschis in Italy throughout the seventies, cast, refreshingly, as a more heroic protagonist.)  A tepidly-received international caper film, The Vatican Affair (1968), then led to the two giallos for which he is most famous: The Night Evelyn Came Out Of The Grave and The Red Queen Kills Seven Times. Neither film is any kind of masterpiece, but Miraglia’s insistent visual sense and muscular storytelling panache make both films far more compelling than they perhaps deserve to be.


Marina Malfatti and her ghostly nemesis in “The Night Evelyn Came Out Of The Grave.” credit:

In The Night Evelyn Came Out Of The Grave (La Notte Che Evelyn Uscì Dalla Tomba) (Italy, 1971), we meet Lord Alan Cunningham (Anthony Steffen), a ridiculously wealthy country gent whose marriage to the late redheaded Evelyn ended tragically – he schemed to punish her for infidelities, but not before she bore him a child. Alas, both she and the baby died in the childbirth, and Alan took leave of his senses almost altogether. When the film starts, Alan is convalescing in the asylum run by his longtime friend Dr. Richard Timberlane (Giacomo Rossi Stuart). His treatment supposedly completed, Lord Alan maintains a few faulty circuits nonetheless – he likes to pick up available local redheads, bring them back to his crumbling estate, act out on his S & M revenge fantasies concerning his dear departed Evelyn, and then murder them. The ever-helpful Dr. Timberlane suggests that maybe he needs to get over these unfortunate proclivities by getting married again!  Nonetheless, Alan actually has very supportive family and friends whom are unaware of his more extreme indulgences: the wheelchair-bound Aunt Agatha (Joan C. Davies), who runs the household and supervises the domestics; the family’s estate manager, Farley (Umberto Raho); Evelyn’s sullen younger brother Albert (Roberto Maldera) (whom Aunt Agatha has kept on for groundskeeping and discreet hanky-panky), and Alan’s boisterous cousin George (Enzo Tarascio). Alan, in fact, recruits man-about-town George to help him shop around for potential wives (doctor’s orders!). George’s first recommendation is Susan (giallo trouper Erika Blanc), a redheaded stripper who emerges from a coffin as part of her dance routine. It doesn’t seem like George’s efforts constitute much of an upgrade, especially when Alan lures Susan back home, brings her into the dungeon, and commences his usual lethal whips-and-bondage routine. Susan isn’t buying into this, though, and she manages to flee outside, intrusively stumbling into Evelyn’s mausoleum and traumatizing Alan, causing him to collapse. When he awakens, still in the crypt, Susan is long gone.


Anthony Steffen and Maria Teresa Tofano in “The Night Evelyn Came Out Of The Grave.” credit:

Weeks later, George is having a party at his estate where Alan meets the gorgeous (and blonde, not redhead!) Gladys (Marina Malfatti). Alan is smitten, and with none of those urges in sight, proposes to her that very night. What a relief to put all of that other stuff behind him! Gladys will save him! Aunt Agatha even hires a new quintet of housemaids, all in blonde wigs, to help Alan divest himself of his redheaded specter. Of course, now that everything is seemingly resolving, other mysterious omens appear. Gladys tells of happening across a friendly and helpful redheaded maid in the kitchen whom Aunt Agatha insists she never hired. Convinced that Evelyn may not be dead, Gladys takes her own tour of the Cunningham mausoleums. The groundskeeper Albert meets a mysterious grisly death, followed by the even ghastlier murder of Aunt Agatha. It seems now that while Alan is no longer haunted by Evelyn, Gladys now is; she convinces Alan to let her destroy Evelyn’s painted portrait, but freaks out when Evelyn appears hovering outside the bedroom window one fateful stormy night. Clearly someone is conspiring to screw up Lord Alan’s self-rehab efforts, terrorizing Gladys while murdering anyone who might be lending them support. But the likely suspects are dwindling fast.


Marina Malfatti in “The Night Evelyn Came Out Of The Grave.” credit:

The film contains a number of plot holes and continuity problems that a more highly-budgeted or more tightly-produced effort wouldn’t suffer from. But Miraglia is so structurally insistent on telling the story in a visually compelling way that we just let them float past; he and cinematographer Gastone Di Giovanni manage a nice Hammer/gothic vibe – the castle, the tombs, rainstorms, the hunting milieu, all rendered with cool blue shadows and crisp widescreen compositions. And the acting is committed and energetic, even if the script doesn’t always earn that. Most of the film concerns itself with Lord Alan’s long haul to redemption, and the unfairness of attempts to perhaps gaslight him out of his rightful control of the estate. But it’s pretty tough to manufacture goodwill towards a guy who, in the first 10 minutes, whipped and murdered probably the nicest and most beautiful woman in the entire film (Maria Teresa Tofano as Polly). Some half-hearted attempts are made to place the story in England, but traffic on the wrong side of the road blows that idea pretty early on. Lord Alan’s purchase of a pen full of foxes to raise for hunting can only be a device for creating a nasty death scene later on, and, sadly, it’s the film’s least convincing atrocity. At one point Aunt Agatha rises from her wheelchair and walks a few steps. Why? Dunno…  There’s a lot of unexplained, downright sloppy, stuff, and sympathetic characters become scarcer as the narrative proceeds, but the weird and nasty plot twists of the last ten minutes come pretty close to making up for it.



Barbara Bouchet and Marina Malfatti in “The Red Queen Kills Seven Times.” credit:

Many hundreds of years ago, there were two rich sisters living in a giant castle, one good, cheerful and friendly, one bad, spiteful and selfish. The selfish one constantly tormented the good one until one day the good one, at her wits’ end, murdered the bad one (just before her wedding day) with seven lethal stab wounds. Not only was the good girl (the black queen) riddled with guilt over her crime, but the bad girl (the red queen) came back from the dead a week later, killing the sister and six others. Legend has it that she returns every 100 years to take the lives of seven different people as eternal retribution for her sister’s killing her.

The late-twentieth-century version of the legend is related in The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (La Dama Rossa Uccide Sette Volte) (Italy, 1972). Kitty Wildenbruck (Barbara Bouchet) is the tormented blond sister of the darker Evelyn, who, like her predecessors, has been killed by Kitty. When a beloved Wildenbruck grandfather dies, and his will is read, there’s a necessity for all of the heirs to assemble – that’ll be a neat trick for Evelyn, whose death has understandably been covered up by Kitty and her other married sister Franziska (Marina Malfatti). But there’s also some evidence that grandpa met his fate not by natural causes, but at the hands of …the Red Queen!


“The Red Queen Kills Seven Times.” credit:

Kitty is a fashion photographer for a large fashion brand called Springe (the fashion industry is textbook surroundings for many giallos, and serves admirably here as well.) The director at Springe, Hans Meyer (Bruno Bertocci) has a few special extracurricular tastes that make him easy pickings for Red Queen murder #2. His handsome successor, Martin Hoffman (Ugo Pagliai), must now contend with a workload that’s sure to interfere with his wooing of Kitty, as well as the parade of other in-house employees who can’t wait to hop onto his casting couch – Rosemary (Pia Giancaro), the executive secretary, p.a. Lenore (Dolores Calò) and model Lulu (young exploitation veteran Sybil Danning). Meanwhile, a local junkie, Peter (Fabrizio Moresco), doesn’t believe the story that his old flame Evelyn is languishing in the U.S., but is in fact the victim of foul play – he terrorizes and blackmails Kitty, but inevitably meets the Red Queen as well. So if Evelyn hasn’t returned from the dead as the psychotic white-faced, red-caped and cackling Red Queen, who could it possibly be? And who are her other victims before she finishes up with Kitty?


Barbara Bouchet in “The Red Queen Kills Seven Times.” credit:

Even with a new cinematographer (Alberto Spagnoli), Miraglia keeps a firm and lush Hammer-tribute hand on the visuals. He gives a far more modern feel to the proceedings here (assisted by the same apartment that Mrs. Julie Wardh inhabited), but Castle Wildenbruck still provides an effective dose of Bava-like gothic thrills. There’s even a flooding room to be escaped from! The Night Evelyn Came Out Of The Grave (and, by the way, there’s no connection between Evelyns in these films) is a little less consistent, a little more dynamic – the deaths are nastier, there’s more nudity, and the characters overall are far less sympathetic. The Red Queen Kills Seven Times gives us a couple of genuinely sympathetic protagonists to follow, backs off on the levels of skin and violence (though there are still a few shocks, and some pretty inventive death scenes, as well as the usual tasteful eveningwear of the ladies…) and is far easier to follow narratively, even with the usual quota of jawdropping twists (of varying believability) in the last ten minutes.

Red Queen Kills 7 Times 9

“The Red Queen Kills Seven Times.” credit:

As stated before, there’s something admirable about Emilio Miraglia’s strong and straightforward storytelling style – it renders mistakes and tastelessness irrelevant, and sticks to the business of keeping us interested in watching what’ll happen next. These two will certainly be near the top of the Project-concluding list, but we’re barely into the seventies – there’s oh-so-much more to come!

Movies – A Five-Star Life (Italy, 2013)



Margherita Buy and Stefano Accorsi in “A Five-Star Life.” credit:

I used to post foreign film reviews on the now defunct I’ll start to make some of those reviews available here to preserve them online.

Maria Sole Tognazzi’s A Five Star Life (Viaggia Sola, or I Travel Alone) (Italy, 2013) is a pretty straightforward ‘dramedy’ that touches on a lot of issues contemporary women both engage in and are at conflict with. But there’s a not-so-secret subtext running underneath the occupational, romantic and familial issues that our protagonist, Irene Lorenzi (an appealing and confident Margherita Buy) navigates – she is fully, and confidently, herself; genuinely comfortable in her own skin and guiltlessly content with her single and childless status, deservedly proud that she’s very good at her job, but never allowing what she does for a living to define her life.

When I saw the film at the European Union Film Festival last spring, I was struck by the plain fact that we never, ever, see women like this in mainstream film. They either need to be Crusading Heroines Bucking The Old-Boy Network (Norma Rae, Nine-To-Five, Silkwood, Erin Brockovitch) or Women Who Must Reinvent Themselves After Our Long-Cherished Institutions Fail Them (Mildred Pierce, The First Wives Club, Under The Tuscan Sun, countless others…). Even the most independent, self-sufficient female characters we see in film invariably consider couplehood, or motherhood, or their career choices as necessary compromises or practical inevitabilities. The world is full of perfectly content women who have clearly and freely made the same choices as Irene, but, for some reason, filmmakers and writers always need to include an undercurrent of second guessing, or they need to tailor the circumstances to justify their decisions – the world of men has limited their choices, or their family history dooms them to be a particular kind of person, and they either make the constructive best of it or end up lonely and miserable. (And it isn’t just female characters – I’ve lamented in the past about Nick Hornby’s work [High Fidelity, About A Boy, An Education] constructing achingly single-minded hipsters only to have them ultimately ‘learn their lessons’ about the true value of conformity.)

Irene, it must be said, has an enviable job; she’s a ‘mystery guest’ who works for an agency that sets the ratings for very high-end European hotels. She stays at the finest hotels in the world for three or four days at a time – Paris, Berlin, Tuscany, Switzerland, Marrakesh, Shanghai – analyzing the effectiveness and graciousness of the staff, the quality of the housekeeping, food and amenities, and, ultimately, whether the experience is as satisfying and luxurious as promised. And she’s tough – spying a newlywed couple who are clearly not used to such high-end indulgence, Irene fiercely berates the hotel manager for his staff’s condescension towards them.

When Irene isn’t working (and those breaks are getting fewer and far between – she’s very good at her job, and her boss is constantly adding to her workload), she spends time with her sister’s family or her best-friend ex-boyfriend. Her sister Silvia (Fabrizia Sacchi) harangues her about being a single woman, even though Silvia herself is having some pretty typical marriage and self-esteem issues that Irene simply doesn’t have to contend with. Silvia might like to have more sex with her husband. Might Irene like more sex in her life as well? Sure, but those issues don’t define Irene in the same way they define Silvia. When Irene advises Silvia not to buy a particular dress, it’s because she simply doesn’t like the dress. But Silvia can only ask why the dress isn’t good on her? What is it about her that makes the dress unsuitable? Nonetheless, as sisters, they’re great friends, and make a point to talk to each other every day. Irene even recruits her two young nieces for one of her inspections, giving Silvia a well-deserved break while doing what seems to be a nice adventurous favor for the girls.

Andrea (Stefano Accorsi) runs an organic produce distributorship, and he and Irene share a terrific friendship well after they’ve broken up as an intimate couple. Andrea is now courting a new girlfriend, Fabiana (Alessia Barela), and Irene is nothing if not encouraging. When a particularly tragic occurrence shakes Irene up, she beelines straight to Andrea for comfort. But when aspects of their close friendship start to alienate Fabiana, Irene steps up forthrightly to assure Fabiana of Andrea’s dedicated commitment to their burgeoning new relationship. She defends Andrea, not herself, which turns out to be exactly what Fabiana needed to hear.

One of the centerpieces of the film is a chance encounter that Irene has with a famous sex-positive feminist intellectual, Kate Sherman (Lesley Manville, a terrific performance in a deceptively small role). Irene leads her life day-to-day, rarely having any distance or objectivity. But Kate distills many of Irene’s beliefs about herself and the choices she’s made within a much larger context, and they become immediate mutually-supportive friends.

Irene is a great character because, despite her ‘cushy’ job, she deals with all of the issues we ourselves contend with every day – sharing and supporting the experiences of our families and our friends, constantly assessing and re-assessing whether our work defines us and/or whether it’s worth doing at all. Irene lives a rich and varied life, and doesn’t feel like she lacks for anything, but, like all of us, isn’t oblivious to the other life options she’s weighed, accepted or rejected. If there’s one thing her job has taught her, it’s the importance of standards. Not rules, but empirical standards.  Irene is essentially the same person at the end of the film as she was at its beginning, and that’s an immensely good, and distressingly rare, thing. Other reviews and plot synopses are stuffed with words like “conflict,” “fractured,” “struggles,” coming to terms,”  “Irene must re-think.” Why should she?  I think Irene may work somewhat like a Rorschach test for a lot of viewers – she must be unhappy, she must have regrets, she’s kidding herself. And Irene Lorenzi would be the first person to admit that all of that might be true. But she’s going to move along and get on with her life anyway, taking it as it comes and, ultimately, loving herself through it all. Hollywood needs Meg Ryans and Whitney Houstons and Barbra Streisands to convince us that it’s possible. Italy has Margherita Buy, and in her own modest but impressive way, she might just blow those other divas out of the cinematic water.

Movies – 8 Women (France, 2002)


Emmanuelle Béart in “Eight Women.”

I used to post foreign film reviews on the now defunct I’ll start to make some of those reviews available here to preserve them online.

If you’re in the mood for a big, fun, campy, stylish, melodramatic potboiler with world-famous actresses artfully shooting fish in a barrel, I direct you to 8 Women (Huit Femmes) (France, 2002), Francois Ozon’s Agatha-Christie-meets-Douglas-Sirk-via-Knots-Landing-withmusical-interludes extravaganza. It starts as a standard Poirot-like murder mystery (who killed Marcel in the bedroom with the knife?), and works its way across endless scandals and revelations to finally conclude with a nice twist ending (also textbook Christie) that’s surprisingly dark.

Suzon (Virginie Ledoyen) is home for the holidays to visit her parents, Marcel (Dominique Lemure, in the Kevin Costner ‘Big Chill’ role) and Gaby (Catherine Deneuve), her grandmamy (Danielle Darrieux), her younger sister Catherine (Ludivine Sagnier) and her spinster Aunt Augustine (Isabelle Huppert). In their employ are the beloved cook Chanel (Firmine Richard) and the new maid, Louise (Emmanuelle Béart). After the family exchanges early pleasantries, and Suzon performs a quick ‘Grease’-like ditty about how clueless her fuddy-duddy Papa can be, Louise is dispatched to awaken M. Marcel and deliver his breakfast tray. After the requisite blood-curdling scream, the women discover that Marcel’s been murdered, the phone lines have been cut, the car won’t start, and the front gate has been blocked. Quel horreur! Arriving soon afterward, having received a mysterious phone call, is Marcel’s black-sheep sister Pierrete (Fanny Ardant), and we have our full complement of suspects.

Of course, each has a reason to see him dead; each has a grave secret, or chequered past, that they cannot, but yet must, reveal; each confides in, and then condemns, each of the others; and each gets a silly non-sequiter musical episode that illustrates their general character while completely stopping the actual plot in its tracks. Mon dieu, someone’s pregnant! Zut alors, someone’s having an affair! Incroyable, there are lesbians in this house! Ozon smartly keeps the proceedings irony-and-wink-free; each of these thespian amazons fully commit to the hothouse intrigues, whispered conspiracies and free-flowing estrogen mania. They play it all straight, trusting M. Ozon to wrap things up in a pleasantly vinyl package. Mlle. Ledoyen is criminally charming, and Mme. Huppert shamelessly chews the scenery as the Gatling-gun-neurotic eccentric-but-sympathetic aunt. Fanny Ardant oozes woman-of-the-world slinkiness, and the legendary Mme. Darrieux displays impressive gravity, wiggy-ness and humor as Gaby’s maman. Mlles. Beart and Sagnier don’t get a lot to do early on, but rise to the occasion in timely fashion. And Mme. Richard acquits herself well with perhaps the best song of a disappointingly generic bunch.

It’s refreshing that, in the face of lame celeb-fests like whatever Adam Sandler, Vince Vaughn, Kevin James, Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Aniston and Kate Hudson are phoning in these days, these French icons are literally eating scripts like this alive. They know exactly how silly this stuff can be – they use that as an excuse to work all the harder, rather than take their fans for granted and cash the check. Where else can you see Catherine Deneuve and Fanny Ardant making out on the living room floor? On screen or at home, this movie is highly recommended viewing for a lightweight and deeply goofy refresher course on Pros At Work.




The Luis Buñuel Project – That Obscure Object Of Desire


Carole Bouquet and Fernando Rey in “That Obscure Object Of Desire.” credit:

Luis Buñuel’s final film, That Obscure Object Of Desire (Cet Obscur Objet Du Désir) (France / Spain, 1977), is an adaptation of the 1898 novel La Femme Et Le Pantin (The Woman And The Puppet) by Pierre Louÿs, which served as an effective vehicle for both Marlene Dietrich (Von Sternberg’s The Devil Is A Woman) and Brigitte Bardot (Julien Duvivier’s The Female). Once again he collaborated with Jean-Claude Carrière on the screenplay, and the basic narrative of the book is left intact. But Buñuel and Carrière nonetheless put their own irreverently surreal cast on material that had already taken some politically incorrect liberties, even in 1898.

Buñuel regular Fernando Rey is Mathieu, a wealthy, well-groomed man-about-town who becomes obsessed with a poor but pretty Spanish working girl named Conchita. He relates the story of the relationship (in flashbacks) to the other passengers of his train coach, who have just watched him dump a bucket of water on the pursuing Conchita’s head before embarking. Mathieu, who regards himself as a devoted and generous find for any woman whom he might take a fancy to, has treated Conchita to enormous amounts of attention and indulgence. Conchita, nonetheless, torments him with varying and escalating degrees of tease and denial, imploring him to not see her as a possession but as another person with her own full life and desires. By the time Mathieu boards this train, he’s seemingly done with her.

Conchita first appears as a chambermaid in Mathieu’s household, inexperienced but earnest. That evening, Mathieu wastes no time in conveying his affections towards his strikingly lovely new employee. She demurs and they part, minutes later, on seemingly flirty good terms, but Mathieu discovers the next day that Conchita has quit. Months later, while languishing in Switzerland, he encounters her again; she’s touring with some musician friends (as a dancer) and they’ve just been stiffed by their agent. He helps them out with some cash (after being oddly pranked by them), and learns where Conchita lives in Paris. He visits often, ingratiating himself with Conchita’s mother and offering them favor upon kind favor. He eventually asks Conchita’s mother for her daughter’s hand in marriage, and offers her a large financial incentive. But Conchita again refuses, feeling that Mathieu is buying off Mom instead of earning her own affections patiently and honestly, and disappears. A few months later, Mathieu and his magistrate brother Edouard (Julien Bertheau) are having lunch at a posh restaurant and discover that Conchita is the recently-hired coat-check girl. Once again reunited, Conchita agrees to live with Mathieu at his country estate.


Fernando Rey and Ángela Molina in “That Obscure Object Of Desire.” credit:

Here, at roughly the halfway point of the film, is a good spot to assess the larger context. Mathieu‘s Paris, and greater Europe for that matter, is plagued by terrorists blowing up cars, shops and restaurants, shooting dignitaries down in the streets and bombing planes. The insurgents are a vague mish-mash of lone wolves, anarchists, religious extremists and other various small groups, all with fearsome acronyms like the P.O.P., the G.R.I.F. and the O.U.T., and all allegedly in the service of the R.A.O.I.J., the Revolutionary Army Of The Infant Jesus. Mathieu wields enough privilege and wealth to avoid most of this, but it’s an insistent background. Conchita is a fascinating character made even more complex by the famous stroke of Buñuel and Carrière’s of casting two separate actresses in the one role. Carole Bouquet – French, tall, willowy and wry, making her feature debut, seems more elegant, and somewhat regretful at denying Mathieu his way with her. Ángela Molina, an earthy and cheery Spanish actress with a bit more experience, is more extroverted and engaging, but also more directly defiant. Neither performer is used for particular consistent purposes, though – Buñuel and Carrière alternate them almost at random, a few times within the very same scene. Mathieu’s having to contend with two Conchitas adds extra complexity, and extra boundaries to negotiate. But Buñuel the surrealist is far more interested in letting created associations reverberate than in setting up specific symbols or allegorical contexts. The film is full of visual non-sequiturs: mouse traps, pet baby pigs, a fly in a cocktail. A seamstress repairs an embroidery tear on a blood-streaked piece of fabric, and there are recurring guest appearances by a burlap bag – sackcloth, perhaps?

Mathieu’s country estate is quite nice, but terrorists have disabled the nearby power station. The candlelit evening would seem to be conducive to mutual romance, and Mathieu is delighted that he can finally be intimate and alone with Conchita. But Conchita is adamant about protecting her chastity; he can be as intimate as he likes, but she won’t surrender that. (“Just wait a little while longer. You know I’m yours and yours alone. What more do you want?”) Days go by, they spend lovely recreational days together in Paris, but she still insists on remaining chaste. One night after being turned down again, Mathieu discovers that Conchita’s musician friend has been sleeping over with her in the other room after being tossed out of his hotel. (“But don’t worry, we slept back to back – exactly as I do with you!”). Mathieu throws her out, but he’s irretrievably smitten. He has Edouard use his connections to get Conchita and her mother deported back to Seville, but he then pursues them there anyway. He becomes more obsessive, more pos-sessive, and she continues to profess her love while making him jump through more increasingly demeaning hoops. “I belong to no one, and I am my most precious possession.”


Ángela Molina in “That Obscure Object Of Desire.” credit:

Mathieu is the protagonist here, and in seeing the relationship through his eyes  we’re naturally sympathetic to his frustrations concerning Conchita. But Buñuel, throughout the film, is just as much on Conchita’s side, and is clearly admiring of her self-protective tendencies; there’s no evidence that Mathieu wouldn’t toss her over if given his full indulgences. It’s why she won’t ask him for money; as long as he sees it as a means to his end, he’ll always give it to her anyway. He’ll pay her and Mom’s rent, she can have a room on his country estate, he’ll buy her a small villa in Seville. She meets his frustrations with cruelty, and vice-versa; at one point he strikes her, repeatedly, and, face bloodied, she responds with “Now I know you love me.” Conchita’s reaction may distress us these days (it distressed some back then), but it’s true to Louÿs’ book – after this episode, it’s definitely her pursuing him now – but Buñuel uses this moment to obscure things further; is this another manipulative tactic, or is she truly relenting? Has he done enough for her by now to earn her acquiescence? The privileged Mathieu never changes throughout the entire story, but Conchita has no choice but to strive,  adapt, and oftentimes submit, in order to keep a roof over her head, food in her mouth, and love in her modest life. By the time we end up back on that train, though, near the end, it’s pretty clear what each of them know they need, and how pointlessly, even maliciously, they’re willing to treat each other in order not to just admit that to each other. The terrorists are the least of our problems, some might say – just look what we do to each other. And Luis Buñuel has a good laugh at our expense, again…

The Giallo Project – Assorted 1970-71


Eleonora Rossi Drago in “In The Folds Of The Flesh.” credit:

1970, and the transition to the Golden Age Of Giallos begins. Let’s get right to it with Sergio Bergonzelli, assisted by co-writer and future giallo director Mario Caiano, combining some Hitchcock-inspired Freudian hijinks with a little Jess Franco-inspired fever-dream sex-and-violence. Our first film actually opened just a month or two before Dario Argento’s watershed The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, preceding Bava’s Five Dolls For An August Moon and his Hatchet For The Honeymoon. Bergonzelli went on to do more straightforward sex thrillers after this – the man can bring the sleaze – but his one-off giallo is weirdly admirable, and championed by many film geeks. Or, as one wag on IMDB stated “…to paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson, I wouldn’t recommend this kind of unrepentantly sleazy, morally degenerate, sacrilegious trash to anyone, but it’s always worked for me.”

In The Folds Of The Flesh (Nelle Pieghe Della Carne) (Italy / Spain, 1970) opens abruptly on the shot of a decapitated head – … OK, then… – on a bedroom floor, and an observing family; presumably, the mother, Lucille (Eleonora Rossi Drago), her young daughter and younger son. Suddenly we switch to the road pursuit of a prison escapee on a motorcycle (Fernando Sancho). Veering into the family’s estate, on a large lake, to hide, he witnesses Lucille burying the body of the bedroom victim. The fugitive is eventually run down by his pursuers, but we’ll see later that he never forgets seeing her.

Thirteen years later we meet Uncle Michel (Víctor Alcázar) dropping in for a visit with his cousins. An old friend of their late father André, he now finds the children are grown – Falesse (Pier Angeli, as Anna Maria Pierangeli, her real name) the now-gorgeous grown daughter and Colin (Emilio Gutiérrez Caba) the arty younger son – and makes himself a little too familiar. Unbeknownst to him, the family’s comfortably adept at murdering unwelcome snoopers when required. Falesse dispatches him with disturbing lethal ease, and Lucille and Colin find a letter meant to be sent to Michel’s business-partner Derek. They decide to forward Michel’s invitation – if Derek already knows Michel should be here, then let’s have him along, too, and tie up all the loose ends.


Pier Angeli and Emilio Gutiérrez Caba in “In The Folds Of The Flesh.”  credit: filmforum

But before Derek’s arrival, and before Michel’s finished dissolving in Lucille and Colin’s acid-bath, Alex (Gaetano Imbró )shows up to meet Michel. (Sheesh, homes in the country aren’t nearly as secluded as they once were.) Falesse once again alluringly entertains the guest, but this time the psychedelically-inclined Colin chips in with some of his tape-recorded erotic writings while interpretively ‘dancing’ with his sister. Falesse’s odd manner, and some pretty obvious indications of incest between Falesse and Colin, doesn’t dissuade Alex from having his way with the accommodating Falesse later, and his head predictably rolls as well. But now we’re getting the picture that Dad’s own demise years ago was Falesse’s defense against abuse, both Lucille’s and her own, and her continued acting out of that episode is clearly being put to use for the three of them. The plot thickens…

…and that escaping criminal, Pascal? Heee’s baaack. Having done his homework on exactly whose estate he was pinched in all those years back, he knows all about Papa André and the elaborate criminal blackmailing syndicate he ran (and now we do, too). So the widow must clearly be loaded, right? The film now transitions from an exceedingly lurid serial-murders thriller to an exceedingly lurid sadistic hostage drama. Pascal meets a fitting end, but not without some exceedingly lurid back-history. Excessive sex and violence is one thing, but, unless your last name is Visconti, there are diminishing returns on using concentration camps as an ancillary plot device. It wasn’t a dealbreaker, but it’s in noteworthy bad taste. Gauge your own tolerance accordingly.


Pier Angeli in “In The Folds Of The Flesh.” credit:

Meanwhile, we return to the exceedingly lurid serial-murders thriller already in progress. The father, André, was presumed lost in the lake those years ago – Lucille set the boat alaunch before burying the body, and the boat was found later pilotless. So André is presumed dead, since Lucille’s efforts paid off so well. But, finally Derek arrives, who, honest to God, claims he’s … André! With a surgically-altered face (belonging to Alfredo Mayo), he’s convincingly well-informed about practically every aspect of their lives. Didn’t Lucille bury him? After Falesse murdered him? Well… no, it seems. Lucille is the governess, and Falesse isn’t Colin’s sister! Michel and Alex were André’s men, sent ahead to assess the situation for him. Ooops!

One of the more renowned aspects of In The Folds Of The Flesh is the astonishing number of plot twists, role reversals and characters-appearing-from-nowhere occurring in the final 30 minutes. The above instances only scratch the surface. On first viewing they seem like nonsense, and, of course, they are. But they all make their own sense, and they all follow a tortured but ultimately logical linear path. *Whew!* Ya gotta see it to believe it.

The violence and gore, while narratively convincing, are unfortunately pretty low-budget threadbare, which is a shame, because in many other aspects this is a pretty entertaining movie in pleasingly tawdry fashion. The unconvincing effects tend to pull you out of the otherwise wildly goofy plot. This was the final film for Eleonora Rossi Drago– she retired after Massimo Dallamano’s Dorian Gray (yes, we’ll check it out here!) and this. Pier Angeli, God bless ‘er, after a second divorce and an appearance in the execrable 1971 Octaman, died of a self-administered barbiturate overdose, reportedly terrified of turning forty. She’d had quite a career in the 1950’s, and was James Dean’s devoted girlfriend for a time.

So here’s another interesting guy – Paolo Cavara is probably best known for being one of the three  documentarians of Mondo Cane (1962), an artless but pruriently salacious collection of violence-as-culture vignettes featuring bullfighting, dogs prepared as food in Taiwan, manhunting, pet cemeteries, cargo-cult rituals and other “can you believe that…!” human atrocities of varying degrees. Made on a relatively modest budget, the film was very popular and profitable. Cavara made a few more of his own ‘mondo’ style films, but he broke off from Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi as partners. It’s all relative, of course, but Cavara’s docs, reportedly, weren’t nearly as maliciously lurid as Jacopetti and Prosperi’s later efforts. Indeed, Cavara’s debut fiction feature, L’occhio Selvaggio (The Savage Eye) (1967) was a dark and dismal send-up of his former associates, and the expedient cruelty and dismissiveness into which the whole ‘mondo’ genre of filmmaking had devolved.


Giancarlo Giannini in “The Black Belly Of The Tarantula.” credit:

His Black Belly Of The Tarantula (La Tarantola Dal Ventre Nero) (1971) wastes no time in paying scrupulous homage to both Mario Bava and Dario Argento. There’s a fairly conventional crime plot to move across here, but Cavara’s hip to the Argento formula of emphasizing the sex, violence, stylish visuals and Ennio Morricone musical score to exponentially increase the entertainment value of his film. He also managed to assemble an Italian Dream Cast of exploitation and arthouse pros – Giancarlo Giannini, Stefania Sandrelli, Claudine Auger, Silvano Tranquilli, Barbara Bouchet and Barbara Bach, along with a terrific supporting cast displaying the requisite eccentricities of the genre.


“The Black Belly Of The Tarantula.” credit:

Combining lurid murders with Actual Scienceä™, another Argento touch, we learn that our trench-coated, fedora-wearing, black-gloved homicidal maniac is emulating the tarantula hawk wasp, who paralyzes tarantulas with its stinger and then keeps them alive for further nastiness (the wasp incubates eggs in the tarantula’s stomach, the killer just likes that his female victims are awake and aware of being disemboweled). Our perp here employs acupuncture needles to facilitate his dispatch, and, of course, leaves no trace for the polizia to track down. But there’s no sense in casting Giancarlo Giannini as the intrepid Inspector Tellini if he’s not going to show a sensitive side; he’s endearingly tolerant of his window-dresser wife Anna (Sandrelli), and quite observant about where the list of victims leads, despite the clumsy blundering of his colleagues and his misgivings about being a cop in the first place. The killer turns out to be an enforcer of sorts for a blackmailing ring conducted by the owner/manager of an exclusive spa, but the killer’s actual identity is a nice twist, even if there’s an unnecessary psycho-splanation after the fact. Hard-edged film stocks and inventive angles merge with gauzy-green-and-purple-lit backgrounds and interiors full of looming mannequins – all pretty well done, all pretty effective, even if completely bereft of actual originality. For appearing so soon before the deluge of other giallos to follow, and executing its business in admirable fashion, I’d have to say this one is recommended viewing.

We encountered Romolo Guerrieri as the director of Carroll Baker’s The Sweet Body Of Deborah (Il Dolce Corpo Di Deborah) in 1968; here he once again employs Jean Sorel as yet another morally conflicted pretty boy in The Double (La Controfigura) (Italy, 1971). Guerrero hasn’t acquired any more directorial proficiency in those three years, and this decided non-giallo isn’t nearly as interesting as Sorel’s earlier work in Damiano Damiani’s Moravia adaptation A Rather Complicated Girl, or even the aforementioned Carroll Baker film.  Sorel is Giovanni, an aspiring architect in love with Lucia (Ewa Aulin).  But his midlife insecurities result in his forcing himself onto Lucia’s attractive mother, Nora (Lucia Bosé). He then covers up a murder he thinks she’s committed, but no… It’s pretty convoluted, and far more soap opera than actual giallo. Disappointing.

Also underwhelming is The Weekend Murders (Concerto Per Pistola Solista), an Agatha Christie homage set in provincial England featuring opera diva Anna Moffo (who holds her own in a non-singing dramatic role) and giallo veteran Evelyn Stewart. It’s yet another variation on Ten Little Indians, but Italian director Michele Lupo is fond of incorporating Sergio Leone-like close-ups and dramatic zooms, all to surprisingly little effect. There’s a nice thread of sly parody just below the surface, but it’s not nearly enough to make this genuinely interesting.

My Dear Killer 003

George Hilton in “My Dear Killer.” credit:

Tonino Valerii is best known for directing Italian spaghetti westerns, but his one foray into giallo, My Dear Killer (Mio Caro Assassino) (Italy, 1971), is very good, if a bit prosaic. Vincenzo Paradisi has rented the services of an industrial excavator to dredge something up in a rural lagoon. Unfortunately, the operator extracts Mr. Paradisi’s head from his body instead. A former insurance investigator, Paradisi was following clues concerning a nasty case of his from a year back, a child kidnapping that led to two murders. Now Inspector Luca Peretti (reliable pro George Hilton) must pick up where Paradisi left off, only to discover that his witnesses are murdered as soon as he finds them. Valerii knows how to keep the nuts and bolts of his fairly elaborate narrative in good order, he’s aided by a superb Ennio Morricone soundtrack, and there’s a well-executed killer’s-eye-view sequence where it feels like you’re the one searching for a lethal weapon in an apartment. (Of course, you find one.) There’s a nice undercurrent of dark deep familial weirdness and transgression, all culminating in a Thin Man – style group interrogation. Good, not great, but worth checking out if you run across it.


“My Dear Killer.” credit:

While flailing away at the actual giallo formula, a number of these Italian films simply escalated the standard murder mystery elements – both the murders and the sex became more explicit (but no more interesting or inventive). Of the films we’ve seen, Sergio Martino’s seem to be the best at that particular giallo combination of sexual frisson, slow-building suspense, surprising and creative coups de grâce and elaborate visual stylization, all accompanied by excellent music from Ennio Morricone, Riz Ortolani, Stelvio Cipriani or Bruno Nicolai. Our next film would be the antithesis of that.


“Slaughter Hotel.” credit:

Best known as Slaughter Hotel, but also marketed as Cold Blooded Beast or The Beast Kills in Cold Blood (La Bestia Uccide A Sangue Freddo, its original Italian title), as well as Asylum Erotica and, my favorite, Les Insatisfaites Poupées Èrotiques Du Docteur Hitchcock, it’s a total failure as a giallo but train-wreck-fascinating as pruriently lurid and sleazy softcore Eurotrash. Prolific journeyman writer and director Fernando Di Leo mainly did poliziotteschis (police/crime thrillers) – this is his only giallo, and it’s a mess.


Piero Nistri, Margaret Lee and Klaus Kinski in “Slaughter Hotel.” credit:

A medieval castle has been converted into a posh rural asylum ‘rest home’ for troubled wealthy women, including a stressed-out CEO (Margaret Lee), an insecure actress (Gioia Desideri), a relentless nymphomaniac (Rosalba Neri) and an agoraphobic (Jane Garret). But it never occurred to the doctor / proprietors (John Karlsen and Klaus Kinski) to remove the torture devices and weapons when turning the place into a spa and clinic. So when a stocking-hooded caped serial killer starts going after the patients at night he simply window-shops the common areas and corridors for swords, knives, hatchets, axes, maces or whatever else his homicidal self might fancy. After the initial set-up is established, we follow Dr. Francis Clay (Kinski), who has taken a liking to Cheryl, the CEO, and wants to keep her around even though she’s probably cured. The agoraphobic, Mara, befriends one of the young nurses, Helen (Monica Strebel), and familiarities ensue. And the staff has no chance of keeping up with Anne’s (Neri) appetites, whether with the gardener, the orderlies or alone in her room.


Jane Garret and Monica Strebel in “Slaughter Hotel.” credit:

The murder mystery just becomes filler for Neri’s nude hijinks and Garret and Strebel’s extended bath, dancing and make-out sessions. The murders aren’t particularly convincing until near the end, when the killer, revealed, goes on an almost comically excessive rampage, only to be mowed down by an equally excessive amount of police bullets. Even as just a softcore sex film, giallo trouper and veteran scene-stealer Rosalba Neri is the only one acting remotely interested – Garret and Strebel not-so-much. Even with some cheesy body-double Penthouse-type insert shots, things get pretty disheartening pretty quickly. If you’re a trash-cinema aficionado, knock yourself out. But this is by no means an actual good film.