The Delphine Seyrig Project – Pull My Daisy

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Young Delphine Seyrig. credit: pinterest.com

Delphine Seyrig’s acting resumé reads like a Cahiers du Cinéma  outline of crucial works of Western European cinema through three decades of history. She always viewed herself as a theatrical stage actress, and worked there frequently, but, to paraphrase John Lennon, her illustrious film career seems to have been what happened to her while she was making other plans.

Born April 10, 1932 in Beirut (in what was then the French Mandate of Syria and Lebanon, now just Lebanon), Delphine Claire Beltiane Seyrig was the daughter of Henri Seyrig, the Alsatian director of the Beirut Archaeological Society who later became the official Free French delegation cultural attaché in New York during World War II. Her mother, Hermine de Saussure, an archaeologist as well, belonged to a fervently intellectual Swiss family, and was a female sailing / yachting pioneer –  she sailed the Mediterranean and the Greek Islands extensively with travel writer Ella Maillart and fellow archaeologist Martha Oulié. Delphine’s youth and adolescence thus alternated between Beirut, Greece, Paris and New York. An indifferent student, she convinced her parents to let her drop out of school to pursue acting studies at Paris’ National Academy of Dramatic Arts. After successfully training there, she made steady progress as a working actress in Paris theatre, debuting in 1952 and eventually working with renowned director Jean Dasté in Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Beaumarchais’ The Marriage Of Figaro, as well as scoring a big critical success in Jean Giraudoux’s Ondine.

Her first appearances on a screen of any kind were in two episodes of the 1954 Sherlock Holmes TV series, an American series using primarily European actors which was shot in Paris for Guild Films, produced by Sheldon Reynolds. Ronald Howard (son of Leslie Howard) was a friendly and engaging Sherlock Holmes and Howard Marion Crawford was a conventionally huffy, somewhat plummy Dr. Watson. Associate producer Nicole Milinaire was one of the first women to attain a senior production role in a television series. (These episodes, and others, can be watched on YouTube.)

In “The Mother Hubbard Case,” a small female child confides in a stranger on the street that she’s lost, and prevails on him to help her back to her home address. He, of course, graciously complies. Meanwhile, a young woman, Margaret Martini (Seyrig), has convinced her father to make an appointment with Holmes – her devoted fiancé, Richard Trevor, is missing. Holmes’ power of deduction solves the serial murders of a number of young men (Trevor among them) by an old woman who uses the girl to lure the men into uninhabited homes for robbery and poisoning.

Incidentally, Michelle Wright, who played the young girl, didn’t see the episode herself until 2010, and left the following note on IMDB:

“In 1954 my father worked in Paris for UNESCO and met Nicole Milinaire who was looking for an English speaking young girl to take part in a TV film for the American market. My father volunteered me. I can’t say that I was thrilled with the prospect not having done anything like that before. But my protests were ignored and I was set to at learning the words, fitted for a costume, put through my paces with the cast and supervised by a chaperone. I was paid a two figure sum for my part in this production. I remember the cast I was most closely associated with quite well. As a child you remember the silliest things, like the cake that was supposed to be fudge, the birds in the cage, the doll that I carried and the kindness of the ‘policeman’ and my ‘grannie’. The script is kind of simple, the story inspired by the nursery rhyme of Old Mother Hubbard who went to the cupboard and found it bare so went about killing gentlemen so she could rob them to give her granddaughter a future. The sets are pretty basic, the location obviously French and acting is wooden at times but this chance discovery of something that happened 56 years ago has brought loads of memories back. Michele Findlay nee Wright”

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Delphine in “The Case Of The Singing Violin,” her second “Sherlock Holmes” appearance. credit: arthur-conan-doyle.com

In “The Case Of The Singing Violin,” Seyrig plays Betty Durham, the heiress to a tea-and-spice fortune who seems to be going mad. But she’s really being gaslit by her stepfather, Guy Durham, who murdered her father (his business partner), married her mother, then murdered her, and now aims to have Betty committed, then murdered, as well. Seyrig has a short, unnerving nighttime mad scene, and gets to do some suspenseful physical slapstick at the institution where Holmes eventually saves her. Durham’s primary mistake seems to be murdering Betty’s fiancé, Winant – that’s how Holmes enters the case.

It’s a pity both of Delphine’s episodes involved such bad luck with fiancés; she had better luck in real life. Married to the very good American artist Jack Youngerman in 1950 (like his good friend Ellsworth Kelly, his Parisian art studies were enabled by the G.I. Bill), both Jack and Delphine decided to move to New York with their young son Duncan. Clearly talented, she nonetheless scrambled for acting work in Connecticut and small Off-Broadway productions. But in a Schwab’s Drug Store miracle, one of the spectators in the audience at one of her Off-Broadway performances of Ibsen’s An Enemy Of The People was the French film director Alain Resnais. Having recently completed the celebrated Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Resnais was researching his next project – an adaptation of the Dutch pulp detective thrillers featuring Harry Dickson – and thought young Delphine might be a prospect to be one of Dickson’s arch-villains, The Spider. (The film was never made, but, fortunately, another Marguerite Duras project came up…).

Meanwhile, Delphine’s earnest efforts landed her in what turned out to be the definitive Beat Poetry film, Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie’s Pull My Daisy (USA, 1959). (The film is freely available on YouTube.) The only actual paid professional actor in the film, Delphine joined poets Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky, the painter Larry Rivers, musician David Amram (who did the film’s antic soundtrack score), the gallery director Richard Bellamy (credited as Mooney Peebles), and Robert Frank’s young son Pablo in what began as a short film of the third act of a play Jack Kerouac had written but had not yet published, The Beat Generation. This episode concerned a real-life incident whereupon Neal Cassady’s wife Carolyn invited a local religious dignitary and his family over for dinner one night, regardless of the regular visitations of Neal’s hard-partying peers.

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Delphine in “Pull My Daisy” as Milo’s wife.

Robert Frank is a now-legendary photographer and documentary filmmaker – his book The Americans had just been published the year before, and is justifiably considered among the finest published photo collections in modern art history. Alfred Leslie, Frank’s partner here, is primarily known as an abstract-expressionist painter, but he’s been an avid filmmaker as well. Considering the simplicity of the one-camera set-up (shot 16mm, then presumably blown up to 35mm), and the budget (or lack thereof), Frank and Leslie shoot a lovely, well-observed, if very loosely  performed, rendition of Kerouac’s play. But instead of a standard recorded soundtrack of the performance, Kerouac narrates the film in an improvised voiceover – some of it is a recitation of the play’s actual lines, but he throws in his own free-associative riffs on the material, as well as some sly commentary on the performers themselves. It quite effectively lends a great deal of spontaneity to an otherwise very orderly, surprisingly well-rehearsed film.

After a brief credit-sequence-tour of Milo’s New York Bowery loft / apartment (‘Milo’ serving as stand-in for Neal), the first thing we see in the film is Milo’s wife (Delphine, billed here as simply ‘Beltiane’) opening the shutters to let in the morning, rousing, and making breakfast for, their small son Pablo, and letting in Ginsburg and Corso, who have arrived quite early to hang out, drink wine and beer, and await Milo’s arrival hours from now. Milo’s wife now bundles Pablo up and walks him to school while Ginsberg and Corso act out a pretty free-associative conversation on their own.

(In the play, the two are fellow train-workers, rather than fellow poets. Cassady worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad as, among other things, a brakeman, which is Milo’s day-job here.) Milo (Larry Rivers) comes home with his friend Peter The Saint (Orlovsky) and warns everyone to be on reasonably good behavior for their imminent guest, The Bishop. The Bishop arrives, wearing a simple white suit and hat, with his mother and sister, led upstairs by Milo’s wife, of course. The filmed conversations between the poets and the bishop seem pretty straightforward, but Kerouac’s narration slides into far hipper and expressionistic fancies than the visuals would suggest, which nonetheless works pretty well overall. The poets ask some seemingly nonsensical questions, but the bishop is portrayed with an engaged sense of good humor. Corso gets pretty drunk, Milo’s wife is unhappy with Milo, and, even with the Bishop and his family leaving a little early, it seems they were perfectly happy guests. Milo’s wife now gives him an earful, and the film ends with his leaving her in a huff to go out with his other friends.

Many who know more than I have made note of Kerouac’s (at best) casual attitudes or (at worst) outright misogyny, as reflected both in his own work and in his responses to other cultural items and events. He loves women in the abstract, but they are ultimately disposable along his journey. (“Surely, few read Kerouac today without some degree of awareness of his misogyny problem. Perhaps contemporary readers use a single squinting eye to scuttle past the objectionable passages.”) Milo’s wife is barely there in Kerouac’s play (she’s named Cora), but Frank and Leslie clearly expanded her presence for the film, and Delphine’s assured presentation of her in the film works pleasantly against the grain of the other male characters in the film. As an IMDB commenter noted, “One of the things that now puts me off is the negative depiction of women, in this film and in beat culture overall – unless they are the kind who are easily subordinated and available. Delphine Seyrig as the mother who actually feeds her son and takes him to school is the bad guy here.” As a time-capsule artwork, admire Frank and Leslie’s images and compositions (and all of those circular clockwise pans), and the ground-breaking free-spiritedness and verbal jazz of Kerouac’s more creative segments. But, boy, they, and we, took a lot of things for granted back then, too, and that should temper our appreciations today, in the late 2K-teens.

Sadly, I was unable to find the first three episodes of Pete And Gladys, the seemingly delightful early-sixties sitcom starring Harry Morgan and Cara Williams. Delphine was in those episodes as the French wife of Pete and Gladys’ neighbor Phil Martin, Michele, with whom Pete never got along. As we go along, the variety of Delphine’s work will never fail to surprise you. From Sherlock to The Beats to Hollywood sitcom, our next Project installment finds Delphine making film history – at least for the first time…

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credit: films7.com

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The Giallo Project – Assorted 1971

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Tomas Milian and Pierre Clementi in “The Designated Victim.” credit: nuovocinemalocatelli.com

Maurizio Lucidi was a capable journeyman editor and genre director – he made a few westerns, a few war movies, the usual Italian sex comedies, and this watchable little gem – The Designated Victim (La Vittima Designata) (Italy, 1971). It’s a moody and well-designed remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train. The always-intriguing Pierre Clementi is Count Matteo Tiepolo, a wealthy young man-about-town disposed to wear capes, wield a walking stick and float through Venice on his own private canal boat. He encounters Stefano Argenti (the very good Tomas Milian), a successful advertising photographer dealing with some financial snarls concerning his estranged wife. Having provided seed money for his subsequent success, Luisa (Marisa Bartoli) owns the majority stake in his business, but won’t sell it to him – she enjoys the power, even with the marriage dissolved. He wants a share of her money to start fresh with his model / mistress Fabienne (Katia Christine). Tiepolo, of course, makes the famous Patricia Highsmith proposition – if you kill my evil brother, I’ll kill your unreasonable wife. Since no one would imagine the one knowing the other, no one will tie them to each other’s crime. It’s perfect, right?

While many fingers left their prints on the screenplay, including giallo veteran Aldo Lado, the story is still well-told and structured, albeit a little slow-paced. Aldo Tonti had been shooting Italian film stock since the late ‘30s, including some for Visconti, Fellini, Nicholas Ray and Mario Monicelli – this is a splendid looking, old-school-style film. And Luis Bacalov’s music is a little richer than most – a nice mix of orchestral and pop, if a little repetitive. The whole film, unfortunately, is conditional like this: not a lot of sex or violence, but well-set mood. Good lead performances, then a drop-off in talent: a nice idea to change the ending, but is it better or disappointing? Lucidi heightens the sense of homosexual tension between the two men (apparent in the Hitchcock as well), but is still timid about it – he emphasizes co-dependence over actual attraction, but Clementi’s clearly trying for something richer without much help. Looks great, smartly done, but as giallos go it’s disappointingly tame.

 

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“Iguana With A Tongue Of Fire.” credit: notrecinema.com

There aren’t many good things to say about The Iguana With A Tongue Of Fire (L’Iguana Dalla Lingua Di Fuoco) (Italy, 1971). Directed by now-clearly-bored prolific journeyman Riccardo Freda, it’s credited to the nom de guerre Willy Pareto – whether he didn’t like the casting, the post-shoot editing or his own shoddy work, he pulled his name even though he co-wrote the screenplay and had veteran cinematographer Silvano Ippoliti (Tinto Brass’ regular) on hand.

The body of a young woman, face scarred with acid and throat slit, is discovered early one morning in the trunk of an ambassador’s limousine. The family is aghast, of course, and the police are summoned. But the investigation is stunted by the Swiss ambassador’s insistence on exercising his diplomatic immunity. The wily Inspector Lawrence (Arthur O’Sullivan) brings in Detective John Norton (Italian veteran Luigi Pistilli), a private dick who’d been fired from the force a few years ago. A non-policeman who’ll work underneath the official channels, he quickly seduces the ambassador’s stepdaughter, Helen (Dagmar Lassander), and ingratiates himself with the ambassador’s drug-addled wife (always-reliable scenery-chewer Valentina Cortese). The killer takes a few more of the ambassador’s staff, and imperils Helen (above), before turning on Norton’s own family – his mother and his teen daughter from a previous marriage.

The film’s location is Dublin; Luigi Pistilli’s character is dubbed with an Irish brogue, but they didn’t fuss too much with any other rationale for that. The murders themselves are pretty underwhelming as-shot, the characters aren’t interesting enough to strike any real psychological sparks, and the concluding reveal has little-if-any foundation (“Wait, that was WHO…?”). Unless you’re a Dagmar Lassander fan/completist, you can feel free to skip this one entirely.

 

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Helmut Berger and Wendy D’Olive in “The Bloodstained Butterfly.” credit: cinemas-online.co.uk

A little humorless, a little too deliberate, The Bloodstained Butterfly (Una Farfalla Con Le Ali Insanguinate) (Italy, 1971) is nonetheless an admirably involving, smartly structured murder thriller that repays multiple viewings, a real rarity among the wave of quick-and-dirty giallos that erupted after Bird With The Crystal Plumage.

We’re introduced to the major players in the film in rather theatrical dramatis personae fashion, but the approach pays off as narrative connections are made further along. The Marchi family figures prominently: Alessandro (Giancarlo Sbragia) is a well-known local TV sportscaster, and his daughter Sarah (Wendy D’Olive) attends school with her good friend Françoise (Carole André). When young Françoise is violently murdered in a park on a rainy afternoon, there are plenty of witnesses, and their descriptions lead to none other than Alessandro Marchi. Had he been having an illicit affair with his daughter’s friend? From where could this murderous impulse have come? Giorgio (Helmut Berger) is another student-acquaintance who appears at the crime scene and later befriends, and beds, the understandably saddened Sarah – an additional suspect among a few.

Director Duccio Tessari, a veteran writer/director of spaghetti westerns and poliziotteschi, had directed a hybrid giallo/police thriller with Death Occurred Last Night (1970), but he’s really refined things here. Tessari’s emphasis on Sandro’s attorney, Giulio Cordaro (Günther Stoll), constructing his defense, while Inspector Berardi of the Milan police works feverishly on his end (an early exercise of the ‘Law and Order’ template) is atypical storytelling for the genre, rendering the more lurid aspects of the crime more clinical. With only hints of the usual gore and cheesecake, we find ourselves more invested in these characters; when more murders occur while Marchi is still in custody, we’re as surprised as they are. There’s another illicit affair here as well, and a couple of surprise alibi witnesses to further snarl things up. Tessari is also subtle but effective in examining the environment of privilege that surrounds most of these characters, especially Mrs. Marchi (Evelyn Stewart) and Giorgio’s own tightly-wound family – selfishness and greed far outweighs psychosis as the raison-d’etre for most giallo crimes. The credible, logical and-yet-still-surprising conclusion is well-earned.

 

 

The 2017 Chicago International Film Festival – Sunday, October 22nd

The Chicago International Film Festival is back again, from Thursday, October 12th to Thursday, October 26th, and I’ll provide capsule reviews of as many of the films as I can manage to see. All films are shown at the AMC River East Theaters, 322 E. Illinois St. here in the great city of Chicago, Illinois.

 

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Juliette Binoche in “Let The Sunshine In.” credit: criterion.com

I’ve been doing some homework on the wonderful French actress Delphine Seyrig; as her career progressed through the late sixties and early seventies, she gravitated more and more to female directors, female filmmakers (Chantal Akerman, Marguerite Duras, Ulrike Ottinger, Márta Mészáros). She found collaborating with female artists to be far more liberating – they spoke a common socio-cultural language, had far more instinctive creative affinity with each other, and the work was fostered in a far more beneficial and gratifying environment. Much of that symbiosis seems to be evident in Let The Sunshine In (Un Beau Soleil Intérieur) (France, 2017), an engaging collaboration – ostensibly a loose adaptation of Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments – between writer /director Claire Denis, novelist and playwright Christine Angot, and the actress Juliette Binoche. Binoche plays Isabelle, a successful painter who is juggling a number of intimate relationships – an alpha banker (Xavier Beauvois), an attractive but feckless actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle), her ex-husband (Laurent Grévill), a moody loner she meets in a night club (Paul Blain) and a longtime friend only now making overtures to her (Alex Descas). Intelligent and ordered, impulsive and emotional, dismissive and irresistible, Binoche’s fascinating Isabelle is superbly surveyed and expressed. The male characters are typically reductive in films like these, but Denis and Angot give their roles real import, especially when Gérard Depardieu makes a short but crucial cameo at the end. Denis approached the film as a smaller project between large ones, but this is a wonderful film, sexy, involving and graceful, but pleasingly rough around the edges.

“Let The Sunshine In” screens on Sunday, October 22nd at 5:45 pm and Monday the 23rd at 5:45 pm as well.

The 2017 Chicago International Film Festival – Sunday, October 15th Pt. 2

The Chicago International Film Festival is back again, from Thursday, October 12th to Thursday, October 26th, and I’ll provide capsule reviews of as many of the films as I can manage to see. All films are shown at the AMC River East Theaters, 322 E. Illinois St. here in the great city of Chicago, Illinois.

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Nato Murvanidze in “Scary Mother.” credit: http://www.asiapacificscreenawards.com

A fiercely impressive debut feature film, Ana Urushadze’s Scary Mother (Sashishi Deda) (Georgia/Estonia, 2017) observes Manana (Nato Murvanidze, excellent here), a devoted, selfless wife and mother who has shown loving deference to her family for the years the kids have been growing up. But, no longer little kids, the family decides to now let Mom pursue her own real passion – writing. As the film opens, Dad and the kids have taken over the chores and upkeep of the small family apartment for quite some time now. Dad has even relinquished his place in the bedroom for her private efforts – ‘a room of one’s own’ indeed. But with the novel being completed, tonight’s the night she’ll read it out loud to those whose love and support have made it possible. And their jaws will drop, and not in a good way. Manana’s free-associative epic is her long-dormant id unleashed – all that she’s repressed or privately reconfigured comes gushing out. All of the body mileage, repetitive labor and drudgery that the average mother withstands over 15 years and 3 children is cathartically expressed in almost Lovecraftian physical and sexual metaphor. Manana has invited along her neighborhood acquaintance Nukri (Ramaz Ioseliani), who runs the local stationary shop, and he thinks it’s a worship-worthy masterpiece. But her husband Anri (Dimitri Tatishvili) is vehemently dismissive, and deeply disappointed that Manana would even indulge such thoughts. Start over, he admonishes, we’ll make all the same sacrifices for your next book. But this one will never see the light of day anywhere. (The kids just basically duck and cover – what else would Anri expect?) They even burn the manuscript the next morning, thinking it’s the only copy. But Nukri knows better.

Manana just thinks she has drawn from her own experiences and turned them into far-more-interesting fictional abstractions. She still loves her family dearly, but drifts away nonetheless in the face of their (i.e. Anri’s) non-support. She leaves the apartment and moves into a back room at Nukri’s store, and starts to prowl around the city after he’s closed up for the night. Is she indulging liberated eccentricity, or is she actually losing her grip on reality? A big clue is provided by the knowledge that her scholarly father is translating her novel into another language (presumably English) without knowing that Manana is, in fact, the author.( “I have never read such a filthy author – the text is ingenious and obscene at the same time.”)

Ana Urushadze is the daughter of Georgian/Estonian director Zaza Urushadze (Tangerines), but his fingerprints are nowhere to be found here. This is clearly Ana’s film, with her own out-of-the-park screenplay, a strong visual narrative artfully shot by Konstantin Esadze and an obviously strong rapport with her skilled actors. There are a lot of very good films here this year, but this is the first Do Not Miss item of the bunch. It’s quite wonderful.

‘Scary Mother (Sashishi Deda)’ will be shown on Sunday, October 15th at 8:00 pm, Monday the 16th at 5:45 pm and Friday the 20th at 3:15 pm (an $8.00 matinee).

 

The 2017 Chicago International Film Festival – Sunday, October 15th Pt. 1

The Chicago International Film Festival is back again, from Thursday, October 12th to Thursday, October 26th, and I’ll provide capsule reviews of as many of the films as I can manage to see. All films are shown at the AMC River East Theaters, 322 E. Illinois St. here in the great city of Chicago, Illinois.

 

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Eliane Umuhire in “Birds Are Singing In Kigali.” credit: Materiały prasowe

Birds Are Singing In Kigali (Ptaki Spiewaja W Kigali) (Poland, 2017) concerns Anna Keller (Jowita Budnik), a Polish ornithologist doing research on vultures with a close in-country colleague… in Rwanda in 1994. But rather than being another chronicle of the genocide itself, the film follows Anna’s escape from Rwanda with the daughter of her Tutsi mentor/colleague, her post-trauma settlement back into her life in Poland after three years, and the daughter’s efforts to make a life for herself there after everything else has been taken.

The daughter, Claudine Mugambira (Eliane Umuhire) insists on going to the refugee center rather than Anna’s home. Clearly derisive of charity on her behalf, we learn later of another reason for her distance. Nonetheless, Claudine eventually ends up with Anna, fending off nosy immigration agents and gamely trying her hand at a few different occupations. Anna is clearly deeply scarred – she ends her university-sponsored research and donates away years of personal research archives. Reaching a still-painful détente with each other, Anna accompanies Claudine back to now-Tutsi-controlled Kigali, where she’ll seek to find her family to bury them properly while reconnecting with a lost relative.

The film, directed by Joanna Kos-Krauze, was a co-directing project with her husband Krzysztof Krauze before his sudden death in 2014. Cinematographer Krzysztof Ptak also passed away before completion as well, so the final film is a genuine labor of love and a tribute to Kos-Krauze’s resilience. She hasn’t compromised much – we accumulate details as it cruises along, a long slow blending smear of events and feelings rather than a conventional, step-by-step episodic narrative. But the film is ultimately uplifting and hopeful, without reducing any of the horror that these two women have lived through. I recommend it.

‘Birds Are Singing In Kigali’ screens on Sunday, October 15th at 5:30 pm and Monday the 15th at 5:30 as well.

 

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Reza Akhlaghirad in “A Man Of Integrity.” credit: http://www.gaiff.am

Mohammad Rasoulof was arrested in Iran with Jafar Panahi in 2010 for making films critical of Iranian politics and culture. While Panahi languishes in house arrest, he still manages to make underground films like This Is Not a Film (2011) and Taxi Tehran (2015), which are then smuggled out of Iran and avidly shown in the rest of the world. Rasoulof served one year of his sentenced six in prison before being granted bail. He’s since made Goodbye (2011), Manuscripts Don’t Burn (2013) and our film today, A Man Of Integrity (Lerd) (Iran, 2017), all shot under clandestine circumstances, all having been banned in Iran and smuggled out. His latest seems to have been met with the usual reaction from Iranian authorities – Rasoulof had been allowed some limited travel, but Iran seized his passport upon his return from Cannes and Telluride last month.

Most of Rasoulof’s films concern themselves with big-hearted people being brought to heel by their corrupt government, or corrupt private enterprise that government turns a blind eye to. A Man Of Integrity follows Reza (Reza Akhlaghirad), his wife Hadis (Soudabeh Beizaee) and their young son, who live on a rural northern farmhouse on a small river farming goldfish. Once a rebellious college student in Tehran, he was expelled and forced to settle north, where he presumably landed on the first practical business opportunity presented to him. But the farm, and the river, is under control of a larger land-use corporation, and Reza is at the mercy of their greedy whims. They control the banks, the police, the real estate, the insurance and the lawyers, and nothing moves forward, and no problem is solved, until all of the proper palms have been greased. Religious authorities, cracking down on miniscule domestic vices like Reza’s spiked watermelons, have no interest in messing with any of these bigger fish. His neighbor Abbas (Misagh Zare Zeinab) is one of the company’s field agents; when Abbas closes a dam up the river to spite Reza, they quarrel and fight. The honest Reza must now sit in jail for days while the quickly-freed Abbas fabricates an injury that Reza must now compensate. Mishaps accumulate – Reza pays the penalty on an overdue mortgage loan rather than bribing the banker for relief, then can’t sell the farm for its true worth. Hadis, the head teacher at the local school, tries to pressure Abbas through his young student daughter, which backfires maliciously. The goldfish, the farm itself, and even their lives are all imperiled solely because of Reza’s insistence on good-faith business, mutual respect, paying his honest debts and earning the fruits of his labors. A Man Of Integrity is notable for its resemblance to Russian and Eastern-European films of the last twenty-or-so years, or even American westerns pitting common folk against cattle or railroad tycoons. It’s only when Reza is on his last noble legs, and starts dishing out some of the same malicious medicine he’s been taking, that the powers-that-be, rather than finishing him off, start liking him and offering him a piece of what they’ve got.

The film is excellent work – the lead performances are terrific (especially the steely Beizaee), it’s admirably composed and shot by cinematographer Ashkan Ashkani, and Peyman Yazdanian’s musical score is affecting without being intrusive. My only complaint, and it’s a minor one, is the film’s length; Reza’s business struggles are fastidiously detailed from jail cell to office to warehouse to office to car interior to office, and there are only so many graying middle-aged overweight wheeler-dealers with five-o’clock shadows one can keep track of. Every inch of Rasoulof’s footage is clearly hard-won, but his film is about twenty minutes too long. Rasoulof’s film is a very good one, though, and richly deserves our support. Go.

‘A Man Of Integrity’ will be shown on Sunday, October 15th at 8:30 pm and Wednesday the 18th at 8:30 pm as well.

The 2017 Chicago International Film Festival – Saturday, October 14th Pt. 2

The Chicago International Film Festival is back again, from Thursday, October 12th to Thursday, October 26th, and I’ll provide capsule reviews of as many of the films as I can manage to see. All films are shown at the AMC River East Theaters, 322 E. Illinois St. here in the great city of Chicago, Illinois.

 

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David Asavanond and Chermarn “Ploy” Boonyasak in “Samui Song.” credit: ecodelcinema.com

According to the press materials for his film, Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang was interested in exploring interracial marriages as status signification, mixed with his jaundiced interest in the predominance and variety of Buddhist cults in Thailand. “Basically, insecurity is a lucrative business in this country.” The resulting film, Samui Song (Thailand, 2017) is an adventurous narrative mash-up that doesn’t always work, but is smartly and darkly entertaining nonetheless. Viyada (“Vi”), a well-known daytime television actress (Chermarn “Ploy” Boonyasak, a prolific young Thai actress often billed as Laila Boonyasak) crashes her car on a rural road. Being treated at the hospital, she meets the eccentric but engaging Guy Spenser (David Asavanond) and, sharing cigarettes and lunch with him, gives him the dirt; her husband Jerome (Stéphane Sednaoui, a photographer and filmmaker worth Googling…) is an impotent, abusive, privileged, navel-gazing western white guy in the thrall of The Holy One (Vithaya “Pu” Pansringarm), a cult priest “healer” who has his way with her, his follower’s wife, as Jerome’s religious offering to him. Easily convinced, Guy offers his services to her as her husband’s assassin, since he could use the money to help care for his sick, elderly, Alzheimer’s-addled mother. So much for the Double IndemnityPostmanBody Heat exemplars – Ratanaruang is more interested in their value as signifiers than concrete references, and slowly but persuasively pulls us into his own meta-narrative rabbit-hole. The title refers to Koh Samui, a quiet resort island where Vi finds refuge, and a new lover, to start a better life. Or does she?  I had a lot of puzzle-wrestling fun with this confident film, but the final ten minutes feature a fair amount of excessive cruelty and gore that may be a dealbreaker for some viewers. Ratanaruang’s amiably loose hand on the helm leads to some underwhelming performances and some temporal confusion, but his ideas are pretty intriguing and he’s a seasoned technical storyteller. Give this one a shot, by all means.

‘Samui Song’ will be shown on Saturday, October 14th at 8:30 pm, Sunday the 15th at 8:15 pm and Monday the 16th at 2:00 pm (an $8.00 matinee).

 

 

The 2017 Chicago International Film Festival – Saturday, October 14th Pt. 1

The Chicago International Film Festival is back again, from Thursday, October 12th to Thursday, October 26th, and I’ll provide capsule reviews of as many of the films as I can manage to see. All films are shown at the AMC River East Theaters, 322 E. Illinois St. here in the great city of Chicago, Illinois.

 

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Arnaud Valois in “BPM (Beats Per Minute).” credit: © Celine Nieszawer

David France’s excellent, affecting 2012 documentary How to Survive a Plague chronicled the rise of ACT UP in the U.S. from the late eighties into the nineties, and it’s catalytic role in spurring genuinely aggressive medical research for the treatment, and potential cure, for the HIV virus and AIDS. It remains one of the go-to film sources on the subject. Now we have another equally powerful chronicle of the era crafted by the French filmmaker Robin Campillo, who himself was a member of ACT UP Paris in the 1990s. A collaboration with fellow screenwriter and ACT UP Paris member Philippe Mangeot, BPM (Beats Per Minute) (120 Battements Par Minute) (France, 2017) is a fictionalized but still-impressive account of these same sexual, cultural and political issues in France. It’s a very thorough but passionate ensemble overview of ACT UP Paris’ membership, structure and tactics, as well as an intimate and moving portrayal of one couple’s joining together, both as fellow activists and lovers, and, regrettably, the sad and too-typical demise of one of them.

Campillo thrusts us into the action from the start – the interruption of a government presentation by the activists proceeds far more intensely than one of the activists feels they agreed to; some join her questioning of the tactical extremity and its effect on potential allies, while others defend whatever level seems to have the most actual results. One of the most vocal participants, Sean Dalmazo (the excellent Argentinian actor Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) is quick to start an argument, a fight or a party. A flamboyant queen and fiercely loyal friend, Sean has serious differences with the leaders of the chapter, Thibault (Antoine Reinartz) and Sophie (Adèle Haenel) ; Sean is dying, and wants results now, feeling frustration at those who don’t share his survivalist sense of urgency on behalf of thousands of others. Drawn by Sean’s fearsome resolve and love of life, Nathan (Arnaud Valois) is discreet about his HIV-negative status, but knows he’s been lucky and is resolved to help his community.

We follow the activists to a French high school, where they pass out explicit leaflets and condoms, and are met with a mix of positive and negative reaction from the faculty and administration, while another action, at a pharmaceutical corporation’s Paris headquarters, becomes a fake-blood-drenched mess of (again) dubious effectiveness. But we also have a raucously joyous parade (with cheerleaders!)  and a series of nicely stylized visual interludes in dance clubs. Interspersed within it all are Sean and Nathan and their mutual love, expressed in both intimate conversations, and impressively frank nearly-explicit sex. But no matter what else is presented to us, their relationship consequently comes to the fore, and the film’s penultimate scenes are both heartbreaking and joyful. Campillo strikes a superb tone here, graciously sympathetic without overdoing the sentiment.

The film is France’s Foreign Film submission to the 2018 Academy Awards – considering the annual field of films in France, yours had better be good. This one is quite wonderful. It’ll get a regular theatrical run from November 17th, but these should be well-attended early screenings you’ll be glad you made time for.

‘BPM (Beats Per Minute) (120 Battements Par Minute)’ screens on Saturday, October 14th at 8:45 pm and Sunday the 15th at 11:30 am.

 

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Tomáš Maštalír in “The Line (Čiara).” credit: Wandal Production

 Peter Bebjak is a very good Slovakian director whose prolific TV work seems to allow him his more adventurous feature film work. His newest film, The Line (Čiara) (Slovakia, 2017) is an urgent, smoldering crime drama about inter-generational smuggling syndicates along the Slovakia – Ukraine border in 2007. That’s the year the EU established the Schengen Area – 26 European states that did away with passports and border control to allow unrestricted travel between them. In Slovakia’s case, it opened their shared north, west and south borders in Europe, but reinforced the border at Ukraine, making the already tight smuggling routes practically impassable. Cigarettes and refugees have been the normal contraband that Adam Krajnak (a very good Tomáš Maštalír) transports for the sordid but successful Krull (Stanislav Boklan), but when Krull starts slipping narcotics shipments in without Adam’s knowledge, then business-as-usual starts to deteriorate. With the border tightening, Krull needs to pump up his margins, but Adam wants to stick to the old-school program he’s used to living with – he has a family, after all. Adam trusts his friend Jona (Eugen Libezňuk) to handle the Ukrainian side of things [with Slovak border police captain Peter Bernard (Andrej Kryc) on his side of the checkpoint], but, with Jona’s son in a Ukrainian jail, he’s mightily tempted to let Krull help him out for a price.

It’s easier to make delineations if you’re aware of the language shifts from Ukrainian to Slovak – we Americans are at a disadvantage there, unfortunately – but, still, with the subtitles it’s not a tough story to follow. The efficient management of a longtime criminal enterprise, and where that intersects with profoundly deep familial concerns, is Godfather territory, but Bebjak works both aspects admirably – some of Adam’s family turmoil is indeed genuinely heartbreaking. Peter Balko’s script sets a well-structured course, but leaves plenty of room for the actors to show and not tell. Many of cinematographer Martin Ziaran’s visual strategies mimic surveillance – things seen from two views simultaneously, through windows, over other people’s shoulders, or things we probably shouldn’t see at all from skewed, intrusive angles. But he’s not afraid of settling in to harder geometric, Gordon Willis-like chiaroscuro compositions either.

I liked this film a lot. It’s technically excellent, visually vibrant to watch and follow, and well-told as a complex but compelling story. It’s Slovakia’s Foreign Film submission to the 2018 Academy Awards, and well worth seeing.

‘The Line (Čiara)’ will be shown on Saturday, October 14th at 8:30 pm, Sunday the 15th at 2:30 pm, and Tuesday the 17th at 3:15 pm (an $8.00 matinee).