The Luis Buñuel Project – The Phantom Of Liberty

“I experience in every event that my thoughts and my will are not in my power. And that my liberty is only a phantom.” – The Milky Way (La Voie Lactée)

Luis Buñuel’s earlier religious-themed films (arguably most of them in some manner, but Nazarin, Viridiana, Simon Of The Desert, and The Milky Way primarily) were critical of the uses to which ‘civilizing’ moral structures and institutions (like the church, colonialism and governments) were put. Other, later films expressed the tug-of-war between social strata (peasants, workers, the educated middle-class, clergy and the wealthy), and how each represented character exercised, or denied themselves, their own free will (Viridiana, The Diary Of A Chambermaid, Belle De Jour, Tristana, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie). While Discreet Charm…, at the time, was a provocative black comedy quite unlike most others, I found that its subsequent imitations, homages and extrapolations quickly dated it. Luckily, I didn’t have remotely as many of those problems with The Phantom Of Liberty (Le Fantôme De La Liberté) (France, 1974), which I regard as a superb distillation, and extension, of many of Buñuel’s most engaging and thought-provoking tendencies.

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Jean-Claude Brialy and Monica Vitti in “The Phantom Of Liberty.” credit:askhelmut.com

The film begins with two of Buñuel’s favorite reference points – Francisco Goya’s famous “Third Of May 1808” painting (where Spanish resistance fighters face a French-Napoleanic firing squad), and Jose Zorrilla’s play Don Juan Tenorio, (the haunting of Don Juan by both Dona Elvira, who died of heartbreak after he abandoned her, and her father, Don Gonzalo, whom Don Juan murdered when he left her). We see the resistance fighters, defiant in the face of the rifles, but they’re crying “Death To Liberty!” and “Long Live The Chains!”, typically surreal contradictions. (Inveighing against their genuine better interests – does that sound oddly familiar..?) The statues of Don Gonzalo and Dona Elvira are prominent in the ransacked church the French encamp within, and a soldier, chowing down on communion hosts, drunkenly flirts with her statue, only to be mysteriously bonked on the head by the stone hand of Don Gonzalo. Furious, injured, but probably still drunk, he digs up the grave of Dona Elvira and finds her miraculously well-preserved in her coffin, which enables the defiling soldier to… be abruptly cut away from, as a nanny now reads from the play in a 20th century park in Paris.

Somewhat similar in structure to The Milky Way and Discreet Charm…, Phantom’s episodes seem far more free-associative and self-contained. Once an idea is expressed, and a point has been made, the narrative will veer abruptly in a new unpredictable direction. A man has trouble recognizing his wife on the street – he suspects sleeping problems and sees a doctor, whose nurse must interrupt their session to tell the doctor she needs a few days off. We then follow her out of the office rather than continuing with the patient. Buñuel and co-creator Jean-Claude Carrière, by this time, shared a familiar common language of dreams, tall tales and philosophies, and here they have wicked fun subverting standard narrative cause-and-effect, one-thing-follows-another structures. Where The Milky Way relied on its picaresque on-the-road scenario, and Discreet Charm… depended on the arc of the privileged ‘diners’ inability to determine their own fates, Phantom relies purely on how its characters react to their own perceptions of reality under quite varied circumstances.

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Anne-Marie Deschodt, Michael Lonsdale and Milena Vukotic in “The Phantom Of Liberty.” credit: legrandaction.com

Our visitor to the doctor dreams of a rooster, a postman, and an ostrich, but actually has the piece of mail the postman gave him in the dream. The doctor’s nurse goes to a small country inn, meets a group of Carmelite brothers who help her pray for her sick mother, and ends up drinking, smoking and playing poker with them. Invited to another room, they all leave in disgust when an S&M couple starts indulging themselves, but the dominated man is upset and surprised that the monks aren’t staying. A professor comes to a police academy to lecture on Laws and Customs, but the officers relentlessly prank him like bullying children. Off the professor goes to dinner, where the table is surrounded by toilets and set with magazines and ashtrays; if you want to eat dinner, you go into a private room where you’ll be undisturbed. A man learns he has cancer, slaps his doctor when offered a cigarette, and tells his wife at home that he’s fine. The couple then learns that their daughter is missing! They hurry to the school to get the news from the teachers (while the daughter, Aliette, stands beside them), then angrily report the abduction to the police (with Aliette sitting next to them in the office). (“You did well to bring her. It helps,” says the police captain as he’s filling out her missing persons form.) A sniper guns down Parisians from the Tour Montparnasse building, is arrested, tried and sentenced to death. He is now, of course, free to go. A woman in a bar reminds a man, the police commissioner, of his long-dead sister. The long-dead sister then phones him at the bar. He’s later arrested for trying to open her grave and must face – the police commissioner. Together, the two of them go to the zoo to arrange… a firing squad…

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Ellen Bahl, Pascale Audret, Jean Rochefort and Claude Piéplu (with Valerie Blanco) in “The Phantom Of Liberty.” credit: katushka.net

Much of the unexpectedness or incongruity of these situations hinges on the exercise of personal choice, or the following, or rejection, of social and moral standards. But who sets the standards in the first place? Buñuel, here in his 70s, had lived long enough to see political terrorists become celebrities, poverty-stricken people vote for their oppressors, and the pendulum of sexual liberation swinging back towards repression. The important difference for Buñuel was his graciousness – he never demeaned or made careless fun of his characters. No matter how far from someone else’s idea of logic or order or common sense they strayed, he always found common cause with their basic humanity.

This film certainly ranks near the top of my Luis Buñuel Project, but many would argue his last film is the real masterpiece. We’ll find out soon…

The Giallo Project – Luciano Ercoli

Luciano Ercoli had been involved in the Italian film industry since the fifties, starting out as an assistant director, moving into the producing side of things through the sixties, and directing his own thrillers and giallos in the early seventies. One can’t help but point to his partnership, and subsequent marriage, with the prolific Spanish actress Nieves Navarro (whom, as her films gained more international distribution, then billed herself as Susan Scott) as the catalyst for the creation of his best-known work. Forbidden Photos Of A Lady Above Suspicion, Death Walks on High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight – the three gialli they made together – were Italian / Spanish co-productions; not only did they enjoy working together, but they both had built up film-business resources they could employ to assure themselves of worthwhile, and well-funded, projects. All three feature Ernesto Gastaldi scripts, and all three feature many of the same performers, a giallo repertory ensemble, as it were…

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Susan Scott and Dagmar Lassander in ‘Forbidden Photos Of A Lady Above Suspicion.’ credit: notrecinema.com

Forbidden Photos Of A Lady Above Suspicion (Le Foto Proibite Di Una Signora Per Bene) (Italy / Spain, 1971) gets off to a sexy start with the recently-married  Minou (Dagmar Lassander) swearing to lay off the booze and tranquilizers while tarting herself up to go out the night before her husband joins her at a small seaside resort. But once out of the hotel she’s waylaid by a mystery motorcyclist who threatens her sexually before letting her go unharmed, yet not without telling her that her husband is a fraud who may be a murderer. Arriving soon after Minou’s call relating the incident, her husband Peter (Pier Paolo Capponi) is genuinely concerned, but dismisses the confrontation as a malicious prank from a coward. The police, predictably, concur. But there has been an unresolved death at Peter’s company involving a huge make-or-break contract, and Minou’s blackmailer (Simon Andreu) is a malevolently persistent guy – now that Minou has slept with the blackmailer to protect her husband, the blackmailer has those photos now with which to extort her as well. As the nastiness escalates, Minou relies on her good friend (and an old flame of Peter’s), Dominique (Scott / Navarro), to help her cope with the twists and humiliations. Of course, when things get bad enough to finally bring the police into it (rarely a constructive move in giallos), the blackmailer, and any trace thereof, mysteriously vanishes. But we know better…

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Simon Andreu and Dagmar Lassander in ‘Forbidden Photos Of A Lady Above Suspicion.’ credit: peanutbutterandgialli.wordpress.com

Ercoli’s early thriller relies more on non-violent crime and lurid psychology rather than psycho killers and body counts. The blackmail plot escalates in standard fashion, but what’s fairly novel here is the presence of Dominique, a willfully free-spirited character who brags about dabbling in porn (with photos of her own, incidentally), seduces Peter’s right-hand man at his company, and is entirely and gracefully in-charge in whichever circumstance she finds herself. She’s a good foil for Minou, who gamely contends with her blackmailer (without much help from Peter) but slowly falls victim to the sleaziness she can’t extract herself from. It’s nice to see a sexual thriller where at least one female character isn’t somehow punished for her sex-positive temperament (Gastaldi is good about this, generally, until we get to Sergio Martino’s Torso). Lassander does reliable and convincing work here, fresh from Piero Schivazappa’s Femina Ridens and Mario Bava’s Hatchet For The Honeymoon.

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Dagmar Lassander in ‘Forbidden Photos Of A Lady Above Suspicion .’ credit: mistemeil.blogspot.com

This film is written by Ernesto Gastaldi, an astonishingly prolific screenwriter whom we first encountered working with Carroll Baker on some of her post-Hollywood giallos. From The Vampire And The Ballerina, Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory and The Horrible Dr. Hichcock in the early 60s, Gastaldi wrote westerns, peplums and erotic thrillers, and provided numerous giallo scripts to Umberto Lenzi, Luciano Ercoli and Sergio Martino. It’s pulp, and sometimes pulp on a short schedule, but Gastaldi cranked this stuff out pretty reliably, with admirable invention. His script here seems to be the template for the subsequent Strange Vice Of Mrs. Wardh for Sergio Martino, but there he introduces a psycho-killer into the narrative at the start, pumps up Julie Wardh’s (Edwige Fenech) kinkiness and has her Dominique-like friend Carroll (Cristina Airoldi) unceremoniously murdered.  (Oh, well…) Gastaldi’s script here is a good one, making actual logical narrative sense throughout (it’s a low bar in giallos). And Ercoli shows a capable hand with a script, a camera and the actors. Just watch how each character is visually introduced, regardless of what they’re saying when we meet them.

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Susan Scott in ‘Death Walks On High Heels.’ credit: watchviooz.com

Death Walks On High Heels (La Morte Cammina Con I Tacchi Alti) (Italy / Spain, 1971) steps things up right away – a man has his throat slashed in a train compartment, which is then searched to no avail. High-class stripper Nicole (Susan Scott) and her shady boyfriend Michel (Simon Andreu) are informed by the police that the train victim is Nicole’s father, a jewel thief who had reportedly gone straight. But he was murdered over stolen diamonds, and since they weren’t in his possession, they’ll be coming after Nicole, assuming he confided in her for their safekeeping.

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Susan Scott and Frank Wolff in ‘Death Walks On High Heels.’ credit: dvdbeaver.com

Nicole, undaunted, goes back to work at her usual clubs, but now all of that male attention carries a darkly threatening undercurrent, reinforced by disguised-voice phone calls asking for the diamonds or else… She also makes a new friend, the adoring but well-mannered Dr. Robert Matthews (Frank Wolff) who regularly attends her shows and helps to spirit her off to London when she’s molested in her apartment by the diamond-seeking killer. Settling into Robert’s cottage in a tiny town on the British coast, Nicole sees a whole other life that she could be leading as the loving wife of a brilliant eye surgeon. But the gossipy small-town atmosphere quickly gets oppressive, and neither the jilted Michel, nor the killer, is far behind.

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Susan Scott and Simon Andreu in ‘Death Walks On High Heels.’ credit: mondo-digital.com

Ercoli cranks up the tension with the old trick of placing the camera where it isn’t possible for it to be. We see Nicole open the medicine cabinet from its other side, seeing her through the shelves; from outside 2nd and 3rd-story windows, and through mirrors she herself is looking into. It’s debatable whether this is fair to the character – it implicates Ercoli’s audience in surreptitiously observing her as well, implying that we’re no more ethical than the characters in the film doing the same thing. The violence is more prevalent, but awkwardly and abruptly placed – Dad’s murder-on-the-train at the beginning is a half-heartedly amateurish little episode, while the later murder of Dr. Matthews’ current wife Vanessa (Claudie Lange) is garishly, almost comically explicit. After a pretty big Hitchcock-inspired twist at the halfway mark, we eventually learn that there’s been a great deal more surveilling and recording than we might have originally imagined – the visual narrative is rife with oval windows, mirrors, cameras – and the characters we’re still following aren’t even remotely reliable narrators for their own stories. Gastaldi’s screenplays, with very few exceptions, always land on greed or revenge as the ultimate motive; they rarely rely on psychosis alone. This one honestly earns the twists at the end, though – it may be my favorite of the three.

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Susan Scott in ‘Death Walks At Midnight.’ credit: redvdit.com

In Death Walks At Midnight (La Morte Accarezza A Mezzanotte) (Italy / Spain, 1972), Susan Scott is Valentina, a model and actress struggling to make ends meet. She takes an assignment from her ambulance-chasing journalist boyfriend Gio (Simon Andreu) that pays her ₤300,000 to anonymously take a hallucinogenic drug (under a doctor’s supervision, ovviamente…) and let Gio document its effects and her reactions for a story he’s writing. She rides the high nicely at first, but then has visions of a grisly murder – a young woman who is beaten to death by a man wearing a spiked iron glove. The next day, fully recovered, she sees the newsstands plastered with her photo, and Gio’s less-than-clinical descriptions of her experience. Infuriated with Gio, and losing work due to her now-dubious notoriety, she also learns that the murder she ‘hallucinated’ actually happened… six months ago, and that the killer is caught and languishing in an insane asylum. But neither the ‘victim’ nor the ‘killer’ are the people Valentina saw in her hallucination. Luckily, there’s no shortage of people seeking out Valentina to set her straight, or seek her help, concerning the death of Hélène and/or Dolores, and her own personal investigation commences, with the additional assistance of another boyfriend, the artist Stefano (Pietro Martellanza, billed here as Peter Martell). But for every clue she confirms and dutifully reports to the police, Inspector Seripa’s (Carlo Gentili, reprising the same absent-minded-professor schtick from his Inspector Baxter in Death Walks On High Heels) skepticism increases. He thinks it’s all an elaborate stunt for Gio’s next article.

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Susan Scott in ‘Death Walks At Midnight.’ credit: 10kbullets.com

Here, Gastaldi’s script inserts outright knock-offs of sequences from other films – Stefano’s artist-as-suspect character comes from Bird With The Crystal Plumage, the apartment-across-the-courtyard scenario is from Rear Window, and the crimes-within-crimes multiple-suspects is one trick Gastaldi perhaps leans on too often. (There’s heroin too? Oy…) But Pietro Martellanza (credited as Peter Martell), joining the Scott / Andreu / Claudie Lange / Carlo Gentili troupe, is very good here, and, again, the concluding twist, though a bit overworked by now, is credible.

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Peter Martell in ‘Death Walks At Midnight.’ credit: dvdbeaver.com

All three are eminently watchable – I’d rank them High Heels, Forbidden Photos, then Midnight, but each has its small pleasures.

The Luis Buñuel Project – The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie

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The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie. credit: wondersinthedark.wordpress.com

The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie (Le Charme Discret De La Bourgeoisie) (France, 1972) was the Best Foreign Film Oscar-winner in 1973. Academy members had been no doubt watching Luis Buñuel’s career throughout the sixties – the films are always entertaining, in their particular ways – and now they had finally found one of his films that didn’t feature poverty, disfigurements, sexual fetishes, outright blasphemy or homages to the Marquis de Sade. A winner! But simmering here underneath the narrative’s overt drawing-room-comedy aspects are Buñuel’s (and co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière‘s) usual darkly surrealist conceits regarding sex, death and dreams.

The film is a series of episodes where a group of friends attempt to sit down together and have a proper meal. There’s Don Raphael (Fernando Rey), an ambassador to a fictional Latin American country, M. and Mme. Thévenot (Paul Frankeur and Delphine Seyrig), Mme. Thévenot’s younger sister Florence (Bulle Ogier), and the Sénéchals, Henri and Alice (Jean-Pierre Cassel and Stéphane Audran). But they arrive for a friend’s dinner on the wrong night. Or they discover the restaurateur has passed away and is lying in state in the adjoining dining room. Or a seemingly busy café is out of tea. And coffee. And milk. Or a military squad on war exercises arrives and must eat first. The interruptions become sillier, and/or darker, and/or more abstract as the narrative moves along. But it’s what’s revealed about the characters along the way that gives the film its subversive frisson. Between social engagements, the three men are active in the international cocaine trade. Don Raphael is stalked by a pretty female ‘terrorist’ selling stuffed animals (whom of course quickly becomes desaparecido thanks to two of his agents), and he is often asked about the allegedly miserable and corrupt conditions of his small country, which he amiably denies. The Thévenot’s are gourmand connoisseurs; she poring over menu choices or guessing dishes from the kitchen smells, while he goes on and on about his own delicious caviar supplies or his making the perfect martini while demonstrating that the working class is too unrefined to be allowed to drink them. “There’s nothing more relaxing than a dry martini,” he states. “I read it in a woman’s magazine.” The sister, Florence, is perky and charming, but prone to overindulgence in the aforementioned martinis. The Sénéchals are textbook social companions – there’s no indication of what they do for a living or where their contentedness springs from, but dinners are usually at their place, provided by a kitchen full of domestics, except on the rare occasion where Henri and Alice sneak down their own back trellis to have sex with each other in the backyard behind the bushes, while their guests wait to be served…

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The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie. credit: archive-cinema.tumbler.com

Each potential meal with the six becomes its own little parlor drama, but some of them feature other guests as well. Monsignor Dufour (Julien Bertheau) is the presiding local bishop, but nothing makes him happier than gardening for the Sénéchals on the side. A young soldier in the out-of-everything café, apropos of nothing, narrates a grisly ghost story of familial betrayal and retribution. A sergeant in the military squad relates a dream he had about meeting dead friends on a quiet city street. Then, gradually, our main characters’ exploits start slipping into dreams as well. The military-squad Colonel (Claude Piéplu) invites all to dinner at his place, but his whisky is cola, the chickens are rubber, and his dining room turns out to be a stage in a theater, with a booing, whistling audience deriding them all for not knowing their ‘lines.’ Then Henri Sénéchal wakes up… to go to the Colonel’s for dinner, where he witnesses Don Raphael arguing with the Colonel over insults to his country, and then shooting him in fury. And then M. Thévenot wakes up. It doesn’t all dissolve into dreams, though – Monsignor Dufour is called to the side of a dying man for last rites, only to discover the man is the killer of Dufour’s own parents. Should he absolve him or avenge them? If only this could be a dream…

Speaking of crime, the intrepid Inspector Delecluze (François Maistre) breaks the case of the cocaine-smuggling diplomat, and promptly arrests Don Raphael and his five accomplices just as they’re sitting down to dinner. (*gasp!*) Delecluze dreams of a bloody, ghostly sergeant letting prisoners free at night, and, now awake, he receives a call from an interior minister ordering him to free his arrestees. Freed, they sit down to dinner again. But now there are gangsters with machine guns…

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The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie. credit: 1001plus.blogspot.com

A genuine surrealist, Luis Buñuel rarely trafficks in outright allegory or symbolism. He, rather, sets up a series of recurring associations, and hopes that you’ll draw a lot of the same impressions and conclusions that he has. But, if that doesn’t happen, he’ll work hard to have, at least, entertained you anyway. Overlapping dreams, irony and surprise, stagey and stylized sex and violence, and even a soundtrack that interrupts its own characters are familiar devices these days, but Buñuel and Carrière were true masters at inventing and employing them. The film overall seems remarkably tame these days, almost half-hearted compared to the comedies and satires that ensued over the following 45 years, inspired by work like this. But there are still very few films that are even remotely like these late Buñuel films. Indulge.

The 52nd Chicago Int’l Film Festival – Pt. 7

The Chicago International Film Festival is a welcome annual arrival, and I’m delighted once again to 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. Part 1 is here. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6.

 

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Tadanobu Asano with Momone Shinokawa in ‘Harmonium.’ credit: festival-cannes.com

Today features two splendidly twisty, darkly admirable offerings. Kôji Fukada’s Harmonium (淵に立つ – Fuchi Ni Tatsu) (Japan, 2016), set in the present day, starts out following the style of middle-class family dramas so prevalent in Japanese cinemas in the 40s and 50s. But later writers and filmmakers, from Nagisa Oshima, the Art Theater Guild and Seijun Suzuki to Takashi Miike and Takeshi Kitano, took delight in subverting those narrative outlines to explore the psychological extremities beneath all of that. Fukada joins this company with the story of a normal hardworking family, a mysterious stranger returned from the past, and the horrific bottom that drops out from under their contented lives. The film isn’t nearly as explicit as many of these can be, but there’s certainly an element of j-horror-inspired anxiety, even in the absence of actual ghosts, coupled with some film noir karma’s-a-bitch irony and a nonsense ending that somehow makes perfect sense nonetheless. Another small film that I hope gets good distribution – I really liked this one a lot.

Harmonium will be shown on Sunday, October 23rd at 5:30 pm and Monday the 24th at 8:45 pm.

 

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Ha Jung-woo attends to Kim Min-hee in ‘The Handmaiden.’ credit: thefilmstage.com

Park Chan-wook’s superb gothic melodrama The Handmaiden (아가씨 – Agassi) will get a regular run at the Music Box next week, but since you’ll be watching the World Series, it’s probably best to catch these early screenings. This is one of those ‘sooner-the-better’ films, trust me.

Park has taken Sarah Waters’ Dickensian U.K. novel Fingersmith and transposed it to 1930’s Korea; Korea had been under Japanese rule and occupation since 1910, and that sense of bridging hierarchies and cultures between colonized Korea and the entitled Japanese empire is an intriguing new foundation. The film starts with an elaborate swindle; our protagonist, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) will pose as the maid to Hideko (Kim Min-hee), the niece of an extraordinarily wealthy book collector, Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong) in order to convince her to marry her con-man partner-in-crime, Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), whom will then commit her to an asylum forever and abscond with her inheritance.

All, of course, does not go to plan – in fact, there are some jawdropping plot twists and shifts of context that take five-or-ten minutes to settle into; they’re that surprising, that disruptive  and ingeniously well-executed. This is also a very erotic film, which is to say to some that it’s kind of a dirty movie, so you can decide for yourself whether that recommends it or dissuades you. A valuable bar has been raised with the advent of Blue Is The Warmest Color (2014), and this film is example #1. There are a few instances where the lurid displaces the logical, but overall this is an amazing film that may be Park Chan-wook’s mid-career masterpiece.

The Handmaiden will screen on Sunday, October 23rd at 8:15 pm and Tuesday the 25th at 8:30 pm.

 

 

The 52nd Chicago Int’l Film Festival – Pt. 6

The Chicago International Film Festival is a welcome annual arrival, and I’m delighted once again to 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. Part 1 is here. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5.

 

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‘Kékszakállú.’ credit: Chicago Int’l Film Festival

 Kékszakállú is not only part of the Hungarian title of Béla Bartók’s one-act opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (A Kékszakállú Herceg Vára), but it’s also the title of a very nicely done filmed meditation on its themes (Argentina, 2016). The opera is based on a Charles Perrault fable from 1697, where Bluebeard’s a rich but ugly aristocrat whose previous wives have mysteriously disappeared. He gains a new wife through an arranged marriage, but she discovers the tortured bodies of his previous wives, and she and some other family members eventually kill him. In the Bartók opera, he’s a little more misunderstood – he marries Judith, who wants to see the other rooms in the castle. Each room he refuses, and each time she talks him into it. The first is the torture chamber (but no bodies) – each room after that has more symbolic significance: a treasury of riches, a beautiful garden, a lake of tears. The final, seventh, room is the hardest to talk him into, but he acquiesces, only for her to find… the other wives, perfectly healthy and living in luxury. The catch, of course, is that none of them can ever leave, including, now, Judith.

Our filmed version here, directed by the Argentinean director Gastón Solnicki, isn’t remotely as dramatic, only dealing with these themes in glancing, associative ways. But what’s echoed is a sense of (quotidian) dread and vulnerability shared by the female characters (in the film, we follow four or five female characters, but three predominate) and the choices they make to move on from their otherwise humdrum (and privileged) young lives. Entering college, finding work in a factory, moving to the big city, running away from home and even just jumping off of a high diving board become oddly suspenseful, despite the film’s languid pace, lack of spoken dialogue and almost-too-pretty visuals. Two different cinematographers and two different editors, along with Solnicki, makes me suspect that the film’s intriguing cohesiveness is more happy accident than deliberate, planned result. But it’s absolutely worth watching, and speaks highly of Solnicki’s taste level and sense of evocative abstraction. At 71 minutes, it’s well worth a look; me, I’m both suspicious and optimistic enough to be looking for what he does next.

Kékszakállú will screen Friday, October 21st at 6:15 pm, Saturday the 22nd at 3:45 pm and Tuesday the 25th at 8:45 pm.

The 52nd Chicago Int’l Film Festival – Pt. 5

The Chicago International Film Festival is a welcome annual arrival, and I’m delighted once again to 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. Part 1 is here. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4.

 

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Hiroshi Abe, Taiyô Yoshizawa and Yôko Maki in ‘After The Storm.’ credit: hollywoodreporter.com

Hirokazu Koreeda (sometimes spelled Kore-eda) has sometimes been compared to the Taiwanese directors Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Tsai Ming-Liang, who share a patient, deliberate long-take style of visual narrative. But when it comes to the story and characters, his work most reminds me of the great Eric Rohmer. Now, granted, Rohmer explored love, friendship and the vagaries of couplehood in various guises and situations, while Koreeda almost exclusively concerns himself with family dynamics. But they’re both slyly humorous, both have genuine respect for their charmingly flawed characters, and both use a milieu of unadorned realism to emphasize what’s important about these particular people.

His newest film, After The Storm (Umi Yori Mo Mada Fukaku –海よりもまだ深) (Japan, 2016) carries the same graciousness towards his characters, but, narratively, he doesn’t spare them real grief. Ryota Shinoda (Hiroshi Abe) was once a promising novelist; now he works for a somewhat skeezy detective agency playing unfaithful couples against each other, gambling away most of his earnings, rummaging through Mom’s apartment looking for pawnable possessions of his late father, and consistently failing to come up with child support. Mom and the ex don’t let him get away with any of it, but they also know that he takes after his late father, whom Ryota might have despised more than any of them. His mother, Yoshiko (Kirin Kiki, quite funny), outlasted her lousy husband, and is now healthy and content. Ryota’s ex-wife Kyoko (Yôko Maki) has recently been seeing a wealthy industrialist (Ryota uses job-time to spy on her as well), and she’s determined to move her life along constructively. And, of course, Ryota dotes on his young son Shingo (Taiyô Yoshizawa), who would rather draw walks than hit singles or doubles in little-league baseball.

Each of these characters (as well as Ryota’s sister and his detective-partner) is compellingly presented, and Koreeda even fashions a kind of optimistic suspense out of the proceedings. But he leaves us with no resolved conflicts, no sunny resolutions – only the knowledge that the materials for all of that are right in front of all of their noses, if they so choose. This is a terrific movie, as his last three or four have been (Like Father Like Son, I Wish, Still Walking). He’s a very reliable a filmmaker, almost as much as, oh, maybe even… Eric Rohmer.

After The Storm will be shown on Wednesday, October 19th at 8:15 pm and Thursday, October 20th at 5:45 pm.

The 52nd Chicago Int’l Film Festival – Pt. 4

The Chicago International Film Festival is a welcome annual arrival, and I’m delighted once again to 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. Part 1 is here. Part 2. Part 3.

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Eduardo Martínez and Lola Amores in ‘Santa & Andrés.’  credit: Chicago Int’l Film Festival

Santa & Andrés (Cuba / Colombia, 2016) is a modest but solid second feature from director Carlos Lechuga. Santa (Lola Amores) is a tall and rangy single woman who does farm work on a nearby cattle ranch. But she’s also recently been recruited by the official (and officious) Jesus (George Abreu), who may be a love interest of hers but is foremost the local head of the Cuban Communist party for that rural region, who charges Santa with detaining a dissident author who’s been put under indefinite house arrest. Party officials, dignitaries, the press, etc., are attending a “peace forum” nearby, and they don’t want Cuba’s undesirables stirring up any mischief for those three days. So Santa, carrying a kitchen chair, walks to the cinder-block “home” of Andrés (Eduardo Martínez), plants her chair across from the front door, eyes him warily, never smiles and sits sentinel.

Andrés not only wrote books and articles not particularly supportive of la revolución, he’s also made the political miscalculation of being a gay man. Santa theoretically understands why Andrés might constitute a threat to orderly Cuban society, but their progressively-more-civil interactions only serve to convince Santa that he’s a pretty harmless nice guy. The three-day vigil concluded, Santa continues to stop by to see him nonetheless, and they form a furtive and fragile friendship, with Santa learning far more about the details of a gay man’s life than she’s perhaps prepared for, while he provides an unlikely conduit for her to decompress some long-suppressed feelings of her own.

The film primarily feels like a very good short story, and Lechuga tells the tale with an oddly straightforward delicacy – the weather’s always sunny, there are visits to the beach and the bars, but we never lose a sense of gravity, or forget how much more is at stake for both of them. It’s very nice work, and I hope it gets further distribution from here.

Santa & Andrés screens on Tuesday, October 18th at 8:45 pm, Wednesday the 19th at 8:00 pm and Wednesday the 26th at 12:15 pm (an $8.00 matinee).