The 2018 Chicago European Union Film Festival – Part 4

The 2018 European Union Film Festival is back at the Gene Siskel Film Center, from March 9th to April 5th.

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Josef Hader, Pia Hierzegger and Crina Semciuc in “Wilde Maus.” credit: filmpressplus.com

The terrific Austrian actor/writer/director Josef Hader absolutely nails a prickly and complex role in Wilde Maus (Wild Mouse) (Austria, 2017). Georg (Hader) is the longtime classical music critic for a daily newspaper in Vienna who is abruptly let go for younger, cheaper writing talent. Insulted and indignant, Georg pretends to continue working, keeping his psychoanalyst wife Johanna (Pia Hierzegger) in the dark while he spends his days distracting himself at the Prater fairground amusement park. Johanna, meanwhile, in her early forties, has decided she’d like a baby, and obviously needs a great deal of support from Georg right now. When he inevitably fails to provide it, she assesses an entirely new set of options. The various first-world rabbit-holes our players veer into start out as pretty typical black-comedy scenarios, but Hader, a seasoned veteran actor and cabaret performer, builds his narrative with patience, a real affection and affinity with his performers and a clean, smart sense of visual storytelling (he employs two cinematographers here, Xiaosu Han and Andreas Thalhammer, shooting in widescreen Cinemascope format). The dark coincidences approach contrivance after a while, and the ending’s a bit capricious, but overall the film is both involving and rewarding. I hope it’s picked up for further distribution here – Hader is deservedly famous in Austria and Germany, and he was great in 2016’s Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe. More, please.

“Wilde Maus” will screen on Monday, March 19th at 8:15 pm.

 

 

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The 2018 Chicago European Union Film Festival – Part 3

The 2018 European Union Film Festival is back at the Gene Siskel Film Center, from March 9th to April 5th.

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Frederick Lau in “Gutland.” credit: filmfund.lu

Gutland (Good Land) is the southern – central region of Luxembourg, and Govinda Van Maele has located his first feature film, Gutland (Luxembourg, 2017) there in a tiny rural farmland village called Schandelsmillen, surprisingly adjacent to Flannery O’Connor, Jim Thompson and Shirley Jackson territory. A drifting stranger, Jens (Frederick Lau), arrives looking for farmhand work – it’s pretty late in the season, and he’s rebuffed on first arrival. But one of the village girls, Lucy (a nice contrasting turn from Vicky Krieps) takes a quick liking to him, and the friendly easygoing mayor (Marco Lorenzini) finds a farming family who can use some help. The small, insular town and lifestyle require some adjustment, but Jens settles in fairly nicely. But what’s in that gym bag he buried in the woods? Why are the fathers so hard on their kids, while their wives seem to be cultivating a little swingers’ underground?

Writer / director Van Maele has created a technically well-executed short-story narrative film that never really falls into full-blown cinematic territory. The storytelling pacing is deliberate and unchanging, and there’s not a lot of tonal variety in Narayan Van Maele’s photography, although the film overall looks terrific. As a first feature that will now land him investments in his second and third, Van Maele’s film is admirably well-done. But not much will stick with you upon leaving the theater.

“Gutland” will be shown on Sunday, March 11th at 5:15 pm and Tuesday the 13th at 7:45 pm.

The 2018 Chicago European Union Film Festival – Part 2

The 2018 European Union Film Festival is back at the Gene Siskel Film Center, from March 9th to April 5th.

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Zsombor Jéger in “Jupiter’s Moon.” credit: Curzon Artificial Eye

 

Kornél Mundruczó’s Jupiter’s Moon (Jupiter Holdja) (Hungary, 2017) is a smart, impressive and involving roller coaster of a film. Aryan Dashni (Zsombor Jéger) is a young Syrian man seeking refuge in Hungary with his father. But they’re met at the border by heavily-armed immigration police, and one particularly malicious agent, László (György Cserhalmi), puts five bullets into Aryan’s midsection. Oddly, drops of Aryan’s blood start rising from the ground, and so too does the very-much-alive Aryan, floating away to make good his escape. In search of his father, Aryan encounters a makeshift hospital serving the refugee population and meets Dr. Gabor Stern (Merab Ninidze), who sees the gunshot wounds, the rising blood, and a levitating Aryan. Stern and Aryan strike out together to find the father, with Stern making some side-show side trips to make money from Aryan’s angelic talents, with the relentless László hot on their tail.

Mundruczó, with his talented cinematographer Marcell Rév, have fashioned a visually entrancing narrative for Kata Wéber’s screenplay, a wild mix of socio-cultural, political, religious and caper-thriller elements that pull you along irresistibly, even when the symbolism gets a little facile, and even when all of those loose ends don’t necessarily tie together. Is this a super-hero origin story? Or a religious allegory? Or just a chase thriller? (It includes a superb car chase, by the way…) A little homework reveals some comparisons to Alphonso Cuaron’s Children Of Men – a fair call, but this is a far more straightforward, present-day treatment that still stumbles upon the profound in it’s high-energy Eastern European squalor. I really liked this film, and highly recommend it.

“Jupiter’s Moon (Jupiter Holdja)” screens on Saturday, March 10th at 5:15 pm and Monday, March 12th at 7:45 pm.

The 2018 Chicago European Union Film Festival – Part 1

The 2018 European Union Film Festival is back at the Gene Siskel Film Center, from March 9th to April 5th.

 

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Sandrine Bonnaire in “Catch The Wind.” credit: © Jean-Claude Lother

Catch The Wind (Prendre Le Large) (France, 2017) relates the tale of Edith Clerval (the sublime Sandrine Bonnaire), a middle-aged textile worker in a mill that’s being closed down. Rather than take the severance package and go job hunting in provincial France, she chooses to follow the relocated work to Tangier, Morocco, despite what will surely be a pay-cut and a difficult readjustment. Widowed and essentially estranged from her grown son, her work is all she knows, and as long as she’s working she assumes she’ll be fine.

Director Gaël Morel’s good intentions are clear; he wants to illustrate the corrosive effects of corporate downsizing on otherwise healthy communities, and the willful neglect of those same companies when they race to the bottom to reduce production costs and reduce their liabilities towards their workers’ welfare. On arriving, Edith discovers that she’s been reassigned to a sewing-machine sweatshop (rather than textile production) where it’s every-worker-for-themselves, unaided by the gruff female supervisor who thinks any complaints or criticisms from her workers will cost her her own job. Islam is woven deeply into Edith’s new culture, and she doesn’t start out well with Mina (Mouna Fettou),the friend-of-a-friend who runs Edith’s resident hotel with her young son. Bonnaire’s character is always watchable, and the story holds itself up most of the way, but when bad luck arrives, it’s pretty abrupt, and not nearly as deliberately well-structured as what preceded it. I almost wish the film had been longer – the concluding scenes seem pretty rushed, and the wrap-up’s not particularly convincing. But Sandrine Bonnaire’s work is peerless as usual – she works regularly in film and TV in France, but I don’t believe she’s had a film distributed here since 2009’s Queen To Play. Her world-class performance makes the film.

“Catch The Wind (Prendre Le Large)” screens on Wednesday, March 14th at 8:15 pm.

Movies – Handicapping The Best Picture Oscars 2018

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Daniel Kaluuya in “Get Out.” credit: thethings.com

 

It’s Oscar time again, and here’s my annual self-imposed project of catching up with mainstream Hollywood, taking a break from my usual foreign films and giallos. Ironically, none of my favorite foreign films got anywhere near Oscar consideration this year – Robin Campillo’s BPM (Beats Per Minute) (France), Ana Urushadze’s Scary Mother (Georgia/Estonia) and Bruno Dumont’s Slack Bay (Ma Loute) (France) are all worth tracking down.

 

Call Me By Your Name – Lots of people love this film. My results varied – I didn’t buy into most of it, and it’s at least twenty minutes too long. I was looking forward to it; I had found Luca Guadagnino’s 2009 film, I Am Love, to be pretty thin – some good ideas, the always-committed work of Tilda Swinton and Yorick Le Saux’s lovely camerawork notwithstanding – and the buzz here indicated a big step up. A handsome young academic comes to Italy to intern with an older, well-respected mentor, but finds himself irresistibly attracted to his mercurial seventeen-year-old son. I haven’t read the highly-regarded André Aciman novel from which this is adapted, but I suspect there’s a lot of internalized narrative that James Ivory’s adaptation, despite his best efforts, simply couldn’t put at Timothée Chalamet’s disposal. Guadagnino, again, takes picturesque advantage of the lovely and sunny Italian countryside, but there’s no trace of a foundational narrative environment in which these two people would believably fall in love with each other. There’s a lot going on with Chalamet’s character, Elio, and I started actually believing some of it about 2/3 of the way through. For me, though, Armie Hammer’s Oliver never took credible hold. I think that’s far more on Guadagnino and Ivory than on Hammer’s clear hard work. Supporting turns from Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar are rock-solid, as usual. Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (who has done far more adventurous work for Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Miguel Gomes) is the cinematographer here, but Guadagnino honestly doesn’t give him much to do besides make pretty pictures. I’m also surprised that the film hasn’t been more scrutinized for casting two straight men in an evolving gay relationship – 2013’s Blue Is The Warmest Color was hammered for this, and it’s a fair call for debate. Guadagnino’s absence from the director’s nomination makes this a longer shot for Best Picture, but James Ivory might steal Adapted Screenplay from Aaron Sorkin.

 

Darkest Hour – Winston Churchill in 1940 was not a very well-liked man. Among his historical sins were an aggressive hawkish streak that he’d developed in his youth in the British Army and carried along through various military-secretarial postings in the British government, a dislike for Mahatma Gandhi leading to deep disagreements with his fellow conservatives during India’s negotiations for independence, and his beseeching King Edward VIII not to marry Wallis Simpson and abdicate the throne, completely estranging himself from then-Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and his peers. But when the Nazis marched across Europe, decimating British military resistance, and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain resigned his post, the British government took an odd risk and appointed the most qualified man for the job. And the first job they put in his lap was rescuing 300,000 British soldiers from the beaches at Dunkirk.

It’s instructive, if you’re inclined, to watch Darkest Hour and Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk in short succession. Knowing the more pragmatic details of the Dunkirk situation, and witnessing the urgency with which it was dealt from London, fills in a few blanks in Nolan’s more abstracted and segmented narrative. Joe Wright’s film is a hyper-showy version of old-school Prestigious with a capital ‘P’; all lushly upholstered residences, the stern hardwood-appointed Parliament, and Rembrandt / Caravaggio chiaroscuro lighting and framing throughout. Bruno Delbonnel’s rich cinematography serves Wright well, but it is a bit much, the visual equivalent of a plummy British accent. The supporting actors are all quite good (Kristen Scott Thomas, Stephan Dillane, Ronald Pickup), but the primary appeal of the film is Gary Oldman’s effortlessly compelling, out-of-the-park performance as Churchill. He’s the draw, but it’s not close to the Best Picture this year.

 

Dunkirk – Christopher Nolan wants to express the surreality of 300,000 soldiers politely standing in single files on a beach in France, waiting for deliverance or annihilation; he wants to express degrees of duty, common and uncommon personal courage, the need to survive, the need to surrender, anticipation, anger, despair and fear. He’s pretty successful at finding narrative structures for most of that – four separate ones, actually – but he’s sacrificed a great deal of identifiable emotion to the exacting, persnickety, clockwork mechanics of his chosen locales: the rocky breakwater pier on which the larger military ships are loading soldiers and wounded, with varying degrees of success or disaster; a small family cruising boat piloted by a modest but loyal everyman who wants to do his part for Churchill, England and Our Boys (the reliable Mark Rylance, superb again); two young soldiers trying, failing, trying, failing and trying again to find a boat to get off of that beach and back home (for such an eventful thread, oddly uninvolving); and a persistent pilot who just needs to take out one more German plane (Tom Hardy, delivering another uncanny minimalist gem). Impressively, this is Nolan’s first film under two hours since 2002’s Insomnia, and he wears the brevity well. It’s all pretty watchable, but there isn’t much of a dynamic – everything comes at you at the same deliberate pace, like he’s making sure You Got That Bit before moving to the next, and his transitions are either too abrupt or too deliberately orchestrated. Hoyle van Hoytema’s camerawork, from claustrophobic ship-holds to aerial dogfights, is well-managed and executed, but the expert visuals don’t blend anything more effectively than the narrative does. Even where his films fall short, I always respect Nolan’s big ideas and the sense of scale he aspires to. This is a  film of genuinely moving moments and some real inspiration, but it’s just all too segmented and fussed over to pick you up and carry you along.

 

Get Out – my personal favorite of the nine, and in the top three of possible winners. It’s hard to believe this is Jordan Peele’s feature film debut. There’s such creative individuality in the tone of the film, in his admirable hybrid of horror film, socio-cultural exposé and black comedy, that you have to reach back to George Romero to find much of anything like it. It’s a withering critique of white privilege and the ‘othering’ of black (or any minority) Americans, but you never feel like you’re being preached at or convinced of something. Things are how they are, how they’ve always been, and the film offers no facile sociological advice or recourse beyond its emphatic title. As an old straight white guy, it’s easy to see lots of myself in these villains, and to empathize with Chris, Walter, Georgina and Andre. But I’m also good with Peele not caring whether I’m his intended audience or not, or whether I might be put off by any of it. My minor quibble is the late elaboration on “how it’s really done” that sets up Chris Washington’s (Daniel Kaluuya) blood-soaked escape – things were scarier when Walter, Georgina and Andre were just weirdly off, and Chris was at a bigger disadvantage. But that’s negligible. No other film this year was as flat-out entertaining as this (Lil Rel Howery’s turn as Chris’ friend on the ‘outside’ is worth the price of admission alone), and I’m tugging on your shirtsleeve right now for you to go see it. It’s rewarding to see a film that accomplishes so well exactly what it intended to do.

 

Lady Bird – a lovely film, surprisingly edgy and muscular for your basic teenage-white-girl bildungsroman. As a writer, Greta Gerwig has previously collaborated with other writer/directors, notably Joe Swanberg and Noah Baumbach, but, for her solo writer/director debut, this is an impressively good film with an admirably distinctive female viewpoint. Individual scenes and images are hilarious and/or heartbreaking by themselves, but Gerwig’s screenplay weaves those moments into the credible whole unobtrusively – there’s a really smart sense of transition and dynamics here, and her obvious alacrity in working with her actors only enriches things along the way. Saoirse Ronan doesn’t shy away from the abrupt or awkward, and puts her likability at risk more than once – she trusts the script, and Gerwig holds her up. They’re both very good at avoiding sentimentality – the ‘valuable lessons’™ tend to sneak up on you rather than parading themselves. It’s also a film with strong male characters who are OK with not being primary concerns. The supporting cast is uniformly superb, and Laurie Metcalf’s Marion might be this year’s best acting performance in any category. Gerwig and Ronan are overmatched for Director and Actress, but, although the competition is fierce, I think she wins Best Original Screenplay here. A contender, and a terrific film, but not the Best Picture this year.

 

Phantom Thread – a gorgeous and engaging film with a sneaky streak of co-dependent perversity and wicked humor, Phantom Thread is this year’s “I Love To Watch Pros Work” film. The acting is near-flawless, the visual environment, art direction and camerawork (writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson shot the film himself) are beautifully enveloping, and it’s a novel treatment of the ‘tortured artist’ protagonist and a nice twist on the myth of Pygmalion. Daniel Day-Lewis’ Reynolds Woodcock is a dress designer par excellence for an exclusive layer of London’s second-tier royalty and old-money socialites, well-assisted by his loyal and cruelly-efficient sister Cyril (brilliantly arch Lesley Manville, who seems to have created her character with her cameraman, not her writer/director), but he’s not immune to keeping a revolving array of lover/muses as part of the tailoring crew. His latest, Alma (Luxembourgian find Vicky Krieps) , was a waitress in a countryside hotel/retreat before Reynolds whisked her off to London and made her his protegé. But Alma’s more forthright than his usual kept women, and stumbles across a unique way of cultivating Reynolds’ continuing affections. It’s really good, and I highly recommend it, but this is way far away from the industry’s affections – only “Call Me By Your Name” made less box office than this film. Best costumes, maybe…?

 

The Post – Like Spotlight from 2016, also written by Josh Singer, people are so enamored with this paean to Crusading Journalism, and its ripped-from-history’s-headlines story, that few people took notice that this film just isn’t very good. Particular supporting cast members draw genuine interest, most notably Bob Odenkirk, Bruce Greenwood and Tracy Letts, but there’s less-than-predictably-confident work here from Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. Hanks as blustering Ben Bradlee brings his usual energy, but his role is weirdly underwritten by screenwriters Singer and Liz Hannah, and he’s eventually lost in the sea of characters and fractured intrigue. The writers do better with Katherine Graham, but Streep’s oddly fluttery presentation doesn’t present us, as viewers, with any credible handle. She’s a woman floating in wealth, leisure and privilege, and likable nonetheless, but when the big important things are at stake her seemingly courageous decisions come off as arbitrary whims, like the country and the media just got lucky (*whew*). Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski indulges Spielberg’s visual eccentricities reliably, but the harsh back-lighting and waist-height up-angles start to feel like clichés. Lincoln (2012) and Bridge Of Spies (2015) were far better films – better written, better shot, better performed. This one was a real letdown.

 

The Shape of Water – Guillermo del Toro really loves making monster movies, and his preferences lean towards the big, melodramatic, elementally humanistic Universal horror films of the thirties and forties. His latest is a very likable film that looks great on the big screen (Danish cinematographer Dan Laustsen has only recently acquired regular work in Hollywood, but he’s quite good), but falls down on some of the fundamentals. His tale of an amphibious humanoid creature, the creature’s merciless military/corporate captor, the scientists who want him/it kindly and animately preserved, and the lovely and compassionate outsider who falls in love with him/it is classically compelling horror fantasy, and you’d think del Toro would be the guy to take it to another level. But everything here feels formulaic – too straightforward, too obvious, too clockwork. All of the actors make two or three very basic choices and keep hitting those notes over and over and over. It all felt, to me, like the script was shot one draft too soon, well before he could smooth over the Amelie references, well before he could flush out more interesting nuances in his villain (Michael Shannon), or better blend some obtrusively obvious symbols and metaphors, or more clearly motivate the actions of his other supporting characters. Sally Hawkins does irreproachable work here, and she’s a real contender for Best Actress. I wouldn’t vote for him for this, but you could argue that del Toro, Anderson and Nolan are all due for a Best Director win, and del Toro is the likely favorite of those three. Shortcomings notwithstanding, the Academy loves big inspirational thriller/adventures like these, and I think they’ll pick this over Dunkirk and the more subversive Get Out. If they go full-on subversive, though, our next film is the dark horse.

 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – John Oliver, on his TV show, recently talked about how much he loves the U.S. despite the wild array of contradictions and nastiness evident every day. Irishman Martin McDonagh’s film is informed with that same sense of expatriate mixed feeling; can Americans maintain their uniquely eccentric humanity while continually immersed in their baser cultural predilections? We’re first presented with the overwhelming anger and grief of Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), who carries her daughter’s unsolved rape and murder around like a pillory stocks. But as the film progresses, and Mildred more publicly asserts herself, grief, guilt and anger spread themselves around the small Missouri community in both tragic and funny ways. McDonagh’s storytelling is somewhat blunt, and unerringly linear – the real gold is in his touch with his actors and the depth of the characters he’s written, even if those characters prove to be, or choose to be, irretrievable or irredeemable. Everyone swears too much, everyone’s got hair-trigger tempers; the film skirts caricature, but it’s nonetheless credible – a passionate urgency grounds everything the film conveys. The long run is rewarding, if potentially corrupting, and I was genuinely surprised at how good this turned out to be; I highly recommend it, and I put it in the top three.

 

Best Picture –

should win – Get Out

will win – The Shape Of Water or Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Best Director

should win – Jordan Peele, Get Out

will win – Guillermo del Toro, The Shape Of Water or Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk

Best Actor

should and will win – Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour

Best Actress

should win – Sally Hawkins, The Shape Of Water

will win – Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Best Supporting Actor

should win – Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project

will win – Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Best Supporting Actress

should win – Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird

will win – Allison Janney, I, Tonya

Movie I didn’t expect to like so much (Last year this was Jackie.):

I, Tonya – hitting the right tone, and maintaining that intangible tone throughout the filmed story you’re telling, is crucial. Jordan Peele nailed it in Get Out, but I ‘d argue that Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya might have had a much harder job of it, and you honestly can’t take your eyes off of this. This particular version of the rise and fall of Tonya Harding’s ice skating career has plenty of opportunities for derisive ridicule and condescending exasperation, but Gillespie won’t have it. Everyone is presented in their own admirable or miserable light, or blends thereof, in a straightforward manner. No one blinks, no one lets you off the hook, no one lets you in on the joke. Unreliable narrators? Plenty. Darwin Award winners? Throughout. But Gillespie is diligent about giving these characters their own say, with respect nonetheless, and, by the time the film is through, you won’t imagine it could have happened any other way.

Movie I wanted to like but didn’t (Last year this was a tie – Manchester By The Sea and Toni Erdmann.):

Blade Runner 2049 – I shouldn’t be too hard on a film that had such an unrealistically high bar to reach, but Ridley himself was one of the executive producers. Really good ideas march past you never to be engagingly explored or resolved; one really bad idea was the character of Niander Wallace, the acquirer of the Tyrell Corporation who seeks to torment Deckard-in-exile (Harrison Ford, solid), much to the nonchalant minor irritation of ‘K’ (Ryan Gosling, bless ‘im, but any thirty other actors could have done this), the replicant who has inherited the task of rogue-replicant termination. Most of the main characters’ motivations are somewhat cryptic, but Denis Villeneuve is disturbingly, spectacularly clear on how hard his future is on women. From Robin Wright’s angry, isolated police lieutenant to Wallace’s enforcing consigliere Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) to the lab failures and obsolete models being disposed of in gasp-inducing fashion, the misogyny dissuades you from thinking twice about the more well-conceived but poorly-executed aspects that you might want to give more credit to later on. Hans Zimmer’s Dunkirk soundtrack was a surprisingly restrained admirable fit for that film, but he’s up to his usual honking intrusive sawtooth-wave nonsense here, making mincemeat of the Vangelis precursors he’s trying to emulate. This was a slog in a big theater, but visually it held up. I can’t imagine there’s any hope of following along with this thing in your living room. Zzzzzzzzzzz…

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, an intriguing Alain Robbe-Grillet script 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

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.