The 2017 Chicago European Union Film Festival – Part 2

Every year in the month of March, the Gene Siskel Film Center hosts the Chicago European Union Film Festival. I’ll give capsule reviews of as many of the films as I can. All films are shown at the Film Center, 164 N. State Street, right across State St. from the Chicago Theater. See you there!

Part 1 is here.

 

Marie-Josée Croze in "2 Nights Till Morning."  credit: notrecinema.com

Marie-Josée Croze in “2 Nights Till Morning.” credit: notrecinema.com

A single subject in a single location over almost two hours (… really…?!), but here the subject is Louis XIV, France’s most legendary King, the “divinely ordained” Sun King, and we spend that two hours (representing weeks and weeks) in his bedchamber, watching him slowly succumb to, among other inevitably lethal ailments, gangrene, and witnessing his slow diminishment from divine to mere mortal. The surprising thing about Albert Serra’s The Death Of Louis XIV (La Mort De Louis XIV) (France, 2016) is how compelling it all is; exquisitely elegant cinematography, opulently and painstakingly art-directed, presenting us with the company of his closest confidantes, his loyal valet, an array of doctors of varying talent, and a coterie of courtiers who applaud encouragingly at his every exhausting attempt to doff his feathered cap or swallow a bit of pastry. Jean-Pierre Léaud, himself legendary royalty of a sort, gives a flawlessly minimal and fiercely expressive performance, and he’s well-served by Serra and his young cinematographer, Jonathan Ricquebourg. Serra’s other films, unseen by me, have up until now featured non-professional actors, very long static camera takes and very regimented production strategies. This work, clearly a notch up in aspiration, conception and budget, is vaguely reminiscent of Peter Greenaway, Lech Majewski or Pedro Costa, but I don’t want to diminish Serra’s own unique approach by unfair comparison. This is a pretty rigorous film for the casual filmgoer, but it rewards the genuinely engaged, and Serra’s just turned forty – there’ll be plenty more where this came from, and I’ll look forward to it.

“The Death Of Louis XIV”, regrettably, will only be shown at the EUFF once, on Sunday, March 5th at 3:00 pm. A regular theatrical run elsewhere, later this spring, seems likely.

Another helpful item on Albert Serra’s work: http://hcl.harvard.edu/hfa/films/2009janfeb/serra.html

 

I like that the EUFF consistently features mainstream international films as well as those that might be considered more “arthouse” or unconventional. The young Mikko Kuparinen, a writer/director with some apparent cinematic storytelling chops, brings us 2 Nights Till Morning (2 Yötä Aamuun) (Finland, 2015), an insistently intelligent and engaging strangers-in-the-night romance featuring attractive and intelligent adults whom not once need to refer back to their own adolescences for emotional bearings. This happens so rarely in American films – real adults perfectly comfortable within their own experienced adult skins – that films like this one are worth highlighting. The EUFF perennially features a few of these every year – Hilde Van Mieghem’s Madly In Love (Smoorverliefd) in 2011, or My Worst Nightmare (Mon Pire Cauchemar) from Anne Fontaine in 2013, and I’m grateful. Here we meet Caroline (the reliable Marie-Josée Croze), a travelling professional architect/designer who meets Jaakko (Mikko Nousiainen, very charming and little-seen by U.S. filmgoers) and his entourage in a hotel lounge in Vilnius, Lithuania. Jaakko is a popular DJ touring Europe, and actually seems relieved to spend some less-involved time with an attractive stranger who, seemingly, doesn’t share a common language with him. But, like most of these snarled-but-charming romantic encounters, withheld knowledge is all part of the ongoing chase. With the common wavelength they establish being no guarantee of a future beyond their (surprisingly chaste) Vilnius hotel encounter (their flights home are grounded by a giant cloud of ash produced by an Icelandic volcano eruption), we slowly learn more about each of them, and grow to like them for the same reasons that Kuparinen demonstrably does. This is a lovely film with some down-to-earth adult appeal, straightforward with a few unpredictable shifts – obviously better seen than having it described. I recommend it here, but I hope this film, too, sees some after-fest distribution. Hollywood’s a bit short on these.

“2 Nights Till Morning” will be shown on Monday, March 6th at 6:00 pm and Wednesday, March 15th at 6:15 pm.

The 2017 Chicago European Union Film Festival – Part 1

Every year in the month of March, the Gene Siskel Film Center hosts the Chicago European Union Film Festival. I’ll give capsule reviews of as many of the films as I can. All films are shown at the Film Center, 164 N. State Street, right across State St. from the Chicago Theater. See you there!

Guillaume Gallienne as Paul  Cézanne and Guillaume Canet as Émile Zola in

Guillaume Gallienne as Paul Cézanne and Guillaume Canet as Émile Zola in “Cézanne And I.” credit: critique-film.fr

Danièle Thompson is a veteran French writer and director who is very comfortable in mainstream storytelling moviemaking. Best known here for lightweight romances like Jet Lag and Avenue Montaigne, she’s taken on a much larger project with Cézanne And I (Cézanne Et Moi) (France, 2016). Chronicling the longtime friendship between painter Paul Cézanne (Guillaume Gallienne) and the writer Émile Zola (Guillaume Canet), Thompson plays fairly fast and loose with a number of historical aspects (I suspect Cézanne didn’t start a brawl in front of Manet’s Le Déjeuner Sur L’Herbe at the Salon des Refusés, for instance), but effectively sketches out the elemental character of each man – Zola, who rose from poverty to become a successful social-realist novelist (Thérèse Raquin ,Germinal, Nana), poet, playwright and critic, and Cézanne, who estranged himself from his wealthy father and ascetically committed himself to his post-Impressionist painting in rural Provence. (Again, Thompson’s liberties don’t match reality so much – after initial disagreement, his banker father supported him amply throughout – but actor Gallienne does terrific work with the red meat he’s given here.) The real treat of the film, however, is the fine digital cinematography work of Jean-Marie Dreujou – the Aix-en-Provence locations are lovely, but Dreujou does equally stunning work with the period interiors as well. The film is attractive and efficient, if a little conventional, and I’m not sure Thompson does much service to the female characters here, but it’s, overall, a smart and pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

“Cézanne And I” will screen on Friday, March 3rd at 2:00 pm and Tuesday the 7th at 6:00 pm.

“The Fabulous Baron Munchausen .” credit: filmy-serialy-online.tv

Czechoslovakia, and what is now the Czech Republic, has been one of the creative centers for animated film since at least the 1920s. After the liberation of Czechoslovakia from German occupation, the Czechs nationalized their film industry, and the animator Jiří Trnka was recognized at Cannes in 1946 for his second animated film, Zvírátka A Petrovstí (Animals and Robbers); animation thrived thereafter, there and in much of Eastern Europe. Karel Zeman had started in the marketing and advertising field, but was introduced to animation for advertising in the 1940s – shortly thereafter he accepted a job at Zlin Animation Studios as an assistant to Hermína Týrlová, an early female pioneer in puppetry and stop-motion work. Zeman’s best-known work is The Fabulous World of Jules Verne (Vynález Zkázy, 1958), but the film we’re concerned with here is The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (Baron Prášil, 1961), adapted from Gottfried August Bürger’s children’s books. Sure to be one of the highlights of the festival, this new digitally restored version of Zeman’s film is a jawdropping combination of tinted silent-film techniques, matte painting, stop-motion and cut-out animation and live action, employing Gustave Doré engravings as vastly-scaled interiors and settings. It’s easy to see how this film influenced Terry Gilliam’s treatments of this material (as well as the work of other animated filmmakers like Jan Švankmajer and the Brothers Quay), but, I must admit, Gilliam can’t hold a candle to this far thriftier and inventive version. It’s a lovely, hilarious surprise, and a must see.

“The Fabulous Baron Munchausen” will be shown on Saturday, March 4th at 8:00 pm and Sunday, March 5th at 5:15 pm. On Saturday, a reception starting at 7:00 pm will be hosted by the Prague Committee of the Sister Cities. Ludmila Zeman and Linda Spaleny, who spearheaded the restoration of the film, will be present for audience discussion at both screenings.

 

Kristen Stewart in

Kristen Stewart in “Personal Shopper.” credit: lwlies.com

 A producer-in-common ended up introducing the French director Olivier Assayas to the actress Kristen Stewart concerning his 2014 film Clouds Of Sils Maria, and they clearly hit it off creatively; Stewart won a César Award for her role (the first American actor to do that), and Assayas happily chose to use her again for our film today, Personal Shopper (France, 2017). There’s some crossover in her characters from the two films; Valentine in Clouds and Maureen in Personal Shopper are both underlings to high-powered celebrity women, and each reliably negotiate within that culture. But there’s much more to Maureen here than just her job – Maureen and her late twin brother share a heart condition that has already taken his life, and they each shared a talent for being mediums, conduits to the world of restless spirits and lingering souls. They swore that the first to fall from their condition would contact the other from beyond, and Maureen is waiting, running errands between Paris and London for her style-icon client Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten) and subsequently fielding an unsettling array of communications that may or may not be her brother.

Assayas insists that he wrote it first, then cast Stewart, but there are too many uses to which Assayas puts Stewart’s own effectively mannered persona to believe he didn’t have her in mind from the start. But that’s in no way a bad thing – what’s surprising is how compelling she makes this particular character well beyond her trademark coltish dorkiness and post-adolescent vocal elisions. Like Diane in Assayas’ DemonLover (2002), we never know how much control Maureen is really exercising, how much of this may be her own projection or wish-fulfillment, or whether she’s even a reliable judge of her own experiences. This film will see a regular theatrical run in a few weeks, but this is a good opportunity to catch this very intriguing film early on. Olivier Assayas’ films are like no one else’s, and are always worth your while.

“Personal Shopper” will screen Saturday, March 4th at 4:00 pm and Wednesday the 8th at 6:00 pm.

Movies – Handicapping The Best Picture Oscars 2017

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Ashton Sanders in ‘Moonlight.’ credit: A24

Generally embroiled in foreign films, I like to check in on mainstream Hollywood once a year and look at the Oscar-nominated films. The few U.S. films I see, and like, are rarely represented here, but I always run into pleasant surprises I might have otherwise overlooked. They’re kind of humorless this year – no big-award love for Deadpool or The Force Awakens apparently. The Scorsese Silence snub’s a surprise (only cinematography), but you didn’t really expect American Honey or Paterson to be here either, did you? And perhaps we should celebrate how great so many films looked this year, and the invasion of really good Scandinavian and Australian cinematographers, not to mention Frenchman Stéphane Fontaine, who’s earned himself a well-deserved vacation (Jackie, Elle, Captain Fantastic). I say bring ‘em – pros are pros.

Arrival – Fans of the story upon which this film is based, “Story of Your Life,” admire the depth of emotion and compassion that author Ted Chiang is able to plumb without compromising the rigorous science at the heart of the story. Denis Villeneuve’s film, and Chiang’s story, is less about the mysteries and potential hostilities of the other and far more about the mysteries and potential hostilities of our own limited senses of time and memory. Applying the roller-coaster-vs.-haunted-house standard, Arrival is a haunted house; even the aliens here are sadder-but-wiser-types, not unlike Dr. Louise Banks (a superb Amy Adams, this year’s best-actress sacrifice to The Khaleesi Streep), their Earthling- appointed liaison into mutually-beneficial communication. Villeneuve’s visual strategies, too, are more luminist landscape than cartoon-panel, and thanks to cinematographer Bradford Young for that, but ultimately Villeneuve fails to impart any other larger importance than to this particular protagonist. Her story, involving some tricky contexts concerning love, knowledge and loss, is pretty interesting, and there are a few ooh-and-ahh moments in the larger story, but what’s this got to do with us? A nice cinematic experience, but nothing that’ll stick to your ribs…

Fences – This is the kind of well-constructed American tragedy I wish Manchester By The Sea had aspired to. As a theater script, August Wilson’s play is one for the ages, and Denzel Washington (who also directed) and Viola Davis give epic, own-the-joint performances. I think some of the more cinematic-on-purpose transitions are awkward and forced (especially near the end), but Denzel’s staging of the work is otherwise so straightforward and uncluttered that it’s hard for me to find fault – he makes no apologies for the dialogue-heavy, two-shot theatricality of the work. Danish cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen does nice work here as well. Perhaps not the best film of the year, but certainly a heavyweight worth respect.

Hacksaw Ridge – If you have any familiar knowledge of films directed by Mel Gibson (Braveheart, Passion Of The Christ, Apocalypto), you know subtext or subtlety will be in short supply. If you have any familiar knowledge of war movies from the 50s and 60s, you know Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight’s stations-of-the-cross approach isn’t really anything new, but they’ve adapted a terrific true story, and the skilled Gibson, the Jimmy Cagney of directors, has no problem yanking us in. Luckily for us Andrew Garfield is in the lead – it’s tough to glean from Spider Man movies, but Garfield’s the real deal as an actor, as, by now, Martin Scorsese can attest as well. This is a very good war movie – I’d rank it well behind Saving Private Ryan, but much better than 2014’s American Sniper. The depiction of Desmond Doss’ pre-war life is a little old-school syrupy, and the usually reliable Hugo Weaving teeters perilously close to Graham Chapman territory here. But the film’s thrilling last half, as superbly orchestrated as it is, doesn’t spare you from any of Gibson’s gore-slathered grand guignol tendencies, non-violent-protagonist notwithstanding. You’ll have to make your own mind up about whether Gibson-the-person’s work is worth your support, but the man’s a real-live director.

Hell Or High Water – There should be 10 or 12 of these intelligently written, professionally-shot, admirably performed genre films every year. Clearly we tend to run short of that, so don’t neglect these few when they come around. Scotland’s David Mackenzie is kinda hit-or-miss (Young Adam, Starred Up), but he does nice work here with Taylor Sheridan’s efficient script, and he’s clearly fascinated with all of those Texas white boys havin’ all of those guns. Chris Pine and Ben Foster, as bank-robbing brothers with at least one heart-of-gold between them, do good work with good parts, and Mackenzie knows to just let Jeff Bridges be Jeff Bridges. A good film worth seeing, but Best Picture? Not so much…

Hidden Figures – Writer / director / producer Theodore Melfi has been cinematically chipping away and switching hats over the last fifteen years, getting a leg up with Bill Murray’s St. Vincent in 2014 and flat-out nailing it with this terrific film two years later. The eponymous book it’s been adapted from, by Margot Lee Shetterly, comes highly recommended as well. For the most part, Melfi tells the story in unadorned fashion: these women succeeded because of who they themselves were – smart, diligent and self-sufficient – not because anyone else allowed them to.  Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monàe are all excellent, and the film overall is refreshingly free of Valuable Lessons™. I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did, but I put it in the top 3 here.

 La La Land – a sophomore misfire by the talented Damien Chazelle (Whiplash). His visuals are impressive (Linus Sandgren shoots here, and he may win Best Cinematography), and a few stylish showcase scenes – the freeway opening, the observatory dance – express some of the good ideas he had in mind, but he’s just not screenwriter enough to tie it all together in compelling fashion – yet. Homages to Stanley Donen and Jacques Demy are scattered throughout (not to mention Nicholas Ray, of course), but the characters are woefully underwritten. Emma Stone fares better than Ryan Gosling, but she has the more interesting arc, while Gosling is saddled with Chazelle’s own static conceits about jazz, selling out and long-view sacrifice. I just didn’t believe they were in love with each other, even though they have many swoon-worthy moments with which to convince us, and even though Stone and Gosling knock themselves out. And can we please get over the notion that Real Singers are somehow unnecessary in filmed musicals? Musical theater characters aren’t sensitive and precious and conversational, they’re passionate and impulsive and expressive.  Real singers and dancers, and/or real singers who at least move well, are far more convincing. Chazelle will make many other excellent films from here – I’m glad he got this one out of his system.

 Lion – The Weinstein Company’s annual entrant is also Garth Davis’ feature film debut, and it’s good on both counts. Another compelling true story, featuring a terrific child’s performance by Sunny Pawar, it tells the story of Saroo, separated from his family as a child and forced to survive with thousands of other homeless children in Calcutta until he’s adopted from an orphanage by a loving Tasmanian family. As an adult, the capable but still-haunted Saroo (now Dev Patel) decides to look for his original family back in India. Davis keeps things narratively efficient – he’s got a good commercial eye, and keeps visual interest without imposing. And Luke Davies’ screen adaptation of Saroo Brierley’s book balances squalor and intrigue well – the journey’s compelling, but the hardships aren’t softened. My only problem was a muddled middle sequence with adult Saroo that lost so much of the rhythm Davis had otherwise established.  The actors clearly liked Davis as well – all do very good work. Another that’s worth seeing, another just shy of being actually competitive.

 Manchester By The Sea – A slow-motion human train crash that never transcends its vicarious-therapy intrigues to become genuinely universal tragedy. There are dysfunctional-family dramas that aspire to larger things – hubris, catharsis, wrong choices for the right reasons, etc. – and have a universal resonance within our own lives. Sam Mendes gets this (off the top of my head…), Scorsese… and there are certainly others. I’d like to put Kenneth Lonergan in that league, but I see this as a big step backwards from You Can Count On Me and Margaret. The world is full of people just like these, chasing their own emotional tails, dragging their heartbreak behind them, but making a really long movie about them, especially one with so little rhythm or dynamic variation, doesn’t compel me to care about them. August, Osage County might have been the last straw for me – well-written, well-acted, but enough already. Obviously, many disagree – this was one of the highest-rated critical successes of the year, and is the likely favorite. Additional points off for being this year’s standard-bearer for White People’s Problems; the casting of the reliable Steven Henderson in a tiny role must have been an oversight.

 Moonlight – My favorite of these nine. Director Barry Jenkins and writer Tarell Alvin McCraney find a fierce common wavelength, and deliver a complex and compelling personal history. Many filmmakers would feel obligated to fill in the local and cultural backstory, and introduce the characters within that context; but here the focus is always interpersonal, always intimate, all about faces and conversations, which paradoxically describes their larger world far more effectively. Simple visual choices abound – well-orchestrated, purposeful Steadicam, subtle but deliberate colors (it is Miami, after all…). Every scene unobtrusively describes the room, the place, the specifics of each environment, with oddly graceful 360° movements – cinematographer James Laxton does such good work here it may save him from ever having to work for Kevin Smith again. Every actor here does fully committed work, starting with the three who play three ages of our protagonist (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders (so good) and Trevante Rhodes), the three Kevins (his friend, and then some, across his life) (notably Jharrel Jerome), and outstanding support from Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monàe, Patrick Decile as a disturbingly charismatic bully, and Naomie Harris, who does astonishing work for only having been on set for three days. A long shot for Best Picture, sadly, but you shouldn’t miss this.

 

Best Picture –

should win – Moonlight.

Will win – La La Land or Manchester By The Sea.

 Best Director –

Should win – I like Barry Jenkins best here. I guess Gibson’s

my number two, but, y’know, that’s problematic …

Will win – Kenneth Lonergan.

Best Actor –

Should win – Andrew Garfield or Denzel Washington.

Will win – Denzel.

Best Actress –

Should win – Isabelle Huppert or Natalie Portman.

Will win – Emma Stone, but Huppert would be a well-deserved surprise.

Best Supporting Actor

Should win and will – Mahershala Ali

Best Supporting Actress

Viola Davis should walk away with this, but don’t underestimate the love for Michelle Williams. She should win at some point – just not here. Naomie Harris – wow… This category could really be any of the five, though it’s a shame Taraji P. Henson couldn’t squeeze in here somewhere.

Best Foreign Film – One of the best films of the year, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle (France) is conspicuous in its absence here; hell, it’s conspicuous in its absence from Best Picture. Also deserving were Sieranevada (Cristian Puiu – Romania) and Neruda (Pablo Larrain – Chile).

Should win – Land Of Mine (Under Sandet) (Martin Zandvliet – Denmark), though I must confess Tanna (Martin Butler and Bentley Dean – Australia) is an impressively close second. Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman (Forushande) (Iran) is a political favorite, but isn’t as good as his last two (A Separation, The Past).

Will win –Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade – Germany) is the clear favorite here, to my unpleasant surprise. The American remake is already brewing.

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

Jackie – Natalie Portman’s affectations take you by unpleasant surprise until you head over to YouTube and check the real Jackie – Portman nailed it without flat-out impersonating her, a tall order with such a loaded historical figure. But Pablo Larrain’s rigorously stylized film about her is also about cultural contrivance, hierarchies of loyalty, personal branding, managing legacies and ‘What Becomes A Legend Most?’ May be the most genuinely modern film of this year’s whole batch.

Movie I wanted to like but didn’t (Last year this was Spectre.):

A tie!

Manchester By The Sea – I found watching this film to be hard labor. Hard, unrewarding labor.

Toni Erdmann – a complete whiff from my end. Nothing interesting, nothing engaging, nothing even remotely laugh-inducing other than my exasperated gasps that he was pulling out those f***ing fake teeth again… You get it or you don’t – Toni Erdmann and I aren’t even in the same zip code. Another interminably long, critically-beloved head-scratcher.

 

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.