Death in the Garden (Buñuel, 1956)

Though Death in the Garden is undeniably a pretty minor Buñuel film it’s still got some moments that are truly his own. It leads up to his run of great films, starting, for me, with 1959’s Nazarin, and to the end of his life and career with That Obscure Object of Desire in 1977.

Death in the Garden was co-written by Buñuel regular Luis Alcoriza, but also by Raymond Queneau of the Oulipo group, and who also wrote Zazie dans le MetroYou can see some of these writerly influences in the film – the critique of state, a priest (played by a young Michel Piccoli) whose strong faith is at times subtly wayward, and a last third that’s a feverish jungle dream.

Other times, Death in the Garden feels like a pretty traditional film. Simone Signoret is Djin, the prostitute with a (eventual) heart of gold. Georges Marshal is Shark, the manly man who also has said golden heart.

Buñuel keeps his camera active. I was recently rereading Andrew Sarris’ Notes on the Auteur Theory. In it he claims that Buñuel is an auteur who came to technical prowess late. I agree. He’s not quite there in Garden – at least not to the level of really accomplished blocking and a camera that feels probing in his later films – but it shows that he’s got some chops and is on the way.

The final third of the film is best, in part, because of the absurdity of the situation. Father Lizardi (Piccoli) thinks better about burning his bible pages. Later, he’s dressed in full garb against the wild backdrop. The third image should recall Un Chien Andalou for most people, as ants crawl – not out of a hand – but on the pages of his beloved bible:

As I mentioned earlier, Buñuel does cast Lizardi as a hypocrite at times, but this isn’t always on the nose. Lizardi is struggling with faith, is sometimes mocked (as in a scene where he’s mistaken for one of Djin’s johns). He’s closer to the Christ-figures in Nazarin or even Simon of the Desert – generally gentle, a bit too self-righteous and over-serious, and not really aware of the world – than he is to the director’s takedowns in Andalou, or later films.

Then there are moments that are just pure Buñuel. Like here, where a python is consumed – alive – by a swarm of ants. It’s disturbing and brutal, and possibly allegorical. The second image below just feels like something Buñuel, Alcoriza, and Queneau might have dreamed up before the script was complete (“and there’ll be a giant plane, still intact, and Simone Signoret will be walking through the wreckage…”):

As things come to a sweaty head at the end of the film it’s not only the characters and setting who act a bit erratic; Buñuel also uses some clever transitions. Like this one, where a scene from the city (image one below), quickly becomes only a postcard held by the fire:

It’s a nice way to show the longing for civilization, but perhaps also the madness that is imminent.

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Harmonium (Fukada, 2016) and Hounds of Love (Young, 2016)

Harmonium is a fantastic film. I knew nothing about it going in, and all the better. This could have been written by the Dardennes in its quiet sense of unease, family dynamics, and bitter, unspoken past.

Asano Tadanobu is awesome as Yasaka, a man recently released from prison who comes to work for his former friend Toshio (Kanji Furutachi). The two men have silently uncomfortable relationship.

Director Kôji Fukada shoots much of the film in pretty wide, high-key, static frames:

Harmonium

That makes the moment of disruption – a shocking sequence around the midway point, shot in dynamic handheld – all the more jarring and effective.

This is a film that relies on small things and things unsaid. It also reminded me a bit of Chang-dong Lee’s films in that it masqueraded as one genre, hid another, and then fully developed into something rather separate from the the first two. I think that’s a rare ability. There’s a patience to that strategy, and patience is certainly what Harmonium has in spades.

I’m also interested in this film on a personal note. The script I’ve been working on for a few years, and that I hope to be my next project, has a character who is (sort of) similar to one in here. There’s a related theme as well, though the treatment of it is quite different. That said, I really enjoyed how Fukada took his time in showing how Toshio’s wife Akié (Mariko Tsutsui) cared for their daughter. It was shot with attention to detail, and in a really loving way.

Hounds of Love

I suppose comparisons to Snowtown Murders are pretty inevitable here. An Australian movie that has a similar mise-en-scene (though rather more active camera), is gritty as hell, features suburban violence from a sociopathically charismatic character.

If I’m nit-picking, then there’s a bit too much slow motion for my liking. But then again, I remember those sequences, so maybe not.

Hounds of Love gets so much from its leads. Stephen Curry is so menacing, without being a looming physical presence, as John White. I really wonder how you direct some of Ashleigh Cummings’ performance. It’s never overwrought, but is pretty consistently (and necessarily) hysterical. It’s a good tightrope that director Ben Young and Cummings walk – keep her believable and sympathetic, never over-the-top, but at a sustained fever pitch. I think that’s hard to do; in a bad case the victim can become unlikeable, which certainly doesn’t happen here.

Hounds of Love is that film that makes you feel a little dirty while watching it. Part of that is the production design and the photography, but I think it’s also in the sound design, which is full of heat, creaks, and the rattles of the neighborhood. It all feels so…domestic, but dangerous at the same time. Like make-you-wonder-what-your-neighbors-are-doing-right-now-dangerous. I like that.

The obsessive parent angle is, I suppose, pretty darn important to the plot, and it leads to a nice, if overdrawn climax. I also realize this is based off of true events. The plotting with the boyfriend is maybe a little easy. Again, all nitpicks. I think the best thing to do with Hounds of Love is just cringe and enjoy.

 

 

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Le Deuxième Souffle (Melville, 1966)

It’s always so fun to watch a Jean-Pierre Melville film you haven’t seen before. His Le Deuxième Souffle (Second Breath) is, as you’d expect, quiet, stylish, and masterful. You can’t really compare a Melville film to anyone else’s (although, the very beginning does, for many reasons, remind me of A Man Escaped). His style is so recognizable and confident. I really enjoyed Anthony Lane’s recent New Yorker write-up on the Melville retrospective where he quotes the director’s definition of friendship: “Be a pal, get your gun, and come on over quickly.” As ludicrous as that should sound coming out of most anyones mouth, it somehow works for Melville, so cool and assured, and slightly nihilistic, are his films.

Lino Ventura plays Gu, a prison escapee who gets caught up in double-crosses and a heist. Like other Melville films you’ve got to be ready for some extended silent sequences, and for all of the plotting to not fully merge until we’re at least 1/3 of the way in, if not much further along. These are some of my favorite things about his films – he truly gives his audience credit and assumes them to be smart.

In pursuit of Gu is Commissioner Blot (Paul Meurisse from Diabolique!). Jo Ricci (Marcel Bozzuffi, who I most recognize from The French Connection) is also on his trail, but for much less savory reasons.

A highlight scene comes around the 45:00 mark when Blot and Jo meet in Jo’s office. It’s a long scene, gorgeously and fluidly blocked with few edits.

That’s Jo frame left and Blot frame right:

They start simply standing off against one-another, and then Blot moves away from Jo. Blot’s clearly the more comfortable one even though it’s not his space. That’s important to this scene, I think. Jo plays nearly the whole thing like a menacing guard watching his turf; Blot is the mercurial thief trying to break in: each is the reversal of his true nature and motivations in the film.

Blot comes around the chair and sits on the arm of it, a move which eventually coaxes Jo into something similar:

I like this about blocking because it’s so true to real life. Have you ever noticed how you sometimes automatically mimic or counter-move to someone you’re in conversation with. Here, Jo doesn’t sit unless Blot does.

Blot ges even more comfortable, moving into the chair. Jo interrupts the dialogue to offer a drink at a convenient time (between “two thugs…” and “…low-class burglars.”). Not only does he interrupt the dialogue, he also walks away from Blot. These things go hand-in-hand:

Melville’s camera dollies forward with Jo to his liquor table (one of two in the room, I might add), and then pulls back with him as he returns to his desk. Jo’s brief retreat seems to give him renewed confidence as he sits lightly back on the edge.

Blot in turn seems to see that. His cavalier approach doesn’t work, Jo’s retreat is equal to  tightlippedness, so Blot stands and walks off-

-leaving Jo by himself, before walking back and landing in the above MCU.

The first cut in the scene – a reverse on Jo – and then back to the same fluid master, as we pan with Blot, who crosses Jo, changing the 180 line, and turns to face him:

Blot’s circling Jo, but Jo’s holding his ground. Traditional wisdom: you stand over someone, you’ve got the power; you change the 180 line, you’ve got the power. Blot’s doing both of these, but it’s Jo who’s playing hard-to-get.

Blot continues pacing back and forth in front of Jo, even turning his back on him-

-before he finally gives Jo too much info about Gu. Jo can’t handle it. He walks away from Blot, partially in anger, partially to hide that anger. The two men stand eye to eye and evenly for the first time in awhile in the scene, and then come close together, again changing the 180 line:

And now they just circle. Blot walks away from Jo, his back still to him. Blot comes back to Jo, facing him. Jo circles around Blot. There’s nervous energy from both of them but it’s different. It’s sort of cat and mouse, but not to catch each other. Blot’s just filling Jo with information, hoping that Jo will catch Gu out. Jo is trying to keep his cool until the cop leaves.

Finally Blot leaves (more classic blocking: put stuff elsewhere in the room, in this case, drinks and a hat, and your characters will have to move to get it). That they come face-to-face in a way similar to the beginning and middle of the scene is no accident. Melville has built this so that the structure of the blocking circles the same way the men do:

There are so many other great sequences in here. I was struck by how much Melville booms or jibs down to reframe. I was also looking at how he begins his scenes (I think it’s harder to start a scene than to end it; I might post on that idea more in the future), and he tends to be fairly traditional that way: wides, 2-shots, character entrances. But his performances are all so tight – taciturn men (I think there are three credited women at the end) who hold onto information and honor tightly.

 

 

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Barrios altos (Berlanga, 1987)

José Luis García Berlanga’s Barrios altos is a fun, light thriller/sex-comedy, that feels very of the moment in Spain and very post-La Movida Madrileña.

Victoria Abril (who I know best from Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!) plays Veronica, a woman who gets in over her head in the murder plot of her masseuse. The plot is convoluted and then explained-away, but the film is funny and the pacing breakneck enough that the plot matters less and less as it goes.

The 1980s Spanish punk culture seeps into so many frames of the film-

-and I think that’s important. Though this is easygoing fare, there’s still plenty of dark or seedy undercurrent. Veronica gets mugged, she borrows money from a homeless man (a funny moment, but also perhaps indicative of her naïveté of his desperation), she’s abused and hit by multiple men. She’s a strong, if flighty, heroine – and a good pair with her friend Ana (Carmen Conesa) who sleeps with nearly anyone in the film. Berlanga’s script makes note of bad neighborhoods (not the one pictured above), of a single divorcee who can’t escape the surname of her ex-husband, and of liberal sex. It all adds up to a portrait of Spain that’s colorful and progressive like much of Almodóvar’s work, but also one that’s still not forward-thinking enough.

That color palette – purples, mostly-

-is so 80s, and takes just a little bit of the realism and seriousness out of some of the subplots.

 

 

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The Arrangement (Kazan, 1969)

The Arrangement was such a surprise. Elia Kazan’s second-to-last film, it feels so much more progressive and together than The Visitors. It sort of reminded me of Frank Perry’s The Swimmer from the year before – classic Hollywood actor faces mid-life crisis amidst the trim glitz of the suburbs.

I like The Arrangement a whole lot, and for a lot of reasons. One is that it never quite goes how I expected it to. It seems for a good while like it’s going to be an advertising satire (those clean Zephyr cigarettes…), but it goes elsewhere. It’s about the dissolution of a marriage, the withdrawal of a man from society, how we measure success, and the immigrant experience. It feels autobiographical for Kazan, and maybe it should – he wrote the source novel.

What an immediate post-Bonnie and Clyde run for Faye Dunaway-

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There’s The Tomas Crown Affair, this film, Little Big Man, and Puzzle of a Downfall Child, all before she gets to Chinatown.

I feel like this is a out-on-a-limb film for Deborah Kerr. Kind of reminds me of the purported controversy over some of Jimmy Stewart’s dialogue in Anatomy of a Murder. Kerr is great as Florence Anderson, and she’s such a far cry from The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. She plays her nudity and sexuality with such fierceness; it’s a great contrast to the ambivalence of Dunaway’s Gwen.

Kirk Douglas also get a space to showcase a bit. My favorite part of his was always Ace in the Hole, and now this is right up there. He gets to play two versions of himself, go crazy, calmly attempt suicide, and give big monologues.

The opening of the film is fantastic. It’s so symmetrical, pristine and high-key as we work our way from the exterior to a curtain magically parting and revealing Douglas’ Eddie and Florence in opposite beds:

Kazan cuts inside to this wide. The camera pushes forward, timed to husband and wife meeting at the foot of the bed for a practiced kiss:

A reverse of the room, still oh so symmetrical ends with them very much divided in their respective showers. Everything is pastel, soft, respectful:

Kazan pushes this opening so far that it can’t be anything but ironic. The film has so much varied technique. It really feels like Kazan is experimenting more than I’ve seen him do in other films. Here, Eddie looks back at his parents’ house and sees it in the past. His father (Richard Boone) sits there in the low-angle wide-shot. The steps up looking like those someone might ascend to reach a throne:

Kazan cuts in to a close-up of his smiling, confident father in the past, and then hard-cuts to the present. The house is in disrepair, the light fading, his father sunken, the wider shot now only at a slight low angle, but not one meant to impress:

And later is when Douglas must have had a lot of fun, playing two parts. Kazan uses this composite shot to great comical effect. There’s a cigar joke in this sequence. The vulnerability of Eddie on the right, despite the same leg position, hand position, and cigar, is so poignant:

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Towards the end of the film a prosecutor supposes on what Eddie might have done in his old family home by himself, with the blinds drawn and doors locked. The subsequent sequence is eerie. It reminds me (appropriately enough, since it’s coming back soon) of Bob’s over-the-couch entrance in Twin Peaks.

I love this first frame. The big wide, that could be a POV. We just see some legs creeping into the top of the shot. The emptiness and the slowness of the approach lend to the creepiness, which is magnified when Kazan cuts in to the well-heeled Eddie, peeking around the corner, wolf’s grin on his face. The reverse shows the current Eddie, cowering:

The Arrangement just feels really fresh, despite being nearly 50 years old!

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Max and the Junkmen (Sautet, 1971) and Perfect Friday (Hall, 1970)

Claude Sautet’s Max and the Junkmen is such a good, hard-boiled, existential crime film. Michel Piccoli and Romy Schneider are great as the eponymous detective Max and Lily, the prostitute whom he fools into aiding and abetting a crime.

Sautet’s style is smooth. When Lily first enters Max’s apartment he shoots their initial movement in two well-placed shots. Starting in a low-key wide, Max approaches camera and turns on the lights. He retreats to the back as the camera slowly pushes in on Lily:

The camera lands in a medium shot on Lily and then quickly pans left to right with her, ending in this medium-close high angle:

Sautet cuts to Max coming out of the back in a medium shot. He walks close to the lens and we pan with him, landing in an over-the-shoulder reverse:

It’s just such a simple way to change the mood from mystery to romantic, to give Lily a beat by herself, and then to bring them together again. It could feel so much cuttier in another film.

The blocking isn’t always so broad though. Towards the end Max confronts Rosinsky (François Périer). The space is just a little tighter, but the tension is different. In this case Sautet walks Max in with his back to us (rather than approaching us in the scene above), and then lands in an over-the-shoulder. We get a reverse medium with Rosinksy’s reflection in the background:

From there Sautet really relies on small movements. Max walks up to Rosinsky so they’re face-to-face; Rosinsky retreats and we get another OTS; Max again walks up and again we get another profile face-to-face:

Rosinksky walks away and faces Max; Max walks away from Rosinsky:

It’s not until this end, when Rosinsky definitely walks across the room and leaves Max behind that the tension changes:

These two competing styles – Lily and Max, and Rosinsky and Max – are great examples of different ways to block for different results. Lily and Max’s scene is more open. They occupy their own spaces and frames. They maneuver freely around the room.

In the latter scene the two actors hit really tight marks. They constantly close and open to camera. They angle around each other, uncomfortably face one-another, and trail and lead each other. No one is ever anchored (ala Lily in the earlier scene).

Perfect Friday

If Sautet’s film is Melville-like, then this one is kind of feels like Ronald Neame. It’s a fun, small heist film, featuring a great lead turn from Stanley Baker as Mr. Graham, a bank manager planning a heist. Ursula Andress is three years removed from Casino Royale and director Peter Hall is clearly intent on playing up her sexuality. While it’s an important narrative element, it also feels like she’s naked as much as she’s clothed.

The aspect ratio is listed as 1.66:1. It felt different than that. Or maybe I don’t watch 1.66 films often. It just felt so tall and thin – like a vertical iPhone movie from the ’70s.

Hall and editor Rex Pyke must have seen some Point Blank before making this movie. The quick, fragmented edits remind of Boorman’s film. They work, adding to the jaunty tone and the bifurcated perspective.

 

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Magical Girl (Vermut, 2014)

Well, Carlos Vermut is certainly someone I’ll now be watching out for. Magical Girl is a trip. That’s in every good sense of the word. Definitely indebted to Buñuel, maybe most particularly to Belle de Jour, this tripartite film is cleverly structured, darkly funny (if you like your humor pitch, pitch black), and enticingly ambiguous. If modern Spanish cinema is internationally synonymous with Almodóvar, perhaps Vermut will change things.

Vermut’s film is made up of a lot of really clean, static frames. They’re often wide and symmetrical:

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I think the real achievement here is in the mood. I thought a lot of Kaurismäki while watching Magical Girl. There’s something slow and deadpan. While in the Finnish films that adds up to something pretty funny, in this Spanish one it all adds up to something both off-kilter-humorous, and quite disturbing.

Vermut uses an overlapping structure, and that’s fun, but it’s the enigma of who Damián (José Sacristán) is, what his past with Bárbara (Bárbara Lennie, who is amazing in this film) is, and how all of this will come around to confront Luis (Luis Bermejo). So, in short, much of this is about the withholding of information, or the tease of it (i.e. the prologue between a younger Bárbara and Damián.

The film gets close to off the rails when it hews too close to Buñuel. That is, when Bárbara passes through a forbidden door, with the promise of some sexual violence (for money) happening on the other side. This shot is beautiful-

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-but it’s her encounters with the wheelchair-bound proprietor of said door-

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-that just feels really 90s-cheesy and cliche.

Otherwise, Magical Girl casts some spells. The frames are so rich and confident that they don’t often feel as static as they are. A scene where Bárbara laughs uncontrollably at a horrible thought is shot so eerily. Her back towards us for most of the time, all we can see are her shaking shoulders, until she turns and says something unthinkable:

 

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