Seven Beauties (Wertmüller, 1975)

Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties moves fluidly from farcical comedy (the first third feels like a dream sequence from 8 1/2 as played by a hammy Jack Lemmon) into really affecting war film and drama, with a little of Visconti’s The Damned thrown in for good measure.

Giancarlo Giannini plays Pasqualino AKA Pasqualino Seven Beauties, a self-sure man who commits an accidental murder leading to a series of perpetually more and more despairing situations.

Giannini carries the film, delivering Wertmüller’s often-hilarious dialogue with a cocksure bravado:

The beginning of the film is richly saturated, in contrast to much of the latter part. The inciting incident, when Pasqualino confronts Don Raffaele (Enzo Vitale), plays out like a western as directed by Fassbinder. Wertmüller’s expert framing – she shoots a lot of coverage in this scene, and very little of it is traditional – alongside the beautifully geometric interior, with low ceilings and a vast floor is so atmospheric:

Even Giannin’s close-ups are over-the-top, but that’s deserved because of the remarkable transformation his character will undergo. I love that second shot below. The wide low angle coupled with Pasqualino’s confident stance is intimidating. Raffaele’s subsequent low angle with the tight eyeline is also awesome – there’s so much about masculinity in here and the composition plays up their machismo. This whole scene plays out so slowly and then just erupts into fast absurdity:

Any film that has Fernando Rey in it is a winner in my book, and here he’s excellent as a fatalistic prisoner whose brand of honor is more moral than Pasqualino’s outwardly displayed code.

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This prison camp sequence is breathtaking and hard to watch. Wertmüller returns to the colored lighting that she uses at the very beginning of the film-

She’s taking some real liberties with that green key light, but the mood is sickly and weird, so we buy it anyway.

The introduction to the camp shows the opposite pallor. Ashy and wan, she shoots it like someone has just blown a layer of suit over top of the negative. It’s surreal and otherworldly, and the wides full of people are disturbingly crowded:

It’s a huge shift in visual strategy from the showdown with Raffaele – the film has also shifted from the individual to the collective in a way that will really trouble Pasqualino’s character.

Wertmüller has such a balanced tone in the film. I’m writing here about so much shifting and changing and transforming, but the film always strikes the correct note. I think for all of the loud showiness that Pasqualino has in the film it’s surprisingly delicate.

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Black Sun (Kurahara, 1964)

A sweaty, jazzy, cross-cultural sort-of-buddy-film, Black Sun is nuts. It’s got that frenetic energy of so much of the Japanese New Wave (though it’s fairly devoid of sexuality, unlike many of its other contemporaries).

Tamio Kawaji plays Akira, AKA Mei, a young Japanese man, obsessed with American jazz, who comes across Gil (Chico Roland), a black American GI, injured, carrying a machine gun, and on the run.

The film is, as mentioned, frantic. Gil spends most of the movie yelling or breathing heavily. It’s not that Roland’s performance is bad, it’s that, I think counter to what a logline might give you, he doesn’t have too much to work with. This is not the performance of nuance. Director Koreyoshi Kurahara has a lot of sprayed on sweat on-hand, doesn’t seem concerned that Gil is nearly impossibly to understand most of the time, and, at least for the first act, mostly gives Gil repetitious actions.

It’s unfortunate that Gil becomes a little bit of a cartoon therefore, because underlying all of this is Kurahara’s thesis, which is probably something like: the Japanese are prisoners of their American occupiers; African Americans are prisoners of their country and history; they have more in common than initially meets the eye and once both men are able to get past stereotypes. It’s a nice sentiment, and one that to me, seems really progressive for cinema of the time. I think of stuff like Edge of the City or Hell in the Pacific, but this one’s different from the former and before the latter.

I think that Kawaji gives a great performance. His opening scene – where a recently purchased Max Roach (featured on the great soundtrack!) record is broken, leading to a stolen car – is hilariously jittery and compulsive.

The best parts of Black Sun are actually when Kurahara slows things down a bit and transitions in interesting ways. One is when Gil is tiring in Akira’s decrepit church-squat. Kurahara changes from hard cuts to dissolves. The sound of children outside intrudes – the entire soundscape changes. Things feel softer and dreamier.

There’s a lot of that Christian imagery associated with Gil, and Kurahara finds graphic matches (the middle images above) in Akira’s hideout.

The whole sequence is hazy and fractured, and Kurahara really uses the pockets of light well. It’s beautifully done.

In order to escape those searching for Gil, Akira paints Gil’s face white and his own face black. It’s a weird, garish version of some racial stereotypes:

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But what’s important to note is that Akira is unaware. He’s a naive man who assumes that Gil can play the trumpet just because he’s black. It’s part of Kurahara’s point. This extends the next scene, where Akira shows up at his local bar with Gil in tow, calling the American his “slave.” How to interpret this scene? A fair-skinned man in black face, hauling behind him an imprisoned black man in white face?

Again, worth noting is that the other people in the bar, who join in, don’t seem to know that Gil is black. This is emphasized when Gil and Akira leave the bar. They get into a car, one of the bar patrons is able to see their necks, sans makeup, and says as much.

This isn’t so much of an excuse, as it is part of the heart of the film. The men in the bar are uninformed and, like Gil, they naively idolize the jazz musicians they have postering the wall. When Gil frequently calls Akira “Jap,” it’s meant to be the same thing – neither knows anything about the other.

The sequence in the bar is a nice change in perspective and points Black Sun towards an empathetic read. Kurahara cuts to Gil trying to play the trumpet. We shift, for one of the few times of the film aside from the dream sequence pictured above, into Gil’s perspective. He’s shot in tight, uncomfortable close-up. We get his POV where we see, whirling all around him, the accomplished musicians that the men in the bar worship:

A cut to Akira now looks stupid. His makeup is fake, otherworldly. Not right. And the montage points it out. A low angle to Gil followed by a high angle of the bar brings the tension to its height and then relieves it. We really feel Gil’s desperation in this moment. It almost feels like guilt – what am I doing here?

There’s a third meaningful transition sequence. Maybe these sequences are better called asides. Here, in order to keep his disguise, Gil attempts to play trumpet for a group of people who mistake him for a street musician.

Unlike the last two scenes, here Kurahara doesn’t cut to diegetic images. Instead, as Gil plays, we get alternating scenes of horror in Japan with American troops at the center of it, and horrors against African Americans in the US:

It’s sort of like Gil’s realization that he is on both, opposite sides of different abuses. It’s also the first time we get truly into his mental frame of mind.

From this point the film builds to a hallucinatory, memorable ending.

Most of this post is about Gil, but it’s Akira who anchors the film. His arc is a real one: he goes from arrogant squatter, through a period of harsh treatment towards Gil, and comes through as one of the necessary two buddies in a buddy film with an action both tender and violent.

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Rendez-vous (Téchiné, 1985)

Rendez-vous is deservedly famous for being Juliette Binoche’s first real leading vehicle. She’s amazing in this film. It’s also noteworthy for Olivier Assayas’ participation. He co-wrote the film with André Téchiné  and it really feels like a forerunner to Irma Vep, and even more so, to Personal Shopper. It’s not just the leading female or the background ghost stories of both, but there are also similarities in the two director’s blocking styles and a sense of foreboding drama. Here in Téchiné’s film that drama comes dangerously close to the melo variety, but always skirts it.

Binoche plays Nina, an aspiring theater actress who becomes involved with Quentin (Lambert Wilson) an unpredictable, enigmatic actor, and Paulot (Wadeck Stanczak) a straight-laced realtor.

Without such amazing performers (including Jean-Louis Trintignant!) Rendez-vous probably would turn over to histrionics. And it frequently almost does. When Trintignant’s Scutzler (what a character name!) tells Paulot, “I love her like a father,” it’s really ridiculous and over-the-top. But then Paulot just breaks into cackling laughter, verging on madness, and it forces Scrutzler to realize how absurd his own dialogue was. Well-played.

Téchiné shoots coverage but he rarely cuts back to the same shot within a scene unless it’s a single, and even those he doesn’t use often. He likes long masters, or scenes made of two long masters, with a lot of movement and a very mobile camera. I love his style of blocking. He often ends or begins scenes with a straight push in, or pull away. It’s definitely a dramatic punctuation, but his staging is really fluid and never theatrical. These must have been hard marks to learn for the performers.

Binoche is really radiant in the role, and it’s no wonder she’s gone on to become a star. She has such an amazing range in the film.

Even in tight frames Téchiné moves his characters quite a bit. Consider this close 2-shot of Quentin and Nina, which begins on the latter’s pubic hair, then stays in a tight composition, but reframes as they readjust and roll on top of one-another. It’s beautifully orchestrated.

The film feels constantly restless in this way, and of course there’s a lot of sexual energy – like the various couples can’t figure out how to fit with one-another, physically and emotionally.

 

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Let The Corpses Tan (Cattet, Forzani, 2017) and Pororoca (Popescu, 2017)

I’m a really big fan of Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s Amer and The Strange Color of Your Body’s TearsLet The Corpses Tan follows up on their close-up obsession; their menacing, sexual mood; and their willingness to bend film language for style.

Ostensibly a western (of the spaghetti variety) combined with some of Bava’s particulars (the black gloves here have now moved from Giallo to something like his ’70s entries ala Rabid DogsCorpses is a film that must be watched in the cinemas. The 2.35 aspect ratio, originating on 16mm is gorgeous. The soundtrack is both loud and intimate (Cattet and Forzani make me think of Claire Denis in that way – those tight close-ups have so much aural texture).

Like with their previous work, maybe it helps if you’ve got some film history knowledge before watching Let The Corpses Tan. Maybe. I’m not really sure. I’d be curious to hear how the film plays to someone who doesn’t see references littered about but just experiences it as present cinema. But it is clear that the film isn’t only reference. Cattet and Forzani get a great performance from Elina Löwensohn as Luce, and the film could be a perfect companion piece with Marlina The Murderer in Four Acts for its gender genre revisionism.

Pororoca (Popescu, 2017)

This is a good film to go into blind (so, if you want to, stop reading this now). I didn’t even know the genre and, though it’s Romanian, there are plenty of disparate examples coming out of that country recently.

Pororoca is intense. A 2.5 hour runtime is often too long for my tastes, but the film really needs it. I think it’s a good example of patient cinema – time passing is important and rewarded.

What a great performance from Bogdan Dumitrache as Tudor. He not only undergoes a significant physical transformation, but he also believably touches on any conceivable emotion over the course of the film. An early scene where he walks with his daughter is so breezy, simple, and natural. Compare that with the last scene – what an arc (credit to writer/director Constantin Popescu’s script, too).

There’s something to be said about a cinema of observation. In a critical scene, and a location that we return to more than once, Popescu puts his camera at a distance (I think there’s an apt comparison with the final shot of Cache) in a park. It’s hard to tell at first if it’s a POV or not. It’s also difficult to discern where we should be looking. A lot of those compositional values and methods of eye trace are thrown out the window. Instead, we just look. Maybe it’s a boring shot while it’s happening. I mean, it’s a wide where dialogue ducks in and out, and to my memory holds for as long as a few minutes. But it’s justified in the events that follow – we want to go back to that shot and watch again to see what we can see, but of course it’s too late (just like it is for Tudor). It’s a gamble, and I bet that Popescu loses some of his audience around there, but if you stick around the gamble really pays off.

If Let The Corpses Tan could be a good double-feature with Marlina The Murderer in Four Acts, then I think Pororoca would make a good 2018 double-feature with You Were Never Really Here. They’re actually such different films, but where Ramsay wants to compress our experience, Popescu wants to expand it. They both make for really visceral viewing experiences, and both leads embody a similar weightiness in characters with rather different back stories.

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Black Lizard (Inoue, 1962) and Two Way Stretch (Day, 1960)

Umetsugu Inoue’s Black Lizard  – a campy musical thriller with frequent light color temperature changes, canted angles, and ridiculous disguises – is a whole lot of fun. The title sequence tells us as much: a fogged (greased? hazed? filtered?) lens, colors from all over the wheel, twinkling reflections, and plenty of singing and dancing:

I don’t know much about the source material, but you get the sense that Inoue was setting up for a sequel (this was, I think, remade by Kinji Fukasaku in 1968) with the dramatic introduction; it’s as though he wanted to create a memorable theme that we’d will the characters back into being (perhaps with a Conan Doyle-esque trick to explain away the ending of this film). Yukio Mishima is credited with the adaptation, which seems amazing given what I know of his backstory and his writing. Maybe there was a silly guy lurking underneath.

At its best Black Lizard is clicking fun with a lot of mystery, whodunits, and really smooth dancing. A highlight of the latter is Black Lizard’s (Machiko Kyô) exit from the hotel in the first act. Disguised as a man she lightly pirouettes her way around and over everyone in her way. It’s real skill and is so much fun to watch.

Inoue uses a lot of angles that are just barely dutch:

They could look like a mistake if they weren’t consistent. I like it. The whole film is basically off-kilter and haywire. I could see Blake Edwards directing this.

Those lighting changes are also fun and often purely emotionally motivated. Like the first time Sanae (Junko Kanô) sees Amemiya (Hiroshi Kawaguchi).

That pink in the background goes away in the same shot, but after the camera has panned away. It’s a great color for camp.

Maybe there’s a clock theme here with my last post, but I really like what Inoue does in a sequence where the great detective Akechi (Minoru Ôki) and Black Lizard face off in a game of pinochle.

We and they know that something is supposed to happen at midnight. The superimposed clock fits in with the aesthetic and makes a fairly mundane scene suspenseful. It’s not the same feverish usage as in The Small Back Room: this is closer to a double representation of both character’s internal clock (since each knows something the other doesn’t…or thinks they do) and advancing the narrative.

Sometimes the liberties Inoue takes are hilariously large. Like this musical number between the two leads where that burning star-light hovers magically between them as they profess their love for one-another (and stop the narrative to do so):

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Two Way Stretch

Two Way Stretch is a fairly straightforward movie without Peter Sellers. Maybe that’s stating the obvious, but it’s pretty awesome to watch him stand easily out amidst other seasoned performers like David Lodge and Wilfred Hyde-White. It’s not that the other actors are bad. They’re quite good. Rather, Sellers just has such a striking nonchalance, great timing, and that sly smile throughout that he steals everything he’s in – which is nearly every scene.

The setup for Two Way Stretch: a few cons plan to break out of their loosely guarded prison for one night to commit a robbery. They’ll return that same night, giving them the perfect alibi. Their plan is complicated with the arrival of a new prison guard, Crout (Lionel Jeffries, who is a pleasure to watch).

Director Robert Day seems to bypass a lot of suspense for fairly inexplicable reasons (how, for example, do they get back into their cells so easily?) and often favors the cartoonish over something that might be more reasonably funny-

-but that notwithstanding, this is a classically, solidly directed film that is really there for Sellers to lead the way (he’s two years shy of Lolita and three of Inspector Clouseau).

Much of Day’s direction is no-frills. Here, Crout enters The Governor’s (Maurice Denham) office. Day starts in a single of The Governor, brings Crout in in a wide, and then blocks The Governor around to meet him:

Crout sits and gets a center-framed single as he attempts to impose his will. Day cuts to The Governor off to the side of the room now, tending to his plants (a running gag in the film):

It’s the unshowy stuff of coverage and a little bit of movement, keeping it largely in mediums and full shots, and never tighter than a loose MCU. It feels a bit like TV coverage. It’s not that Two Way Stretch is screaming for some psychological approach, but scenes like this one, without much beyond a slapstick performance and a reminder of a joke don’t do much but push the story ahead. It’s the later sequences, during the heist in particular, when you can see Day having some real fun.

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The Ear (Kachyňa, 1970) and The Small Back Room (Powell, 1949)

I suppose that the Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? comparisons are inevitable with The Ear, but the film is more than the alcohol-fogged dissolution of a marriage. Karel Kachyňa’s fantastic 1970 film is just at home with Costa-Gavras comparisons, or other cinemas of political-paranoia.

Ludvik (Radoslav Brzobohatý) and Anna (Jirina Bohdalová) return home from a Party-party to strange occurrences – unlocked doors, lurking men in trench coats, cars idling silently on the street. Ludvik is soon convinced that he’s to be taken away, just like his former co-worker.

Like any Czech film worth its salt there’s a great drinking sequence in here, complete with slow-motion, vomiting, and sweaty antics. Like so many, it takes place in a pretty sparse kitchen-

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This is in stark comparison to the scene of the party from earlier. The production design here is amazing – cluttered, violent, textured. I’ve been to a bar in České Budějovice that has nearly as many animal skulls on the walls. It’s uneasy:

The best parts of The Ear are just before and as Ludvik answers the mysterious men riding the buzzer at his gate. Kachyňa shoots it so stylishly with really eerie frames and great contrast. Ludvik walks outside in a chiaroscuro frame. His POV down the path is so good. It’s nearly spotlighted, and the framing idea of having these few faces just peering through the crack is brilliantly scary:

He walks closer as Anna appears behind him. I love the guy jumping to get a view of Ludvik in Ludvik’s POV:

It’s so tense. The men’s faces on the other side of the gate are flat, nearly completely white and washed out. Ludvik is surrounded by a never-ending darkness that feels almost separate from the path on which he walks.

When he opens the gate we’re suddenly thrust into the world of the men on the other side. Kachyňa shoots it in tight close-ups with a rapidly panning and tilting camera (which I haven’t captured well in these stills):

The change is so harsh, even though we’ve walked down the path with Ludvik. It’s disorienting, and the conflicting emotions – what we thought was going to happen alongside what is actually happening – is overwhelming. Great performances from these guys here with their tight smiles and nervous energy.

Kachyňa uses a lot of POV in his film (which made me think of The Real End to the Great War) and a close soundscape that often ignores obvious diegetic sounds to isolate intimate, potentially dangerous conversations. It made me think of 8 1/2.

The Small Back Room

I haven’t watched a Powell & Pressburger film in a long time. This is no The Long Weekend as alcoholism (I guess that’s the tie that binds the two films in this post) is treated far less melodramatically – this film by “The Archers” has aged better.

David Farrar plays Sammy Rice, an explosive expert working outside the realm of the army who, in 1943, is confronted with a mysterious German explosive device. Sammy is an unapologetic alcoholic to the dismay of his lover Susan (Kathleen Byron, so memorable from Black Narcissus).

I’ve never made this connection, but I feel like the Coen Brothers owe a great debt to Powell and Pressburger. Some of that is the way all four filmmakers prefer snappy, witty dialogue and unique characters with their own little tics and traits. But I think it’s also in the way they set up a scene. Consider this one from The Small Back Room.

We start in a kitchen at the back of a chef. He walks out and we track left to right with him revealing the pub, and also the man (in the bowler hat) who will factor into the scene. Some of this is the idea of using a minor character to move us into the scene, but that’s fairly uncomplicated and not unique, in my opinion, to any of the directors in question. Instead, it’s the mise-en-scène. See those hats and canes all in the middle ground, sitting over each patron’s bald head? That’s part of the setup. It’s also just part of the particular environment that Powell & Pressburger (and the Coens) want to capture:

Our man in question stops his walk when he sees an empty space. This is the punchline. It’s not laugh-out-loud as much as it’s clever. That’s the style. Bowler-hat man joins the crowd symbolically (placing his hat) and physically as he takes his seat next to Sammy. There’s something here about belonging, about men’s clubs, and about tradition that I also think the two pairs of filmmakers have in common:

The conversation continues. Interestingly, we never get a reverse of that second shot below. I wonder why. Sammy’s background has far less depth and is much less interesting. He’s also not doing the talking. And that semi-profile shot does a lot to isolate him even though he’s in the foreground. Our new guy who’s just sat down really blends in with everyone beyond him. Sammy doesn’t:

The scene ends as Sammy departs. In a comical frame he leans against the back of the booth, his hat hovering just above his head as the camera pushes in for the final beat of the scene. It’s a reverse mirror of the entrance, but again is also the type of humor at work here. Men, hats, practiced tradition, it all just sort of fits together here (not to mention the change in power as evidenced via the blocking). A great scene:

There’s an awesome sequence in the film that reminded me a lot of Ulmer’s Detour:

Sammy’s battle with the bottle is rendered in surreal, expressionist production design. It’s close to comical but it’s also thrilling.

The last line of The Small Back Room is memorable, and enough to mark it as separate from the Hollywood treatment: “Have a drink, Sammy.”

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November (Sarnet, 2017) and Marlina The Murderer in Four Acts (Surya, 2017)

Two really stylized films that will definitely be on my year-end list. Rainer Sarnet’s November is full of hazy, high contrast lighting where the highlights are pushed to their absolute limit; memorably cast faces; and folkloric asides (the highlight being when a snowman talks about his water past in Venice). The film mixes comedy and heartfelt romance, but is at its strongest when it fully embraces the magic of the Estonian village where it’s set and mood dominates.

November is sort of a werewolf film, it’s sort of Faust”-ish, it’s sort of Estonian-nationalist (though not with the baggage that the word implies. Maybe “pride” is better), and it’s wholly about unrequited love. It’s being billed as a horror film, but it definitely isn’t conventionally that. I imagine that the director wouldn’t like the “Faust” comparison, given some of the way Estonian characters in the film speak about the Germans (though, to keep the non-Estonian comparisons going in a film that is through-and-through about Estonian culture, there’s something very “Romeo and Juliet” in one of the one-sided love stories).

The interiors – as far as I remember always shot on wide lenses – seem to fit into two categories: low-ceilinged huts reminiscent of the the use of space in Welles’ The Trial, and opulent, soft rooms that could be from an updated version of Jane’s room in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

It’s the exteriors that feel somehow more “properly” lensed and comfortable. But still, director Rainer Sarnet is after a really particular image. The moon’s glow is hard, casting deep shadows. Back lights are sort of everywhere outside. These are rich, particular shots not after any kind of reality.

I also like November because it isn’t afraid to be silly. The kratts – objects endowed with spirit and life – have some goofy traits and voices. The aforementioned flashback to Venice casts two lovers as nearly plastic mannequins in their impossibly smooth skin. A devilish character in the woods has slapstick mannerisms (and feels pulled from “The Master and Margarita”).

 

Marlina The Murderer in Four Acts

Though the four acts of Marlina The Murderer in Four Acts feel more like a stylized excuse to put text on-screen, it’s about the only unnecessary element in the film. A slow-burn revenge film where the camera doesn’t move, but is so engrossing and visually stunning that the camera feels like it does move, Marlina has a great central performance from title-character Marsha Timothy.

Like November, this is a film as interested in putting culture on-screen as it is with the narrative. The dead in both films are treated distinctly. The slow, ghostly march of All Souls from Sarnet’s film is here matched in visual power with director Mouly Surya’s images of a deceased husband, perpetually still and in the background of Marlina’s small house.

There’s an emphasis on eating, on female bonds, and on the stubborn and ineffective arm of the law.

Marlina is shot like a western-

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-but to call the film a feminist western is too much like pasting Marlina into a normally male-dominated genre, and that’s not the movie.  If there is a classic duel in the climax it’s nothing like those in a long dusty street with tumbleweed passing by or around a similarly dusty graveyard. In fact, Marlina is as much road film as anything else and that’s more important: the people she meets along the way (a pregnant friend, an older woman, a young girl, a police officer) factor into the film not all to push towards a narrative conclusion (as in a western), but as guides, asides, and moments along the way (as in a road film). I’m not so interested in nitpicking genre, but I think the effect of this film as a road movie is more towards the filmmaker’s intentions.

 

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