Wedding in Blood (Chabrol, 1973)

Wedding in Blood feels like a companion piece to Claude Chabrol’ film from three years prior, Le Boucher (one of my favorites of his) in its small-town scandal of the upper-class. Even some of the sequences, here between the great Michel Piccoli and Stéphane Audran, remind of those meetings at night between Audran and Jean Yanne in the 1970 film.

In some ways, Wedding in Blood is also a return to form. I admire elements of both Ten Days Wonder and Just Before Nightfall but neither matches Chabrol’s 1968 – 1970 output. Wedding in Blood does.

Much of this is due to the unbelievably believable affair between Piccoli’s Pierre Maury and Audran’s Lucienne Delamare. It’s one of the more visceral (but not graphic) unions I can think of from the time. Chabrol doesn’t need nudity to show that the passion is real. It’s in the small embraces, and down to a kiss with a really visible trail of saliva set against the backdrop of a burning car.

I love this clip from the film, which also features Lucienne’s husband, Paul (Claude Piéplu).

Sure, this is a fantastic long take. It’s involving and kinetic. The camera is motivated and Paul dominates both composition and movement. But I’m more interested for Lucienne. This is such a great example of using a (literal) background character to drift in and out of frame. Lucienne’s choreography is no simple task. Look at her intro in the clip around 0:32. The camera motivates from Paul’s turn and hand gesture to reveal her in the background walking to camera. She stays in the relative background and we leave her, staring at Pierre as Paul takes the lens away from her. When he immediately brings it back to her (0:45), she’s got her back to us and is retreating.

The closest Lucienne gets to dominant, visually, in this scene is at 1:24. She’s in the foreground, in close-up, but she’s a statue. The camera moves around her, rather than vice versa, and again, her husband takes the frame away from her at 1:30.

1:48 is my favorite part of this clip. Lucienne drifts, of her own accord (read: she moves, the camera doesn’t move to show her) into the background of the shot. She exits, is revealed again when Paul (an obvious consistent motif here) moves, walks to us, walks away again, and turns up similarly drifting in the background of the frame around 2:57.

But none of this drifting is meaningless. Chabrol clearly communicates that when, at 3:11 and the end of the long take, the camera finally lingers on her, alone, and doesn’t move with Paul.

This is also a masterful when in relation to the moment at 4:21. Lucienne finally breaks her act and breaks down. The earlier parts of the clip then become clearer: she’s been keeping her back to us (and to Paul) to more easily keep her emotions in check. Her drifting in the background isn’t aimless beach-going or ambivalence, but in fact brewing with emotion. It’s such a nice contrast to the end of the clip where she’s in the foreground, moving, emoting, and controlling the frame.

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The Executioner (Berlanga, 1963)

Wow, how have I never seen The Executioner before? Easily one of the best films I’ve seen in some time. It’s got elements of Buñuel, reminded me of some Neo-realist films, and is really just masterful in all regards.

As I noted in my last post on Satyajit Ray, I’m more and more interested in how directors transition from scene to scene. Luis García Berlanga’s approach is different than Ray’s. Here’s one of the early ones. Antonio (José Luis López Vázquez), older brother of José Luis (Nino Manfredi) comically measures his child’s head. Berlanga cuts from this shot to a wide of a bunch of characters we’ve never seen before:

This new shot in the new location then continues, until we find the main character. That’s José Luis reclining, frame left, and his bride-to-be Carmen (Emma Penella) in the foreground, frame right:

In the course of this I also looked quickly at recent popular films that I love. I scanned through No Country For Old Men and Zodiac. The Coens use some visual-verbal matching (a character talks about burial, cut to a CU of a coffin being lowered into a grave); a lot of J-cuts (music leaking into the scene as Josh Brolin stumbles down a bridge at night. Cut to him, in MCU, now during the day, with a mariachi band playing above him; that same coffin sound – the creak precedes the image); and classic graphic matching (Javier Bardem looks at the scrape marks in the empty air duct. Cut to a wide POV through a windshield (another J-cut), where the road matches the duct).

In Zodiac Fincher relies really heavily on J-cuts as well. He also uses a lot of general sound cuts (a lighter flicks on on the cut, for example). And he definitely isn’t afraid to cut wide to wide.

Here’s more from The Executioner. José Luis and Carmen hold hands, and then we cut to two brand new characters. Is this José Luis and Carmen again? Nope, it’s an unnamed pilot and stewardess, intentionally designed to look like the leads, who block past José Luis and his friend:

Or this one, where we go from a wide marriage proposal to what one might think is a wedding-

-but is in fact just José Luis’ fellow employees goofing around. Another visual joke. Like this one, where we go from José Luis and Carmen in various forms of intimacy to an actual packed church…

…only to find out that this is not their wedding, but that of some couple that we’ll never meet again.

Berlanga does this time and again in the film. Some of them are clever and funny, others just move as along to some brief sidetrack. José Luis rides away to perform an execution; Berlanga cuts to extras (who, like the pilot and stewardess perhaps remind us of José Luis and Carmen) who then reveal the main characters:

That strategy of cutting to another man and woman is also really intentional, and thematic. The Executioner feels Italian in this way. It’s very much about the tribulations of young love (not to mention about overcrowdedness, something that starts to crop up in Neo-realism and moves beyond that).

There are several other sly commentaries in here. Like the hip young couple who knows Antonioni and Bergman, but not their fellow countryman (and maybe, by extension, not Berlanga):

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There’s a beautiful, eerie scene in a cavern that reminds of Fellini or the recent The Wonders

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-but that is then comically punctuated by an unwanted boat intruding, paging José Luis:

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And there are atmospheric, memorable frames. My favorite is this one, which also happens to be one of my favorite crane shots that I’ve seen in awhile:

This could be from The Trial. The huge space, white walls, tiny door.

I won’t even get into Berlanga’s blocking. Suffice to say, he uses minimal coverage, motivates his camera simply, but often, with character movement, frequently pulls away to wide 2-shots or pushes in for emphasis, and is quite active.

 

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The Chess Players and The Stranger (Ray, 1977 and 1991)

Two here by Satyjit Ray. I’m trying to catch up on a lot of his filmography. It’s still hard to beat the Apu Trilogy and The Big Citybut I really enjoyed both of these later Ray films.

The Chess Players feels really loose, and more allegorical than I’m used to from Ray. I think of him as a sort of spiritual realist. Maybe close to an Ozu. But this film stands out from the others of his I’ve seen.

Two chess enthusiasts, Mir Roshan Ali (Saeed Jaffrey) and Mirza Sajjad Ali (Sanjeev Kumar), try to find a place to play chess while around them independent India begins to cede to the British.

Even the opening credits, with their dramatic black background and bold colors in the foreground, give the feel that this film might be a bit different:

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The hand coming in and out of frame, the bold opposing colors…it all feels so surreal. This is a really beautiful film. Ray frames Wajid Ali Shah (Amjad Khan) in such pretty frames. Here we see him so symmetrical and powerful. That later CU – the light reflecting the setting sun – he feels much more vulnerable:

That’s in pretty good opposition to Mir and Mirza, who really just want to play chess (and while this is a comedy, it’s also a tragedy, something that so many Ray films have in common). These guys are often pushed into corners, shot in natural, neutrally colored light, and very often in profile 2-shots:

They rarely seem to occupy their own controlled frames. While they’re at the center of the story in terms of screen time, they’re at the periphery of the greater narrative. That second shot above is a good example of some of the comedy in here. Mir and Mirza lose their chess pieces, so they try to replace them with anything they can find.

I also noticed a “back to the village” theme in here, one that crops up again in his last film, 1991’s The Stranger. In The Chess Players it takes this form:

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Mir and Mirza have left the comforts of the city in search of chess. They’re a bit lost and a bit out of their element. In The Stranger we see this presented somewhat similarly: a comfortably upper-middle-class family eventually makes their way to the village; in that film, with its far more optimistic read, they find solace and joy at the village. That’s not really the case in The Chess Players, which has a cynical eye.

The Stranger

I love everything about The Stranger up until the super-schmaltzy, overly predictable final 5-10 minutes. But that notwithstanding, it’s really an excellent conclusion to a storied career.

Manomohan Mitra (Utpal Dutt) claims to be Anila Bose’s (Mamata Shankar) long lost uncle. He comes to Bengal for a visit. Anila’s husband Sudhindra (Dipankar Dey) is skeptical.

The film takes place as a series of conversations and monologues, often on the part of Manomohan. It’s a great performance from Dutt. He really looks the part – deep sunken eyes and confident body language giving him the appearance of the worn, storied traveler he is.

I was looking at Ray’s color schemes a lot in this film. It’s dominated by the colors of the Indian flag (plus red). Overall it’s a rather green film, with pops of yellow/orange and red. Ray seems to separate his characters from scene-to-scene with a different color coding. Or, in the case of the first image below, a combo. Sudhindra wears green. Anila wears red. And their son, Satyaki (Bikram Bhattacharya), wears green and red. That’s appropriate because he’s between the two of his parents in their argument:

I’ve been more and more curious how directors shoot their transitions. Here are a few of Ray’s. He really likes to start new scenes – especially when we have a time or location cut – with inserts or close-ups.

He ends this lunch scene with a 2-shot of Anila and Manomohan, and then cuts to a tight CU of a coin for the start of the new scene:

Here we end with a three shot (rather beautifully framed, again in a way that reminds me of Ozu, with Manomohan’s horizontal body occupying the bottom of the frame), and then cuts to an insert of a parachuter:

He goes from this MCU of Manomohan (where he looks nearly directly into the lens – something that happens a few times in the film) to an insert of the bell:

And the last one I took note of, we end with a tight shot of the phone, and cut to a CU of an injured foot:

It’s not just that he likes to begin new scenes with inserts, it’s that these are all graphic matches. If you line them up this way it’s easier to see:

They all occupy basically the same place in frame, have a same basic shape, and are pretty tight. There’s something to moving to a brand new time and place that Ray likes about this. If he cuts to a new scene, but one that’s happening continuously he doesn’t necessarily do this.

This also all feels thematic. Manomohan is so obsessed with the circle of life in his own way. These images reflect that. Some of them are jokes. In Manomohan’s dialogue before the shot of the bell he discusses the moon; we get that the graphic match is also a verbal match.

Like Ozu, yet again, these feel like pillow shots – small glances at other parts of the world, separate from, but surrounding or within the scenes at hand.

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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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