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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Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (Mazursky, 1969)

Paul Mazursky’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice features four great leads, but it’s those latter two – Ted and Alice (Elliot Gould and Dyan Cannon) that steal the show. This is a hard film to pull off because it’s so talky, but it’s hilarious and meaningful (and very groovily ’60s).

The film really rests on the credibility of the intro scene where Bob (a very cocky Robert Culp) and Carol (Natalie Wood) attend a weekend group therapy session complete with tai chi, very little sleep, and outpourings of emotions designed to bring them closer together and more in touch with their sexuality. The scene is close to comical, but you get the sense that Mazursky wants to ride that satirical line throughout the film. It’s risky because we don’t know Bob and Carol before but need to believe that their lives have been dramatically altered. The opening all feels a bit exploitive and like current reality TV: put a group of strangers together, deprive them of sleep, and watch the drama play. I think if we look back at the opening scene following the closing shots we’d see that Mazursky feels the same way.

But Mazursky also really plays (hams) up the opening scene to provide a contrast to the well-designed life that Ted and Alice lead. The real strength of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice are the many long scenes that either start tense and evolve into comedy, or vice versa. The best of those is between Ted and Alice, just after they’ve learned some critical sexual information about their friends. Mazursky stages a long scene in their bedroom that begins with marital strife and moves into hilarity (with Gould’s great line: “I wish I had a dog so I could take him for a walk!”)-

The climactic scene of the film is also expertly staged. Mazursky feels a bit like a Rafelson to me in his blocking – both like to move the characters a lot, use the full space, and stage with characters in the background:

This scene does the reverse: it begins uncomfortably funny and evolves into something rather poignant. The best part of it is the crosscut between Ted’s hygiene in the bathroom and the slow-motion fun of the other three:

It’s a pretty nice summation of the opposing lives the two couples have led, and also the last time that Mazursky really pushes the extremes of boring suburbia vs. idealized sexual bliss. And Gould is just so damn good at being awkward!

I love the scene between Alice and her therapist. It’s not only her squirming discomfort, but also his easy posture (with which his delivery of “vagina” is all the more funny) and her really probing, learning direct eyeline:

Mazursky has a nicely staged fantasy (that perhaps, turns into reality), beautifully executed in the absolute ease of both characters, one of whom is thoughtlessly stripping on an airplane-

-and also an ending that feels like it may have inspired the close of Force Majeure:

Impeccable casting notwithstanding, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is so great because Mazursky begins his film as farce, moves it into unease (another reason I think the Östlund comparisons are apt), and ends it with love, without ever really mocking the characters. They all get their say, have agency, make their own decisions, and have scenes on their own.

 

 

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Ana and the Wolves (Saura, 1973)

I’ll write on a few more Carlos Saura films over the coming weeks. Ana and the Wolves is another Geraldine Chaplin collaboration. Here she plays the eponymous Ana, a young woman who arrives at an isolated Spanish estate to care for the three young children of Juan (José Vivó), a lascivious man who lives with his equally strange brothers: the war-obsessed José (José María Prada) and the hermit Fernando (Fernando Fernán Gómez). SPOILERS below.

The film begins and ends to emphasize the allegory. Where did Ana come from? How did she end up here?

None of it’s explained. It reminds me of Suara’s Cria Cuervos in this way: the isolated old estate where, perhaps, things remain as they did during Franco’s reign.

José makes it plain to Ana that this place is a man’s world. Sometimes he looks regal, but Saura and Ana also go out of their way to mock him:

Fernando is the most complex character in the film. He refuses to eat, paints a nearby cave white and lives there. At one point Ana hallucinates(?) that he levitates, and Saura shoots him in tender close-ups:

Their interaction is about materialism and the resistance of temptation. Together they burn Ana’s few belongings:

These interactions make the ending of the film all the harsher. It has obvious similarities to the end of Blindfolded Eyes, but the conclusion is closer-to-home and more personal than in that film.

So much of Ana and the Wolves is hallucinatory. It reminded me of Marco Ferrari at times. The film is even funny occasionally, but usually when we laugh with Ana, and not with the men running the house.

At one point early in the film Fernando has a vision of chaos outside of the house. Juan tries to rape Ana. José rides around importantly on his horse. The children cry. (These images remind me of de Chirico):

Later we return to this, but now as reality.

Saura shoots this ending in so much more detail than the dream, which was mostly in a wide.

It further complicates the film. Fernando essentially has a correct vision. Did he then, in fact, achieve some kind of nirvana in that cave? Was it not imagined when he levitated? But what does that say, given his overwhelming complicity in the final violence? It seems to me to be a stab towards hypocrisy of piety, and the impossibility of men to control their inner urges. In this way the film is very indebted to, you guess it, Buñuel. I thought of Simon of the Desert a lot.

Can we also talk about Geraldine Chaplin’s astonishing career? It’s not only her many collaborations with Saura, but also her work with the likes of Rivette, Altman, Radford and others. I’ll try to take a look at some of those other films in future posts.

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Blindfolded Eyes (Saura, 1978) and Sweetie (Campion, 1989)

Carlos Saura’s Cria Cuervos is one of my favorite films. I’ve been looking for Blindfolded Eyes and Elisa, My Life for awhile. Blindfolded Eyes (Los Ojos Vendados) is one in his run of films with the underrated Geraldine Chaplin. Here she plays Emilia, an aspiring actress who leaves her abusive husband for Luis (José Luis Gómez), a theater directing mounting a controversial production based on live testimony of atrocities. There are very slight SPOILERS below.

Much of the power of Saura’s film comes from Chaplin’s delicate performance which oscillates between flirtatious but contained housewife and confident actress and lover. A scene where the two dance and strip together is playful and powerful – a transition happens before our eyes.

The film is very much about memory, and so, in the best scene of the film, where Luis gets a cavity filled by Emilia’s husband Manuel (Xabier Elorriaga)-

-we suddenly flash to a version of the events that Luis’ play is based on. These are fictional, as Emilia is the victim:

The sequence is made powerful not from the imagery and the way it ties the play to the testimony, but also through the sound of the dental drill that screams throughout. It’s a shrill, difficult sound (which will come back later) and it adds a terror to the would-be-flashbacks.

The title of the film comes not only from the traumatic past, but from the new, falsely pristine present. When we first meet Emilia she removes her glasses (glasses and lights are a motif in the film) and reveals her new features to Luis, now wrinkle-free. Therefore Blindfolded eyes is about the relationship between the times, and about art imitating life imitating art.

The amazing poster makes clear one of these motifs:

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Sometimes Saura’s timeline can be tricky. Like in a sequence where Luis looks to his clean sink, and then looks back and sees it full of a murky liquid. It’s not until later, when he showers at his aunt’s place in another near-flashback that we understand that dark material to be coal, a reference to his childhood:

The ending of Blindfolded Eyes is unforgettable and visceral. It feels Brechtian because of the build-up and the use of two audiences throughout the film (three if you count us), and also in some of its beautiful staginess:

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But, like Cria Cuervos this feels like another film investigating the not-so-distant Franco world and how life has changed (or not).

Sweetie

I can’t believe I haven’t seen Sweetie before, not only because of how great it is, but also because I feel like I’ve nearly started it many times. Jane Campion’s debut is fantastic. It’s funny, daring, boldly colorful, and really original.

Karen Colston is Kay, a superstitious woman whose phobias severely impact her love life with Louis (Tom Lycos). Their world is further turned upside-down by the arrival of Kay’s unpredictable sister, Sweetie (Geneviève Lemon) and their father, Gordon (Jon Darling).

Campion’s technique is so advanced already in her first feature. I love this transition where Kay looks at a small tree that Louis has decided in their concrete driveway. Campion cuts in and pushes ominously towards it in close-up (a great camera movement, I think, which gives the plant a significance beyond lonely comedy). The next cut is a beautifully framed overhead, which then cuts to a sort of graphic match to the tree (it’s easier to see looking top to bottom):

I like when graphic matches are images apart and not immediately contiguous. Here it’s like that hole in the driveway is looming overhead and bearing down on Kay. It influences her next actions.

Campion likes slightly off-kilter shot-reverses, like these:

The first is between Gordon and Sweetie’s hilariously drugged out boyfriend Bob (Michael Lake), while the latter is between Kay and a meditation expert. The former is more traditional, but still with a lot of negative space for a relatively tight eyeline. The second is totally atypical, with the meditation expert pushed low in the frame in a slight high angle (and that plant in the corner!), and with Kay pushed up against the frame and without any lead room. It’s much more uncomfortable.

But so many frames in Sweetie are just pretty.Whether they be a bit voyeuristic-

-or using a nice wide lens for dramatic spacing:

The whole film has that nice sea-green or teal suffusing it, but with a lot of pops of red. The palette feels so suburban, but at times it verges on danger or sickliness. Those frames do the same – they’re gorgeous, but just slightly inflected for a little more meaning.

 

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