The Assassination of Trotsky (Losey, 1972) and Fireworks Wednesday (Farhadi, 2006)

Continuing on with my Joseph Losey kick: The Assassination of Trotsky has a pretty bad reputation. It’s certainly the worst Losey film I’ve seen. That’s due in large part to the ridiculous idea of Richard Burton as Leon Trotsky. Burton looks the part, but it’s inescapable that he’s a British actor playing the Soviet exile. It’s a catch-22 that’s entirely avoidable: he either tries Russian or an accent and it’s laughable, or he speaks plainly (as he does), or, Losey avoids this altogether by casting someone believable in the role.

So…right off the bat, Trotsky struggles. That said, the film isn’t quite as bad as its reputation. Alain Delon, as Frank Jackson (aka Ramon Mercador, I believe) is histrionic and sometimes ridiculous. But I really like that Delon takes risks. He’s a far-cry from smooth Delon that we so often see. He’s taciturn, but not the Melville-cool kind of taciturn. With Losey he’s tense and nervous. It’s a precarious turn, and one that doesn’t always pay off, but is totally worth seeing.

The script for the film is strange. Not much happens. We spend a lot of time with Trotsky as he dictates his thoughts on revolution (man does Trotsky come off as pompous here), and then a lot of the other time with Jackson as he mistreats his Trotsky-ite lover Gita (Romy Schneider), takes surreptitious meetings with people presumably from the Kremlin, and skittishly struggles with some internal demons.

Those internal demons are another slight failure in here. The script is supposed to be psychological but it comes off as meandering. The closest we get is a hard-to-watch bullfighting scene where Losey doesn’t flinch from showing real gore (and neither does Jackson flinch from watching it). The film would be well-served with either a few more set pieces like this one, or with taking a more traditional route to suspense.

Aside from Monsieur Klein (a far, far superior film) this is the latest Losey I’ve seen. It doesn’t really feel like him. There’s little sexual tension – some of that comes from Gita and Jackson, but their relationship is wooden and not believable – which we’ve so come to expect. The doomed relationship aspect is certainly there, but since it doesn’t quite play in the first place its effects aren’t as palpable.

Even Losey’s camera feels less exploratory here. It feels tamped down and hurried.
There are other times when the camera blocking feels like Losey but it still doesn’t add up. Consider this scene between Jackson and his handler. Losey starts on this exterior view as the camera tilts up. It then tilts back down and pulls back, revealing Jackson:

The camera continues to pull back, landing in a 2-shot. Soon Jackson walks forward, evening the balance:

The men start walking forward, and Losey tracks back, eventually letting them pass from and move off frame-right:

Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 8.43.43 AM

This is all played out in one shot. Losey then picks them men up as they descend the old tower. His camera finds them on the stairs continuing down-

-where they land in another 2-shot. Jackson again starts further away from camera, this time with his back to us, before he again opens to camera and walks towards the balanced 2-shot:

There are a lot of trademarks of some of Losey’s blocking in here. The long takes that don’t call attention to themselves; characters with their backs to us. But a lot of his expressive close-ups from his earlier films, and even the dynamic, natural movement from a film as recent as The Go-Between are gone.

Delon himself feels stilted. I realize that’s the character, but it lessens the impact of the blocking, and whenever he opens to us it feels stagey. Losey’s other films feel unafraid to get really close to subjects and also to cut away to extras and inanimate objects (Losey does the former at the beginning of this film, but not much otherwise).

There’s another larger problem, which is that there isn’t much tension leading into this scene to begin with. In Losey’s other films we often spend most of our time with one character. The crosscut here is partially to blame for the fact that by this point I don’t know Jackson, and I don’t really care why he feels the way he feels. Therefore, when Losey blocks him to feel caged (those stone pillars) and angst-ridden, it doesn’t have the same impact.

Fireworks Wednesday

It’s been nice that older Asghar Farhadi films have been getting theater time in the US. I caught About Elly (2009) last year. Fireworks Wednesday was made three years prior to that. It features a grainy look that looks like blown up super 16mm. But cleanliness of image aside all of the features of more recent Farhadi films are still there: a multi-character drama; very talky; minimal locations (and a lot of apartment complexes); a lot of panning within pretty fast blocking; long scenes; crosscuts to different perspectives.

Fireworks Wednesday is, like A Separation, about marriage in some ways. It’s so easy to go to the Polanski comparison – as I often do – when talking about apartment films, but Farhadi isn’t going for a fearful sense of voyeurism. He wants the crowded tapestry and the social commentary that comes with it (ie a landlord showing an already-occupied apartment to a wealthy couple without warning the lower-income tenant previously).

Rouhi (Taraneh Alidoosti) is about to get married. She spends the day before her wedding at an apartment building cleaning the house of a couple who is facing serious marital strife.

Blocking aside (and to reiterate: it’s great in here. There’s a very long argument scene that somehow doesn’t feel tired, that’s made up almost solely of pans, that moves fluidly from room to room of an apartment but basically stays in one place, and that reminds me of some Sidney Lumet blocking (oddly enough, from Deathtrap)) Fireworks Wednesday is great because of the amount of careful time that Farhadi dedicates to many characters. There are even two relatively minor characters (a hairdresser and her husband) who, by the end of the film, feel as central to the narrative as those with significantly greater screen time.

If I had stills I’d show the sequence of the hairdresser’s big moment. Without spoilers, it’s towards the end of the film, involves a long tracking shot, and is so emotionally beautiful. It was my favorite part of the movie.

Farhadi’s film is neorealist at heart, but it’s also indebted to classic drama. The plot mechanics are more Hollywood than Zavattini and so, while we do the whole real locations, non-professional actors thing, everything is actually very tightly woven and plot points set from the beginning come back around in the end. That’s no knock on Farhadi. In fact, it’s probably part of what’s given him some international appeal in his career.

There’s a great sense of impending danger in Fireworks Wednesday. Part of that is the aforementioned structure: I’m trained to guess at high stakes in films. But a lot of that for me came from the chaotic soundtrack. The title is literal. There are fireworks going off all the time in the movie and as the noise builds it acts as a sort of teapot whistle – the rising cacophony seems to indicate that something violent and/or dramatic is imminent. It’s a nice feeling to have hovering for much of the last act of the film.

About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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