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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La vie nouvelle (Grandrieux, 2002)

For some reason when I started watching La vie nouvelle I thought I was watching a Philippe Garrel film and kept thinking how odd it was that it reminded me so much of Sombre. Of course I realized soon enough that the reason is that Grandrieux’s style is so similar between the two films.

The narrative of La vie nouvelle (A New Life) is rather obscure. It might be the future. We’re in some (war-torn? post-apocalyptic? deserted?) European city where people don’t speak much and when they do speak different languages. At times it feels like science fiction. At times like Bresson with some sexual hang-ups. I wonder if the recent film Embers is influenced by this one. Different stories and styles, but somehow the films seem to complement one-another.

La vie nouvelle is an uncomfortable watch. It contains some of the most graphic sex in a film this side of Noé, Breillat, or Winterbottom (who else has super-graphic sex in their films? These were the first three that came to mind) and there’s a scene with violence towards a woman that goes on for an unnecessary, degrading length. It’s inferior to Sombre, but despite the aforementioned comments, doesn’t play as misogynist – as male-gaze-pervasive, yes.

Still images don’t really do justice to how shaky some of the handheld in the film is, but I’ll try anyway with a look at one of the more striking sequences – an opening where the camera rushes forward towards a group of out of focus people looking off into the distance:

What seem like Grandrieux trademarks abound here: soft focus, dark images, stark faces, close-ups:

It’s a prologue of sorts. What are these people looking at? We never really get an answer, but maybe they’re watching the impending end of the world. The film makes you feel that way. Perhaps they’re seeing whatever rendered the landscape the way it is.

There’s something of Wong Kar Wai in here-

And maybe something of Blue Velvet or The Lost Highway here-

And of course of Mulholland Drive here-

But this is a wholly original vision. I had a visceral reaction to La vie nouvelle but not on the same level as towards Sombre. Sometimes the film feels a bit obvious and even silly. Seymour’s (Zachary Knighton) obsession with Melania (Anna Mouglalis) is what pushes things forward and his desperation doesn’t always play as more than childish or fairy tale (a strategy that I’ll admit works for the ending).

That said, the omnipresent, ominous soundscape; Grandrieux’s various dangerous and romantic frames; and the insistence on wordlessness all really work. And the final 15 minutes get crazy. It feels like we’ve suddenly started watching Begotten, which is apt because Grandrieux’s new life isn’t an optimistic one-

The film’s loud, ugly, brutal ending, where any male who was uncorrupted becomes anything but is hard to watch, but very memorable, particularly the closing image:

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Equinox Flower (Ozu, 1958)

Equinox Flower is Yasujirô Ozu’s first color film, and also the first of his that I’ve seen in several years. It’s as meticulous and touching as you might expect. There are his trademark “pillow shots” that transition from scene to scene (these images are also gorgeous!), –

-themes of aging and modernity, and a gently comic touch, often provided by side characters or repetition.

That it’s his first color film is more than just a throwaway line. This film is gorgeous and has such attention to detail. The color scheme is green and red, perhaps in a nod to the title flower. You can see that popping up everywhere in the mise-en-scene:

Sometimes it’s in wardrobe as well as production design:

And my favorite, a transition shot where the small details of red and green (that bottle, that red reflection) are accented by a framed picture containing both:

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Ozu pretty famously eschewed the 180 line. Here’s an example of that from this film:

It’s not just that Mikami (Chishû Ryû), who is looking frame left in the wide 2-shot, is looking frame right in his single, it’s also Ozu’s tendency to have eyelines so tight as to be burning the lens. The lowered camera and center-framing are also of his style.

For producing such compassionate films, Ozu was such a rule breaker! Screen direction? Not really in play here. You can see it, I hope, in these stills of Sasaki (Fujiko Yamamoto) as she walks to the telephone. That’s her in the background. Her first exit is left to right, but then she enters frame right to left:

She continues up that hallway and exits right to left, and of course enters the next room left to right:

It’s a little disorienting, but not entirely confusing. We still understand where she came from and where she’s going. I like this about Ozu’s films – both that disorientation, his disregard for some rules, and his faith in the audience.

I think that one of the first scenes of the film is a really great way to look at how Ozu lays out space. This is a wedding where we first meet Wataru Hirayama (Shin Saburi). The scene begins with this low angle wide. If we look closely at the first image we can see the groom (center frame, facing camera) and the bride to his left. The first cut to them is spatially clear, but the third shot, which introduces Hirayama, isn’t as much. We don’t have much of a frame of reference except for maybe those flowers (which we’ll see later is our accurate guide):

Somewhere around here we’d usually expect a wider frame showing Hirayama in the same frame as the bride and groom, especially since he’s shortly going to address them, but Ozu never goes to it. The next shots: an attendant sings (are those flowers still reference? I don’t think so). Then to a tighter 2-shot, this time also emphasizing Hirayama’s wife, Kiyoko (Tanaka Kinuyo). The third shot there is to show Hirayama’s eyeline, frame right:

That eyeline leads to the next shot, and so we have a series of shots where eyeline (and here, Ozu does follow the 180 for clarity) gives us more clarity – who is sitting to Hirayama’s left, and who is across from him and to his right:

The last three shots that I’m interested in: Another cut to the side somewhere showing an announcement. Hirayama stands and we get a shot very similar to the first one of the scene, but it’s not the same (the bride and groom aren’t in the background of the shot; Hirayama wasn’t in the middle-ground of that first shot), and then one showing his eyeline to give us an idea of where the bride and groom are, in fact sitting in relation to him (across from Hirayama and to his left):

So we can figure things out by the end. The first shot is of the aisle parallel and to the left of the one in the similar low angle wide shot above. The man across from Hirayama and to his right, is likely seated at the same long table as the bride and groom, just a few people down, to their left. Eyelines, flowers, changing positions (standing) are what mostly guide us.

It’s sort of an overkill examination (that’s the point here…), but it’s worth noting that Ozu doesn’t move his camera (I don’t think he does in the entire film), doesn’t go to a traditional wide or over-the-shoulder, and doesn’t really use many L or J cuts from shot-to-shot. All of those are pretty traditional ways to elucidate the space. So even though he does adhere to some eyeline and axis rules, he’s still breaking rules in this scene.

I don’t think that Ozu is only breaking rules just to break them (although I do think that’s part of his M.O. I bet he thought they were kind of pointless). I think he’s breaking them to give preference to compositions that he prefers, to keep Hirayama thematically separate from the bride and groom (his speech feels like an address to himself, in this way and in the dialogue), and to emphasize the formality of the event.

 

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Something Different (Chytilová, 1963) and The Truth (Clouzot, 1960)

I think Something Different is the best Chytilová film I’ve seen. The performances in this film are staggering. Is the film part documentary? It sometimes seems so, but it’s really just a testament to how great the turns by Eva Bosáková (as Eva) and Vera Uzelacová (as Vera) are. I’d love to know how Chytilová worked on-set. Sometimes the camera feels fly-on-the-wall, but the film is beautifully photographed throughout. It doesn’t feel, performances notwithstanding, like she just followed Eva and Vera around – the film is structured and composed and just damn well directed.

Something about the film also seems quite French. Maybe it’s the small interiors with a jazzy soundtrack. Of course it reminds of Jeanne Dielman, but that film came out 12 years later! Such a progressive, feminist movie. Some of the power comes in the way that Chytilová compares situations, such as here, where she cuts from Vera’s detached husband reading the newspaper in bed, to a beautiful, meaningful shot of Eva reading on the balance beam.

The women in Something Different are busy and looking for fulfillment. The first part of Vera’s section is mostly in her small flat. Throughout the film Chytilová frames her in crowded ways, often obscuring her:

I liked how some of the focus of Eva’s section is just on her movement.

It’s an interesting contrast to so many other films where, when the female body is looked at (see the post below on The Truth and Clouzot/Bardot), it’s often done sexually.

There’s even a meet-cute in Something Different

-but unlike, say, a screwball comedy approach, this one is just out of the way so fast and then suddenly we’re in the midst of Vera’s new relationship. There are no clever one-liners or anything like flirting. It’s a frank meet-cute (which is maybe not really a meet-cute at all).

The Truth

Clouzot’s 1960 film in some way feels like a precursor to his far-superior La Prisonnière. It’s a film that wants to talk about sexuality, and youth, and passion, but feels dated. I wonder if the film is mostly known for Brigitte Bardot’s naked dancing, both out of bed and under covers-

Much of the film is spent debating, in court, about Bardot’s Dominique’s motives and sexual exploits. It gets a bit uncomfortable that way, or at least, again, dated. It’s not only that, though. Clouzot has some great transitions, like this one where Dominique’s lover/boyfriend Gilbert (Sami Frey, who I think looks like Elijah Wood) tries to forbid her to accept a job working in the coat room at a club. I love how Clouzot shoots it with no response from Dominique, only a look away and a smile. Then he dissolves to the club and we get it. She took the job:

It’s nice, efficient storytelling. The beginning of the club scene has some of the blocking that I tend to like. Here, Clouzot starts us in a high angle, uses an off-screen line of dialogue of someone asking for a chair, and then uses the movement of that chair to motivate the camera to tilt up and reveal Dominique in her job:

It’s a clever way to bring us to the action, and more compelling than just cutting to her at work (plus, it makes the aforementioned transition joke linger).

Clouzot tends to move us into scenes this way often. When Gilbert accosts Dominique and drags her with him to work the first image of the following scene is of two unrelated characters. We then tilt up (unmotivated by action, arguably motivated by organ music) and reveal the protagonists in the choir loft:

A lot of images in the film are simply striking. I like Armand Thirard’s (Clouzot’s regular cinematographer) photography that goes from noir-ish to surreal:

The Truth has something of the feeling of a transition film. Clouzot would infamously never finish his next project, L’Enfer, though both that, this film, and La Prisonnière move away from his thrillers and his great period of 1943 – 1955 and into more personal two-handed dramas.

 

 

 

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Panelstory (Chytilová, 1980) and Les espions (Clouzot, 1957)

Panelstory is more High-Rise than High-Rise was. Vera Chytilová’s 1980 bizarre feature (can you say that about all of her films? It’s not an insult…) feels somehow closer to Ballard’s source material than the recent adaptation of that same book. Chytilová’s film is frenetic, dirty, jazzy, and funny. It deals with class and race in some ways, but is more than anything a comedic window into living conditions at the time.

Like, say Taste of Cherry, there’s the constant hum of construction in the film. Unlike that Kiarostami’s movie, this one follows a huge cast of characters who intersect in various ways. I got a strange Do The Right Thing vibe from this movie too. Maybe it’s the old man and the woman in the window that reminded me of Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, or maybe it’s that everything happens in one contained urban (it’s hard for me to tell, actually, where within Prague this is in Panelstory) space that is undergoing change.

Sometimes Panelstory can be tedious to watch. The first 30 minutes are frantic. The camera moves constantly, is shaky beyond a “documentary feel,” and the characters move rapidly – as rapidly as they can through the mud and dirt everywhere. It’s impossible to figure out who the main character is, if there is one at all.

 

But the chaos of Panelstory is purposeful for its dystopic portrayal of life in the Soviet bloc. It also clears up a bit in the third act, where the intersecting characters lead to various denouements, some comic (whose kid is that?), some romantic (a tryst lit by the sparks of construction).

Les espions

Les espions isn’t a bad film (I’ve read that Peter Ustinov wasn’t happy with it), but it’s the weakest Clouzot I’ve seen. The problem for me is two-fold: 1) there’s a general lack of tension because the source of danger is always so unclear and because the (almost entirely off-screen) violence seems to lack any noticeable consequences; and 2) the main character, Doctor Malic (Gérard Séty) is so gullible that it becomes frustrating. One of the characters eventually states as much later in the film:

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Sometimes, Les espions seems to be a spy thriller nearly mocking itself. Secret meetings with elaborately done portraits of a missing person (who painted that? Why not just use a photograph?); mysterious men in dark shades:

But for much of the film it’s rather convoluted with little payoff. Still, there are bright moments. The last 20 minutes are quite good, including a nice train sequence with some really great off-screen sound. The film has a political sense of humor. One great line: “Pacifists start wars.” Some are rather obtuse. Like this one, which I had to look up:

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So, I think that “Fourche” is a mis-translation and refers to Fouché. Can I assume this is also a dig on Jorge-Luis Borges’ politics? And the McLain should be MacLean? Anyway, I like the way the character of Cooper (Sam Jaffe) here quickly recalls a vast array of references. I’m sure that Dr. Malic was as confused as I was, and confusion is a major part of Cooper’s plan.

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