Mother Joan of the Angels (Matka Joanna od Aniolów (Poland, 1961)

Taking the devil out of horror

Mother Joan of the Angels is a sort of sequel to The Devils (UK, 1971), Ken Russells’ hysterical and extravagant adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudon (1952) which was based on actual events that occurred in the 1630s. ‘Sequel’ because it deals with the aftermath of Grandier’s (Oliver Reed) death although it is based on Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz’s novella written in 1943 whilst incarcerated in a concentration camp. The stylistic contrasts between the film could not be more striking as director Jerzy Kawalerowicz and Tadeusz Konwicki’s adaptation eschews full frontal representation of sexual repression in favour of restraint. The stylisation in the earlier film is through Jerzy Wójcik’s stark and beautiful black and white cinematography and some striking set pieces (as in the still above).

This version of the ‘devils of Loudon’ focuses more on the conflicted, unworldly Father Suryn, who arrives to exorcise Mother Joan, rather than the sexual repression of the nuns. Mieczyslaw Voit’s haunted performance as Suryn makes it clear from the start that he is unlikely to be up to the task. In one heavily stylised scene he asks a local rabbi for help: the conversation between the two, where each character (both played by Voit) occupy the same space in the frame after the edit, emphasises the priest’s inner conflict. The rabbi asks if the devil ruled the world it would explain why there is so much evil.

Unlike the elaborate design (by Derek Jarman) of Russell’s film, the setting is a muddy and pitted expanse of ground between the locals’ inn and the convent. In the middle there’s a burnt out stake, that saw the last of Grandier, that is a reminder of the Church’s violence. Unsurprisingly the Catholic church condemned the film but the Polish authorities were happy with its anti-religious stance; Cannes awarded it the Special Jury Prize.

Apparently this is Kawalerowicz’s most stylised film as he was, predominantly, a commercial filmmaker; he’d made Night Train a couple of years before which is equally good. Mother Joan of the Angels is brilliant on so many levels: direction, performance, mise en scene and the portrayal of the psychological damage that religion can wreak. What stands out, however, is the chiaroscuro cinematography that seemingly effortlessly presents a real space as abstract.

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Bone Tomahawk (US-UK, 2015)

Not your average ‘Indian’

S. Craig Zahler’s debut as a director (he also scripted) is less a Western than an outback horror movie, though the tropes of the former are present. A posse of four ill-matched men go after some particularly savage ‘Indians’ who have kidnapped one of the pursuers’ wife. So far so conventional and the unspoken male creed of ‘what a man’s gotta do…’ underpins the men’s bravery. The landscape, a mixture of scrub and glorious vistas, is typical of the genre too though the setting, in the last decade of the 19th century, is later than ‘classic’ Westerns.

The (for me) dread hand of Tarantino is present in some of the dialogue that seems to be trying to be clever but that’s never over-bearing and it’s delivered brilliantly by the cast. The actors are the main reason to see this film unless you wish to be grossed out. Kurt Russell’s rugged visage was designed to be a sheriff and Richard Jenkins’ garrulous old man is a delight.

The film risks going back to the reactionary ‘Indian as savage’ trope but Zahler’s careful to distinguish the savages with ‘authentic’ Native Americans. And savage they are ‘treating’ us to the ‘best’ dismemberment I’ve seen in film; if that’s your bag.

One bright spot, in terms of it being a Western, is Lili Simmons’s character, the abducted wife. Although marginalised for much of the film she does get a great speech where she talks about the problems of the frontier (which had disappeared by 1890) not being the terrain or ‘Indians’, but male stupidity. The ‘men’s gotta do…’ is certainly stupid in some contexts and the narrative stretches too far in allowing them to do it; even in the context of a genre film, it is not believable.

The film is overlong, some of the dialogue could have been trimmed, but is worth seeing for the cast but if you’re squeamish avoid the last half hour.

The Swimmer (US, 1968)

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Swimming to oblivion

This is an interesting ‘New Hollywood’ film where the French ‘new wave’ can be seen infiltrating the commercially desperate Hollywood. Though it was an independent production, Sam Spiegel was pretty much establishment Hollywood and Columbia Pictures distributed. Of course the presence of Burt Lancaster brings the Hollywood star system into play but the fact that Spiegel took his name off the film and had Sydney Pollack reshoot some scenes give an indication that this isn’t a product of the Dream Factory.

It was filmed in 1966 but took two years to be released and so predated both Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, key films in the emergence of Hollywood films that challenged the American consensus about their ‘Dream’. Lancaster plays Ned Merrill who, an a whim, decides to swim via his friends’ swimming pools back to his house several miles away. What starts as genial romp deteriorates as it becomes clear that all’s not well with Merrill.

Lancaster looks terrific, although clearly middle-aged he’s in trim particularly compared to the peers he meets on his journey. The hard-edged optimism of his persona is used to good effect and, as the day progresses, Lancaster conveys his mental deterioration with some brilliance. The time he spends with the teenager (Janet Landgard), who had a crush on him as a child, are superbly creepy.

An interesting piece describes Merrill’s decline as tragic. My reading was less charitable as his treatment of women was full of self-regard and his fall is entirely deserved. The shallowness of the bourgeoisie, flaunting their wealth, is well presented and some of the dialogue crackles (the script was by Eleanor Perry) and was no doubt drawn directly from the source material, John Cheever’s short story of the same name.

Director, husband of the scriptwriter, Frank went of to make Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970), which I remember enjoying a long time ago. The ‘new wave’ influence I mentioned above refers primarily to the occasional non-conventional use of film form rather than specific aspects. For example, the editing, particularly when Merrill’s on the move, sometimes uses very rapid montages to convey the dynamic movement. There is one very striking zoom into an extreme close-up of Merrill’s eye. It wouldn’t be mistaken for a classical Hollywood film.

The only other film I’m familiar with that Perry directed was the Joan Crawford ‘hit piece’ Mommie Dearest (1980). Would be good to see the Diary of a Mad Housewife again.

Eva doesn’t sleep (Eva no duerme, Argentina-Spain-France, 2015)

No rest for the good

I’m unfamiliar with writer-director Pablo Agüero’s work but shall be seeking out his films as he’s clearly got a brilliant cinematic eye. Nominally this film stars Gael García Bernal but his contribution is probably no more than a day’s work and a boost to the film’s financing. Another well known international actor, Denis Levant, has a meatier role as the Colonel who’s transporting Eva Perón’s corpse after the coup d’état in 1955.

The film investigates, tangentially, the mythic status of Eva Perón in Argentina in a few highly stylised scenes. Iván Gierasinchuk’s brilliant cinematography, often looking almost monochrome, gives a mythic edge to the mise en scene. Agüero’s often static camera observes conversations between: Perón’s embalmer and a cleaner (representative of those Perón championed); the Colonel and a Private (resulting in a stunningly choreographed fight); the kidnappers of the General, who became President after Juan Perón, and their prisoner. The action covers 25 years and is framed by Bernal’s Admiral who represents the military Establishment’s hatred of Eva.

As someone unfamiliar with Argentinean history the film, though certainly not a lesson, was enlightening. However the most striking aspect was the Agüero’s presentation of a fascinating story. It reminded me of Death and the Maiden (UK-France-US, 1994) based on Ariel Dorfman’s play (and directed by Roman Polanksi), though the latter is far less visually stylised. (Netflix)

The Little Stranger (Ireland-UK-France, 2018)

Decline and fall

The film version of Sarah Waters’ novel seems to me to be a rare example of Todorov’s ‘fantastic’, a ‘genre’ in which the supernatural happenings may have natural causes. This is in contrast to the novel where the ghostly goings on are more obviously really ghostly. Set in the post-war era the Ayres’ stately home is falling into dilapidation symbolising the shift from the old deferent order to the Labour government of the Welfare State. Domhnall Gleeson’s socially mobile doctor inveigles himself into the Ayres’ household having become entranced by the house when visiting once as a child. Ruth Wilson plays the sister hauled back to nurse her brother, injured during the war.

Lenny Abrahamson’s direction is solid and I liked the way the Gothic horror elements slowly infiltrated the movie; even the house, at first, seemed to me to be innocuous. The scene where Charlotte Rampling’s mother gets trapped in her room is genuinely scary and Ole Bratt Birkeland’s cinematography is suitably atmospheric.

Spoiler alert: ‘who is the little stranger?’ remains a question in the book but the film is more direct in the final scene where the doctor, as a child, remains in the house. In addition, the death of the sister is more directly dramatised, more than hinting at the perpetrator. Otherwise the film is a faithful adaptation of a good novel but it is good there are divergences otherwise what would be the (artistic) point?

Violent Playground (UK, 1958)

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Young people today!

Basil Dearden is renowned as a director of ‘social problem’ films (see his Sapphire); though I remember the late Victor Perkins complaining about his abilities as a director. Violent Playground focuses on juvenile delinquents (what’s happened to them?) and draws upon Liverpool police force’s pioneering use of a ‘juvenile liaison officer’. That’s the reluctant Stanley Baker who, of course, falls for the sister of prime delinquent (David McCallum).

The location shooting is effective but it’s striking that there’s only one Scouse accent on show (a very young Freddie Starr) though the focus is on an Irish family. The staging of the siege at a primary school at the film’s climax, though, is farcical. The high drama of the scene is constantly undermined by PC Plod behaviour and John Slater’s weatherworn face, for example, never changes expression whether he’s facing a crazed gunman or asking for a cup of tea. Peter Cushing appears as a priest casting reassurance about him even as he’s been pushed off a ladder.

Baker’s his usual intense self but his modernity, as a male role model of the era, is strikingly compromised in a scene where the youngsters are driven into a trance like state by the ‘moronic’ rock ‘n’ roll music of the time. Rarely has a scene encapsulated the older generation’s inability to understand the zeitgeist; the transformation of youth into zombies, complete with violent tendencies, dramatises the filmmakers’ incomprehension of what we now to be one of the most significant cultural influences of the 20th century. Baker’s as dumbfounded as the filmmakers but his desire for the sister makes him an understanding character.

As in Sapphire, the film is an excellent example of the mores of the time. It includes named ‘Chinese’ characters and black faces are purposely included to show the multicultural basis of the community. This shows Dearden and his filmmakers to be more in tune with the zeitgeist than the current Conservative candidate for the major of London who thinks multiculturalism is a bad thing. Fancy being more outdated than a middle-aged ’50s filmmaker!

Summertime (UK-US, 1955)

When the living is uneasy

The opening scenes of this melodrama look like a travelogue graced by Jack Hildyard’s gorgeous Technicolor cinematography. I guess tourism was becoming more popular in the post-War era and the shots of Venice would no doubt have tempted many to visit. All these scenes lack is a complacent voice over selling us the place’s charms in a twee way. Fortunately the film stars Katharine Hepburn.

The slight ‘holiday romance’ story was adapted, from Arthur Laurent’s play, by director David Lean and H.E. Bates (and the uncredited Donald Ogden Stewart). Hepburn’s ‘independent woman’ persona is to the fore at the start as she’s touring on her own but finds the ‘romance’ of Venice casts her loneliness into the foreground: cue Rossano Brazzi’s Italian charmer, Renato di Rossi. What makes the film distinctive is the way Jane Hudson’s (Hepburn) loneliness is portrayed as it isn’t just something that is presented as a ‘narrative lack’ to be fulfilled ‘happily ever after’ at the film’s conclusion. There’s real pathos in Hepburn’s performance as she hesitates to go for the ‘holiday fling’. Her ‘middle aged spinster’ characterisation takes up a fair proportion of the film and the scriptwriters don’t compromise with their ending.

In a striking scene, when di Rossi first sees Hudson we get that rare beast: the male gaze directed at an ‘older’ woman (Hepburn was 48 at the time). We see him appreciatively look at her body, particularly her exposed calf. Even the ‘cute’ kid isn’t too irritating though Lean’s tendency to shoot a lot of the conversations in long takes and an immobile character tends to drain the drama. However, the numerous shots of Hudson wandering around a crowded Venice are skilfully executed.

Apparently the adultery fell foul of the Production Code and scenes were cut: the film leaves us with a firework display. Hepburn received one of her numerous Oscar nominations; Lean, too, was nominated.