La prisonnière (aka Woman in Chains, France-Italy, 1968)

Breaking the bourgeoisie

This was writer-director Georges-Henri Clouzot’s last film (and the final of three being screened on MUBI) and it is an interesting expression of the ’60s Pop Art zeitgeist intermingled with ‘daring’ challenges to bourgeois sensibilities. The film’s sexual politics would take some unravelling as the ‘sexual liberation’ of the time was male friendly and any film that is about exploiting the female body needs careful consideration: is it merely titillating or is it representing misogyny critically?

Elizabeth Wiener plays Josée, a sort of hip ‘belle de jour’; Luis Buñuel’s 1967 film of that name had portrayed a bored bourgeois housewife moonlighting as a prostitute. Josée isn’t bored, she’s working as an editor on a film about domestic abuse, and her partner, Gilbert (Bernard Fresson), is a Pop Artist hustling for recognition. Laurent Terzieff plays Stan (short for Stanislas) who exhibits modern art and has a fetish for bondage photography featuring naked women. Josée finds herself strangely attracted, and appalled, to the idea of being photographed in submissive and sexual positions.

Another film lurking just behind the frame is Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (UK, 1960); truly one of the most disturbing films ever made. Fetishistic close-ups of Stan’s lens reminded me of Powell’s classic, though in La prisonnière the ‘perversion’ is benign. Wiener is quite brilliant at conveying how conflicted she feels about wanting to submit when she sees herself as a modern, emancipated woman. It is a key contradiction that any feminist can feel: knowing that equality is key to self-realisation but harbouring potentially reactionary ideas at the same time. Although the film investigates this to an extent it’s probably something that cannot be wholly reconciled so any failure to elaborate a resolution is understandable.

By the time we get to the end the script (in collaboration with Monique Lange and Marcel Moussy) the film seems to have given up trying to resolve the tensions but it does finish with an incredible nightmare sequence into which Clouzot seems to have dropped every avant garde film technique he could. It’s a strange climax to the film; usually the tension that such sequences engender require many more minutes of narrative to ground: it offers more questions that answers.Tthe film is worth seeing just for this phantasmagoric sequence alone though this is not to say, by any means, the rest of the film is worthless. Michaelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (UK-Italy, 1966) is another point of reference, particularly through the representation of popular culture. It’s admirable that Clouzot, in his 60th year, was trying to connect to the zeitgeist.

In the UK, at least, the film was released as Woman in Chains, possibly so that it wouldn’t be confused with the TV series The Prisoner (UK, 1967-8) though more likely because it offered the promise of eroticism that certain ‘smutty’ cinemas traded upon at the time.

Wajib (Palestine-France-Columbia-UAE-Qatar-Germany-Norway, 2017)

Father-son relationships everywhere?

I didn’t know they had green wheelie-bins in Nazareth, a Palestinian city occupied by Israel since 1948. Of course there’s no reason why they shouldn’t have them or that I should know, however what is striking about Wajib is despite the differences between life there and, well, most other places, there’s more in common than not. The title refers to the tradition of personally handing out wedding invitations in the Arab-Christian community and we spend the day with real-life father-son, Mohammad and Saleh Bakri, playing the key roles.

The conflict in the narrative derives from the inter-generational differences, family problems that date back 20 years and the son’s politics, which have led him to live in Italy. He has returned for his sister’s wedding and finds his Dad has woven tales about him that he has told family and friends; the disconnect between these and the reality is one of the rich veins of humour in the film. Israeli presence is limited: in one scene soldiers, to the son’s outrage, frequent a local cafe. It’s not that writer director Annemarie Jacir has downplayed the Israeli government’s annexation of Palestinian land, or ignored the policies that are literally strangling the life out of the Palestinian people, rather she is offering a slice of life. It beggars belief that everyday life can go on for when we hear about the region, in the West, on the news it’s usually because there’s been violence resulting in deaths; and mostly only if they’re Israeli. Of course life does go on and here we can see some of it.

Mohammad and Saleh Bakri are both supremely effective, Mohammed (Dad), in particular, especially when his eyes droop slightly in resignation when he realises that politeness dictates he’s going to have to spend longer than he wants at a particular friend’s or relative’s. In one scene, his whole body gradually sags as a particularly pedantic recipient insists on reading out the whole invitation to them.

Obligations to friends and family everywhere can be burdensome but the Arab tradition of hospitality both accentuates this and, at the same time, shows the exceptional warmth of their community. Jacir isn’t soft-soaping though: a hairdresser praising the family immediately starts maliciously gossiping as soon as she thinks the son is out of hearing. I need to catch up with more of Jacir’s work and her script is a miracle of elaboration, basically two men chatting and meeting people, so to make that riveting takes real skill.

Quai des orfèvres (France, 1947)

Unusually obvious lesbian character for the time

As Jeremy Carr’s excellent article suggests: “Quai des Orfèvres is an appeasing palate cleanser, an amusing diversion, still within the confines of social realism but generally free from a climate of widely-ravaged despair.” The despair refers to the world of Le corbeau (Clouzot’s previous film) and post-war France. Despite this characters are often wrapped in coats even when they are inside and although it is generally light-hearted there is much heartache as go-getting, in the world of Music Hall, Jenny (Suzy Delair) worries husband Maurice (Bernard Blier) about her fidelity. Their friend Dora (Simone Renant) looks over the couple benignly but obviously holds a flame for Jenny; as she says, ‘I am a woman of strange loves’. The machinations of the plot lead to murder and then Inspector Antoine (Louis Jouvet) arrives on the scene along with the police procedural genre.

As in Le courbet there is much comic dialogue; I particularly like the Inspector’s: “If you were murdered then you would be pleased the cops were around.” There is also Hitchcockian humour such as when he lights his pipe with vital evidence and the band rehearse vibrant gipsy music in the background as Jenny and Maurice argue. During the 1950s Clouzot and Hitchcock were rivals for the sobriquet ‘master of suspense’ and the latter made Vertigo, based on a French novel, as a counterblast to the former’s Les diaboliques (1955).

Clouzot wrote the Quai des Orfèvres, based on Stanislas-André Steeman’s novel, with Jean Ferry but gets sole credit for dialogue which is often in excess of narrative requirements. It’s not only often funny but elaborates on character; we learn that Antoine has a mixed race child he fathered when in the Foreign Legion and for whom he is the sole carer. There a few touching scenes between the two, touching because it is unusual to see a male single-parent in such a loving relationship. The fact that the child is ‘black’ shows Clouzot’s progressiveness as does the sympathetic portrayal of Dora; an antidote to his working for the Nazis (see Le corbeau)? I wondered, on the basis of Le corbeau, whether he might be a misanthrope: the answer’s clearly ‘no’ in this film.

Quentin Tarantino’s dialogue works in a similar way, though he was inspired by French New films such as Shoot the Pianist (Tirez sur le pianiste, 1960), however he doesn’t know when to stop and his witty dialogue (for me) palls quickly.

Clouzot won Best Director honours at the 1947 Venice Film Festival and he shows himself as a skilful manipulator of large to small groups of people. He choreographs their movements beautifully, reminding me of Jean Renoir; praise doesn’t get any higher.

Apparently the iconoclasts of Cahiers du cinema didn’t like his films, which is surprising given he wrote as well as directed. I can’t judge on what I’ve seen whether he qualifies as an auteur or not, however the dialogue, at least, is distinctive and there is certainly a Gothic undertone to his mise en scene. Maybe as the Cahiers critics were railing against French cinema there was no room for Clouzot in the polemic? Or maybe his association with the Nazis was the issue. The title, by the way, refers to the address of the main police station in Paris though that doesn’t sum up what the film is about.

Le corbeau (France, 1943)

Poison pen

Writer-director Henri-Georges Clouzot is probably best known for Wages of Fear (Le salaire de la peur, 1953) and Les diaboliques (1957, both France); Le corbeau was his second feature made for the Nazi-controlled Continental Films; the first was The Murderer Lives at Number 21 (L’Assassin habite… au 21, 1942). For understandable reasons, now and at the time, that can be enough to write the film, and the director, off as morally culpable.  Le corbeau was deemed to be ‘anti-French’ and he was banned for life from making films until it was rescinded in 1947. History has been kinder to the film, particularly as the Nazis hated it too.

The raven of the title is an anonymous ‘poison pen’ letter writer terrorising a small French town that could be anywhere at anytime; the titles at the start suggest such universality. Pierre Fresnay plays the unlikeable protagonist Doctor Germain who is the main focus of letter writer’s bile; the letters suggest that he is adulterous and an abortionist. In part, the film is a thriller (who is writing the letters?) but it also a melodrama of small-town hypocrisies not unlike some of Douglas Sirk’s ’50s Hollywood films. It is the latter that invoked the wrath of the Nazis.

Vichy France ‘thrived’ on ‘collaboration’, no matter what the myth of the Resistance says, and Clouzot nails the narrow-minded, vindictiveness of those who pass on malicious gossip and shows its damaging consequences. Of course, the occupying Nazis thrived on informing. In one brilliant scene, an accused nun runs through deserted streets with the howls of a baying mob on the soundtrack. She reaches her home to find it vandalised and the mob materialise outside her window.

The local government officials get it in the neck too. One council member insists that they must be seen to be doing something; reminding me of the UK government’s response to Covid-19: much hot air and nowhere near enough action. I haven’t seen enough of Clouzet’s films to judge whether he was a misanthropist but it is difficult to find a pleasant character in the film. The local peasants-workers are marginalised and so are spared his satirical swipes; the bourgeoisie are skewered, which is apparently typical of his films.

In one scene the Doctor discusses the moral issues of the events with the cynical, and funny, psychiatrist Vorzet (Pierre Larquay). As they discuss good and evil, light and dark, a light bulb swings next to a globe no doubt suggesting the universality of human vindictiveness. I’m not sure I buy into that, the current crisis has shown much empathy and kindness (and more than enough of the opposite including informing on neighbours), but it works very well in the context of the film.

Cynical view?

Le corbeau is the first of a Clouzot triple bill on MUBI; I’m looking forward to the others.

 

Beast (UK, 2017)

Dark sides?

Writer-director Michael Pearce’s feature debut has enough variants on a theme to engage and is blessed by Jessie Buckley (also in her first feature) as the protagonist. Although there is a serial killer ‘on the loose’, Pearce doesn’t play it as a straight thriller; the initial narrative conflict is occasioned by Moll’s (Buckley) burgeoning relationship with Johnny Flynn’s Pascal; the name may sound posh but he isn’t. The main focus is on social class disparity and prejudice; Flynn portrays the brooding character well, he clearly has some ‘dark secrets’, as he sensibly disregards bourgeois convention. The real star of the film, though, is Buckley.

I last saw her, she hails from Ireland, in Wild Rose where she played a Glaswegian ex-con trying to balance bringing up two children with a hedonist desire to be a country singer. In Beast she is a repressed bourgeois daughter of a domineering mother (Geraldine James channeling nastiness with great skill) in Jersey. In her short feature film career Buckley has shown chameleon-like qualities; it’s not just she looks different, she is different. She also had a supporting role in Judy (UK-US, 2019) where she was similarly virtually unrecognisable (unless you knew it was her). Imdb lists no less five features for her this year, though that, of course, won’t be happening now. She’s definitely one to watch because she’s brilliant.

Buckley subtly portrays the bludgeoned, buttoned-up Moll, who’s being positioned to be the main carer for her Dad who has dementia, as someone with rebellion just beneath the surface. Moll was home schooled due to bullying and there was a violent incident when she wasn’t the victim; she has ‘dark secrets’ too. The director is excellent in portraying the supercilious ‘golf club’ set: when Pascal turns up to a ‘do’ in black jeans Moll’s sister-in-law, Polly (Shannon Tarbet), says, with reference to the clothing ‘faux pas’, “You know what they’re like here.” It’s a great line showing the way bourgeois rules are seen to be separate from the people who adhere to them. Polly is as shallow as the rest of them.

Pearce’s direction is also interesting; he’s not averse to expressionist angles and sound of the sea, in particular, is used with great effect. As the narrative progresses the almost inevitable alignment, as far as the bourgeois conformists are concerned, between the serial killer and Pascal occurs: the question is, ‘how well do we know people we’ve recently met even if they have become lovers?’ Despite this there’s enough in the ending to avoid cliche ensuring that Pearce is a talent to watch too.

Casablanca (US, 1942)

Doing the right thing

It’s over 25 years since I’ve seen this classic Classical Hollywood film and I revisited it spurred by my viewing of Curtiz. ‘Timeless classics’ is a meaningless phrase that seeks to legitimise bourgeois values through their supposed universality. However, the test of time is a good one as texts that are distinctly of their time can seem dated later. In addition, as we age are views change so movies that last seen years ago can be understood very differently despite the fact they haven’t changed at all. Casablanca still delivered for me as a marvellous mash-up of romanticism and idealism. It’s also striking that many countries, USA in particular, could do with a dose of anti-isolationism that the film delivers; currently it’s being reported that America is ‘hijacking’ medical supplies purchased by other countries for Covid-19.

Why is Casablanca so good? The script, by Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch, is superb in its narrative economy and has some great lines. It has the odd clunker too: at least Ingrid Bergman has the decency to look away when she says, “Is that the sound of cannons or my heart beating?”. Curtiz’s direction is efficient (not meant to be faint praise); Arthur Edeson’s cinematography is sublime, particularly the glamourising of the leads; Herman Hupfeld’s ‘As Time Goes By’, superbly performed by Dooley Wilson, is perfect for the wistful emotions of displacement; the supporting cast is brilliant – apparently only three of the principals (Bogart, Wilson and Joy Page) were American. Character actors Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre are, as ever, fabulous in the few scenes they get. In many ways it’s a typical Hollywood factory production, a melange of many talents (Claude Rains needs a nod too), notwithstanding the interference from the OWI noted in the Curtiz post. Mention also should be given to Conrad Veidt playing a role a long way from that of the somnambulist in The Cabinet of Dr CaligariIn Curtiz he’s shown telling the director of his pain at playing a Nazi and asking for the character to be shot. Whilst Veidt wasn’t Jewish, his wife was and Wikipedia tells me on filling in the Nazi’s ‘racial questionnaire’ he put ‘Jew’. In a close-up, we see him taking his Nazi cap off to reveal a skullcap underneath; an adroit way of showing his sympathies.

I’ve saved Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman until last as they are probably key ingredients to the film’s greatness. Bogart’s casting as a romantic lead, in his 43rd year, was inspired as he was known as a ‘hard man’. Initially he came to fame as a gangster but had starred in the seminal film noir The Maltese Falcon the year before where, at least, he played the good guy. To see the tough guy with tears in his eyes is a striking representation of the painful emotions he feels that are still bottled up in his careworn, gravestone face. I recently saw Bergman in her last film for cinema Autumn Sonata (Höstsonaten , Sweden, 1978), directed by Ingmar Bergman, where she shows what a marvellous actor she was. Of course she’s good in Casablanca too but here it’s her dreamy appearance that is key, demonstrating why the men fall for her (sexist I know but that was – and is – the time).

Selfless sacrifice for the greater good is with us now during the Covid-19 pandemic. Casablanca is a film for our time.

Curtiz (Hungary, 2018)

The past present

I’m not sure what non-cinephiles, or at least those who don’t love Casablanca (US, 1942), will make of this film but I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s a ‘making of a classic’ film but more than that as it’s also a portrayal of its director, Hungarian Michael Curtiz. In addition, in his feature film debut director Tamas Yvan Topolanszky, and his co-writer Zsuzsanna Bak, have added a contemporary layer where the trope of ‘make America great’ and the horrendous treatment of migrants is also addressed. If that layer isn’t sufficient then there’s the narrtive about Curtiz’s estranged daughter seeking him out. It’s a heady mix which is mostly pulled off.

Ferenc Lengyel, in the titular role, is superb showing the bastard on the set to have a vulnerable side (though not when anyone is looking). Curtiz dramatises the conflict between the Office of War Information (OWI), on the one side, and Curtiz with his producer, Hal B Wallis, on the other. The OWI was created to inject propaganda into Hollywood’s films after Pearl Harbor. There was also the uncertainty about how to end the film; apparently it was a rare Hollywood film that was shot in the order of the script as Curtiz, and his scriptwriters the Epstein brothers (superbly played by Rafael and Yan Feldman, the other writer, Howard Koch, isn’t seen) scramble to resolve the narrative satisfactorily.

Declan Hannigan plays the oleaginous Johnson of the OWI, with the ‘if you’re not for us you’re against us’ attitude. It’s through him that the Trumpian politics are channeled and if it’s a little contrived, it’s forgivable as the stupidity of insularity has to be emphasised. There’s also contrivance (at least I assume there is) in the way Curtiz’s relationship with his daughter, Kitty (Evelyn Dobos), is paralleled with the way the ending of Casablanca evolves. Again, artistic licence is more than justified in a film that is such a pleasure to watch.

Like most of Frantz, scintillating monochrome cinematography is used but here its pinpoint clarity works for me. As noted in the post on the former, I don’t find modern black and white photography convincing. Of course, the filmmakers aren’t trying to make their film look as if it was made years ago but that’s the way I perceive it. However, in Curtiz, the estranging effect of old-and-modern worked because, by drawing attention to itself, it emphasised we are looking at a representation of the making of a classic film. (I’m aware that this perception is probably peculiar to me as I’ve not heard of anyone else ‘suffering’ from it).

Zoltán Dévényi’s cinematography is brilliant. Apparently the film was shot on a low budget, which does’t show, and scenes are mostly confined to the set. However this hasn’t stopped Topolanszky mimicking Curtiz’s penchant for Expressionist set-ups and chiaroscuro lighting. No doubt it would have looked stupendous in the cinema.

Beautiful cinematography

Although most of the action takes place on the set, Bergman and Bogart are only ever seen out of focus; an elegant way of avoiding failing to adequately represent these incandescent stars of the silver screen.

In fact the film’s so good I need to watch Casablanca again.