I vitelloni (Italy, 1953)

Art out of ordinary life

I vitelloni doesn’t have an English language title because it’s untranslatable. Wikipedia suggests The Bullocks or The Layabouts and the subtitles on this restored version (on MUBI UK) uses ‘young bucks’, which is appropriate. Five young lads are bored in Rimini (co-writer and director Frederico Fellini’s home town) and do what young lads do (probably) everywhere: dream of a better life through self-entitlement. It is also strikingly Italian: Fausto (Franco Fabrizzi) (a ‘ladies man’ in the terminology of the ’50s) is already 30-years of age and finds himself, at the start of the film, in a ‘shotgun’ wedding’; Alberto (Alberto Sordi) readily weeps about the grief his sister gives their mother.

Only the intermittent narrator, Moraldo (Franco Interlenghi), seems to have his head screwed on but even he lies to his sister (to whom Fausto is married) about his mate’s infidelities; though it’s clear the deception of his sibling is as much to protect her as his friend. Such was the sexual politics of the time.

Fellini’s start in cinema was as a scriptwriter for neo-realist classics Rome, Open City (Roma città aperta, 1945) and Paisan (Paisà, 1946). Neo-realism was over by the 1950s but the influence is still evident in this film in the ordinary settings and ordinary characters. However, Fellini’s master of camera placement, particularly in crowd scenes, scream artifice rather than the ‘slice of life’ evident in, for example, Bicycle Thieves. The ballroom scene, for example, is a consummate masterclass in shooting masses of people coherently. Weaker filmmakers would use a montage including extreme long shots of the dancing mob and medium shots of legs in movement and so on. Fellini, too, uses montage but also has the camera moving through the mass and managing to artfully frame the characters at the same time. The effect is to give energy the portrayal of the scene to show how much fun everyone is having.

Artfully composed

To describe shots as ‘poetic’ can be obfuscating, however the scene at the beach where the protagonists stare into the distance (image at top) has a melancholy that not even the characters seem to be particularly aware of. Hence it is poetic as the image has more to offer than what at first meets the eye. Similarly, the wind swept, littered, deserted squares (something of a characteristic of Fellini’s films) give a sense of desperation that has an existential edge; this was particularly the case in La Strada (1954), one of his most famous films, when Gelsomina (Giulietta Massina) is trying to escape from her ‘husband’.

The Goddess (Shen nu, China, 1934)

Suffering motherhood

Despite the closure of cinemas, and having an inordinate amount of time to watch them, the films-to-see keep piling up. Recently I stumbled across ‘videos on modern Chinese culture, curated by faculty of the Department of Asian Studies of the University of British Columbia’ on YouTube giving me zero excuse not to investigate films that I’d never been able to see and had virtually no knowledge of.

Goddess, a ‘silent’ film despite being produced in the mid-thirties showing China was behind slightly in the transition to sound, proved to be a full-bloodied melodrama of maternal sacrifice. Ruan Lingyu plays the unnamed ‘goddess’; titles at the start tell us she is a prostitute and, because she is a devoted mother to her baby, the titular deity. Wikipedia tells me that ‘goddess’ was also a euphemism for prostitute in Shanghai at the time where there were 100,000 ‘street walkers’. Typically of melodrama, the downtrodden woman is the hero and the film is progressive in some ways: one of the narrative problems is that she has to overcome is social prejudice. According to Yingin Zhang, in Chinese National Cinema (2004), progressive (leftist) films in China at the time usually were a result of the scriptwriters and states that:

‘it was not unusual that the leftists praised one film by a director and then criticized his next work. Such examples include Wu Yonggang’s Goddess…, an acclaimed leftist classic, and his Little Angel [was] judged to be reactionary…’ (68)

This is puzzling as, according to imdb.com, Wu both directed and scripted Goddess. In an interesting essay ‘The Goddess: Fallen Woman of Shanghai’, Kristin Harris shows how the film was balanced between a progressive representation but at the same time fulfilled the reactionary needs of the KMT Nationalist Party which was increasing its censorship of the arts at the time. Hence, the goddess had to be punished for her transgression, as a prostitute, even as the narrative shows her to be innocent. Of course Hollywood maternal melodrama rarely offered happy endings for their victim-heroes either.

The fact that the film strongly references Hollywood productions, Stella Dallas (1925) in particular springs to mind, is not surprising as this ‘first golden age’ of Chinese filmmaking was heavily influenced by American productions. That said, there are some very striking moments in Wu’s film, particularly at the inevitable ‘murder of the pimp’ scene where the violence is directed at the camera with Lingyu’s fierce expression clearly showing she is at breaking point.

Breaking point

Lingyu was a big star and killed herself only a few months after the film was completed; she was 25. Apparently the pressures of fame and gossip columns, along with an abused childhood, broke her. She’s the subject of Centre Stage (Ruan Ling Yu, Hong Kong, 1991), directed by Stanley Kwan with Maggie Cheung in the title role; a film that’s been waiting patiently on my shelf for some time so that’s another one that will need adding to the pile.

Ema (Chile, 2019)

Lurid tale

I’ve really enjoyed the two Pablo Larraín directed films I’ve seen: No (Chile-France-Mexico-US, 2012) and the brilliant Jackie. In comparison Ema is disappointing (it’s on MUBI this month), though the problems with it are to do with Guillermo Calderón and Alejandro Moreno’s script rather than direction and performance.

A film featuring Gael García Bernal is always going to be worth seeing though he’s only in the supporting role of Gastón and even he struggles to make his choreographer character convincing. He’s married to Mariana Di Girolamo’s Ema and at the start they have returned a 9-year-old child they adopted to Children’s Services because he was too difficult for them. Hence it’s difficult to warm to the principles but I think the film assumes you will, at least, sympathise with Ema. The way the child, toward the end, is able to rationalise his rejection is beyond belief. And ‘beyond belief’ characterises the narrative contrivances of the film though that would not matter if the melodramatic contortions had been psychologically convincing: they were not.

However Di Girolamo’s performance is superb and Larraín’s direction brilliant; Sergio Armstrong’s cinematography and Estefania Larrain’s set design are also stunning. Nicolas Jaar supplies the excellent music. Lurid green is a key colour and in this context one I associated it with envy and decadence; but the narrative doesn’t support that reading. Hence there is a disconnect between the ‘moral’ of the tale and the look.

The narrative posits an opposition between conventional modern ballet and Reggaeton, street  dancing and music. Gastón reviles the latter, finding it crude, whilst Ema revels in its subversive qualities. Their marriage is crumbling and their artistic differences could have been emblematic of that: Gastón as a conventional bourgeois vs. the street subversiveness of Ema. However, in a scene with a social worker, it is clear that Gastón too is beyond the (at least in Chile) bourgeois pale. I mention Chile because homophobia, as its portrayed in the film, seems more overt than it is in other western countries (Gastón isn’t gay however is assumed to be because of his profession). Indeed, the dancing of both forms is brilliant however it skews the narrative as too long is spent indulging in watching performances when they’re not linked clearly to the film’s themes.

Ema has a penchant for using a flame thrower, another metaphor for burning away bourgeoise sensibilities; however, as in the dancing, on screen the pyromaniac scenes just looked great without convincing they were informing the narrative. I think The Guardian review nailed it when saying the script was under-cooked.

All that said, if you have access to MUBI I recommend watching it!

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.