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.

Carol (UK-US-France, 2015)

Love at first sight?

Love at first sight?

Fifties (set) melodrama; what’s not to like? Haynes’ Far From Heaven (US, 2002) sumptuously recreated Sirkian melodrama. Here his mise en scene is more restrained though the passion of the characters, perfectly played by Blanchett and Mara, sears the eyeballs. If anything, visually Carol is a little disappointing given the graininess of the super 16mm film; Haynes’ explanation, in December’s Sight & Sound, seems to be that he doesn’t like the sheen of digital film. I had assumed he was after a retro look however I just found it distracting. Enough cavilling!

Haynes’ framing reminded me of Fassbinder; characters are placed at the edges of unbalanced frames. This reflected the ‘forbidden’ love of the protagonists in the homophobic 1950s. The stupidity of those times might be laughable but when Trump is the Republican front runner it’s not funny as many people’s mentality obviously remains backward (to be polite).

I particularly liked Mara’s character; although she is a young woman finding herself in the world she refuses to be browbeaten. Blanchett’s Carol, too, decides not to be a victim of patriarchy and the final scene, with men almost swirling through the mise en scene, is extremely powerful. Undoubtedly one of the films of the year.

PS there’s an excellent Screen International article on the production of the film here.

Innocent Sorcerers (Niewinni czarodzieje, Poland, 1960)

The death of cynicism

The death of cynicism

Andrzej Wajda is one of my favourite directors and thanks to Second Run Innocent Sorcerers is available in a typically (from them) great print. Wadja had completed his great ‘war trilogy’ with Ashes and Diamonds two years earlier and, at first, you wonder why he bothered with such relatively ‘slight’ material of two rather ‘cool’ youngsters finding love. Wadja’s four films were typical of the Polish School as they had been about Poland in World War II. Of course the direction in Immaculate Sorcerors is immaculate and there’s some great location shooting in Warsaw but, like my previous post, Heartbeats, I wondered whether I was too old to be interested in young love. I was wrong.

The central section of the film takes place in Bazyli’s bedsit and consists of a long flirty, conversation between the protagonists. As part of their ‘cool’ playfulness they make up names for themselves; she says she’s Pelagia. The scene is strikingly similar to one in Godard’s seminal Breathless (France) of the same year but without the jump cuts and is far more engaging. Innocent Sorcerer, though, is modernist in a number of low-key ways: the opening credits run over a poster for the film; a song associated with the film is heard on the radio; the film’s composer, the great Krzysztof Komeda, plays himself as a member of Bazyli’s jazz group. Roman Polanski, incidentally, plays the band’s bassist; there’s a lot of talent in this film.

Bazyli (Tadeusz Lomnicki) is a doctor and jazz drummer who enjoys toying with women’s affections until he crashes into Krystyna Stypulkowska’s Pelagia; it was Stypulkowska’s first role and she only appeared in two other films. The brilliance of the film is that the development in their relationship is evident not by what they say to each other but through their behaviour and non verbal communication; and of course the actors’ performance.

Wadja, at the ‘old’ age of 33, was afraid he might be out of touch with young people and the 23 year old Jerzy Skolimowski, who has a small role as a boxer, was hired for rewrites. It’s a fascinating glimpse of Warsaw at the time, we see fashionable young people spending their time in jazz clubs; much like they were in the west then. The political situation is barely mentioned; the protagonists, at one point, joke about themselves as ‘model workers’. The Daily Telegraph‘s critic suggested:

‘Bazyli and Pelagia move with languid ease and listen to American jazz throughout Innocent Sorcerers, but, when push comes to shove, they’re not as free as they think they are. Pinned down by Poland’s bloody past and hemmed in by oppressive Soviet rule, both erect a stylised cool to cover for the emotional sterility that lies beneath.’

However, I wonder to what extent this is an example of western critics’ penchant for reading ‘Iron Curtain’ films, that they admire, as criticising the Soviet domination of the Eastern bloc. As Michał Oleszczyk notes ‘Pelagia says mid-way through the film: “Our generation has no illusions.”‘ I doubt the concerns of Polish youth in the early ’60s were much different from those of youngsters in western Europe: earning enough money to have a good time and sex. Come to think of it, it’s the same now. As to the rather awkward title, a Polish friend suggests a better translation would be Innocent Charmers; that certainly summarises the characters better.

Wadja’s still making films and it’s extremely irritating that most of his oeuvre is not available in the UK.

Take This Waltz (Canada-Spain-Japan, 2011)

Making the most of life?

Making the most of life?

I did realise that Michele Williams is a superb actor, she was by far the best thing in My Week with Marilyn, and had excelled in Meek’s Cutoff, but I was unprepared for her brilliance in Take This Waltz. Her character, a slightly kooky woman, Margot, unsettled after five years of marriage, could have been difficult to sympathise with; however, Williams’ performance means that issue is not a question. Her husband, an excellent Seth Rogan, doesn’t understand that marriage doesn’t make the relationship, he says there’s no point asking how she is as he knows everything about her. What he doesn’t know is that she’s fallen for a neighbour, a charismatic artistic type, and the film charts her efforts not to give up on her marriage.

Writer-director-producer Sarah Polley mostly makes  this ‘will they/won’t they’ narrative entirely convincing. There’s enough ambiguity in the relationships for us not to be entirely clear about characters’ motivations, which is suitable as many people in life are not sure about their motivations either. There’s a virtuoso shower scene when women of all shapes and sizes talk about their lives. The contrast between Williams’ ‘perfect’ nubile body and the older women’s, reminds us that we all will age. Incidentally, the aqua-robics session that precedes this is hilarious.

The ending is suitably ambiguous. Without ‘spoiling’, we are left with questions about Margot’s future that are left unresolved.  I was also left with absolute admiration for Williams and am going to give Blue Valentine another chance; I think I let Ryan Gosling put me off that film far too early on.

As an aside, I recently watched Only God Forgives (2013, Den-Thailand-Fr-US-Swe) which, along with Drive and The Place Beyond the Pines (US, 2012), showed Gosling doing his inarticulate (maybe ‘catatonic’ is a better word) male schtick. To be fair Pines was redeemed, in part, by Bradley Cooper, but please if you’re going to dramatise male stupidity, make it human like Rogan’s portrayal of Margot’s husband. Then again, I’m not sure that we aren’t meant to admire the Gosling characters. Only God Forgives did feature fabulous cinematography and a fantastic Cliff Mansell score, both wasted on meaningless crap.

Silver Linings Playbook (US, 2012)

Mental relationships

Mental relationships

I thoroughly enjoyed this film of two halves; the first sets up Pat’s bipolar disorder difficulties (for him and his family) while the second plays for the ‘silver lining’. I am already of fan of Jennifer Lawrence and now I can see the qualities of Bradley Cooper. He’s been groomed as a potential star, following the success of the Hangover movies, with mixed success. Hollywood doesn’t seem to be interested in stars any more; they became too expensive. The new ‘stars’ in Hollywood’s (accounting) book are franchises; of last year’s top ten grossing movies in North America only Ted wasn’t serial in nature.

Robert De Niro, who often seems simply to be going through the motions of wrinkling his face, is excellent as Pat’s (Cooper) father, who clearly has OCD issues of his own linked to his love of baseball.

Spoiler alert: the two halves I alluded to above consist of a serious portrayal of mental illness, leavened by some comedy (particularly courtesy of Chris Tucker), whereas the second is conventionally Hollywood in its rush to an obvious ‘happy ending’. We may have expected something different as this is, after all, an independently produced movie; albeit with Hollywood talent on the screen. However, it can be read that that writer-director David O. Russell (based on Matthew Quick’s novel) is overtly offering us the ‘silver lining’. In watching the film, so sympathetically played are the protagonists that I suspect most in the audience are desperate for them to hook up. To what extent, at the end, the audience are convinced that ‘love conquers all’ (even mental illness) I am not sure; but it felt good at the time. The degree to which Pat continues to take, or not take, his medication isn’t made clear; something of a cheat I think.

The protagonists’ relationship starts to develop when they are jogging; I absolutely love the way Tiffany (Lawrence) seems to appear from nowhere to join Pat; her movement is a slick as a snake’s.

Imagine Me & You (UK, 2005)


I am gobsmacked I liked this film. It was sold as a romcom, a genre I usually dislike but this is much more romance than comedy, and featured upper middle class… …people. However… the generic spin of making the lovers – who are apart at the start – lesbian and the charisma of Lena Headey make this a good film. That doesn’t really cover it…

The film has irritating parents (Celia Imrie and Anthony Head) and ‘cute’ kid who knows everything… but I still liked it! I guess it might be little touches such as the  unreconstructed male, who abhors commitment, is not shown to ‘grow up’ but as the piece of bilge that he is.

The ridiculous climax, in a London traffic jam, with the beyond cliche kiss shot with a camera 360- degreeing around them… still didn’t put me off.

Okay. I give up.

The English Patient (US, 1996)

Flawed romance

I’ve not read the novel so can’t comment upon the efficacy of this adaptation but it seems flawed. As in my post on Tamara Drewe, I had to (try to) suspend any class prejudice when dealing with characters who are posh but I think I was genuinely unconvinced by elements of the relationships between the protagonists. When I first saw the film, Minghella’s direction seemed functional or designed for David Lean-like spectacle. Maybe I’ve mellowed, but that bothered me less this time. And this time the power of the romance did ‘get’ to me, the irrationality and absoluteness of intense passion did convince. With a cast of Ralph Fiennes and Juliet Binoche (both massive favourites of mine) it would be difficult to fail to convey intensity; and Minghella does use locations well.

Now the film hasn’t changed in the seven years since I originally saw the movie, when I didn’t like it, so differences in perception are obviously my own. In that time I’ve been divorced and had relationships with other women. Those events will, inevitably, affect my understanding of the film. Indeed, the power of cinema surely resides, in part, in its immutability and so it remains a touchstone whilst the spectator changes. And so, in this we can, maybe, understand better who we are, and, who we were.

Bechdel test: Pass (13/9)
Protagonist: Male (5/11)
Lacey test: Pass (0/4)

Before Sunset (US, 2004)

Love at second sight

This sequel to 1995’s Before Sunrise throws the protagonists back together for the first time since their liaison in Vienna 10 year’s before. What happens after a romantic ‘one night stand’ which was truly romantic? The answer to the question plays out over this film’s 70-odd minutes with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, both credited with Richard Linklater as scriptwriters, entrancing with their answer. Rarely can a movie have so much talking and so little action. Much of it is shot in long steadicam takes, usually in front – sometimes behind – the protagonists, and Paris is merely a set of streets – albeit quintessentially romantic streets – for our characters to play out time. And rarely can a movie be so riveting with its talk a testament to the leads’ performances. Hawke, in particular, allows his face to register what he’s thinking, whilst Delpy talks and talks as they try and exorcise the last 10 years.

There may not be much room for a sequel; what happens in their 40s? But I hope they can come up with something. It was one of the best movies of the decade; just outside my top ten.

House of Flying Daggers (Shi mian mai fu, China, 2004)

Lover’s whisper

One of the most sumptuously shot films in cinema, House of Flying Daggers wears its heart on the screen mixing outrageous action sequences with high octane romance. I saw the film when it was released and thoroughly enjoyed the cinematography and action sequences though failed to appreciate the romance. I certainly noticed the romantic narrative however they are rather de rigeur in action cinema. On this third viewing it moved into the foreground and I could appreciate more the terrific performances from Kaneshiro Takeshi and Zhang Ziyi. The love triangle is convincingly portrayed and the pain of the ‘cuckolded’ Leo (Andy Lau) is touchingly portrayed.

As is Jin’s (Kaneshiro) transition from ‘playboy’ to being genuinely smitten. At first Mei (Zhang) resists his advances but later, when she is keen, it’s his turn to demure; probably for the first time in his life. He’s experiencing conflicting emotions as he matures into someone who genuinely cares for a woman.

Similarly, Mei’s rejection of Leo is shown to be physical: she still loves him but Jin has taken priority in her affections. She tries to make love to Leo but her body refuses. Thus in love it is hard to know our own feelings as we can never be sure what the body might do (which is probably expressing our subconscious).

Daggers is a thrilling film, stunning action and offers a subtle presentation of the vicissitudes of love.