The Hourglass Sanatorium (Sanatorium pod clepsydra, Poland, 1973)

Mental mise en scene

Mental mise en scene

I was musing to a friend recently that I fancied watching an arthouse film where I had no idea what was going on. Perspicaciously The Hourglass Sanatorium appeared, Wojciech Has’ adaptation of Bruno Schulz short stories, which has some of the most mental mise en scene I’ve ever seen. I use ‘mental’ advisedly as the events probably take place in the protagonist’s, Józef (Jan Nowicki), mind.

The film starts with Józef on a bizarre train with a dreamlike landscape. He arrives at a sanatorium where, apparently, his father is staying, although in Józef’s world he is dead. You might be getting the picture of the bizarre narrative but what I can’t convey is the intricate detail of the settings which reminded me of Sebastian’s apartment in Blade Runnerthe whole film is crammed with clutter and paraphernalia.

The intricate detail of the mise en scene

The intricate detail of the mise en scene

But what is going on? The surrealist nature of the film suggests we shouldn’t try and make sense of the narrative; director Has often welds disparate scenes together with the logic of dream. On the other hand, if we are considering dreams then Freudian ideas are obviously present; Józef’s mother thinks he is still a child and the preponderance of women’s breasts, in some scenes, suggests infantilism. We are probably in Józef’s mind, maybe in the moments before death as he revisits his past, though not in any coherent order.  Jewish culture is clearly important but I don’t know why; this excellent article suggests it is a result of Schulz’s source material. However Has may have included Jewish iconography to upset the Polish authorities who were indulging in a bout of anti-semitism at the time of the film’s making. He succeeded and the film was banned; however it was smuggled to Cannes where it won a prize.

Jewish culture to the fore

Jewish culture to the fore

It’s difficult to sum up: it’s bonkers and brilliant.

Daisies (Sedmikrásky, Czechoslovakia, 1966)

Anarchy in Czechoslovakia

Anarchy in Czechoslovakia

Vera Chytilová died in March and Daisies is probably her most celebrated film; it is brilliant. Two Marias (Ivana Karbanova and Jitka Cerhova) waltz through the film on an anarchic romp which starts off with them eating apples. The symbolism is obvious, as is the bananas, sausages and hardboiled egg that they snip at with scissors while a would-be lover claims he’s in love (by which he means lust). It’s slightly peculiar to say that the girls (Peter Hames in The Czechoslovak New Wave states they are 17) are trampling on bourgeois sensibilities in a so-called communist state, but the privileged middle classes obviously existed there too. In a nightclub, where the clientele are being entertained by the Charleston, the Marias randomly drink others wine and generally make a nuisance of themselves. They allow themselves to be taken to restaurants by older men only to bail out before the men have their ‘wicked way’. They also decimate a banquet, evidently laid out for an audience listening to Wagner’s Twilight of the Gods (where the bourgeoisie meet their fate).

The film’s epitaph sums it up: ‘This film is dedicated to those whose sole source of indignation is trampled on trifle’. There’s plenty of trifle in the final scene, flying around in true slapstick fashion and the anarchic comedy of Max Sennett is clearly a touchstone for Chytilová as parts of the film are speeded up in the manner that ‘silent movies’ used to be. Czech surrealism, such as Jan Svankmajer (in scenes of pixilation – animation using live actors), is also evident as some of the art movements of the 1960s, such as ‘cut ups’. It’s a terrific brew of full of humour and brio and, most of all, feminism.

The film opens, and ends, with images of bombing. I took them to be a reference to the Vietnam war. The girls’ adventure starts by them deciding that everything’s spoiled in the world. Hence, their assault on bourgeois sensibility is an attack on the way the world was at the time; and it’s still like that. Clearly Chytilová was attacking more than trifles.

I was reminiscing about university with a friend and she remembered that she was part of the ‘300 group’ that aimed to get 300 MPs into Parliament. That was over 30 years ago! This film’s nearly 50 years old and the battles for equality between the sexes still need fighting. Young women could do far worse than learn some attitude from these Marias.

 

The Grandmother (US, 1970)

Giving birth to granny

Giving birth to granny

This is a very early David Lynch short that mixes animation, pixelation and live action to typically obscure effect. Lynch is one of those directors for whom the auteur theory does work and the ‘seeds’ of his later work are apparent here; particularly the disturbing soundscapes he produces. On the ‘The Shorts of David Lynch’ DVD the film is introduced by the director in hilarious non-explanatory fashion; though I can never work out if Lynch is ‘taking the piss’ or genuinely ‘out to lunch’. It doesn’t matter, in the tradition of the surrealists, Lynch makes films that disturb bourgeios complacency and that’s to the good.

Still LIfe (Sanxia haoren, Hong Kong-China, 2006)

Life in a Ballardian landscape

Life in a Ballardian landscape

A fascinating film set in town about to be submerged by China’s Three Gorges damn. It mixes the naturalism, common in Chinese cinema, of following ordinary people’s ordinary lives with the utterly surreal landscape of a city being destroyed. Jia Zhangke has an astonishing eye for composition so a shot of men sledgehammering a building has stunning beauty.

A man seeks his mail order bride (who left him 16 years earlier) and a woman seeks a two-year missing husband to seek a divorce, set against a gorgeous natural landscape and bonkers moments (the tall building is about to be blown up in the still above). There is also an appearance of a UFO and one building takes off like a spaceship: audacious filmmaking.

Small details resonate too: characters compare how their home towns are represented on banknotes, a marvellous metaphor for capitalist China. Incidentally, the ‘Ballardian’ in the caption refers to British SF writer JG Ballard who specialised in decaying urban landscapes – this film realises his vision.

Inland Empire (France, Poland, US, 2006)

Rabbiting on about...?

Rabbiting on about...?

I love Lynch because he, as a true surrealist, eschews bourgeois representations of the world and, hence, the audience often doesn’t a clue about what’s going on. There’s a terrific synopsis on Wikipedia but it doesn’t necessarily explain what the film’s about. I like Danny Leigh’s ideas because he accepts that futility of actually trying to pin down meaning that bourgeois epistemology insists upon.

Clearly the film is a companion piece to Mulholland Drive (2001) in that it deals with the Hollywood Dream Factory (the leads, Naomi Watts and Laura Henning,  appear briefly). However, the shifting play of realities between ‘life’ and ‘film’ is clearer (well, relatively). I’m not sure what the Polish element is about (did the Polish funding necessitate shooting there?) and suggests Eastern Europe as Other but…

There’s the usual Lynch elements: flickering lights that give off very little light; the red curtains; grimy underworld places. There’s the postmodern merging of realities (most obvious in Lost Highway, 1997, which is referenced by the woman in the blonde wig during the end credits) and the unstable postmodern self.

Laura Dern puts in a bravura performance and there’s many stunning images and moments of horror. It may not be as engaging as other Lynch movies (too much retreading over old territory?) but is a healthy antidote to normalcy.

Belle de Jour (France, 1967)

Bunuel was a great director and this is regarded as a classic but it doesn’t do it for me. Denueve’s beautiful but only her fantasies, shot as surreal episodes, lighten this rather boring movie about a bored housewife. Too pedestrian for me but Empire gave it 5 stars! (DVD, 2) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0061395/

Entr’acte (France, 1924)

A surrealist-dadaist film viewed on an appalling print. Of historical interest only, I think, to see how the mix of technical devices (eg slomo) was used to defamiliarise reality. (DVD). http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0014872/