Torn Curtain: an unremarkable spy thriller film let down by poor casting and a laboured script

Alfred Hitchcock, “Torn Curtain” (1966)

To properly appreciate how good a director Alfred Hitchcock was over a career of 50+ years, one needs to see the lesser films he made as well as the better or more notorious ones (like “Psycho” or “The Birds”) that everyone remembers. Any other director trying to make “Torn Curtain” with the constraints Hitchcock suffered would have ended up making a very mediocre film; it’s to Hitch’s credit that in spite of an over-long and laboured script, an undistinguished music score, having no say in the choice of lead actors,  and working in a genre that ill-suited him, he was able to make a competent spy thriller film that is sometimes visually gorgeous and which emphasises the dangerous nature of espionage for ordinary people who choose to participate in it for motives other than greed, and the cynicism of those who use and exploit the public’s idealism and loyalty to achieve murky ends.

US nuclear physicist Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) agrees to carry out a dangerous mission in which he pretends to defect to East Germany to obtain a formula from an eccentric professor at the University of Leipzig. His mission is nearly derailed by his assistant / fiancée Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews) who follows him, determined to find out what he’s up to after seeing a telegram message meant for him only while on board a ship taking them both to a science conference in Copenhagen. While Sarah takes some convincing by Armstrong’s East German security to defect with him, Armstrong himself needs clues and directions to make his way across East Germany to Leipzig to find the professor and trick the older man into giving up the necessary secret formula. In his quest, Armstrong nearly comes undone when East German security agent Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling) follows him and threatens him. Armstrong and a farmer’s wife (Carolyn Colwell) dispose of Gromek in an excruciating fight scene – but this has unfortunate consequences for both Armstrong and Sherman when government authorities realise that Gromek is missing and trace his last movements to the farm that Armstrong has had to visit.

The film divides into two very uneven halves: the first half contains most of the suspense, thrills and tensions; the second half unfortunately tends to drag due to the nature of the plot in which most of the action takes place early on and then the fall-out from that action takes up the rest of the story. (In this, “Torn Curtain” follows the structure of “Psycho”.) This means that whatever tension arises in the rest of the film depends greatly on the two lead actors being seen to care for one another and having a strong connection as they try to escape from East Germany; in this, both Newman and Andrews’ performance falls flat. The two actors do what they can in their own way but there is little on-screen chemistry between them and their acting conforms to rule. Hitchcock and Newman were known not to have worked well together: Hitchcock was unimpressed with Method acting which Newman and other actors of his generation relied upon. Possibly the tension between the director and his lead actor actually improved Newman’s performance in the film (especially in the fight scene with Kieling) but on the whole the acting from the leads is very ordinary. Andrews should have been a sparkling and assertive presence but her role turns out to be a passive and subdued one that makes little use of her talent and potential to be a more feisty and active heroine – in a film where the male lead finds himself in situations where he needs help from women!

The plot is not always credible and some of its twists and turns are too light-hearted and implausible especially when put up against the brutal violence of Newman’s fight scene. The juxtaposition of the brutality and some of the sillier scenes certainly highlights the riskiness and uncertainty involved in espionage and the danger it poses to ordinary people who agree to do it. While Hitchcock could certainly manage both vicious violence and comedy, both need a solid plot and a good cast to carry off both genres and their elements, and the tensions that arise from that combination. For a good example of such a film, viewers should refer to “North by Northwest”; by contrast, “Torn Curtain” is its lesser sibling. Fortunately “Torn Curtain” is saved by its underlying themes of deception and commitment (be it commitment to a relationship or political ideals) as opposed to self-interest, and distrust of and contempt for government authorities that would cynically rely on untrained individuals to carry its work for them yet force them to make their own way back to safety when plans backfire.

The film’s best moments are in an early wordless scene where Gromek pursues Armstrong through a museum, their fight scene and some of the later chase scenes through rural countryside. In some of these scenes, Hitchcock is an undoubted master of wide-scene filming and direction, and the cinematography is very beautiful. The suspense is taut and spellbinding.

Women He’s Undressed: a whimsical and shallow treatment of an Australian country boy who hits the big time in Hollywood

Gillian Armstrong, “Women He’s Undressed” (2015)

Hollywood could not have dreamt up a more classic story of the country boy who finds his home town and country too small for his dreams and who takes off for the bright lights of New York and later the silver screen seductions of Hollywood itself, and ends up beating Hollywood at its own game as a costume designer of its Golden Age films. But fact here is much stranger than fiction: in 1897 in the tiny beachside country town of Kiama in the then British colony of New South Wales is born George Orry Kelly, who spends his early years dressing dolls in clothes until his parents frown on such apparent girly behaviour and try to shepherd him into playing football and other pursuits deemed more suitable for growing red-blooded Australian boys. In his late teens / early 20s, Kelly chooffs out of his Sydney banking job and off the US and to the music halls of Tin Pan Alley where he ekes a living designing posters and then costumes for Broadway music shows and silent film screenings, and strikes up a friendship that soon develops into something more serious with English acrobat and aspiring actor Archibald Leach. During the Depression years, the two take off for Los Angeles and Hollywood where Kelly discovers his niche (as Orry-Kelly) designing costumes for the Warner Brothers film studio (where the wife of Jack Warner befriends him) and Archie Leach is transformed into the suave actor Cary Grant. Among the famous actresses Orry-Kelly dresses are Bette Davis for several films, Ingrid Bergman for “Casablanca”, Angela Lansbury, Ava Gardner, Marilyn Monroe (“Some Like It Hot”, for which Orry-Kelly wins an Academy Award for costume design) and Jane Fonda. Orry-Kelly picks up no fewer than three Oscars for costume design and he gains a reputation for designing clothes that hide figure faults and at the same time express a character’s nature as it changes throughout a film.

Beneath the apparent glamour and marvellous celebrity and fortune, Orry-Kelly faces enormous pressure from studio executives, the press and public expectations generally to deny his homosexuality and his relationship with Cary Grant disintegrates as the actor conforms to conservative cultural expectations to be heterosexual and to marry (which he does so about five times in his life – meaning of course that four of his marriages must have deteriorated and dissolved in divorce). Orry-Kelly serves with the US Air Corps during World War II until he is discharged for alcohol abuse. During much of the 1940s he battles a chronic drinking problem and has to go into rehab which affects his costume design career and costs him his job at Warner Bros. Orry-Kelly’s comeback as a costume designer in the 1950s nets him three Oscars and a fourth Oscar nomination.

Orry-Kelly’s seeming rags-2-riches rise is whimsically retold by Armstrong in a breathless, sweeping narrative  that mixes Darren Gilshenan playing Orry-Kelly in monologue scenes in which he addresses viewers and brings to life the man’s wit, humour and energy, with interviews of the actresses Orry-Kelly dressed and historical live action footage. The constant symbolic motif of Gilshenan rowing a boat away from the beach gives the documentary both a light touch and an intimation that there is something deeper beneath the surface glamour sheen of Orry-Kelly’s life which Armstrong unfortunately doesn’t explore. Deborah Kennedy, playing Orry-Kelly’s mother, muses upon her son’s fortunes in a way that, quite frankly, adds nothing to what or how the Australian public might have thought of one of their own making it big in Tinsel-town. It seems that Kiama and Australia generally did not really care that one of their sons was achieving great things in Hollywood; in return, Orry-Kelly seems not to have bothered too much with finding out how Australians might have thought of him. In an age though where Australian culture held that Australian men who designed lavish and beautiful costumes for female actors were less than human, Orry-Kelly’s attitude could well have been similarly scornful. He was friendly with the wife of Warner Bros studio exec Jack Warner which meant plenty of work kept coming his way and Tinsel-town held enormous respect for him, at least until his drinking problem got the better of him.

Armstrong’s documentary does not go into much depth as to why certain genres of film favouring Orry-Kelly’s grand and glamorous costumes were popular among the public, nor does it deal very much with Hollywood’s ambivalence about homosexual people, many of whom were stalwart supporters of and major contributors to the Hollywood ethos. It does spend a lot of time on Orry-Kelly’s relationship with Cary Grant to the extent that viewers get the impression that Grant was the great love of his life and Grant goes to great lengths to avoid him – though the alternate view that Orry-Kelly wasn’t the love of Grant’s life and that the Australian should have tried to find another lover and dismissed Grant as Grant dismissed him (and as Orry-Kelly dismissed his fellow Australians) might have been considered.

Based upon Orry-Kelly’s unpublished manuscript, the documentary makes a case for Orry-Kelly and Grant having had an actual love relationship which the actual manuscript does not mention. This is one major criticism I have as the relationship takes up far too much of the film’s time and focus, when the film could have focused much more on Orry-Kelly’s determination to live openly as a gay man in an environment where his sexuality was an open secret among work colleagues, friends and acquaintances but had to kept secret from the media and public, and the immense pressures that were brought to bear on him.

A more considered and sober documentary treatment of Orry-Kelly’s life, the times he lived in and the complexity of gay men’s relationships in that period that does not pander to current gay politics remains begging.

High and Low: a crime thriller of downfall and redemption, and a plea for compassion for material and spiritual suffering

Akira Kurosawa, “High and Low” (1963)

Most movies based on pulp crime / police procedural novels rarely exceed their pulpy inspirations but legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa seems incapable of sticking to the style of the original source material, in this case an Ed McBain novel. No, no matter what sources he uses, be they ordinary crime action scribblings or Shakespearean plays, his films become meditations on human nature and society, and enter the panoply of great classic films. “High and Low” is one such of his works, if perhaps underrated because it’s set in the present day rather than in an exotic mediaeval Japanese past of samurai honour. Kurosawa teams up with equally legendary Toshiro Mifune, playing a ruthless businessman, and a capable no-nonsense supporting cast to bring to the screen a straightforward crime thriller with a timeless plot of downfall and redemption and a plea for humanity to rediscover precious lost values of compassion and consideration for others’ suffering.

Kingo Gondo (Mifune) is planning to buy out his partners in National Shoes and to that end has mortgaged his hill-top mansion to raise the loan that will enable him to take over the company and run it the way he wants. (Admittedly his partners want to convert the shoe-making operations into making cheap shoes for easy profit whereas Gondo believes in making long-lasting quality items that will ensure a regular income stream in the long term.) On the verge of achieving the buy-out though, Gondo receives a mysterious phone call from a stranger claiming to have kidnapped his son. The catch is that the stranger has actually kidnapped his chauffeur’s son Shinichi. The stranger demands a huge ransom that, if paid, would totally ruin Gondo – but if he does not pay, the child will surely be killed. Ever the Machiavellian, Gondo declares he will not pay in spite of his wife and chauffeur’s pleas and the recommendations of the police investigating the case.

The film divides into two unequal halves: the first half takes place almost completely in Gondo’s home, acquiring a tense, claustrophobic atmosphere and focusing on Gondo as he wrestles with other people’s demands and his obsessive desires; the second longer half, taking place in parts of the city beneath the hill where Gondo’s home is located, deals with the police search for the kidnapper and bringing him to justice. In this section, Gondo is no longer the main character though his downfall is made fairly obvious; the film becomes a cat-and-mouse game with the police led by Inspector Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai) pursuing the kidnapper and closing in on him by setting up a sting operation in which they pretend that two heroin addict accomplices he has killed are still alive and are (irony of ironies) extorting him for more junk.

The film’s minimal presentation throws attention onto the tense plot and the characters themselves as they deal with the emergency at hand and its aftermath. Mifune’s understated acting is commendable and demonstrates clearly the dilemma Gondo is placed in, his obsession with maintaining his status and family’s comfort and how eventually he is transformed by the results of the decision he finally makes. Being portrayed as a hero by newspapers for the decision he does make (under pressure from others, not because of his conscience), Gondo becomes a humbler man (though this transformation is not shown) and on meeting the kidnapper at the end of the film, seeks to understand his motives for Shinichi’s abduction.

The film achieves its epic status in many ways: it highlights the class differences between Gondo and the people he comes to rely on to rescue Shinichi and recover his money; it shows something of what motivates Gondo and the kidnapper, the social and economic gulf that separates them, and how their differing motivations and the resulting behaviour might lead one to redemption and the other to damnation; and then it adds ambiguity and irony to suggest that the one who is redeemed does not really deserve it after all. This is all done with a well-structured plot that moves quickly and generates plenty of tension, in a city where social and economic contrasts are great and each is a comment on the other. Few films are able to combine rich psychological study, a tale of downfall and redemption and an engrossing police investigation all in one.

That Obscure Object of Desire: a tale of sexual obsession in a society falling apart through its hypocrisy and violence

Luis Buñuel, “That Obscure Object of Desire” (1977)

Between two full buckets of cold water that the main characters dump on each other unfolds (for the entertainment of a small group of breathless train passengers) a tale of sexual obsession taken to extremes, to the point where the outside world becomes irrelevant until it rudely and violently intrudes on the characters’ lives, and of the clash between the old world and the new, the aged and the young, and the hypocritical, corrupt upper class and the lower class on the make as represented by the protagonist Matthieu (Fernando Rey) and antagonist Conchita (Carole Bouquet / Angela Molina). The film’s plot takes place in a world of increasing insecurity and chaos, and this chaos is mirrored in the romance between Matthieu and Conchita who find they can’t live without each other yet also find they can’t live with each other either.

The film will work best for viewers if they consider it as a character study into sexual lust and obsession; male attempts to control women and their sexuality; the nature of women’s sexuality as inaccessible and uncontrollable; and the influence of religion, especially conservative Roman Catholic religion, on people’s sexual behaviour and the games and power plays of titillation and frustration this gives rise to. Fernando Rey portrays Matthieu in all his sordid glory as both an urbane (and possibly ethically compromised) upper class career professional with connections in high places and an easily led cuckold undone by his sexual lust. One can feel equal amounts of pity and disgust with him, and repulsion as well when he hits Conchita repeatedly in one scene. Bouquet and Molina are rather more limited and stereotyped in the way they play Conchita: Bouquet is a cool, angelic and frigid Conchita while Molina plays a more earthy and sensual Conchita. The way in which the two actresses alternate is unpredictable and seems to respond to whatever mood or feeling is required of the character though Buñuel had not originally planned the role to be acted the way it seems to be done. The end result though is that Conchita, far from being a victim of the much older Matthieu’s attempts to control and own her, ends up controlling him with her eroticism and street cunning, and she is as much repugnant and sadistic as he is.

As in several of Buñuel’s late period comedies of the bourgeoisie, organised religion gets hammered for its hypocrisy. Conchita’s mother prays at church every day but is prepared to sell her daughter as a prostitute. The veneer of propriety and the smugness of the middle class are borne out by the behaviour of the train passengers who eagerly listen to Matthieu’s recounting of his sorry experiences with Conchita; the midget psychology professor in particular makes presumptuous pronouncements on aspects of the tale that reveal his arrogance. The corruption of the upper class is evident in the fly that appears in Matthieu’s glass of water at a high class restaurant and the mouse caught in the mouse-trap in his apartment.

The terrorist violence that appears throughout the film and which possibly claims the lives of Matthieu and Conchita reflects the growing corruption of middle class society and the chaos and disasters that society leaves in its wake, in much the same way that Matthieu and Conchita’s encounters leave behind a trail of broken vases and furniture, bloodied cushions and disgruntled employers unwilling to give Conchita any references for future jobs. There is a suggestion in the film that Conchita herself may belong to a terrorist group and that she takes up with Matthieu deliberately to divest him of money that should be redistributed among the poor.

While the film is very well done and quite droll in its own way, I feel it’s not a match for earlier Buñuel classics like “Belle du jour” and “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”, even though the plots of all three films are very funny and improbable and feature plenty of social and political commentary. One feels that Matthieu and Conchita are locked into a destructive relationship in which they are condemned by their material desires and frustrations to play their respective roles of tormenter and victim, and that nothing can be done for these self-destructive individuals – hence the need for the director and his fellow co-writer to resort to a deus ex machina device to finish off the film.

Review of Films I’ve seen in 2016

Review of Films I’ve seen in 2016

Dear Under Southern Eyes Readers,

Another year gone and another round-up of the most interesting films seen in 2016!

On the whole the quality of new mainstream films seems to descend lower and lower into slice-n-dice identity politics (this is true particularly of British historical dramas) and trawling through the equivalent of last night’s dinner thrown into the bin for more inspiration (always true of Hollywood over the past 20 years, only more desperate in the last 12 months or so). Even so, there are occasions where Hollywood allows an up-coming young director to present a film, often one set in the past, that ends up being a wry commentary on present-day social, political and economic trends. Such films included “The Big Short”, “Spotlight”, “Trumbo” and “The Founder”: all of them set in the past yet with a lesson relevant to modern audiences, and all including a cast who believed completely in the narrative of the film, the ideas and themes highlighted by the narrative, and whose acting was inspired to be the very best as a result.

Outside Hollywood, there haven’t been very many memorable movies released over late 2015 / most of 2016. “Son of Saul” and “Embrace of the Serpent” were two very impressive films for their messages. “Marguerite”, based on the life of American singer Florence Foster Jenkins, was a good film with a cast who rallied to the themes and ideas in the plot and who gave their very best.

As for the lesser lights of the year, Studio Ghibli predictably disappointed yet again with the insipid and pointless “The Red Turtle”. Another significant animated clunker was “Batman: The Killing Joke” which, for all the esteem the original comic is held in, should never have seen the light of day.

Legendary rock star David Bowie’s death in early January 2016 prompted me to look up “The Man who Fell to Earth”, “The Image” and a documentary which at the very least was entertaining if not very informative. Of other golden oldies, Martin Scorsese’s “New York, New York” made a huge impression on me as a showcase of Liza Minnelli’s talent (more so than “Cabaret”) and Kaneto Shindo’s “Onibaba” has lost none of its power as a post-apocalyptic shocker. I finally also got to see Sergei Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin” and Todd Dawson’s “Freaks”.

If there is a lesson for me to learn from the films I saw in 2016, it is never to trust anything again from Studio Ghibli and to avoid the new Wonder Woman movie coming in 2017. I have seen the trailer for that film and it sure did not impress me.

I’m always ready and willing for any new surprises and I’m sure that 2017 will bring some new gems to treasure even as more and more dross is churned out.

Wishing all my readers a happy and healthy New Year in 2017.

Nausika / Under Southern Eyes

The Lost Thing: a multi-layered children’s story that critiques industrial society

Andrew Ruhemann and Shaun Tan, “The Lost Thing”

Adapted from co-director Shaun Tan’s picture book written for children, the beguiling “The Lost Thing” seems a very simple story yet it is one that invites many interpretations. The film’s visual style adds yet another layer of meaning to a story that would otherwise have a much narrower focus. A boy (unnamed) obsessed with collecting bottle tops at the beach comes across a giant creature, an octopus / lobster / iron furnace hybrid, looking lost and lonely. The boy befriends the stranger and decides to help it look for a home. The boy goes to a friend of his who sets about trying to classify the strange creature by measuring it and noting down its unique characteristics but in the end both boys are defeated and are no closer to determining the creature’s nature and habitat than they were initially. The boy takes the creature home but his parents are disapproving and the creature is shut away in the back shed overnight. In the morning, the boy seeks help from government authorities and is given a business card with an arrowhead sign. The boy must try to locate a place within his home city – a vast and dreary urban landscape – that carries this sign.

Apart from the obvious theme of friendship, connection with isolated others and being helpful, the film also makes references to Australia’s uneasy relationship with immigration and immigrants, the Western need to categorise and stereotype people and objects, and the alienation of individuals within a bureaucratised industrial society. While the story is very simple and does not stand up to treatment longer than 15 minutes, viewers should remember it is told from a child’s point of view and so the film’s emphasis is on creating a visually rich universe where the bizarre and the unexpected co-exist with the familiar and the bleak.

In itself the film’s CGI animation is not anything special: it is the juxtaposition of a bleak post-industrial Melbourne (as suggested by the network of trams), nostalgic beachside scenes and the quirkiness of a giant monster-like creature (which turns out to be friendly and gentle, and needs spoon-feeding) that makes the film stand out visually. The very eccentricity of such a combination along with the fear of immigrants and the government bureaucracy makes the film very … well, very Melburnian.

The film’s conclusion is melancholy and one considers that the boy is more lost than the creature itself, in trying to regain what the oddity represented: an opening to a wider world of rich experiences and new friends. There is a suggestion that (spoiler alert) having done what he set out to do, the boy realises that returning to normality has cost him something precious and the opportunity to step into a new world is forever … lost.

A pointless rehash of a low budget TV series in “Evangelion: 1.11 – You Are (Not) Alone”

Hideaki Anno, Masayuki, Kazuya Tsurumaki, “Evangelion: 1.11 – You Are (Not) Alone”

Since the original “Neon Genesis Evangelion” anime series aired on TV over two decades ago, its stories have been repackaged and retold and this film is intended as the first of yet another revision of the series in four parts. “Evangelion: 1.11 …” revisits the first six episodes of the TV series.

As a retelling, the film’s narrative sticks closely to the original series’ story arcs and the only difference is that the film’s plot is much more streamlined with more emphasis on action and fighting. The characters in the film are as one-dimensional as they were in the TV show, probably even more so as much of what has been pruned is central character Shinji Ikari’s background history and his self-pitying tendencies. Those who have never seen the original TV show are likely to be mystified as to why adolescent children with major mental health issues like chronic depression are employed by governments to drive giant robots to battle mysterious alien invaders (called Angels) in the middle of densely populated cities and cause massive destruction and chaos for local emergency service crews to clean up afterwards – but unfortunately those naive viewers will find no answers or comfort from the film and its successors.

Most of the improved animation is to be found in the background scenery and the details of the highly bureaucratised, technocratic society in which Ikari and the people who employ him live. Unfortunately the animators did not extend the improvements to delineating the main characters who all tend to look much alike (only their hairstyles and hair colours indicate who they are or aren’t) and still resemble the crude cartoons of the original TV show.

There really isn’t much to commend this film in its character and plot development, or even in its technical aspects. This is a film clearly aimed at pleasing its fans to the point of indulging them. Whatever the reason in making the main character Shinji a passive boy forced to deal with the responsibility of saving the world from alien invasion, on top of struggling with his low self-esteem, his desire to find his life’s purpose and inner peace, and to be accepted by his distant father, seems lost on the film’s creators. The creepiest aspect of the film is that, in order to find acceptance and connection with others, Shinji must divest himself of all that makes him an individual like no other, and turn himself into a cog in Japan’s technocratic machine.

9 Days – From My Window in Aleppo: an ordinary documentary short with little too say and leaving too many unanswered questions

Floor van der Meulen, Thomas Vroege, Issa Touma, “9 Days – From My Window in Aleppo” (2016)

Filmed over nine days (hence the title) in August 2012, this 13-minute documentary short captures one witness’s view of the beginning of the war between the Syrian government and the jihadis in Aleppo that was to last over 4 years until east Aleppo’s liberation by the Syrians and their Russian, Iranian and Lebanese (Hezbollah) allies. Photographer Issa Touma filmed scenes within his apartment and outside through his apartment window; the effect is to give a very intimate and often claustrophobic, even paranoid view of the war as it developed (rapidly as it turned out) from what appears to be a skirmish between the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to a more serious conflict between the SAA and jihadi terrorists that promises to be longer and brutally violent.

While the film, chronologically ordered by day, looks interesting enough in its scenes and their details, it lacks a clear narrative: why did Touma choose to film over nine days, as opposed to, say, seven days or 14 days, and why did he decide to stop filming once the terrorists replaced the FSA? Where does his despair emanate from? Why does he refuse to take sides in the war? For that matter, why did he decide to stay in his apartment instead of leaving the apartment block with his neighbours? Why did he prefer to stay in the apartment, to stay isolated (and watch Hollywood movies on TV) and not look out for his remaining neighbours? Assuming that he spent most of his daylight hours in the apartment, I am astonished that so little film and so little monologue ended up in this documentary.

Had Touma admitted his opinion of the Syrian government, the FSA and the jihadis, viewers would have a better idea of his demoralisation at the arrival of the jihadis. However, by saying that he refuses to support one side or the other, Touma ends up appearing apathetic and passive, and this impression may turn off viewer sympathy for his plight.

For a film that won the European Short Film Award in 2016, this documentary has very little to commend it. While street scenes and the ambient background soundtrack convey the drama of escalating conflict encroaching on an individual’s neighbourhood, the film overall turns out to be an ordinary piece of workman-like quality and offers nothing new or different that most people following non-mainstream news media on events in Syria over the past several years do not already know.

In the Realm of the Senses: two lovers pursuing happiness and freedom in a repressive society

Nagisa Oshima, “Ai no korida / In the Realm of the Senses” (1976)

Forty years ago this film was made and it still has the power to shock current audiences with its explicit sexual scenes, the intense sexual obsessions, and the asphyxiophilia leading to the shocking climax and aftermath. For much of its running time though, “In the Realm …” can be boring and excruciating to watch: the plot is very basic and repetitive, and only really gets going towards the end when its protagonist and antagonist start exploring the extremes of their sexual passion; and the characters themselves tend to be one-dimensional and underdeveloped.

The plot is based on an actual historical case in Japan during the 1930s and the names of the two main characters are unchanged from those of the original doomed lovers. Kichi Ishida (Tatsuya Fuji) runs an inn in Tokyo where Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda) comes to work as a waitress. The two are attracted to each other and in no time at all have commenced an affair even though Ishida is already married. Initially in their affair the two experiment sexually and indulge one another but gradually their affair becomes all-consuming: Ishida leaves his wife and Sada becomes intensely jealous and obsessive to the point of threatening to kill Ishida if he returns to his wife or sleeps with another woman. Their affair soon occupies their attention almost daily and their sexual experimentation becomes ever more extreme with Ishida suggesting to Sada that she try strangling him to excite him sexually. Sada cannot conceive of life and happiness without Ishida and the emotions this arouses together with the erotic strangling has horrific if entirely predictable consequences for the two lovers.

As a character study, the film doesn’t work very well: there are early indications that Sada has been a prostitute in the past and is possessed of a powerful sexuality that draws men to her. She can also be easily roused to anger and strong emotions, and her anger may respect no human-made boundaries. It’s apparent that life for a passionate young woman in the Japan of the 1930s, a hierarchical and strongly conformist society then passing into militarism and fascism, is going to be very difficult. Unfortunately Oshima does not emphasise the conflict between Sada’s nature and the society that would try to turn her into a meek and submissive woman much at all. By contrast Ishida is a curiously passive man who readily gives in to Sada’s demands to the point of leaving his wife and any children they already have, and to neglect his business. This surely would have been enough to earn the couple considerable social opprobrium and ostracism. As it is, the affair forces Sada to take up prostitution again at various points in the film. With the way Oshima has framed the narrative though, focusing exclusively on the intense affair and Sada’s obsession with continuing it, viewers see nothing of the effect it has on Ishida and Sada’s ability to cope and survive, and on the people most affected by the relationship; and this narrow focus may be considered a major defect of the film.

The film’s themes are more important than its plot or its character development, superficial though the latter is: through Sada and Ishida’s obsession, Oshima raises the question of how far people can go to pursue happiness and fulfillment in an increasingly repressive society. At first their obsession provides Sada and Ishida with some measure of happiness, connection and freedom to express and explore themselves, psychologically as well as physically; but over time it becomes a destructive and paradoxically enslaving addiction for both. While the two pursue their passion, the outside world comes to see them as strange and perverted though curiously it makes no attempt to separate them. The sexual experimentation (and its explicitness and increasingly extreme character) becomes a revolt against political and sexual oppression; at the same time this revolt isolates Sada and Ishida from the rest of humanity so as rebellions go, it is a rather pathetic one. This alienation could have been made more devastating had Oshima included something of the outside world’s opinion of the affair through Ishida’s wife and employees, or through the rural inns the couple flees to, to conduct their relationship.

The film can be seen as a criticism of the roles men and women are or were expected to play in Japanese society: Sada, a poor working girl and prostitute, plays the active role in the relationship while Ishida, her employer and social superior, follows her lead. Again the sexual experimentation represents a break with the expectations of what is appropriate behaviour for men and women in sexual relationships, and gives a glimpse of an alternate world where people are free to express themselves and explore new identities free of gender limitations.

While the film is sexually graphic, I don’t see it as a pornographic film: the sex on display illustrates the couple’s break with and alienation from society, and it is not at all titillating or arousing. Whereas pornography seeks to enforce the status quo in gender and class relations, “In the Realm …” goes out of its way to question and criticise what pornography accepts without question. This is a film of two people trying to find inner peace, happiness and freedom in a world marching towards war and repression.

Festen: a rich film skewering Danish society and social hypocrisy, and delivering redemption

Thomas Vinterberg, “Festen” (1998)

“Festen” remains the best-known and most mainstream of the various films made under Dogme 95 movement rules. Even if audiences no longer remember what the goals and restrictions of Dogme 95 are, “Festen” still remains a powerful indictment of late 20th-century Danish society with its obsessions with social conventions and rituals, which serve to suppress and deny uncomfortable truths and secrets that have the power to destroy or at least derail people’s lives and prevent them from fulfilling their potential. The wealthy Klingenfeldt family is celebrating grand patriarch Helge’s 60th birthday at his country estate, and his surviving adult children Michael, Christian and Helene dutifully turn up despite Michael not having an official invitation after the last birthday celebration during which he drunkenly misbehaved himself. Now I say “surviving adult children” because the immediately Klingenfeldt family members soon start talking about their absent sister Linda who is revealed through dialogue and a clever device (in which Christian’s secret love Pia takes a bath) that she drowned herself in a bathtub full of water.

After the entire extended family arrives, everyone is called to dinner and speeches are made during which Christian (Ullrich Thomsen) reveals a shocking family secret involving himself, Linda and their father Helge (Henning Moritzen) and from that moment the film takes ever darker turns, reflected in the steady progress of the day from morning to afternoon to night, in which the family and guests reveal ever more hypocritical and crass sides of their characters and the equally pharisaical nature of Danish society generally in which social conventions, rituals and traditions mask coldness and cruelty, distance between parents and children, and put down children and stunt their growth and development. All of the Klingenfeldt children have somehow failed to meet their father Helge’s expectations of them, and all of them are stumbling through their lives trying to find meaning and purpose. Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen) has to learn discipline and control if his marriage is to survive and his children are to have a stable home environment. Helene (Paprika Steen) needs to stop waltzing from one foreign man to another and overcome her depression and pill-popping. Christian however cannot find meaning and purpose until he is able to confront his father with his crimes and his mother with her failure to protect him and Linda when they were chldren, and the film becomes as much about the way in which he grows and matures, overcoming one humiliation after another, and finally learns to take charge of his life and find love and purpose.

The adherence to Dogme 95 rules such as the use of hand-held cameras, grainy film of a particular size and various other restrictions gives “Festen” a raw immediacy that confronts audiences with the powerful emotions and the sheer enormity of Helge’s crimes and abuses against his children. The rules also throw the burden of carrying the film and its themes squarely onto the dialogue, the characters and the actors’ ability to carry everything off. The entire cast rises to the challenge and without exception performs magnificently. Thomsen is outstanding as the troubled son battling depression and other personal demons in order to stand up for Linda and himself, and to be able to go forward in life.

Minor characters in the film add to its depth and richness: the dotty elder relatives are sinister in their own ways and one feels for Helene’s African-American boyfriend who is the one sane and sensitive person in the entire birthday party debacle and who one senses will be thrown over like so many previous boyfriends. The servants are rich characters in themselves and push Christian in his endeavour to force his family to confront the truth about his father. Cleverly the film allows Helge’s wife (and the mother of Christian and his siblings) Elsie to condemn herself as an accessory to Helge’s past sins and she becomes a lonely and isolated figure scorned by family and guests alike.

While the film could have been made without Dogme 95 rules, and one does not need to know the rules to watch and appreciate the film’s power, “Festen” could have been a much lesser work without the rules. This film can be a terrifying experience with its depictions of violence, instability, depression and emotional pain, yet it unexpectedly also delivers forgiveness and redemption in amongst social criticism and black comedy. In years to come, this will be considered one of Denmark’s great films and a great film in the tradition of the comedy of manners, following films like Louis Renoir’s “The Rules of the Game”.