Waltzes from Vienna: Hitchcock ill at ease with musical comedy of Johann Strauss II

Alfred Hitchcock, “Waltzes from Vienna” (1934)

What’s this? – a musical comedy about Johann Strauss II and his waltz “The Blue Danube” by Alfred Hitchcock? The Master of Suspense made this film during his lean early-1930’s period when he had more failures than successes working in different film genres and was seriously doubting his ability as a director. Some of that self-doubt is apparent in the movie itself: it revolves around  Johann Strauss II (Esmond Knight) aka Schani who’s torn between his love for a young woman Rasi (Jessie Matthews) and his desire to write and conduct music. The young woman demands that he give up his music and follow her in her father’s tearoom / bakery business which the young man loathes and has no aptitude for. Add to that mix the young man’s father (Edmund Gwenn) who disdains his son’s efforts at writing music as he secretly fears being upstaged. If that’s not enough headache for you, there’s a wily Countess (Fay Compton) who has designs on the young man under the pretence of encouraging him in his musical ambitions. Poor Schani, wanting to please everyone at once and to follow his true path, can’t make up his mind between the women and their demands, and the love triangle of Schani, Rasi and the Countess provides the background and structure against which Schani casually coughs out his signature work.

At least Hitchcock preserved some semblance of reality in this slapstick farce: since the emphasis is on how Schani created his major work, the ever-present love triangle is allowed to continue indefinitely and the coda is suitably ambiguous if unsatisfactory for musical comedy audiences at the time. Other Hitchcock touches are present insofar as the director was able to sneak them in: a character falls down a staircase for laughs and early in the film Schani stumbles through a dress shop and meets several young ladies in various states of undress. Though Matthews only sings one song – the movie was supposed to be a showcase for her singing talent – her character is a spirited filly determined to wrest Schani away from the Countess even if her own jealousy destroys him. The Countess Helga von Stahl herself, married to buffoonish Prince Gustav (Frank Vosper) who features in the film for laughs, seems a benevolent mentor and patron but her gracious and refined approach masks her passion for Schani. Here are two women who are doubles of each other, neither of them a complete angel or devil but a mixture of the two and having the power to crush Schani in some way: a clever Hitchcockian device to insert into an otherwise lightweight comedy though the 1930’s parameters of the genre and the plot being a ficititious soap opera about a real person don’t permit the conflict to play out fully in the movie. The only assurance viewers have is that whichever woman Schani chooses beyond the confines of the movie, he will lose an essential part of himself and the woman will be dissatisfied with the husk that remains. Matthews and Compton play their respective roles as twins well but in different ways; in acting skill, Compton wins out over Matthews as the languid Hitchcockian-blonde lady who nurses unfulfilled desires.

Knight and Matthews lack spark in their scenes together and Knight seems wooden in a role that calls for hesitancy, indecisiveness and maybe not a little stiffness. As for the support, Gwenn is a dark, almost malevolent figure (something of Hitchcock’s fear of male-dominated authority comes into the character) while other male-authority figures that appear are comics who treat Schani disdainfully: Prince Gustav, otherwise an out-and-out clown, treats Schani as a hat-stand almost violently and Rasi’s dad never accepts his potential son-in-law as heir to his business. The message is clear: as an artist, Schani will always be an outsider at whichever level of society he tries to enter. Interestingly, only women can allow him that access.

The slapstick seems forced and predictable and viewers may get the impression that Hitchcock was uncomfortable using it. The real value the film offers lies in its technical proficiency: “Waltzes …” just about revels in deep focus shots, long panning shots – there’s one outstanding left-to-right panning shot of a festival in the last third of the movie – and a shot featuring a zoom effect used on the Countess as she wraps up her copy of Schani’s “The Blue Danube” score; the shot quiickly morphs into a shot of Rasi wrapping her copy of the score, emphasising Rasi and the Countess as polarised twins. Close-ups of Rasi that stress her fresh-faced beauty are frequent and in the festival scenes, there are many close-ups of the musicians playing their instruments and of the instruments themselves that stress repetition and harmonisation. The voyeuristc camera gets a good workout: in one scene, the camera glides slowly from left to right around a candelabra, then gradually traces a semi-circle and draws close to Schani at the piano and the Countess behind him performing a song. The sets are minimal due to a low budget but are unintnentionally effective as their spareness throws the focus onto the actors.

“Waltzes …” might have worked better if the plot had included some (if not a complete) resolution of the love triangle rather than leaving it open and continuous, and wit and situation comedy substituted for slapstick and farce. There are dark elements in the love triangle and Schani’s relationship with his father that could have been teased up more. The stingy budget allocated to the move meant that only one song and various repetitions of “The Blue Danube” appear and this detracts from the movie in many ways: songs in musicals often express a character’s feelings and motivations and these are where darker psychological aspects to Rasi and the Countess could have been worked in. Fear, jealousy, father-son relationships and the destructive power of romantic love become significant themes under Hitchcock’s direction and could have been potential sources of tension and suspense that might add substance to the fluffy plot.

Delicatessen: amusing dystopian black comedy that overdoes the oddball edge and comes out looking twee

Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, “Delicatessen” (1991)

How to describe this droll French movie that tackles cannibalism in a light-hearted manner? It’s at once a dystopian horror black comedy and a character study of sorts featuring romance, thriller and drama elements, all flavoured with a distinctively twee style. Unemployed Louison (Dominique Pinon) is a clown by profession looking for somewhere to stay in a future Paris which looks very much like a ghost town in the middle of a desert where the air is perpetually dusty and food is in short supply. He discovers an apartment block advertising for a handy-man with a vacant unit as part of the job package. He is accepted for the job by landlord Mr Clapet (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) who runs the delicatessen on the ground floor. Little does Louison realise that Clapet plans to fatten him up and kill him to provide a source of cheap meat to the other tenants in the building. As he keeps busy (and skinny) doing maintenance around the tumbledown building – and there’s plenty to do in the various tenants’ units – he meets Clapet’s daughter Julie (Marie-Laure Dougnac) and over time they fall in love. Julie’s all too aware of what Papa Clapet has in mind for Louison so one night she sneaks out of the building and descends into the sewers to contact a group of vegetarian terrorists calling themselves the Troglodistes and to appeal to them for help in rescuing Louison from the chop.

It’s very cartoony with characters that are one-dimensional in an extreme zany way. The colours of the film are sometimes bright, almost fruity, but more often brown, grey, dark and dirty. The filming is done from odd angles that exaggerate some characters’ facial features or an aspect of their personalities, or to emphasise the peculiarity of the insular world they live in. Fast editing keeps the action and energy flowing in several parts of the movie. The actors are quite good, especially Pinon and Karin Viard who plays Clapet’s mistress when they are either bouncing on the Clapets’ creaky bed or dancing as a couple in Louison’s apartment (though it’s possible some computerised tweaking took place in the dancing scene). True, the acting can be very mannered with characters appearing to play up to the screen and the camera itself encouraging them to exaggerate expressions for viewer laughs and sympathy. Dreyfus plays his villain role in a straight buffoony way and Dougnac, aided by her round-faced, fair-haired angelic looks, nails the shy and awkward Julie for most of the film, at least until the last half hour when Clapet and Louison’s showdown takes over and everyone and everything must conform to the shaky plot’s exigencies.

With an original premise drawing on several genre influences, the plot understandably weaves among graveyard humour, Grand Guignol melodrama, steampunk science fiction, horror suspense, action and boy-meets-girl / boy-loses-girl / boy-regains-girl romance. In trying to be everything or nearly everything at once, it becomes patchy and fragile indeed. Subplots centred around Clapet’s tenants that look promising remain just that, promising, and the potential for black horror humour in the tenant who constantly attempts suicide but is always let down by her Rube Goldberg mechanical arrangements, or in the basement dweller who cultivates snails and frogs for food, remains stalled or repeats itself. The Troglodistes aren’t just a sidetrack to the plot and a hindrance in the murderous Clapet’s way and so the plot fumbles towards a climax that clamours as much for laughs and guffaws as for tension and suspense.

The movie suggests that in the not-too distant future of severe food shortages and other scarce resources, society will retreat into the past with women dressing in kitschy mid-20th century work fashions, people watching old musicals on black-and-white TV sets and everyone resorting to, uh, drastic hunting, gathering and hoarding methods when shopping for groceries. Motifs that appear here and which sometimes resurface in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s later films include an emphasis on the lives of oddball outsiders living isolated lives with the director showing sympathy for those who often break mainstream society’s rules and conventions but are otherwise well-meaning; a fascination with mechanics and technology on a human scale; and one individual’s victory over a whole bunch of murderous neighbours and quite useless guerilla fighters in spite of odds against him. Together these motifs suggest Jeunet is critical of many aspects of modern French society: there may be subtle criticism of bureaucracy, an obsession with maintaining appearances and how mainstream society treats its most vulnerable and downtrodden victims.

How well “Delicatessen” stands the test of time as a cult movie is a big question: visually it’s a treat and enjoyable to watch and sections of the movie that feature comic music syncrhonisations are very clever, perhaps too clever, but the quaintness and oddball style seem too deliberate and overdone. The main characters aren’t quite flesh-and-blood human enough to carry the oddball overload on their shoulders and the minor characters stay frozen in their eccentric routines due to the limited screen-time allocated to them. A longer playing time of about 10 – 20 minutes devoted to more character development and resolving the subplots – so that the lady trying to kill herself gets her wish fulfilled but in the way she least expects, perhaps by being buried under an avalanche of snail shells or frog skeletons – and a bit less on layering the film with one eccentric detail after another might have brought more light and warmth out of the film’s dark Gothic settings and plot. For all its layers of black comedy, optimistic romance and Gothic drama, at the centre of “Delicatessen” is something a bit cold, unemotional, even a little sterile.

Early Summer: visually stunning film with message about effects of change on families

Yasujiro Ozu, “Early Summer” (1951)

Calm and serene with a thin plot, “Early Summer” looks at a family and the changes it undergoes as a result of one of its members deciding whether or not to marry. The movie is set in early 1950’s Japan which was under American occupation and associated social influences at the time. Noriko (Setsuko Hara) is a clerk in her late twenties under pressure from her parents and her married brother at home to find a suitable husband. Even her boss at work jokingly suggests she should meet an old school friend of his to see if they’re a good match for each other. Noriko sweetly bats off all these hints that she’s nearing her meat-market use-by date and should be settling down to obedient, passive housewifely duties. Her social set divides into singleton and married-women camps arguing the pros and cons of singlehood and supposed wedded bliss so she’s well aware of what she’d be walking into if she got that gold band on her finger. Interestingly, the one person who doesn’t hassle Noriko about getting married is her sister-in-law who’s harried by two small sons who are spoilt by their grandparents.

The visual style of “Early Summer” is highly commendable: the camera positions place considerable physical space between us viewers and the characters, and the cameras themselves are set at table height or at the level Japanese people traditionally kneel down to eat at low tables when at home. Deep focus fixed-camera shots are used so people are often filmed in the background having conversations or doing things while framed by doorways, furniture and other interior fixtures. If the camera moves at all, it is to track people coming towards it or going away from it, or to pan slowly across the screen over a nature scene. The effect is to give “Easy Summer” a static, almost stage-like quality and viewers will feel very much like voyeurs peeking into people’s private business. The very minimal acting places psychological distance between us and the characters. By forcing such physical and psychological distance, viewers observe the story as it develops and don’t get deeply involved; this helps to reinforce the film’s theme about how change affects families and the relationships within them for better and for worse. We shouldn’t get upset if people suffer as this may be a short-term effect of the change and there may be long-term benefits; equally a short-term benefit may lead to adverse long-term effects.

“Early Summer” observes the pressure Noriko is put under to conform to tradition and expectations under social, political and economic conditions that aren’t static, and the frustrations and distress that she experiences when social custom clashes with changing reality. At first she’s unwilling to surrender her freedom, financial independence and closeness to her relatives but after continued pressure from family and friends alike, she suddenly decides to marry a widower with a child. The irony of her decision is that her relatives disapprove of the idea of a proven family man as husband over a man aged 40 years who’s never married and might not be family-man material; and Noriko’s impending marriage means her income will be lost to her family so her brother and his brood must move to a smaller house in Tokyo and the parents must live in the country. The hypocrisy and shallowness inherent in forcing a woman to marry purely to preserve social standing and harmony without thought for practical consequences become apparent.

The acting is so sparing in its expressiveness as to seem stereotyped: most of the women are chirpy and giggle a lot; the men stick to one mode of expression throughout the film so Noriko’s boss is usually jovial and her dad and various other aged people usually act bemused at the pace of modern life. Hara does a good job within the limits set by director Ozu at portraying a woman who hides her anger, sorrow and despair behind a cheery and upbeat façade.

Scenes of restless nature (beach scenes of rolling waves near the beginning and the end of the film, a scene at the end of rippling wheat ready for harvest) and of the Tokyo cityscape reflect the ongoing and impassive nature of change. The small children with their obsession with model train sets and demand for lollies and gifts are the focus of a small subplot emphasising generational differences.

Slow and reserved it may be but “Early Summer” isn’t at all stodgy; it just glides by, inviting neither scorn nor sympathy for its characters. The film does suffer from not being in colour which would enhance Ozu’s style of filming by adding depth to deep focus shots. Mood and atmosphere might be improved with appropriate colour choices in the interior and costume design. Unfortunately for Ozu, the technology to film in colour was never available to him, Japan at the time being an impoverished country ruined by war policies pursued by its governments in the 1930’s – ’40’s, and by the time the country’s film industry could afford colour filming (some time in the mid-1960’s), Ozu had already died.

One aspect of “Early Summer” that some viewers might find troubling is the fatalistic attitude expressed by Noriko’s parents in their new digs in the country when they kid themselves that they’re happy and shouldn’t ask for more in life. Their facial expressions suggest their confusion, unhappiness and feeling of being tricked or trapped in some way at the way things have turned out as a result of their daughter bowing to convention and tradition. This moment captures very well the bewilderment of a society caught up in political, economic and social changes not always of its own making.

The Man without a Past: heart-warming comedy about need for “identity” to survive in modern society

Aki Kaurismäki, “The Man without a Past” (2002)

A heart-warming comedy about a man who is beaten up and left for dead but survives only to find he has no memory of his name or of his previous life, “The Man without a Past” is a showcase of Finnish stoicism, wry deadpan humour and eccentricity beneath an apparently conformist veneer. The unnamed everyman hero, played by Markku Peltola, has just got off a train with a large case and goes to sit in a city park. He dozes off and while asleep, is attacked and viciously beaten by thugs who take his wallet. The victim, whom we’ll call M, is taken to hospital where the medical staff pronounce him dead and leave him alone in bed. At that point, M springs up and leaves the hospital, bandaged face and all, and ventures out into the city streets and along the harbour front where he is found by two boys. They take him home which turns out to be an old shipping container where they and their parents have had to live while waiting to join the queue for public housing. So begins the new life of M among a community of homeless city people in a world that operates under the radar of mainstream society and visited only by charities like the Salvation Army, one of whose members, Irma (Kati Ouitnen), forms a romantic relationship with M.

The visual style of the film looks very clear and clean, almost innocent even; it shows a world where everything is taken at face value and any search for meaning or logic to the things that destiny dishes out to you is fruitless. The absurdism of M’s world is reflected in his encounters with representatives of mainstream society: the office manager at the construction site where M tries to apply for work tells him he can’t be paid in cash but must have a bank account so the banks can keep tabs on his spending; the bank clerk tells him he can have a Swiss bank account with just a number but he must still give his name and address details; the bank robber shoots out the CCTV camera (which wasn’t working anyway) but steals money only from his own account; and the police inspector and the lawyer appointed to defend M pull out large tomes, flip thin pages and argue over detailed technical aspects and exemptions to the law that requires M to be detained as a vagrant or possible trouble-maker. The comedy arising from these incidents is very dry and poker-faced, slightly sinister and satirical, and may say something pointed and terse about the nature of bureaucracy in Finland or bureaucracy generally.

Characters as directed have a calm, even slightly robotic, nature to them with deadpan voices and facial expressions. People accept disappointment and disaster stoically and if and when good luck comes to them, their reaction is hardly more expressive. What dialogue there is, is in the form of speeches or statements of fact; rarely do people express what and how they feel. Even in intimate scenes between M and Irma, the emotion tends to be sensed in the mood of the scene and in the characters’ very minimal body language; there is a kissing scene but the camera doesn’t hold it for long and the actions are very matter-of-fact. The scene in which M is reunited with his wife, who informs him of the divorce while he was missing, and meets her new beau is amazingly (though logical given the kind of universe the film operates in) calm and civilised; the two men debate whether they should get upset and punch each other’s lights out, then make their decision, shake hands and depart on friendly terms. Perhaps the measure of acting skill lies in actors’ ability not to crack up or smirk while delivering funny lines in comic situations and in this, the whole cast including two small boys and a dog passes the test with ease.

Some viewers might see a strong if pedantic Christian message in the film: among other things, Irma persuades M to go back to his wife even though M doesn’t remember the woman and Irma herself would become a lonely singleton again. Those passages in the movie that deal with Salvation Army characters fall in line with the absurdist nature of the universe presented: the SA members on the whole act very much like the secular characters in the film, winking at ideas and practices that possibly conflict with SA ideals and beliefs but which do no harm to others or bring non-believers into the SA fold. Scenes in which M persuades the SA musicians to update their repertoire of songs to include more rock and pop standards and to use electric guitars and a full drum-kit are droll and touching. The music in “The Man …” is very eclectic and whimsical, going from Christian hymns to rockabilly, and though the eclecticism of music choice and the result might seem weird to people outside Finland, as a proud owner of a stack of Finnish rock and pop albums ranging from electronic folk pop to black metal, I can vouch for the music soundtrack being the kind of creature Finnish society and culture accept as within the range of normal music.

The message that most viewers will go away with is that life continually goes forward and you do what you can to keep going in the face of official indifference but there is a deeper, perhaps more sinister theme. In a way, “The Man …” is a sad film: it emphasises that without an official identity, people don’t exist. M is forced by circumstances to make a new life for himself in an underground community that accepts him with no hesitation and whose values make it more alive than mainstream society where you are “alive” only because you have a name, a social security number or ongoing credit card transactions that your bank can trace. In the film, everything becomes inverted to reflect the contrast between the two societies: cold becomes warm, lack of outward emotion demonstrates inner warmth and Hannibal the fierce guardian dog is really just a friendly pooch. By the same token, outward warmth and expressiveness mask inner cold and inhumanity. Venturing into mainstream society in order to get a job and earn money to pay his rent for his own shipping container home, M falls into a world more completely Kafkaesque than anything the famous Czech writer wrote.

Perhaps not a film for everyone, and not very realistic, but in its modest way this is a very optimistic film of hope and salvation in which a character undergoes a major change and rediscovers life and humanity.

The 39 Steps (dir. Alfred Hitchcock): the movie with the secret code that cracked success for Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock, “The 39 Steps” (1935)

Very loosely based on John Buchan’s novel “The Thirty-Nine Steps” – it’s best if you don’t read the novel first – this movie is an early example, if not the first, of a typical Hitchcock movie. An ordinary, innocent man called Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) accidentally gets caught up in events in which a murder occurs and he finds himself accused of the crime so he must go on the run to prove his innocence and at the same time find the real killer and the reason for the killing. Going on the run means chases through a train with a narrow escape on a bridge and running through the Scottish moors with their famously moody and unpredictable weather and picturesque sheep farms inhabited by cantankerous loner crofter characters. There are the usual plot twists: a local helpful aristocrat turns out to be the head villainous honcho for the spy plot that led to the initial murder and Hannay becoming a fugitive, and the dastardly fellow shoots Hannay at close range; fortunately a Bible in Hannay’s coat chest pocket stops the bullet and Hannay is on his way again. Entanglement with a cool blonde chick called Pamela (Madelaine Carroll) – hey, women were definitely not in the novel except as extras! – and some fleeting encounters with women call attention to Hitchcock’s interest in detailing romantic attachments and the status of marriage as it plays out in individual couples’ lives. The film becomes a combination of romance comedy and a light crime caper with some violence and several scenes of slapstick and coincidence on one level, and on another level an interrogation into love and human relationships and their often fearful and deadly consequences.

The Buchan novel is in the vein of a Fleming / James Bond adventure in which the hero, who happens to have technical expertise and some military experience, cracks part of a code and engages help from a friendly politician while on the lam to discover and foil a German spy plot against the British empire. Hitchcock took the general premise of an innocent lone man on the run plus some other plot details from the book and dressed them with his own particular obsessions and cinematic devices to create something very different and original. The plot is lightweight against the novel but Hitchcock compensates for the flimsy and often implausible story-line with memorable and witty characters played by adept actors, a pace that is constant and which builds up the tension across locations in London and Scotland, and the use of comedy to stir up murky and unpleasant aspects of love, romance and marriage. Things, customs and people are never what they seem and Hitchcock delights in showing us the dark mirror twins of institutions we take for granted: characters who supposedly represent forces of law and order are in cahoots with the crooks; and a stranger who impulsively kisses ladies may be a lady-killer, figuratively rather than literally. The sudden and swift changes in the surface appearance of objects and people, and in the plot itself – for example, up to a certain point action that had occurred on-screen so far might switch to off-screen action recounted by a character – keep the film lively and flowing with continual and teasing suspense and tension.

By necessity, Donat carries the film for at least half its running time until Hannay meets Pamela a second time by chance. Hannay as presented by Donat is smooth and unflappable with an unexpected resourcefulness and bravado, especially in the scene where he blunders into a political meeting and is mistaken for a speaker. Once Hannay and Pamela are thrown together by the fake police, they literally stay together, handcuffs or no handcuffs, to the end of the movie as Pamela learns from eavesdropping on a conversation that Hannay has been framed for murder and she decides to help him. As played by Carroll, Pamela is a feisty and daring young miss used to getting her own way though sometimes it backfires on her. At least Hannay is gentleman enough not to take advantage of her when she pulls her stockings down in the bedroom while his hand is attached to hers with the handcuffs! The film’s coda suggests Hannay and Pamela decide of their own free will to stay linked and the handcuffs, which in the 1930’s might not yet have acquired all its dubious sexual connotations, dangle and glitter suggestively from beneath Hannay’s sleeve. Images and ideas of wedding rings, control, closeness and violence dance before your eyes.

Not surprisingly the film opened doors for its lead stars Donat and Carroll in Hollywood: Carroll’s career subsequently thrived while Donat, due to chronic ill health and general dislike of Hollywood razz-matazz, ended up with a more modest acting career that did include winning a Best Actor Oscar in 1939 for his role in “Goodbye Mr Chips”. As for Hitchcock, “The 39 Steps”, appropriately enough considering its subject matter and the nature of The 39 Steps (different from the novel’s 39 Steps), became his code that cracked access to Hollywood’s resources and actors to make bigger and better movies. How indebted Hitchcock was to this film as his breakthrough to Hollywood can be gleaned from other later films he made which in part could pass as remakes of “The 39 Steps”, revisiting and reinterpreting themes and concepts from that movie.

Love and Other Crimes: romantic comedy deals with love and change in a society caught between Communism and corporatism

Stefan Arsenijevic, “Love and other Crimes” (2008)

 Source:www.kinokultura.com

For a romantic comedy, this film sure looks bleak with a bleary run-down urban setting of endless grey residential towers in a large city and a cast that includes a suicidal teenager, her dad facing a terminal illness and a couple who’ve known each other for over 10 years yet acknowledge their love very briefly before immediately leaving each other forever. Where in the world would such a film get made? Perhaps it would be made only in Serbia which, in spite of ditching President Milosevic and handing him over to the International Court of Crimes and trying to round up other designated war criminals, still finds itself shunned by other Western and European nations. The large city is New Belgrade, part of Serbia’s capital Belgrade, though it may be hard to believe from seeing the film: the place as pictured has the air of a town fast depopulating, its better days behind it, and all you see are generic concrete tower blocks filled with tiny apartments where people down on their luck or dissatisfied with their lives and not knowing why or how they got that way spend their days staring blankly at TV soap operas, at themselves in the mirror or at the dismal weather through the windows.

Structurally the film reflects a society adrift: it flits from one character to another at first but over the course of a day from sunrise to midnight, the film connects all its characters into a network surrounding Anica (Anica Dobra) and Stanislav (Vuk Kostic). Anica makes a living tutoring in Russian and Stanislav is an enforcer for a protection racket headed by Milutin (Fedya Stojanovic) who uses a solarium as a front to collect money from small shop-owners. Anica is fed up with her life as tutor and Milutin’s mistress, and is preparing to leave Belgrade and Serbia. Milutin has just received bad news from his doctor that he hasn’t long to live; his solarium business has no customers; and his racket will be wiped out when a new shopping mall opens in the city close by. Already the kiosks and other businesses Stanislav and his fellow mobsters prey on have closed up. In the meantime, Milutin’s daughter Ivana (Hanna Schwamborn) goes up to the top of the apartment bloc each day to contemplate taking her last step off the edge. Stanislav, living with his dotty mum (Milena Dravic) who performs the same tired singing routine in a restaurant frequented by equally tired middle-aged customers each evening, has been invited by a friend to work as a magician in Switzerland but isn’t sure he wants to go.

The sense that life is passing by the city and its residents whose knowledge, talents and experience might not be valuable in a new cut-throat capitalist world thrust upon Serbia, is strong. The old world that’s gone had its faults: rival gangs led by Milutin and Radovan (Josef Tatic) bicker over which parts of the city they control, leading to arson and murder; there’s little communication between parents and children which perhaps explains why Ivana feels suicidal and relations between Stanislav and his mother seem strained; and technology, though usually human-scaled, is unreliable or defiant – the sunbeds in Milutin’s solarium work intermittently, someone’s TV is always malfunctioning or has fuzzy pictures, and the airport metal scanner gets stuck after Anica passes through it. Few people are unhappy that the old world of Communist economic mismanagement, buck-passing, under-the-table transactions and political corruption is fading away. But no-one’s looking forward to the new world with its new impersonal and coldly efficient machines and values based on the profit motive and consumerism controlled by corporations.

In such a bleak world, caught in a shadow zone between Communism and corporatism, it’s no wonder that the actors spend most of their time walking around or doing very minimal activity, with only Dobra’s face doing much acting at all, mostly in the gloomy zone of facial expressions. Only false values survive in such a place and love, based on honesty and true sharing of feelings and emotions, is unable to exist here in spite of scenes of slapstick humour and some hilarious dialogue that soften the overall gloom. The film instead offers a merry-go-round of affairs that involve Anica, Milutin and at least one other woman whom Milutin is unable to face so Stanislav must act as a go-between; needless to say, Ivana’s long-deceased mother was not one of the women Milutin “loved”.

The cinematography compensates for the glum looks, blank faces and constant walking around with almost lyrical background shots of the grey buildings, the grey staircases and streets, and the pale pastel colours of the sky and grass. Some scenes are very artfully set up, such as a long take in which Dobra and Kostic takes turns stopping and then passing each other along a street with the camera panning from right to left, to illustrate the hesitant nature of their close friendship.

No easy solutions are offered in the film: Anica leaves Serbia for a new and uncertain life abroad while the other characters, unable or unwilling to make drastic changes or adjust to change around them, must suffer major consequences for not acting. Themes of love and the difficulty of change in a poor city whose inhabitants are unwilling or frightened of change, combined with inter-linked stories spiked with humour and warmth in a tight screenplay, and urban images that can be very poetic and lovely, make “Love and Other Crimes” a worthwhile film to watch.

Citizen Dog: comedy with one-dimensional heroes and disappointing plot

Wisit Sasanatieng, “Citizen Dog” (2004)

File:Citizendoghouse.jpg Source: Wikipedia, www.en.wikipedia.org

Living in Australia with its huge Hollywood fixation, even though Hollywood’s output of films has declined a lot since the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, means we don’t get to see very many movies from countries in other parts of the world. That’s a pity as some places like Thailand now have a significant movie industry and are exporting some very well-made films with excellent technical production standards. This particular movie with the eccentric name “Citizen Dog” is a quirky fantasy romantic comedy that combines two characters’ quests – one for love, one for meaning to life – with a message that searching for something may not get you anywhere or yield the result you need but if you wait, what you want will come to you eventually. In other words, trust in life and it will give you what you desire. I suppose this is what some people call a Buddhist approach to life, though my impression of Buddhism is that it calls on people not to have a materialistic attitude to life or be attached to “things” (which may include desires), but there’s something about the film’s message that makes me uncomfortable: it just seems so conservative and limiting and turns its hero into a passive being. The film seems unsatisfactory; it’s likeable and has some very amusing characters and situations that make for a very surreal world but the whole edifice, carefully constructed, depends largely on a barebones and disappointing romance plot and the main characters of Pod (Mahasmut Bunyaruk) and Jin (Saengthong Gate-uthong) remain distant, one-dimensional and unremarkable.

Pod is a typical young man who leaves his family’s rice farm to seek work in the huge Bangkok metropolis. He gets a job in a sardine-canning factory where as a result of losing and then regaining his finger, he meets a similar young migrant fellow Yod (Sawatong Palakawong na Autthaya) . Together they leave the factory to find other work and Pod finds himself in a security guard’s uniform escorting people up and down in elevators in a city building. He meets and falls in love with Jin, a company cleaner who is obsessed with reading a book that has fallen out of the sky and which she believes holds the key to success and a meaningful life. From then on, Pod alternately pursues Jin or waits for her to come to him while Jin herself tirelessly – and not too intelligently – chases after a messiah figure or a cause connected directly or indirectly to the book that she believes will lead her to something better in life.

The film is a light-hearted and entertaining cartoon-like comedy with some interesting by-ways and eccentric characters who include a spoilt rich kid (Pattareeya Sanittwate) of indeterminate age with a talking teddy-bear, a salesman with a compulsion to lick everything in sight and a grandmother whose soul is continuously recycled through some very unusual life-forms. The eccentricity can get a bit twee and artificial, even for a fantasy like “Citizen Dog”. Jin’s obsession leads to her taking up protesting against pollution as a cause and this has very comic results: the interiors of her house become a jungle in contrast to its prim-and-proper picket-fenced exterior and the Bangkok city skyline ends up dominated by a huge white mountain of plastic bottles she collects. It’s on this mountain, reaching as high as the moon in the sky, that Jin eventually discovers her life’s mission.

To me, “Citizen Dog” makes fun out of the aspirations of ordinary working-class people, toiling as taxi-drivers, cleaners and factory workers, for a better, more meaningful life that makes them feel special and unique. Admittedly this meaningful life may be no more than being richer or more famous than others, and at first this seems to be what Jin desires but as her desire transmutes into something else and she ends up blundering into doing things that can be monstrous as well as comic, I sense a cruelty to the otherwise gentle comedy. Are we laughing with Jin or at Jin? Ultimately the meaning of life and Jin’s true mission coalesce into helping Granny reincarnate for the umpteenth time and running a plastics factory into the ground.

The structuring of the film into chapters and the use of an unseen narrator (Pen-ek Ratanaruang) aims for a sweetness reminiscent of some French art-house films and creates a distinctive world at once familiar yet unfamiliar but I found this style of narrative quite alienating and fussy after a while. It does though keep the film moving at a good pace and helps pack in a sub-plot and various minor characters to flesh out the universe within the film. I guess one use too, of such chapters to introduce various minor characters who are incidental to the plot is to demonstrate how searching and running after love can end up a pathetic quest, especially in the case of Yod who yearns after a self-obsessed Chinese restaurant worker. The main characters don’t have enough substance to them to carry the entire film; the actors playing them are good-looking and play their parts well enough so that their quirks, though maddening and overdone, do have the feel of plausibility in the mad world they inhabit.

The urban Bangkok environment plays a major role in the film and I would have liked to see Sasanatieng give it even more prominence as a major “character”: the city itself is a place where anything and everything can happen but it tends to be something of a backdrop rather than a semi-active player itself. Indeed, I feel Bangkok as presented here is a generic big city that could be found anywhere in an economically wealthy and dynamic Asian country. The music soundtrack does have some highlights – a bit of Thai-language hiphop here, some laid-back middle-of-the-road rock or country music there (yes, I believe Thailand does boast its own country rock music scene, it’s called luk thung)- but it’s not very distinctive and doesn’t reflect on some aspect of the plot or the characters’ development (not that there is any; the plot requires Pod to be a passive character and so he remains the same wide-eyed thunderstruck innocent throughout the film) as it probably should.

The film might have worked better if Pod had been the obsessive-compulsive cleaner with the neatness streak and love of causes striving for Jin’s attention and Jin a corporate lawyer at the firm that employs Pod. The plot would then have allowed Pod to undergo all the ups and downs of unrequited love and to create the mountain of plastic bottles only to discover that Jin is weary of being a corporate slave and that she longs for a simpler life and loves Pod for all his bungles and blunders. Or at least something that enables Pod to grow and mature in a way that still maintains his essential goodness and naive outlook on life. Jin can still be a bit nutsoid and pursue her book obsession. At the same time the urban Bangkok environment with its particular sights and sounds can be both a positive and a negative influence on Pod’s development.

“Citizen Dog” happens to be Sasanatieng’s second film as a director so perhaps I shouldn’t be too hard on him. He has created a visually gorgeous film which in its own way lambasts the corporate world and I hope in future films he can build up a distinctive Planet Bangkok reality where magic realism is more realistic than reality itself.

To Catch A Thief: there’s fluff and then there’s fluff, Hitchcock-style

Alfred Hitchcock, “To Catch A Thief” (1955)

A clever light-hearted comedy crime caper set in southern France, this was one of Grace Kelly’s last films before she married Prince Rainier of Monaco and settled permanently in that part of the world, and Cary Grant’s “comeback” movie after he had declared his retirement from making films in 1953. Grant plays retired cat burglar John Robie aka the Cat, enjoying life as a vineyard owner on the Cote d’Azur. Enjoyment is short-lived though as a series of jewellery burglaries with the hallmarks of the Cat’s style lead the local gendarmes to suspect Robie’s gone back to his old occupation. He calls on his old friends with whom he fought in the French Resistance in the 1940’s (and with whom he swore never to return to crime) to pull in some favours but they’re suspicious and upset that he’s apparently gone back to his old ways.  He escapes the police only with the help of Danielle (Brigitte Auber), the daughter of his friend Foussard. Danielle is infatuated with Robie and suggests they flee to South America together but Robie refuses.

His reputation under a shade, Robie decides to clear his name by catching the copy-cat (ha!) in action so he enlists insurance agent Hughson (John Williams) to help him. Hughson introduces him to rich American socialite Mrs Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis) and her daughter Frances (Grace Kelly) who happen to be top of a list of likely victims for the thief. Initially Frances is attracted to Robie (and eventually falls in love with him), guesses his identity and becomes enthralled with his presumed life-style, at least until mother loses her jewels to the thief.

Robie stakes out the roof-tops to try to catch the thief but ends up struggling with an attacker who turns out to be Foussard. Foussard falls from the roofs into the harbour and drowns. The police later announce that Foussard was the copy-cat thief but Robie points out to Hughson in his office that Foussard had a prosthetic leg and couldn’t be the thief. Later at Foussard’s funeral, Danielle sees Robie in attendance and accuses him of murdering her father so he has to leave. On exiting the cemetery, Robie meets Frances who has read about Foussard’s death in the papers. She apologises to Robie and confesses that she loves him.

In the evening Robie attends a masquerade ball with Frances and by doing a costume swap with Hughson, manages to evade the police and stakes out his position again on the roof-tops, determined to catch the real copy-cat thief …

The film is beautifully shot in what was called VistaVision at the time: Hitchcock revels in bird’s-eye view and aeroplane shots of colourful French Riviera coastal scenes with picturesque villages, long snaking roads through mountains and luxurious holiday resorts for the rich. The rich colour of the setting is echoed in the lavish masquerade ball in the last quarter of the film. Even the roof-tops at night exude an eerie, almost radioactive-bright green colour. The most colourful highlight of the film though – and the most overtly sexual – is the fireworks scene, interspersed with scenes of Robie and Frances alone together in a darkened room, trading witty sexualised repartee and doing more besides while the camera concentrates on the pyrotechnics.

There is a lot of sexual innuendo in the film and much of it, like the fireworks display, isn’t necessarily verbal: even the car-chase scene, where Frances hits the gas to escape the cops and Robie is forced to be her unwilling passenger, could be construed as a kind of “seduction” (read: rape, sort of) scene. Then there are obvious gags like Danielle showing off her legs to a police plane on the floating jetty. The physical setting itself carries cultural baggage as a place for holiday romance and seduction – no doubt fictional British spy James Bond spent many days and nights on the Cote d’Azur and in Monaco with gal pals too numerous to mention – and the colours of the masquerade, and the masquerade itself with its late 18th-century costume theme, recall the sensual decadence of the period of French queen Marie Antoinette’s court.

It becomes clear that the film’s crime caper plot is secondary to its raison d’etre which is the romance between Grant and Kelly’s characters. Robie may be the thief trying to catch a thief but the real thief is Frances who catches him and steals his heart. The denouement in which Frances gazes around Robie’s property and comments on how her mother will love the place, Robie’s priceless expression at the comment and the doomy sound of the church bell tolling at the same time is a hilarious Hitchcock piece of black humour and a small showcase of how well Grant and Kelly worked together despite the huge difference in their ages (at the time, he was at least twice her age). I haven’t seen Cary Grant in a movie before but his acting here suggests that “To Catch A Thief” was a cakewalk for him: he glides well-dressed through his scenes, seems very relaxed and barely creases his forehead even when danger threatens. No wonder he was an early candidate to play James Bond. Kelly, playing an assertive and intelligent young socialite who, uncharacteristically in a 1950’s film, is the active suitor to Grant’s character who plays hard-to-get, would have made an ideal Bond girl if she had been born half a century later. It’s likely that Kelly and Grant improvised a lot of the sexual banter within the scene paramaters set up by Hitchcock. The ad-libbing would highlight how well they clicked together on the screen. The predictable screen romance becomes more interesting and I can truly believe Frances will be more than a match for the lounge-lizard Robie.

It’s interesting that in this film and “Rear Window” at least, Kelly plays a sophisticated, wealthy ice-queen socialite with nerves of steel and daring who will defend and preserve not only her own life but the lives of others, with the aim of snaring a man who’s less of a “man” than she is. I’ve not yet seen “Dial M for Murder” but I understand that in that film, Kelly plays the same kind of character. Like Lisa in “Rear Window”, Frances assumes characteristics associated with male heroes of 1950’s films while the male co-star is forced to adopt a passive feminine role or the characteristics associated with such a role: she saves Robie from being detained or shot by the police on two occasions while he is either helpless or trapped. In a period when most movies portrayed blonde women as empty-headed, ditzy sex bombshells, Kelly and other blonde actresses who featured in Hitchcock’s films must have been thanking their lucky stars to have come across a director consistently offering them challenging work. The popular conception of Hitchcock has always been that he was a misogynist and treated his actresses badly, but this conception could be based on his complicated relationship with Tippi Hedren, star of “The Birds” and “Marnie”. I’d say Hitchcock’s relationship to his lead actresses must at least have been as complicated as, say, Danish director Lars von Trier’s relationship to the lead actresses in the films he directs: von Trier draws performances from his lead actresses that can be great as well as emotionally draining for them in films that have been construed as demonstrating a misogynist viewpoint. But I suspect von Trier  likes turning traditional (or maybe not-so-very traditional) Western views of women on their head in ways that challenge and confront audiences about their own beliefs and the possibility that at some level, we are still influenced by old notions about how “good” women should behave versus how “bad” women usually behave. In like manner, Hitchcock may have enjoyed turning ideas about “good ” women and “bad” women on their head. I’m sure modern audiences watching Kelly in “To Catch A Thief” might be just as amused or surprised as audiences were 50-plus years ago seeing her character pursue Robie aggressively and flaunt her sexuality at him in the darkened hotel room during the fireworks display.

For a film that’s regarded as Hitchcock at his fluffiest, I managed to write a fair amount but this demonstrates that even fluff, when done by Hitchcock, still retains a lot of the rich, subversive and layered quality of the Hitchcock universe. Deception is everywhere in this film wherever viewers look and might be considered a major theme. Perhaps Robie’s look of horror at the end of the film is its real climax: he realises the depth of Frances’s deception and that her “love” for him was really a way of snaring more real estate and wealth for her family. Who’s the real thief? Yep, there’s fluff and then there’s fluff, Hitchcock-style.

Superego and Id meet slapstick in Oristrell’s breathless “Unconscious”

Joaquin Oristrell, “Unconscious” (2004)

An amusing and vivacious romance comedy set in Barcelona, 1913, “Unconscious” starts off as a search, possibly whodunnit, mystery and winds up a bonkers, overly slapstick trip into the more titillating and taboo areas of human psychology and sexuality. Dr Leon Pardo (Alex Brendemuehl) has recently returned from Vienna, having studied female sexuality as a student of the illustrious psychoanalyst Dr Sigmund Freud, and promptly disappears. Pardo’s wife Alma (Leonor Watling) enlists the help of her brother-in-law Dr Salvador Pifarre (Luis Tosar), also a psychiatrist, to find her lost spouse: the two pore through Dr Pardo’s casebook and discover he’s been treating four patients who may be able to assist in the search. The amateur detectives end up wading deeper into the extremes of human behaviour (for their time) such as homosexuality, transvestism, bondage, fetishism and incest than they anticipate, and their relationships with their spouses and with each other change permanently as well.

The film’s entire cast obviously had a ball making the movie: the acting is energetic, the lead actors make an excellent comedy duo and support actors like Juanjo Puigcorbe, who plays Alma’s psychiatrist father Dr Mira, and Mercedes Sampietro, Alma’s sinister housekeeper, chomp eagerly on the available scenery whenever the camera is focussed on them. Watling throws herself into the role of forthright Alma, unafraid to dive in where the more cautious Salvador fears to tread. The facial hair fashions of 1913 render Tosar’s Salvador into a John Cleese lookalike and Oristrell must have realised this as he sends Salvador into many situations where he comes a-cropper with dignity barely intact: being told a statue he’s holding is a fertility goddess, being co-opted into a porn film, having to wear Alma’s dress to a cross-dressing party and crashing down the stairs while bound to a pair of metal angel wings. These are comic mishaps I associate with John Cleese in the old British TV show “Fawlty Towers” and I almost expect to see Salvador in hopping hysterics screeching in that strained high-pitched Cleese tone while he flaps after Alma who could be a younger Prunella Scales. The various situations the two fall into grow ever more farcical and over-the-top right to the fantastical revelations, for which viewers are completely unprepared, about Alma’s family, Dr Pardo and their housekeeper which inspire Pardo to attempt to assassinate Freud during his tour of Spain. I’m still scratching my head as to how the smart and spirited Alma couldn’t have known her dad’s secret before marrying Dr Pardo and having their baby; I suppose the point among others that Oristrell and his script-writers are making is that mental health professionals can be the most screwed-up of all major occupational groups and their families the most dysfunctional.

Needless to say, students of psychoanalysis won’t learn anything here their lecturers and tutors haven’t already told them; if anything, the movie ridicules Freudian ideas such as “female hysteria” which is posited as a weapon men use to control wilful women, and insights into people’s unconscious feelings and desires – as when Salvador accidentally hypnotises himself and Alma discovers his feelings for her – suggest that people’s unconscious lives are funnier than their conscious lives are. Freud himself though is never presented as an OTT comic character; he’s a gentle person if a bit puzzled by the crazy Catalans and Spaniards around him, scuffling with a gun and firing bullets in the air.

The film is beautiful to look at with opulent sets – even the interiors of people’s apartments are furnished with colourful wallpaper (though having just read a book, James C Whorton’s “The Arsenic Century: how Victorian Britain was poisoned at home, work and play” on the use of arsenic-based products in Victorian Britain, I shudder to think of all the wallpaper dust the characters were breathing in and how that might have scrambled their brains and moral compasses) – and quaint vintage cars rattling on dusty roads. The attention to historical detail extends not only to the making of a pornographic film within the film proper but to the use of animated film reels to indicate scene changes or new chapters in the detective search. Pretentious, yes, but it does give the film a distinctive historical flavour. The structuring of the plot with separate chapters for each patient Alma and Salvador interview adds to the film’s breathless pace.

Oristrell may not be in fellow Spaniard Pedro Almodovar’s league yet but for the time being anyway, he has made a wacky sex comedy of the type the French used to make thirty years ago (“Pardon Mon Affaire”, “La Cage aux Folles”) and which few people these days seem able to do with style, intelligence and originality. I’ll stick my neck out and say that “Unconscious” may achieve the status of a minor classic: there’s rather too much slapstick and not enough wit (which could have been improvised) from the two lead actors to make this a truly great movie.