Frida: conservative bio-pic turns artist Frida Kahlo’s life into unfunny and crude soap opera melodrama

Julie Taymor, “Frida” (2001)

A very pretty and colourful film on the life of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907 – 1954), “Frida” plays the artist’s life straight, concentrating on her personal life and loves from the time she was a teenager to the last weeks of her life. Although the film can be quirky in parts, having been directed by Julie Taymor, and makes good use of Kahlo’s paintings and other works to show audiences the connection between Kahlo’s emotions and feelings about events in her life and the art she produced, ultimately the whole shebang is very conservative and even dull towards the end as it drags towards the artist’s death. I guess in the current political climate, Taymor and actor Salma Hayek, who nursed an ambition to make a film about Kahlo’s life for a long time, have done what they could and played safe by narrowing the scope of the bio-pic to a straight retelling of Kahlo’s life and portraying Kahlo herself as an icon and role model for women.

The film starts in 1922 when as a school-kid Kahlo (Hayek) first meets Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina) who was at least 20 years older than she was and already famous as a painter of murals. A couple of years later Kahlo suffers the trolley-car accident that was to affect her health for the rest of her life and direct her life away from studying medicine and becoming a doctor and to painting. After painting for some time, Kahlo remembers Rivera and asks him to evaluate her paintings so that she can decide whether she should continue. Rivera gives her paintings and painting ability the thumbs-up and so begins a long and tortuous romance between Kahlo and Rivera and their involvement in socialist revolutionary politics. Although Rivera and Kahlo marry, Rivera continues to have affairs with other women and over time this causes a rift to develop between the two. To infuriate Rivera, Kahlo herself embarks on affairs including one with Parisian chanteuse Josephine Baker and one with one of Rivera’s girlfriends. The last straw comes when Kahlo discovers Rivera making out with Cristina her sister and she boots hims out of her life. Divorce quickly follows.

Along the way Rivera accepts a commission to paint a mural “Man at the Crossroads” for Nelson D Rockefeller (Edward Norton) at the Rockefeller Center and the couple go to New York City for the course of the commission. When Rockefeller discovers Rivera has included a portrait of Vladimir Lenin in the painting, he demands that Rivera remove it but the muralist refuses so the commission ends and the couple return to Mexico. In the film the mural is destroyed and nothing more is said about it although in fact years afterwards Rivera was able to recreate the mural in Mexico from photographs taken of the original work. By 1937, Rivera and Kahlo have separated but go through the motions of being a married couple to give shelter in Kahlo’s childhood home to Leon Trotsky and his wife who have fled Stalin to come to Mexico. Predictably Trotsky and Kahlo are embroiled in an affair that upsets Trotsky’s wife Natasha and so the Russian couple must leave Kahlo’s house. That’s about the extent of the politics in “Frida”.

Although it’s probably too much to expect a 2-hour film to be exact on all the details of Rivera and Kahlo’s life together, “Frida” skips out some very significant details such as the fact that Rivera was an atheist and often railed against the influence of the Roman Catholic Church in Mexican society and culture. Details about aspects of Kahlo’s life are often missing as well which lead to some lapses in the script and dialogue. The whole film is reduced to a sometimes unfunny and crude soap opera melodrama in which Kahlo and Rivera come off as a stereotyped cartoon couple who find they can’t live together while married but then find they can’t live separately after divorce.

After Kahlo’s death, I half-expected there might be a few titles stating that Rivera remarried after Kahlo’s death but died in 1957. It seems rather cruel that the film should have left this fact out – I’m sure the audience would have loved to know that after Kahlo’s death Rivera realised she’d been the best thing that ever happened to him – but this would have been inconsistent with the film’s intended portrayal of Kahlo as a contradictory creature who wanted to be independent and have a career yet wanted to be Rivera’s wife and to cook all his favourite meals and bear his children.

Where the film excels is in detailing Kahlo’s colourful character and eccentric fashion sense, and how her paintings were an extension of her emotional life, her pride in Mexican culture and life, and her private pain, both physical and psychological. The exuberance of Mexican culture is apparent although the portrayal can be stereotyped with an emphasis on the “exotic” aspects of the culture (such as the obsession with death and the Todos los Santos celebration in which families visit the graves of dead relatives and have parties with them). The Kahlo family home is a significant character in the film.

The actors do good work with what they are given and Hayek probably gives the performance of her life but overall the film isn’t remarkable and doesn’t do the figure of Kahlo much justice. The gender politics behind the making of the film ultimately pulls it down. One wonders why women like Julie Taymor, who already enjoy advantages that didn’t exist in Kahlo’s time, have to mould Kahlo to fit the template of independent career woman married to her art and philandering husband instead of just showing Kahlo as she was, warts and all. I’m sure Kahlo would have appreciated that.

 

 

Hysteria (dir. Tanya Wexler): a light-hearted giggle that riffs on women’s oppression and choosing between principle and respectability

Tanya Wexler, “Hysteria” (2011)

A romantic comedy very loosely based on historical fact, “Hysteria” purports to tell how Dr Joseph Mortimer Granville invented the world’s first vibrator in 1880. For much of history up until the early 20th century, physicians (mainly male) had been treating various “conditions” in their female patients – conditions that might now be recognised as sympomatic of frustration both sexual and non-sexual, anxiety, depression, menstrual problems or even dissatisfaction with a limited, mostly home-bound role in society, but which were grouped into a catch-all ailment known as female hysteria (from which the film takes its name) – by masturbating them until the women experienced orgasm. The practice was lucrative for doctors since the women usually ended up being repeat patients (ahem!) but clitoral and vaginal massage was taxing for the doctor as the technique was difficult to master and appointments with patients could take hours. Hence there was a need for massage devices that could shorten the time required to treat patients from hours to minutes and during the 19th century, various treatments and devices including hydrotherapy and vibrators operated mechanically or by clockwork were invented. Thanks once again to Wikipedia for the information!

As for the film, the plot is a love triangle of Shakespearean “The Taming of the Shrew”  or Austenesque “Pride and Prejudice” inspiration: a young idealistic bachelor doctor (Hugh Dancy)  in need of a proper medical profession after being sacked from yet another hospital job because his belief that germs cause illness upsets the medical establishment applies for the role of assistant to Dr Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) whose practice is doing a roaring trade among the desperate housewives of the middle class. Dr Dalrymple specialises in relieving mild forms of hysteria among these ladies. Darcy’s doctor Granville is a hit with Dalrymple’s patients too but quickly develops repetitive strain injury which causes a problem for him in the surgery. At the same time he is pressured by Dalrymple to become his partner, eventually to take over the practice, and marry his younger daughter Emily (Felicity Jones) but older daughter Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an activist and prototype suffragette who runs a school and community centre for the poor in London, catches his eye and eventually his heart.

After losing his job because of his injury and sympathy towards Charlotte, Granville together with foster brother Edmund St John Smythe (Rupert Everett), a tech-buff and dissolute layabout, invent what they call a portable electric massager which they test on Dalyrymple’s maid Fannie and some of Dalrymple’s patients. The invention proves a hit and make Granville and St John Smythe rich. Meanwhile Dalrymple learns of Charlotte’s desperate plea to a wealthy couple for money and tries to foil her plan; this dastardly bastardry leads to a shakedown of one of Charlotte’s friends who then seeks her help by gatecrashing Granville and Emily’s engagement party. In the chaos that follows, Charlotte lands a right jab on the constable’s cheek which puts her in jail. She faces a sentence of incarceration in a mental asylum with a forced hysterectomy and Granville finds himself called upon as an expert witness with Charlotte’s life, health and future in his hands.

There’s a message about how women were patronised as infantile by the medical profession and how the problems they suffered from having limited choice and control over their lives and careers were swept into the medical basket to be treated as a physical and mental abnormality. Women like Charlotte who behaved outside the decreed societal stereotype appropriate for their class could be deemed mentally ill or defective and faced imprisonment and drastic surgery that could affect their health permanently and cut short their life span and quality. The romantic comedy format bravely tackles this issue of women’s oppression in a light-hearted though rather superficial  and forced way. The actors play fairly stock characters: Dancy is awkward as Granville and just manages to make the character credible but the others, Gyllenhaal and Everett in particular, acquit themselves. Gyllenhaal  plays a feisty and intelligent socialist feminist and Everett does his foppish gay aristocrat routine. Jones has a demure and obedient Victorian young lady stereotype to work with and makes the best of what she can with the limited role.

The direction is often superb with some wonderful scene set pieces – Pryce, Dancy and Everett donning goggles, as if about to travel to the moon in a home-made rocket, while preparing to use the massager on a portly matron are a hoot – and the plot cleverly juggles two narrative strands into one smooth and giddily paced whole. The script is so light that if one were to release it, it would float to the ceiling (with apologies to Kate Jackson of the old Charlie’s Angels series) and the ending is rather too tidy and predictable. Light farce follows in a finale consisting of a montage of silent scenes in which the massager’s fame spreads far and wide across the green and sceptred isles.

“Hysteria” turns out to be a fun giggle but no more. There’s a danger that in a film of its type, serious issues are reduced to bawdy comedy; “Hysteria” just manages to stay out of that Peeping-Tom / Carry-On zone by deftly presenting its protagonist with a moral dilemma of either being true to his principles or opting for false respectability.

Un Chien Andalou: a special once-in-a-lifetime visual experience

Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali, “Un Chien Andalou” (1929)

Famous surrealist film that never fails to shock and surprise despite having been made over 80 years, “Un Chien Andalou” is that special once-in-a-lifetime what-the-fuck-did-I-just-see?! picture that you must treat yourself to, to say that you have truly lived. No plot or narrative to speak of, this is a series of scenes mostly unrelated to one another except by a dream logic in which Freudian free association of dream images determines what happens next after each scene. No point in looking for hidden messages then: but there are messages a-plenty in the objects that appear throughout the film, many of which represent ideas and themes that were to recur in Buñuel’s films throughout his career.

The short memorably opens with a scene in which a man (Buñuel himself), mesmerised by the full moon, prepares a razor and cuts into the eyeball of a young woman (Simone Mareuil) who sits calmly on a chair. The film cuts abruptly in time and space to a man (Pierre Batcheff) dressed in nun’s clothing with a box around his waist riding a bicycle and coming to grief on the road; the young woman we met earlier sees him from her apartment window and rushes to help him. There then follows a series of scenes in which it’s not clear whether Batcheff is playing one man or two men or even two cloned representations of the same man with perhaps one of them being the real thing and the other something imagined by Mareuil’s character. Batcheff studies his hand from which ants crawl out of a hole, attempts to seduce Mareuil whom he imagines in various stages of undress and manages to haul out from nowhere in particular in the apartment two grand pianos with animal carcasses draped over them and two dazed padres (Jaime Miravitilles and Salvador Dali) attached to the lot with ropes.

The film jumps around in the temporal dimensions – we go back in time, forwards in time, whatever – and spatially as well: “narrative” flow moves from the apartment to meadows without an intervening transition from urban to suburban to rural landscapes; and Mareuil steps out from the apartment straight into a beach scene. Books turn into guns, moths carry grinning skulls on their backs and if someone’s mouth disappears, be careful not to apply too much lipstick to your own mouth or your smelly armpit hair ends up on the other person’s face.

There’s probably a vague over-riding theme about human relationships and the ritual of courtship and many visual ideas in the film were to recur in later Buñuel films: bashing priests and religion generally, fetishism, lust and desire, rebellion, to name some. Everything is played straight and matter-of-fact and this is an unexpected paradox for a film about dreams and free associations of ideas and visual images. The shock value may have disappeared but the film’s playful and cheeky manipulation of narrative, plot and montage still threaten a major rearrangement of one’s brain cells with every viewing.

 

Rich and Strange: romantic comedy needs Hitchcock’s obsessions to make it richer and stranger

Alfred Hitchcock, “Rich and Strange” aka “East of Shanghai” (1931)

One of a group of films Hitchcock made in his lean early-1930’s period – the others include ‘Number 17″, “Juno and the Paycock”  and “Waltzes from Vienna” – when he was under contractual obligations which forced him to make films  with skimpy budgets, less-than-willing actors and uninteresting subject matter, this romantic comedy can be construed as a morality tale of how sudden wealth can test and undermine a couple’s loyalties on one level and as a satire on British insular middle class values and aspirations. White-collar wage slave Fred (Henry Kendall), after yet another stressful journey home from work, is fed up with his bank clerk job routine and wishes for a long holiday. He and his wife Emily (Joan Barry) – they have been married for eight years but have no children – receive a huge inheritance from his rich uncle and they decide to use the money to go on a cruise to east Asia. Initially excited about the change to their routine, Fred and Emily rapidly discover the disaster awaiting both of them: Fred gets seasick and has to stay in bed all day, leaving his wife prey to the attentions of a worldly cruise passenger, Commander Gordon (Percy Marmont), whom she falls in love with. On a rare occasion when Fred ventures out onto deck he bumps into a woman (Betty Amann) posing as a princess and falls heavily for her charms. Fred and Emily’s marriage becomes strained to the point where they seriously consider divorcing each other. Unsurprisingly the “princess” steals all the couple’s money and disappears when the ship docks at Singapore and Fred and Emily must return to Britain in whatever way they can.

Flitting from a slapstick opening scene that harks back to the silent era of films to lightweight farce (often centred on the pathetic foibles of a dowdy single woman [Elsie Randolph] desperate to find shipboard romance but continually being rebuffed) to satire, soapie romance melodrama, dark comedy and almost-suspenseful disaster film, “Rich and Strange” defies easy genre categorisation. In the 1930’s the mix of genre elements in the film contributed to its sinking at the box office but in the present day such a mix might gain the film art-house status as a post-modern movie. How public attitudes do change. The theme of two individuals being outside their usual comfort zone to be tested by different people and circumstances extends to the making of the film itself: much of the film lacks dialogue and title cards are used in typical silent-movie style to indicate change in location as the cruise-liner powers on or a change in plot. For most of its running time the movie bounces between Emily and her charming though subtly creepy lover, discreetly conducting their affair at night and in places away from inquisitive eyes, and Fred and his vampy “princess” who are all over each other in comic ways; the pace can be slow and there’s no sense of the strain between Emily and Freddy that must surely be building up to the inevitable outburst when they arrive in Singapore. Action starts to speed up once the couple board a cargo ship which meets with disaster at sea but even here with danger present, tension is missing with Fred and Emily taking the ship’s sinking and their rescue by a pirate crew in their stride.

The acting is a strange mix: Kendall often over-acts and Barry has a more subtle, natural style. This is deliberate to show the contrast between their characters: both are naive and completely out of their depth in their new surrounds but Emily has more brain and self-awareness and Fred is a complete klutz. Marmont portrays the charming and sensitive naval man well, eventually revealing a conniving and ultimately demanding and inconsiderate nature, but his motivation for trailing Emily is unclear; by contrast Amann’s vampy scam artist is no more than a stock character with the occasional insightful remark. Character development is uneven: one of the couple is definitely made older and wiser but the other appears not to have learned much so whether the marriage will survive now that they’re back in familiar territory is another question.

Technically the film is accomplished with location filming done in some places and Fred’s seasickness simulated in scenes that go up and down drunkenly, blur or have print leaping out of a dinner menu. The secretive nature of Emily’s flirtation is highlighted in an almost fetishistic panning shot of her legs swathed in a gown stepping over chains and ropes and their shadows as she walks along the ship’s deck, followed by Gordon, at night. The couple’s stupefaction at the attractions of Paris is captured in an excited montage of Paris scenes intercut with a shot of their faces with glazed eyes mechanically looking from left to right. In an age before the Second World War when British military commanders derided the capabilities of Japan’s armed forces and were made to look foolish when that country captured Singapore in 1942, Hitchcock’s portrayal of Asians is sympathetic and even uses Fred and Emily’s interactions with the Chinese pirate crew to send up the couple’s ignorance and prejudices and to indulge in some black humour. Are they really eating cat stew or is it just coincidence that the pirate pinned up the cat-skin on the cabin wall just as they’re hoeing into their breakfast? On the other hand the pirates don’t say anything or do very much – they look on impassively as one of their number accidentally drowns – suggesting perhaps the film’s budget left no room for an interpreter.

In spite of the film’s uneven plot in which the middle part is very drawn out and the end is rushed – the pirate crew appears to deliver the couple safely to their destination and they presumably get help from the nearest British consulate to get home – the two main characters, especially Emily, have enough appeal as ordinary people with all their faults and lack of knowledge or interest about the world around them that set them up for the Holiday from Hell for viewers to identify with them and follow their adventures. There’s actually potential within the plot for Hitchcock to insert some of his beloved obsessions to reinforce the theme of deception – Commander Gordon could have sinister designs on Emily for all we know, Fred could foil the naval man’s plot to off her by sheer accident or idiocy and the couple, once they work out they’re both being hoodwinked, realise they need each other after all – so why he didn’t do so remains a mystery. Of Hitchcock’s early films, this one represents a lost opportunity for Hitchcock to make in the mould of films he was accustomed to. It’s a well-made film with some fine acting that could do with a more finely tuned plot and some of Hitchcock’s favourite themes and motifs.

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)

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.