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Posts Tagged ‘melodrama’

I occasionally make a wistful observation hereabouts concerning all the apparently great film directors and classic movies which I have yet to properly come to grips with – it wasn’t all that long ago that I’d never seen a film by Andrei Tarkovsky, for instance – and that small aspirational part of my brain (the bit that lies when I fill in questionnaires about my taste in books and films) should by rights feel good, as I can announce that another of the big names of world cinema can be crossed off the list – finally, I have caught up with a Pedro Almodóvar movie.

Well, I should qualify this by saying that Almodóvar is enjoying a fairly high UK profile at present, mainly because he has a new movie out – he’s still an arthouse darling rather than properly mainstream, of course, and so the new film is nowhere near as inescapable as Tarantino’s recent offering turned out to be – and I’m guessing that the revival of his 1999 movie Todo Sobre Mi Madre (All About My Mother) is connected to this. Still, if there’s one thing better than finally catching up with a film by one of the world’s great directors, I suppose it must be watching two of his films in the space of a couple of days.

 

It initially seems like the mother in All About My Mother is going to turn out to be Manuela (Cecilia Roth), for as the film begins she is living with her teenage son in Madrid. She is a nurse, but still has fond memories of her youth when she was an amateur actress. But then – and this is when summarising the plot gets a bit tricky, for there is clearly intended to be a big shock early on, the thing which launches the story proper – events conspire to put her life onto a different track. She finds herself returning to Barcelona, where she lived when she was younger, in search of her son’s father, whom she hasn’t seen since before he was born.

Up until this point it has been clear that this is a film made with great skill and subtlety, but now something new enters the mix and makes it especially distinctive. Manuela can’t find her ex, but bumps into an old friend named Agrado (Antonia San Juan), a transsexual prostitute whom she happens to rescue from being beaten by a client. As if this wasn’t a bold enough narrative step in all sorts of ways, Manuela’s attempts to continue her search see her getting involved in the lives of various other equally eye-opening characters – an on-the-way-up Penelope Cruz plays Rosa, a naïve young nun who has managed to end up pregnant by the father of Manuela’s child (who is, needless to say, another transsexual prostitute, this one with HIV). When Manuela stumbles into a job without really looking for one, it is as the personal assistant to an ageing lesbian actress (Marisa Paredes) involved in a somewhat fraught relationship with a much younger woman who is a drug addict (Candela Pena). Life gets complicated even without finding the object of her search.

As you can perhaps see, there is no actual shortage of candidates for the title role in this film – which appears to be an allusion to All About Eve, a film which two of the characters are watching while the actual title card comes up – and what makes the issue even more ambiguous is Almodóvar’s closing dedication for the movie, which is to ‘all actresses who have played actresses. To all women who act. To men who act and become women. To all the people who want to be mothers. To my mother’ – a fairly broad cross-section there.

That said, one thing the film is notably short of is unambiguously male main characters (there are a few minor male parts which make a significant contribution to the story), and you could certainly view it as an attempt to cover all the bases and include all aspects of both femininity and maternity, one way or another: under this reading, the whole film is a kind of extended meditation on the nature of motherhood and womanhood, one of considerable generosity and compassion. This is one of those very non-judgemental, essentially optimistic films we see all too rarely.

The other thing that makes the film so striking is something that I’ve alluded to already – overall, it has a warmth and naturalism to it that is very engaging, especially when coupled to the artful subtlety of the script. This does feel like a film set in some close analogue of the real world, with interesting things to say about it, and Manuela herself is a fully convincing character, brought well to life by Cecilia Roth. However, most of the rest of the characters are slightly outlandish, to say the least – any one of them would be the wacky or off-kilter supporting role in a more conventional film, and to have them all together here in the same film – sometimes in the same scene – is an interesting choice by the director. Then again, Almodóvar isn’t afraid to make this film a genuine melodrama, loading it with outrageously emotive moments, vastly improbable coincidences, implausible plot twists, and much more along the same lines.

His real trick is to do so without turning the film into something which functions only as an outrageous piece of over-the-top camp. There are elements of the story which probably don’t hold up under close scrutiny, certainly not as a piece of conventional drama – but such is the skill of the director and performers that the film remains genuinely engrossing and moving on those terms. It packs a genuine emotional punch in its key moments, despite everything I’ve mentioned; only at the very end does it seem to come a bit unravelled, with relatively little sense of closure.

This comes too late to genuinely impact on what is, by any standard, an extremely well-written and performed movie, which manages to touch on some quite profound subject matter without being unnecessarily didactic or profound. It is true that the truly remarkably subtle and intelligent movie promised by some elements of the opening sequence never quite materialises (a scene in which we see Manuela playing a role is closely paired with one where she finds herself in essentially the same situation for real), but there is a huge amount to enjoy and think about here regardless; this is an engrossing and rewarding film, clearly made for an intelligent and mature audience.

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Pressure is being brought upon me to watch the new Jon Favreau version of The Lion King, but I find myself rather reluctant to give in to it. Mainly this is because we already have a perfectly good animated film along these lines, and I am dubious (to say the least) about this scheme of Disney’s to make even more money by doing all their films again. We could move on to consider the notion that cel-animated anthropomorphic animals talking and singing can be moderately charming, whereas photorealistic CGI ones doing the same thing is just weird, but I think you get the idea. (This is essentially a principled objection as I pay flat rate for most of my cinema tickets and thus the money that goes to the Mouse Corporation is only notionally mine, but let’s not worry about that too much.)

Anyway, said pressure takes two forms – firstly, friends proclaiming they would rather go and see the Favreau film than any of the alternatives I propose. Now, I suppose that actually the second form of pressure is linked to the first – the reason there aren’t many especially attractive films around at the moment is because the film about the regal cat is showing thirteen bloomin’ times a day just at the six-screen Odeon. As usual Disney are using their leverage to squeeze everyone else out.

You have to look further afield for counter-programming these days, but it is there if you search for it. One of the hopefuls currently is Annabel Jankel’s Tell It to the Bees, based on a novel by Fiona Shaw (not the actress). Jankel is perhaps best known for her role as one of the creators of the SF satire Max Headroom, many years ago, but this is an entirely by-the-numbers hats-and-ciggies period melodrama.

The novel is apparently set in Yorkshire, but the film has drifted a few hundred miles north, presumably because Creative Scotland helped out with the financing. Holliday Grainger plays Lydia, a young single mother having a tough time in the small town where she lives: her husband (Emun Elliott) has walked out on her and her son, and she is struggling to cover the rent with the money she makes working in the local factory. It is, as they say, grim up north, even in 1952.

New in town, sort of, is the doctor, Jean Markham (Anna Paquin) – she grew up here but has spent many years living away, possibly because of rumours that are still doing the rounds. Well, when Lydia’s son is slightly hurt, he is taken to the doctor by his cousin and shows an interest in the beehives in her garden. As well as setting up the bee motif which continues through the movie, it also enables a rather laborious cute-meet between Lydia and Jean.

From this point on the film takes an unusual twin-track approach when it comes to surprising the audience. Much of the time it seems to give up on this notion entirely, for in terms of the actual plot, not much happens which you will not see coming a very long way in advance. Lydia gets kicked out of her house and she and the lad end up moving in with the doctor, supposedly as her housekeeper. Cue many significant moments between the two of them, supposedly charged with a keen erotic frisson (your mileage may vary). Sure enough they eventually give in to the powerful feelings that have developed between them (and, to be fair, the girl-on-girl stuff is handled in a classy enough way). But how will the poorly-educated and small-minded inhabitants of a Scottish town in the Fifties react to this sort of romance? Can they find a way to be together?

All that saves the film from total predictability is the other strand, which happens to concern the bees themselves. As I said, there is clearly some sort of a bee motif going on here, and much money has been spent on footage of bees in and around their hive, doing all the stuff that bees do. But if there is some sort of bee metaphor going on here, it is not at all clear what it is supposed to represent – there’s a lot of slightly eggy dialogue about telling your secrets to the bees, and some references to dancing bees that ties in with dancing as a repeated idea in the main story, but it still doesn’t feel especially coherent. And then as the film nears its conclusion –

Well, I should provide a little bit of context and say that this is one of those period films which lays it on a bit thick when it comes to the dourness, grit and misery, particularly as it goes on. Part of this is general, part of seems to be a bit more purposeful – there are only two significant adult male characters, and one of them is blandly feckless, the other a brute of toxic masculinity; the rest of the writing employs a rather broad brush, if not actually a trowel, too. And yet into all this comes an utterly bizarre sequence involving the bees behaving in a strikingly un-beelike manner. To say more would be to spoil what’s essentially the climax of the film, but it is a proper ‘You what?!?’ moment when it arrives.

It goes without saying that the costume-drama element of the film is well done; it is very unusual to come across a British film where this sort of thing is fumbled. And I suppose the performances are creditable, if not exactly striking. (Financing comes with hidden strings attached, however, as moving the setting means that Anna Paquin has to spend the film attempting to do a Scottish accent. We do not quite end up in Dick Van Dyke territory (a possibly infelicitous allusion there), but neither does she exactly cover herself in glory.) In the end this is a film which attempts to use artfulness and metaphor to disguise the fact it is a deeply predictable and not especially engaging or credible melodrama, but just ends up feeling odd and slightly pretentious as a result. As far as this story goes, you can tell it to the bees if you like, but I’m not sure they’ll be more interested than anyone else.

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You would think that, with over 500,000 feature length movies in existence (this is the figure that everyone cites, even if no-one seems particularly inclined to look too deeply into its provenance), your friendly neighbourhood reasonably industrious pretend film critic and commentator would be happily occupied for the foreseeable future. It’s a fair point, but once you start looking into the strange world of films that don’t actually exist… well, it can be hard to pull away. Take the case of Nobody Ordered Love, a 1972 drama starring the great Ingrid Pitt, which was withdrawn from release on the instructions of its director, who had every known print destroyed when he died. If nothing else, it makes one grateful that a similar fate did not overtake A Clockwork Orange, given Kubrick’s famous ambivalence towards the film. We could move on to consider various movies of, shall we say, dubious legal status – unlicensed cash-ins such as Batman Vs Dracula and King Kong in Tokyo, which have likewise slipped from view, but still sound highly appealing. It’s also worth remembering that the majority of silent films are also now officially lost.

It’s not all bad news, of course, for every now and then one of these lost films turns up. This is what happened to Felix E Feist’s 1933 movie Deluge, the majority of which was missing for many years until a print turned up in Italy in the early 1980s. A few years ago a copy of the original English-language soundtrack turned up, which means we can now enjoy again a movie which is arguably of some significance in the development of the American science fiction film, and possibly suggests that, for all the immense technical strides cinema has made in the last near-century, some things really haven’t changed much.

Deluge enjoys a perfectly-formed running time of about 70 minutes, so it doesn’t hang about. Before the story starts the producers thoughtfully use a caption make it clear to the audience that what follows is an imaginative fantasy, not an attempt at predicting the future, and back this up with a quote from the Bible where God promises not to bring about any more disastrous floods – the movie equivalent of ‘Don’t have nightmares, folks!’ Their moral duty thus discharged, the film-makers get on with wreaking death and destruction in the time-honoured manner. A gaggle of distinguished elderly boffins appear, profoundly worried by weather reports and seismographical readings. Looks like we’re in for nasty weather, folks!

It’s common to peg Deluge as belonging to the disaster movie tradition – possibly even helping to inaugurate it – but one crucial point of deviation from the formula is apparent right from the start: conventional disaster movies don’t start with the disaster; there is usually a fairly lengthy section detailing the world before the fall and establishing the characters we will follow through the story. There is only the barest attempt at this here – although you could probably argue that the characters in Deluge are only delineated in the broadest of strokes anyway – as we have a single-scene introduction for Claire (Peggy Shannon), who appears to be some sort of socialite with a love of swimming, and not much more for dynamic lawyer and family man Martin (Sidney Blackmer, who 35 years later would play one of the coven leaders in Rosemary’s Baby), who is taking refuge at home with his wife Helen (Lois Wilson) and poppet-like children.

This done, we are basically off into the sequence for which Deluge is best-known, as a series of earthquakes and a colossal flood flatten the skyscrapers of New York City and devastate the landscape. It has been widely noted that this anticipates a sequence in Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow almost on a shot-for-shot basis and I have to say that while the 21st century film obviously has a huge edge in terms of technical sophistication, the model-work in Deluge is still highly impressive as a demonstration of practical effects, and the emotional impact of both sequences is roughly comparable. (For a long time this was the only part of Deluge known to survive, as Republic bought the rights to the film so it could use the special effects sequences as stock footage in serials like King of the Rocket Men.)

Some time passes off-camera and we find ourselves in the post-apocalyptic world left by the deluge. Martin, having been separated from his family during the disaster, is now holed up in a quarry with a good supply of useful things. Life doesn’t seem too bad for him, and shows prospects for further improvement when a bedraggled Claire washes up on the edge of the vast inland sea which has (we are invited to surmise) replaced New York. Claire has been living in a shed with two men, but decided to leave when one killed the other in a quarrel over who got access rights to her (she was not consulted). Martin, naturally, is a perfect gentleman towards her.

Meanwhile – insert your own dramatic musical cue – a small settlement has sprung up in the ruins a few miles away, mostly populated by background artistes but also (crucially) providing a home for Helen and the kids, who are Not Dead after all. The settlement has been having trouble with marauding raiders and so a posse of men is packed off to sort them out. As chance (and slightly melodramatic plotting) would have it, the raiders are now being led by Claire’s former captor and the gang is on the hunt for her, which is just the impetus she and Martin need to bond in a real and true sense, if you get my meaning. Martin swears his undying devotion to Claire, and she to him; it’s a good thing his wife and children aren’t going to suddenly reappear and complicate the whole… oh, hang on a minute.

While watching Deluge you do have to keep reminding yourself that it was made in 1933 and is thus roughly of a vintage with the original King Kong and the earliest Universal horror movies. Certainly, for all the quality of its model work, it is often unintentionally funny to the modern eye, and more often than not actually primitive. Much of the acting has a rather robotic quality, and some of the casting is arguably suspect: Blackmer’s performance is no worse than that of anyone else in the picture, but he is an unlikely figure to inspire such passionate devotion in two women, let alone be almost instantly hailed as the leader who will take society into the post-apocalyptic future – he is practically the type specimen for the stock character who discovers that the fall of civilisation and death on a massive scale has the benefit of really helping with his status and lifestyle prospects.

Then again, there are a lot of elements of Deluge which seem to be staking out the territory in which many, many subsequent post-apocalyptic dramas would go on to operate. The usual distinction is drawn between settlers, trying to rebuild peacefully through the sweat of their brow, and raiders, brutally taking whatever they want by force of arms; there is even a John Wyndham-esque moment when it is revealed that the leaders of the settlement have decreed that all women of child-bearing age are required to marry for the good of society. The gender politics of Deluge still manage to be startling, even given the great vintage of the film: as we have noted, women are basically treated like property and excluded from all decision-making. Neither Shannon nor Wilson really get much to do for most of the film, and in their one scene together… they argue over who gets the male hero. Few films fail the Bechdel test as definitively as Deluge.

And yet I still found this to be an interesting and engaging film, although even at only 70 minutes it hardly feels rushed or cramped. It really does have a sense of being genuine SF about it – there is the ‘gee whizz look at this!’ element of the big effects sequence near the start, part of the toolbox of commercial VFX movies since the start it would seem, but also something deeper in the film’s consideration of what a post-apocalyptic society could and should be like – what kind of people are we? What do we want to be? These are big, archetypal SF questions. The film’s decision to implicitly support the same moral and social norms suggested by its biblical epigraph may be a little disappointing in its sheer lack of imagination, but it’s hardly a surprise and still a valid position to take. It’s not as if a much more recent film like San Andreas is much bolder in its conception, after all. Deluge still works as a piece of entertainment, as well as illustrating how far cinema has come in some respects, while remaining largely unchanged in others.

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We have clearly reached that point in the year when the major players are starting to bring out their big films, and the etiquette of this situation (influenced, naturally, by enlightened self-interest) means that there’s only likely to be one substantial release in any given week. If, like my regular co-cinema-goer Olinka, you are not the kind of person who enjoys everyday stories of photonic blasts and cats with unusual faculties, this can leave you short of things to go and see, down the local multiplex at least.

So it was that we reconvened for this week’s trip at our local sort-of-an-art-house cinema, to check out Asghar Farhadi’s Everybody Knows (título en español: Todos lo Saben). I’d seen a couple of Farhadi’s earlier movies and was fairly sure this would be a worthwhile investment of time, while the fact the promotional blurb for the film indicated it contained elements from the thriller genre meant it would probably be up Olinka’s alley. Vamanos!

Few directors working in the world today are quite as feted as Asghar Farhadi, whose achievements are all the more remarkable given his background is in Iran, not noted as one of the world’s great film-making nations. For his last few films he has opted to work more internationally, and Everybody Knows continues this trend, being set in Spain and made in Spanish. The themes are universal, though.

As the film begins a large extended family are gathering for a wedding in a small town somewhere in rural Spain. Laura (Penelope Cruz) has just flown in from Argentina with her two children; her wealthy husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darin) has been unable to accompany her. The reunion with her parents, sisters, cousins, nieces, nephews, and so on is a happy one, as is another meeting with her old and close friend Paco (Javier Bardem). It seems like there is a strong chance of a very good time being had by all.

This proves not to be the case when Laura’s teenage daughter (Carla Campra), who shows some signs of being a spirited wild child, disappears in the evening following the wedding. To Laura’s horror, she receives a ransom demand by text, along with the instruction not to tell the police – but, rather to her bemusement, the same message is sent to Paco and his wife Bea (Barbara Lennie). What’s going on? Is all quite as it seems?

As usual with Farhadi, the mechanics of the actual plot are basically just a framework around which the director can build an exploration of characters and relationships. Soon enough things long unspoken of are bubbling unpleasantly to the surface, tensions within the family are rising, and apparently strong relationships are placed under severe strain…

So, when the film was finished we emerged from the auditorium and headed back into the city centre and our respective bus stops. Olinka was showing signs, I could tell, of not being entirely satisfied.

‘What have we just watched?’

I wasn’t sure if this was a trick question or not.

‘No, really, what have I just spent two hours of my life watching?’

‘You didn’t like it.’

‘I just found it really frustrating. Was it supposed to be a drama, or a psychological thriller, or what?’

‘Well, I suppose there were elements of a thriller to it, but what you have to remember with Farhadi is that the mechanics of the actual plot are basically just a framework around which the director-‘

‘You’ve already said that.’

‘Sorry.’

‘The thing is, if that was a thriller, it was really slow and lacking in incident, and if it was a drama, it was psychologically simplistic, with no real depth to it and no real message.’

‘I’m sorry you didn’t like it…’

‘Oh, no, there were things I enjoyed about it.’

‘Like what?’

‘I liked the decor in the houses – the furniture, and the wallpaper, and the little trinkets they had everywhere.’

‘Oh. Well, I suppose that’s something.’

Not having Olinka’s ability to multitask, I cannot speak with much authority about the quality of the interior design in Everybody Knows, but I can kind of see where she’s coming from in her criticism of the film. The basic structure of the piece – a group of people come together, only for an unexpected event to expose the underlying tensions between them – is the same as that in other Farhadi films like About Elly…, which I suppose could leave the director open to accusations that he’s simply repeating himself.

Certainly, this is a meaty, actor’s drama, which may explain why he has managed to attract two of the biggest names in Spanish cinema to headline the movie. It almost goes without saying that Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz are both extremely good in this film, giving excellent and intelligent performances – this is the kind of story where you see many facets of the characters, and it really demands performers of this kind of calibre.

Of course, a potential downside of this kind of structure is that it does take a while for the story to unfold – there’s a long first act establishing all the characters and their various relationships (I must confess to never being 100% sure about exactly how everyone was related to each other), setting the table before the rest of the plot proceeds to kick it over. The issue, if indeed it is an issue, is that the table-kicking-over happens at an equally leisurely pace.

There was some subdued muttering from Olinka along the lines of ‘what are these people doing?’ when the main characters responded to the kidnap of a girl by, well, standing around and talking a lot. I didn’t personally have as much of an issue with this, but as the film went on I did find the succession of lengthy scenes with characters sitting or standing around articulating their personal baggage or talking about their unfinished emotional business to be a little bit draining (full disclosure: I think I dozed off at one point (blame jet lag from the Manhattan trip), and was a bit startled by the sudden appearance of a character who’d previously been in Argentina).

The drama of the piece is, shall we say, sliced quite thick, and the only thing that keeps me from describing Everybody Knows as a ripe old melodrama is the fact that it is just a bit too well-written and well-performed for this to be entirely fair. The lack of conventional closure to the story will probably just annoy some viewers, though, not without reason. In the end this isn’t really a thriller and shows no signs of wanting to be – but if you enjoy chunky character-based dramas that take their time to unfold their story, the quality of the performances and script mean this will probably be a fairly satisfying experience for you.

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Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger’s Black Narcissus was released in 1947. With some films, mostly recently ones, the date of release is just another bit of hopefully-useful information. But, the world being as it is today, in the case of Black Narcissus you do have to bear in mind the context in which it was made. I have no doubt that some modern viewers will find this movie to be highly offensive and objectionable, without much of interest to offer; nevertheless, it still made it into a list of the top fifty British films ever made in a BFI poll at the end of the 20th century.

 

It’s a little hard to be sure, but there’s nothing to suggest that Black Narcissus is not intended to be set in the period it was made (and some have suggested this would be thematically appropriate). The story concerns a group of nuns who are sent to open a school and hospital in a wind-swept former seraglio, high atop a cliff in the Himalayas. In charge is Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), who is young, confident, and ambitious – her (mother) superior is concerned she is not yet ready for this demanding role, but allows the appointment to go ahead regardless.

The sisters find their new home to be a demanding place to live, to say the least: the local villagers have to be paid to visit the school and dispensary, while the local English agent, Dean (David Farrar), makes his feelings on the subject quite clear – this is no place for a nunnery, and the undertaking is doomed to failure,

Stresses slowly build up both around and within the old palace. Sister Clodagh finds it impossible to entirely forget a failed love affair which led to her joining the order, while one of the other nuns, Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), develops a fixation on Dean himself. The path between religious devotion and a life in the world proves to be a hazardous one.

The first problem that some modern audiences may have with Black Narcissus is that it is a seriously-intentioned film about nuns. Commercial films about nuns nowadays are rarely serious: they tend to fall into two groups, those that are knockabout mainstream comedies (I am thinking of Nuns on the Run and Sister Act), and those aimed at – how shall one put it? – a more niche audience. Exploitation films, in other words. (Given that a new horror movie actually called The Nun is doing the rounds, I suppose we must mention this as well.)

But back in the 1940s it was perfectly acceptable to take nuns seriously and make serious films about them, even when the nuns wore extraordinary wimples like the ones in Black Narcissus. It was also okay to make films about the British Empire in which the Empire itself was presented quite neutrally, as a matter of fact rather than the source of retroactive breast-beating – Black Narcissus isn’t an explicitly imperial film, but it is shot through with the values and attitudes of empire. ‘They’re like children,’ is how the local people are described; they are also apparently ‘primitive’ and one character comments that ‘they all look the same’.

If this wasn’t enough to outrage the sensibilities of a modern young progressive, this is a film with an Indian setting in which most of the Indian performers only appear as extras (hired from the docks in Rotherhithe, apparently). Of the key Indian roles, one is played by Sabu Dastigir, while the others are played by Europeans wearing heavy make-up (one of these is an early role for Jean Simmons).

And if all this, coupled to the fact that this is a film concerned with an unfashionable moral idea (self-denial), is enough to make you dismiss it as a hideous exemplar of outdated attitudes, notable only as a warning from history – well, I can hardly stop you from having an opinion. The 1940s were different to the modern world, certainly – but personally I don’t think this is in and of itself sufficient reason to dismiss a film from this period out of hand.

If nothing else there is the film’s technical achievement to consider. The first few times I watched Black Narcissus I could only marvel at the ability of Powell and Pressberger to shoot a film on location in the Himalayas in the late 40s, let alone make it look so good. Of course, I now know better: most of the sweeping mountain vistas are there courtesy of back projection and matte paintings, the production not going further from Pinewood Studios than Sussex. And yet it has a tremendous atmosphere and sense of place to it.

Much of this comes from Jack Cardiff’s justly celebrated cinematography, filling the screen with vibrant colours; it’s a feast for the eyes. And here we come to what the film is really about. I find it hard to think of Black Narcissus as the ‘erotic’ film which so many others find it to be – the word carries too many connotations these days – but it is certainly one which is sensuous and heady with passion, especially as it goes on.

The central irony of the story is that it concerns a group of women who have chosen to devote themselves to lives of strict self-discipline, who find themselves living in a palace formerly occupied by the pleasure-girls of a bygone age. They are meant to be in the world but not of it, according to the charter of their order – neither the ascetic Indian holy man who makes his hermitage just a bit too close for Sister Clodagh’s liking, nor Dean’s dissolute hedonist, but somewhere in between the two.

And the story is about showing what a hard road they have picked for themselves. Quite apart from Sister Clodagh’s issues with her own past, the others find it hard to keep their emotions under control. A sympathetic sister gives medicine to a sick child, inadvertently placing the whole community in danger. The nun in charge of the garden can’t resist planting flowers instead of vegetables, seduced by their colour and beauty. And, centrally, Sister Ruth cannot control her desire for Dean.

Most of Black Narcissus is carried by very solid performances by Deborah Kerr and David Farrar, but it is Kathleen Byron’s remarkable turn as the unhinged Sister Ruth that lingers in the mind and really makes the climax of the film work. The film has quietly tacked between drama and melodrama until now, with occasional moments of gentle comedy, but as Ruth loses her mind it threatens to transform into full-on psychological horror, with the lapsed nun plotting murderous violence against the woman she perceives as rival.

I suppose it’s all quite symbolic: the nuns live halfway up a mountain, midway between the pure and airy vaults of the heavens and the colourful, earthy world below. The trick is to find a way of staying there. Sister Ruth succumbs to the attraction of worldly pleasures, and, well, falls off the mountain as a consequence.

The question is whether the mountainside is a tenable place to live in the first place. The film suggests not, but an ending that should feel sombre and downbeat is also quite muted: the rains come to the mountain valley, the land is revitalised, the cycle of life goes on, with or without the presence of the holy women. Perhaps retreat (in both senses of the word) is the only option for the sisters – but if they are mistaken in their ambitions, the film is at least sympathetic to them. Whatever else it is, this is a thoughtful, beautifully made film from one of the UK’s greatest cinematic partnerships.

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2017 was a somewhat noteworthy year by recent standards, in that we did not get a single new Woody Allen film at any of the cinemas in Oxford. (Compare this to 2010-11, when Whatever Works, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, and Midnight in Paris all appeared in the space of not much more than a year.) Should we read anything into this?

Well, it doesn’t appear to be the case that Allen’s legendary work ethic is declining, for his next film, A Rainy Day in New York, has already been filmed, and the fact that he can still get financing for his movies indicates they retain an audience. All this is despite the more-miss-than-hit quality of his last few films and an occasional sense that he’s just going through the motions (I’ve commented on a couple of recent projects that they feel like he’s just filmed the first draft he wrote).

If there is a shadow over Woody Allen’s future career (and there are suggestions that Rainy Day may never be completed or released), then it is because of the Unique Moment. Allegations of the most serious kind were made against Allen back in 1992, and in the current climate this alone apparently makes him untouchable by any right-thinking actor: virtually the entire name cast of Rainy Day have been queueing up to announce how much they regret making the movie, and donating their fees to charity. (Given that Allen’s reputation has always enabled him to attract impressive casts to his films, improving their marketability and chances of a wide release, this may prove to be especially significant.)

I don’t usually go about courting controversy, but this strikes me as the whole Me Too juggernaut spinning out of control and potentially crushing an innocent victim. I think it would be grossly unjust for Allen’s career to be terminated off the back of this; he is not Harvey Weinstein, who by all accounts was a serial offender, whose behaviour was apparently an open secret in Hollywood, who has been accused by dozens of victims, and who may yet face criminal proceedings. Obviously there are problematic elements in Allen’s work – he is perhaps just a little too fond of the notion that refined, intellectual men are devastatingly attractive to much younger, beautiful women – but the fact remains that we’re talking about a single allegation, made a quarter of a century ago, which was fully investigated by professionals, whose judgement was that it had no factual basis. I’m all for zero tolerance of people who commit these kinds of crimes, but if we’re going to assume that being accused automatically equates to being guilty, we’re heading to a place I’m not sure we’re going to like.

Oh well. On to Wonder Wheel, Allen’s forty-eighth movie as writer and director (so far as I’ve been able to figure out, anyway), which finds him in serious drama mode – or should that be ‘serious melodrama’ instead? Despite working with Amazon’s movie wing, and apparently contending with a somewhat limited budget, the look and feel of an Allen movie remains unchanged – there’s the same style of opening credits, and the same use of period music (this time it’s ‘Coney Island Washboard’, which is played roughly every ten minutes throughout the film and nearly drove me mad). And there’s the use of a narrator, who on this occasion is Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a character in the film who styles himself as a playwright and storyteller. Mickey is upfront about the fact he likes melodramatic stories and broad-brush characterisation, but I’m never convinced that acknowledging you’re making a melodrama excuses making a melodrama in the first place.

Anyway, this is not really Mickey’s story: that honour falls to Ginny (Kate Winslet), a somewhat frustrated ex-actress working as a waitress in the Coney Island theme park in (we are invited to infer) the early 1950s. Ginny is unhappily married to Humpty (Jim Belushi), who basically looks, talks, and acts like Fred Flintstone, and further stressed out by her young son’s pyromaniac tendencies. Seeking to escape from all this, she has begun an affair with Mickey himself, and dares to dream that they may have a future together.

Things become considerably more complicated with the arrival of Carolina (Juno Temple), Humpty’s estranged daughter from his first marriage. Now fleeing from her mobster husband, Carolina seeks sanctuary with Ginny and Humpty, and, after some initial hostility, is able to win her father over. It just places more strain on Ginny’s domestic situation, though – and when it becomes very apparent that Mickey and Carolina are rather taken with each other, it may be more than Ginny can bear…

The days of Woody Allen’s attempts to pastiche Ingmar Bergman seem to be long since over, and if anything he’s going through a period where, once in a while, he has a go at being Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams. This is certainly one of those, although the great American playwright whose name gets checked in the film is Eugene O’Neill. This is a confined, talky movie, with very much the feel of filmed theatre much of the time – it’s certainly not especially cinematic, and you could imagine it turning up as a TV premiere without it losing much of its impact.

You really can see why Allen still manages to attract good casts to his movies – he writes them big, chunky parts they can really get their teeth into, even if the characters are just a bit hokey sometimes. The main performances here are all very strong – Justin Timberlake has turned into a rather fine actor, doing good work as Mickey, who seems blissfully unaware of his own self-absorbtion and amorality. Juno Temple is also good. Carrying the movie, however, is a tremendous performance from Kate Winslet, who really does run the gamut of emotions in the course of the story and fully wins your sympathy. I can’t remember the last time she was quite so good in anything, and a little surprised that she didn’t receive more recognition for the role. (Dragged over the coals by some for her refusal to condemn Allen, or at least apologise for working with him, Winslet recently attempted to address the issue by saying she ‘bitterly regretted’ working with some unspecified people, a formulation unlikely to entirely please anyone.)

That said, the whole thing is thoroughly earnest, with no particular moments of lightness or comedy in it. And, once again, you can’t help wishing Allen had gone through at least a couple more drafts of the script – ‘I’ve become consumed with jealousy!’ cries Ginny at one point, which is just inexcusably bad dialogue. There is perhaps a flicker of self-awareness later on with the line ‘Spare me all the bad drama!’ – but as this comes near the end of the film, it’s a bit late for that.

Apart from Winslet’s performance, the best thing about Wonder Wheel is the cinematography, which gives the whole thing a warmth and colour and life which is often missing from the script. Odd things occasionally happen here too – a scene will begin drenched in colour, with the characters almost seeming to glow, only for everything to abruptly fade to a much more subdued, naturalistic hue. If there’s an artistic rationale for this, I couldn’t figure it out; maybe they just ran out of money for the digital grade.

This is ultimately much more of a character piece than many recent Woody Allen movies, and this really works in the film’s favour – there’s no sense of a particular theme or message being clumsily rammed across – and the fact that the main relationship is between a (somewhat) older woman and a younger man means that some of the more awkward Allen tropes don’t put in an appearance, either.

It’s really still competent rather than great or inspired film-making, but there are enough good things about Wonder Wheel to make one think that Allen may yet have one really great film left in him. Of course, he is 82 now, and no-one would begrudge him or be especially heartbroken, I expect, were he to announce his retirement. But I think it would still be infinitely preferable if that were a decision he made on his own terms.

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Overheard in a cinema in the Earth Year 1994, prior to a revival of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver:

‘Did you see that Clint Eastwood film on telly the other night?’

‘Oh yeah – he goes into that girls’ school and has them all wrapped right round his little finger, right up until the moment when they [spoiler redacted]. Top movie.’

Overheard in a cinema in the Earth Year 2017, after a screening of Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled:

‘So, what did you think?’

‘Well, I thought he was perhaps suited a bit more to the part than Clint Eastwood was…’

‘Well, Clint Eastwood’s not a very good actor, is he?’

(I had to absent myself from the vicinity of the conversation at this point, lest an eruption occur.)

Perhaps I should make clear that the people I was earwigging in 1994 were both youngish men, while my companions for the new version of The Beguiled were somewhat older ladies. Does this tell us anything about the differences between the 1971 version of the movie, directed by Don Siegel, and the remake? Well, perhaps.

Like the original, Sofia Coppola’s movie is set during the latter stages of the American Civil War, in and around a finishing school for girls in Virginia. Due to the turmoil of the conflict, only a tiny group of pupils remain, along with a couple of staff members – headmistress Martha (Nicole Kidman) and teacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst).

One day, one of the girls is out picking mushrooms in the woods near the school when she comes across John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a wounded enemy soldier. She helps him back to the grand old house in which the establishment is located, at which point the question becomes one of what they should do with him. Obviously, the sensible thing to do would be to call in the authorities of their own side straight away, but somehow it doesn’t seem quite so simple – McBurney would probably die on the way to a prison camp, so the charitable thing is surely to keep him around until he feels better, isn’t it?

There is, not to put too fine a point on it, a little unrelieved tension in the air, as the presence of McBurney has an alarming effect on a group of women and girls who have apparently been living without masculine company for far too long. McBurney’s own natural charm and manipulative nature don’t help matters much. The women are soon all under his spell, and he seems to be on to a very good thing at the school. But has he underestimated the strength of the emotions his arrival has unleashed?

Being a hate-filled fanatically misogynistic crypto-fascist (apparently), I am constantly surprised by the fact that I frequently admire and enjoy films directed by and starring women, but there you go. I did not catch Sofia Coppola’s last couple of films, but I did see Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette, and had a pretty good time watching them both (even if my review of the latter does contain the suggestion ‘would have been much improved by the addition of a story and some decent dialogue’). The Beguiled is likewise not a film which anyone is likely to decry as an offence against cinema, but at the same time I can’t see it becoming as big a critical darling as some of this director’s films.

I mean, the actual carpentry of the story holds together pretty well, though it would possibly have been better if we’d got more of a sense of what life in the school was like prior to McBurney’s arrival. Creating atmosphere is one of Coppola’s strengths as a director and she duly creates a strong sense of unspoken tension between the various women as they slowly begin to compete for McBurney’s favours. The performances are universally strong, although everyone seems to be operating very much within their comfort zone as a performer. I’m sure I’ve seen Nicole Kidman do that mannered southern lady schtick before, and the same is true of Kirsten Dunst’s repressed schoolteacher. Elle Fanning perhaps does something slightly new as a somewhat out-of-control young girl. On the whole this is the kind of film you would expect it to be – atmospheric, fairly intense, and not especially light on its feet.

Then again, perhaps I’m biased, for I have seen the original Don Siegel movie on which the new one is based (although admittedly not recently). The 1971 Beguiled always seemed to me to be very much framed and marketed as a Western, although that may just be down to the presence of Eastwood and Siegel. The new movie is much more open about its identity as a drama (perhaps even a melodrama) in the Southern Gothic tradition, though perhaps this is also the result of the story being seen from a more openly feminine perspective.

Even so, this is hardly a radical new interpretation of the story – all the key plot beats survive very much intact (at one point someone is sent to fetch a book on anatomy and a saw), but I suppose the characters are drawn a little differently – McBurney is less of a sexual predator, perhaps, and the incestuous elements of the original story have been removed. The movie has also drawn flak for, would you believe it, a lack of diversity, because the character of a slave who featured in the Siegel version has likewise gone. (In her defence, Coppola has said that she felt that it would not do justice to the importance of the issue of slavery to just touch on it in passing, as would most likely have been the case had she included a single minor character in this way. Sounds reasonable to me, but, hey, I’m apparently not the best person to judge this kind of issue.)

I would imagine you are more likely to enjoy watching the new version of The Beguiled if you are not familiar with the one starring Eastwood, simply because the plot will contain a few surprises for you. This is a well-mounted, well-played, capably-directed movie, but it doesn’t really add that much to an original which was a memorably unsettling and quietly powerful psycho-drama in its own right. A moderately engaging piece of entertainment, I think: not much more than that.

 

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