Week four comes with the added benefit of having the most films (thirty, for whatever reason, “math,” is not divisible by seven), and having the longest single film, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Roublev. With an incredibly diverse selection of films, week four benefitted from my week three struggles, and provided me with even more insight into the critical mass consumption of film. Week four began with a sullen tone carried over from week three’s Kanal, and only burrowed deeper into dispiritedness with the utterly bleak Ossos and Andrei Roublev. The beginning moments of the Senegalese Touki Bouki seemed aptly relevant to my frame of mind going in to the third film of the week. A group of men try desperately to control a cow as they slaughter it, and send it on its way down the line to the butchers – blood thick on the men’s faces and clothes, climbing up the walls, and pooling slickly on the floor. Thrown into a world of chaotic violence, sharp tools in hands made unsteady by a thrashing animal and a slippery floor, men shouting commands across the room, and a massive cow trying desperately to escape with its life, I felt like the sacrificial cow – I needed an escape. Director Djibril Diop Mambéty provided. Clawing itself out of this bloody muck, Touki Bouki invoked a Godardian surrealism and levity, to achieve a narrative lightness; a camera circling around characters, caring much more about what they were doing than why. Mambéty’s film has a feeling all its own – brimming with vibrancy, and a unique sense of self.
With a refreshed sense of vigor, the rest of week four was a joy. Looking back, much of week four was defined by sex, and the various social and historical rules that have always surrounded the subject. The communal shame felt when a Korean husband cheats on his wife in The Housemaid, the societal disgust at the thought of a Swedish noble so much as conversing with a common servant in Miss Julie, and the bizarre definitions of love and sexual control in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, were made even more apparent when viewed in such close approximation. Concluding with the bizarre, sex driven, manically constructed “documentary,” W.R. – Mysteries of the Organism, week four was a week of taboos – each boasting a unique view on societal norms, some hilariously antiquated, and some still very present in modern life.
Directed by Pedro Costa
Constant, non-stop, brooding. I have no idea what Pedro Costa was saying with this film other than “depression and poverty are equally terrible, and exponentially worse when combined.” The dialogue could probably fit on 2-3 pages, and the range of emotion tops out at “slightly bemused.” What begins as pity for these slum inhabitants, slowly shifts into a kind of disgust, followed by utter lassitude for both the plot and characters. Despite the beauty of the film, by the end, I did not care what happened to any of these people, or why any of the events conspired. Perhaps I missed some social context having never visited Portugal, but Ossos left me feeling empty and listless.
Andrei Roublev (1966)
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
Country: Russia (U.S.S.R)
More a grave march through the life events of its titular artist, Tarkovsky’s immensely bleak film weighs heavy on the audience. With zero appreciation for medieval art, my knowledge of Andrei Roublev’s work is negligible, rendering the events of this film a completely fresh experience. Three and a half hours later, I cannot, realistically claim, that I have any more knowledge of Roublev or his work. Tarkovsky’s film seems to be much more concerned with the hollowness surrounding religion – money, power, status – than any of the religious tenants themselves. Barbaric and unapologetically close-minded, each character in the film represents the cold realities of 13th century Russia. Struggling to survive, factions of peasants, monks, and Boyars clash to settle petty differences of opinion and faith. Rubble himself is a bit of an afterthought, weaving in and out of the historical landmarks of this time, thinking about, but never quite actually, painting.
It is a real shame how mistreated my particular print (the Criterion) was treated; completely beaten up, scratched, burned, poorly cared for, the stock looks like it was in a wet basement for the last 50 years. Looking more like a Lubitsch or Eisenstein (Potemkin might actually be of better quality) silent from the 1920’s, the Soviets did not offer the care this film deserves.
Touki Bouki (1973)
Directed by Djibril Diop Mambéty
Abstract, surreal, complex, and thrillingly beautiful, Touki Bouki was electrifying. Like a Senegalese Bande à part, Djibril Diop Mambéty’s film follows two thieves as they struggle to cope with their social and economic surroundings. Luck often trumps ignorance when the two “lovers” find themselves involved with tricky situations ranging from grand theft, to running from angry mobs. Surrealism that would make Bunuel proud invades the film, mixing a standard narrative with Traditional African Religion (an almost voodooistic animism), and jarring “premonitions” shots – shown in quick succession; a cinematic déjà vu. So much of this film flew over my head, yet the character development and colorfully playful aesthetic kept me fully engaged. Scorsese and Criterion (in partnership with some unexpected fashion houses and middle-eastern museums) did the world a favor by preserving this absolute treat in a manner befitting of its worth.
The Housemaid (1960)
Directed by Kim Ki-Young
Country: South Korea
The Housemaid is an incredible psychological thriller. Ki-Young Kim has a masterful grasp of atmosphere, creating a film so full of tension and frustration that his audience is left speechless (I found myself spellbound with disbelief). A complete gender role reversal, The Housemaid features a husband that is dominated by his love for his wife, rendering him unable to take control of any situation, and a dominating group of women vying for his love and for their own comfort. Both of the men in the story are totally useless and inept. The young Chang-Soon Kim(Sung-kee Ahn) is an aloof brat; making fun of his crippled sister, getting into trouble, and generally reveling in his youth. Mr. Kim (Jin Kyu Kim) is a man so concerned with his family, that he becomes terrified when one of his music students sends him a love letter. He dodges temptation from all sides, but the moment he must confront an advance, head on, he is utterly helpless. Watching as his family quickly dissolves in front of him, Mr. Kim does nothing to stop it. Contrastingly, Mrs. Kim (Jeung-nyeo Ju) works tirelessly to keep her family together. Making money with her sewing, cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the children, Mrs. Kim is the head of the household. When the family moves in to a larger, two-story house, the new, emotionally unstable, maid begins to dominate. A menacing figure, the maid plays psychological games with the family as she exerts her will on Mr. Kim. Small, frail, yet headstrong, she easily exercises her dominance over the much larger Mr. Kim – physical power has been removed from this surreal world, all that remains is strength of will. In a system so concerned with honor, Kim takes his film to the bitter edge of satire – how far could one possibly go to save face within a community? Would you allow your husband’s psychotic mistress to live with you? What if she threatened your family?
A Hitchcockian thriller of the highest degree, Kim sets up possible disasters far in advance. A bottle of rat poison, a tall set of stairs, a near-constant stream of news articles profiling things to come – each are meticulously placed to provide an enhanced sense of unease; we know they are ominous, but their exact place in the story is left ambiguous.
Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1989)
Directed by Pedro Almodóvar
Pervertedly charming, and surrealistically funny, Átame! deals with controversial topics by completely shying away from confrontation; approaching them from the side – a shortcut of Almodóvar’s own devising. Characters are loud and boisterous to match the film’s vibrant color palate of Seussian pastels (and architecture to match), rarely hiding, what are often considered, hidden desires. Ricky (Antonio Banderas) has an unyielding love for actress, Marina (Victoria Abril), so he tries to tell her. When she refuses him a moment of her time, he kidnaps her; when she doesn’t stop screaming, he hits her; when she threatens to run away, he binds her; when she’s in pain, he buys her drugs. While Ricky’s actions are psychotic, Almodóvar presents them as logical – action, reaction. Marina’s director, Máximo (a recently stroke-crippled, and utterly creepy Francisco Rabal) fetishizes Marina in everything she does. The seasoned director falls in love with her, and so he prolongs his contact with her via script rewrites and additional shooting. The fact that his wife (I think it’s his wife) is present is an afterthought, and certainly not a hindrance to him watching a Marina-centric soft core porno in his living room… in full view of said wife. Almodóvar hints at his character motivations in, perhaps, the film’s most hilarious moment: a commercial for a bank’s new retirement plan. Showing young studious Germans (in full Nazi regalia) preemptively planning for their future, the infomercial cuts to how the Spanish live out their youth – a passionate and sensual dance at a high-end (Franco-era) nightclub. Almodóvar is satirically-excusing his character’s actions as a condition of the frivolity of youth. The Spanish are impulsive and full of life, they take what they want, and learn the consequences later.
Almodóvar revels in the madness he presents on screen. Easing his audience into his surreal world via several “movie within a movie” scenes, Almodóvar prepares us for the insanity to come. We know that Ricky is the product of a wayward psychiatric hospital, and that his actions are completely frightening. Yet, Marina’s reaction to them softens the blow, as does Ricky’s general behavior. Her, a damaged actress, and him, an oddly-sweet childlike man, seem to fit together. As their relationship grows, a bond between them begins to form. This classic example of Stockholm Syndrome would be novel enough, but Almodóvar pushes it a step further by subjecting the audience to the same treatment. Marina is not the only one that begins to like Ricky, we are also somehow captivated by his charms. The brilliance of Almodóvar’s picture lies in his ability to take a debated topic (like the existence of Stockholm Syndrome) and, more or less, prove it in less than two hours. We know that Ricky is wrong, and that his actions are deplorable, but we, slowly, start to like him.
Miss Julie (1951)
Directed by Alf Sjöberg
A fluctuating polarity is the central core of Alf Sjöberg Miss Julie, providing both lightness and satire to the film. The Countess, Miss Julie (Anita Björk) has never known what she wants. On Midsummer’s eve, she cavorts with servant, Jean (Ulf Palme), learning of his lifelong love for her. As the two spend the shortest night of the year together, uncensored feelings flow (aided by alcohol), as the two battle generations of deeply engrained social and gender roles. Not so much toeing the line of decency, as boldly jumping back-and-forth over it, Julie and Jean are unable to make up their minds. Conflicts arise when Jean forgets his class status, and begins to rely on his manhood to make decisions; Julie’s inner turmoil is rooted in her bizarre upbringing as a “feminist,” who enjoys reveling in the femininities of life. The two flip-flop the night away, telling stories of their childhood, and fantasizing about their future together – all while skirting the increasingly-belligerent gaggle of servants celebrating the holiday. Bleak yet hilarious, Miss Julie is an absolute joy that offers a scathing portrayal of both class and gender structure.
Dry Summer (1963)
Directed by Metin Erksan
The second the dialogue began, I doubted its selection for Criterion’s World Cinema Project. Sounding like they recorded it in a gym, yelling into microphones, it tore me out of Dry Summer‘s cinematic world. However, this proved to be a boon to my visual comprehension of the film, instead focusing on cinematography and camera movements. Almost like watching a film on mute, performances and actions were judged on their most basic merits. Metin Erksan’s camera is pure artistry in motion. Not only is his framing unique, his movements are dynamic and varied. Each movement tells a story and injects life into his movie. Attaching his camera to a cart wheel, the spinning lens captures the dizzying bewilderment felt by a wife gripped with despair, fleeing her adoptive home.
Hobson’s Choice (1954)
Directed by David Lean
Just a lovely film. Superbly happy, and an ending tied up with a beautiful bow, happiness all around – a stark change of pace for my month so far. Lean gives us some fully fleshed out characters, centering on a headstrong young woman. The comically misogynistic Hobson (Charles Laughton) is the film’s number one source of both conflict and comedy. An (somewhat) affable drunk, Hobson runs his shoe shop with the help of his three daughters. Maggie Hobson (Brenda de Banzie) is the real “brains” of the operation, controlling almost every level of the family enterprise while her father drinks at his favorite pub. Her younger sisters, concerned with finding husbands and keeping up with fashion trends, are almost white noise to the narrative. Maggie’s calculating nature leads her to proposing a partnership (marriage) to one of her father’s most talented boot smiths – their disparate social status proves to be a point of confusion for all involved, groom included. A business partnership turned labor of love, Maggie and William Mosssop (John Mills) open a rival cobblery, nearly putting Hobson out of business.
Lean’s keen eye for drama and storytelling is evident even in this small-scale production. Interesting cuts, camera movements and framing provide additional interest to the straightforward story, offering a rich background to the narrative. Laughton and Mills are wonderful opposites, each lovable in their own way. Banzie is the true star of the show, with an air of confidence and an almost omnipotent control of her world.
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972)
Directed by Rainer Warner Fassbinder
Country: West Germany
R.W. Fassbinder masters the one-room film. Never straying from the multi-leveled bedroom of the titular von Kant, Fassbinder films from wherever his camera will fit. Producing some of the most vivid and striking shots of his career, Fassbinder’s ability to develop a story through camera alone is astonishing. Coupled with Margit Carstensen’s intensely-beautiful performance, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is a cinefile’s delight. Colorfully decadent, and yet somberly dark, Fassbinder’s film left me spellbound by the sheer complexity of his work. Scenes so intricately choreographed, each is begging to be deconstructed – the findings from which could fill volumes. Left in awe of Fassbinder’s film, I find it hard to collect my thoughts, as memories from the work are still swirling around my mind almost a day later.
W.R. – The Mysteries of the Organism (1971)
Directed by Dušan Makavejev
Not for watching with your parents