Archive for August, 2009


“That dog would go with anyone”

Todo Sobre Mi Madre (Pedro Almodovar, 1999)

Almodovar is back at the moment, of course, and this one comes courtesy of the NFT’s Penelope Cruz season. I’ve not seen that many of his films but he’s a funny one. Although it divided opinion I think Volver was the first time he really clicked with me. This one, I find very impressive without actually liking it. Bolano’s 2666 had a great line about Spanish sexuality that immediately made me think of Almodovar and Bigas Luna, but I can neither remember it nor find it online.

This film is from around the period when Almodovar started to tone down the madcap hysteria and apply a glossy, classy finish. It looks good; very good in fact. A rich palette of colours. A lush, mysterious soundtrack to propel the intrigue and melodrama. A stylised and rain-sodden death scene at the start. Kerbrcrawlers circling transsexual hookers, shot to resemble a torchlit religious procession. Barcelona shown off at its prettiest- spacious, sunkissed apartments, rustic gothic alleyways, a taxi slowing down to let us take in the main facade of La Sagrada Familia.

He’s one of these directors who has used his oeuvre to forge a world that is recognisably his own. There are some neat ironies and coincidences; Manuela’s job involves training doctors to extract permission from bereaved relatives that the deceased’s organs may be donated to others, and her son’s heart gets harvested immediately upon diagnosis at hospital. One evening, Manuela and her son watch the scene from All About Eve in which Bette Davis declares that autograph hunters are “not human beings”. The next night, Esteban dies whilst chasing Paredes for an autograph.

The feeling I got was that Almodovar wants to be Jesus, getting washed by the prostitute. He’s going for the most marginal figures in society; promiscuous trannies who spread AIDS, hookers, lesbian junkie thespians, pregnant nuns with AIDS (!). Having assembled this shocking freakshow he gives them dignity and compassion, and if your heart and all your prejudices do not melt, it must be through some fault of your own.

The narrative about the single mother Manuela, the accident that kills her son and her attempts to work through the trauma and find a new life; this part, I found convincing and moving, with a great central performance. The wisecracking trannie Agrado is a good foil/sidekick. But with the other aspects, I hit a brick wall. They didn’t move me. I don’t think it was my innate conservative bigotry, either; to me the narratives felt contrived.

Lola, for example, was previously Esteban, Manuela’s husband. Lola went behind her wife’s back to have a sex change, cheated on her constantly and was abusive to her. Lola caught AIDS, then impregnated and infected Penelope Cruz’s nun. What were you thinking, Penelope Cruz is asked? A blank “I don’t know” is the reposnse. What else could one say? Lola doesn’t appear in the film until towards the end. She is shown pictures of the dead son she never knew, she weeps with regret and contrition. I didn’t feel inclined to join her.

As a grande dame of the theatre, Marisa Paredes is stately and watchable when she reveals her vulnerability to Manuela, and is rewarded by the protection of Manuela and Agrado. However, her tempestuous and eventually hospitalising love affair with a junkie co-star came off as corny and unconvincing (“She’s hooked on heroin, but I’m hooked on her”).

The indignant voices of Penelope Cruz’s prejudiced parents are the only ones excluded from the cosy network of friends. They’re from an older generation and the mother disapproves of all these lifestyles; in her first scene she is dismissive when Penelope Cruz suggests she employs a hooker, whom Cruz had only met that morning, as a live-in cook. I thought this was sensible enough but I knew I was reading against the grain.

The sad-eyed dad is senile and doesn’t recognise anyone other than his wife and his dog. He asks the age and height of everyone he meets, and has no further curiosity about them. It felt metaphorical. When Cruz dies, Manuela decides to take her baby away from the grandparents and raise it herself. Taken away from this oppressive environment, the baby becomes the first person in history to somehow cure himself of the AIDS virus; by this point the story is unravelling and we’re travelling at some 20,000 feet above the feasible. 

There’s a conspicuous lack of good men in Almodovar and you suspect that there would be a ruckus if anyone depicted women in such a way. Here and in Volver, if men are not inert and useless they are beating up, abusing and raping women. Even the male lead in the theatre group sees Agrado as nothing more than a sex toy, expecting favours on demand. It’s plain misandry and perhaps it accounts for my inability to jump into his world. Is it a Spanish thing, after the patriarchal repression of Franco?

Even as I readily acknowledge that Tobo Sobre Mi Madre is an absorbing watch, crafted with skill and style, I find something within myself resisting it.


Danzig claiming its rightful place in the sun

Cobra Verde (Werner Herzog, 1987)

So I was invited to a friend’s house for lunch + a big walk, but told to bring a DVD in case rain stopped play (which it did). For all my conversionary tendencies, I was in one of those moods where I thought it only polite to bring something I hadn’t seen either; after ransacking my collection, I came away with the one film from the Herzog/Kinski boxset that I haven’t seen yet.

We all know and love Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo, obviously, and I think I’d put off watching this one because I feared the law of diminishing returns. Kinski as a bounty hunter in South America? I felt like I’d already seen it. This was very much the sensation I had for the early sequences of the film, but when the action moved to the coast of Africa, we had something new to look at. More than any other Herzog film, this is one where the narrative is secondary to the striking images he can conjure up.

To be honest, if you know your Herzog you probably have seen this film already. Monologues from inbred-looking locals who don’t seem to know what they’re saying, check. Ambient music, native music and angsty poetry over panning shots of an alien-looking landscape, check. Wild, mysterious, off-the-wall, but rather impressive one-liners, check. And of course, Kinski doing his thing.

All of which is actually very watchable. Kinski is very obviously a one-off and couldn’t phone in a performance if he tried. Just unleash him, roll the camera, and you’ve got magic. If you’ve not seen it before go on youtube and see how Jason Robards and Kinski play the same scene from Fitzcarraldo. In this one, I love the fact that a deathly pale blonde from the Baltic coast is playing a native Brazilian and nobody finds it incongruous- magic of the movies for ya.

Where Cobra Verde might fall short is that this time, Kinski’s character doesn’t have a dream, which could have propelled the story along. Aguirre had his fanciful megalomaniac aspirations, Fitzcarraldo was doing it all for opera, but Cobra Verde is a jaded veteran who seems to accept assignments as a way of killing time. Nor do we feel that Herzog particularly identifies with the lunatic quest of his hero this time around; perhaps a consequence of the notorious fights getting too much for the pair.

One aspect of this film I appreciated was its frank, this-is-what-people-did depiction of the slave trade. I hate to admit it, but with the champagne Marxism of my beloved Losey this film would probably have got suffocated in “slavery is bad, okay?” dialectic. With his lack of sentimentality and his ‘stuff happens’ indifference to political posturing, Herzog’s take is off-the-wall oblique. If he walked into a room and saw Johnny Depp deep in conversation with Jack Nicholson, he’d probably look behind the radiator and train his camera on a spider weaving a web. Long stretches of his films can be dull, but you’re guaranteed at least half a dozen images that will fascinate and delight.

Ok. Cobra Verde. A toothless violinist plays and tells us about the legend of Cobra Verde. Panoramic views of a desolate desert, focussing on of the cracks and fissures in the dried-mud ground. A close-up of Kinski’s wispy fringe and psychotic eyes. We zoom out. We hear the noisy buzz of flies. He’s standing before a makeshift crucifix. The titles appear over an extremely slow 360-degree pan across sandhills, a mountain range, carrion bones and a dying cow. Mystical humming. All very Herzog; it’s a hostile world.

Now Kinski is covered in mud, on some kind of chain gang and carrying sacks over a pile of corpses. The mercenaries queue for their pay and Kinski is turned away. His first tantrum; “Wo ist das geld?!”. Cut to darkness, illuminated by a candle. “I want you to be awake when you die”, hisses Kinski.

The square of a small town somewhere in Brazil. They see him coming and understandably everyone runs for it, taking sanctuary in the church. The camera lingers on a barrel left to roll over the cobblestones, pigs roaming the square. Kinski takes his time and drinks from a fountain. We see the doors of the church pulled shut. He enters a bar with a hunchbacked dwarf barman. The boy has spunk and stands up to him, earning his respect. Over a candlelit dinner, he entertains Kinski with tall tales about snow on the moon.

Next morning Kinski plays highwayman. In the wilderness we see slaves carrying a sedan chair past a ruined church. Inside the ruins, the view of a trained gun. When the gun fires and the slaves scatter, the girl in the sedan saves her neck with a seductive dance. As they tumble together, Kinski tells he’s barefoot because he “doesn’t trust shoes”.

The sound of screams in the town square. Slaves are being flogged and there are lots of spectators; we see bored-looking white men in carriages, wearing panamas and linen suits. One slave tries to run for it and we see his POV as the camera darts through a crowd of blurred faces, until Kinski stands in his way and tells him he’ll be much better off going back to face the whip. One of the rich men is impressed. He just happens to be looking for a foreman to oversee his sugar cane crops.

Herzog shows off the beautiful grounds of the boss’ house, his giggling daughters hiding behind a curtain as Kinski is received. The boss boasts about how successful he is in a voiceover, whilst we see hundreds of slaves toiling in the tall crops. The vehemently anti-slavery English, we are told, are his biggest customers. Demonstrating the various processes of sugar manufacture to Kinski, the boss sees a man get his arm caught in machinery. “Someone get a machete!”

Kinski sits on the terrace with his back to the three girls. The only sounds are birds, parrots and the giggles of the girls, as they pour him tea. The girls throw coy looks and questions Kinski’s way; we can see that they’re hot for this Noble Savage. When he storms off into the flamingo-filled gardens one of the girls follows. Kinski seizes her and Herzog cuts to still shots of tropical foliage.

It’s the calm before the storm. In the next scene, an agitated handheld camera  swerves around the room as the boss throws a tantrum of his own. All his daughters are pregnant by Kinski. Our amusement is augmented by one of them being called Valkyria. The rich men dine in their ostentatious uniforms and discuss what is to be done. The King of Dahomey has gone mad and stopped doing business with us; if Kinski were sent to Africa he would be sure to get himself killed. We glimpse Kinski in the garden, listening in. He accepts.

Off the African coast, a ship is rocking wildly in tall waves. They row ashore, where a crowd of astonished boys surround and follow Kinski (sporting a three-cornered hat and looking decidedly unimpressed at what he sees). A huge procession arrives at the beach. Amongst it is a fat white priest giving communion to men and goats. Very Heart of Darkness.

The chief asks Kinski where his gifts are. No gifts, Kinski tells him, until you reopen the slave trade. The priest shows Kinski into an empty castle, the camera circling our hero as he takes it all in. It’s an abandoned garrison with peeling paint and wild sheep wandering about. An African man meets him and laughs hysterically; he was a drum major and the sole survivor when the inhabitants of the place were raped and slaughtered. Now the scores of bats in his bedroom are his “brothers and sisters”. Close-ups of crabs dancing across the floor. Why have you turned up without any troops, he asks Kinski? Do you want to get yourself killed?

Kinski wakes in a hammock to the sound of multitudes at the castle gate. They use ladders to scale the walls, and start repainting the place. Kinski mucks in with the heavy lifting. We see the Brazilian flag flying. It looks like he’s actually pulled it off. A singing chain-gang enter the castle, joined at the neck by interlinking tree branches. Kinski inspects their gums. “They’re lucky,” Kinski’s new sidekick tells him, “We’re saving them from human sacrifice”. 

One of the Brazilian generals shows up- he’s baffled, but fairly pleased to have 300 slaves to bring back. Kinski is plain and businesslike, urging him to send more rifles. From high above, we see men in turbans chivvying along the chain gang and pushing tearful women out of the castle. Far removed from this, Kinski paces up and down on an upper platform.

Soon the mad king is desirous of an audience with Kinski. His men bring a letter that the King has dictated to his scribe. It reads, “I am Portuguese and have been kept prisoner here for 15 years. If you come you are a dead man.” Kinski is evasive, telling the men he must always keep one foot on the sea. They overpower him and his drum-major, wrap them in sheets and tie the sheets to poles. Kinski’s foot is placed in a jug of sea water; nice of them.

Whooping and shrieking, the King’s men carry their quarry all the way to the capital of Abomey. All wrapped up, they do not see corpses hanging upside down and heads on spikes (again, we think of Conrad). The locals perform a ceremonial dance with beaded skirts and umbrellas. A big gold crown on his head, the king boogies as he is carried out on a sedan. His subjects cheer as he declares that all dogs are to be killed for trying to talk like humans. He drinks from the skull of a rival king and he has an empty stool to his left for his invisible friend, the Bush King.

Kinski will, of course, die. His face is painted black as men dance around him. By nightfall he’s still tied and dyed, however; the King is clearly savouring the anticipation and the power of holding a white man. Which is his trouble, as during the night Kinski and pal are rescued by the Prince’s men. The King has gone north and the Prince is planning a coup. We’ve noticed this chap at court; he has a pop-out bulging stare and his speaking voice is a little camp. Right in front of him, the Prince’s aid tells Kinski that he’s “quite insane”.

Back on the coast, Kinski is attempting to train hundreds of women warriors. It’s chaos but it’s the first time we’ve seen him in his element, really enjoying his work instead of brooding. Gurning with exertion, he demonstrates how to attack with spear and sword. He rages when the women stop drilling; they want to march on Abomey now but he doesn’t think they’re ready. The women get their way.

The ground is burning outside the city gates. Sonorous music and a shot of the king on his throne, then the plains filling with smoke. Kinski leads his troops through the gates. The camera glides over a carpet made from hundreds of human skulls- this is the floor of the king’s chamber. The insurgents rush in, the King steps off the throne and heads into the back room. His wives will strangle him, Kinski is told. The Prince and he take the two thrones and Kinski is appointed Viceroy.

We see Kinski and the new King communicate by semaphore; from the shore to Abomey, a line of subjects waving flags. Kinski walks amongst a bare-breasted singing troupe, towering above them. The girls look about 14; the lead singer grins suggestively at the camera. She has star quality and in her one or two appearances she rivals Kinski. By now he has fathered 62 children -we see him looking down a well to pick out his next partner- but it’s cold comfort. He sits in a bare room to write of his dissatisfaction and his wish to leave. The camera pulls back and a shaft of light comes in from the doorway.

Inevitably, the wheel of fortune turns against Kinski; he is made a scapegoat but doesn’t appear any more moved or affected by it than he did by the times of prosperity. The generals con him, defaulting on their payments. Brazil abolish slavery and confiscate Kinski’s bank account. England put a price on his head. The King’s men come round and tell him “You used to be the Viceroy”.

The famous final scenes have that drastic and mystery-tinged Herzog touch, as Kinski tries and tries to pull the rowing boat to sea, before collapsing exhausted into the surf and being buffeted around the waves. Hopping on all fours, a polio-ridden onlooker moves like a kangaroo. Powerful, poetic stuff. Looking for a less downbeat ending, Herzog returns to that fantastic, mannered performance of the girl singers.

Perhaps a jaded film, but Herzog’s roving eye is always capable of plucking the diamonds from the rough.


Spirals and Straight Lines

Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) and North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959) 

Let’s raise a glass to the nice folks at Dalston Rio for spoling me rotten with this double bill. Screw the heat and the sunshine, I can’t think of a more rewarding way to spend one’s Sunday afternoon.

I thought one good way into talking about these two films might be to attempt a comparison -they were made back-to-back- but they’re actually very different. One is a dark love story that deconstructs love, and shows how we project our own ideas onto our lovers/victims. The other is an utterly accomplished action film, a ripping yarn located in the world of espionage; a world of poisoned umbrella tips, Tintin & Snowy, all of that. Not to belittle it; Vertigo is the one I know much better but to say that North by Northwest is no match for it is to say that Lionel Messi is no Maradona.

What they have in common is that they are mysteries; at the outset, we are as in the dark as the hero, then a device is employed to put us in the know and one step ahead of the hero- who finds out and catches up with us at a later point. Both involve lots of fretting over a non-existent person (Carlotta/Madeleine and George Kaplan). Both feature definitive Hitchcock blondes and soigné English villians, as well as an iconic Everyman leading man.

In both, the latter has a slightly adolescent view of women and their mysteries; Scottie’s fascination with the brassiere models, Thornhill studying Eve’s blusher, tweezers and leg shaver when he is locked in the bathroom. There are mother figures too; Scottie’s unrequited lover Midge comforts him with the words “Mother’s here”, and Thornhill’s closeness to his domineering mother (who “sniffs my breath like a bloodhound”) looks forward to Psycho.

Perhaps the best way to describe their differences is by looking at the Saul Bass title animations. Without wanting to get too heavily into Freudian symbols (fashionable though they were in Hitch’s heyday- see Spellbound), Vertigo is all deep, swirling circles and North By Northwest fills the screen with strident straight lines, inclined upwards. In Vertigo the spirals come after a female face and a zoom into the eye, then the pupil. The isolated eye is quivering, looking one way then another, we half expect Bunuel’s razorblade to slice it open. The human form, and the window to its soul, are under the microscope. The lines of NBNW eventually morph into the glass windowframes of gleaming skyscrapers. It’s impressive, modern, an artificial construction, a tall story; smoke and mirrors. The swirl in Kim Novak’s bun versus the phallic train on which Cary Grant takes his bride.

Anyway, Vertigo. Jimmy Stewart was always my proxy in this film, and I felt that Madeleine’s first “death”, which throws him into grief and insanity, was the point at which the film took off into the stratospheres; when he haunts their old meeting places, mistakes strangers for her, then takes it all out on the first woman he meets (who happens to be the same woman). The one close friend of mine who was as much of a Vertigo obsessive as I, however, rooted for the grey-suited blonde who was fixated on her suicide. She felt the film would be better if it ended with that first death, and often turned it off at that point. Most likely there are as many reasons to fall under the spell of this film as there are people who have done so. 

Years ago when I first discovered the film, I saw all my experiences and defects mirrored in it. There are times when I have started weeping as Scottie falls off the stool at the beginning, and not stopped the whole way through the film. But life moves you along, and one can only be disappointed in love so many times before the water table gets saturated; these days I watch it with much more objectivity. Vertigo feels perenially fresh because it changes as the viewer changes.

As you step back, other things come to the fore. For all I’ve said about the artifice of NBNW, you could say that Vertigo is equally about the artifice of cinema. The plotters manipulate Scottie as Hitchcock manipulates his audience, knowing when and how hard to tug on the heartstrings and the nervous system. On the first day of “tailing”, when Scottie follows Madeleine into a grotty back room off a grotty back alley, it’s still a shock and a surreal sight to see the door open on an ceiling-high display of brilliant flowers. Scottie has a very elaborate show laid on for him, as do we.

Something new catches your eye with every viewing. Maybe the minor characters; the English villain who gently prods Scottie to look for his weak spots (“Would you like a drink now?”). The repressed, forlorn Midge, who needs paintings to tell Scottie what she needs to tell him. We know she’s amorous from the moment Scottie idly recalls their university dalliances; the camera cuts straight to an intrusive close-up of her pout. The masochistically comic relief of the court coroner, who slaughters Scottie with an assessment of exaggerated bias and no little malice. The fruity-voiced German, the lighting in whose antique bookshop gets darker and darker and darker as he delves into the story of Carlotta Valdes.

The supreme attention to detail; the Bunuelish touch of Novak’s dangling, resistant foot after Scottie has hauled her to the top level of the bell tower. Novak in silhouette and profile, on that first night in Judy’s hotel room where the sickly green neon seeps through and makes it a ghost train of a bedroom. Novak always looking over his shoulder as they kiss at the Spanish church. The first date, where Scottie’s eyes latch onto a blonde lookalike in a grey suit and Novak realises what she’s done.

If one accepts that Hitchock films are firmly embedded in the star system and each star actor brings their own persona to their roles, you could say that Kim Novak is playing four roles-within-roles. She plays the feline-faced Hollywood actress Kim Novak, playing a dumpy shopgirl from Kansas, playing a posh and distinguished heiress, playing the restless spirit of a C19th suicide.

Her tragedy is that nobody loves her as she truly is; in a way it is the dilemma of a typecast actress. Scottie/the public fell in love with a character she played and unless she wants that love to die, she is condemned to keep playing that character for the rest of time. People don’t want you warts and all, they want a mysterious ideal which they can follow discreetly from the car behind and onto which they can project, project, project.

With its 39 Steps man-on-the-run plot and its dazzling array of locations, North by Northwest is a perhaps lighter handling of some similar problems; identity and playing a role. Thornhill is exasperated and furious when the criminals mistake him for their quarry Kaplan and are deaf to the truth (“You make this very room a theatre”). Then, like Alain Delon in Mr Klein, he gets sucked into the vortex and starts to accept his role- he introduces himself as Kaplan in the United Nations, hangs out in Kaplan’s hotel room and answers the phone. He protests vehemently when he is framed for car theft, but soon becomes a car thief to escape from the exploded oil tanker.

Then there’s the blonde, again playing parts-within-parts. Thornhill first meets Eve as the goodtime girl on the train who is upfront about her sexuality. When he follows her to the auction and sees her with Vandamme, he thinks he’s figured out who the true Eve is and becomes the “peevish lover stung by jealousy”; Thornhill rages at her. But there is still another layer to the onion; she’s acting with Vandamme too because she’s FBI. More so, in fact, as she feels something for Thornhill and her reactions to his anger have put her in jeopardy; Thornhill is contrite. She loves him, she loves him not.

I like James Mason in this film and wanted more of him; he’s a similar kind of actor to Dirk Bogarde. The first thing he does upon entering the film is to close the curtains on the daylight and illuminate the lamps- as if confirming that Thornhill has been ripped from his dull life and planted into an adventure movie. Hitchcock gives him most of the best lines too.

Where Cary Grant is alpha male action man, bedding the girl, rolling around in dust and perpetually climbing windowledges, Mason never does anything that would crumple his blue wool suit. He’s aloof, cerebral, slightly sickly. He’s got one of those faces and his performance reminds me of a line from Neil Tennant; “I wanted to give the impression that I didn’t care at all, because in fact I cared very deeply”. They way he looks at Eve, even as he plots to kill her, shows that still waters can run the deepest.

The set pieces are too well-known to merit recounting, but it’s always funny and exciting. The pace is so breakneck that there isn’t time to catch your breath, let alone scrutinise any holes in the plot. I enjoy the subversiveness of Thornhill having to go drink-driving to stay alive, pulling goofy faces as his car swerves offroad. I enjoy the surreal, Kafkaesque scene in the lift where everyone but Thornhill is laughing hysterically, just as he is seconds away from death. I enjoy the unbearable, Western-like tension of Thornhill’s wait at Prarie Stop 41 and the faceless, inexplicable terror of the crop-dusting plane.

Seeing the two films together, I wondered if North by Northwest was an attempt to atone for the rigorous pessimism of Vertigo. As Eve falls off the cliff-face at Rushmore, Thornhill reaches out and grabs her hand as Scottie failed to do with the policeman. Both are clinging on by Thornhill’s fingers, with a villian grinding his foot onto the fingers, when the cliffhanger is abruptly resolved by the deus ex machina of an FBI marksman (cut to the FBI guardian angels, the favoured James Mason at their side and still making droll remarks).

Then, the jump cut to that fairytale ending. It’s as flippant and comic as Vertigo‘s finale is devastating and Wagnerian; with a dumbfounded Scottie standing on the ledge, one only hopes that the nun will do the human thing and push him over as well.


He’s Henery the eighth, he is

Anne of the Thousand Days (Charles Jarrott, 1969)

Of all the films chosen for the NFT’s Richard Burton season, this was the one that jumped out at me. I’m not a great lover of Burton but I could see why he would be just right for Henry VIII (all the egotism, tantrums and self-destructiveness), and he proved to be so. Furthermore, although Liz Taylor and he were very good at tearing pieces out of one another, it was decided that she was too old for the titular role and they got in Genevieve Bujold. In the unlikely event that such people exist, regular readers will recall that last month I quite fell for Miss Bujold in Obession, so Lizzie’s loss was my gain.

Bujold’s part is very interesting here and nothing like the fragile, ethereal Italian girl from Obsession. She’s a very intelligent girl who, through circumstance, has to become a hard-nosed bitch in order to simply survive; but at the close of play, sacrifices herself partly out of spite and partly to make sure her daughter will be well off. When she clashes with Burton it’s like watching a hungry fox square up to a rooster.

The design of the film is impressive, the Tudor court recreated by location filming at various castles and at one point, the Tower of London. No expense has been spared by the costume department, the richly-coloured finery encrusted with diamonds and gems. Burton will drink from a golden goblet, people walk around chewing on chicken legs, all the visuals you expect and associate with the period. A contemporary-sounding score incorporates some of the monarch’s own tunes.

There’s also a real sense of suffocation from the politics, of the court and of the land. These people fall in and out of love and lust, over-react and make mistakes like we all do, with the difference that their decisions will affect the fates of entire countries. People are obliged to betray their friends, their family to save their own skin. It’s too much for them to bear and they turn on one another with some eye-poppingly waspish and colourful dialogue. Sample Burton line; “At 15, I was rogering maids left-right-and-centre”.

We start near the end, with the King agonising over whether to sign Anne’s death warrant. Thomas Cromwell has brought it over, his horsemen scattering a flock of sheep before a few Losey-ish shots of footmen admitting him and closing the doors in our face. Burton is weak, tearful and full of self-doubt; as Cromwell smiles his evil, sickly smile we think of Othello and Iago. The camera zooms into Burton’s anguished face and some period music kicks in; we sense a flashback coming on…

Some young people are dancing at court, Anne Boleyn (Bujold) amongst them. Watching from his throne, Henry can’t take his eyes off her. The frumpy, bird-like Katherine of Aragon notices and looks appropriately miserable. It is established that Henry despairs of ever having a male heir by Katherine and resents her for it.

Enter the red robes of Cardinal Wolsey, played all smug and butter-wouldn’t-melt by Anthony Quayle. He’s carrying an orange in his hand for some reason. There’s a love match between Anne and young Northumberland, but Henry withholds his consent. He reveals to Wolsey that he’s “bored of court, bored with my Spanish cow”, and intends to visit the Boleyn estate in Kent.

In front of his audience, Henry is a garrulous orator. His wife is barren, therefore it’s all “God’s willing” that he should have Anne instead (for God, read Henry VIII). Thomas Boleyn is hedging his bets for now.

“Will Anne have me?”

“She’s no fool.”

Anne, however, is trying to elope with her beau. Our first few glimpses of Bujold showed a porcelain doll with a childlike delight in her smile, but as she dallies with Northumberland in the rose garden, we learn that there’s a little more to her than that. She wants sex before the marriage, and he ought to know that she isn’t a virgin. The poor lad looks a little scared. As they lie together, the feet of Cromwell enter in the foreground of the frame. Game’s up, kids.

The pair get a stern telling off from Wolsey- disobey the King and you die. Anne is quaking with anger. “I shall not go the same way as my sister!”, she declares- we’ve already met Mary, who bore the King’s bastard and was quickly discarded by him. Out on a hunt, meanwhile, Henry is asking the lads for some team tips. Pretend you’re impotent with every woman except her, he’s told. They open up like… “Forget the similie”, chuckles Burton.

When Anne and Henry talk, she’s cold and snubs him. He sends everyone out of the room and immediately starts pleading, the sense of an obstacle inflaming his desire “No woman’s ever talked to me like that”, he whines in amazement- the whine of a spoilt man who’s used to getting everything he wants. Unseen, Cromwell and Wolsey watch the scene from a balcony. A fortnight later the King is still in Kent and Anne is still a tease. In London, Wolsey is very content to play Mandelson and run the government himself.

Anne goes out riding with Henry, but is even more scathing when he tries to get close to her. She ridicules his music, his poetry, and says “you make love like you eat- with a great deal of noise and no subtlety”. Henry is being driven mad, and can’t even enjoy his tavern piss-ups without flying into a rage.  Mary counsels Anne to keep it up (“the moment you are conquered, he’ll walk away”).

The stakes are raised when Bujold gets her cleavage out for a masque. You already have a wife, she tells Henry, provoking a rambling confession. I didn’t marry, England married Spain. I was 17 and I was a political pawn. All our sons died. The look in Bujold’s eye suggests she might be beginning to thaw.

In court, Anne is walking her tightrope with some skill- Henry follows her like a dog, and she rules the roost without even having to put out. She humiliates Wolsey by asking a few searching questions and more or less obliging the Cardinal to put his personal fortune at the disposal of the King. Playing archery in the background, Henry strikes bullseye.

Wolsey is summoned in the middle of the night, making his fat charlady hide behind the bed before he’ll open the door. Anne and Henry are playing chess as he enters. Henry has thought of a way he could annul his marriage to Katherine. Wolsey begs him to reconsider; the Pope will excommunicate him and all of England, not to mention Europe, will turn against him. It could well mean war. However, at the idea of becoming Queen we can see the dollar signs in Bujold’s eyes.

For the first time in months, Henry goes to see his unfortunate wife. She grovels, he waffles on about God’s willing once more- but he can’t even look at her. “I will live and die your wife!”, she insists. Wolsey is back from Rome, which has been pre-emptively seized by Charles of Spain. The Pope won’t annul. Anne delights in further mocking Henry, who takes it all out on the “unfit for office” Cardinal.

The catalyst for a breakthrough is Cromwell. With Jesuitical cleverness, he points out that to obey the Pope before the King is treason. And if Henry passed an act of supremacy appointing himself as head of the Church, he could help himself to the church’s limitless coffers. Sir Thomas More is furious at Cromwell for opening Pandora’s box; “instead of telling him what he ought to do, you told him what he can do- and now we are lost”.

Having succumbed to his achilles heel and chosen pussy over the church, Henry enjoys his ill-gotten gains. Anne’s resistance finally cracks when Burton says “Enjoy your palace, cold-hearted bitch!” and makes to storm off. Soon she’s cuddling against his hairy chest in bed and telling him about all the male heirs they’re going to have. She does indeed get knocked up and they marry in haste; it’s all downhill from here.

After a ceremony where the priest trembles and stutters, and Henry races ahead with his vows, we get our first sight of the common man. Henry and Anne walk through the streets in a display of much pomp; but the plebs who had been paid to cheer instead heckle “the King’s whore” and shout “God save the true Queen!”. Trumpets and cannons are needed to drown out the jeers.

The baby is a girl. Anne curses herself for having “failed” and a sulking Burton walks out, refusing to kiss his baby. As Mary warned, they become estranged and we witness a carbon copy of the opening scene, with Anne in Katherine’s place and Jane Seymour in Anne’s place; it’s quite All About Eve. Anne manoeuvres to banish Seymour, but is reminded that the people hate her and she is dependent on the King’s protection. The balance of power has shifted.

Choosing “a good death over a bad conscience”, Sir Thomas More is sent to the chopping block. A camera looms over the scene, descending until it reaches the eye level of the plebs in the crowd. He is refused permission to address them. As the masked axeman brings his blade down, we cut to an hysterical, screaming Bujold (prophetic). Her latest baby -a boy- is stillborn, and with it die her chances of staying on the throne.

More tantrums from Burton (“I am cursed!”). He wants another annulment and Cromwell can get it- if Anne were guilty of adultery, it would be treason. He picks a hapless court musician and extracts confession through torture. Anne’s uncle is sent to take her to the tower, leaving the infant Elizabeth I in an otherwise empty frame. By torchlight, we see rowing boats on the Thames entering the bowels of the Tower (much more impressive with no gherkins in sight).

At the trial, even Anne’s brother is accused of having been her lover. Sickeningly, their father steps up as witness to this. The trial is a proper kangaroo court; Henry hides behind a pillar, but when the musician is questioned he cannot help bursting into court and asking his own questions. In his Stalinist paranoia, he seems to believe in the adulteries that he himself invented. Such vulnerability only makes him even less likeable- Burton can certainly serve up a complex bad guy.

Henry and Anne have one last encounter in her cell, and he makes her an offer; if she agrees to remove Elizabeth from the line of succession, she will be spared and can live in exile. She does not agree; she is determined that Elizabeth will rule, she will rule better than Henry, “and my blood will have been well spent”. To further revenge herself, as a reeling Henry leaves her cell she cries out that she was unfaithful to him with half his entire court. She might as well.

The second beheading is as well handled as the first. After the blade falls, the camera waits until the body is removed before showing, from a birds-eye-view, a pool of blood on the platform’s sawdust floor. Burton is out hunting with his mates when he hears the ceremonial cannon fire; evidently he’s too balls-deep in Jane Seymour to care anymore. We see little Elizabeth wandering alone through a garden as Bujold’s last words about her are replayed. So ends a gripping rise-and-fall story, with a worldly-wise portrayal of the impermanence of love.


Help the Aged

Pranzo di Ferragosto (Gianni di Gregorio, 2008)

Directorial debut from one of the Gomorrah scriptwriters (also playing the male lead), presumably at pains to show his versatility. Having shown the mafia’s labyrinthine stranglehold over Neapolitan society, here he serves up something much more modest and light; a warm humanist comedy in which most of the cast are 90-something amateurs. 

Most of the action is confined to Gianni’s (apparently real-life) small flat in Trastevere and the surrounding streets. The flat seems too small for the number of people that end up in it and as the handheld camera swivels round the kitchen, everyone shouting over one another, we get a sense of claustrophobia; it feels like they are all continually banging into one another.

It’s the middle of August and Rome is like a pressure cooker; whenever Gianni steps outside the hum of crickets is ever-present. He sits in a grafitti-strewn street to have a drink with a friend, and they point and snigger at the passing tourists. “They’re so white, like they’ve been bleached”. Everyone in the cinema chuckled in recognition.

This is the bank holiday weekend when most Romans escape to the seaside, the country, or anywhere they can cool down. No such luck for Gianni- his debts are mounting because his live-in mother is so demanding that he can’t find the time to work. His only concession to the seasonal condition is to take a discarded electric fan from a skip.

Gianni has infinite patience with Mamma. As he reads Dumas to her in bed, she interrupts with a stream of queries and remarks. “He has a hooked nose? Then I don’t like him!” she remarks after asking for a description of D’Artagnan. She calls for him in the middle of the night; Gianni is docile and obedient with her, using a constant stream of fags and white wine to subdue his frustration.

The pair are made anxious  by a visit from Alfonso, the administrator of the condominium. Gianni has not been paying his service charges, or his share of the bills, for some three years and the neighbours are preparing legal action. Alfonso knows how it is, he’s got problems too- he’s got dermatitis. He needs to go away to a spa with his wife and kids, but who will look after his mother for the weekend? If Gianni can help him out, he’ll gladly write off all his outstanding debts. We see how Italian society functions; one favour for another.

Gianni wins his mother round to the idea during a conspiratorial supper, the camera moving round the edge of the room. And next morning, Alfonso turns up with his mother Marina and his aunt Maria. Gianni is fuming but Alfonso is very careful not to leave the women’s side, so that he cannot say anything. Mamma, her skin wrinkled and covered in blotches, applies red lipstick, foundation and earrings before coming out to face her visitors like Punch in drag.

Alfonso pushes a few Euro notes into Gianni’s palm on his way out. My aunt is very nice, but “she forgets a few things”. Leaning out the window as he smokes, Gianni sees Alfonso taking down the top of his convertible. He greets a blonde girl half his age and they drive off together. Gianni goes back to cooking lunch, with perpetually-topped up wine in one hand and a fag in his mouth.

Having hypochondriac tendencies, Gianni hias summoned Marcello, his GP, over for a check-up. The doctor is in trouble- he really needs to Gianni to take in his mother, Grazia, for the weekend. What difference is one more? Gianni accepts with a stunned stoicism. Marcello gives meticulous instructions about the cocktails of pills his mother takes, and what hours she takes them. Oh, and she’s violently allergic to cheese and tomatoes. Gianni and Maria have been making an enormous pasta bake.

The macaroni looks and smells delicious, but Grazia has to make do with a plate of steamed vegetables. She looks over forlornly as Maria remarks that she’d rather starve than eat that green slop. Mamma does not join them for dinner; weirded out by the invasion, she’s hiding in her bedroom playing solitaire. When she asks to have her TV set back, having loaned it to Marina, the latter locks herself into the dining room and won’t let them in- dinner in the kitchen, then.

There are too many people in this poky flat and Gianni is finding it impossible to keep the peace. There’s a humorous moment when he tries to make the ladies camomile tea by putting teabags into a pan of water which doesn’t infuse- four bags, then six, then eight. Mamma feels guilty and invites the others into her room; Marina doesn’t open her door until the small hours, when a floor-level camera follows her feet as she sneaks outside.

Gianni finds her getting drunk at a terrace bar and she won’t come back with him (“No way. I’m drinking, I’m smoking”). When he finally succeeds in retrieving her, she makes a mortifying attempt to seduce him (“I’m afraid to sleep alone. You’re so big, so strong”). And having escaped Marina, Gianni finds that Grazia has raided the fridge and eaten all the remaining macaroni.

As Gianni wakes the next morning, the initially suspicious ladies are getting on famously, Grazia dispensing palm readings. It’s time for the guests to go home but they want to have Ferragosto lunch together. They plead with Gianni and produce 100 Euro notes. He’s too much of a softie to say no, but all the shops will be shut.

Viking, his friend from the wine bar, gives Gianni a backie on his motorbike. This is the only scene where we see a bit more of Rome. As the ladies polish glasses and set out plates and bowls, the men whizz through the deserted Roman streets, past the Colosseo. Their destination is the banks of the Tiber, where they present a fisherman with a nice bottle of wine; again, to get what you want it’s one favour for another.

Gianni manages to scrape together a slap-up meal and when Alfonso and Marcello start calling, the ladies beg to be allowed to stay for supper. The closing credits sees them all dancing round the flat.

The amateur cast were watchable and funny, the ladies giving the sense of old age as a second childhood; they are mischievous and devil-may-care in their attitudes and troublemaking. They love to talk about their pasts, their childhood and courtships; “Old age offers you so little, so you walk back through the years”, says Grazia.

For all the fondness and whimsy, the film does make you think about our aging society. What will we do with all these pensioners? Their sons are eager to be rid of the burden and will pay off anyone who can take over; but once Gianni knuckles down to caring for them, he finds it greatly rewarding. He begins the film worn down by stress, and ends it laughing uncontrollably. They may be a bit batty, but they’re still people and we’re all going to end up just like them. By putting this point under the spotlight, the film gives dignity to old age.


Walkie Stalkie

En la Ciudad de Sylvia (José Luis Guerin, 2007)

Properly minimalist cinema. There are two characters we know nothing about, there’s an extremely loose story but it’s a bit of a maguffin. Plot, character, dialogue are all emptied out of this film and the viewer is forced to study the little details, because there’s nothing else there; I thought of Chantal Akerman’s films. Leaves rustling in the wind, sunlight on a medieval alley, the dreamy look on the face of a girl drinking coffee.

Sounds thrilling, doesn’t it. I’m sure that most people would hate it, but I enjoyed it and found that it stayed with me afterwards. There’s something unsettling about the unashamed scopophilia; its intrusiveness, and also what you see in the faces that are so closely scrutinised. People have mentioned Hitchcock and it’s certainly that Rear Window thing of making you aware that watching cinema is as voyeuristic a pleasure as any. The male lead stares at girls, follows them around, and he’s our proxy within the film.

Pace is slow, place feels important. A lot of takes in the film will be static shots of street scenes. For example, when the boy gets out of his pit in the morning, we have a shot of the narrow street his hotel is on. Cyclists pass by, ringing their bells. Schoolboys, a limping man selling roses, a man with a wheelie suitcase that squeaks and screeches over the cobblestones. From the open windows come singing canaries, snatches of TV and opera.

The boy eventually emerges in a linen suit and, consulting his map, bounds down the street and off-camera. The camera hangs around to record more passers-by and snatches of conversation in French, German, Spanish. Very like the surveillance videos in Haneke’s Caché. Later on, a specific shot that was significant might be revisited at a different time of day, and will again be peopled by different ‘protagonists’ and a different soundtrack- or altogether empty. It gives a sense of quiet melancholy, but also of the rhythm of the city’s life.

The setting is Strasbourg, looking pretty in the summer sun. A shaggy-haired pretty boy (Xavier Lafitte) is staying at a cheap hotel for a few nights. The film gets broken into three days; what “action” there is occurs on the middle day, with rumination beforehand and reflection afterwards. The days are broken by title screens for the ‘1st night’, ‘2nd night’, which is odd as the nights consist only of a few seconds’ footage of fleeting car headlights illuminating a section of the hotel bedroom wall.

On the first morning, the boy is sitting on his bed in a billowing white shirt and blue waistcoat. He has a book in his lap but he’s staring into space, deep in thought. He stays there, as does the camera, for two whole minutes; then he starts to scribble and the viewpoint changes to a profile. We’re watching the watchman.

The camera follows him along the riverside. On the café terrace of a bustling arts centre, he sits at a table and looks at people. One girl is in a deep revery. Two or three times he tries to speak to her, but she appears not to notice. A waitress sets down a large coffee before the boy, which he immediately spills. Cut, and that’s all we get to see of his first full day in town. So far, so tentative.

Next day he’s back on the terrace, doing rough pencil drawings of the people around him and supping on a pint. It’s much busier today, he has so much wistful-looking totty that neither he nor the camera can decide who to focus on. He captions one drawing “elle”, then hastily alters it to “elles”. An African hawker with a stupid umbrella coming out of his baseball cap wanders through the crowd, trying to sell keyrings and torches. This terrace scene is a quietly extraordinary one which takes up a large portion of the film.

There’s lots of play and trickery. If we see a sulking couple at the foreground of the picture and a snogging couple at the rear, the men will overlap so the girl at the back appears to be kissing the sulking man in the foreground. Two men sit either side of a girl. The camera cuts out the man on the right, so we assume the other two are together as they sit in stony silence. When we next see the three, the woman will rest her head on the shoulder of the man on the right. After he’s been sitting in silence for some twenty minutes, the man on the left is shown to be with a rather hangdog girl who was off-camera. We realise that he is shaking with nerves. He mutters, “No… I don’t think so… I’ll think it over” (one of the very few lines of dialogue we pick up in this scene). The girl has an unhappy half-smile but one can’t quite tell if it’s stunned/sardonic/other.

The boy is now sketching a seething montage of heads, faces, body parts. A pigeon shits on the page. A blonde girl with her back to us does her hair up in a Kim Novak bun, which is the cue for our female lead (Lopez de Ayala) to enter. The boy changes seat (to escape the art criticism?) and sees a beautiful girl with dark hair, pale skin, eyes like jewels and pouting pink lips. She leaves and he’s uncertain what to do. Pint or girl? He gets up to follow her and spills his pint.

The girl walks through the town centre, dressed in red, the boy following. Crowds and high street stores. Sounds, like busking accordionists, drift in and out. The camera tracks the girl sometimes from the front, but mostly from behind. The boy doesn’t seem to want anything other than to watch. Is he trying to summon the nerves to talk to her, or is he for now enjoying the power of gazing without having his gaze disclosed?

Twice he calls (“Sylvia?”) but she does not respond. He’s immediately behind her now, the camera shows the girl head-on with a determined expression. Her phone rings and the boy drops back. By this point we’re in the old town, away from the shops and crowds. Static shots of passageways with crumbling plaster. The girl knows this network of streets and alleys, and manages to lose him. The boy is flustered- running, lost, retracing his steps.

He ends up in a small square when providence intervenes and he hears her mobile ringtone from an upper storey window. He steps further and further back, bumping into people, trying to look into the windows. What started out whimsical is now getting increasingly distasteful. As he’s staring at a brunette in a bra who’s drying her hair, trying to work out if it’s “Sylvia”, we see the girl in the reflection of the shop window behind him. (Incidentally, in the extras the director claims that he avoided using red anywhere else to make the girl more striking, and that this was a reference to Dante & Beatrice. Surely that’s more Don’t Look Now than Dante?)

The chase begins once more. We cut from a long-distance shot to one of the girl’s face. Amidst pealing bells she frowns and stomps her way to a tram stop. The boy looks like he wants to speak up but she looks formidable as she puts on sunglasses and folds her arms. She’s seen with a cathedral in the background as the tram arrives.

The lighting is lovely on the bus tram. Finally, in an enclosed space, when the boy calls she has to respond. He seems disappointed that she doesn’t remember him; they met six years ago in a Strasbourg bar (but what could he expect after six years?). I’ve still got the map you drew for me on a napkin, he tells her. That’s impossible, she says, I’ve only lived in Strasbourg for one year. Cynic that I am, when I saw this film in the cinema I assumed that it was a transparent chat-up line. But on a second viewing, those initial hotel room shots do show the napkin in question.

Is she the girl? If so, she had a place in his life and he never made her think twice. Either way she’s a little teary, a relieved smile and lots of giggles. She’s not in mortal danger from the Strasbourg Ripper after all. He gets a deserved telling off for following her so doggedly and not introducing himself. To be stalked like that is “tres, tres desagréable”.

The Jimmy Stewart line (gee, you do look a lot like her) doesn’t soften the girl and the boy showers her with embarrassed apologies as she gets off the tram. She puts a finger to her lips, says “I hope you find her”, blows a kiss and disappears. The scene of her exit is returned to later. A baroque choir sing as the boy slumps in a seat to take in his disappointment.

Evening comes and we find ourselves at the bar in question (Les Aviateurs). It’s an unprepossessing goth club with abundant dyed hair, white foundation, ‘I want to be a tree’ dancing. The floor fills for ‘Heart of Glass’. At the bar, the boy whispers sweet nothings into the ear of a drugged out-looking girl. She smirks but does not respond. Eventually she wanders off to dance. He transfers his roving eye to a goth girl with black lipstick as the music fades out.

That night, there are two naked bodies on his hotel bed. But on the third day, he dutifully returns to that café. He sees the girl from behind and follows her to a tram; where she turns around and proves only to be a lookalike. Had he decided the girl he stalked might do just as well as his dream girl from six years hence? Probably. He sits at the tram stop; the people around him change with every shot. Lots and lots of statuesque girls are posed in front of the cathedral again, their hair twirling wildly in the wind. We get a split-second glimpse of the girl on the other side of a moving tram; when it passes she has gone, if she was ever really there.

En la Ciudad de Sylvia is an elusive mood piece, a tranquil film with worrying undertones. More questions than answers. It’s refreshing to see a piece of cinema that isn’t clambering over itself to catch your attention, doesn’t pander or patronise. To enjoy it requires the use of muscles that aren’t called into action by the majority of films, I think. It was well played and crafted, but it’s the film’s uniqueness in that makes it of particular value.


“This town is crawling with soldiers, sadists and painters”

Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (Jacques Demy, 1967)

This film is the NFT’s current reprint du jour and I’d never seen it before, although I’ve enjoyed what I’ve previously seen of Jacques Demy. It was the follow-up to his biggest hit Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, and its reputation is essentially Parapluies-only-not-as-good. I can see what people mean but I’m not sure it’s altogether fair as the two have different objectives.

With Parapluies, the swelling music elevates a fairly mundane story (of first love dissolving in disappointment and rancour) to the stuff of tragedy. Demoiselles is a great deal more expensive, with more stars, and even better songs. Demy plays puppeteer with a cast of would-be lovers, finally pairing them all off in a happy ending, but self-consciously (and affectionately) sending up the sort of story that he’s telling. Think A Midsummer Night’s Dream and its countless imitators.

As you watch the film, it feels barely relevant that the script is far from rigorous, because the content is in the visuals and the music. It’s a beautiful, breezy summer and the sunshine really brings out the pastel colours of both this little seaside town and the gorgeous costumes. Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorléac’s twins are usually seen in matching outfits, one in yellow and one in pink. Gene Kelly’s pink polo shirt and lilac blazer, however, may over-egg the pudding a little.

Michel Legrand’s vivacious, jazzed-up soundtrack really steals the show. I have been humming the song which introduces the twins, ‘Nous sommes deux soeurs jumettes’, constantly in the 36 hours since I left the cinema. It’s one of those killer tunes that really puts a smile on your face (and it rhymes ‘érudites’ with ‘frites’).

But although this film is much lighter than Parapluies, the music still pulls off the feat of being simultaneously feelgood and heartbreaking. Even when it’s at its most boisterous and rousing, it’s tinged with real melancholy. The effect is that as we watch the characters drift in and out their amours, we sense that love is something which will inflict great pain and is nevertheless to be pursued at all costs. You swoon as you are punched in the stomach. A musician could probably explain why this is, I imagine it’s something to do with minor chords.

The opening credits rather advertise the artificiality of what we are about to see. A convoy of lorries and workers in white overalls are moving through grim-looking surroundings on the edge of town. Their lorries arrive on a platform at the edge of a river, and an enormous crane mechanism lifts the platform and carries it across. On the platform a group of youngsters perform a slow-motion, synchronised dance number. A birds’ eye view shot sees the crane lift them over the brown water.

As they enter town a convoy of soldiers are leaving on the same road. A panoramic view of the town square is filled with more dancing and high-kicks as the girls pair off with sailors. We have been planted into Demy World; and his films do indeed feel like a theme park. Not only are they musicals, but characters from one will reappear in another. Over dinner, a family discuss characters from Parapluies. We hear snatches of dialogue from passers-by.

A fair is coming to town and people are hanging up gaily coloured bunting. The camera surveys them, then enters an upper-storey window where Deneuve and Dorléac are concluding a ballet class for young girls. Then we get that fabulous song, in which the sisters express their longing to quit the small town for the bright lights of Paris.

In this day and age, one forgets how luminous Deneuve was in the mid-60s. Demy usually casts her as an ordinary girl with extraordinary beauty. Personally I prefer her in more twisted roles (Tristana, Replusion) but it’s each to their own. She and her real-life sister Dorléac have a yin-yang quality; the blonde and the brunette, the dancer and the pianist/composer. Dorléac’s beauty is less immediately striking (whose wouldn’t be?) and her character compensates by being cerebral where Deneuve is flighty. She died in a car crash shortly after filming finished.

The twins’ mother Yvonne is serving up the chips and beers in her café; a piece of prime real estate in the town square, a unit with glass walls and gold pillars. Josette the waitress helps out; Yvonne’s father sits in the corner and makes model aeroplanes, occasionally breaking off to bark that he needs more glue. We meet Etienne and Bill, who are running one of the fair stalls, and Maxence the sailor (a peroxide blonde Jacques Perrin), who describes himself as a ‘painter/poet’ and has been looking for his ‘feminine ideal’. When he enters the regulars ask, “Have you found her yet?”

As passers-by somersault along the streets, Deneuve interacts with them on the way to see her on-off boyfriend Guillaume, who runs an art gallery. He’s creating a Pollock-esuqe work by shooting at bags of paint dangling in front of a blank canvas. He shows her a portrait, a little like blue-period Picasso, which a local ‘painter-poet’ has submitted. It’s called ‘Feminine Ideal’ and it’s a perfect likeness of Deneuve. She is touched by it, he is disdainful. They quarrel and break up. Back at the café, the boys from the fair give us a swaggering song-and-dance number about how they love the freedom of life on the road.

The next location is the music shop of Simon Dame (played by a suede-suited Michel Piccoli as a gentle, bashful chap). It’s a celestial white with neo-classical pillars and instruments hanging from the ceiling. He sells some sheet music to a group of nuns before Dorléac pays a visit. Could M. Dame perhaps put in a good word when his friend, the famous American composer Andy Miller, arrives in Paris for his forthcoming concert? She plays him some of her latest concerto; strings and cymbals join in. It’s a dramatic, Romantic piece which moves Dame to confess that he has moved to Rochefort because he met the love of his life here. She ran off to Mexico with another man and he wants to live alone amongst his memories.

Dorléac is collecting her little brother Boubou from school. He throws a tantrum and her belongings are scattered to the floor. A handsome stranger (the beaming Gene Kelly) rushes to help her and as their eyes meet, her concerto is reprised. It’s the cheesiest thing you’ve ever seen and most of the audience roared with laughter. Dorléac is (understandably) embarrassed and rushes away, leaving Gene Kelly to express joy at his coup de foudre via the medium of dance. Though he has a mere bit part, Kelly’s improvised routines properly show up the other dancers. He rolls up her score and hits boys on the head with it, then spirals off down the road, lifting a Nureyevish leg over the water hydrants.

Etienne and Bill are in trouble; their dancers/on-off girlfriends are quitting the stall on the eve of the fair to run off with two sailors. They could never love the boys because they don’t have blue eyes (there is much discussion of the importance of blue eyes in this film). Their carefree song is reprised, this time delivered in unsmiling and bitter fashion.

Maxence chats to an old man called Dutrouz; he hates the military and foresees trouble (“it’s like ’39”). In Parapluies, Algeria hangs over everyone’s lives and is the catalyst that separates the lovers- here there are soldiers about, and commented on, but their purpose is much more vague and accepted. No trace of ’68 in the air as there was in Godard’s films of the time. Yvonne sings of her lost love; she pretended she was moving to Mexico, and he left town for good. The reason? She couldn’t bear to have the silly name Madame Dame. Amusingly, Boubou is scolded for trying to dance on the tables.

The portrait of Deneuve fades into her face as Etienne and Bill pay a visit to the twins, who greet them sardonically as “Jules et Jim”. The girls are haughty but admit the boys, who ask if they might replace their dancers by performing a song on their stall. Needless to say, a torch song about virile Hamburg sailors does not go down well. In another song, they ask what sort of music the boys are looking for? Mozart, Stravinsky, Thelonious Monk, Louis Armstrong or Michel Legrand? (Cheeky!).

Things take an oddly Brechtian turn at the café as Yvonne reads the newspaper and sings a jaunty tune about an axe murderer who chopped up a woman and left her remains in a basket. Upbeat, strident jazz accompanies the pompiers‘ efforts to disperse the crowds and wash the bloodstains from the pavement. Later on, we learn that the killer was Dutrouz and the cast react with glib amusement. This segment jars a little and looks forward to the full-on weirdness of Peau d’Ane (my favourite Demy film).

The plot teases the lovers a little- Dorléac meets Maxence and Deneuve meets Gene Kelly. She’s been buying spectacular costumes for the fair (red sequinned dresses and elbow-length gloves), which characteristically, Dorleac worries “will make us look like whores”. Kelly visits Piccoli and tells him about his recent love-at-first-sight experience.

On the day of the fair the town square is packed. There are ballerinas and basketball players on the diverse stages. The crowd scenes are well handled, the camera moving from stage to stage and picking out things and people in the crowd on its way. The boys are in white denim and trying to flog motorbikes. Indeed, a number of the stalls are sponsored by well-known corporates, bringing to mind Parapluies’ climax at a Shell station. Is Demy saying something about the early stages of globalisation, or were these companies paying for the film to be made? Or a bit of both? 

The sisters’ song does, of course, go down a bomb. Afterwards, they are backstage with the boys and draw a curtain across to undress. The boys pounce upon this moment of vulnerability to make a hesitant declaration; we love you and we want to sleep with you. Drearily reminiscent of adolescent courtship. The sisters brush them off with a song about how useless men are, only ever wanting transient flings. Where is Mr. Right? The boys wander out to dance across an empty square, littered with balloons and streamers. They look a bit Saturday Night Fever in the white denim and black t-shirts.

The next morning comes the finale. The boys are giving the twins a lift to Paris. Yvonne meets Piccoli and Dorléac meets Andy Miller. Deneuve turns up to mind the café, in which Maxence has left his bag. Grandad calls her out the back and they miss each other by seconds. Josette wants to see Paris and takes Dorléac’s vacant place in the lorry. Guillaume tells Deneuve her painter has gone to Paris and she is determined to find him. Just as we think they’ll have to wait for a sequel, the final shot is of Maxence trying to hitch a ride on the road out of town. The lads stop their lorry to let him on. FIN.

The best way I can describe Les Demoiselles de Rochefort is as a great big gloopy dessert of a film, filled with fresh cream and runny caramel and chocolate sauce. You wouldn’t want it every night, but I savoured it and as the film hurtled to its conclusion I was genuinely crestfallen to realise it was ending, and that I was going to be banished into a monochrome world where there are no happy endings and nobody sings or tapdances down the street to the accompaniment of a fantastic jazz score.

The run at the NFT will continue til the 27th of August; I strongly recommend paying a visit and I think it would be a perfect film for one of those Dates you sometimes hear the Young People talking about.

August 2009
« Jul   Sep »