Sunday, 15 February 2015

The Essential Mystery in All Things Should Be Maintained: Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2008, occasioned by an introduction to Belle de Jour at Borderlines Film Festival the same year)

‘The essential mystery in all things should be maintained and respected’ said Luis Buñuel. I’ve long thought this sage advice when approaching Buñuel’s own films and so have never much sought to dull them with clarification, analysis or over keen scrutiny. Like Buñuel too, I am completely indifferent to the psychology and motivations of his characters. However, as I introduced a recent screening (2008) of his 1967 film Belle de Jour at the Borderlines Fim Festival in Hereford recently – the film shown, appropriately enough, at 2 o‘clock in the afternoon – it’s in my mind, so I thought it might be useful to consider it a little. I want to do this for two reasons. Firstly, because shorthand appreciation of Buñuel often goes only as far as saying something along the lines of ‘his films are a skewering of religion and the bourgeoisie’. It’s a tired phrase, as much to do with marketing as anything else these days, albeit one with a kernel of truth – Buñuel was nothing if not thoroughly alive to exploring the workings of human hypocrisy in all its myriad forms – but it’s a phrase that obscures some of the more subtle elements in his work. The second reason is that the fairly substantial audience for the screening was made up almost wholly of people who had seen the film the first time round in 1967, and I wondered what Buñuel’s films hold for a different generation, other than a few iconic moments, or even stills, referenced in histories of cinema, from films such as Un Chien Andalou and Viridiana. His films are after all self-effacing, ordered, subtle, tangential, even obscure – qualities that are unlikely to find ready favour nowadays. It’s not surprising that his DVDs are sold on the back of past outrage instead. Watched with only this in mind, I suspect that one’s expectations are likely to be deflated, so I thought I would look at a few of the subtle pleasures to be had from a Luis Buñuel film. I’ll use Belle de Jour as it’s in my mind – though any of his last 10 films, from Viridiana through to That Obscure Object of Desire, could have done equally as well.

I suppose this situation was only to be expected. Controversy in one form or another attended most of his late films, starting with the one that announced his return to Europe in 1961, Viridiana. Although this won the Palme d‘Or at Cannes in that year, it caused a right rumpus in Franco’s Spain, where it was banned until 1977, and following representations from the Vatican about its blasphemy, its main offending scene being a restaging of the Last Supper as a drunken orgy for beggars to the tune of Handel’s Messiah, Buñuel, in his absence, was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment there should he have wished to visit the country.

This attention directed towards possible outrage in subject matter seems to have stuck, and what is less appreciated now is that Buñuel was a master craftsman at work, one whose economical skills in filmmaking and editing had been honed during his time in Mexico, when he made 20 films in 18 years, nearly all of which were made in less than a month and edited into shape in just 3 or 4 days more. This economy of means in realising his ideas on screen is part of the special atmosphere of a film such as Belle de Jour.

In case the story is unfamiliar, the film sees Catherine Deneuve play Séverine, a bored, sexually unfulfilled bourgeois housewife for whom the thought of polite lovemaking at night with her husband in a quiet, darkened bedroom is intolerable. Following the lead of a chance conversation, she finds work in a maison specialisée in the afternoons between 2 and 5, hence her name, ‘Belle de Jour’. Her suppressed fantasies and feelings of guilt coalesce in her daydreams and reveries are also shown in a manner largely undifferentiated from that of her daily existence. The film gave Buñuel his biggest commercial success, something probably not unconnected with its subject matter, though anyone watching for titillation would have been disappointed. For its potentially exploitative subject, it is both discreet and even chaste in its approach. It was, as critic David Thomson mischievously observed, ‘the perfect movie for wealthy women with free afternoons’.

So, what are its subtle delights. Well firstly, there’s the script, one of nine written in collaboration with Jean Claude Carrière, six of which Buñuel turned into films. It treads between the deliberately banal, the ironic, the evocative and the unexpected. ‘I love you more and more every day,’ says Paul to Séverine in an early fantasy scene of hers before he assumes a role of mastery. ‘What are you thinking about?’ asks Paul, awaking her from her reverie. ‘About you,’ she says.

In two later scenes with Husson, whose coolly distinguished decadence and depravity Michel Piccoli embodies so well, he says to his companion, ‘I’ll tell you something pleasant. I love you.’ ‘Merci,’ she says, in an equally trite tone. Then comes the punch: ‘Your scars are healing wonderfully,’ he says, casting his eye along her forearm.

Phrases dip in and out of Séverine’s reality and her secret life, with talk of cats (whips as well as animals of course) and forgiveness. Some of the best lines come in the fantasy sequence before she is pelted with thick, dark mud. ‘What time is it?’ asks Husson. ‘Between 2 and 5, but no later than 5,’ says Paul.

Interesting too is how the film’s dialogue hints at thoughts of stains in Séverine’s mind. After she has first learned of the existence of brothels she drops the vase with Husson’s roses onto the ground. ‘Don’t worry, it’s clean water. It won’t make a mark,’ says the maid. Later, on first returning from the brothel, she burns her underwear in the fire.

This scene is also a fine example of a subtle reinforcement of Séverine’s perturbation. She is told in a taxi by her companion about a mutual friend who apparently works in a brothel. When, in response to her question, the taxi driver assures her that such places do still exist, although they no longer use lanterns to advertise themselves, the screen for the next few minutes is touched with flashes of red in each scene – passing cars, a red traffic light, the red lining of a car door, the red roses in the vase on the table, and red bottles in Séverine’s bathroom. On the borderline of being unnoticeable, it is just slightly, purposefully accentuated reality.

As is often the case, Jean Claude Carrière has a telling phrase about Buñuel’s approach: ‘He wanted his films to have a power of strangeness without being strange.’ His films ‘follow a narrow path through many dangers – too much fantasy, too much absurdity, too much mystification, too many jokes … without going too far either way.’

The camerawork on Belle de Jour, by Sacha Vierney, who also lensed Last Year in Marienbad, is typically economical and unfussy and forms part of the Buñuel style, that, in a nice phrase, has been called ‘insolently effortless’. Wartching the film at the screening I set myself the task of trying to follow its camerawork. Time and again I would watch as a shot progressed and before I knew it I was hooked into and carried along with the film again, not noticing its self-effacing style.

Buñuel would famously pretend a deafness more profound than he already had when he was pestered with bothersome actor questions. Typically he would give no psychological indications or motivations to his actors. What he would give were postures, movements and gestures. I think of Madame Anais spooning cherries in brandy into a glass for Séverine on her arrival in the brothel, an action later echoed by Séverine when she prepares her paralysed husband’s medicine. I think of Séverine’s gold-toothed lover Marcel visiting in her apartment, eventually departing just before her husband returns, but leaving Séverine perturbed. She bites her thumbnail twice, a typical action of nervousness, but one that recalls Marcel’s habitual action of pushing his own gold teeth into position. I think of Séverine running her thumb along the edge of a chipped marble hall table before she goes to face her husband, but more than anything I think of Michel Piccoli sniffing the curtains in the brothel.

In my view, it is these small offhand moments that are as important as the set-pieces in setting the particular tone of Buñuel’s films. ‘I don’t systematically look for eroticism or subversion. I’m just me,’ said Buñuel. ‘His eyes were laughing the whole time – he was like a child ready for mischief,’ said Carole Bouquet, one of the two leading ladies in his final film, That Obscure Object of Desire.

While on the subject of set-pieces though, I must mention one of the central fantasy scenes, in which Séverine dreams of Husson and Paul on a plain with black bulls. It is a compendium of gestures and phrases that have percolated through Séverine’s mind: the soup is cold and cannot be warmed; Husson throws his bowl of soup to the ground in an offhand manner that recalls M Adolphe, Séverine’s first cusomer who threw a champagne glass to the ground; there is the phrase, ‘between two and five, but no later than five’, that I have already mentioned, these images mixing with that that recurrent motif beloved of the surrealists, Jean-Francois Millet’s ‘The Angelus’, the poses of which are adopted by Husson and Paul.

The depiction of dreams in film have had a mixed and not entirely successful history. At their most banal level, we have a shimmering screen or billowing clouds accompanied by glissandi on a harp, or the sound of a theremin. The latter was featured in Salvador Dalí’s dream sequence in Hitchcock’s Spellbound. Although Dalí’s full 20 minute sequence is now lost, the surviving part shows that his was a painter’s imagination that couldn’t struggled to reconcile itself to the demands of a different medium. In Belle de Jour, as with The Phantom of Liberty a few years later, Buñuel simply ignored boundaries between reality and fantasy and presented them both as plain as day, so that daydreams look like reality and vice versa. In fact, and this is a point that Carrière makes, the conventional storyline, adapted from Joseph Kessel’s novel, is fictional, Séverine’s fantasies were based on documentary fact.

Lastly, that notorious box that one of the clients brings to the brothel. Buñuel said that of all the senseless questions he was asked about his films – and he was asked many – the most common one was what was contained in the box that repelled one girl in the brothel but intrigued Séverine. When not responding by saying that it contained a picture of Monsieur Carrière, Buñuel’s answer was, ‘whatever you want there to be’, well knowing that as soon as you try to force an understanding on an image by explaining it away, you reduce the power of that image.

I’ll leave the last words to Jean Claude Carrière, who said of Buñuel that ‘he was a bunch of contradictions living together quite easily: at the same time very Spanish and very international, totally involved in his Christian Latin tradition and totally without any sort of religion. He was an instinctive scriptwriter, a surrealist, concerned with structure and plot development. He was the most subversive filmmaker but in the most classical form.’

The command of his resources and skills, and how he translated his ideas to the screen is equally as interesting as the more notorious outrages in his films. There is still plenty to learn from him there.

Bad Men’s Tricks: Three Films from Miklós Jancsó

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2008 after a London screening of The Round-Up attended by Miklós Jancsó)

“Even I don’t like films with bad endings, but unfortunately that’s life – the good guys fall for the bad men’s tricks.” That was a paraphrase of what Jancsó said after the screening of his 1965 film The Round-Up in London recently (2008), the first time he had seen his film in 27 years apparently. It’s an appropriate comment for that film, in which gendarmes pitilessly root out the survivors of a rebellion from among the group of peasants that they have corralled into a stockade, introducing discord and uncertainty by setting former comrades in arms and family members against each other.

The Round-Up is one of three of Jancsó’s films from the 1960s happily now available on DVD from Second Run, along with My Way Home from 1965 and The Red and the White from 1967. Although these only make up a small proportion of Jancso’s filmography, which boasts over 70 films across a career of nearly five decades, they are three of the main films on which his reputation rests and are all major works that belong in any self-respecting world cinema collection.

All three films deal with specific historical times and events – My Way Home details the journey home of a young Hungarian man in the final days of the second world war, The Round-Up, set in 1869, shows the corralling, isolation and methods of capturing the holdouts among the resistance fighters from the 1848 rebellion, men that were seen as a threat to the wealth and stability of the Austrian rulers, while The Red and the White takes place during the 1919 civil war in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, in which Hungarians joined Bolsheviks against the counter-revolutionary forces looking to restore the old Tsarist order. However, it would be wrong to categorise them only as historical films, as all three use their given situations as starting points for astoundingly clear-sighted, coolly distanced and unemotional investigations into such areas as the nature of power and control and the behaviour of men in wartime. They were films with contemporary significance too. The Round-Up may have been set in 1869 but it was also about the Soviet crushing of the 1956 Hungarian uprising and the ways and means of rooting out rebellious elements then.

Before I look at the films in more detail, here are two quotes regarding Jancsó’s films. In a nice phrase, the film critic Penelope Houston called them ‘dream documents of civil war’, and there is certainly something of that about them in their distilled, uncluttered, disorienting visions, while Tony Rayns once likened them to what you would expect to see if Michelangelo Antonioni took it upon himself to make a western. As Rayns admits, even though Jancsó was certainly influenced by Antonioni in his approach to film, the comparison has something of youthful exuberance behind it, but it does give a compelling idea of what to expect from the films if you haven’t seen them.

All three of the films share common characteristics, not least the dominant feature of the Hungarian plain which is a character in itself – mercilessly open and affording neither hiding places nor escape routes. A place where women can try to run from the gendarmes, who unconcerned and leisurely, send out horsemen to bring them in again, knowing that running from them is futile and where men are told that they are free to go, even though all parties involved in the conversation know that at some point before the man gets out of rifle range, he will be shot in the back with the single crack of a rifle’s report. All the films also, partly because of the apparent sparseness of their settings, transcend their location and are studies of friendship, betrayal and the indifference of death to its random subjects. In The Round-Up for example, in the prison stockade on the featureless plain, wherein hooded prisoners execute circular movements at the whim of their captors – nominally exercises but which resemble scenes from a minimalist theatre of cruelty performance – the very sparsity of context intensifies its oddity and it becomes an example of psychological cruelty that, with its hooded figures, cannot fail to resonate in our own time, recalling scenes of prisoners in Abu Ghraib or Guantánamo.

Character is likewise stripped to essentials. Psychology is replaced by movement, position, action and commands. Indeed, after watching the three films the viewer will feel that he has gained a rudimentary grasp of Hungarian, as speech in all three is largely restricted to curt, repeated, barked orders: Go back, stay there, come here, stand up, line up, hurry, stop, yes, no.

It is worth stressing however that each film has its own particular atmosphere – of temporary respite from war in a chance friendship between men on opposing sides in My Way Home, of remorseless inevitability of capture or death in The Round-Up, and of the temporary nature of power in a futile battle in The Red and the White.

My Way Home is certainly the most humane of the three films, though even here mundane killing and the random nature of survival still figure large. It even begins with people sharing useful words for once – bread, water, to eat, give me food. However, in a move typical of Jancsó, within minutes we have left these apparently important figures to their own fates, and we instead follow the one man who separates from their group, a young Hungarian man who decides to follow his own path, possibly because of jealousy – though that is far too strong a word for something denoted by a brief wartime tumble  with a girl in their group – possibly on a whim. He is nominally the Hungarian Joska, though through the course of the film he is referred to variously as Fritz, Magyar, Joseph, Russki, fascist, Nazi, tovarich. He also changes uniform in the course of his journey, one man perceived many ways. A long central section of the film sees him sent out to a cattle post to assist the young Russian man working there. Suspicion, and lack of a common language is overcome, and they begin to play games in an all-too brief respite from the daily occupation of survival in ragged times.

Nearly every study of Jancsó’s films rightly mentions his exceptional camera movement, noting crane shots and the choreography of characters through extended scenes. Fewer mention the beautifully sculpted sound design of his films. It’s apparent in My Way Home for example, where in a scene at the cattle post, where, just before Joska takes it into his mind to escape, the soundtrack becomes an extraordinary rendition, through low bowing on a cello, of the lowing of cattle, with skylarks mixed in above this, the sounds together approximating to the buzzing of the decision to run hardening into action in Joska’s mind. Later, when Joska and Kolya, his Russian captor, have grown in friendship, the music becomes a playful twittering on an oboe as they investigate their surroundings and play among the ruins of a building.

Early on in My Way Home, Joska bathes in a river with a group of other prisoners he has been temporarily allotted to. One of his group tries to escape by swimming under the barbed wire that stretches across the river but fails when he finds that the fence goes all the way down to the river bed. When they are called out of the water, the barbed wire fence divides the screen at the left hand edge, roughly into the ratio of 9 to 1. That thin strip on the narrow side of the fence is emblematic of Joska’s route home, with its unexpected luck, anf the misfortune that turns to opportunity. The film shows part of one man’s extraordinary route home, threading a course that is his only. Although he doesn’t complete the journey, he ends on a road and we never have the impression that he won’t make it. Through the course of the three films, this possibility is something that is snuffed out.

Both The Round-Up & The Red and the White begin with a piercing martial bugle call, setting the scene in The Round-Up for what Jancsó referred to as a film of defencelessness and humiliation. After the scene-setting introduction, we see figures moving towards us on a plain. Horses ride out to circle them and return whence they came in a movement that seems wholly unnecessary except for the purposes of domination and control. It is like the constant predatory circling of the gendarmes around their prisoners, a movement reinforced by the camera’s own circling movements. Is a compulsively addictive film, repellent in its relaxed detailing of the way to entrap and crush the spirit, beautiful in its large-scale choreography mixed with close-ups of faces of men who have so far survived on their wits. It is often referred to as Jancsó’s masterpiece. Astoundingly it was made in 28 days.

The Red and the White takes as its subject an obscure battle for the land between an abandoned monastery and a river in the Russian civil war. it is a film of ceaseless ebb and flow. It is, quite deliberately, notoriously difficult on first view to completely follow the action. The Reds of the title are the Bolsheviks, the Whites the Tsarists, yet there is really little to tell between them, and though certain characters impress themselves on our minds, they soon move on, or are shot. This deliberate confusion is part of Jancsó’s intent of course; though this may be a film set in war, it follows none of the conventions of such films. It is not really important that we know their characters or causes. Orders are unexplained, there are no larger goals to lend a sense of purpose to the actions taken, and few characters stay long enough for us to empathise with them. Command passes though a succession of people in the film as in a game of tag; soldiers impose order for a brief while on a situation before another relieves them of command, through capture, death or seizing a situation. Again, speech in the film occurs almost entirely in the form of commands, and here again we are in constant motion: Go away!, Stay!, Come here!.

The Red and the White is not a bloody film; death is a random, abrupt punctuation, nothing more. It is a film too of ritualisic nakedness; time and again characters are stripped bare before escape, ordeal or death.

There are moments of surreal beauty too (and on one level, the elegant, luminous black and white photography stands in contrast to the subject throughout), no more so than when the nurses are rounded up and marched to the middle of a birch wood, there to waltz for the watching soldiers. There is relief that they are not abused as we half-expect they will be.

The Red and the White was less well-received than The Round-Up, possibly because survival is by now a matter of completely indifferent chance (which may however seem something very like destiny to the survivors), but also because the clinically detached mode of representing death and the vagaries of power and survival in such an aesthetically pleasing way was considered repellent. Watching the three films together however, this seems like a natural progression. The movement in My Way Home is more jittery and choppy, journeys are broken as people move to and fro. The Round-Up, as its title suggests is a film of circling and entrapment, while The Red and the White is a film of horizontal ebb and flow.

Time and again, action in The Red and the White returns to the river. A natural feature so important to the soldiers, it is entirely indifferent to them and their futile movements, knowing they will soon all be gone. In The Round-Up too, one of the most dominant sounds in the film is that of skylarks singing, utterly indifferent to the ritualised figures of power and abuse that the humans trace out beneath them on the plain.

Fissures and Blocks: Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte & L’Eclisse

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2008)

Discussion of Michelangelo Antonioni‘s films invariably centres around questions of alienation and identity, the gaps between people, their difficulties and failures in communication, and the question of values in a deracinated society fuelled by transient desire for people and things. What I want to look at today is not so much these themes themselves, but rather how they are actually communicated in La Notte (1961) and L’Eclisse (1962).

Actually, the main reason that I want to look at Antonioni today is that I was recently startled by a single frame that I saw that was taken from L'Eclisse. It is an apparently mundane scene – Monica Vitti gets out of a taxi in a crowded street outside of the stock market and goes to pay the driver. Nothing special about that; what did catch my eye however is that on first glance there seems to be a fissure running vertically through the fabric of the film itself, something akin to the actual break in the film that Bergman inserted into his film Persona. On a second glance I could see that the impression was caused simply by the light shining through the narrow gap between two high buildings but the way this just off-centre line cracked the screen in two, with its direction picked up and continued by the bonnet of the taxi seemed to me to be of central importance in the scene. It was with this relationship of character and background in mind that I watched La Notte and L’Eclisse, which show characters taking their place as part of compositions that are balanced between structure and improvisation.

Some background. Although Antonioni had some roots in neorealism, he said that because he came to it late, he was able to see that the primary motivation of relating an individual to the society in which he lived could be extended so that the emphasis could shift to include an examination of an individual’s psychology, to examine (and here I am quoting from the extended interview with Antonioni that appears in the booklet accompanying the Masters of Cinema edition of La Notte) ‘after all he had been through (the war, the immediate postwar situation, all the events that were currently taking place and which were of sufficient gravity to leave their mark upon society and the individual) …  the symptoms of such restlessness and such behaviour which began to outline the changes and transitions that later came about in our psychology, our feelings, and perhaps even our morality.’

This is made manifest in his films by characters being quite inseparable from the environments they inhabit; environments that have however been chosen to reflect that individual’s psychology. And ‘reflect’ is literally the appropriate word here. In La Notte for example, characters are time and again reflected in the glass walls of buildings, fractured into uncertain possibilities of multiple selves.

La Notte takes place from morning to the following dawn as a couple – played by Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau – traverse Milan, together and separately, from the hospital bed of a friend who is dying, through the wastelands of the outskirts where they no longer belong, to a a society party, at which both look for amusement in brief liasons, although neither can go through with their actions.

When people are not divided from each other in the film by their placement in settings in which the visual lines of communication are blocked, they are reflected back on themselves. Even in the relatively naturalistic setting of the hospital early on in La Notte, characters are shown against discrete blocks of background light or shade that extend to the top of the frame, so that that there is no chance of correspondence between them. Psychical states are mirrored by physical ones. And what chance is there of a relationship on a human scale when channels are so intruded upon and blocked by the settings in which they find themselves?

At one point, in a  quite breathtakingly audacious shot, Jeanne Moreau’s character, Lidia, is pictured returning to her apartment; the entire central 3/4 of the screen is taken up by a solid grey block of concrete wall. She can just be glimpsed in the street below. Earlier too, Giovanni has to walk around centrally featured concrete steps outside of the hospital, right along the edge of the frame, so he can meet up with Lidia.

At other times the screen is composed of arrangements of light and dark, as when Giovanni enters his apartment where the camera is waiting for him, lingering on the patterns and textures of the wall, panelling and a sliding screen door. Other arrangements are more threatening, as with a shot of concrete bollards shaped like rocket shells in the street.

Although Ingmar Bergman dismissed most of Antonioni’s films, saying that ‘he concentrated on single images, never realising that film is a rhythmic flow of images, a movement…’ he excepted La Notte and Blow-Up, calling them his two masterpieces. Indeed, there are sequences in La Notte which thoroughly give the lie to his statement. One such is at the the Gherardini’s party after Giovanni and Lidia have separated. Its compositions and matching in its editing are a masterclass. Lidia telephones the hospital to enquire about the condition of their friend they had visited earlier. Where she stands a shadow angles towards her lower back, giving the impression she is being impaled. Her despair at the news she receives and her detachment from the party are intensified by the increasing volume of chatter from approaching guests. In the next shot we look down and see party guests rounding a corner, with three trees slightly obscuring our view. The camera lifts up to follow the line of the left-hand tree trunk (forming a virtual ‘V’ shape with the previous shot’s shadow) to show Lidia looking down at the guests through an angled open window. In the next shot we have dropped to the same floor as the guests and a stair rail marks a virtual ‘V’ shape with the angle of the window in the previous shot as the guests ascend the staircase. Giovanni and Valentina enter, converging with their reflections. They linger below and kiss. The next shot we are looking from just behind Lidia’s shoulder as she looks down upon them kissing, again at an angle similar to those of the shadow, tree trunk and stair rail. The three trees now appear to be dark rips in the centre of the film itself. As Giovanni and Valentina motion to leave, they stand between these black shreds in the screen.

Antonioni gave great importance to sound in his films, especially natural sounds and background noises. Speaking of his 1960 film L’Avventura, he said that he ‘had an enormous number of sound effects recorded: every possible quality of the sea, more and less stormy, the breakers, the rumble of the waves in the grottoes. I had a hundred reels of tape filled with nothing but sound effects. Then I selected those that you hear on the film's sound track. For me, this is the true music, the music that can be adapted to images. Conventional music only rarely melts into the image; more often it does nothing but put the spectator to sleep, and it prevents him from appreciating what he is seeing.’

La Notte’s opening credits sequence, shown against a long slide down a tall, glass-fronted building in Milan, is notable for the unnerving, distancing, soundtrack that accompanies it. After an initial roar of traffic – one of a number of punctuating ravages of noise in the film such as the ripping of jets through the sky and a fgactory siren – we find ourselves at the top of a tower block, and we descend to the sound of electronic bleeps and plinks, organ notes and muted gongs playing over an unpleasantly compressed sound of traffic, planes, building works and church bells, all churned together in a mixer and coming out as exactly the kind of thin, processed sound you would hear channelled through narrow streets and bounced off glass and concrete.

The opening of L’Eclisse too is remarkable for its unsettling quality, as a pop song is faded before being dominated entirely by the blare of horns, then nervy chords and piano notes, which are then replaced with the silence of two people in a room with a rotating fan.

We also know from the opening credits of L’Eclisse, in which names are simply listed to the right of a white line, that verticals will play a large part in the design of the film. It is especially noticeable the way people are framed, pinioned even, between vertical lines of building features. At some stages it is a wonder that they can move freely at all.

The film begins with a break up. The woman, Vittoria, then seems to start a relationship, more through proximity and boredom than passion, with Piero, a stockbroker constantly on the move and whose sole interest is the acquisition of money. Alain Delon gives a wonderful portrayal in the role, as a man with whom it would seem scarcely possible to have a relationship at all. The ending of the film is justly famous. Despite making promises to meet the next day, and the next, and every day, and also that same evening, Vittoria and Piero know that they are hollow promises and it is apparent they they are at an end. She descends the staircase, he goes back to his office, replaces the receivers on the phones one by one, and with a sly smile, and soothed by the ringing of telephones and the flapping of papers on the wall, is content; he is in his element once more.

The end of the film features the place of their rendezvous. Neither turns up (perhaps this is one reason why Antonioni calls L’Eclisse ‘a very optimistic film’, as characters seem to have learned something useful and are no longer beholden to setting) and the film then becomes an extended cinematic poem on place. Antonioni said in 1969 that ‘perhaps one day cinema will also achieve the heights of abstraction; perhaps cinema will even construct poetry’; From our vantage point now, the final 10 minutes or so of L’Eclisse seems to correspond to this description. It is a short film in itself, of a street corner in the evening as the lights come on, a place where children play, and people wait for the bus at a request stop, others make their way homewards, where a barrel leaks water, where a park sprinkler is turned off, where robinia leaves rustle in the wind and ants crawl on bark.

‘We know that under the image revealed there is another which is truer to reality and under this image still another and yet again still another under this last one, right down to the true image of that reality, absolute, mysterious, which no one will ever see or perhaps right down to the decomposition of any image, of any reality,’ said Antonioni.

And as a final point, why is it that nobody ever told me that there are sections of Antonioni's films that are funny? That there are places where laughter is an appropriate, and probably the required response? In La Notte for example, there is a scene of slow moving horn-blaring, sudden-braking traffic, motioned to by an ineffectual traffic policeman and set against a reflective glass building that foreshadows Jacques Tati's Playtime. Dogs running up the steps in L’Eclisse recall Mon Oncle. And what about all those false leads when we are waiting for Piero and Vitoria to turn up? Or earlier when we see the double of Vittoria’s former partner?

Antonioni was loath to provide theoretical explanations for his films, preferring to say that they were ‘works of searching’, pieces of ‘archaeological research among the arid material of our time’. I think that is the spirit they should be viewed in, not as complex or consistent expositions of theory, but as profound snapshots of certain places and people at certain times.

The last words I give to Antonioni, who said, ‘I think people talk too much; that's the truth of the matter. I don't believe in words. People use too many words and usually wrongly.’

Orlok in London, or Ivor Novello is a Vampire

(written as a podcast for MovieMail in 2008)

The Lodger is regarded as the first recognisably ‘Hitchcockian’ thriller. As is well known, Alfred Hitchcock spent a formative period of time in Germany where in 1925 he directed his first film, The Pleasure Garden, and The Lodger, made the following year, shows this German influence in its stylisation.

Before looking at this, some pertinent background for Hitchcock. He entered the film industry in 1920 first as a designer and creator of title cards for the Famous Players-Lassky studio, and then as a screenplay writer and art director at Michael Balcon’s Gainsborough studios. It seems that here he was already showing some of those qualities that led the director Michael Powell (who worked as a stills photographer on Hitchcock’s films Champagne and The Manxman) to describe him as a ‘mischievous, inspiring hobgoblin’ and a know-it-all Cockney barrowboy. When Hitchcock was asked by Mike Scott in an interview from 1966 that is included on the new box set if during this time he broke into the director’s territory, he freely admits that he ‘not only broke into his territory [but] gave him the shots, where they should be taken, and built the sets in such a way that they couldn't be taken from any other angle.’ Small wonder then that the director Graham Cutts, who Hitchcock was working with at this time, refused to work with him any longer. The producer Michael Balcon, who referred to his ‘plump young technician’ that he had been promoting through the ranks, went to him and asked if he would like to have a go at directing. Hitchcock said that such a thing hadn’t crossed his mind but he would certainly have a go, and so off he went with his wife Alma Reville, script in hand, to Munich, where he made The Pleasure Garden. While there, he also spent time at the Ufa studios in Berlin, where he was much influenced by the approach and innovative style of FW Murnau, who was at the time making Der Letzte Mann / The Last Laugh. This film’s story, except for one important intertitle, is told almost entirely visually. Hitchcock referred to it as  ‘almost the perfect film’. Other influences from that time, not least the technical bravura which made the incredible artificiality of the sets of Der Letzte Mann so thoroughly convincing, and an exaggerated, ‘expressionist’  style of acting, were to play a large part in Hitchcock’s first ‘English picture’, The Lodger, which he made the following year.

Based on the novel by Mrs Belloc Lowndes, The Lodger is billed as ‘a story of the London fog’, in which a Jack the Ripper style murderer who calls himself ‘The Avenger’ is preying on fair haired girls. In the heart of the murderer’s district, the Buntings run a lodging house. Their daughter Daisy is a model fair of hair; her beau Frank is a policeman assigned to the case. Just after the most recent outrage, the seventh killing, a sinister man arrives at their house, looking for a room. Singer and matinee idol Ivor Novello stars as this eponymous lodger who, through his highly suspicious behaviour and possession of certain items connected to ‘The Avenger’ murders, leads the police to believe that he in fact the man that they are seeking.

Ivor Novello, with his deranged shark grin and his melodramatic overacting, is generally held to be the weak link in the film which otherwise maintains an effectively sinister atmosphere. However, it only requires a small shift in appreciation of what Hitchcock is trying to communicate with his character to make his actions – or most of them anyway – seem all the more understandable. Essentially, think of him as Orlok, the vampire in Murnau’s Nosferatu. Do that, and his gestures fall into an understandable compass. After all, it’s not so far away from his character as that of the supposed ripper, a deadly, loathsome parasite who preys on other’s bodies. Details bear this comparison out. The very first we know of his approach to The Buntings’ household is that the lights dim in their house, as if his approach has sucked the energy from their lives. The situation is easily rectified – it only takes another coin in the meter – but the point has been established.

Then we come to his extraordinary entrance as he rings the bell. He stands tall in the doorway, the long fingers of his right hand unnaturally splayed across his chest. Mrs Bunting answers and recoils with a look of utter revulsion on her face at his aspect and his coldly glinting eyes. His walk is stiff and his gestures measured. As he discusses with Mrs Bunting the rental of a room, he hears Daisy call out; with his eyes slightly raised and his head slightly cocked he recalls Orlok  hearing Lucy call out for Hutter after he has visited him in his room after midnight. A little later, while in his room, the lodger’s weird, otherworldly walk across his room as he is transfixed by a painting of a golden-haired woman recalls Orlok’s stiff-legged gait. When his hand grips Daisy’s shoulder, his clutch recalls that of Orlok’s around Lucy’s heart; the lodger follows up his action with a predatory embrace. As well as these mannerisms, his general behaviour veers towards the macabre, such as when he takes Daisy for a romantic tryst at the very scene of the most recent murder.

As well technological innovation to compensate for the lack of sound, such as using a glass ceiling to watch the lodger pacing back and forwards in his room, and a more generic use of shadows and angles, as when the lodger creeps out of the house just before midnight one night, there are also touches in the film that recall the films of Fritz Lang. When the news of the murder is being transmitted ‘wet from the press’ and ‘hot over the aerial’, we see a concentration on the modes of communication in use that would not be out of place in Dr Mabuse: The Gambler, with wirelesses, telephones and telegraph machines, printing presses and illuminated lightboards carrying the news. Evening Standard paper vans then deliver the product to newspaper vendors who cry it out.

Then there are the little touches that show Hitchcock’s mischievous mind at work in a way that became so familiar. Two examples. The first is the way he shows Daisy threatened by nothing more than glints of light when she is taking a bath one evening. Her body is just covered by the rising steam; Hitchcock accentuates the light in her golden hair, and the light reflected from the copper boiler by the bath, and as we see a hand reaching for the doorknob, the light sparkles in the water between Daisy’s toes. There is also Hitchcock’s use of Christian imagery too – notably the lodger’s face shadowed by a cross from a window at one point and later, after he has been attacked, when he is taken down from the railings in the attitude of a pietà.

The Lodger almost wasn’t to be. After an industry screening, it was declared to be awful, ‘a dreadful picture’ and it was decided that the big boss would have to come down to the Islington studios and see it for himself before pronouncing on its fate. Come down he did, whereupon he agreed with his subordinates that it was no good and it would have to go on the shelf – even though picturehouses had already been booking it on the strength of Ivor Novello’s participation. However, investments in the picture meant that with it sitting on the shelf it had no possibility of making any money. It was taken down again, and thanks to the participation of Ivor Montagu, who smoothed the film’s flow by significantly reducing the number of its title cards, and also the brilliant graphic artist and designer E. McKnight Kauffer, who added new title cards which add greatly to the film’s impact, it was hailed when it was screened to the press, with the trade journal Bioscope acclaiming it as ‘the greatest British picture made to that date’.

To Hitchcock’s disappointment, there was never going to be the possibility of Ivor Novello playing a guilty character, even though his occasionally demented countenance and odd actions, such as flicking at the buttons on Daisy’s dress with a knife after she has brought him his breakfast for the first time, seem to suggest that he is literally deranged with grief. In the film he is reprieved – though right at the end the sign flashing To-Night Golden Curls over his shoulder as he hugs Daisy adds a sinister note, and suggests both the awaited fulfillment of a predatory desire and also that there is unfinished business abroad in the fogbound streets on London. It’s also interesting that in the print used here (on Network’s Alfred Hitchcock: The British Years box set) the scene is left untinted. The only other untinted scene in the print comes when the lodger silently creeps out of the house at the time of a girl’s murder close by. Again, this prevents a full endorsement of the film’s nominally happy ending.

However, it is with the cinematic family that Hitchcock places Novello into – with relations that include such characters as Murnau’s Orlok the vampire – that he most strongly suggests that the lodger lives in a world of darker shadows than he lets on.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Ancient Stories: It’s Winter (Rafi Pitts, 2006)

 (written for the Spring 2008 issue of Vertigo magazine - Volume 3, number 8)

What do you mean, the night is gone?
That dawn is announcing the day?
What you see in the sky
is not the redness after dawn,
no, what you see is no daybreak.
It’s the mark of winter’s slap
on the sky’s face.

It’s Winter begins with one man’s look that sends another on his way to unpaid uncertainty and sets the film’s events in motion. It is a look that understands the hardship that will follow, accepts the regret and the sorrow, and knows there is no other way forward. His eyes have pooled with unshed tears but are resolute. He finishes his cigarette, gets up and padlocks his warehouse doors; the man whose work he has refused walks home through the market arcade, then through the blue-grey light of the snow to his house by the railway track.

This is a modern folk tale but its stories are ancient, destined to be endlessly repeated. One man loses his job and leaves the city to look for work to support his family; another man arrives in the city looking for work. The first man’s wife continues working, supports her child, struggles to get by. The second man sees her and desires her. Many months pass with no news, and then bad news about her husband.

It is an old choice: between the promise of going away to look for work and staying at home to try to support the family, doing the rounds, finding work but not getting paid, showing ingenuity, willing and initiative, and all to no end. It is an old choice; only the sounds of the transport have changed.

For this story of unemployment among people on the margins of settled existence, director Rafi Pitts adaptated Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s story Safar (The Trip), setting it in a down at heel working district in modern-day Tehran. All the actors but one are non-professional and were drawn from the locality in which he filmed. Throughout, Mehdi Akhavan-Saless’s 1956 poem, Winter, the words of which are used throughout this review, are sung by Mohammed Reza Shajarian to an oud’s doleful accompaniment.

Should you extend a friendly hand
they won’t stretch one back
for the cold is too bitter, too harsh.

The breath coming out of your chest
turns into a dark cloud
that stands before your eyes like a wall.
When your own breath is like this,
what can you expect from distant or close friends?

Following these words, a train pulls into the station and vents steam into the freezing evening air, steam that veils a man’s goodbye to his child. The train will come in many times more and take many more away. Others will arrive by road and take their place. The station’s magpie has seen it all, and its busy chatter sends each new departure on his way.

This is pared-down cinema that deals only in the essentials of work and companionship. It understands how economic hardship alters the way people regard each other, understands the separation between people that arrives with poverty. A young girl watches a man readying to leave her house in the same corner that her father did before him. The film is filled with people looking at each other, wondering if they will go, stay, return; wondering whether to allow themselves to trust once again, having been betrayed before and knowing that they must. Throughout, the movement of looking for work, the miles of walking, is set against these still points of wondering faces. The camera work too is unadorned. Characters are centred in the frame, or they are walking through it and out of it. Buildings are places of transience. A roadside boarding house, a bathroom, a café, workplaces, houses even. They are indifferent to their inhabitants, knowing that they will move on.

Though the film is attuned to the cadences of melancholy, the use of the poem, the words of which thread their way through the people’s stories, means that it is neither despairing, nor hopeless. It alters the scale of events, places them within a larger cycle. For if this story comes from the middle of winter, both actual and metaphorical, then other seasons will follow in their turn and bring a time of reconciliation and greeting, bounty, celebration and praise. For now though, the voice and the notes of the oud are earthbound, and travel only as far as the muffling of winter snow will allow.

Air is gloomy, doors are closed
heads ducked into collars.
Hands hidden,
breaths are clouds,
people worn out, heavyhearted,
the trees, nothing but crystal skeletons.

The earth dispirited,
the high dome of sky has sunken,
the moon and the sun are overcast.
It’s winter.
It’s winter.