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December 23, 2007



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December 14, 2007

The Last Laugh (Murnau, 1924)

The Last Laugh is another of those films that took me far too long to get to, and now that I’ve finally reached it I’m scolding myself for holding off for so long. Murnau is, of course, nothing short of a cinematic genius and my affinity for him is undying, as his Sunrise… is permanently lodged amongst my favourite films ever. The Last Laugh is another masterpiece to add to his collection, albeit one which threatens to tear me apart with joy (of the film’s genius) on the one hand, and sadness (of the film’s story) on the other.

Looking at it from a purely contemporary perspective, as if people weren’t averse enough to silent films – to watch one without any intertitles to guide us… well, I can understand why lesser film enthusiasts would hold off. Allow me to place emphasis on the “lesser” however, for it’s surely impossible to term one’s self as a lover of cinema whilst refusing to experience one of the most cinematic of all films? Murnau’s achievement is nothing short of astonishing – he disregards words almost completely, and in doing so exposes the goldmine that is the medium’s potential. Karl Freund’s cinematography should not be underestimated at any cost: his camerawork sits proudly amongst the most exquisitely choreographed in history (alongside Murnau’s other films, of course) and the way in which it darts and glides around the sets gifts an irresistible vitality to proceedings. I personally was sold from the get-go, with that dance in the rain which beautifully encapsulated the hustle-bustle of Weimar life.

Of course, the camerawork alone is not enough to make this a masterpiece. The film has another great trick up its sleeve in the performance of Emil Jannings. So much has been said about his performance that it seems futile to even tread that same territory, but whatever: he is MAGNIFICENT. In every sense of the word. His exaggerated mannerisms are appropriate for upholding the expressionist tone that the film demands from him, but what’s stunning about Jannings is the depth with which he imbues his theatricality. His eyes radiate happiness, pain and exhaustion with effortless ease and his entire body seems to follow these feelings through – look no further than his demotion scene for proof. Jannings really does embody the very fibre of this character, and seems perfectly attuned to the nature of his plight – it’s a performance that is perhaps best described as operatic in its essence. Moreover, the relationship between Jannings’ performance and Freund’s work provides much of the film’s power – the camera consistently reflects Jannings’ mindset, seeing what he sees and feeling what he feels. The visual collage of his neighbours’ faces cruelly laughing at him; the moment when the hotel seems to fall on top of him; that brilliant drunken dream – all of this is great within its own right, but it’s all the more wonderful thanks to Jannings’ touching reactions.

It’s important to note that other element which makes The Last Laugh so brilliant: Carl Mayer’s story. The idea of a man who defines himself completely by his uniform is thought-provoking to say the least, especially given the historical context of the film. Jannings’ character is so enveloped by his profession, and so consumed by the (painfully humbling) social status that it provides that he loses touch with him-self. The fact that all the other characters in the film are revealed to be equally concerned with these ideas perhaps says a lot more about Weimar social mores than we initially think. Mayer and Murnau paint a powerful portrait of society, and expertly chart the decline of their old man – but there is the unavoidable issue of that ending. Interestingly enough, it introduces the film’s only use of an intertitle (excluding the opening) – and even more intriguingly, the intertitle sees Murnau pulling his audience out of the filmic world to take an apologetic tone for the epilogue that follows. Understandably I think, I found this both bizarre and extremely detrimental to such a brilliant work of art – after all this sadness, surely Murnau wouldn’t pull out the cheap happy ending on me? He does. And yet, at the same time… he doesn’t. As one watches the epilogue, it becomes apparent that Jannings and Murnau are together enacting a fantastic lampooning of this very idea of a “happy ending.” Jannings’ operatic performance again comes into play, but this time it’s boisterous and comical to the point of absurdity – it doesn’t complement the action, but actually undermines it and thereby accentuates the implausibility of the fairy-tale scenario that we’re presented with. What we’re ultimately left with is the unbearably poignant image of what could never have been – so although in one sense it’s out-of-sync with everything that’s occurred before, in another it’s perhaps the perfect and most heartbreaking conclusion that’s possible. I don’t know if this ending was a request on the producers part, or whether it was agreed upon by the filmmakers, but Murnau’s ability to manipulate such phoniness into something so tender is perhaps one of THE everlasting testaments to his genius.

Nightmare Alley (Goulding, 1947)

Nightmare Alley is one of the more ludicrous noirs that I’ve come across, but I mean that as a compliment. Its carnival setting early on in the film instantly brings to mind Tod Browning’s Freaks, and the brief but memorable focus on the “geek” cements this comparison. The spectre of the “geek” and protagonist Stan’s notable horror at the very idea of falling so low provides the film with an eerie fatalism that contributes immensely to the tension inherent in his gradual “rise” to stardom. This whole concept of predetermination links nicely to the film’s concern with religion. Stan’s virtual pontification with his audiences introduces an omnipotent aspect that confuses the already-twisted proceedings, and which suggests that his downfall might have something to do with his own divine retribution. Moreover, the fascination with tarot cards (and their unnerving reliability) as well as the ease with which Stan manages to deceive so many of his followers is surely a reflection upon the status of faith systems as a whole, and their relevance to contemporary society? The film toys with these fascinating ideas, and as such it never quite plays by the rules. For sure, there are certain noir hallmarks here: the chiaroscuro lighting is as vibrant as one could expect, as is the heavy undertone of cynicism. However, the film’s a deviant in other respects: it transposes much of its drama to the bizarre and unconventional setting of the carnival (whose grotesqueries remain lodged in the memory even during the lengthy time we spend in the city); there’s a peculiar redefinition of the femme fatale, who is reimagined as an almost androgynous and sexually ambiguous intellectual dominatrix; and even for a noir, the eventual depths to which our ‘hero’ sinks defies belief. For all it’s structural issues (the final act, although powerful, is somewhat rushed in comparison to the leisurely set-ups that precede it) and its distasteful-yet-necessary redemption at film’s end, the inspired performance from Tyrone Power and the sheer audacity with which it tackles its themes is more than enough for me to give Nightmare Alley a free pass.

December 12, 2007

Marketa Lazarová (Vláčil, 1967)

František Vláčil’s 1967 epic was a film that I hadn’t even heard of prior to a much-hyped DVD release here in the UK. Out of seemingly nowhere there then seemed to be mumblings about this being “the best Czech film of all time” which, naturally, aroused my curiosity. I then recalled reading a mini featurette on it during an issue of Sight & Sound earlier this year. And THEN I noticed that it was retailing for dirt cheap (at least, relative to other world cinema titles.) As my knowledge of Eastern European (let alone Czech) cinema is somewhat lacking to say the least, I read all these factors as a SIGN for me to pick this shit up. And that I did.

I’m not familiar enough with their national cinema to know whether this “best Czech film ever” tag is accurate or not. But I feel confident in throwing this in amongst the best that I’ve personally come across – which probably has something to do with it being the single most challenging experience that I’ve had with a film to date (David Lynch included.) Marketa Lazarová is a devilish fiend in the pantheon of great cinematic works. It claims to be a historical epic, but to allow any preconceptions to infiltrate one’s mind as a result of this would be a grave mistake indeed, for it’s simply one of the ways in which the film defies audience expectations. The back of my DVD cover sums the plot up as thus: ” follows the rivalry between two warring clans and the doomed love affair of Mikoláš Kozlík and Marketa Lazarová.” This sentence is arguably fraudulent however, as the notion of a ‘plot’ is irrelevant in a film that adheres to the creation of mood and tone as its driving narrative force.

Marketa Lazarová is a challenge precisely because of this last fact. It confronts the viewer with that which is (probably) unfamiliar: an incoherent structure that cares little for traditional dramatic development, instead manipulating soundscape and imagery as if to reinforce its mysteries. The film is divided into twelve ‘chapters’, complete with inter-titular headings that guide our quest for scraps of information. This, curiously enough, fails to provide any semblance of thematic congruity due to Vláčil’s decision to allow these divergent threads to run wild – an act that creates tension within itself. Furthermore, he obliterates our ability to relate completely with what’s on-screen thanks to his frequent use of flashbacks, narration and off-screen conversations in order to distort our perceptions of the filmic past and present. Numerous characters come and go, their voices (and selves) unidentifiable because of the aforementioned distortions, and we’re left with a myriad of overlapping relationships that run a daunting gamut of emotions but nonetheless take us even further outside of our comfort zone.

If what’s been described thus far sounds offputting it’s felicitous, for Marketa Lazarová never strives toward anything but. It’s primary concern with the brutality of the Middle Ages combines with Vláčil’s bold disregard for the machinations of convention to create what is perhaps the most frightening world that I’ve ever encountered. The result of the director’s experimentation is to force our gaze upon the cinematic image, which is the primary source of his film’s harrowing strength. Vláčil has a painter’s eye for composition, but a film historian’s conception of affluence: his employment of deep-focus shots, nigh-on montage editing, painfully intimate close-ups and sinuous camerawork combine to leave an indelible impression. In terms of it’s visual magnificence, think Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev with much heavier doses of the ominous, sinister and brooding. Marketa’s visual coherence actively complements its narrative incomprehensibility as Vláčil’s artificial engineering succeeds in ironically bringing us closer to the reality of the setting: his fearless re-creation of environment and his refusal to pander to his audience instils in us the confusion and terror that we’d feel if we actually were magically transported back to 13thC Czechoslovakia.

Marketa Lazarová’s themes and ideas are understandably difficult to fathom, and I don’t really wish to decipher them although there’s certainly substance underneath the style. There’s a seething undercurrent of paganism that forms a diametrical opposition to the Christian forces within the film. Upon first glance, Vláčil plays this as a spiritual dance between organised religion and the natural world, but after only one viewing it’s too early to comment definitively on this. Anyway, the most resounding theme is surely the utter lack of humanity in this unforgiving climate. From the animalistic moans that permeate the soundtrack, to the recurrent images of a pack of wolves, carnivorous in their lust – Vláčil goes to lengths to denigrate his characters to the level of mere beasts. He succeeds, and what we’re ultimately left with is a gargantuan and uncompromising vision, a provocative mood-piece that stimulates the senses whilst shattering (yet also illuminating) our knowledge of both cinema and history. I mentioned earlier how Marketa Lazarová wants us to believe it’s a historical epic – I hope by now that it’s become apparent that this is more akin to a nightmare-on-film. The difference with this one is that I fully intend to keep going back for more.

Le Notti bianche (Visconti, 1957)

Luchino Visconti’s Le Notti bianche is the latest member of that exclusive club of films that have managed to break my little heart. Some might see the idea of a film making a grown man (well, I still feel like an unruly teen…) cry to be shameful, but alas – such is the power of le cinema. This film has now usurped The Leopard as my favourite Visconti, and it’s gone and displaced The Seventh Seal as my #1 of 1957 – something that I never thought would happen!

I think what makes Le Notti bianche so devastating is the fact that it’s imbued with so much emotional truth, as I see it. Mario’s displaced dreamer is a type that I think we can all identify with at times? But more than that, his search for love, the lengths that he’ll go to in order to achieve it, the way in which he defines himself by that goal, and Visconti’s decision to emphasise its fleeting nature and the negative effects of it… it all contributes to the film’s complex conception of what love is and how we deal with it.

All of the above is obviously recurrent throughout the film but it reaches a poignant zenith in a nearly-wordless dance sequence that fully displays Visconti’s ability to encapsulate entire worlds of feeling in brief moments of time. The awkwardness with which Mario and Natalia perform is as charming as it is emblematic of their tentative relationship. Moreover, the sequence speaks volumes about their relative states of mind. Mario (engaged with the contemporary) is the one to lead them into the bar in order to help Natalia (unable to forget the past) re-engage with life – but as soon as she remembers her familiar ritual of waiting on the bridge, she runs out again and leads them both back to that metaphorical crossing between memory and modernity.

The fact that the film is grounded in such genuine sentiments allows Visconti to embark on a miniature flight of fancy regarding the film’s visual construction. As I understand it, Le Notti bianche was filmed pretty much entirely on sets at Cinecittà – and it shows. As ravishingly beautiful as it is, the film (in its exteriors, at least) clearly creates an artificial reality for it’s characters. In doing this, Visconti forces us to ponder over the line between the dreamworld of his setting and the reality of the characters’ experiences, and these doubts are then parlayed back into the film thanks to Mario’s heedless remarks about Natalia’s own false dreams. Heedless, yet perhaps justified, for Natalia seems like a distant cousin of Lisa from Letter from an Unknown Woman – a similarly hopeless romantic who veers dangerously into obsession. Of course, this fact shouldn’t (and doesn’t) prevent us from reprieving Mario, whose ‘love’ for Natalia could well be better perceived as infatuation. Is his heartbroken face at film’s end illustrative of a man shattered by the experience of love and his own sincerity, or is it a picture of a naive man-child crying because he couldn’t get what he wanted? I know what I personally believe, but I think it’s a testament to the film’s brilliant treatment of its subject that both options are feasible.

Point is: this is the most gorgeous-yet-heartbreaking film I’ve seen for a while. So y’know, watch it, or something…

December 04, 2007

Centre Stage (Kwan, 1992)

These brief comments were written like, a year ago… but I’m posting them to preserve them just in case I ever forget why I love the film.

Terrific film, completely unlike anything I expected – I thought it’d follow a traditional biopic formula but instead it merged real-life interviews with cast members with the dramatisation of Rian Lingyu’s life with stock footage of her actual films. Wtf?! Loved it. The result was a multi-dimensional perspective on its subject that constantly reminds us that it’s just that – an interpretation of Rian Lingyu’s life. At film’s end, what surprised me most was just how little I actually knew about the protagonist’s thoughts and motivations.

I’ve recently been reading about the Nanjing Decade in Chinese history, and I really appreciated the various insights that the film offered re: the tension between East/West (not only by taking place in Shanghai and the film industry setting, but also through its ‘fast-forwards’ to the 1990s), as well as the Japanese threat and the fragility of the patriarchal order that entrapped Rian. In its own way, its also as strong an indictment of the media and “malicious gossip” as anything I’ve seen, but its sympathetic at the same time?! I’m thinking particularly of the scene where the ‘ordinary’ women accuse Ruan’s mother of being the basis for The Goddess: by establishing the political/social context of the era, Kwan seems to suggest an inherent need to think of something else in order to avoid the harsh reality of their situation. On top of all that there’s the comments on the nature of stars, acting, film-making etc. So much going on!

Anyway, I could think about this all day but I’ve gotta run. Must quickly praise Maggie Cheung’s exceptional performance before I do – the film is probably accomplished enough to achieve its commentary should another actress have filled her shoes, but Maggie’s quiet tour-de-force (I don’t exaggerate) is the reason I care for this film on an emotional level as well as an intellectual one. She’s asked to play herself, Rian Lingyu as well as Rian Lingyu playing other characters and all the while she’s forced to compete with the memory of the star that preceded her – and she sometimes does all that in the same scene. The woman excels and proves that she’s up there with the best of ‘em for sure.

December 03, 2007

Sátántangó (Tarr, 1994)

So this is effectively THE greatest cinematic achievement of the 1990s.

I’m not even going to attempt to deconstruct the thematics behind this, because they’re far too daunting for me to handle at present. It really is absolutely extraordinary though – Tarr uses his 7hr+ length as a platform to explore the possibilities of the medium itself. At various points, Sátántangó’s style endeavours toward: gritty realism, expressionist fantasy, poetic sur-realism and finally, enigmatic modernity. If these terms contradict each other in any way, it’s intentional, not to mention appropriate: I doubt that Tarr intends for us to make sense of his work (and really, I’m not sure if anyone really could), it’s more a case of his wanting us to ‘feel’ it on a purely visceral level.

To this end, his well-documented use of the long-take comes into play. Those familiar with the more widely-seen Werckmeister Harmonies will know what to expect, but Sátántangó’s shots demand much more from the viewer – to the point where the film often left me physically exhausted. In spite of this, I was nonetheless thrilled by the director’s experiments. Tarr plays on his audience’s inherent fear of the unknown, exploiting the film’s otherworldly mysteries to the max and completely disregarding traditional expectations of narrative in the process. The pacing for example, is irksome but only because Tarr succeeds in thwarting conventions to the point where we don’t know what the hell he’s going to pull off next, and any dramatic tension that we feel is inevitably a result of this exercise. His perplexing world is aided by a further dimension whereby he sculpts a temporal complexity that layers and overlaps scenes in order to enrich our understanding (I use the term loosely) of what’s occurring on-screen.

I should really mention the fact that the film deals with a community of farmers in rural Hungary. The characters, as Tarr paints them, are ugly, repulsive and in short: not the sort of people that one would wish to spend seven hours with. It’s a testament to the success of Tarr’s exquisitely choreographed mise-en-scene (not to mention the lush use of sound and the interlacement of a wicked brand of very dry humour) that the experiment pays off – some of the scenes take one’s breath away, particularly those in which animals are concerned: Tarr’s pessimistic view of humanity is often compared to the superior ‘community’ in the animal world. Most notable from these however, is a scene which highlights the stark reality of isolation in this society: the segment in which we’re introduced to the young girl (and later, her cat…) As soon as it began, I was foolish enough to become slightly disenchanted with Tarr – surely he wouldn’t use so blatant a metaphor to explore the concept of innocence in such a grotesque world, right? Rest assured, he doesn’t, and what does ensue is the most excruciating yet gripping sequence that I’ve probably ever encountered – and all the while, Tarr succeeds in colouring it with a sense of poignancy that culminates in a final act of transcendence that is perhaps the single most important image in the film. And oh my GOD, the cat!!

I said earlier that I didn’t want to discuss the thematic resonance of the film – but I’ll digress for a second to wonder out loud about the relevance of allegory. It’s apparent that there are certain ideas being explored here: community (and therefore, perhaps commun_ism_?), poverty, social order etc. (I’m not doing the film any justice, but you’ll understand when you watch it.) There’s definitely a spiritual dimension to the world as well, with the character of Irmiás being presented as an, admittedly fraudulent, Christ-like figure. I’m not sure how far to pursue this idea, and if anyone who’s seen the film can help me I’d be pretty grateful? Needless to say, the conclusion, with the visual inverse of ”...and then there was light” provides much food for thought.

Anyway, I’m rambling. The point is that any fans of cinema owe it to themselves to watch this. It’s available on a beautiful Artificial Eye box set so y’know, watch it NOW!

December 01, 2007

The "Three Colours" Trilogy (Kieslowski, 1993–94)

Final set of random musings:


I’ll confess: I was initially slightly underwhelmed by this. I recall when a friend first watched this and described this as “very arty” – and therefore, every time there was a fade to blue I couldn’t get the idea of a very self-conscious director out of my head. Moreover, the one thing I did to prepare me for the trilogy was to read the blurb on the back of my DVD box, which led me to expect a thorough and overt exploration of “liberty.” So yeah, I think my initial reaction is understandable in that context? Fortunately, the film stuck with me for the entirety of the next day and the more I contemplated it the more I realised I was… well, wrong. Liberty is indeed relevant, but I now understand that Kieslowski deals with the concept in a more subtle, ironic way than I expected (knowing this made me much better prepared for Blanc and Rouge.) Julie seeks liberty through escaping from life itself, believing it to have no meaning – but she’s misguided, for her life does still have meaning, and therefore her escapade leads only to self-entrapment. Kieslowski’s ability to portray her closed mindset by focusing on the most minute of details is extraordinary – I watched a little featurette where he demonstrated the importance of a sugar cube being dipped into coffee and its subsequent reflection of Julie’s desire to forget more important details. La Binoche delivers a magnificently nuanced performance here, full of subtleties that will probably reveal themselves with further viewings. 1993 is an extraordinary year for actress (Hunter! Thompson! Pfeiffer! Bassett! And they’re just the ones that I’ve seen!) but I think I’d probably give Binoche the edge for the year – her work really enhances the beauty of the film as a whole. Of all the characters in the trilogy, I think Julie might be the one that I most relate to in an odd sort of way, and her gradual re-engagement with life fills my heart with a kinda reserved form of glee? Blue-tinted, of course (I love the colour scheme!)


So everything I’ve heard about this trilogy in the past has led me to believe that this is the weakest of the three? Um, WRONG. This is so much more than an off-kilter black comedy, and it contains the trilogy’s most fully-realised characterisation in Karol as well as the character that I have the most affinity for in Mikolaj. It’s absurd, bleak and absolutely charming all at the same time. It also strikes me as the most natural of the three, the most effortlessly-conceived – perhaps this has something to do with the fact that it deals with Polish characters in a Polish setting? Certainly, it engages with the issue of Poland’s transition to capitalism, and I love how the ellipses used in Karol’s rise do much to reflect the (potential) economic fluidity of the years. As for the romantic elements of the story: wow. In none of these films did I really expect what was going to happen next, but I had an inkling here and how wrong was I?! I mean, I can’t be blamed for expecting a reconciliation between Karol and Dominique, can I? Yet Kieslowski actively thwarts that, and in revealing Karol’s financial success as an elaborate plan to strike back at Dominique he masterfully subverts the film’s theme of equality and raises some of the most fascinating questions about our humanity. Does our humiliation really run that deep? Viewing the film in this context colours certain events in a different light entirely – for example, I once saw Karol’s effectively saving the life of Mikolaj as an act of tender fraternity, but knowing what happens later on it’s apparent that it could just be another part of Karol’s grand scheme. This is why I view Karol as the most complex (and successful) character in the entire trilogy – I could spend an age considering his motivations, his ambitions, his beliefs… and Zbigniew Zamachowski does a terrific job of internalising all this. I think one could easily view this as the most pessimistic of the three films, and it’s a factor that I was definitely taken aback by, but the final shot offers some redemption imo. Dominique is in jail, although no more so than Karol in his mental imprisonment, but Kieslowski’s kind enough to offer the slightest hint of optimism – it’s clear that the characters still love each other, and in the harsh emotional landscape that they’ve cultivated for themselves, that might just be enough to counter all the pain? God, I love this film. If any of the individual films in the trilogy deserves to be termed a masterpiece, it’s this.


Rouge had already won me over by the time its opening sequence ended. The use of the telephone line as a metaphor for communication, human contact, the transience of these connections… it seemed to sum up the first two films and hinted at the direction towards which this one was going. Having said that, this is also the film with which I have the most difficulty ‘reading’... not that it bothers me? The relationship between Valentine and the judge is one of the most touching that I’ve encountered… maybe ever. That brief moment when both place their hands on the window of his car almost made me bawl for it’s such a beautiful, emblematic gesture, a sign that the initial judgments that we passed over the judge himself have now been transcended… that redemption (salvation?) not to mention fraternity really is possible in Kieslowski’s world. Transcendent is such a useful word for this film actually. Again, I’m not entirely sure how to read the film yet, but the character of the judge struck me as almost God-like in his actions (although if that’s the case then there are all sorts of implications that I can’t even begin to consider right now.) As the film’s use of foreshadowing begins to suggest that Valentine and Auguste are destined, I began to ask myself if the film wasn’t also about fate and missed opportunities and our ability to deal with the mistakes that we’ve made. Hell, it’s really about everything isn’t it? Life itself! And god, Jean-Louis Trintignant is just marvellous in his role. I know La Binoche is spectacular and she’s completely deserving of all her praise, but for my money it’s the veteran that gives the best performance in the entire trilogy, imbuing it with depth and encapsulating the secrets of the film in the contours of his face. He’s marvellous. And as for the finale… I think my heart actually sank with the ferry when I saw it. I was terrified – surely Kieslowski wouldn’t do this to me? I’m so thankful that he didn’t. Once again, he left us with hope and the suggestion that Julie/Olivier and Karol/Dominique had succeeded in moving on… well, there’s another beautiful moment in a film (and trilogy!) full of them.

Ok I’ll stop babbling now. Although I must mention how I loved the “talkiness” of Rouge. So completely up my alley. And btw, the old lady at the bottle bank? !!! Oh, and Irène Jacob is so gorgeous it hurts!

The Golden Coach (Renoir, 1953)

Another week, another Renoir. The Golden Coach this week – and once again, I’ve been caught by surprise. I really didn’t think that I’d particularly gel with his later work at all and hey presto, a week later and The River and The Golden Coach are battling it out for my #2 fave of his films. Well, actually I think the latter film has successfully taken up that position now. It forms such a marked contrast to its predecessor – whilst The River was serene and casual in its pacing and realistic in its form if not its content, The Golden Coach is a bold celebration of artifice (funny, considering the recent mini-discussion?) that flaunts its exuberant colour palette with the intent of explicitly captivating its audience – and Renoir once again proves himself to be a master in the art of cinematic seduction.

TGC terms itself as a “fantasy” from its opening intertitle, and from thereon it presents a thorough examination of the role of theatre and performance (read: artifice) in both the artistic and social worlds. The flamboyant colour scheme and decor forms just one aspect of this complex study: for example, Renoir repeatedly exposes the fact that the film takes place on giant sets and consequently breaks the fourth wall – thus causing a blurring of the distinctions between theatricality and reality (presuming that the latter even exists in the director’s cinematic world.) This then draws attention to the art of performing: and when dealing with the stars themselves, it’s apparent that Renoir was going for anything but realism. One could just accuse the actors of being flat-out bad, but this would be a discredit to the talents of both Anna Magnani and Renoir himself – who, on numerous occasions revealed his knack for directing English-language stars to great English-language performances and was far too brilliant a director to allow ‘bad’ acting infiltrate his film without good reason. The heightened theatricality of the performers at work here suggests that Renoir was further augmenting the general detachment from reality already communicated via the construct of the film itself, and taken in this context Magnani’s performance is a marvel to behold. Her grasp of English leaves much to be desired, but the gusto and sheer determination with which she attacks her role invites comparisons to the greatest star performances that Hollywood had to offer. Every imperfection is stubbornly battered into submission by Magnani’s ferocious brand of charm, a factor which much of TGC’s success hinges upon.

Much has been said about the evaporation during the 1950s of Renoir’s socio-political consciousness that permeated so much of his extraordinary 1930s output, and certainly upon first glance TGC does strike one as a ‘lighter’ effort from a director known as much for his vicious satirical streak as his compassionate humanism. Look a little closer however, and it’s easy to find traces of the badass Renoir of old. The art of performance is not just applicable to the actors, but also to the characters within the filmic world due to the enormous focus on roleplaying in the text. A notable chunk of the film’s allure is dependent upon the exaggerated farcical elements (influenced heavily by La Règle du jeu) that arises from this utilisation of acting-within-performance and which manifests itself in the form of that oh-so familiar concept of class tensions. This is most notable in the relationship shared by Camilla and the Viceroy of course, but consider also the strained liaisons between the Viceroy and his courtiers. Emblematic of these struggles is the ludicrous sequence involving the Viceroy’s attempts to juggle his allegiances between wife, noblemen and mistress (Camilla) each boxed into their own separate rooms: as avid a reflection of social constraints as ever there was in Renoir’s oeuvre, with the direst of political implications hinted at as a result – although admittedly, the critique of the political system’s hypocrisy is severely softened by the film’s situation in the historical past.

To all this, Renoir adds another – arguably more fulfilling – dimension with an investigation of artistic constraints. Thanks to the complex relations between financier, actor and audience there exists a visible contest to exert one’s authority in the precarious world of the performing arts. Camilla succeeds in achieving this, but at what cost? Assuming that the film isn’t simply an extended stage performance, Renoir raises the question of how far actors can act outside of their given roles (yes, it’s almost a Lynchian precursor!) The film’s most notable ‘weakness’ is in it’s failure to conjure up a romantic drama of any substance – despite having three male suitors to exploit. But this is perhaps less a fault and more an embracement of artificiality that finds resonance in the characterisations themselves (note how Ramon’s ‘love’ is a vanity project, whilst the Viceroy uses Camilla to distract from his own monotonous existence.) Camilla’s renunciation during the finale then, should be seen as inevitable: she makes a conscious decision to live her life through the prism of the “2 hours a day” that she spends on stage. This serves as a surprisingly bittersweet end to a film whose critiques are for the most part internalised: aside from dedicating herself wholly to her audience (i.e. us?) and rejecting the opulence of the ‘Golden Coach’ of the title, Camilla implies that any real world has failed to fulfil her wants and needs. In essence, she actively chooses the creative (artificial?) world over the everyday reality of life, realising that love is simply not enough. Maybe, just maybe, we could stretch this analogy to Renoir himself?

Mother and Son (Sokurov, 1997)

More random thoughts:

It’s appropriate that I watched Renoir’s The River and Sokurov’s Mother and Son so close together, because both dismiss the necessity of performance for dramatisation thereby leaving themselves open to become works of outstanding cinematic beauty.

I don’t know how to describe this! A beautiful ode to that unique relationship between mother and child? It’s dialogue is so sparse, and it’s scope so limited (to just the two performances) but it still manages to infer so much by overtly revealing so little. And of course, it’s subject matter is so private in its nature that one can’t help but run an entire gamut of emotions thanks to the tender bond that the two ‘protagonists’ (an inapplicable term really, no?) share.

The film is one of the (very) few that succeed in recreating a sense of ‘otherworldliness’ imo. It seems to exist in limbo – cautiously drifting along the line between life and death, and Sokurov’s mise-en-scene brilliantly reflects that. I’m not quite sure how he does it, but he manages to eradicate all depth-of-field from his shots and he distorts his images to the point where we’re left with a film that resembles a poignant oil canvas that’s alive. How else to describe it?!?! And then there’s his use of sound! Interspersing dialogue with howls, barks, gusts of wind, crashing waves of the sea… sounds that aren’t always there but absolutely serve the cause by assisting in the creation of that truly unique atmosphere.

It’s an elegiac hymn for the senses… yeah! A hymn to that loving mother-son relationship… almost devious in its quiet complexity (the scene with the scrapbook and the postcards that hint at memories both happy and not-so) yet ultimately assured in its simplicity re: their devotion to one another.

Apologies for failing so miserably at conveying what this film means to me. But do yourselves a favour and watch it.

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