Saturday, July 2, 2016

A COOL CRITERION SUMMER #11- BORDER RADIO (1987)

Man... I feel like a dick with the review I'm about to give this. 


I think if I objectively look at this (maybe even subjectively, I don't know), I can point out how it's not very cohesive or hold up too well over time.  But I've been where Alison Anders, Kurt Voss and Dean Lint were at in the mid 80's: people in a particular place and time and milieu (in this case it was the west coast alternative-cum-punk scene, or maybe it's the other way around, just before hair metal fucked everything up), and wanting to get it down on film.  There's a rawness and a sense that 'hey, let's make a goddamn movie that WE want to see!)  At least that's what I suspect was the idea - and to give some kind of gritty noirish feeling amid the aimlessness of the events.  So set in the world that Repo Man was swimming in or even the kids from Suburbia might wander through, but a touch of Jarmusch or Wenders.  And... I wish it worked better!

So on a personal level I find it difficult to be harsh on it, knowing that its heart is pure and that it's a warped little calling card at best at a time when such films could get a few people to see it in an art-house and that'd be just fine. But... well, it is what it is, right?  A basic enough premise but with some promise - a few dumbass punk rockers (or rockabilly, a crossbreed you could say) steal some money and the main guy behind the group runs off to Mexico - Chris D as Jeff Bailey, who I believe was a figure in the west coast punk scene, or he looks that way, like Henry Rollins balding cousin.  The rest of the film finds his wife Luana (played by I think Anders' sister or relative Luana) tries to find out where he's at and more importantly why.

Here's the key problem I have with this: if it were a short, even 30 minutes, it would be pretty fantastic.  I actually am smitten with this time and setting; Suburbia and Repo Man are set in a similarly scuzzy world where people don't give a fuck and yet there's the air of responsibility and the outside world that hangs over heads (in Repo Man it was just 'fuck normal' and Suburbia it was more 'hey, it's a Roger Corman production, don't forget the violence and sex every 15 minutes or so).  But those films also had stronger performances and a better core to work with despite how aimless they seemed. 

But here the whole search is stupid; Luana could go down it seems to Mexico any time she wants to get her dead-beat husband (also a father to their kid, played by real life Anders daughter), and the resolution to the whole situation happens too gradually and without much logic.  Oh, and there's a "documentary" being done on these people - interviewed I think by the directors - as if their story is supposed to be like fodder for a documentary that is just... why



This isn't to say Border Radio is a complete waste of time.  Actually for certain stretches it's entertaining.  The two band mates of Jeff's, Chris and Dave (also named after themselves), are characters unto themselves, with Chris like a proto Randall from Clerks and Dave probably the most realistic kind of character in the movie as far as real life goes: mostly drunk, a total scumbag, but likely talented though still blackballed by the local clubs for being a, well, jerk like he seems to be.  In fact a lot of the acting here isn't too bad, and Anders as the sort of anchor to much of the absurdity in the episodes pulls off what she's asked to do.

In some ways Border Radio portends the "mumblecore" movies more than any other 1980's indie.  As episodic as Stranger Than Paradise was, it had a formal ambition to its making and execution that made it stand out from the pack.  With 'Radio', I doubted there was a firm script, certain people show up briefly who seem like they were plucked off the street (i.e. a Mexican at the trailer park, a punk rock girl who is "babysitting" Jeff/Lu's daughter at a key point), which may explain the fucked up logic at times of the characters or events as they go on in the story.  Or at the least, the characters, except maybe for Luana, are not sympathetic much at all (actually Luana seems to be questionable at one point near the end too, and yet it's at a point where logically I'd given up on the story), and this takes away from being engaged with things.  In little moments, like when Chris goes down to Mexico finally to confront Jeff in a series of scenes, it's successful and genuinely interesting.  In the bigger picture it falls flat and is too scattershot to ever revisit.

For all of the criticisms I can levy on it, I have not a shred of ill will towards it.  I'm really happy this exists and that people can watch it, on the Criterion collection and Hulu no less (though it's strange that the copy that's available, that I saw anyway, was not restored like other titles, scratchy print like it was taken off of a dusty negative).  I didn't mention my favorite part of the movie which is the soundtrack, also original music by David Allen of the Blasters: it's a joy to listen to music that is rock and roll to a pure point: punk, rockabilly, Mexican mariachi work, slower stuff, it all works and I was glad to hear it.  If only it was put to a story that was actually compelling or made more sense.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

A COOL CRITERION SUMMER #10- Rohmer's LA COLLECTIONNEUSE

(Would you believe me if I told you it took me five minutes to realize that the title has two 'n''s in the name?  Well... it did)


My first, instinctual, gut reaction to La Collectionneuse (or 'The Collector", though I probably prefer to call it the French title so as not to confuse it with the John Fowles adaptation or the 2009 horror movie), is 'well, a lot of this is surely written with a keen ear for the dialog of those with money, or at least those who think they have enough for vacation (and it IS France so why not), but what's all the fuss about?'  This is one of Eric Rohmer's six "Moral Tales", films dealing with men and women in relationships, mostly (if not all) from the male point of view, and how men ascribe expectations to women.  Though I've not seen all of the films (My Night at Maud's and Love in the Afternoon are fantastic, The Baker one is alright), this one seemed... well, dry, about characters who were not likeable engaging in a not-hot love triangle.  But then IS it love?

This is a film that features a trio of characters - the two main guys on their vacation, Adrian (Bachau) and Daniel (Pommereulle) - and how they're seeming idyllic time (or that spent just, well, not doing much except lounging about, maybe reading, a little swimming, trying to do as little as possible like they're in Chinatown or some shit) is broken apart by the appearance of Haydee (though there are two others, Adrian's girlfriend who leaves in one of the 'prologues' to the film, and an older man who appears later in the story as a collector of items that Adrian is trying to sell as an art dealer of some kind).  This is all from Adrian's point of view, by the way, as he goes on and on... and on in narration about how he sees the unfolding situation.  And he talks a great deal as well - sometimes, often, as is suggested by one character later, to hear himself talk.

The idea here is that the "Collector" of the title isn't Adrian with his antiques (though that could very well be him and I wouldn't put someone with the intellectual heft of Rohmer to have double or triple or countless meanings here), but with Haydee.  She goes out with men night after night, and Adrian and Daniel have a kind of deal to see who will/won't sleep with her first.  Adrian says he has no interest, and perhaps who can blame him?  Haydee is the sort of pretty girl who appears to have not much personality aside from being pretty: she looks great in a bathing suit, which we see in the first shots of the film in her 'prologue' of her on the beach, and she talks often in a way that is subdued, not really questioning or being too curious intellectually, except that she does rebuke Adrian's suggestion that she is a "collector" - she says she is "searching" for... someone, or something. 

IS she only a pretty girl?  I think the sort of challenge, if I can call it that, of watching this film is to find a port into it emotionally.  These are characters, at least for Adrian and Daniel, I'm not so sure about Haydee (though it could be argued), who are making conflicts for themselves under the bright, sunny French countryside skies and grasses (lensed by Nestor Almendros, so of course you can't complain there, it's just not possible).


 It's by Rohmer's design that people don't get too angry or too responsive to things where people, I don't know, raise their voices or laugh too much (though there are signs of amusement), with a couple of exceptions.  There is a moment where Daniel, getting tired of Haydee - who he ultimately has bedded first - is tapping his foot over and over again.  It's the sort of moment that can wake up even those handful who may fall asleep watching the film (and I'm sure there are a few of you out there on your couches or in the revival theaters).  That makes its mark for sure.

In other words, these characters can talk, and certainly Adrian can talk in such a way that people call him out on it as monologue (and in such a way that may be improvised - I see this actor along with the lady playing Haydee, with her own character's name as her own, and Daniel, have writing credits for dialog as if it were a mumblecore movie, which this most resembles if I had to break it down), and I think the whole approach is that the talk is all to obfuscate the emotions, that all of the intellectual processing and thought that Adrian puts in to what's going on puts aside anything that can ACTUALLY make people feel like love and compassion and care.  For him, it's all down to logic and how to plan this or that.  It's not a love triangle if there isn't a sense of any possibility for love, whether it's for Adrian (who slowly sees his "moral" compass going to the side, or Haydee who says she isn't interested, and we can believe her because, well, she's believable!)

But I knew I had seen a film that had something to say about how men look at women and use them for their own feelings and projections, and intellectually that is greatly intriguing to me.  So I went as soon as the film ended to Roger Ebert's page, where he puts this among his "Great Movies" list (a bold banner for sure).  This seemed like an astute observation:

"(The characters) live at a languorous pace. The men decide she is a "slut," because they assume she sleeps with the revolving roster of guys who take her into town. When a rich art collector visits the villa to look at a vase Adrien is selling, Adrien essentially offers her to the older man. The way she handles that speaks well for her insight into the situation."

This may be so.   There's more detail Ebert goes into, and I think that thematically La Collectionneuse is thematically rich - how men have their own point of view and projection of how they want to see women in a certain way.  Adrian's already seen off his girlfriend, who wants him to join her in London and says he can't because, well, "work" as he puts it, but is it really?  He spends the rest of the film on this "vacation" (which, as we know from Forrest Gump, is actually when you go somewhere and you don't ever come back, so in a state of mind sense you don't ever really *want* to go back to where you are while away, if that makes sense), and justifies how he sees Haydee because... well, (gasp) she sleeps with a lot of men(!)

Context may be something here, as it's 1966 and morality in this time was changing, and Rohmer's film is a reflection of that, how men are trying to open themselves up to new experiences, but social mores and what life and institutions have taught about how to be with another person, how to connect, changed in this decade for France and others across the world.  And there's Daniel as well, who is more like a go-with-the-flow kind of guy, but can put up a hissy fit... which to Adrian seems like a put on.

So there is a LOT here to consider and think about, though this is mostly after the fact (apt considering Rohmer was a film critic and may have still been in that critical mind-frame by this point).  I'd be lying if I said I didn't find some of this dry, in part due to a lack of any music in the film; the narration, one might say, is the kind of music that Rohmer's peppering, but I'm not convinced.  It's that prejorative word "talky" and lacks the sort of visual fluorishes that his Cashiers du cinema contemporaries had.  One might say he's more of the "adult" than the kidding around/revolutionaries of Godard-Truffaut-Rivette.  In the case of this film it takes, or did for me, for a few minutes, some adjusting to get used to.  But once I got into its rhythm I found much to admire substanatively, even as things are so subdued and played for realism it edges into that terrible word I don't want to use: boredom.

But then it's *about* characters who can possibly get bored, so...

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

A COOL CRITERION SUMMER #9- Teshigahara's WOMAN IN THE DUNES

I'm a day behind, I know.  That may happen from time to time.  Life and all.

But meanwhile, I got to watch a truly fucked up work of art.  Yes, it's expressed in ways that cinema can only do - through a sensual, tactile, almost 3D-in-2D sense of how to capture skin and light and that thing that Anakin Skywalker seems to not like too much SAND - but fucked up.  Thank God for Japan.


First off, usually a character's profession should have some component of meaning for the film that he or she is a part of, no?  Maybe we as the audience can get an indication of how what the task the protagonist performs may/can/does have a bearing on the story. 

In Woman in the Dunes, Niki Jumpei (Eiji Okada) is an Entomologist.  What is that?  The study of bugs, insects, the like, and Niki is in a desert looking for some to bring back home for his studies (who we rarely hear if at all called this name, he's really just 'he' far as the audience is concerned).  But he misses his bus back home - or at least that's what he's told by some locals - and they suggest to him, when asked by Niki, to spend the night at a woman's house.  The house just happens to be at the bottom of a pit surrounded by sand.  The night with this Woman being sometimes odd and eerie notwithstanding, Niki expects to leave come morning.  That doesn't happen.  He's trapped - it's a set-up, and it's just the beginning of his troubles.

Gregor Samsa awoke one morning to discover that he's been transformed into an ART FILM!
So what does this mean?  Well, at the least, he is smart, and at times can be clever and his mind is always trying to think of things that can possibly get him out of the hole he's stuck in.  But could it be something deeper, more existential?  A bug or an insect, like the ones that Niki collects and studies, have no real scope in life, no goals, except survival, getting by day to day.  And in Niki's possession these insects are trapped forever (some die, some are meant to be kept alive for a short while).  Has he been turned into one of these insects?  May he become one with the limited capacity for no thought except the tasks given him?  Perhaps Niki will awake one morning to discover he's been transformed into a literal giant cockroach.  But at least Gregor Samsa was turned into a literal creature - this man's humanity is stripped day by day, in a prison that the woman by his side (Ky├┤ko Kishida in a performance for the ages), and has come to accept with a combination of insane glee and reticence.  A nickname for this could be Slow-Burn Metamorphosis in the Castles Made of Sand.

There are many ways to read into what this man does and how it relates to this story, but what makes the film so impactful and powerful is that it's not content to rest on the page, so to speak.  The story itself can't help but be compelling - it's a tale of wrongful imprisonment as the man and woman, as many others we are told are in this situation among these dunes, have to work digging in the sand around these "houses" (more like ramshackle shacks that could break any moment) in order to sift through diamonds for these "villagers".  On paper this could be a horror movie, a bunch of backwoods fucks kidnapping people for their own sadistic purposes.  But the direction from Hiroshi Teshigahara is what makes it count - the way that he and DP use the camera to create a distinctive, suffocating world full of so many things that make it a CINEMATIC experience is nothing short of miraculous.

"Sandy Cheesecake" pinup photography was always a tough sell in Japan...
Sand is tricky in movies - it doesn't have much character, unlike waves which ripple and move, or trees which go about and have color and have height and length and varieties.  Sand is just sand, sometimes wet, sometimes drier, sometimes even quicksand (and at one pivotal point we see quicksand in action in WitD).  Teshigahara and Hiroshu Segawa photograph sand unlike any I can think of in movies, not even Lawrence of Arabia.  Some of it has to do with juxtaposition - having an image of dunes and then having an elliptical, oblique image of a woman's face over it early on is such a way - but also getting what sand feels like on a person's skin, when it sticks to sweat and can't be easily rubbed off.  There's even a sensual quality to it in Teshigahara's hands, as at one point when the man is rubbing the sand off of the woman slowly, and it becomes... I mean, Jesus, one of the more sensual scenes in all movie history, and without nudity (in this case, there is some mild nudity though done tastefully).

At times it's not unlike those opening minutes of Hiroshima, Mon Amour, which had ash as a similar conduit for skin and sex, as it adds another layer to the image and gives the filmmakers something to play with.  There's also simply how many great images these guys get of these two people, how they find new ways to get close-ups even when it seems like there's no where else to photograph.  And there comes a point where the man asks the villagers if he can have just a few minutes a day, maybe ten, or more, or less, to see the nearby sea (he won't run away, like he did before, which by the way that entire sequence is so goddamn intense, mostly done without words, that it's worthy of No Country for Old Men far as mounting and executing suspense in a chase). 



When the villagers give their 'condition' it involves them all getting a "Show" at night... involving seeing the man and woman fuck as if in some carnal thing, like watching animals screw or trained monkeys in a circus.  She refuses - it's an attempted rape, one might say conservatively - but the way it's all presented, how Teshigahara, his DP and editor, cut between and show these faces watching (some in Kabuki masks!) and then these two desperate, tired, hopeless people, it's ironically magical to watch despite (or because) it's all so terrible.

Woman in the Dunes is at many points, mostly speaking, profoundly disturbing.  It goes deep in and tears apart the human soul in a way like Oldboy - also a movie about someone wrongfully imprisoned - though it's as well showing the 'institutionalized' way a mind can get ala Shawshank after some time (you know, first you hate it, then you get used to it, then it becomes like you have to rely on it).  I thought of these as the only rational examples I could since the film is mostly unlike any other I can think of: it has the framing of a terror or horror movie, but it's shot in a way like the most beautiful art film imaginable.

We see this man lose his grip on reality, though the reality is already being stripped away from him, as we are seeing in a subjective, lovingly photographed way these people like they have no other position to be in but drenched in sweat and misery and the occasional sex and dirt.  It's a precise contradiction, of making the horrific and emptiness of a desert into something gorgeous, and that's the fascination of the film, or at least of the director with this script (which, by the way, Teshigahara somehow got an Oscar nomination for *direction* at the 66 Oscars, and more power to him!)

Oh, and the two performances by Okada and Kishida are down and dirty and full of sometimes madness, often despair, and for Kishida it takes a lot to really make us feel sorry for a woman who has lost it and may be (maybe) a little slow, though her loss (she had a husband and daughter, likely they're dead) shines through in almost every scene, if that makes sense.  She has nothing to do but dig and obey, and the man with her better get his head around that and out of his crazy ideas of getting out!  These two have to be good performers to keep our attention, and they sure as hell do. 

Lastly, there's the score.  This comes in like out of some abstract other realm, or perhaps that the desert itself can make music and is sometimes giving a wild accompaniment to what happens here, whether it's certain ominous sensual moments, or when Niki finally gets his moment of (short-lived) escape and it's suspenseful music from Takemitsu while still maintaining the same eerie spectacle of everything.  The music collaborates with this to be like, again going back to the Metamorphosis and Kafka, like a waking, unhinged nightmare where people are punished for reasons that have no reason. 

Maybe that's how the insects feel anyway, if they have feelings. 

Monday, June 27, 2016

A COOL CRITERION SUMMER #8- Robert Downey's CHAFED ELBOWS

(man approaches another man making a line in a road with white paint)
"What's going on?"
"You gotta draw the line somewhere."
"..."


In one of the selections via the Criterion collection's offshoot, the Eclipse series (I suspect I'll have other Eclipse titles this summer to view), Robert Downey Sr "UP ALL NIGHT", we get a selection of a handful of the iconoclast/provocateur/I-Don't-Know-What-the-Fuck-to-Call-Him's work.  Putney Swope is the kind of major artistic release that has challenged and provoked many (to the point where Matt & Craig of Welcome to the Basement coined the phrase "Putney Swope Panic" when viewing films that perplexed them greatly) and influenced others (Paul Thomas Anderson, who would also have a character named 'Floyd Gondoli' taken from this film, Chafed Elbows, and Louis CK, were two). 

But what about his other films?  What about something like this, which at one point was such an underground-culty-of-the-moment piece of work that it was put on a double bill with SCORPIO RISING for those who ventured to the basements and rooftops of arteets buildings. 

Has there ever been anything more hipster?
This story is... well, it's certainly out of the box, far more than anything I've seen all week (though I haven't seen much Kenneth Anger or Stan Brakhage lately).  It's the story of Walter Dinsmore (George Morgan), who is having his "annual November breakdown" (though it seems like his breakdown could happen also in January or March or who knows when), and is telling about how he started having lust/sex for his mother, goes to his psychiatrist and confesses this (to which the doctor calls the mother, and she finds not much wrong with it), and then wanders the streets randomly for... something, I'm not sure.

Chafed Elbows is all from the mind of Downey as being completely anti... well, what do you got in 1965?  It's full of raunchy material - not much cursing though, and a couple of points nudity is blacked out in boxes) - and it's not unlike what one saw in John Waters' early films: totally anti-establishment, anti-censorship, anti-authority, and above all anti-taste and purity.  And like Swope, this is a movie that thumbs its nose at establishments that, actually, would often come out to movies like 'Elbows' like snooty poet people out of The New School (that's a particularly memorable moment, where Dinsmore is asked if he's a poet and recites the one he's written, which is terrible of course), but also of course women who flock for people who may have the slightest bit of fame, and uh, well, other people.

The movie is all over the place though, to a point where it becomes a collection of moments with the really loose thread of Walter's attraction for his mother, which we hear in voiceover as 85% of the film is voice-over, and he also sleeps with one or two other women.  At one point one such woman he describes sexing is more like he is driving a race-car in metaphorical speak.  I suspect that the appropach visually, which is largely made up of still images strung together one after the other, was an intentional riff (or parody, though I didn't sense that so much) on Markers' La Jetee

POKE!
For me though I didn't get that so much as a slightly more clever version of, of all the fucking things my mind could wander to (and it does this sometimes so please forgive me if you can), the ANGRY VIDEO GAME NERD's review of... Plumbers Don't Wear Ties.  If you're wondering that is, you can watch some/all of the video (it's worth it), but suffice to say it's closer to something an old video game might do that doesn't have the budget to tell its story in full visuals.

Is this necessarily a bad thing?  Not exactly, but kind of.  I think the moments where Downey has actual film to work with in a camera that allows for moving images - and it's about 15/20% of the movie so it's sprinkled enough in there - it works better, and there's one part where Walter joins a band(!) and sings in a rollicking rock group for a song that it flies in an off-the-wall, off-beat comical way (actually any time music is used creatively in the film it really connects and carries some energy and momentum).  But more often than not Downey's intention is to shock, and this is a little over 50 years ago with material that, except for the wild incest parts, it's not as shocking any more.  And what we're left with in stretches of this 58 minute, uh, featur(ette) is a lot of nonsense and madness strung together like an underground sketch comedy reel.

So some of it is dated.  Some of it doesn't connect comedically.  But some of it does, and certain lines and zingers had me rolling on my couch (one point Walter describes himself to one of the women he's about to fool around with as, "I'm just like an art film - I never fade, and I got a lot of special effects"), and Downey is more often than not clever with how he's approaching this: it's zany and silly, obscene and radical, goofy and sacrilegious (watch for a scene set in a church that feels like a drug trip for a couple of minutes), and ultimately I assume for Downey it's a, uh, 'love' story between a son and his mother in the midst of the son's breakdown.  By design it's meant to make almost everyone uncomfortable.  I found myself that way 40% of the time, while also laughing.  Other times it's... tedious, over-the-top in an annoying way, and then Floyd Gondolli shows up to do a newscast. 



So it goes.

PS: One more good line: "I'm listed in the Yellow Pages under Truth."

Sunday, June 26, 2016

A COOL CRITERION SUMMER #7- LIV & INGMAR

Let's get to some Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann, because you can't get into The Criterion Collection without Bergman - if it wasn't for Criterion, I wouldn't be the cinephile I am to day and if nothing else because of his catalog of work.  And now we get this reflective documentary...

"I love you in my imperfect, selfish way. And sometimes I think you love me in your own fussy, pestering way. I think we love each other in an earthly and imperfect way" - Ingmar Bergman



Liv & Ingmar on the outside looks like another "Netflix" type of documentary.  Many documentaries that may have some significance but a 'light' air about it, telling a story that we/you/us don't want to necessarily trek out into the city to pay $15 for, but will watch, they fall under a "Netflix" banner though, irony in this case, this time it's Hulu Plus.  Or, to put it another way, it may tell an interesting story but in a shallow way: like, oh, here's this master director and legendary actress (not too arguably, for my money, among the greatest dramatists of the 20th century), and how they fell in love.  But the surprise of this documentary is that it tells a compelling story, with only one subject interviewed (Ullmann, since Bergman died in 2007) and about two people who had a lifelong arc with turns that startled them it seems most of all.

The short of it is this: Bergman met Liv Ullmann shortly before he made the surrealistic masterpiece Persona (also from the Criterion collection, so if you haven't seen it check it out, even if you're unsure about Bergman as a filmmaker or a newbie), and he felt, as is repeated in the film (and is even on the poster) "painfully connected" to Ullmann, and once filming ended the two of them knew they were in love.  While it didn't make the headlines (at first, maybe later we'll see), Bergman and Ullmann decided to get together romantically, and Liv left her husband to do so (one of the asides I found fascinating is how he felt most bad for her husband's mother, who liked her deeply, it's one of those touches that makes the story interesting). 

d'aww, they're so cute you almost forget they're about to tear the into the existential void of life, love, God and relationships!
 But what happens when a man decides to take his pregnant wife to an island on Faro and make a new home?  And this island being so secluded that no friends can get there very easily?  One of the things that I realized is a key to this love story - and it is a love story at its core, of a love that had layers over two lifetimes - is that if someone gets with someone in a serious relationship it's a good idea to be friends first.  It's not that Bergman and Ullmann didn't find each other attractive or have that 'connection', but they both got into a serious relationship in a short period of time (not unlike Rossellini and Bergman in 1949 they got together and had a baby relatively quickly), and yet Ullmann, being around 25/26 to Bergman's 46/47, the age gap and the sense of authority and control was set in place: Bergman was in charge of his place, including putting up a giant stone fence to keep out anyone from the public, and Ullmann had nothing but to become part of 'his' world. 

If you happen to have some rosy-colored vision of Bergman from his films... well, I wonder who you are considering the many, many dark dramas the man directed in his 60 years(!) in the film business.  There's the sense to think that filmmakers were geniuses and that's it - many of them were just guys and coming from bad backgrounds (Ingmar came from a strict Lutheran background, which isn't mentioned in the doc but you find these things out over the years if you're a Bergman fanatic like myself), it got them into some messy waters personally.  It's amazing to see that Bergman was married five times AND was married while with Ullmann (or at the least their relationship started while he was with his fourth wife - but hey, as Bergman said about work: theater's my wife, film's my mistress, or something).  It's even more amazing to think that while he was with her romantically things were the worst between them - he was controlling and knew, as Ullmann says, just what to say psychologically to get under her skin (they could also have physical fights, but not to the scope of physical abuse, according to her). 

 Then something ironic but kind of wonderful happens: Bergman leaves Ullmann for another woman - it's unclear from the doc if he went back to his wife or went to another - and the two became really close and intimate friends.  (He finally settled down with his final wife, Ingrid - not the actress though - during the filming of Cries & Whispers, and a funny anecdote comes up with her deciding one night after imbibing some wine to go to Ingmar and tell him "Yeah, for sure, we're over" just because they never made it official that it was really over-over (he just kicked her out, it sounds like, from the story Liv tells).  And as he tried to knock on the door to tell him he said later he jumped out the window as he was scared to talk to her because she sounded angry(!!) 

If you look at their career, you end up seeing that the two had some of the great collaborations post break-up - C&W, Scenes from a Marriage, Autumn Sonata, the final Bergman film Saraband (the "sequel" to Scenes) - and it's tempting to say that it was precisely because they broke up that such rich cinematic material was there to mine, that, if one can read in between the lines (or it's up front and present), the filmmaker knew what Ullmann was emotionally capable of and Ullmann trusted her director more than before.  One of the most moving anecdotes is when she talks of him picking her up from the airport in the 90's, and him marveling to her how they could be the best of friends (down to people walking down the street who might see the two of them together and point out 'oh, there's Liv & Ingmar' not knowing just how close they were).  It's a love story through and through, and the love became for the decades after their break-up into something else: the love of colleagues, the love of friends, the love of people who cut off the sexual and romantic part of their connection, but the "painful" part was always going to be there. 

And sure, it may sound a little eye-rolling for a viewer to hear Ullmann talk about Ingmar after he died as if he is still around on his island, like his spirit floats around and she can feel him there.  But there's a real sense of intimacy to what Ullmann shares about this man and how she felt about him in varying times of life.  They went through hell together - often with him slinging the flames (the stories of shooting the raw war film Shame sounds downright terrifying) - and then some heaven again, all the while in-tune like people so intensely, well, plutonic (to the point where, and I laughed a lot hearing this, Liv could call Ingmar to talk about her emotional struggles, even getting drunk once and complaining about him TO him and not rembering it the next morning!  That's commitment)

Is the doc some STOP WHAT YOU'RE DOING AND WATCH!(?)  No, not quite, and I have to think if you're not already familiar with the many films shown from Bergman/Ullmann's collaborations, it may not hit you the same way.  And the filmmaker, Dheeraj Akolkar, tries to add his own, uh, 'poetry' to things in the way he shoots some of the old house that they shared together or the island itself or how those clips from the films are edited together to match the emotional beats of the story.  But I think there is something here for the 'average' Criterion viewer or documentary person looking for a story with emotional stakes and people who can move you with their journey through time: you get to see two people who had their own issues and had to work through them over time, either together or (mostly) separate, and came out together as so connected to one another that it seems to transcend space and time.  That's special.

A COOL CRITERION SUMMER #6- Catherine Breillat's FAT GIRL

About time we got to a female director in this marathon.  And it's French.  And very character-driven.  And... well, read on, but some SPOILERS ahead at your own peril.


Though it doesn't stick to this perspective for every single moment of the film, I find it so satisfying artistically as an audience member when a filmmaker presents us with a point of view that we SHOULD see more of but don't really get, and takes an unconventional approach in style.  I still remember Ebert's point about Manhattan that in a more conventional film the perspective on lead/supporting characters would be reversed (that Woody Allen's character in that film would be a supporting character while Michael Murphy the lead), and here it's a similar take: most other directors, lame/hacky ones, would take on the "My First Summer of Yada Yada Awakening" from squarely the point of view of the older sister of the two we're shown in Fat Girl, Elena, who is beautiful and thin and gets the attraction of guys like the Italian college student Fernando (even his name sounds like he's on the prowl for young), while Anais, the 13 year old younger sister of the title, would be the supporting player.  But here it's reversed, mostly, and it gives the story of teenage disillusionment a different meaning.

And then there's the ending.  But we'll get to that in a little while, once I get my adulation for this first.



Catherine Breillat may or may not be a strict "feminist", I don't even know what that term might mean in this context, but I do know that this film presents its audience with a perspective that involves two sisters and how they each view sexual awakening, or even something as simple as looking a certain way in a dress (sisters can't seem to wear the exact same dresses, you know), or how to kiss someone. 

And Breillat, again unlike a conventional, "soft-core" kind of director, doesn't exploit moments or emotions or even body parts (though you do see genitals, and yet this is still less graphic, if you can believe it, than her 1999 film Romance with actual penetration shown), is sensitive to how sisters are.  By this I mean it would be easy to have in a film such as this blanket, one-dimensional spite and jealousy on the part of Anaiis to Elena, and Elena's disdain for her "baby" sister who looks "disgusting" while eating.

But they do love each other, and are shown caring and listening to one another - they even break out into laughter when connecting, this coming before a big story reveal about an object given to Elena - and it feels... well, real, it doesn't shy away from the complexity that happens with siblings (and take it from someone who has an older brother, nothing is ever quite simple in a sibling relationship when two boys don't look and act too much alike, so I imagine it's similar for women).  Each sister is well defined and we discover things about them emotionally as the story goes on, and even quiet moments register as being pregnant with meaning and subtext and other things to read into it.

"Ah, Romance, I am French!" "Hah, I beat that, I'm Italian!" "Ooh lala" "translation please?"
Take the big centerpiece of the film, at least to me, when Elena and Fernando are in bed together with Anais acting like she's asleep on the other side of the room.  This scene lasts for what seems like a while, at least in cinematic time, and there's build-up and slow-down and build-up again to what Elena and Fernando are doing together, with some heavy kissing, some talk, then kissing again, then him trying to get her to 'do' it, her resisting, him pouting and being passive-aggressive, and then going into begging for anal sex (yes, really). 

Aside from it being reflected in real life - you may have heard about this being a thing with girls who pledge their virginity but do 'other' things - the key thing is point of view: though Breillat has her camera in medium close-ups on Elena and Fernando, showing them in their yes-no-yes-no-yes talk and so on until he finally does do what he asks, we don't forget the younger sister is watching.  But she's careful with when she cuts to her, almost to the point some may forget she is watching, but she is, and when we see Anais watching (as humping goes on) she looks almost half distracted, or maybe trying *not* to see it, though she can't avert her eyes.  Or can she?

This is wonderful filmmaking that takes three characters and makes all of their perspectives matter and feel vital, especially for Anais, and it's something that disturbs her and perplexes her and, ultimately, upsets her (this also goes for later when Elena does let Fernando take her virginity, which is somehow more upsetting for the younger sister looking away this time but crying softly).  She is showing what power dynamics in young sex is about, when young people do (and don't) know any better, and what this does, subconsciously or not, to someone watching it from afar.  Again, in any other softcore kind of film, from France especially these have been done going back to the 60's and 70's, it would all be on the older sister, or they wouldn't be sisters at all.  But with poor, husky Anaiis there, everything is different, and our eyes being through this main character it continues to be challenged as to what we know and see.

So this can be deep stuff.  Not all of the film in the first 75 minutes are as great as this, but most of it is really engaging and stripped down to see raw emotions (and always with adolescents in this time of their lives everything is fucked up, it's a fascinating time of life to make a movie about when done right).  But how does this semi-coming-of-age story resolve itself?  In such a way that... feels like, to me, and I don't know about anyone else, like Breillat couldn't come up with a proper ending.  What happens?  Well, and this is where a Holy Shit spoiler comes in, the girls' mother drives them back home early after it's discovered (thanks Fernando's mom, oddly enough a big person herself), that Elena slept with this college boy, and drives for hours and hours with lots of car shots showing some tricky highway driving (it sounds odd to point this out but you'll notice it as much as I did).  And then the mother stops off at a rest area for the night, the girls (except Anais) go to sleep, and... a guy with an axe slams through the windshield killing the older sister and choking the mother and then raping Anais.  Wait what?




I took it at first, not knowing this was coming and often expecting such wild things to happen in European/French/art films to be a bad dream or a nightmare that Anais was having - all of her fears and neuroses about these 'worst case scenarios' that go through young people's minds coming to the front and center from sub to regular consciousness (and believe me, I used to have them too so I could relate, at first) - and that she'd snap out of it in the car and then something else might happen.  That could work or at least be interesting.  But is it... real?  Is this some random guy that happens to find this car and kill/rape everyone and... what is this? 

After watching the film I went online to see reactions to this and it was mixed; some find it challenging and thought-provoking and something totally out of the box, and some find it as crazy as I did.  I do think this is where it's significant that it's a woman directing this - a man behind the camera and it would be a cry of sexism, as if a man could think nothing else but to go the violent-exploitationy route to end things.  But here we got Breillat.  Is it about how Anais reacts to this (the last line is her denying she was raped by this guy in the woods)?  Is it that free will is a motherfucker, and men will do whatever they want whenever they want to women, whether it's some sultry Italian dude with dreamy eyes in bed begging for some relief for his dick, or some crazy douche with a weapon and a complex against women?

Well, perhaps, yes that's it, too, and I can engage intellectually, try to poise theories, about it all after the fact, while emotionally, during it, it felt like an umbilical cord to the film was snapped with a chainsaw.  Watching it, it left me puzzled and not in a necessarily good way, like as if Breillat as a writer gave up where to take this story once the girls and mother get back home to the father (who, I should also note as the other male character of the story, is either oblivious or doesn't care about her daughters' emotions, that may be part of it too), so shock would do. 

Despite feeling, to put it mildly, uneasy and unnerved by this very sudden thing that happens - akin to when you watch Haneke's Cache or something and that one violent action happens after a movie that's been relatively one line, though in that it had more of an impact - I still do suggest people should see it.  That is, if you think you're already the audience for it in the sense of liking deliberately questionable and with strong young female performers, then it will hit the spot, for a while, or more, anyway.  It functions on its own wavelength, either directly challenging or ignoring the norms of what audiences usually get and expect with stories involving young love and sexual awakening and sibling rivalries and so on.

PS: As a side note, I noticed the actresses of the sisters - Roxanne Mesquida as Elena and Anais Reboux as, well, Anais - had different careers, and it reminds me of what happened with the two lovely young women from Blue is the Warmest Color, Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux - the former is not having that much of a career, while the latter is (it's not that Adele is not unattractive, she's quite pretty, but Seydoux has more of the "movie star" attractiveness and has since gone on to a 007 and The Lobster).  I see that Mesquida and Reboux had a similar fate, as Mesquida has been in many films since this one, while this is Reboux's only credit.  Did Reboux not want to act anymore/was plucked from obscurity for this one part and that was over/done with, or did looks have a role to play (or the kind of roles offered).  Who knows...