Thursday, November 16, 2017

214. Indian director Praveen Morchhales’s film “Walking with the Wind” (2017) (India) based on his own original screenplay: Recalling the cinematic footprints of the late Iranian maestro Abbas Kiarostami

Director Praveen Morchhale is an emerging noteworthy filmmaker from India making films based on his own original scripts that use children in pivotal, non-controversial roles.  His films certainly cannot be classified as children’s films as these works, while tugging at the hearts of adult viewers, are essentially humanistic and philosophical in content that is relevant for viewers of all ages. His films are different in many ways from the average contemporary Indian cinema. The titles of his two films Barefoot to Goa (2013) and Walking with the Wind (2017) are in English, while the films are not in that language.  Spoken words are minimal though important, while visuals and documentary-like performances dominate.  Family values are underscored indirectly in both films. Both films exude positive thoughts, providing viewers with a breath of fresh air, not unlike the early works of the Iranian filmmakers Abbas Kiarostami and Amir Naderi. Director Morchhale, who has been influenced by the former’s works, dedicates the film to him as he passed away while the film was in production. Kiarostami’s evocative short film The Bread and Alley (1970) has a similar treatment of a different story.

While Morchhale’s first film compared and contrasted contemporary urban and rural western India, his latest film is entirely shot in a rural setting of Ladakh, in the northern Indian state of Kashmir, with principal actors playing their real-life roles. Italy’s filmmaking maestro Ermanno Olmi achieved a similar effect in the brilliant Golden Palm winning The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978). Morchhale spent time over two seasons with the community some 80kms from Leh, while developing the tale and roping in the inhabitants to join the film as non –professional actors in roles close to their own in real life.

The boy and his sister study as their parents prepare dinner in the modest
real Ladakhi rural home

Morchhale’s characters are very ethical. In Walking with the Wind, a school student unwittingly breaks a school chair and goes to immense efforts to get it repaired. (It is not clear whether he has to sit on that very chair to write his forthcoming examination.  In any case, a broken chair would cause inconvenience to some student in his class, if not him)  A school student studies diligently to pass his examinations but realizes that he and his sister have no ink to write it and literally goes the extra mile to procure it from a distant town. Education is important for some children (including girls) when they note that only a few of the adults in the village are educated. Morchhale’s young film characters are all resolute, whether it is to reach a destination (as in Barefoot to Goa) or to achieve a modest aim.

The young Indian director, influenced by Iranian cinema, roped in a young Iranian cinematographer Mohammad Reza Jahanpanah, who had done the cinematography for Jafar Panahi’s acclaimed film Closed Curtain (2013), a Silver Bear winner at the Berlin Film festival. And if there is a single most engaging aspect of the film it is camerawork that captures the terrain, the pathways (roads are few here), and the sparse population compared with the rest of India.

The terrain, the boy, and the broken chair: the camerawork of  Jahanpanah
captures it all

The director is clever in incorporating real life characters from the village into his script thus avoiding high costs he would otherwise have incurred employing professional actors. The performances as in an Olmi film are flawless.  The main character is a schoolboy, the carpenter is a real life carpenter, the poet is a real one, the blind man is a real blind man, and the Japanese painter/documentary filmmaker in the film is a real bona fide inhabitant, married to a Ladakhi man in the village. The director has not used sets—he used the real dwellings.

There are evocative sequences in Walking with the Wind that will not be missed by viewers exposed to good, international cinema. The Japanese lady, busy painting the landscape, looks up from her work to watch the young boy with a chair in the distance. The cinematographer captures the boy’s presence in the vast landscape on the corner of the visual frame accentuating the smallness of the character and the relative importance of the event in the vast land. The open metaphors the film offers are for viewers to decipher and ingest.

The impressive lead actor who like the others
in the film are not conscious of the camera

Morchhale’s filmmaking proves several points for filmmakers in India. You can make good films by investing on good film crews rather than on actors. Writing your own non controversial screenplays is more rewarding in many ways. And more importantly, the world of cinema is growing more international and often more non-verbal. Finally, it showcases the pristine parts of India little known to most Indians, and far less to wider international audiences. It is also a film that does not spoon-feed the audiences—the end sequence of the film makes the viewer think awhile.

P.S. Morchhale’s first film Barefoot to Goa (2013) was reviewed earlier on this blog. The film Walking with the Wind is the first Indian film chosen to compete in the 2017 Cameraimage festival in Poland. Olmi's The Tree of Wooden Clogs has been extensively reviewed earlier on this blog. (Click on the names of the films in this post-script to access the reviews)

The trailer of the film is at

Monday, November 06, 2017

213. US director Michael Almereyda’s film “Marjorie Prime” (2017) (USA): Commendable adaptation of a good American play on film with noteworthy performances and musical choices

Nobody is who he was. Nobody will be who he is now” 
--lines spoken in the film, adapted from Jordan Harrison’s play Marjorie Prime, a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize and the winner of the 2016 Horton Foote Prize for an Outstanding New American play

US director Michael Almereyda made some fine decisions to make Marjorie Prime. He chose an amazing play that would only be enhanced by the tools of modern cinema, if used with restraint and class. He achieved that partly by scripting the film himself. His next winning decision was to retain actress Lois Smith in the role of the old Marjorie, a role she had played earlier on stage. The director’s next winner was the casting of actress Geena Davis as Marjorie’s daughter Tess and actor Tim Robbins as Marjorie’s son-in-law, Jon. The fourth bright decision was to choose the talented Mica Levi to contribute the original music of the film. All win-win decisions.

The film/play deals with real people interacting with holograms (“Primes” created through memories of others) that can intelligently respond to you.  The responses of these artificially intelligent (AI) creations are as interesting as the responses of robots in the recent fascinating sci-fi film from UK, Ex Machina (2014). Playwright Harrison does not delve into the science of developing the holographic characters but instead concentrates on how real humans react to the responses of the holographic characters whose knowledge is based on information provided by the interacting humans themselves.  Harrison is an alumnus of Stanford University, where interesting developments in AI have been emerging and continues to emerge. When Marjorie Prime won the Sloan prize at the Sundance Film Festival the citation was itself revealing of the maturity of the film. The jury awarded the film for its "imaginative and nuanced depiction of the evolving relationship between humans and technology, and its moving dramatization of how intelligent machines can challenge our notions of identity, memory and mortality.”

Marjorie (Lois Smith)  interacts verbally with the hologram of
her husband Walter (Jon Hamm), as he looked when he was 40.

Film has a clear advantage over theatre when it comes to holograms. Early in the film, Marjorie (Lois Smith) walks through the leg of her dead husband Walter’s hologram (Jon Hamm).  As the film progresses, real characters keep interacting with holograms of persons who died recently as well, when they are alone. (Harrison and Almereyda are more interested in the psychological reactions of humans to spoken words of holograms)  These interactions can be switched off at the human’s will. These possibilities are fictional at present but could soon be reality as AI makes rapid strides with time.

The Harrison/Almereyda tale is reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman's films going back in time to discover and rediscover facts and incidents and record reactions that unfold new perspectives of the present day characters by these discoveries.  The artificial holograms act as a catalyst for humans to unravel what they had subconsciously kept hidden.

Almereyda’s film makes visual connection with two images and one feature film. The two images are the saffron flags installation called "The Gates" in New York’s Central Park by Christo and Jeanne-Claude (see ) and a painting that reminds you of Alain Resnais’ surreal images in his black and white film Last Year at Marienbad (1961). The film referred to within the film is the Hollywood film My Best Friend’s Wedding  (1997). The common factors in all three are wistful recollections of human relationships from the most abstract to the least abstract. The saffron flags of ‘The Gates’ made a connection in Marjorie’s mind to her beloved dead son.  The images of the painting recalling Last Year at Marienbad could nudge a cineaste to parallels between the two pairs of couples in Marjorie Prime (Marjorie/Walter and Tess/Jon) and the unnamed man and woman in the French film. As in the Resnais film, you--the viewer--question the veracity of all the statements of the three principal living human characters when the hologram versions innocently and logically question what was stated earlier by the three humans. As in the Resnais film, memory and visual association (e.g., the saffron flags of ‘The Gate’ which are never shown in Marjorie Prime but discussed verbally) are crucial. Even the marriages of the two pairs of spouses in Marjorie Prime are tenuous.  As in the My Best Friend’s Wedding plot, there is a third person in the Marjorie/Walter relationship.  Much of these one suspects are likely to be the contribution of the director/screenplaywriter Almereyda. The final shot of the film is truly arresting—the waves of the ocean seem to have frozen in time just as the painting that recalls the Resnais film.

Two real people, Jon (Tim Robbins) and his wife Tess (Geena Davis) interact

One of the fascinating conversations occurs between Tess and the hologram of her mother Marjorie. The hologram comments “Pronouns are powerful things” following a statement of Tess for the hologram’s benefit.  Tess is taken aback and answers “That would be more her. No, you,” indicating Tess’ confusion between the real Marjorie and the hologram of Marjorie.

In a film where visuals and spoken words take the centre stage, music is not to be overlooked. Composer Mica Levi is a rising star—proving her mettle in Jackie (2016) and Under the Skin (2013). Almereyda’s choice of Poulenc and Beethoven pieces and Ms Levi’s original music combined with intelligent soundtrack editing by Kathryn Schubert (who had worked with Jim Jarmusch on Only Lovers Left Alive in 2013) embellish the film.

Tim Robbins was never as interesting as he is in this film providing interesting variation to his character. Lois Lane is a delight to watch as the real Marjorie and the holographic Marjorie. Geena Davis and Jon Hamm do not disappoint. 

Son-in-law Jon (Robbins) briefs the hologram of his 'dead father-in-law Walter
with secrets about Marjorie's and Walter's past
(Note the hologram's robotic posture)

Marjorie Prime ought to be a frontrunner in the Oscar race in several departments—acting, music, screenplay and editing. It is one of the most engaging sci-fi films since Ex Machina but a casual viewer, who misses out on the details, might find it unworthy of acclaim. The sci-fi element is minimal but the film is more concerned about memory, aging, and how people react to emotionless, logical questions of robotic creations. In many ways, the balance of sci-fi and human behaviour changing with time in Marjorie Prime is close to the balance achieved by Andrei Tarkovsky in Solaris (1972).

This low-budget film will be a strong contender for being included among the top 10 films of 2017 for this critic.

P.S. The film Marjorie Prime won the Alfred P Sloan prize for feature films at the Sundance Film Festival. Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972) has been reviewed on this blog.

Monday, October 23, 2017

212. Czech directors Jan Kadar’s and Elmar Klos’ film “Touha zvaná Anada” (Adrift) (1971) (former Czechoslovakia): Third film of an important European film trilogy (based on a Hungarian novel by Lajos Zilahy), rarely discussed or appreciated

My heart pounds, my strength fails me; even the light has gone from my eyes.
--Psalms 38:10 (Epigraph/quote that opens the film, before the titles)

Adrift is the third film of a rarely discussed but important trilogy of director Jan Kadar (1918-79) that includes the Oscar-winning The Shop on the Main Street (1966) and The Angel Levine (1970). Elmar Klos was the co-director of two films of the trilogy: The Shop on the Main Street and Adrift.  Hence, the trilogy can conveniently be considered as the Jan Kadar spiritual trilogy on human beings’ tendency to lose things dear to them due to their own follies. In all the three films, the male central character is the pivot of the story and a major female figure dies as a result of the male character’s actions. As Kadar was a Jew, the references within the trilogy relate to the Old Testament of the Bible. (In contrast, the wife of the central character is an ardent Roman Catholic, with paintings of Mother Mary over her bed—a contribution of the novelist Lajos Zilahy.)

The mysterious Anada (Paula Pritchett) in the Danube

Unlike the spiritual doubt trilogy of the Swedish maestro Ingmar Bergman (The Silence; Through a Glass Darkly; Winter Light) and the spiritual/metaphysical Yusuf trilogy of the Turkish director Semih Kaplanoglu (Honey; Milk; Egg) which are built on the original scripts of the respective directors, Kadar’s trilogy is made up of three adaptations of three novels by three different novelists, chosen either consciously or unconsciously by Kadar, to form the beads of a single necklace. The novelists are Ladislaw Grosman (The Shop on the Main Street), Bernard Malamud (The Angel Levine), and Lajos Zilahy (Adrift). Interestingly, Kadar’s Adrift is the third film adaptation of the same Zilahy novel.  A Hungarian film Something in the Water was made in 1944 and a Mexican film Something Floats in the Water was made in 1947, based on the same Hungarian novel. The novel ends with a miracle and a happy ending—Kadar’s film does not.

The fisherman -- the good and the bad in us

The tale of Adrift (and the novel from which the screenplay was adapted) is simple. A rural family of a poor fisherman (Rade Markovic) on the banks of the Danube River consists of a religious wife Zuzka (Milena Dravic), their teenage son and the fisherman’s father-in-law.  A beautiful woman (Paula Pritchett) with no family or known history and a strange name Anada is found floating in the river, presumably dead. The wife notices a spot of life in the body and massages her back to life. The film is all about the consequent impact of her presence in the family household at the insistence of the wife.

Anada (Paula Pritchett): Is she real ,or a mermaid ,
or a mere figment of imagination 

More than the plot, it is the filmmaking that grabs the attention of an intelligent viewer as in all Kadar films more than the subject. The beginning and the end of the film are considerably similar, with parallel events. It could easily confuse an inattentive viewer. The consequence of the actions of the fisherman is never shown, only inferred by visuals that need to be connected by spoken lines earlier in the film.

Kadar’s Adrift uses methods similar to those used in Andrei Konchalovsky’s Paradise (2016) where the principal characters are answering questions on their motives and actions. In Paradise you do not see the questioner; in Adrift you see three male questioners who never reveal much about themselves except their names (Melchior, Balthazar and Kaspar) while reassuring the fisherman that they are not the police. In both films, the timing of the questioning would seem illogical until the end of the film when the seemingly illogical chronology falls into place.  The three names will give away their true identities, if the viewer is well read. These names are attributed to the three wise men that came to see baby Jesus in Bethlehem. These names do not appear in the New Testament of the Bible but emerged from a Greek manuscript written in the 6th Century AD. The Catholic Church canonised these men into Saints Melchior, Balthazar and Caspar. It is not surprising that the strange trio in the film talks of attending christenings, weddings or wakes and finding a birth or a death.  Their boat has a flag flying on it—it is a simple black one.

Melchior, Balthazar and Caspar "interrogate" the adrift fisherman

Some parts of the “interrogation” are revealing. When the three men meet the fisherman for the first time, when he is waking up on the banks of the Danube after having been “adrift,” they ask him if he remembers anything, to which he replies “I remember nothing.”  One of the three men responds: “When things go wrong you remember nothing.”  Later one of the mysterious three asks the fisherman about Anada: “Did you interrogate her?” The fisherman’s angry retort is “Who are you to interrogate me?” More revealing than the religion in Adrift, are the words and actions of the fisherman that reveal turmoil and contradictions within the fisherman’s simple mind, which is indeed “adrift.”  The trio reassures the fisherman “We only know what you know.

When asked by the trio why he let Anada stay with his family, the fisherman’s honest reply is “My wife wanted it ...” only to add on the words “I love my wife.” He goes on “... My wife’s stupidity.” The trio quickly corrects him “You mean kindness.”

The wife Zuzka (Milena Dravic) embodiment of kindness reminisces
as her husband prepares her medicine 

Truth and duplicity intermingle in Adrift.  (Kadar seems to love this strange mix—exemplified in his lovely adult “children’s film” Lies My Father Told Me, a 1975 film he made in Canada.) Early in the film Adrift, the wife Zuzka reveals that she remembers that her husband had revealed his love for her by stating that he would drown himself if she died following childbirth. Fortunately, she and her son had survived the childbirth. More than a decade later, when she falls seriously ill, as a devout Catholic, she pledges all the money the poor family has to God if she is cured for the sake of her husband and son. This why the words “stupidity” and “kindness” during the interrogation sequence takes on an added significance.

The women Zuzka (right) and Anada (left)
understand each other, which upsets the fisherman even further

Kadar’s films have a style that remains with you—the sudden use of music during certain types of activity, which stops as suddenly as it begins. His camera tells you the end of the tale as though it was a silent interloper. If you miss the important shots, the end of the film would indeed befuddle the viewer.

After the end of the film the viewer could reflect on the epigraph at the beginning of the film, though most casual viewers might not see the importance of that exercise.  Both Kadar and Konchalovsky are erudite directors who believe epigraphs and end quotes add more value for the serious and well-read viewer.

Kadar’s films are gems for viewers who pay attention to details. He is definitely one of the best Czech/Slovak filmmakers in film history. The three films in the trilogy are important for students of cinema, even though rarely discussed in recent times.

P.S. The film Adrift won the Best Actress award at the Taormina Film Festival for Milena Dravic who plays Zuzka, the wife. Kadar’s The Shop on the Main Street won the Oscar for the Best Foreign Language film and an unsuccessful nomination for the Best Actress Oscar. Andrei Konchalovsky's Paradise (2016) has been reviewed on this blog earlier.

Monday, October 02, 2017

211. US director Sofia Coppola’s film “The Beguiled” (2017) (USA): An interesting but “amputated” female perspective of a quaint but intelligent American novel

t is imperative that when a director adapts a novel into a film that one ought to compare how that effort changes or enhances the entertainment of the viewer/reader. That exercise is further compounded if an interesting earlier film had been made—making it useful to compare the three creative products—the novel, the original movie and the remake.

The Union Corporal (Colin Farrell) and Alicia (Elle Fanning) 

Sofia Coppola’s film The Beguiled is an adaptation of a novel and a remake of a 1971 film of considerable importance. Ms Coppola won the Best Director award at Cannes in 2017 from a jury that did not use that perspective but merely evaluated its strengths compared to the 20 odd films in competition at that edition of the Festival. 

The tale is set during the American civil war. An injured Union soldier is given refuge in a seminary/boarding school in a southern Confederate state inhabited by religious women/girls of varying ages. A series of unfortunate incidents lead to his death. 

Sofia Coppola is the director and screenplay writer of 2017 version of The Beguiled. Her approach to the film's subject is simple, obvious, and measured —while retaining the basic story of the novel, she would tweak it to serve us a female perspective of the novel. (Note that even the color of the film's title on poster is pink!) The original novel was written by a male author Thomas Cullinan. The original screenplay was written by Albert Maltz and Irene Kemp for the original film The Beguiled (1971), directed by Don Siegel. Ms Coppola uses that screenplay of Maltz and Kemp as the basis of her own adapted screenplay, while changing crucial elements of the preceding works. 

The not-so-frail Ms Martha (Nicole Kidman) in candle light

The crucial differences of the remake with the original film are the following:

  1.  The total deletion of the sympathetic black slave girl Mattie of the novel renamed Hallie in the original film by Don Siegel. In the original film. Hallie in a crucial scene during the second leg operation, courageously remarks “There is frailty in you” as Ms Martha (played by Geraldine Page) avoids looking at the face of the soldier. In Ms Coppola’s version, there is very little frailty in Ms Martha (played by Nicole Kidman). Further, both the original version and the remake of The Beguiled portray the character of Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman in the original, and Kirsten Dunst in the remake) as a white lady, while the character in the novel is of a mixed race.
  2.  The soldier’s character and his views are reduced to the minimal in Ms Coppola’s version allowing very little sympathy to develop in the viewer's mind  for the soldier. 
  3. The sexual encounter sequence is minimized in screen time in Ms Coppola’s version to the credit of the director, when compared to the original version. In any case, that sequence is not important. 
  4. The cinematography in the night sequences is captured in candle light in Ms Coppola’s version (as it ought to be) unlike Mr Siegels’ version. It reminds one of the cinematography and lighting in Stanley Kubrick’s film Barry Lyndon (1975). 
  5. The trees and the woods in Ms Coppola’s version are spectacular compared to Mr Siegel’s version. Even the fallen dried leaves in the veranda add to the intelligent details adopted in Ms Coppola’s version. 
  6. In Ms Coppola’s version, the soldier’s body is left unattended outside the gate in a covered body bag, which is odd indeed. In Mr Siegel’s version the ladies carry the covered body far away from their mansion. One can assume the ladies were not capable of digging a grave in both film versions leading to this action. 
Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) replaces the Edwina of mixed race of the novel

Religion and reality of the beguiled

The following is the intelligent and measured text of a statement issued by Ms Coppola to counter some criticism of her omissions in her version: 

 “My film is set in a Southern school for girls at the point in the Civil War when the men had been away fighting for some time and the Union had gained momentum. According to historians and several women’s journals from the time, many slaves had departed, and a great number of white women of the South were left in isolation, holding on to a world whose time had rightly come to an end—a world built on slave labor.” 

 “I wanted to tell the story of the isolation of these women, cut off from the world and in denial of a changing world. I also focused on how they deal with repression and desire when a man comes in to their abandoned world, and how this situation affects each of them, being at different stages of their life and development. I thought there were universal themes, about desire and male and female power dynamics that could relate to all women.” 

“The circumstances in which the women in my story find themselves are historically accurate—and not a distortion of history, as some have claimed. From “Mothers of Invention” by Drew Gilpin Faust: “War and emancipation revealed that many white women felt themselves entirely ignorant about how to perform basic functions of everyday life…A war that had at the outset made so many women feel useless and irrelevant soon demanded significant labor and sacrifice from even the most privileged southern females…” 

 “Throughout the film, we see students and teachers trying to hold on to their crumbling way of life. Eventually, they even lock themselves up and sever all ties to the outside world in order to perpetuate a reality that has only become a fantasy. My intentions in choosing to make a film in this world were not to celebrate a way of life whose time was over, but rather to explore the high cost of denial and repression.” 

 “There have been some questions regarding my approach to my new film, The Beguiled. More specifically, there have been objections to my decision not to include the slave character, Mattie, in Thomas Cullinan’s book on which my film is based. I would like to clarify this.” 

 “My film is set in a Southern school for girls at the point in the Civil War when the men had been away fighting for some time and the Union had gained momentum. According to historians and several women’s journals from the time, many slaves had departed, and a great number of white women of the South were left in isolation, holding on to a world whose time had rightly come to an end—a world built on slave labor." 

"Isolation of women, repression and desire" captured
by Sofia Coppola

 “I wanted to tell the story of the isolation of these women, cut off from the world and in denial of a changing world. I also focused on how they deal with repression and desire when a man comes in to their abandoned world, and how this situation affects each of them, being at different stages of their life and development. I thought there were universal themes, about desire and male and female power dynamics that could relate to all women.” 

“In his 1966 novel, Thomas Cullinan made the choice to include a slave, Mattie, as a side-character. He wrote in his idea of Mattie’s voice, and she is the only one who doesn’t speak proper English—her voice is not even grammatically transcribed.” 

“I did not want to perpetuate an objectionable stereotype where facts and history supported my choice of setting the story of these white women in complete isolation, after the slaves had escaped. Moreover, I felt that to treat slavery as a side-plot would be insulting.” 

“There are many examples of how slaves have been appropriated and “given a voice” by white artists. Rather than an act of denial, my decision of not including Mattie in the film comes from respect.” 

 “Some have said that it is not responsible to make a film set during the Civil War and not deal directly with slavery and feature slave characters. I did not think so in preparing this film, but have been thinking about this and will continue to do so. But it has been disheartening to hear my artistic choices, grounded in historical facts, being characterized as insensitive when my intention was the opposite”. 

“I sincerely hope this discussion brings attention to the industry for the need for more films from the voices of filmmakers of color and to include more points of views and histories.” 

Exterior cinematography under natural light
with dried leaves on the floor

Both the film versions have their strengths and weaknesses. Both films and the novel compare the importance given to religion and the contrarian actions of the persons who profess to practice it. Both films and the novel discuss how good individuals change with circumstances that affect their ego or their possessions. Even a child can change if it's pet is deliberately hurt! Don Siegel’s 1971 version captures a larger canvas of male characters (soldiers of the Confederate army interacting with the ladies)---several brief yet important sequences. Ms Coppola’s version avoids those distractions as she is more interested in focussing on the ladies. Both versions have their strengths. Don Siegel’s 1971 version gave importance to acting, while Ms Coppola’s somewhat notable version is essentially a director’s, the art director's and cinematographer’s film--little else. Despite directorial maturity of the remake, the original is the winner with a notable Clint Eastwood performance to boot.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

210. The late Chilean maestro Raoul Ruiz’ European film “Klimt” (2006) (Austria/France/Germany/UK): Outstanding cinematic exploration of the complex mind of an artistic genius, dying from syphilis

“Who art thou? “asked the guardian of the night. 
” From crystal purity I come,” was my reply.” And great my thirst, Persephone. Yet heeding thy decree I take to flight and turn, and turn again. Forever right I spurn the pallid cypress tree. Seek no refreshment at its sylvan spring but hasten on toward the rustling river of Mnemosyne wherein I drink to sweet satiety. And there, dipping my palms between the knots and loopings of its mazy stream I see again, as in a drowning swimmers dream--all the strange sights I ever saw. And even stranger sights no man has ever seen.” 
---End lines spoken by Klimt (played by John Malkovich) in Raoul Ruiz’ film Klimt.
Klimt has been dismissed by most critics and viewers as difficult and silly. Klimt is difficult but not silly. Klimt, the film, is a heady cocktail of two brilliant minds: Gustav Klimt the painter, and Ruiz the filmmaker. It is a delicious cocktail to be enjoyed by intelligent and patient viewers.

Take the enigmatic end lines—the flowery words would have little impact beyond the oratory of Malkovich, if the viewer had no idea of who Persephone and Mnemosyne are. They are two important figures of the ancient Greek Eleusinian mysteries associated with agriculture (in particular, Persephone) and afterlife in Hades. It is likely that these lines were written/chosen by Ruiz (as he is the original screenplay writer of the film) rather than attribute it to unlikely historical words spoken by Klimt the artist in real life. Mnemosyne, according to the Eleusinian mysteries, conceived nine Muses after sleeping with Zeus. Mnemosyne presided over a pool (or the river of memory) from which dead souls drank from. Memory is crucial for both Klimt the artist and Ruiz the filmmaker, during their respective creative lives.

Klimt (Malkovich) experimenting with glass and syrup, to visualize
his future paintings such as "The Kiss"

Klimt views flying golden paper in his studio--a crucial element
that would eventually be a stamp of his famous paintings

The artist Klimt is fascinated by flowers (many of his paintings are in fact flower related) and by mirrors. The Klimt on screen is a creative individual whose memories constantly flirt with mirrors. And why is Ruiz emphasizing mirrors? Because Ruiz himself is constantly battling his own memories of Chile, the homeland he fled, a recurring facet in all his films made after he left Chile.

Like Terrence Malick, Ruiz is a very well-read filmmaker and all his films bear testimony to this. Ruiz in Klimt is thus able to connect Klimt’s licentious life that led to his syphilis with the world of Mnemosyne and her Muses. On the fictional death-bed scene (early in the film) that Ruiz lovingly presents—Klimt utters the words “Flowers” as enigmatically as Citizen (Charles Foster) Kane utters “Rosebud” in Welles’ film. Ruiz’ film does not give much importance to Klimt’s paintings of flowers as much as he does to his nudes. When Egon Schiele (played by Nikolai Kinski, son of actor Klaus Kinski) hears the words “Flowers” spoken by Klimt, he rushes to the mirror facing the dying Klimt in the hospital room. Schiele knew the connection—which is why Ruiz’ film is emphasizing the role of mirrors at several levels in the film—see-through mirrors, broken mirrors, anamorphic mirror images et al. (One wonders if Sukurov’s film Faust (2011) was influenced by the ideas of Ruiz utilized in Klimt.)

An important factor while viewing the movie Klimt is to separate the genius of the artist Klimt from the brilliance of Ruiz the director. Take for instance the sequence that precedes the scene where an angry Klimt smears the face of an irritating individual in a restaurant with a cake. As the gentleman speaks the camera seems to spin. Pay more attention: the camera and the table on which Klimt is sitting both revolve while the outer periphery, where the speaker is standing, is static! It is the director’s clever method to get viewer inside Klimt’s mind at that time and what action follows can be anticipated by the viewer. Most other directors would have chosen the easier option of a mere spinning/revolving camera. Klimt’s actions fascinate you, but the filming is perhaps even more fascinating.

The two Leas (Saffron Burrows) and the enigmatic/metaphoric/psychological
"mirror" confront the creative Klimt (Malkovich)

hen there is the script of Ruiz. Here’s is an example of an unforgettable line: “The real one is not as real as the false one.” This, of course, is reference at the more obvious level of Klimt’s muse Lea de Castro and imagined/false Lea. With actress Saffron Burrows playing both Leas, Ruiz presents the diseased mind of a syphilitic Klimt who imbibes mercury, the only known partial cure before the advent of penicillin. Can Ruiz make film without a swipe at military rulers of Chile? In Klimt, a character pontificates: “They say that you have to stand outside of history. This history is a nightmare. And that there's absolutely nothing else to be said about it. They sound like philosophers. Except they say philosophy is rubbish.” The parallels will not be lost on those viewers who know Chile’s history and Ruiz’ relationship with Chile.

A dream sequence when Klimt confronts his young daughter,
with two crucial ladies--Midi and Lea-- in his life
standing in separate doorways. Note
the lighting is only on the father and daughter,
in an otherwise darkened dream sequence

Ruiz’s cinema has several layers that can be missed by a casual viewer. Lea and the false Lea are just one example. The two doorways in the dream (“take the left and then the left” Klimt is advised, the recurrence of coins in the film (tossed and then a coin rubbed against the bed linen), the Austrian government coin to honour Klimt, and the cats are there in the film with a purpose. Klimt painted cats as much as he painted flowers. But if the viewer is not aware of this fact, the presence of cats in reality and in the dream sequence would seem odd.

Klimt tries to touch Lea's projected image,
created by Georges Melies

Ruiz doffs his cap at the silent movie director and inventor Georges Melies in the film Klimt. It is debatable whether Klimt and Melies actually met but in the film Melies states that he admires Klimt, when he meets him. In the film, Melies projects a film of Klimt and Lea, during the projection of which Klimt attempts to touch Lea’s projected image. Thus, the film goes beyond Klimt with Ruiz’ script—it is an attempt to honour film history as well.

There are overhead shots in Klimt that Ruiz would continue to dazzle us with in his later film, Mysteries of Lisbon. The collaboration of Ruiz with Argentinian cinematographer Ricardo Aronovich is magical. Aronovich (who had worked earlier with Malle, Truffaut and Costa-Gavras) must have been a major party to the startling anamorphic images in the film Klimt.

"The Kiss" the painting that is never
shown in the film but the process of creation
of which is suggested throughout the film

The famous Klimt painting “The Kiss” is never shown in the film but the seeds of the imagery of the famous painting being sown in the mind of the painter are cleverly shown over two separate sequences in the film. First, you see Klimt viewing nudes through a glass sheet over which he has thrown a translucent syrupy liquid which merely reveals the face of the model. Klimt is shown to be happy with that perspective. Much later in the film, Klimt works with gold coloured paper cut up into small rectangles that are thrown up by either by accident or purpose. Klimt looks up at the floating gold coloured paper. For those familiar with the famous painting, the sequences fall into place. The problem with Ruiz (as in the case of Malick) is that he made films for an audience that he assumed was equally well-informed as he was. Ruiz is certainly not a director who spoon feeds the lazy viewer. In this very sequence, the mysterious junior diplomatic secretary arrives at the door of Klimt's studio unannounced petting Klimt’s cat. In the film Klimt, Ruiz is not showing the viewers the cat paintings or the flower paintings or even “The Kiss.” He is showing us the mind of the painter at work.

Now there are at least two versions of the film Klimt. There is a 97 minute producer’s version and a 131 minute director’s version. It is the latter version that matters. The former version is the one that was widely released and seen. The latter version would be a delight for viewers familiar with the paintings of Klimt and the filmmaking style of Ruiz. For those viewers, this Ruiz film ought to rank among his very best.

Klimt (Malkovich) and Midi (Veronica Ferres),
an intimate lady friend who promoted his paintings
and knew his mind

Another fact that would delight the viewers is the choice of actors that Ruiz consciously and carefully made. John Malkovich does resemble Klimt if we compare Klimt’s photographs that survive. Similarly, Nikolai Kinski does have unmistakable resemblance to Egon Schiele. The choice of the four lead actresses by Ruiz is another remarkable one—Saffron Burrows as the two Leas who serve as his Eleusinian Muse, Veronica Ferres and Sandra Ceccarelli as his well-meaning promoters of his paintings and finally Aglaia Szyszkowitz as his Jewish lover who gave birth to his daughter.

Ruiz’ Klimt will remain one of the best films on a painter and how the mind of the painter worked, even when the painter was battling syphilis and genetic madness (his mother and sister were mad, as indicated directly and indirectly in the film). Kudos to Ruiz for his well-designed original screenplay that squeezed in all these details!

P.S. This critic has reviewed Ruiz’s films That Day (2003) and Mysteries of Lisbon (2010) earlier on this blog. (You can access each review by clicking on the name of the films).

Sunday, August 27, 2017

209. French director Maurice Pialat’s French film “Sous le soleil de Satan” (Under the Sun of Satan) (1987) (France): Interacting with Satan when one is perplexed by the silence of God

Any review of the film Under the Sun of Satan ought to state the following factoid upfront.  When the movie was announced as the winner of the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival (with the jury declaring that it was a unanimous vote), the audience whistled when the director Maurice Pialat made his way to the stage to receive the award. Pialat's response to this was to raise his fist, replying: "I won’t be untrue to my reputation. I am, above all, happy this evening for all the shouts and whistles you’ve directed at me; and, if you don’t like me, I can tell you that I don’t like you either." That stated, this critic would have voted as the honourable jurors did, if he was hypothetically serving on that jury. It is an extraordinary film by a very important filmmaker—pugnacious and unsentimental. Pialat only made 11 feature films. Under the Sun of Satan would easily be among his best two films—the other being A Mouth Agape (1974). Pialat was critical of the French New Wave. He made his first film at age 43, and died at 77. He went on to influence filmmakers such as Leos Carax, Chantal Akerman and Catherine Briellat.  This critic, too, finds the work of Pialat superior and more satisfying compared to the films of Godard and Truffaut.

Under the Sun of Satan is admittedly not a film that can be appreciated by an average viewer.  It is a film that has commonalities with at least two masterpieces of world cinema: Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) and the French director Robert Bresson’s The Diary of a Country Priest (1951).  Two important common factors between Under the Sun of Satan and The Seventh Seal are the live spoken and physical interactions of good Christian human beings with Satan and the perplexing silence of God. Two important common factors between Under the Sun of Satan and The Diary of a Country Priest are that both films are based on books written by Georges Bernanos (1888-1948) and both deal with idealistic and intensely spiritual Roman Catholic priests serving parishes in rural France frequently interacting with their senior colleagues. Much of the three films are both theological and dense for an average viewer to appreciate, all the more if the viewer is not familiar with Christian literature, especially Thomas à Kempis’ 15th Century book Imitation of Christ. Bernanos, in his book The Diary of a Country Priest, states that a mediocre priest is always sentimental and mediocrities are a trap set by Satan. In Pialat’s film Under the Sun of Satan, the troubled younger priest Donissan (Gerard Depardieu) is shown making notes of certain parts of Imitation of Christ, as he studies certain passages of the book.

All the above details would assume that Pialat’s film Under the Sun of Satan is a film where Satan is defeated. It is more a film where the filmmaker acknowledges the presence of Satan around the best of us and God appears to be a silent spectator. While the end of the film suggests the increasing public reverence of Donissan’s powers to bring the dead to life—the key question Pialat and Bernanos seem to be asking of the viewer (and the reader of the book) is whether the latter day powers of Donissan  to do miracles comes from God or from Satan. It is a film and book that describes a situation where Satan can influence the most well meaning and pious of Christian priests. Pialat’s film is more about Donissan being aware of the immediacy of the Devil than of God in life.

Satan (right)  meets Donissan (Depardieu) the priest

Satan's conversation with Donnisan

Pialat’s film goes not merely to the extent of depicting Satan as a fellow traveller following a tired and troubled priest on a long journey on foot in the night but ends the long peripatetic discourse between the two with a scene where the Devil even sexually harasses the priest when he lying on the ground to rest his tired legs. The Devil kisses the priest, but Pialat shows the Devil wiping his own mouth after that action, indicating perhaps the priest is still too holy for him to corrupt.
Richard Brody writing about the film in New Yorker (issue of 7 May 2013) assesses the film succinctly when he wrote “Pialat has made a nonbeliever’s film about the psychological, social, and metaphorical power of religion. He shows that if religion is anything at all, it’s tough stuff that gains its moral authority not by easing the fears of believers or reconciling them to evil but, rather, by imbuing them with the terrifying yet awe-inspiring sense that immense and cosmic powers are here at hand, to submit to or to wrestle with.

Donnisan (Depardieu) meets Mouchette (Bonnaire): devoid of carnal attraction

How did Pialat make monumental film of the first novel of Bernanos? First, he chose the actor Depardieu to play the tormented young priest. Depardieu is a giant of a man physically and Pialat gets him to essay a man burdened by an invisible cross, tiring himself by walking long distances day and night, scourging himself in self mortification, not seeing in 16-year-old Mouchette (Sandrine Bonnaire) any carnal desire but concern of the evil that has overpowered her life and ways to absolve her sins. Pialat transforms Depardieu from a ladies’ man to a brooding monk who remarks “I am a zero, only useful when next to other numbers,” to his senior priest Menou-Segrais (Pialat himself). Pialat’s decision to play the senior priest to Depardieu’s junior priest is that of a Svengali of sorts, even though he too has his own problems with faith, drawing ironic parallels in film of a director and his actor, with both Donnisan exhibiting a constant love-hate relationship. The body language of Depardieu is amazing to note in this film, especially with the large-sized actor downsized to an ant-like figure in long shots of the countryside captured by cinematographer Willy Kurant.

The imposing physical stature of Depardieu metaphorically reduced in size  
by Pialat and his cinematographer Willy Kurant set against 
the natural grandeur of rural France 

The side-bar events of Mouchette’s young life exploited by evil men and Mouchette killing of one of her lovers are not important to the film compared to the priest’s unusual ability to see Mouchette’s amoral actions from afar and even talk to her after she has committed a murder. Another side-bar event of Donnisan reviving a dead child is more Pialat’s/Bernanos’ commentary on Satan allowing Donnisan to believe that he can achieve miracles by manipulating his spiritual pride.

Pialat's and Kurant's touches: Light and shadows;
reflecting Bernanos play of words on sun and Satan

Bernanos’ title “sun of Satan” is a clue. Can Satan provide light?  When Satan appears to Donnisan it is in the night. Pialat and Kurant show Donnisan towards the end of the film covered in shadows rather than in light.  

Director Maurice Pialat plays Menou-Segrais, the senior colleague
of Donnisan (Depardieu)

This is a film where Donnisan equates morality with "hygiene of the senses." It is a film which talks of inner life being a battle of instincts. It is no ordinary film, it is quite complex. Yet it is not a film that most viewers will comprehend and easily appreciate.  But then that is true of most works of director Pialat.

The enigmatic ending in the confession box:
"I didn't know evil--I learned it from the mouth of sinners."

P.S. This critic has reviewed the Pialat’s 1974 film The Mouth Agape earlier on this blog. (You can access the review by clicking on the name of the film). 

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

208. Belgian directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s film “Le gamin au vélo” (The Kid with a Bike) (2011) (Belgium) based on the directors’ original screenplay: Painful yet uplifting film that forces you to re-evaluate human behaviour and your own actions

"We tend to think that the closer one gets to the cup, to the hand, to the mouth whose lips are drinking, the more one will be able to feel something invisible—a dimension we want to follow and which would be otherwise less present in the film… Perhaps by filming the gesture as precisely as possible you can render apprehensible that which is not seen.” —Luc Dardenne, “Taking the Measure of Human Relationships”, Cineaste (Summer 2003)

We don’t believe that music should come from the movie. Music is above the film actually. It will descend into the film thanks to Samantha (the character). For us, music represents everything that is missing to Cyril (the character): love, tenderness, and consolation. It’s hovering, waiting, and the audience would like to see it enter the film. We’re not against music. It’s not present in our other movies only because we didn’t see the necessity for it.” (On using music for the first time in their movies.) --Luc Dardenne’s response to interviewer Ariston Anderson in Filmmaker Magazine.
The Belgian film The Kid with a Bike (2011) is outstanding for several reasons.
The Belgian directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are able to elicit an exceptional performance from young actor Thomas Doret, who plays the 12-year-old boy Cyril, abandoned by his biological parents in an orphanage of sorts. Doret brings on screen the life of Cyril, who loves and misses his father in the orphanage like facility and craves his father’s company. He brings on screen his violent and disobedient side of his character. The viewer does not like him but the director script a tale for the viewer to gradually empathize with Cyril until you begin to love the kid anew. The Dardenne brothers are adept at getting amazing performances of their lead actors: one would recall the amazing performance of Marion Cotillard in their recent work Two Days, One Night (2014). The difference is that Ms Cotillard is an adult and an experienced actress, but young Thomas Doret was an early teen making his first film appearance in The Kid with a Bike.
Cyril (Thomas Doret) with his bike, riding a bus

The second important facet is that the tale is an original script written by the directors. It is not an adaptation of an existing written work or even a true event. The script is so well crafted that you almost believe you are watching a documentary.
Thirdly, the Dardenne brothers mirror the social problems of contemporary Europe in The Kid with a Bike—the toll on the children of broken marriages the parent refuse to acknowledge, the importance a single parent gives to economic survival over parental responsibility, the knee-jerk reaction of another parent to protect a son who might have killed another, the inability to accept an apology.. The list goes on. What is amazing is that this directorial duo is able to make films that reflect contemporary problems with original scripts—film after film.
Finally, the duo makes films where the visual detail is paramount while the soundtrack records diagetic sound almost all the time. In The Kid with a Bike, for the first time, the directors use the music of Beethoven briefly.
It is, therefore, no surprise that the film won the Grand Prix of the Jury at the Cannes Film Festival and the Best Screenplay honor at the European Film Awards.
Cyril meets up with his father who tells him
 that he should not try to meet him again

Many critics have connected the film to two famous film classics: De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief and Truffaut’s 400 Blows. These are misplaced comparisons save for certain common factors. The Italian film is about a father searching for a stolen bike in the company of his son. The Kid with a Bike, on the other hand, is the son searching for a bike originally gifted by his father, then eventually sold by him, then a similar bike is purchased by a foster parent figure only to be stolen again for a while. The Italian film has an unbroken bond between father and son, which is not the case in the Belgian film. The French film likewise has a kid with a mother and a non-biological father faced with a troubled childhood as a result of the parents’ behaviour towards him.
The Kid with a Bike is thus different and unique.  Most of all it has an angelic beautician named Samantha (Cecile De France) who becomes Cyril’s foster mother—the first significant female figure in Cyril’s life. Samantha buys Cyril’s bike from her own savings. She tries to protect Cyril and even chooses a life with Cyril over a life with her existing boyfriend.
Cyril with Samantha (Cecile De France), the foster mother,
who gives up her boyfriend for bringing up Cyril

For the Dardenne brothers, the women figures seem to be important. The men are interested in their survival, but women are often shown as the caring and relatively balanced figures.
Cyril rides a bike--the symbolic connection with his father, only to realize
his father had sold it off without his knowledge.
Cinematographer Marcoen at work.

Films of the Dardenne brothers might be on troubled subjects but their effect on the viewer is generally uplifting. Like the British director Ken Loach, the Dardenne brothers primarily deal with the working class. There is no sentimentality, with minor details captured visually. There is a third important member of the Dardenne team contributing to their notable films--cinematographer Alain Marcoen, often relying on hand-held cameras--a contributor few have noticed and rarely lauded. And he is good. A fourth regular on their team is editor Marie-Helene Dozo. It is is interesting to note how the best directors today (Andrei Zvyagintsev, Andrei Konchalovsky, Ken Loach, etc.) work with a close-knit team, film after film, and their products are all award-winning films that make you think. The lovely scripts of the Dardenne brothers include hard-hitting spoken words. Very few filmmakers today make films like they do while eliciting immaculate performances, film after film, from their actors to boot. 

P.S. This critic has reviewed the Dardenne brothers 2014 film Two Days, One Night earlier on this blog. (You can access each review by clicking on the name of the film). The Dardenne brothers are among the top 15 favourite active filmmakers of the author. (The full list can be accessed at