1970s, British cinema, Foreign, Horror/Eerie

See No Evil (aka Blind Terror, 1971)

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Director: Richard Fleischer

By Roderick Heath

See No Evil seems to me a film that ought to be better beloved by horror fans, not only because it’s so bloody well done, but also because it’s a definitive stage in the mutation of the modern genre. Auteurs like Bava, Hitchcock, and Argento, and embryonic works like Black Christmas, are commonly cited as progenitors of the slasher movie, but See No Evil has a claim to attention as well, because it looks like the first, and to my mind, best “final girl” survival drama—one in which a lone young woman tries to survive the onslaughts of a psycho killer after everyone around her has been butchered. But See No Evil is distinct from much generic progeny in that it’s essayed with a black wit and cinematic cunning that’s the product of a superior filmmaker at the peak of his powers. Richard Fleischer, one of Hollywood’s most steadfast jobbing directors, had a violently uneven, but usually interesting career. He was equally at home with works of fantastic high style and lean realism. Case in point: he went through a mini-renaissance in making The Boston Strangler (1968) and 10 Rillington Place (1970), true crime dramas in which, especially in the latter film, the bleak, morbid atmosphere chills like a polar wind all the more effectively because of Fleischer’s pared-back, docudrama style. See No Evil seems on the face of it like a lighter, artificial riff on the themes of the previous two films, but it’s my favourite Fleischer film partly because he’s obviously having fun, and because it’s an expert ideogram of form and function.

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See No Evil, which was initially titled Blind Terror, was penned by Brian Clemens, a prolific screenwriter who had written dozens of episodes of The Avengers TV series and worked with another Avengers alumnus, director Robert Fuest, on the 1970 thriller And Soon the Darkness. Fuest went on to make the enjoyably campy The Abominable Dr. Phibes the following year, whilst Clemens’ next project evidently attracted some major Hollywood money: the spit-polish production and high-class collaborators on See No Evil actually help the film, which makes a change. Clemens attempted to drag Hammer Studios, then in its dying gasps as a maker of horror movies of relevance, into a new era with writing the deconstructive Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971) and directing the cultish Captain Kronos–Vampire Hunter (1974). British horror, like that in the US and Italy and evident in the seamier films of Pete Walker, Peter Collinson, and Sidney Hayers, was entering an era in which the corporeal threat of murder and violation were overtaking traditional gothic metaphors and dusty mythology. See No Evil also has thematic and visual ties to a very different work, Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (1972), and a handful of much more recent films, like Alejandro Aja’s High Tension (2005) and Brian Bertino’s The Strangers (2008), which seem to owe a lot to See No Evil’s dramatic compression and visual geography. But See No Evil stands in a certain judgement on the more exploitative films in the genre in determinedly taking its victim’s viewpoint and excising all the acts of genuine violence.

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Fleischer, for instance, commences with a cinema marquee displaying the titles on a double bill with the juicy titles The Convent Murders and Rapist Cult. His camera then tilts down to observe the cheery-looking crowd of mainly young couples flowing out of the theater, before the camera descends further to focus on on patron’s cowboy boots, brown leather emblazoned with white stars. The owner of the boots, body swathed in denim but whose face remains unseen, paces jauntily by news agencies, toy stores, and storefront televisions that blare out a popular obsession with violence and sex, ready to feed the sociopath’s cravings. The Booted Man performs a minor bit of mischief when he blocks the path of the flashy Mercedes owned by George Rexton (Robin Bailey), who dryly comments, “Alright, old chap, you’ve made your point.”

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George and his wife Betty (Dorothy Alison) have just been to the railway station of Wokingham, Berkshire, to pick up their relative Sarah (Mia Farrow), who’s recovering from a horse-riding accident that’s left her stone blind. They take her to their large, splendid house where she’s to sleep in a room with their daughter Sandy (Diane Grayson) until she acclimatises to living without sight in the house. Sarah’s gearing up for a life as a blind person, planning to take a course in physiotherapy. She visits her long-time flame Steve Reding (Norman Eshley), a horse breeder and trainer who keeps a stable not far from the Rextons’ estate. Steve makes it clear he wants to pick up where they left off before she had her accident.

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When Sarah returns to the Rexton house after visiting Steve, she pluckily makes her way about the house, making herself tea and putting herself to bed, assuming the others have gone to a party. Fleischer has cinematographer Gerry Fisher’s camera glide, zoom, and track with grace to casually note odd details like a proud prankster pointing out mechanisms in a trap that will spring soon enough—the mysterious bracelet that lies on the foyer floor; the broken glass dish that waits in cruel ambush for Sarah’s bare feet in the kitchen; a woman’s booted feet jutting motionless from a chair behind Sarah as she picks up a stack of records; the empty shotgun shells that roll around in the breeze outside as night falls; and the abandoned lawnmower amongst swirling leaves. All indicate that something strange and dreadful has happened. Slowly the truth emerges to the viewer—the Rextons are all dead, left sprawled about the house in bloodied states by the Booted Man in a thrill-killing spree, and Sarah knows nothing about it.

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The paradoxical pleasure and strength of See No Evil is that it’s a film sporting a blind heroine and is also one of the most visually concise movies around, thanks to the quality of the exposition that Clemens packs into the narrative, which Fleischer lays out, full of unforced, slowly emerging details. The cause of Sarah’s blindness is not explicitly spelt out, but instead conveyed by photographs of her from her previous life as a rider, and her conversation with the Rextons’ gardener Barker (Brian Rawlinson), who probes her about whether they shot the horse she’d been riding at the time, Dandy Boy. Later, Steve, in a ploy to convince Sarah to stick around, gives her a new horse, and uncomfortably informs her that his name is Dandy Star: “You can change it if you like…” Likewise the motive for the murders is suggested entirely through visual cues, from those opening with the Booted Man roaming the streets and, later, ogling girls dancing in a local pub, and virtually offhand details, like the great scratch that George discovers on his Mercedes that inspires him to run off in a rant about hooligans who are “not prepared to work so they can own something worthwhile, and they can’t bear the existence of other people that will!”, livid in his haute-bourgeois outrage in an age of class paranoia.

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See No Evil’s social context is repeatedly suggested in the hallowed layering of British provincial society still doggedly enduring in era of mod fashions and hippie hairdos, apparent in the resplendent Rexton house clogged with precariously balanced bric-a-brac that Sarah attempts not to knock down—she will, eventually, and at exactly the wrong moment—on down to one of Steve’s hired hands, Frost (Christopher Matthews), complaining about the gypsies encamped near the Rextons’ house, who, in reply to Sarah’s suggestion that they “don’t do much harm,” retorts, “No – but they don’t do much good neither!” The beauty of the Rextons—the lustre of their possessions, the lushness of flirty Sandy—attracts anarchists. One of the gypsies, Jack (Barrie Houghton), lurks near the house, trying to make Sandy, and, of course, the murderer sets his sights on annihilating them. Barker’s a good old-fashioned red-herring in his burly dourness, patronised by George when he arrives late to do the lawns.

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The middle third of the film is nerveless in its black-hearted patience, allowing Sarah to sleep for a night in a house full of corpses: the next morning, when she runs a bath, Fleischer reveals that George’s battered corpse is lying in the tub; before she makes the crucial discovery, Sarah hears Steve calling from outside, having arrived to give her Dandy Star. She stops the taps and goes out riding with Steve in a lingering scene in which their bond is being reforged and Sarah’s confidence in steering her mount grows by the moment, Elmer Bernstein’s score flurrying around them in romantic zeal. It’s not until she returns home and starts running her bath again that the camera adopts a calm poise and begins zooming ever so slowly in on the door to the bathroom as Sarah strips off her shoes and socks, closes the door, and opens it again moments later in violent panic.

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Sarah’s subsequent discovery of Sandy’s body cues her increasingly dire predicament. She encounters the mortally wounded Barker who warn Sarah that the killer has left a distinctive bracelet on the floor, which she manages to grasp hold of as Barker dies and the killer arrives to retrieve it. Sarah flees via the kitchen only to then, at last, tread on that waiting broken glass, stricken rigid with agony. But Sarah, in spite of her handicaps and waifish physique, is a survivor, and she manages to flee on Dandy Star, knocking over the Booted Man as she gallops for the woods. A low-hanging branch swats her off, leaving her stranded in the forests, pummeling on through choking bushes and paddocks until she finds her way to the nominal safety of the gypsy camp. There she’s tended to a woman (Lila Kaye) who proves to be the mother of the lurking Jack, and another son, Tom (Michael Elphick), who thinks the chain Sarah proffers with the name “Jacko” on it means that his brother is the killer. Instead of taking her to the police, Tom jams her in an old wooden hut in the middle of an abandoned clay pit to give the tribe time to get out of Dodge, whilst Steve, Frost, and the rest of his gang of stable hands, alerted to the calamity when Dandy Star rides into the compound with Sarah’s blood on him, scour the countryside for her.

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Steve makes for a likeable hero in a classical mould, ironically because he’s not, on the face of it, immediately classical: although he’s clearly as advantaged as the Rextons, he’s disarmingly gentle and generous. His first encounter with Sarah in the film comes after he sends Frost to fetch her in his car because he doesn’t want to leave one of his horses as she gives birth; he dedicates himself to Sarah in a similar way to how he’d rear a foal, solicitously caring until she’s strong enough to survive alone. Yet he literally becomes a mounted knight riding off to do justice in the final minutes in trying to catch Tom and Jack before they flee.

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But Sarah’s a great central figure (Woody Allen’s films with her notwithstanding, this is effortlessly my favourite Farrow performance), engaging from the outset in her straightforward efforts to conquer her physical surrounds and her honesty (“What’s it like?” Sandy prods her when they’re alone; “Bloody awful!” Sarah replies immediately). There’s an almost cosmically cruel quality in the later scenes, especially when she escapes the hut and, in a Kafkaesque image, wanders the clay pit, smeared with filth and bedraggled, pushed on by raw instinct, surrounded by industrial detritus. If the remnants of a bygone past of landed gentry and mounted knights seems inherent in the country life glimpsed throughout the film, this seems a logical antithesis, an apocalyptic wasteland. But it’s there that Sarah, slamming broken pieces of machinery together, finally manages to attract rescuers.

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It’s a masterly collaboration between Fleischer and Fisher, who had the difficult job of enforcing similar limitations, at least in part, on the audience as those suffered by Sarah, whilst interestingly resisting the later, constant device of the point-of-view camera, which some critics argued emphasised a sadistic identification with the killer, whereas here the killer is, until the end, constantly sliced out of the action’s he’s undertaken to assert his own power. Even after a murder spree, he’s not the important one – it’s his potential victim. Perhaps See No Evil gets less attention than it deserves is because with all those sweeping autumnal landscapes, it doesn’t look like a horror movie: it’s shot more like Barry Lyndon than The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. But that’s a disparity I like here, the threat all the more piquant because of the physical beauty of the surrounds and the way the film utilises that subtle quality of the English landscape in seeming homey and threatening all at once. Fisher’s constant refrains of low, wide-angle shots not only justifies the fixation on the killer’s boots, but also reflects the imbalanced, threatening world Sarah lives in, with the eternal threat and common fact of her taking violent plunges. Moreover, almost every detail in Clemens’ script feels organic, and yet plays a part in the unfolding drama, like Sarah almost taking the wrong door to the basement instead of the kitchen, warned off gently by George, a perfectly casual bit of business; but, of course, later she’ll plunge head over heels down the basement stairs when she makes the same mistake later. And there’s the final twist when Steve realises his mistake when, having caught Tom and Jack, the latter pleads his innocence, and Steve abruptly realises “Jacko” is one of his own stable hands, the one he left behind to watch over Sarah.

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1960s, Foreign, French cinema, Horror/Eerie, Italian cinema

Spirits of the Dead (1967)

Histoires Extraordinaires de Edgar Allan Poe
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Directors: Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, Federico Fellini

By Roderick Heath

As concept and finished product, Spirits of the Dead takes on the aspect of a fever dream, where the strangeness of the vision that arises before one’s eyes defies credulity. Did Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, and Federico Fellini really make an omnibus horror movie out of stories by Edgar Allan Poe? How the hell did that happen? All heroes of the iconic European cinema of the era, it’s nonetheless hard to think of three more temperamentally and stylistically disparate directors. Omnibus horror movies are generally associated with Amicus, the British studio that tried to rival Hammer in the late ’60s with a string of such films, usually a bunch of loosely stitched episodes with a ramshackle unifying structure. Roger Corman’s Tales of Terror (1963), another Poe anthology film, was essayed in variations on his already formulated, hyperstylised gothic. Whilst Spirits of the Dead spurns any connective tissue, segueing from chapter to chapter by surveying a bleakly cloudy sky, and each episode is announced with its own credits, calling attention to its own multiauteur production and the resulting stylistic smorgasbord, it’s also, interestingly, bound together by a choice to film three of Poe’s more moralistic stories. In all three episodes, the protagonist is a wilfully amoral, yet doggedly human and uncertain beast struggling desperately with mortality and the certainty of judgment.
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The project was actually supposed to be helmed by Fellini, Orson Welles, and Luis Buñuel, and it’s hard not to admit the producers traded down, certainly with Vadim. There’s something left of Welles’ spirit left in Malle’s episode, which resembles in production and visuals the similar, delicate work Welles did in his later adaptation of The Immortal Story (1968). As a whole, the Spirits of the Dead doesn’t entirely mesh, but it’s still an invigorating by-product of late ’60s cinema culture, and represents horror for the connoisseur. The most famous episode of the film is Fellini’s contribution, “Toby Dammit,” a version of Poe’s “Never Bet the Devil Your Head,” and indeed that short work comes close to being Fellini’s best, a hallucinogenic romp through the movie business and jet-set modernity as Faustian nightmare. But the chapters that precede it are worthy of attention in their own fashions. Vadim’s “Metzengerstein” is a real oddity, a blend of Vadim’s lush kink and fantasy with a visual naturalism that Malle extends in his own entry, “William Wilson.” “Metzengerstein” is built around a weird joke: Vadim cast his then-wife Jane Fonda as the wicked Contessa Frederique de Metzengerstein, who falls in love with her distant cousin, Baron Wilhelm Berlifitzing, played by her brother Peter Fonda.
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Anticipating the SoGo scenes in Barbarella (1968), Vadim uses the material as an excuse to indulge a louche libertine’s mise-en-scène in portraying the Contessa’s depraved lifestyle. She suspends a serving boy in the air and shoots arrows at him with her ladies-in-waiting, conspires with her lover to rape another of his women, fondles her best friend (Françoise Prévost) in the bath, lounges about with tiger cubs and parades around in abbreviated hoop skirts and kinky boots, as if Elizabeth Bathory had been reincarnated as Zsa Zsa Gabor. It’s a reinvention of the Middle Ages as a haute couture, sexualised wonderland, albeit one that’s insanely unfair and cruel. The Contessa is so used to being able to indulge her whims and vices that she’s completely unable to express herself when she’s stricken with ardour for her misanthropic but essentially decent cousin, after he saves her from being caught in a bear trap. The Contessa finds an outlet for her rage by burning down Wilhelm’s stables, and he dies trying to save one of his horses from the conflagration. The Contessa receives a bizarre punishment, however, for the Baron seems to return reincarnated as a black steed with which she falls in love, and finally rides to her death on him in a grassfire started by lightning in a liebestod consummation.
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“Metzengerstein” would be better if Vadim hadn’t been such an unvarying tease: his provocations remain firmly on the near side of mere naughtiness, whilst never achieving sensuality. As in Barbarella, there’s something slapdash about the way he develops his ideas, unable to reconcile his lazy, playful touches with the need to create a deeply morbid atmosphere. The mix of solidly naturalistic settings, highly stylised costuming, and incipient perversity does, however, imbue his work with a deceptive cumulative impact. The location shooting, particularly in the use of the Finistèr coastline, aids in drawing out the theme of natural forces exacting merciless reminders of mortality on mere humans, whatever their social pretentions. Vadim’s real talent for highly rhythmic editing and intensely composed sequences comes out in flashes: during the apocalyptic menace of the stable burning, smoke blackening the sky and the Baron’s fleeing horses erupting out of the smoke, and in the latter stages as the Contessa’s dooming bestial passion intercut with a weaver’s efforts to repair a singed tapestry depicting just such a great black horse, as if fate itself is a patient embroiderer.
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Malle’s episode, although less showy than either Vadim’s or Fellini’s, is actually very close to perfect. Alain Delon offers an excellent performance as the titular William Wilson, an icy egotist and sadist with a pristinely pretty face tormented by a double who heads off his own worst impulses. In confessing a murder to a priest, Wilson recounts his life story, from attending a military boarding school as a child where his overlordship of his fellow students and his vicious regime was first challenged by the arrival of another student named William Wilson who stood up to him and freed a young schoolmate the sadistic Wilson had dangling over a pit of rats. Years later, as a medical student, Wilson had become even worse, this time leading a cabal of fellow students in attempting to dissect, whilst still alive, a young woman (Katia Christin) snatched off the street: again the mysterious other Wilson intervened. When serving as a soldier and having matured into an infamously violent rake, Wilson engaged in a battle of wills with a female gambler named Giuseppina (Brigitte Bardot), whom he delighted in cheating out of a victory and then getting his kicks by flogging her. But the double again intervened to reveal how he cheated. Finally losing control, Wilson murdered his alter ego after losing a duel with him.
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It is, of course, a story about the nagging presence of conscience as the only limit on the desire for gratification, as if Wilson has been split at birth into living embodiments of his ego and superego. The subject is also contiguous with Malle’s interest in the porous limits of acceptable behaviour, and the kinds of experience that make or mar people, whilst stylistically it evokes the subverted romanticism of Visconti’s Senso (1954). He essays the stages of Wilson’s life, each building to the crucial moment of interruption, with beautiful control, conveying the relish with which Wilson anticipates gratification and his agony when he’s cut off each time like a frustrated orgasm finally gained when he stabs his double to death, only to realise his self-destructive mistake. A personally nostalgic mood infuses the schoolyard images of the young lads pelting each other with snowballs, juxtaposed with the alien flavour of young Wilson’s dead-eyed junior psychopath stare as he tears up a letter from his mother and tries to strangle his double in bed. The especially frigid cruelty of the scene in which Wilson airily mocks his medical lecturer’s cant as he relentlessly circles the bound young woman, caressing her bare skin with the edge of his scalpel, builds to a wicked punchline as the woman, freed by the second Wilson, can’t tell the two apart, and moves to embrace the wrong one, receiving a hideous gash from the scalpel Wilson still holds. The assured slow burn reaches a crescendo in Delon’s lengthy encounter with Bardot’s glorious Giuseppina, full of anticipated sadomasochistic designs, with this black-haired, cigar-smoking, female equal and opposite to Wilson taunting him all the while, his inner tension is palpable all the way. She thinks she knows exactly what he’s about, and expects mere sexual gamesmanship, not the calculated viciousness she gets.
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Both Vadim and Malle’s chapters, whilst interesting, do fall victim somewhat to the usual problem of omnibus horror films: the brevity of the structure limits the creation of atmosphere and density of detail. Fellini, on the other hand, works wonders with his allotted time. “Toby Dammit” is a total antithesis to Malle’s work: where Malle’s slow burn purposefully cheats fulfilment, Fellini’s episode is excess rendered all-consuming, and the desperation of the title character is his desire to escape the realisation of all his ambitions. The realism of Malle’s approach and Vadim’s, too, is swapped for a neo-expressionist orgasm of colour and artifice of filters and back-projection, with vaguely science-fiction adornments and a hint of apocalypse added to Fellin’s stygian contemporary Rome, to which Toby, a world-famous but disintegrating actor, comes to make a Marxist-Christian Western. Fellini cranks up the sweat-inducing, alcoholic miasma around Toby, stalked by reporters and star fuckers on his arrival at the Rome airport where everything is bathed in a reddish infernal hue and full of bizarre dioramas of human behaviour. He’s assailed with modish moviemaker jive by the producers and writers (“The busty girl is the illusory escape into the irrational!”), grilled by interviewers (“Is it true you’ve done unsavoury jobs?” “Yes, but I’ve never been a TV reporter.”), and dragged out to officiate at a gruesome industry awards night that plays the orgiastic self-congratulation of such events as the sheerest definition of damnation.
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Toby wallows in booze, torturous self-pity, and violent displays of pique alternating with moments of rugged charm and motions that suggest the grace and inspiration he once had as a living artist. But, of course, he’s sold his soul to the devil of success and phoniness, a fact Fellini carefully reveals as Toby is secretly hounded by a vividly blonde, creepily smiling little girl carrying a ball, invisible to everyone else, who wants him as a playmate. Fellini goes to town with a gusto that’s quite amazing even for him, from the epic, bizarre drive from the airport to the TV studio, as out on the street, fashion shoots take place amidst madcap industrialism. At a ceremony, all sorts of rancid weirdoes with too much money and makeup surround Toby in a sweltering atmosphere full of smoke and clashing lights, as fashion parades, unctuous hosts, interpretive dancers, and a variety of other guests strut their stuff upon the stage. A woman sees the pain Toby is in and approaches, promising that she’ll take care of him: “I know you. I’ve always known you!”—a line of pseudo-empathic blather he’s heard dozens of times before. His final escape from the ceremony, taking off in the gift Ferrari that was the only reason he signed on to the film, sees him move with relentless speed. But he cannot find his way out of the labyrinthine streets of Rome’s outer suburbs, and when he does make it onto a freeway, he comes to a collapsed bridge, where, inspired by the little girl dancing on the far side, he decides to try to jump as his final defiance of all natural force.
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“Toby Dammit” seems partly inspired by Vincente Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town (1962), from which it borrows the motif of the anguished movie star visiting Rome and trying to exorcise his demons in a terrifying exercise with a speeding car, whilst the touch of the Devil represented by the malevolent girl is clearly indebted to Fellini’s friend Mario Bava’s Operazione Paura (1966). But it’s truly a superlative exercise by Fellini, and Stamp’s inspired performance is almost sui generis, even for that restlessly protean actor. His Toby seems to be in deep physical and spiritual pain all the time, and he races towards his end grateful for a chance to bust the dogging curse either way. It’s Fellini’s most extreme version of his semi-surreal portraits of high society from La Dolce Vita and , pushed right to the limits of coherence and grotesquery, as befits the supercharged mood of late ’60s superstardom. One of the film folk insists that the film they’ll make “reflects the death throes and decay of our capitalist system,” but Toby perceives those death throes from the inside out, in a world in which everything’s dissolving into chaos, and it’s far from rhetorical for him. He makes that final defiant jump, but Fellini follows up with a slow, menacing zoom shot that peers deeper through the darkness until the cable suspended at just the right height to sever Toby’s head can be seen swinging on the far side of the gap, smeared with blood—the little girl has a new ball to play with. l

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1970s, Action-Adventure, Foreign, Japanese cinema

Sex and Fury (1973)

Furyô anego den: Inoshika Ochô

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Director/Coscreenwriter: Norifumi Suzuki

By Roderick Heath

In the late 1960s, Japanese cinema artisans, like many around the world, were driven to court youth markets and shake up the gentility of traditional cinema as cultural mores altered rapidly. But the Japanese film industry, unlike western ones, which mostly maintained a rigorous separation of mainstream and exploitation cinema, saw at least for a time a much bolder sea-change. Once-hidebound studios like Toei and fresh young filmmakers ranging from eager hacks to artistic guerrillas turned increasingly to tales of violence and sexuality. This gave birth to what has been generally memorialised as the “Pink” cinema, and one substratum of this, “Pinky Violence” films, has found some belated popularity outside Japan for it sheer, outrageously enthusiastic indulgence and correlation of soft-core sex and sadism of a variety that few Western filmmakers ever felt comfortable blending. Norifumi Suzuki’s Furyô anego den is certainly a prime example of that kinky new wave, but it demands attention for being one of the most visually and conceptually arresting films of the early 1970s, a bizarre, twisted, pop-art, even poetic, blood-and-skin action flick.

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Like Toshiyo Fujita’s Lady Snowblood of the same year, (and, like that film, another influence on Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1, 2003), it’s about a vengeance-seeking heroine whose art with a katana blade matches her streetwise wits in contending with monolithic corruption. But where Lady Snowblood is tough, semi-realistic, and structurally ironic, Sex and Fury is flashy and self-consciously pop in its stylisation, blurring into surrealism on occasion. Commencing with a title sequence that evokes, to my eye, the effects of a lot of hipster Eurocinema of the previous decade, including the James Bond films, Suzuki’s film suggests an effort to try to find a new export market, including, as its narrative does, not only visual shout-outs to foreign cultural phenomena but also a prominent Western character in the story. Suzuki’s almost abstract visual patterns kick off in a pretitle sequence in which a young girl, Kyoko Kazai, a picture-perfect specimen of Japanese girlhood swathed in an elegant kimono and balanced preciously on clogs, walks with her genial police detective father along a covered walkway framed by red trestles. When the girl loses her ball, she chases it, and whilst her back is turned, her father is set upon by lurking assassins who riddle him with stab wounds.

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Cut to 20 years later, and the girl has grown into a pickpocket and brutally talented warrior calling herself Ochô Inoshika (Reiko Ike). Ochô is the most admired member of a gang of whores and pickpockets led by Ochô’s adoptive mother Ogin (Akemi Negishi). She becomes enmeshed in a larger power game when young radical Shunosuke (Tadashi Naruse) attempts to kill plutocrat Kurokawa, who is capping off a rise to unrivaled power and prestige through his business machinations and as the head Seishinkai political faction. Shunosuke’s attack fails, and he flees, wounded, only to run literally into Ochô. She tends him before passing him on to his fellow radicals, reflexively stealing his fob watch in which she find the photo of a beautiful European woman. Ochô is still searching for her father’s murderers, working from the only clue he left her, three hanafuda gambling tiles displaying a deer, a boar, and a butterfly that he clutched as he lay dying. She has traveled to the town of Kanazawa to look to gambling kingpin Inamura for help in tracking down her father’s assassins and witnesses a violent spectacle in which a man is caught cheating and is summarily murdered by Inamura’s agents. He dies in Ochô’s arms, sputtering claims that he’s been set up and begging her to take his money and save his sister Yuki from being sold in a brothel. But before Ochô can leave the gambling house, she’s set upon by Inamura’s thugs whilst she is bathing, prompting Ochô to spring out of the tub and tear pell-mell through the attacking force like a provoked demon.

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This brain-boggling scene would justify the film’s canonisation on its own. Anticipating and rendering rather timid the nude fight scene in Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, Ochô, naked as the day she was born save for the elegant sprawl of tattoos on her chest and back, springs, twists, leaps, and rolls in contending with the assassins, blood spray steadily decorating her body in variegated patterns, and her own deep delight in dealing out death all too plain on her face. She is, all at once, an object of fetish, a study in motion, a dream of vengeance, and a cultural artifact as boldly revealing and reveling in the strength of the female body as any on record. Technically noteworthy is an extended shot that concentrates merely on Ochô’s legs after she dashes out of the house and does battle in a snow-covered courtyard, watching her dancerlike motions, feet dabbing at the snow, severed limbs and spitting blood dropping like rain around her. Ochô survives this battle, makes contact with both her sisters in crime and with Shunosuke, and then tries to buy Yuki (Rie Saotome). But Yuki, being kept in the whorehouse of scar-faced pimp Kizugen, has caught the eye of construction magnate Iwakura, who declares, “Deflowering virgins is my specialty.” Iwakura’s determined to keep hold of Yuki, however, leads him to propose a novel solution: he wants Ochô to play cards for Yuki, against Christina (Cristina Lindberg), a British dancer who’s also a famous gambler. They’re keenly contrasted types, Ochô with her traditional dress, Christina doll-like in her Victorian hoop skirts, and yet both possess streetwise cunning and cool self-control when it comes to their contest.

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The contest between Ochô and Christina comes at a swanky function given by Iwakura’s industrialist partner Kurokawa, with Western guests present, including the stern Guinness (Mark Darling), an American businessman who’s conniving with and undermining Kurokawa to gain control over the Japanese government. Christina is actually his agent, whom he’s planning to use as a honey trap to infiltrate Kurokawa’s household. When Shunosuke and other radicals storm the ball to try again to kill Kurokawa, Christina shoots each of the intruders, but cannot shoot Shunosuke—he’s her former lover and the reason why she agreed to become Guinness’s pawn, the only way she could get into Japan. Shunosuke escapes, and a shaken Christina loses her card game with Ochô. Ochô compounds Christina’s humiliation by stealing her revolver, which brings a harsh punishment from Guinness. And yet Ochô, Shunosuke, and Christina all find themselves on a collision course with Kurokawa’s cabal, and soon enough Ochô discovers that Kurokawa and Iwakura sport tattoos on their backs corresponding to the boar and deer: their current prosperity is rooted in their assassination of her father, who was investigating one of their scams.

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The film is saddled with some poor humour provided by the dopey student Kanichi who’s a kind of mascot for the pickpockets, prompting a dim scene in which he presents the women a strange new invention he stole from a woman—a condom. The most significant problem, however, with Sex and Fury is that whilst it doles out both title items liberally, there’s too much of the sex…no, seriously. The middle third bogs down with a proliferation of fan service: Yuki being raped by Iwakura; Christina being sexually bullied by Guinness; Iwakura drooling over Ochô; Iwakura sleeping with Kurokawa’s wife; Christina subjecting herself to a lesbian partnership with Kurokawa’s serving girl to excite the onlooking tycoon. It does all, however, relate to the film’s peculiar texture: the victimhood of the women plays as an inverted assault on the classic “fallen women” dramas of Mizoguchi. Apart from the innocent Yuki, the female characters, particularly Ochô and Christina, put up with gross subjugations in their silently relentless efforts to gain their desired objects.

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A crucial apex comes when Ochô saves her fellow hustlers from torture by Iwakura’s thugs by agreeing to sleep with the sexually gluttonous villain, but gains her vengeance by coating her skin with a poisonous paste that sends Iwakura, who has licked her body, into contortions of agony before expiring. The old association of sex and death and the image of the femme fatale have rarely been as concisely codified as it is in this moment. Yet there’s a further twist to this sexualised warfare: Ochô is still to uncover the dread secret at the heart of her life’s enigma—her mother was Kurokawa’s wife, the possessor of the butterfly tattoo that is only revealed under a shower’s hot stream. She was a whore Kurokawa ordered to marry Ochô’s father to keep an eye on him, and then arranged his killing. Kurokawa’s wife’s efforts to appeal to her long-lost daughter are met with Ochô’s horrified derision, and when Kurokawa catches her trying to free Ochô, he strangles her, shutting this grotesque family tragedy down.

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In spite of the stalling proliferation of skin scenes, Sex and Fury’s a great pulp genre yarn infused with a near-surreal visual rapture in a mixture that perpetually eludes most Western filmmakers. Suzuki’s direction of Ochô and Christina’s card game is a little suite of increasingly intense close-ups, Christina’s forehead sporting drizzling sweat as her mind fills with intense sensual memories of her affair with Shunosuke, whilst the two equal/opposite women try to stare each other down over their cards. Later, when Iwakura’s men capture Ochô’s fellows in the pickpocket gang, they tie them up and beat them in a fun fair parlour, where psychedelic light effects whir and a projector shows propaganda paintings and photographs from the Sino-Russian War, explicitly linking the gangsters’ abuse of the women’s bodies to the predations of the imperialist triumph.

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It’s in the last half-hour when the film really hits its stride, as Ochô and Shunosuke team up to try to assassinate Kurokawa, attacking him on a train, but having to contend with his team of guarding thugs, which includes, most bizarrely, a team of flick-knife-wielding nuns who press Ochô into a corner whilst Shunosuke fights Kizugen and falls from the train. Christina, outraged to realise that Ochô was trying to kill Kurokawa with her stolen gun, knocks Ochô out with it and later, with apparent enthusiasm, whips a bound and prostrate Ochô in the basement chapel of Kurokawa’s mansion with a colossal, art-nouveau stained-glass portrait of Jesus in the background. Ochô writhes under the thrashing a buckskin-clad Christina delivers, whilst Kurokawa, his wife, and his platoon of nuns watch in indulgent dispassion.

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Such a delirious blend of religion, fetish, politics, and the compulsory plot-enabling brutalisation of a hero who will resurge with rampant, justified ferocity inherent in this scene is hard to top, but Suzuki does manage it, in a scene in which Christina ventures out to meet Shunosuke on the docks after receiving a message purportedly from him. Realising they’ve been fooled into coming together, the two can’t escape the hail of bullets sent their way by a gloating Guinness. Despite Christina’s way with her gun and Shunosuke’s efforts with a sword, they both finish up riddled with bullets, prompting Suzuki’s most amazing, emotive visuals as Christina, blood pumping from her chest, throws her head back, her hair swimming in a lustrous wash, before she collapses, hazily gazing at a Union Jack flying over the dock through a pall of glittering snowflakes.

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Christina and Shunosuke die holding bloodied hands, but not before Guinness, near to deliver a coup de grace, receives a katana blade in the gut from Christina with her next-to-dying breath. It’s an operatic scene of violence and loss that would have made Sergio Leone proud. Meanwhile, Ochô manages through her resourcefulness to escape her bonds and rips her way through Kurokawa’s associates and bodyguards with unstoppable force, receiving sword gashes and bullet wounds, but still coming on with unremitting rage until she’s skewered the villain with her blade. The very final scene is suspiciously similar to that in Lady Snowblood, with Ochô tumbling through the snow, badly, but not fatally wounded, except here the flakes transform into gambling tiles as a motif that suggests that Ochô’s life has been and will always be dominated by the perversity of chance and the symbolic taunts of the deer, the boar, and the butterfly. But despite the verboten generic niche it occupies, Sex and Fury demands respect for its stylistic and thematic boldness.

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Above all, fearless actress Reiko Ike could well be the most genuinely convincing female action hero I’ve ever seen in a film. Perhaps sword-fighting in the nude makes that an easy conquest, but Ike’s physical keenness and portrayal of athletic killer instinct is something else, especially in the finale as her eyes grow wider with bloodlust as she hacks her way through opponent after opponent until her body begins to give in to all her wounds. When it comes to a Swedish actress delivering English dialogue written by Japanese filmmakers in character as a Englishwoman, Lindberg is as awkward as you’d expect, but her physical performance is actually very good, and her status as a cult figure of Swedish cinema is readily understandable. Director Suzuki’s apparent talent, much like that of the closest European comparison I can make, Jesús Franco, was likewise lost as the film industry pushed further toward outright porn and horror, but he did receive a lifetime achievement award at the Yokohama Film Festival in 1985.

Standard
1960s, British cinema, Drama, Foreign

Darling (1965)

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Director: John Schlesinger

By Roderick Heath

The modern world’s fascination with the lives of the rich, pretty, and famous has become ever-more gluttonous. The online age has only engorged the commodification of prying, speculating, envy-mongering and schadenfreude-enabled rubbernecking offered by tabloids and trash magazines, even as we often collectively posture in deploration at the invasion of private life and the reduction of human sensibility to a series of declarative headlines. There’s almost always a strange disparity of attitudes apparent in the way the “public at large”, that amorphous beast, absorbs such grist. We constantly project a rotating series of attitudes onto celebrities and public figures, classifying them variously as monsters, victims, creatures above common human concerns or transgressors, all according to value systems that we ourselves pay lip-service to whilst of course wishing for such exceptional status. John Schlesinger’s Darling purposefully mimics the nominal structure of a tabloid article to try saying something substantial about the kind of person almost nobody takes seriously.

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The lousy last couple of films that capped off John Schlesinger’s career were a sorry comedown for one of the brightest talents to emerge from the British Free Cinema movement of the early 1960s. But apart from a couple of misjudged works, Schlesinger’s career run from his debut, 1962’s A Kind of Loving through to 1985’s The Falcon and the Snowman is evergreen in quality and fierce in creative compulsion. Something that’s quite distinctive about his best films, even his adaptations of heavyweight literary classics like Far from the Madding Crowd (1967) and Day of the Locust (1975), is the energy they give off, which feels as if they’re being lived from moment to moment rather than carefully crafted, which they surely are. Darling, a quintessential slice of Swinging ’60s flash and cynicism, won Julie Christie an Oscar for Best Actress.

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Schlesinger had set Christie on the path to stardom with her small role in his second film, Billy Liar (1963), and Darling capped off a near-meteoric rise in the same year as her enormous hit Doctor Zhivago, a hell of a one-two punch by any standards. Christie herself preferred her measured, subtle performance in Zhivago, but it’s easily discernible why she won for the more modest film, where she’s front and centre throughout. Darling’s protagonist, Diana Scott, is supposedly narrating her life story for Ideal Woman magazine, for which ads are plastered over other posters trying to raise awareness of third-world poverty. Her life proves to be one of those dizzying arcs that reflects the switchback ride of Swinging London at the time, full of starlets who shot to fame and then descended to a variety of fates. As a young, married woman with pretences to being hip and hoping to have success as a model, she was picked off the street to be interviewed as an example of modern youth by slightly world-weary TV producer and host Robert Gold (Dirk Bogarde). A dissatisfied intellectual who responded to Diana’s overboiling vivacity with his own, suppressed, playful energy, they soon became lovers. Diana left her young husband, and Robert his wife and children, to shack up in an initially happy no-strings-attached cohabitation; Robert was open to letting Diana pursue whatever extracurricular fancies she had as long as they weren’t anything serious.

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Diana’s decision to abort Robert’s child sent her into a momentary emotional spiral, but she returned to him. When she began deceiving him over her trysts with coldly charming plutocrat playboy Miles Brand (Laurence Harvey), however, a furious Robert walked out on her. She took comfort in a close friendship with a gay photographer, Mal (Roland Curram), who, along with Miles, helped her gain a break as the face of an ad campaign for chocolate, and they travelled through Europe together. Diana received a marriage proposal from Prince Cesare della Romita (José Luis de Villalonga), a middle-aged Italian royal with a castle full of kids whose eye and mind she caught when she came to his estate to shoot a commercial. Upon realising her relationship with Miles will never develop beyond hedonistic indulgence, and despairing of ever patching things up with Robert, she finally married Cesare, only to find herself even more thoroughly trapped by the ornate sterility of the prince’s home and his mostly absentee status.

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Darling plays in some ways as a feminine companion piece to the following year’s Alfie and other Free Cinema works of the period like This Sporting Life (1963). Whilst reflecting on contemporary problems, their narratives evoke the structures of Regency-era English novels with their picaresque narratives and case study-like interest in characters as social exemplars (small wonder Schlesinger’s New Wave teammate Tony Richardson adapted Tom Jones), and follow a hero in his or her wayward efforts to construct a truly self-actualised life, but often, unwittingly passing a point where an irretrievable mistake has been made. Like Alfie, under the modish chic, it carries a whiff of reactionary distaste for the new, but it’s truly about the crisis of not being able to live within a traditional mode of life without being able to find anything satisfying to take its place. Darling is particularly noteworthy in offering a female avatar for this recurring drama, one who seems to have it all: young, beautiful, and willful enough to get what she wants, but unsure how to keep it, Diana takes advantage of the changes in the world that can allow a provincial petite bourgeoise like her to become an “It” girl, and yet the machinations that promote her, rather than representing an age of emancipation, reflect a deeply meretricious world. “I’m very handy on a telephone, too,” Miles warns her after she boots him out of her apartment with an insult, reminding her that his kingcraft that helped her get ahead can bury her, too.

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But Diana is uncertain just exactly what she wants. Fascinated and turned on by Robert’s intelligence and worldliness, she gravitates toward the scale of money and power that Miles can wield, and the once seemingly forbidden things he can show her, from the sexy allure of ultramodern corporate boardrooms to the incestuous world of the British upper class and the seamy ebullience of Parisian bohemia. The temptation to give one’s self over to being entertained by the rich, and thus owned, is one Diana gives into when she sneaks out of an audition to spend the day with Miles. This theme echoes on a larger level in which Schlesinger and screenwriter Frederic Raphael (whose later screenplays for films like Two for the Road, 1967, and Eyes Wide Shut, 1999, often returned to the theme of people in love who hurt each other in complex ways, depicted against a panoramic, satiric scope of interest) posit the degree to which the shock of the new and the age of liberation is actually a shallow marketing invention, one for which Diana is an ennobled consumer. Her own most genuine act of rebellion is to shoplift from a supermarket with Mal as her gleeful helpmate. Her and Mal’s relationship, which takes up a chunk of the film’s middle third, is defined by its thankful lack of sex and ease of companionship for Diana after the emotional bruises of her time with Robert and the greasy chill of her erotic fascination with Miles. But even this alliance runs into a roadblock when Mal sneaks away for a sexual escapade with a handsome waiter, and she’s both teed off and interested enough to be the next one in the waiter’s bed.

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Schlesinger was really pushing the boundaries of what mainstream cinema could handle at the time, and undoubtedly his own homosexuality drove him to portray Mal in the warmest and most easygoing of fashions. Otherwise, his eye is an unforgiving one: a painstaking portraitist with his main characters, Schlesinger renders the background as a Hogarthian sprawl of acid-dripping mockery and caricatures. Robert introduces Diana to a respected old author whom he presents as the moral centre of the film—Matthew Southgate (Hugo Dyson), who became world-famous in spite of entirely shunning the limelight: he explicitly contrasts the rest of venal pack. Schlesinger offers splendid satiric vignettes, from a glimpse of the tacky B-movie Jacqueline, in which Diana plays the title character, murdered in the first scene, cueing a spot-on send-up of the Hammer type of psycho-thriller, to the travails of making TV ads. And there’s the society gathering Miles takes Diana to that is full of British magnates and politicians, resplendent in their racism, patronisation, and on-the-quiet libidinous indulgence, and the grossly try-hard hipster party he takes her to in Paris, replete with sex acts as entertainment and nasty games where participants are called upon to artfully insult other guests—a challenge Diana rises to with bravura in taking down Miles a peg or two. Thanks to her looks, Diana can gain access to the great world, but her actual part in it is passive: she is a commodity, and Cesare buys her, in essence, with his good manners.

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The arc of Schlesinger’s career had moved from the kitchen sink Midlands drama of A Kind of Loving to the fantasist drawn to and shrinking from the bright lights of London in Billy Liar, to this portrait of a girl shocked and delighted by the world at large. Indeed, Darling is as an artwork a little like Diana herself: beautiful, open, playful, gobsmacked by perversity in a faintly provincial fashion, and finally, a little frustrating. Darling and Schlesinger’s subsequent Midnight Cowboy (1969) were easily embraced by the mainstream and showered with Oscars in spite of their provocative subject matter and stylistic vigour because they are, at least in one manner of speaking, quite conservative: they make merciless fun of the arty counterculture and depict protagonists finally skewered by their efforts to find a way out of traditional roles. But that summary is a little reductive. Schlesinger’s efforts to be unstintingly honest were often brutal, but necessarily so. Like Thomas Hardy, whose Far From the Madding Crowd was to be, almost inevitably, Schlesinger’s next and probably greatest film, he looked at the lives of his characters as inseparable from social context and personal character fibre, in spite of all impulses to rebel and transgress; this is distinct from traditional morality plays, although there’s an aspect of those at work here. Schlesinger perceives a world full of people who, when it gets right down to it, use each other without compunction, and true affection is a brittle thing that can be as potentially torturous as any hate.

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Scenes in which Diana takes refuge for a short time with her conventional sister and her husband, and contends with awkward set-up dinner dates with their idea of good potential mates, makes immediately apparent why Diana’s willing to risk it all for something out of the ordinary. She marches through an unadventurous landscape with teasing shows of wit and self-possession, keeping pace with Robert’s syllogistic blarney, and, after proposing to Miles how interesting it would be if it took three sexes to have a child (“Don’t you think we have enough trouble with two?” he ripostes), and explores many different types of sexual pairing, short of lesbianism—and even there she has a close graze with an interested sculptress (Annette Carell) in Paris. Yet she inflicts punishment on herself for committing acts for the sake of her worldly dissatisfaction, like her abortion and her falling out with Tony. She finally seeks a retreat into borrowed tropes of a supposedly settled and ordered culture, including returning to her Catholic faith and in marrying the prince, but this, too, turns out to be fancy wrapping on a convenient sham. That she finally ends up pining for the intimate joys of her relationship with Robert, whose relative lack of money and flash initially disappointed her, is a sentimental reflex on her part that he won’t indulge. This builds to a desolate conclusion in which, after a night together in reunion, he ignores her pleas that she wants to come back to him and makes her return to the prince. For all of their pained longing for each other, Robert’s insistence on honesty, which demands they both have to start their lives again from scratch if they’re to have any real lives at all, is sour but honourable.

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The way Schlesinger keeps his landscape vibrating refuses moral lessons that are too easy, thankfully, and aspects of his subsequent, best films are anticipated throughout. Bogarde and Harvey were cast in roles that deliberately played on their reputations already well-established in films before this, and both are customarily excellent: Bogarde’s skill as an actor is still relatively underrecognised. But it’s Christie who dominates with her supple and alert acting throughout, capturing Diana’s multifaceted liveliness and humour, her smarts and wiles, and also her slippery, elusive quality that signals a lack of a true inner compass, neither amoral nor truly self-aware. I particularly loved Diana’s explosion in a tube station when, after Robert calls her a whore, she begins ranting with a My Fair Lady Cockney accent and complaining he hasn’t paid her enough. The film’s dramatic highpoint isn’t her final bust-up with Robert, but a scene that evokes Kane’s devastation of Susan’s room in Citizen Kane (1941): consumed by anxiety and despair, Diana stalks through the prince’s ornate house, strips off her clothes, and assaults not the suffocating finery, but the Christmas cards over the fireplace—paltry signifiers of emotional ties. Even if Darling does show its age in some respects, the cast’s perfection is eternal, and the filmmaking is still giddily entertaining.

Standard
1970s, Fantasy, Film Noir, Foreign, French cinema

Duelle (une quarantaine) (1976)

aka Twhylight

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Director: Jacques Rivette

By Roderick Heath

Unlike most of the New Wave directors to emerge from the critical collective at Cahiers du Cinema, Jacques Rivette’s most admired work came in the early ’70s, a time when compatriots like Truffaut were either negotiating with the mainstream or in total retreat from it, like Godard. Rivette seemed energised by the mood of the waning days of the counterculture and concurrent intellectual flowerings of post-modernist and feminist theory, and he made his best-loved movie, Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), in this period, as well as his highly regarded made-for-television epic Out 1 (1971).

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As if rejecting all explicable comment or interest in the fallout of political revolts and the New Wave itself, Rivette began to celebrate imagination, play, and ambiguity of the self as a counteraction and commentary on a repressive backlash in contemporary life. Rivette embarked on what was to be a quartet of films titled “Scenes from a Parallel Life,” each playing on a generic mode and employing a peculiar unifying concept—a war between two goddesses, daughters of the sun and the moon, over a cursed jewel. Rivette made only two of the films before suffering a breakdown and experiencing harassment by authorities, and the completed works were barely screened. Those two films, however, Duelle and Noroît (1976), have a status as hidden treasures.

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Rivette’s cinema is an acquired taste, but for anyone who can adjust to his wavelength, which isn’t so much obscure as merely reticent, he’s an alluring artist entirely dedicated to realising the most beautiful effects through the simplest means. Rivette’s fascinating, if still embryonic debut, Paris Belongs to Us (1960), introduced many of the elements he found intriguing: the dynamic exchange between life and art, ties of family threatened by worldly trials, and an ironic juxtaposition of humdrum reality and fantastic theorising, arch paranoia, and forces of power. The goddesses whose war Duelle describes embody the anxiety over the place of everyday humans between blocs of power and favour that can be associated with the counterculture shadow-enemies of Paris Belongs to Us.

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Rivette had come a long way since his debut, for Duelle is a carefully paced and utterly controlled work, all the more fascinating because like many of Rivette’s films, a high level of spontaneity was utilised in its production, if not quite as much as he often otherwise favoured. This time Rivette had written a story outline and created the characters and situations rather than give his cast all the room to invent their own, but still did not actually write the scenes until a few hours before they were performed (the scripting credits are given to Eduardo de Gregorio and Marilù Parolini). This edgy, happenstance energy infuses the performances even whilst Rivette’s camera maintains a balletic grace. Rivette, like all the other New Wavers, was also an inveterate film buff, and Duelle sports a magpie’s selection of tropes lifted neatly from favoured films of French poetic realism and Hollywood noir.

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The initial model was the great Val Lewton/Mark Robson horror film The Seventh Victim (1943). This is immediately apparent in the way Rivette renders his Paris, like Robson’s New York, a depopulated, magic-realist space full of poets and changelings, dreamers and sufferers. Duelle’s basic plot is slowly fleshed out, and the era it is set in only hazily defined, evoking a Paris where dance halls and gambling clubs unchanged since the heyday of Jean Gabin rubs shoulders with more definably modern locales and styles. It begins on “the last night of the new moon for this winter.” A woman calling herself Leni (Juliet Berto) approaches a young hotel clerk, Lucie (Hermine Karagheuze), searching for an Englishman named Max Christie who stayed at the hotel a year before. Leni claims to be his concerned sister, and pays Lucie to dig up what she can about where he’s gone. Lucie suggests Leni talk to her predecessor at the hotel desk, Elsa (Nicole Garcia), who now works as a taxi dancer at a decrepit nightclub called the Rumba. Leni, in an entirely different guise, approaches Elsa, who recalls Max’s expansive joie de vivre and tells Leni to look up his companion, Sylvia Stern (Claire Nadeau). Another mystery woman, the jaunty Viva (Bulle Ogier), and her helpmate Elizabeth (Elizabeth Wiener), trail Lucie’s brother Pierrot (Jean Babilée) and Sylvia when they return by train from Amsterdam. Later, Viva pays Pierrot’s debt when he loses at cards and ensnares him in her plans to locate the “Fairy Godmother,” a legendary cursed diamond that Max, Pierrot’s former partner in shady deals, had first turned up.

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When Leni tracks Sylvia to an aquarium, Sylvia babbles to her about how Max had “fought and defended,” and that he suffered and has recently died. Sylvia is wracked with guilt and sees herself as heir to his struggle. Leni runs off when Pierrot arrives, and shortly after, Lucie receives a phone call asking her to come to the aquarium. When Lucie arrives, she finds Sylvia dead, with a bruise or burn mark on her neck. Lucie hides when Viva enters the aquarium and bends over Sylvia’s dead body, and trails Viva back to a gambling club she frequents, where the two play roles and try to elicit information. Viva theorises that Lucie was brought to the aquarium to set her up. Elsa, whose real name is Jeanne (she felt her real name was vulgar), is falling in love with Pierrot, who promises he can give himself to her completely now. And she discovers the Fairy Godmother itself, attached to a choker band now in Pierrot’s possession, and fondly places it around her neck, setting in motion a fresh chain of contest, decay, and death.

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“Duelle” is an invented word, a feminised version of “duel,” and it’s with good reason the film has such a title: the story is strung along by a series of intimate pas de deux between competing characters who exhibit and swap places of command and submission, desire and pathos. Every sequence up until the very central one is dominated by interactions of only two characters; in that centrepiece, a crucial sequence in both the literal (as the 15th of the film’s 30 individual scenes) and narrative sense, as the core characters encounter each other in the Rumba and William Lubtchansky’s gliding camera absorbs them as they chase, challenge, flirt and dance with each other. It’s here the story finally becomes less opaque, whilst, ironically, the cinematic technique becomes more overtly surreal; The Fairy Godmother works an influence on Pierrot, who approaches a mirror, raises his hand—as Elsa recalled Max once doing—and cracks the glass with magical force. This gesture reveals to him the two demi-goddesses, Leni and Viva, in their true forms, approaching each other in ritualistic style and pledging to continue their metaphysical contest for the jewel, holding their hands up like Pierrot’s gesture. This, it seems, indicates the mirror-image, dualistic bind of the two supernatural forces (even if, in their disco-glam outfits, they look like they’re about to start singing “Dancing Queen”).

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Lucie, the first and last person we see in the film, is glimpsed initially looking fearful and unsteady on her feet—it proves she’s trying to keep her balance atop an inflatable ball—with Pierrot helping her remain steady. It’s a superb metaphor for both their relationship at this point, a conflation of the film’s parable of human life, and its tenuous, reinventing-the-wheel approach to cinematic form. Leni’s recurring line, “You’ll see me again,” is, at first, a throwaway, but becomes a phrase laden with threat; the intrusion of the goddesses into the everyday lives of the protagonists heralds annihilation in a situation that works in cruel cycles and seems to have happened before, with Max and Sylvia having played out the parts of Pierrot and Elsa—indeed, the drama is built around a pantheistic rhythm, linked to seasonal shifts.

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And yet Duelle’s unique approach plays out nearly straight according to the dictates of a noir narrative: the characters battle over an emblem of wealth and steadily annihilate each other and themselves in the process. The Fairy Godmother jewel plays the same poisoned-chalice device at the heart of The Maltese Falcon and especially the Great Whatsit of Kiss Me, Deadly: like that manifestation of raw, consuming power, the jewel leaves marks upon the flesh of those who encounter it and spells inevitable doom. However, Rivette’s dialectic removes standard, dependable props from those familiar arcs, rendering the tale overtly mystical and inexplicable, and the spaces have to be filled in with intuition. Rivette begins with a familiar theme of his, Lucie’s desire to save her brother who’s enmeshed in a mystery (a la Paris Belong to Us), and plays her honest naïveté against the femmes fatale, Viva and Leni. The familiar economic and social parables of noir are present: Lucie, Pierrot, and Elsa/Jeanne all come from a low social bracket and are desperate to rise; the demi-goddesses live and pose as aristocrats, and the jewel is what they all covet.

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Such aspirations shade into less modest ambitions, to take on gods and transcend fate and nature. Viva and Leni’s prize in gaining the stone is a chance to live like a mortal for longer than their allotted 40 days in winter: “I’ve been young for far too long,” Leni confesses sadly to Pierrot. As Jonathan Rosenbaum cogently pointed out, the goddesses seem purified metaphors for the idea of movie stardom itself, locked in perpetual, pristine shape. The conceit of employing supernatural drama is on one level amusing and defiantly ludicrous, and yet Rivette, an aficionado of ancient Greek drama (several of his films revolve around attempts to stage the works of Aeschylus and Euripides), employs the idea of gods taking on human form and interacting with mortals with the same blithe tone as those classical works, and for similar ends. Rivette simultaneously exploits the way his characters encapsulate refined concepts often conceived in the traditional binary oppositions of mythical works—male/female, power/impotence, desire/hate, mortality/transcendence, and so on, beginning with the utterly archaic dialectic of sun and moon—and also deliberately evoking the wider pantheon of sexual identity inherent in pagan traditions. Thus, the characters constantly alter the parts each plays in relation to each other. This dedication to fairytale logic is reflected by a recurring motif, a quotation from Cocteau’s play Knights of the Round Table, in which Merlin explains a breakdown of purely mathematical and physical logic: “Two and two no longer make four / All walls can be shattered.”

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Similarly, in Duelle, people, within themselves and in relation to others, contain multitudes. Pierrot changes personas with the various women according to their natures (and vice versa), caring and soft with his sister, firm and solicitous with Elsa, challenging and aggressive with Viva, and finally, with Leni, both combative and in sympathy—both of them love Elsa and yearn to escape their lot. Pierrot’s the only major male character in the film, both with the potential to defeat them all and yet also at their mercy. In a droll sequence, Viva, who otherwise is the more constant of the two goddesses, sheds her imperious Marlene Dietrich-ish suits and air of utter command to play the ditzy, seductive drunk to tie Pierrot closer to her. Berto’s Leni alters from genteel fragility in approaching Lucie at the outset, to trenchcoat-clad femme fatale with Sylvia, to seductive butch with Elsa. There’s a vein of tongue-in-cheek costume-play here, one that emphasises the teeming talents of its actresses, but also constantly smudges settled sexual and social identities. Both Berto and Ogier affect ambiguous looks and roles throughout the film as they contend for control, and a crackle of sexual attraction lies underneath all the characters’ dealings with each other, except for Pierrot and Lucie, whose relationship is forlorn in its anxious sibling protectiveness and anxiety. A strange empathy runs between all the characters, alternating with a determination on each person’s part to emerge victorious—that is, alive.

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Rivette is a classic art house director, of course, but as I’ve noted before in my review of Fascination, Rivette’s aboveboard filmmaking in works like this bears many similarities to Jean Rollin’s underground horror (the aquarium scene particularly resembles a similar one in Rollin’s Lips of Blood), and I’m starting to wonder if there’s a phrase that can describe this specifically French style of fantastic cinema, airy, beautiful, but deliberately lacking in artifice: perhaps “surrealist-naturalism” would cover it. Rivette’s deconstructive approach is perhaps most amusingly, and oddly manifest in utilising pianist Jean Wiener to provide only source music, at the Rumba Club but also in other, rather more bewildering situations. The links with other traditions are equally apparent—Rivette revealed the depth of homage to Cocteau not only in quoting him but in casting the sinuously graceful, very cool Babilée, who had danced in Cocteau’s stage productions of the 1940s, and his character possesses the kind of haunted taciturnity wielded once by Louis Jouvet in Marcel Carne’s Hotel du Nord. His death—he is put down out of pity by Leni as he begins to succumb to the stone’s corrosive influence—exudes delicate tragedy.

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Rivette avoids standard forms of suspense-building, and yet Duelle constructs an increasingly tense atmosphere that comes to a head in brilliantly simple and riveting sequences, like that in which Pierrot, working with knowledge given to him by Viva, attempts to trap Leni by dazzling her with light, confronting her like a gunslinger in a hotel corridor and driving her back, locked in momentary shock as he opens room door after door, and, finally, when Viva chases down Lucie, threatening her with a sword-cane and teleporting her to a different location thanks to the pure magic of a jump-cut. In such a fashion, Rivette manages to both deconstruct how cinema creates excitement and still generate it. Finally, Lucie, apparently the weakest element, emerges ironically as the victor in this war, when she accidentally discovers the power of the Fairy Godmother to annihilate the incarnate goddesses when drenched with her blood, a trick that firsts destroys Viva after she stabs Lucie and her spilling blood reveals this power. With certain, vengeful purpose, Lucie catches up with Leni in the park where she was to duel with Viva, and wipes her out, leaving Lucie to dazedly recite the Cocteau poem, her fate, and indeed what is now her status — victim? hero? new demigod? — entirely ambiguous. Either way, it caps a tantalising experience. l

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1950s, Drama, Foreign, Historical, Japanese cinema

Sanshô the Bailiff (Sanshô dayû, 1954)

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi

By Roderick Heath

Kenji Mizoguchi’s legendary 1954 film is an arresting blend: a story derived from folk-tale themes, essayed with a rigorous clarity of storytelling, and realised in the most beautiful and involving cinematic terms. Mizoguchi is often cited as being Japanese film’s most perfect and lucid stylist, and Sanshô the Bailiff would certainly bear that reputation out. If his great rivals Ozu and Kurosawa preferred, respectively, the quiet, intricate intimacy of close, deeply personal drama or an expressive, elemental sense of nature and the soul, Mizoguchi rather evokes both sensibilities and sets them in subtle conflict. These tendencies can be seen in the intricate way Mizoguchi offsets the rhythms of his human drama, replete with cruelty, parasitic and hypocritical governance and officials, hard moral choices, and bleak chances, with the calm abundance and simplicity of nature, imbued with an undercurrent of spiritual longing. His work in Sanshô is both utterly heartfelt but also the product of a thoroughgoing ironist, as ideal and actual, nature and humanity, baseness and transcendence lock in a defiant, grueling struggle.

The film opens with a storytelling technique reminiscent of the in medias res tradition of classical sagas, as the family of Masauji Taira (Masao Shimizu) makes the journey across Japan to join their patriarch at his distant job post. His wife Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka), son Zushiô (Yoshiaki Hanayagi), and the daughter Anju (Kyôko Kagawa), whom he hasn’t seen since she was an infant, are going on foot, accompanied only by their female servant Ubatake (Chieko Naniwa). Camping one night in a district that is rife with slave traders, the family are visited by a priestess (Kikue Môri) who offers them shelter. But the offer was a ploy to get Tamaki and Ubatake into the boat of two slavers who try to leave the two children behind: in a panicked struggle, Ubatake falls from the boat and drowns and Tamaki is taken to Sado Island and forced into a life of prostitution. Zushiô and Anju are sold to the estate run by Sanshô (Eitarô Shindô), bailiff for the state of Tango and defender of the interests of the entrenched aristocracy—he manages the estate of the Minister of War—who maintains a strict and brutal hegemony over a large population of indentured servants. Sanshô’s son Taro (Akitake Kôno), quietly disgusted by his father’s inhumanity, learns of Anju and Zushiô’s parentage and advises them to conceal their real identities and wait to until they are older and stronger to break free.

Zushiô takes on the name Mushu, after the place of his birth, and Anju becomes Shinobu, and they survive for 10 years amongst Sanshô’s slaves. Zushiô becomes hardened and callous, emptied of any intention to escape and preferring to get in tight with the bailiff, even carrying out one of his standard punishments for attempted escape—branding on the forehead—on an old man. When Anju hears a newly arrived girl singing a song she heard on Sado Island, in which her and Zushiô’s names are mentioned, it seems to confirm that their mother is still alive and living under the name Nakagimi. Tamaki is indeed still alive, and her captors are so fed up with her attempts to escape they have hobbled her by cutting her Achilles’ tendons. Zushiô is initially contemptuous of his sister’s attempts to talk him into escaping, but when they obey Sanshô by carrying a old and sick slave woman, Namiji (Noriko Tachibana), into the forest to die now, Zushiô comes around. Anju insists that Zushiô take Namiji instead of her. But once he’s gone and the bailiff’s men are roused, Anju drowns herself in a lake to avoid inevitable torture. Zushiô finds shelter at a monastery where Taro has become a monk, and Taro and the abbot endeavor to help him make contact with the prime minister in Kyoto.

For many good reasons, the exalted spheres of Japanese cinema in the late ’40s and ’50s were preoccupied with a deeply ruminative, urgently humanistic philosophy that arose from the country having to contend with the wrenching cultural and physical fall-out of the Second World War. That soul searching tended to be explored through historical parable. Sanshô is one of the most sublime results of that era, and, in spite of its formal beauty and warm heart, it’s also a coldly realistic film that tells a grim truth about Japan’s feudal past that’s virtually unimaginable in the Technicolor plasticity of Hollywood historical movies from the same period. Nor is the film at all hesitant about describing the interests of power and varieties of exploitation—physical, fiscal, political and sexual. It’s made clear early in the film that Taira was sacked for attempting to ease the burden on his citizens rather than meet the demands of a militarist government. Sanshô himself is protected and honoured for his capacity to turn human suffering and ruthless oppression into piles of money for the government coffers.

Later, as he attempts to assert his claims, Zushiô finds himself forced to sneak about the prime minister’s residence to have any hope of seeing the all-powerful official, reduced to despairing pleading before being dragged away and imprisoned. Whilst the minister and the state he serves are capable of recognising nobility—Zushiô carries an idol that was given to his clan decades before by the prime minister’s ancestor—and restore Zushiô not only to rank but give him the governorship of Tango as compensation, he soon learns he isn’t entirely empowered to end slavery or even legally punish Sanshô when his misdeeds are restricted to a private estate. Justice is entirely subordinate to the regular running of the state’s machinery and the interests of powerful men. From the smallest to the highest level of the society portrayed, people make commodities of each other, and respect is a debased currency as hierarchy is constantly abused.

Mizoguchi doesn’t offer any actual portrayals of violence, and yet the key moments of corporeal cruelty that punctuate the film are all the more effective for their judicious presentation of how this mass of exploitation is enforced: even when the physical damage is only hinted at, it’s impossible not to cringe during the scenes of branding and Tomiko’s hideous punishment—the antithesis of torture-porn. The narrative’s steady, committed assault on the aristocratic family unit—mother turned to whore, children as forced labourers, father a figure of distant impotence—becomes a tour through the precincts of hell for the most stable and hallowed of social institutions. This necessary awareness of the true state of things is, however, inextricable with Zushiô’s final dedication to realising his father’s ideals: the secure walls of social roles that have been violated by his family’s travails give him an awareness of the terror and complexity of life that is alien to the invested folk around him, and drives his determination to keep the wheel in spin for people beyond himself and his kin.

For all the high tragedy, darkness, and cynicism that permeate Sanshô as a narrative, however, it’s also a cracking good yarn that powers on with Dickensian twists of fortune and fortitude of moral meaning. The breathless intensity of the storyline is undeniable, and that’s something of a lost art these days in so much cinema and literature—the capacity to retain the depth of great art and the force of fine melodrama in a singular shape. Mizoguchi and his screenwriters Fuji Yahiro and Yoshikata Yoda make the teeth clench with clever delaying devices, like Zushiô’s initial failure to make the prime minister listen and in the finale in which he tries to track down the woman known as Nakagimi only to be put on to the overeager tart (Teruko Omi) who’s inherited that reputed name first. By this time, Zushiô has triumphed not only over Sanshô, but also over the self-interested world he represents; Zushiô used the power given him by the prime minister to ban slavery, against the protests of his advisors and knowing that his action will surely end his career nearly before it begins. Sanshô, in retaliation, sends his men to knock down the decree signposts, which is what Zushiô counted on, for he can now exert his right to seize Sanshô for destroying the governor’s property, leading to liberation of the estate’s slaves.

But it’s a victory for other people more than Zushiô himself, as he learns of Anju’s death and grimly weighs his future as the former slaves party, riot, and finally burn down Sanshô’s manor in a nihilistic consummation. Hanayagi’s performance is the most compelling in the film (although no one is less than excellent), essaying an individual who passes through almost insensibly strange contortions of luck and station. His character swings from extremes of stiff-necked, glowering inhumanity to frantic pleading and unendurable, almost metaphysical terror as he appeals to the prime minister, to troubled but determined efforts to live up to his father’s creed and rescue what’s left of his family life. With him stand Tanaka and Kagawa, two pools of feminine calm and rooted conscience driven to terrible ends by their determination not to cave in to mere force.

Mizoguchi’s formal invention in interpolating fragments of explanatory flashbacks has become a common device in filmmaking, especially Japanese genre cinema, and yet it seems uniquely fresh and concise here. In a few deftly composed minutes of film, Mizoguchi describes the characters who will preoccupy the drama, their reasons for being in their current predicament, and the dangers, both emotional and physical, that await them: revealing the circumstances by which Taira lost his job and with a brilliantly economical flourish, panning down from Taira’s humiliation by a samurai general to show Tamaki’s reaction, before dissolving back into the present-tense as she takes a cup of water from a river, lost in pained reverie even as she tries to reunite the family. As the family makes it trek, Mizoguchi offers precisely composed shots encompassing characters and landscape that suggest a harmonic completeness to their world, usually offering frames filled with water, earth, flowers, and sky. The relationship between the material and spiritual lives of the characters is constantly entwined with physical setting, courtesy of Kazuo Miyagawa’s photography. In later scenes, as when Zushiô finally visits his father’s grave, he finds it caked in flowers brought by his grateful subjects; Mizoguchi restores here the pellucid beauty of the early sequences, once again including sea, sky, land, and humanity in the shot. Anju’s suicide, a careful composition of the dim light of dusk and the utter stillness of the water, evoke the soothing end of pain and a forlorn, beatific deliverance.

When Zushiô finally finds his mother, now aged, blind, and devastated by too much loss, it’s on the edge of a beach that’s been turned into a wasteland by the literal calamity of a tsunami, but that all too accurately reflects the shattered lives and mental states of the last two Tairas. When Zushiô apologises in grief for not returning as a great man or saving Anju’s life, but having tried to stick by his father’s principles, Tomiko, grizzled and crushed but not lost, assures him that if he hadn’t done so, she’s sure they would never have been reunited at all. It’s a simple message, but delivered with force and conviction. In cumulative detail and effect, Sanshô the Bailiff is like the universe in miniature. l

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1960s, Biopic, Experimental, Fantasy, Foreign

Sayat Nova (1968)

aka The Colour of Pomegranates

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By Roderick Heath

An authentic piece of cinematic shamanism, Sayat Nova was a work that placed its brilliant Georgian-born, ethnic-Armenian director Sergei Paradjanov in hot water with the Soviet-era authorities. At first glance, this seems nearly incomprehensible. What the hell was so subversive about a plotless, characterless, almost-silent extended montage of beautiful and mysterious images? Perhaps therein lies the answer: nothing upsets the bureaucratic mindset like mystery. Of course, there are layers to such a controversy. Paradjanov was a dedicated nonconformist, a bisexual bohemian linked to nationalist and civil rights groups and celebrator of pan-Caucasian folk traditions, and his film was an aggressive act of cultural dissembling. Damn it if the commissars didn’t sense something under all the strange gestures and allusions to Armenian history. The Soviet Union, like Tsarist Russia before it, had always maintained a hegemonic domination of the many smaller nations it bordered and swallowed, and Paradjanov’s fetishist celebration of his culture’s dreamtime past seemed a jab at that hegemony.

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A contradictory quality of much post-Stalinist Soviet cinema is what appeared to be its relatively unfettered artistic bent, producing wondrously innovative cinema from the likes of Paradjanov, Tarkovsky, Klimov, Shepitko, Konchalovsky and others, which rarely betrayed any sign of subordination to the familiar rigours of narrative appeal. Indeed, Paradjanov was taking to an extreme something Eisenstein had begun in his historical films Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ivan the Terrible Part I and Part II (1946-58) in reducing mise-en-scène to iconography and acting to gesture: the distance from Ivan the Terrible’s wedding dance to Sayat Nova’s figurations isn’t so great, even if the gothic force and giddiness of Eisenstein’s style is dispensed with. Such a retreat into formalism and poetic allusion angered authorities, but it often was the only mode of expression left to genuine film artists when “Soviet realism” was defined only as sanctioned realism. Either way, Sayat Nova was edited, retitled as the less culturally specific The Colour of Pomegranates (reflecting one of the first images of the film) and often completely suppressed; its director was later imprisoned on trumped-up charges, including that he raped a man bigger than he was.

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None of which says much really about Sayat Nova as a piece of artistry, which in intent and effect transcends the immediate agonies of its history. Named for and, after a fashion, telling the life of famed 18th century Armenian “ashug” (poet-troubadour) Harutyun Sayatyan (his popular title means “King of Song”), Paradjanov refused to create a biopic, instead preferring images illustrating poetic metaphors and vaguely describing the key acts of Sayat Nova’s life. The opening seems to be juxtaposing images associated with one of Sayatyan’s poems on the stages of the soul’s ripening. Paradjanov apparently identified deeply with the poet, and the on-screen biography seems partly imbued with aspects of Paradjanov’s own life: both men were born in T’bilisi outside of their ethnic homeland.

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In vaguest outline, Sayat Nova is similar to Paradjanov’s good friend Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev: both examine the role of the artist in terms of society in historical contexts infused with allegorical purpose. Each embellishes sketchy life narratives with similar details as both films’ heroes reject the world after youthful pains and burrow deep into monkish asceticism, only to spurn such mortification as death-in-life, and return to the world without spurning faith. It’s easily discernable why such a narrative could fascinate artists in a troubled political milieu. There, however, similarities end: where Rublev is allusive and illustrative in a rarefied but comprehensible and mostly realistic fashion, Sayat Nova is pure artifice, exploring Nova’s poetics and life through tableaux vivant that achieve a synthesis of the aesthetics of early cinema; the Byzantine-influenced, flat-perspective stylisation of Orthodox religious art; and the ritualised dance and theatre of folk cultures.

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The biographical details Paradjanov evokes of Sayatyan’s life (he’s played at different stages of his life by Sofiko Chiaureli, Melkon Aleksanyan, Vilen Galstyan, and Giorgi Gegechkori) can be discerned through this panoply of artifice. We see him in childhood, the son of wool vendors in a small village. He is taught a love of books by a priest and introduced to the human body and eroticism by spying on men and women in steam baths. His life as a courtier and traveling diplomat, his ill-fated romance with a princess, his retreat into a monastery, his final disillusionment with such a withdrawn life, and his failed attempt to return to the world all follow, before his final violent death at the hands of invading Persians. Much of the film was shot in or near the 1,000-year-old Haghpat Monastery, where Sayatyan really met his end. Paradjanov invokes such details with a fascinating creative method, relying on the viewer’s visual literacy, for instance, ability to infer from a woman’s beauteous mode of dress and bearing what her social rank is, and how she holds a veil of embroidery over her face to suggest the barriers of form and propriety that keeps Sayatyan from being able to love her.

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The fact that the same actress, Sofiko Chiaureli, plays both the young poet and his princess amour suggests the narcissism often inherent in young crushes (and also an inherent sexual ambiguity in Paradjanov’s sense of the artistic figure); Paradjanov juxtaposes this with a pair of mimes enacting a ritualised romance between the figures of a devil and an angel. In between the identifiable moments of narrative in Sayat Nova is a cornucopia of evocative imagery, built out of the cultural and religious tropes of classical Armenia, and essayed in not-quite-surrealist terms. The wonder of music as it is presented to young Sayatyan is evoked by his standing with music teachers amongst a number of hovering instruments; a love of literature explicated in a remarkable moment when a priest has him and others rescue soaked books and dry them upon the roof of a church, the young poet standing amongst dozens of the wind-wavered pages.

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The necessary connection of artistic passion to the earth is communicated when the young poet pours earth from a dish onto a cloth he holds; later, when his sense of life has degraded, he holds up an empty dish forlornly. A late crisis in his sense of life is communicated through an awe-inspiring sequence in which the roof of the church transforms into fields reaped by labourers, whilst the aged poet stands on a ledge, his pale body contrasting dead stone whilst the chaff rains, his separation from the natural wellsprings of creativity confirmed. Interestingly, Paradjanov criticised Fellini for driving ever deeper into mystification. This is a curious stance because mystification seems an objective for Paradjanov, and the men used not-dissimilar techniques.

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But it becomes apparent that such an affection for the corporeal, the tangible, an attempt to suggest through texture alone the solidity of things rather than mere dreaminess through surrealism, is altogether exceptional: Paradjanov ransacks and offers up the very building blocks of a culture in its many manifestations (songs, poems, books, architecture, clothing, paintings, dance, acting, religious and social ritual, design and pattern) as wrought from the same tactile relationship with soil and nature. Paradjanov’s visions take on the characteristics of mystical incantation, even magic, but they are certainly nonetheless linked to a subtle dialectic between spirit and flesh, earth and aesthetic, that refuses the celebratory, but arguably solipsistic reinvention of reality that Fellini offered up in his final films.

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Nonetheless, in structure and effect, Sayat Nova is a rite, a liturgy, an invocation for the sake of remembering, as well as a study in the nature of poetic elucidation and the formation of artistic character. The film is almost entirely lacking in spoken dialogue, and indeed many immediate sound effects are also muted in favour of folk music styles on the soundtrack, and recitations of Sayatyan’s poetry. Paradjanov notes a child’s fragmented, distracted way of reading existence in the early sequences, full of jagged observations of such fleeting wonders as the feet of women dancing upon carpets being washed in his home village where such carpets are made, boiled up in vats of crimson dye that becomes interchangeable with blood and therefore sustenance.

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Likewise barnyard animals constantly appear throughout the film, most memorably, a chicken that sits on the poet’s arm like a natural aide, and a flock of sheep that invades the church. Such glimpses are linked to the much later, more complex metaphors of the grown artistic imagination. Later in the film, the cloistered Sayatyan is visited by nuns, one of whom, looking like the princess, magically strips off her black gown, stepping out in blinding white, and comes to him with a carpet, as if embodying the lingering spirit of the fecund, romantic, industrious life he left behind: when she moves to kiss him, he pulls the carpet up between them, echoing the veil the princess once held up to him and reinforcing the self-imposed barrier he’s put up against life.

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This encounter precipitates his crisis, however, for the poet’s search is for an utterly selfless kind of love, and yet discovers in such a moment that his retreat is self-obsession. Begged to come perform by villagers, he ventures back into the landscape with the blessing of the monastery’s abbot to spread his art through the land. But he seems to be too late, finding nothing but empty dishes and encountering the white-clad woman’s burial. Escorted by cherubim, he returns to the monastery. There, however, he meets her again, incarnated now as a nature goddess or angel of resurrection: she tips a vat of red dye over him, symbolising his final murder, falling victim finally to utter corporeal truth. But as he dies, a workman holds up lengths of pipe and calls for him to sing; his songs echo forever from the pipes, a plain metaphor for the ability of the artist’s work to transcend death, and his songs become part of the structure of his culture and nation. The angel provides the final, reigning image, of an evergreen creativity.

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Whilst all of this might sound obscure and dull, the images flow with hypnotic rapidity and teeming imagination that always tantalise and stimulate even at their most bewildering; it’s also a weirdly, subtly sexy movie in its layered textures and obsessive refrains to Chiaureli’s ambisexual beauty. Sayat Nova moreover doesn’t so much demand intellectual dissection as emotional involvement with the intricacy and beauty of its images. Certainly such a conjuring requires an intensely shared cultural basis to work from, as well as a keenly developed symbolic imagination. Still, peculiar and unreproducible as it is, Sayat Nova also seems to have influenced many a director, like Pasolini, Scorsese (in Kundun, 1997), Theo Angelopolous, Gus Van Sant and Bela Tarr, through perhaps to Todd Haynes’ Dylan flick I’m Not There, which sustained a similar conceit of using multiple actors, including a woman, to embody a hero reduced to a series of quotes and affected figurations.

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It’s worth noting in such light that Paradjanov’s impish sense of humour is often in evidence, in moments such as when a number of monks are bathed by their fellows and then carried away as if in preparation for some rite, but actually for treading wine grapes; a flashback the poet has to his childhood of a wool fair that sees a gusting wind upsetting everyone’s wares; and those sheep in the church circling whilst the monks repeat sonorous cant to mourn their dead Patriarch evoking the silliness of religious solipsism and Pavlovian habits of worship. And yet the film’s texture surely confirms two of Paradjanov’s personal statements of his aspiration: “Direction is about truth. It’s about God, love, and tragedy”, and “Beauty will save the world.” Whether he’s right or not, Sayat Nova certainly suggests an untapped world of cinema still awaiting conquest.

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