1960s, British cinema, Drama, Foreign

Darling (1965)



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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

Duelle (une quarantaine) (1976)

aka Twhylight


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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


“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”).


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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

1950s, Drama, Foreign, Historical, Japanese cinema

Sanshô the Bailiff (1954)


Sanshô dayû


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.

1960s, Biopic, Experimental, Fantasy, Foreign

Sayat Nova (1968)

aka The Colour of Pomegranates


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Action-Adventure, Foreign, Women's Film

Lady Snowblood (1973)



Director: Toshiya Fujita

By Roderick Heath

The late ’60s and early ’70s were something of a golden age in Japanese commercial cinema, with rugged genre reinventions displaying a great confidence in a modernising milieu and industry. In particular, a number of electrifying, blood-lusting, visually chic jidai geki works like the Lone Wolf and Cub series initiated by Kenji Misumi and Toshiya Fujita’s Lady Snowblood cast a long shadow even on Hollywood filmmakers. A key correlation between these works is the way they contrast intense, heightened physical beauty captured in the crisp, muted colours Japanese cinematographers made their own in the era and rapturous pseudo-poetic stylisation with ruthless violence and aestheticised gore. Another more immediate link was the fact they were both based on the work of manga author Kazuo Koike, who also contributed to the scripts.


Lady Snowblood is particularly notable for offering a memorable heroine in Meiko Kaji’s Yuki Kashima, and for Fujita’s inventive, layered, pop-cinematic techniques. This jaw-dropping melodrama, set during the early Meiji period of the late 19th century, when Japan was undergoing tremendous social upheaval, offered fascinating cross-cultural blends in style and dress that have been a powerful fetish for anime artists. Fujita commences with a scene of birth that’s a bleak inversion of many a nativity scene, with Sayo Kashima (Miyoko Akaza) giving birth in prison, white snow falling outside, her red-clad fellow prisoners trying to midwife as she painfully and fatally gives life to Yuki. A jump cut reveals a grown Yuki, calling herself Lady Snowblood, taking on and besting in brutal fashion the bodyguards of a yakuza boss and then dispatching the boss with cold aplomb after describing herself as vengeance personified. This assassination, it soon proves, was on the behalf of the leader of a gang of beggars, Sir Matsuemon (Hitoshi Takagi), because the boss had dispossessed them of their village and left them to scrounge a living.


As repayment for her service, Yuki requests that Matsuemon and his followers find for her three ruffians, Banzô Takemura (Noboru Nakaya), Okono Kitahama (Sanae Nakahara), and Gishirô Tsukamoto (Eiji Okada). This trio and a fourth confederate, Tokuichi Shokei (Takeo Chii), were scamming peasants afraid of a government draft and murdered Sayo’s husband Gô (Masaaki Daimon), an innocent schoolteacher coming to take a rural post, to prove their ability to sniff out and fend off federal officials. They also slaughtered her young son and held her captive and raped her for days before Shokei dragged her to Tokyo as his concubine. There she knifed him during sex, a crime for which she was imprisoned, but Sayo made sure she got pregnant by screwing any man she could, with the intention of producing a child who could carry on her vengeance. In spite of Sayo’s death just after her birth, Yuki can remember her momentous entrance into the world.


Raised by one of her mother’s fellow prisoners, Tajire no Okiku (Akemi Negishi), Yuki was roughly drilled in swordplay and athletic feats by Dôkai (Kô Nishimura), a priest and former government official who delighted in making Yuki an unwavering force of punishment for an increasingly corrupt, shapeless, despicable society. Lady Snowblood is Fujita’s most famous and acclaimed film, and his formal innovation in telling his story is rich. The ritualistic form of much Asian action cinema is intact, with Yuki moving from target to target with relentless, mounting mayhem after intensive training in the art of killing. But Fujita essays the narrative in chapters, utilising a circular style in revealing the story that ties intricately to the what-goes-around-comes-around moral and multigenerational shape of the tale.


Flashbacks and backstory points of reference are explicated in freeze frames, black-and-white sequences, illustrations from manga, constructing a substantiated vision of the motivating past filtered through artifice: Fujita makes explicit that the art of telling Lady Snowblood’s story is part of that story. It’s easy to see why the film was a profound model for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, and not merely in its thematic and stylistic preoccupations with the beautiful agent of apocalyptic destruction at its centre, but also because it utilises an imaginative, self-reflexive approach to telling a generic story that suggests boundaries extending beyond the immediate borders of the film. The story is recounted by an off-screen narrator, author and journalist Ryûrei Ashio (Toshio Kurosawa), who stumbles upon Yuki’s tale when he visits the grave of Tsukamoto and passes by Yuki, who’s outraged to find one of her nemeses is dead and has assaulted his tombstone instead and sliced the heads off the decorating flowers.


Ryûrei learns Yuki’s story from Dôkai, who hopes that the story might flush out Yuki’s last opponent, Okono, now a yakuza matriarch. Ryûrei turns Yuki’s biography into a popular book, introducing a note of meta-textual irony to the proceedings, especially when Ryûrei begins “Chapter Four” only to have the villain of the piece walk in to tell him to stop. The title’s motif is constantly reflected, both literally—much blood gushes out upon the snowy streets—and metaphorically, the contrasting textures of pure snow and sticky gore reflecting the perverse disconnect between Yuki’s serene appearance and inner demons. Those demons manifest in her wide, remarkable eyes, with their reddened rims burning in her almost spectrally pale face, offered in awe-stoking close-up. It’s also there in the careful costuming and set décor in the opening birth sequence, and repeated through the reiteration of the image of emanations from the “netherworld,” a blood-red snow that cleanses. Lady Snowblood came out of an era in which women were becoming both more overtly heroic and yet more often brutalised on screen, especially in Japanese films, concurrent with the increasing international profile of women’s lib (it’s revealing that Kaji, who had risen out of sexploitation films at Nikkatsu Studios, fled to Tohei as Nikkatsu went deeper into producing “pink” porn-and-violence movies). Although they’re far more common now, Yuki is one of the first and truest ass-kicking women of cinema, and though the film hardly celebrates ruthless violence inflicted by anyone, this telling social dimension of the story plugs into a broader mythology of generational revolt and historical anger.


Yuki’s first claimed scalp of her mission elucidates a theme of female exploitation, in presenting Banzô as a wash-up living off his daughter Kobue (Yoshiko Nakada), who pretends to make baskets but is actually whoring herself out. Banzô gambles the money some of her clients give to him, trying to cheat, with Yuki rescuing him from the clutches of yakuza only to confront him on a stormy beach and slice him open after asking, “Look into my eyes. Do I remind you of someone you once raped?” The sins of the fathers are indeed being repaid, and Yuki finds an enemy in Kobue, but also an unexpected helpmate in Ryûrei, who is, she learns in shock after saving him from Okono’s clutches, is actually the son of Tsukamoto. Worse yet, his father isn’t actually dead, having faked his demise to escape investigations into his smuggling operations, a fact of which Ryûrei is unaware until his father comes to him and tells him to desist in recording Yuki’s tale.


Ryûrei is a scurrilous muckraker assaulting the new order of things, whereas his father has become a war-profiteer, engaging in building up Japan’s military force and hosting parties for international guests to cover and help his secret arms deals. Yuki and Ryûrei crash one of his masked balls to do him in, leading to a familial bloodbath in which Ryûrei tries to hold Tsukamoto still long enough for Yuki to stab him while father empties bullet after bullet into his son’s body. Yuki skewers them both, and Tsukamoto plunges over the balcony into the midst of his horrified guests, pulling with him the Rising Sun flag (and the US flag nearly goes with it), in an image that’s as metaphorically radical as above-ground Japanese cinema gets.


Then again, an interesting aspect of post-WWII Japanese genre cinema, especially of the historical variety, tends to be its outright cynicism over institutions and social roles of the past, unlike many equivalent western genres, like Hollywood and British swashbucklers, Italian peplum, or pre-Peckinpah westerns, instead fixating on warriors and nobles and yet very often portraying a corrupt, decaying, brutal world. Figures as grimly determined as Yuki or Lone Wolf and Cub’s Itto Ogami, or outcast, like Zatoichi, are heroic merely by standing for a principle and their towering skills. Kaji was a big star with young pop-loving audiences, sustaining a recording career simultaneously with her acting; her appeal was pitched for that generation, and one of the films she followed Lady Snowblood with was the antisocial Bonnie and Clyde variant Jeans Blues (1974). Yuki, the narrator reminds us, possesses a compassionate heart underneath her stoic exterior, and meets a soul-cracking problem when she thinks her mission is over and faces potential romance with Ryûrei; her entire life is predicated to a violent mission that puts her, as Dôkai says, beyond even Buddha’s redemption. And yet her rampage seems connected to natural justice, finding echoes in the snow and the waves that wash about Banzô’s body, white foam staining red.


The film’s cool hysteria is remarkable. Fujita eschews all but the most basic stunts for Yuki to perform (a stink bomb hidden in her hair is as fancy as her tricks get), and in spite of the stylistic flourishes, Lady Snowblood walks a tricky tightrope that offsets lyricism and action with a raw realism. It doesn’t quite belong in the same fantastic world of superhuman protagonists as other such films, even when taking into account such wacko moments as Yuki recalling the scene of her own birth and holding an unspoken conversation with nemesis Tsukamoto. Fujita realises some startling images, like the prepubescent Yuki stripping off her dress and dodging Dôkai’s sword strokes, sucking on the wound he leaves on her arm with fearless bloodlust, and Yuki’s final anguished scream as she touches a handful of bloodied snow to her face.


Multitalented star Kaji had, after leaving Nikkatsu, found proper stardom in the Female Prisoner Scorpion series, and later gained her highest accolades in a film version of classical playwright Chikamatsu’s Sonezaki Shinju (1978). Yuki is a role that suits her dark, marauding intensity perfectly, and she also sings Yuki’s gorgeously melancholy theme song (I also recommend the compilation of her various film themes and pop hits, “Zenkyoku Shu,” one of my favourite albums ever) that punctuates the start and conclusion of the film: the rest of the film’s jazz-pop score, by Masaaki Hirao, is terrific too. The third-act complication, of course, removes Yuki’s moral quandary by killing off Ryûrei and leaving her to stumble away from the carnage, with one of Tsukamoto’s bullets in her, to receive another indelible wound from Kobue’s dagger. Yuki crawls away, bawling in crushing existential anguish at where her life has led her. But right or wrong, good or bad, Yuki simply refuses to die, and the film ends with her looking up to the rising sun, still hovering between worlds. Of course, Fujita and Kaji reunited for a sequel the following year.

2000s, Foreign, French cinema, Romance

Amélie (2001)

Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain


Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet

By Roderick Heath

Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2001 film Amélie remains the highest-grossing French film of all time and a movie that pierced the cultural awareness of the English-speaking world as very few recent foreign-language films have managed. It was, and is still, regarded as a “feel-good” film par excellence, a label that is as often used as a pejorative as it is in praise, with some at the time of its release even stating that the film ran into trouble with some French critics because it courted that designation. Whether or not Amélie is simply a movie designed to elicit cheer in an audience demands we actually ask what, generically or even commercially speaking, a feel-good movie is and whether or not a feel-good film is necessarily simple. Because Amélie is surely not a simple or simplistic film, either stylistically or dramatically, in portraying a heroine pursuing happiness not only for herself, but also the people she may or may not know.


Geoffrey Mcnab, writing for The Independent newspaper, listed 25 feel-good films, including Saturday Night Fever (1977) for “mixing blue-collar realism with feel-good escapism.” The word “escapism” is particularly important, because it implies a removal from the actualities of life. Yet, many of the films Mcnab lists take a distinctive, real-world setting and face troubling facts of life, which suggests the feel-good template demands looking at those actualities, as painful as they can be, before providing idyllic relief and fulfillment. In Amélie, the shadows of depression, sexual frustration, jealousy, physical frailty, and the possibility of becoming entrapped by despair and rejection lurk as vividly for its fantasist heroine as for the people in whose lives she tries to providentially intervene. Whilst the film often seems to bend arcs of probability in flagrantly improbable directions, its grounding in immediate and troubling situations is consistent.


Amélie Poulain (Audrey Tautou) becomes a kind of performance artist specialising in making feel-good movies out of the lives of the people she knows. She arranges unlikely romances, conjures acts of moral reward and reprisal, falsifies great coincidences of fate, and tries to uplift and inspire hope in even the most isolated and forlorn of folk, all flourishes that can be associated with the ideal of entertaining films. She tries to step back from her actions, to maintain an almost godlike distance, and leave the recipients of her good deeds to bask in the glories of chance and fate that have benefited them. The concept of providence, of things that are meant to be, perhaps underlies some assumptions associated with the feel-good film, which seek to assure that things will indeed be alright, as if intended so. Mcnab’s article mentions Slumdog Millionaire (2008), in which small quirks of fate gave its hero the correct answers for a game show, until he is forced in the very last question to rely entirely on chance, and again wins: fate is quite literally on his side, but not in any fashion that is acknowledged by the passive heroes or presented with any irony by the filmmakers. In Mcnab’s top pick, It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey (James Stewart) is resuscitated by his guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers). In Amélie, when the heroine arranges for Dominique Bretodeau (Maurice Bénichou) to rediscover his childhood trinkets, Bretodeau believes his guardian angel must have arranged it. Amélie casts herself in the role of magical sprite returning to people their lost childhoods and lovers, a one-woman conqueror of the vagaries of chance and fate.


Simultaneously, Jeunet’s filming presents a series of ironic discrepancies that reflect not only Amélie’s assumptions, imaginings, and desires, but also the film’s own purpose, beginning with the fact that filmmaking itself announces its godlike authority. Jeunet utilises an omniscient narrator (André Dussollier) and a flagrantly showy editing and photographic style that willfully digresses and explicates matters far removed from Amélie’s immediate perception, offering at will climatic details, deeply withheld personal fantasies, and characters’ memories. The narrator, and the director driving the movie, lay out with loopy concision those vagaries of happenstance Amélie battles, from offering up such details as the suicidal Canadian woman who claims her mother’s (Lorella Cravotta) life, to tracing the converging paths of various protagonists, to fateful moments and a series of what Jeunet called “positive and magical images.”


The fastidiousness with which the film outlines such twists of serendipity constantly confirms their improbability. Jeunet had utilised such narrative ploys before in his two feature collaborations with Marc Caro, Delicatessen (1991) and Cité des enfants perdus (1995), especially in a sequence in the latter film in which the central protagonists’ lives are saved by the intervention of coinciding events that tie together mice, strippers, and an ocean liner. Such storytelling dazzles with its invention, but also signals the directors’ knowing viewpoint by not merely contriving a happy ending, but offering the most contrived one possible. In Amélie, Jeunet deliberately dangles the threat inherent in chance, before then corralling the story toward a given end, much as Amélie conjures a series of absurd events that might have transpired to prevent her prospective boyfriend from making a rendezvous, in indicating how difficult getting from Point A to Point B in a world of infinite possibility can be.


Amélie’s own transformative imagination, which imbues everything about her with a visionary potential, is matched by Jeunet’s employment of CGI techniques to conjure an idealised, graffiti-free, nostalgically perfect Montmartre. When Amélie properly becomes a kind of filmmaker, recording fragments of wonder from the television for the benefit of the frail recluse Dufayel (Serge Merlin) the “Glass Man,” she edits together fragments of reality—horses running with cyclists, tap-dancing peg-legs—that evoke how often the world slips its own limits of credulity. Amélie, and the film around her, draw attention to the possibility of orchestrating chaos, and the enormous varieties of existence on Earth. As Amélie discovers, however, life does not obey all that she demands of it, and Jeunet refuses to suggest everything is correctable. The romance she helps stoke between hypochondriac tobacconist Georgette (Isabelle Nanty) and pathologically jealous café regular Joseph (Dominique Pinon) sees a brief interlude of comically intense romance soon give way to familiar patterns of behaviour; likewise, Amélie finds few of her interventions have immediate transformative impact.


Amélie herself, daughter to “a neurotic and an iceberg,” is, under her elfin bob, repressed—sexually and emotionally incapacitated and unable to engage directly with the world. She and Dufayel explore her ambiguities and faults through a stand-in, a figure in Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party” Dufayel paints over and over, who is defined by the fact her face is partially hidden by a glass. Hipolito (Artus de Penguern), the film’s only, actual designated artist, is a commercial failure who claims: “I love the word ‘fail.’ Failure is human destiny.” Hipolito’s creed throws into relief both Amélie’s dedication and her shortcomings. The best she can hope for is to offer moments of wonder for people, stimulating them through totemistic acts that are open-ended in their possibilities. As Amélie becomes a variety of artist, the film reproduces cultural tropes and popular and celebratory art constantly in a cornucopia of references: Impressionist painting, blues music (Sister Rosetta Tharp), French chanson (Édith Piaf), masked heroes (Amélie imagines herself as Zorro), Don Quixote, Looney Tunes cartoons, Citizen Kane (Amélie’s imagined obituary newsreel), and Soviet propaganda films. In one scene, Amélie watches Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1961), which Jeunet’s directorial technique mimicks, particularly the fastidious voiceover in Jules et Jim, as well as the editing style and alternating emotions of its predecessor in Truffaut’s canon, Shoot the Piano Player (1960).


Jeunet’s structure thusly encompasses a vast array of cultural references not dissimilar to the way the apartment building in Delicatessan housed an array of classic French eccentrics. Dufayel’s self-isolation evokes both the works and lives of French Impressionists: he worships Renoir and suffers from a disease similar to that from which Toulouse-Lautrec suffered. His hermetic universe, shaky and brittle, is also repetitive and assailed, and cannot long countenance the intrusion of the garrulous, put-upon Lucien (Jamel Debbouze) and his less elevated references. “Lady Di! Lady Di!” Dufayel mocks him, before declaring: “Renoir!” Dufayel’s fixation with the glories of the past is both intensive and helpful and yet also as closeted and vulnerable as he is. He only uses his video camera to tell the time, until Amélie conjures for him more expansive visions. She doesn’t draw him away from his obsessions, but she does broaden his world. Likewise, his singular meditations hand Amélie vital metaphors for understanding herself. The necessity of engaging with life in any fashion as a creative act, not as success or failure but as engagement, is continually reasserted.


In the film’s most important plot arc, Amélie engages in a romance with Nino Quincampoix (Mathieu Kassovitz) that is expressed through those fragments of the world with which both of them are obsessed, possessing as they do very similar sensibilities, but radically different attitudes. Where Amélie as a child was lonely, Nino was harassed. Where Amélie plays god, looking down on the world from rooftops, Nino is happy to make fetishes of the traces left by everyday human actions—footprints and torn-up railway station photographs, rolling on the dirty floor in his attempts to retrieve them. Amélie expresses herself in do-gooding, Nino does so in dressing as a fun fair ghoul and scaring people. Amélie, a waitress, is scared of and unfulfilled by intimacy, whilst Nino works in a porn store, scared of and unfulfilled by intimacy. Their opposing traits nonetheless revolve around a shared sense of the world both as friendly—Nino is as beloved as a hopeless romantic and weirdo by his friends as Amélie is by hers—and alienating, something that can only be safely approached from the outside through its detritus and busted hearts.


Nino, and through him Amélie, who recovers his scrapbook, had developed a fascination for a bald, unknown man whose pictures he regularly recovered from the photography booths. This man becomes emblematic of the vast mystery of life both Nino is trying to perceive and Amélie is trying to master. In the end, only she can lead Nino to the simple realisation that the mystery man is the repairman for the photography booths. Amélie engages Nino’s fascination for a kind of semaphore of attraction that manifests through recapitulating the substance of things. And yet Dufayel continually prods Amélie to remember that she can only get what she wants by finally leaving her cocoon of fancy and taking the risk of having her heart busted. In the very opening, Amélie is conceived at the same moment one man scratches the name of his deceased best friend from his address book, and Amélie’s “destiny” is set in play by the death of Princess Diana. Jeunet presents and represents life as being filled with ellipses and imperfect mirrors, and the possibility of one’s heart dying long before one’s body looms underneath Amélie’s antics. Such are the ways in which Jeunet complicates a nominally blithe tale of a waifish Samaritan who finds true love and “the pleasurable side of life,” as he called it.


With a different attitude in screenplay and direction, Amélie and Nino could be portrayed as sad and pathetic types, and yet Jeunet reveals the world through their innocent, but not foolish, eyes. Amélie’s dedication to adding to the happiness of the lives of others confirms not only personal, but communal love as an apex of happiness. The narrative attempts not simply to inspire happiness, but to ask what a pursuit of happiness may involve, proposing finally that whilst romantic companionship is the summit of Amélie’s ambitions, that companionship is inextricably linked with her outsider, observational, artistic nature. Amélie’s actions ennoble not only herself but also her corner of the universe, whilst also giving her the tools to perceive her future mate who would otherwise remain completely invisible. Fate is, finally, on Amélie’s side, too. If Truffaut’s Jules et Jim is “tragic” and Amélie is “feel-good,” Jeunet’s self-conscious flourishes confirm it as a consciously enforced choice—portraying the reality of alienation and frustrated desire as well the transformative capacity of art, love, and communal relationship. Whilst one may feel good at the end of Amélie, its breadth of offered life is both polished with finesse and multitudinous, the result of which confirms that part of achieving happiness is to face down what threatens to destroy us.

2000s, Australian cinema, Drama, Foreign

Samson & Delilah (2009)



Director/Screenwriter/Cinematographer: Warwick Thornton

By Roderick Heath

In its poetically sparse, yet intimately realistic first 45 minutes, Warwick Thornton’s debut feature film, which won the Camera d’Or prize at Cannes this year, is an account of two indigenous youths, the incommunicative, paint-sniffing Samson (Rowan McNamara), and Delilah (Marissa Gibson), the timid helpmate of her grandmother (Mitjili Napanangka Gibson), a painter. They subsist in a tiny, outback hamlet populated mostly by other aboriginal folk. Samson is living in his empty shack of a house with his brother (Matthew Gibson), whose incessantly practising ska band constantly irritate Samson. Samson longs to play rock ‘n’ roll guitar, and listens to the lone radio channel that plays country songs. Delilah maintains her grandmother’s regimen of medication and helps her create the sprawling, native-style paintings that she sells to a local storekeeper (Peter Bartlett) to live.


Thornton is an indigenous Australian himself, and his reflexive compassion and feel for the milieu he conjures is immediately apparent, perceiving the reality that’s hard to communicate to anyone who doesn’t live it: the intense, grinding boredom and bubbling frustration of fringe dwelling. The elliptical early scenes describe daily impossibility, neither especially threatening nor offering any apparent purpose, as Samson wakes each morning, takes a long whiff of paint, and heads out to take up his brother’s guitar and strum tuneless riffs before having its snatched away. Delilah goes through the morning ritual of making her grandmother take her pills, helping her work, and buying and cooking scant groceries before retreating at night into a neighbour’s car to listen to a cassette of flamenco songs. Samson has his eye on Delilah, tossing stones at her in a huff, and writing misspelt romantic entreaties on the wall before tiring of his brother’s company and moving himself uninvited into the compound surrounding Delilah’s house. Grandmother keeps laughingly referring to him as Delilah’s “husband,” whilst the girl keeps irritably tossing Samson’s bedclothes over the fence.


Details are offered in cryptic snatches: only towards the end does it become clear that Samson’s sullen silence is motivated by a severe stutter and the fact that his father is in prison. Finally, the tenuous balance of life in the hamlet crumbles when Grandmother dies. Delilah cuts off her hair in mourning, but despite her conscientious care of her aged relative, a trio of the local elder women beat her with sticks in punishment for not doing enough. Samson, maddened, loses his temper and clobbers his brother over the head with a log before and then smashes his guitar. His brother, when he comes around, gives Samson a severe hiding, which doesn’t quell his eddying, frustrated violence. Samson finally steals a visitor’s truck, coaxes Delilah into it, and they flee to a larger town where they end up sleeping under a bridge alongside rambling alcoholic Gonzo (Scott Thornton). Samson moves on from paint to petrol, and Delilah vainly attempts to generate some cash by stealing art supplies, making her own paintings, and trying to sell them to an uninterested gallery owner and tourists.


Samson & Delilah is virtually a work of Aussie neorealism, and as a piece of visual storytelling, it is rich and absorbing. Thornton’s a truly excellent cinematographer, even if, like many contemporary Aussie directors, he consistently mistakes pretty pictures for vital cinema. It’s also the sort of film that shouldn’t be overrated: it’s not a deep, mysterious, penetrating work of art, but a minimalist melodrama in the garb of dispassionate humanism. Thornton’s story and style would probably have been better applied to a short subject rather than padded out to 100 minutes (but then, of course, no one would have seen it). The fresh and well-handled first half gives way to a second half that, whilst maintaining the stoic quiet of the early portion, still gives into more than one problem of the conscience-provoking genre—counting off potential abuses and humiliations like a checklist. Once the title characters reach town, the narrative catalogues how Delilah’s efforts to sell her paintings are rebuffed and her visit to a church cut short by the chilly attention of a pastor. Then for good measure, she’s grabbed off the street and bundled into a car to be beaten and presumably raped by a gang of Anglo boys, and then hit by a car, whilst Samson wanders on in his substance-altered dissociation.


Thornton stages the kidnapping with Samson in the foreground, completely spaced out, as Delilah is snatched away behind him. He’s so fond of this shot that he repeats it a few minutes later when Delilah is hit by a car; it becomes clear that Thornton’s run out of convincing twists to sustain his simple narrative, revealing a lack of true inspiration in creating both a work of social conscience and portraiture. He then pulls a clammy stunt in letting Samson, and the audience, think Delilah is dead, inspiring the boy to take refuge in a crippling petrol binge before she turns up, bathed in heavenly light, her leg in a brace, having gotten his brother to bring a car and pick him up. Rather than return to their old hamlet, where the same ranting elder women want now to beat up Samson for stealing the truck, Delilah takes him out to a shack on her grandmother’s tribal land to recuperate.


Thornton has no characterisation of substance to offer, and, like Philip Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence (2001), presents a simplistic set of indigenous protagonists, blank canvasses onto whom any amount of indignation, empathy, and sociologically knowing interpretations can be projected. He hurts his narrative rigour with unexplained and sloppy conveniences, like how Delilah’s self-shorn locks, sliced off with a kitchen knife, come to be pruned back to comely evenness, or who provides the 4WD in which they gallivant in the final few scenes. There’s a strong reek of faux-Dickensian sentimentality in a lot of works about the indigenous experience, and Thornton doesn’t escape it entirely. Gonzo is one of those characters so beloved of filmmakers—the ranting loony who’s also the voice of wisdom and experience, singing folky protest songs to himself.


Worse yet, there’s a half-baked religious allegory recurring throughout the piece, signaled first, of course, in the characters’ names and in the motif of hair-cutting that has no link of significance to the biblical tale at all. Delilah is intimidated into leaving a church in the town by a silent pastor, but Gonzo finally announces that he’s going to give up booze and camping out in favour of living with a “mob’a Christians.” Finally when the young couple retreat to their shack, Delilah hangs up a homemade cross. But Thornton isn’t Robert Bresson, the meaning of these flourishes in relation to the characters and their sense of life isn’t explicated, and so it dances perilously close to a “Jesus Saves” message. Still, he’s evenhanded, finding little more dignity and sense in the ranting tribal women’s punishments than in the frigid demeanour of sparkly suburban white civilisation.


Thornton’s film is, finally, at least far better than some other stabs at portraying contemporary indigenous life in recent years, like the awkward Blackfellas (1993) and tepid Drifting Clouds (2002) (and a thankful curative for the lingering bitterness of Baz Luhrmann’s truly appalling Australia, 2008), as Thornton initially escapes the pitfalls of much of this type of filmmaking by relying as much as possible on imagery and providing scant dialogue to trip up inexperienced actors. The narrative is broadly similar to the decade’s best Australian film, Cate Shortland’s Somersault (2004), in portraying young outcasts at the mercy of both wayward personal impulses and Darwinian social mores. But unlike in Shortland’s film, its characters remain hazy, and it’s not something I’m going to let slide just because it’s about young aboriginal characters. It always seems to me, rather, that such characterisations tend to confirm the old racist clichés of indigenous peoples being simpler, less sophisticated, innocent beings, which is the sort of thing these films are supposed contradict. In this way, despite Thornton’s initially smart choices, the film ultimately doesn’t add up to anything truly affecting. Nonetheless, for its fine first half, and for the strength of Thornton’s filmmaking, Samson & Delilah stands ahead of the pack of the recent Aussie cinema.

1960s, Foreign, Japanese cinema

Samurai Assassin (1965)



Director: Kihachi Okamoto

By Roderick Heath

On March 24, 1860, in what became known as the Sakuradamon Incident, Ii Naosuke, virtual dictator of Japan for the Tokugawa shogunate, was assassinated outside Edo Castle by a confederation of clans led by the Mito. Ii had generated hate because he negotiated with foreign envoys, had installed an easily manipulated boy, Tokugawa Yoshitomi, as heir to the shogunate, and eliminated disaffected clan chiefs and their samurai aides in the infamous Ansei Purge. However, far from restoring a sense of security, Ii’s death resulted in the collapse of the shogunate, leading to the civil wars of the 1860s that saw the destruction of the samurai class and set Japan on its wayward course into the modern world.

Kihachi Okamoto’s Samurai Assassin, also simply called Samurai (and not to be confused with 1954’s Miyamoto Mushashi, also starring Toshirô Mifune, retitled Samurai for Western release and awarded an Oscar), about a time of upheaval, was made in a time of upheaval. 1960s Japanese cinema is a remarkably rich trove perhaps because of the pressures on it, when pop-art genre cinema overtook emperor director-artists like Mizoguchi, Ozu, Kobayashi, and even Kurosawa, who had helped usher in the new phase with his Yojimbo (1961). Okamoto’s career was erratic (and perhaps typical of the era), seeming most at home in the anarchic spirit of the late ’60s, with a run of darkly comic, satiric films like Nikudan (1968), cynical takes on popular fare (Kill!, 1968), and intense studies of fraught moments in Japanese history (such as Samurai itself and The Longest Day of Japan, 1967). He also made of one the best entries in the long-running Zatoichi series, Zatoichi vs. Yojimbo (1970), putting Mifune and Shintaro Katsu in close proximity, for which cinema fans ought to be eternally grateful. Samurai is a film that, in a wonder of construction, displays Okamoto’s cinematic gifts perhaps at their most vivid.

Okamoto and screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto, working from a story by Jiromasa Gunji, wove the story of Ii’s assassination around a dark and mordant parable involving an imaginary protagonist in that event, Sir Tsuruchiyo Niiro (Mifune), a ronin reduced to strong-arming and extortion. The film begin with the Mito clan’s band of assembled ronin gathered at the Sakurada gate of Edo Castle waiting to kill Ii, but he fails to show, forcing the conspirators, led by the ruthless Hoshino Kenmotsu (Yûnosuke Itô), to consider whether they have an informant in their midst. The chief suspects are the two non-clansmen in their number, Niiro, and Niiro’s friend Einosuke Kurihara (Keiju Kobayashi), an intellectual who claims to have joined their number because his studies of western philosophy assure him that Ii’s tyranny must end.

Niiro shares none of the elevated principles or sturdy loyalties of the other conspirators. His motivation is basic and willfully narrow: he intends to regain his honour, gain position as a samurai, and become famous for killing Ii (Koshiro Matsumoto). Having lived, as he describes it, like a dog for five years, he sees only two dimensions to life: the security of life as a samurai, and the degradation of survival in the everyday world. Niiro’s vague character and background become an enigma that the conspirators (and the audience) have to solve before moving on. They learn he is the son of a mysterious nobleman, was given the name of a doctor friend of his concubine mother, and raised with the aid of Seigoro Kisoya (Eijirô Tôno), a crusty but kindly merchant. Whilst awaiting the day of the assassination, Niiro encounters a comely waitress in a tavern, Okiku (Michiyo Aratama, the memorably suffering first wife of Kaidan’s “Black Hair”) whose troublingly familiar face and name unsettle and yet appeal to him.

Later, when he can’t pay the tavern bill, he goes to Kisoya to ask for money, but the old man, resentful of Niiro’s lack of contact and spurning of all he and his mother laboured for, sends him away. But Kisoya still pays Niiro’s debt to Okiku, and in meeting her is likewise stunned by her appearance. He explains to her that Niiro’s disgrace was owing to his falling in love with a princess, Kukuhime (Aratama again),the spitting image of Okiku. Niiro won Okiku’s affection by protecting her from some drunks, but because his lineage was in question, he could not marry her. His disappointment that turned him into a drunken, brawling wastrel. Okiku, touched by Niiro’s tortured soul, reaches out to him and offers him hope of peace without becoming a samurai, but Niiro fixates on his mission. The price for his coming glory mounts when he’s commanded by the Mito to kill Kurihara, whom they now believe is the traitor.

The narrative describes a near-perfect circle, beginning at and returning to the snowy compound outside the castle, and the flirtation of one of the young Mito men with a waitress, a motif that offsets Niiro’s desire to return to innocence with Okiku. The film digresses to explore the mysteries of both the situation and the characters, most vitally Niiro, whose fall from grace and relentless ambition to regain his standing is the linchpin. The very notion of telling a story, and the art of constructing history, are at stake here, as a dry, officious voiceover affecting to be an unexpurgated and precisely factual account of the assassination kept by the Mito clans, explicates the intricacies of the conspiracy and the efforts of the conspirators to locate the traitor and prepare for the great day. Except that figures and events keep getting edited out. After Niiro is compelled to kill his friend Kurihara, the Mito find that the spy was another man Hoshino, who is dispatched after a kangaroo court. He then orders both eliminated men similarly expunged from the official record expunged: “This must remain the conspiracy of honourable, serious men!” And Niiro stands watching as the appointed scribe burns the papers that included his dead friend and the traitor of this glorious enterprise.

Of course, it’s not a glorious enterprise, reeking as it does of reactionary politics and opportunism, hardly much better than Niito’s motives. The least trustworthy man seems to be Kurihara because he is actually motivated by high ideals, wanting as he does to usher in a new age for Japan and humanity in general. The innermost secret, which Kisoya desperately lets slip to Okiku when he realises the plot Niito is complicit in, is that he is in fact Ii’s natural son. This revelation is overheard by one of the Mito minions, and Kenmotsu sends nine assassins to take care of Niito on the morning of the assassination; Niito cuts them to shreds, and, still with no concept of the truth, accuses his boss of trying to get all the glory, and vowing to claim Ii’s head himself. Finally, the drama narrows the motivating idea of the assassination to a very direct metaphor—the outcast son, head twisted in knots by the confused realities of his creed, kills the corrupt father, and destroys the future both hoped for.

Not that it was necessary, but the film is further testimony to the awesomeness of coproducer Mifune, who, like many male movie stars of the period, loved playing seamy antiheroes, but with an edge few indulged. Who else, save perhaps Marlon Brando, would allow his first appearance in the film to be a shot of him picking his nose? Niiro, with his smouldering resentment, shabby style, and wayward passions, is a terrific addition to the Mifune resume, from startling displays of athleticism to dragging a platter of sake bottles by his toes to lying in a dissolute sprawl of self-loathing. Okamoto perpetually frames Niiro in doorways, poised between the domestic interior and the exteriors that are almost always buffeted by rain or snow. The whole film, too, plays like a scurrilous inversion of the normal generic assumptions, looking for the dishonourable and self-destructive tendencies in the samurai ideal—the exactness of the title confirms the desire to pinpoint the death of a creed rather than a celebration of it. And Itô is queasily effective as the deceptively limpid-eyed engine of the enterprise, particularly when he executes the real spy, swinging from plain shock as the man’s blood stains his clothes to laconically advising the distraught Niito to be “more cold-blooded,”and finally, bewilderedly and yet with utter efficiency, encouraging Niito to kill his father.

Okamoto’s direction, aided by Hiroshi Murai’s great cinematography and the editing of Yoshitami Kuroiwa, with a stunning array of lightning jump cuts, is as sharp as one of the flourished katana blades. Samurai maintains a relentless grip on its narrative even as it delves into flashbacks within flashbacks, sliced into crucially revelatory units, and quietening down for two portentous scenes. In one, Ii watches a Noh play that features a masked demon, and the other is Kurihara’s funeral, with his widowed wife and child mourning as the priest’s chant fills the soundtrack. Okamoto’s nihilistic streak strikes with force against the usual macho romanticism of the jidaigeki genre. Samurai tackles the complex narrative by exploiting the propelling tension between the measured, past-tense voiceover and the rapid on-screen drama, building its story in overlapping accounts that build an ironic tapestry. If the script perhaps makes the themes a touch too obvious, and the central conceit is distinctly melodramatic, the overall film still serves an acidic purpose.

The finale’s staging predicts the orgiastic, apocalyptic violence found within a couple of years in American films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Wild Bunch (1969). Niiro and the Mito assassins assault Ii’s procession, the defenders and attackers butchering each other as the wind-driven snow buffets them in a giddy free-for-all, the warriors barely discernable in their frantic, desperate grappling. Blood and squirming bodies litter the snowy compound, the wounded flee along ditches and tumble into icy water, including the assiduous record-keeper, along with his papers. The final images are of Niiro bearing off his father head on the point of his sword, hysterically proclaiming that he’ll only part with it for a decent sum of money, while the mangled Kenmotsu beams in savage glee as he crawls after him, enfolded by the billowing snow. In a chilling coda to a superb piece of cinema, the voiceover dryly informs us that Niiro was to be cut out of the history, and that the cold weather was rather unseasonable.

1960s, Foreign, Italian cinema

8½ (1963)


Director: Federico Fellini

By Roderick Heath

Federico Fellini’s signature opus is a film that, nearly a half-century ago, was the height of demanding modernism in the cinema. shook the landscape by challenging filmmakers to match its new, innately personal cinema spun purely out of its creator’s perspective and psyche and thereby establishing a new argot for exploring creative endeavour in movies.

More loudly, too, if not necessarily more artfully, than any other director of the ground-breaking generation to create and work within Italian Neorealism, Fellini abandoned mere reportage and circumstantial study, and pushed deeply into metaphor, associative epiphany, psychology, and personal mystery, rather than analysis, explication, and the traditional demarcations of the social conscience film. He did not abandon such a conscience or method, but radically altered the way that he organised his responses to it, hunting for a way to dovetail the inner crisis with a common sense of anxiety and malaise. An irony of this was that established its own personality cult, allowing student and commercial filmmakers, and other artists, to pinch its effects, images, and methods of realising intellectual autobiography.

’s inherent individuality was alchemised into public code, its pictorial quirks converted into pop art, for Fellini had a way of generating imagery that lodged in the minds of his contemporaries, as rockers like Bob Dylan and The Doors referenced his films in their songs and record covers, and Woody Allen quoted it endlessly in films like Annie Hall (1977). It’s hard to imagine other, key works by such diverse brethren as Scorsese and Coppola, Nanni Morretti, Charlie Kaufman, Bob Fosse, or Emir Kusturica without its example. was also a dividing point in Fellini’s career, after which he took up a kind of free-form fresco filmmaking, which bugged the hell out of many.

It is curious then, considering that it was a creative fount built by one of its era’s most iconic artists, that takes as its concern the theme of creative crisis—the precise loss of clear inspiration and artistic purpose. Fellini kept a sign taped to the camera during production reminding him that the film was supposed to be a comedy, and, indeed, it is a woozily funny film. But it often is underscored with an air of frantic desperation and suffocating intensity, its fumbling search for meaning and metaphor that hasn’t already been beaten to death or prostituted out to any gimmick-merchant around. Underneath its comedic surfaces, has an often grim message to communicate about the state of modern marriage, manhood, and art.

Fellini presents his troubled alter ego Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) as a director who’s in a state of artistic, intellectual, and moral inertia even as everyone around works themselves into a frenzy. He’s given his draft screenplay to Carini (Jean Rougeul), a pompous, relentlessly critical intellectual, precisely so he will do exactly what he does with it—tear it to pieces—despite the fact that sets are being built, cast members assembled, and diplomatic paths being smoothed for proposed sequences involving the church. Guido hasn’t shown anyone else the script; the truth is he’s abandoned the project, but can’t tell anyone.

Throughout the film, Guido dips into moments of reverie, fantasy, and memory that reflect why he’s in such a state, and creep around the edges of his root anxieties. In the immortal, surreal opening, Guido dreams of being trapped in a traffic jam, dying of asphyxiation, then suddenly rising free as a kite, only to find himself still tethered to the earth, to which he falls abruptly like a stone into the sea. Later, he has a conversation with his dead father (Annibale Ninchi) and recalls a childhood filled with moments of communal joy, as when he and other kids pressed grapes in a gigantic barrel, of erotic discovery, as when he and his pals go to watch the gyrations of Seraghina (Eddra Gale), a big old beefy tart, and of forceful punishment after being caught in this act by the guardians of church morality.

These episodes are more than navel-gazing. Guido is engaged in a kind of private, psychological mystery, trying to understand his inability to unite his loving and carnal sides. He has drifted away from his wife Luisa (Anouk Aimee), whose highbrow glasses, short hair, and air of exhausted acquiescence identify her as the frazzled exemplar of the intelligent modern woman, to have an ongoing affair with a foolish but sensual married bourgeois, Carla (Sandra Milo). Several of his male friends are cheerfully hooking up with girls far younger, like his producer with his tag-along teenaged concubine, and Mario (Mario Pisu), who’s happily romping with his daughter’s school friend, the loopy Gloria (Barbara Steele).

Around Guido swirls the madhouse that is the ordinary world. He has retreated to a health spa outside Rome to try to get his wits together, but he’s been followed by the whole apparatus of the film production, including the producer Pace (Guido Alberti), whom he greets with salaams and bows. At the spa, hordes of doughy dowagers and leathery brahmins queue to blaring classical music and display humanity at its most vain, gross, and vulnerable. Guido hangs on to the most singular vision in his proposed film, of a stunningly beautiful and innocent girl (Caterina Boratto), who he wants to be played by star Claudia (Claudia Cardinale), conjuring her in moments of oppression and sadness. Carini dismisses her as an obvious symbol, but this doesn’t dispel the yearning she embodies for Guido. The only person who withholds herself from Guido’s gravitational force, and thus remains his equal, is his wife’s sly, critical, amused friend Rossella (Rossella Falk).

Guido indulges in moments of pure fantasy, as when he imagines himself casually ordering the writer’s hanging, and when he draws all the women in his life together into a dreamland harem, exiling those who have become too old “upstairs” and putting down momentary feminist revolutions with a few good cracks of his whip. It’s a particularly crucial sequence because of its bluntly funny look at the masculine sexual psyche, as Guido accuses himself of childish egotism in his inability to commit, but also relaxes within that childishness, for the harem is in the rural villa of his childhood. He bathes in the same colossal barrel as the grapes were pressed, and the place has the same atmosphere of freedom and rampant indulgence—sexual overlordship imbued with a playtime vivacity. He imagines Rossella hanging about to enjoy the spectacle (she takes the place of a tomboy girl who was his friend in the childhood memory); Gloria shivers in masochistic ecstasy and declares at the lash of his whip, “delizioso!”; and Luisa plays the domestic drudge with cheery acceptance.

But out in the real world, when Guido invites Luisa to join him at the spa, she brings Rossella and a young male friend who sparks Guido’s jealousy. And of course, the sight of Carla hanging about the town drives Luisa to a fuming fit. Despite Guido’s real delight in bringing Luisa back into his life, they soon collide in a spiteful bust-up in their hotel room, as Guido is forced to contend with Luisa’s buried anger mixed into a poisonous potion with love. The artier European filmmakers of the era were experimenting with consciously erasing the edges of the familiar grammar of narrative cinema, and Fellini’s frames, beautifully shot by Gianni Di Venanzo, teem with inky black recesses and hazy, overbright spaces into and out of which characters leap and tumble away in reeling rows, shoving weird faces into view and whipping them away again, or becoming lost in indistinctly defined, maze-like structures and abodes, full of murk and mystery, dropping in half-heard snatches of conversations, jostling and provoking the eye and the mind.

Whilst avoiding abstraction, Fellini successfully generates a giddy world dusted with the lightest frost of surrealism. The greatness of was precisely in being conceived and executed as a comedy despite its painful dramatic concerns; it’s precisely in this way that it avoids pretentiousness and self-importance. Guido is both central to and yet also entirely unimportant to the people whirling about him, who need his inventions to justify their animation but who will become animated without justification. Fellini’s cast is impeccable, and the whole ensemble, from the brilliant Mastroianni to the underused but ever-intoxicatingly weird Steele, rise to deliver; Aimee is particularly splendid. As the lore around the movie attests, was originally intended to be a pseudo-sequel to La Dolce Vita (1960), which Fellini had announced would concern itself with the young sprite whose call to renewal went unheeded by the last Mastroianni-embodied Fellini stand-in.

And yet is still more or less that sequel, presenting variations on scenes from the predecessor, but with certain twists on their meaning. An outdoor, nighttime party scene in Vita, with its air of racy self-indulgence, is mirrored here in a goofy, try-hard replica, riddled through with tedious intellections and dopey dancing. A flight into the city night with a movie star resolves not in pagan fountain-bathing, but soulful confession. The monstrous intimation of the future that was the sea beast is here the clapboard rocket ship that is finally demolished without a second thought once the production is scrapped. La Dolce Vita’s Dickensian wit, sourced like Dickens’ writing in a gift for a feral skit vital to the good journalist (both men were reporters in their youth; just as Mastroianni was followed around by “Paparazz” in Vita, Mario calls Guido “Old Snaporazz” here) described its society superlatively well but retained a slippery façade of moral and intellectual finger-wagging.

La Dolce Vita strained to use elements of symbolism, expressionism, and old-fashioned bawdiness to expand the scope of the Neorealist tradition, whilst maintaining a critical stance, attempting to effectively analyse, in however fumbling a fashion, social lapses and the failing efforts of European intelligentsia to redefine the modern world, with its pagan impulses, pop culture, and apocalyptic underpinnings. is angry with the previous film’s pat caricatures and reductive pessimism, seeking instead to venture inward and celebrate the capacity of creativity, if truly let loose, to repaint the world in new colours—it is art’s riposte and response at last to the stifling dictates of politics, academia and journalism. The film, for all its moments of illness and fractiousness, is generous, even allowing its irritating critic a lucid and sympathetic soliloquy that encapsulates the nature of an artist’s role. “I wanted to make an honest film,” Guido himself eventually defines his aim, “No lies whatsoever. I thought I had something so simple to say. Something useful to everybody. A film that could help bury forever all those dead things we carry within ourselves.” The irony is that did offer such a freedom, a spiritual gateway into counterculture.

2000s, British cinema, Fantasy, Foreign

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)


Director: David Yates

By Roderick Heath

David Yates’ unexpectedly splendid third feature and his second Harry Potter film, sees a director come of age as a wielder of imagery and a buckaroo adept at handling a cast of Britain’s most fearsome character actors. More than that, Yates and writer Steve Kloves finally provide a fitting follow-up to Alfonso Cuaron’s reinvention of the series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) in the intensity of its fantastic imagery and the quality of its engagement with its characters. This is characterised, oddly enough, by a level of dry, keen-witted restraint rare enough in a blockbuster.

Episode six begins with the shadowy threat of Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters beginning to assail even the Muggle world, destroying an appropriately new-school target, the Millennium Bridge, and wreaking general havoc. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), idling away the summer still haunted by the death of his godfather Sirius Black, is flirting with a railway café waitress when he’s summoned away by Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). He’s to play a part in extracting from Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), a teacher summoned out of retirement by Dumbledore, a crucial memory involving Slughorn’s one-time student, Tom Riddle, the future Voldemort. The memory may just hold the secret to curtailing Voldemort’s capacity to return from the dead. Meanwhile, perpetual foil Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) has been recruited to arranging the infiltration of Hogwarts by the Death Eaters, led by the sibilant bitch-queen Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) in an assassination attempt on Dumbledore. Snape (Alan Rickman), the great series question-mark, has been forced by Bellatrix and her sister, Draco’s mother, Narcissa (Helen McCrory), into a pact to kill Dumbledore if Draco can’t.

The second-last instalment (not counting the fact that The Deathly Hallows will be split in half) was faced with significant problems. J. K. Rowling’s book, though sporting an impressive, wrenching finale, was one of the lumpier and least focused entries, with few set pieces and a lot of Pensieve flashbacks, so the film of it seemed doomed to place-holder status. Oddly enough, this seems to have made the filmmakers more confident in compressing the plot and expanding on the interaction between the characters. The film’s single greatest scene, perhaps of the whole series thus far, sports Harry, Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), and newbie Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) mourning over the corpse of a giant spider. Hagrid’s distraught, Slughorn is befuddled and opportunistic in trying to gain a vial of the spider’s venom, and Harry, jubilant as a coke-fiend under the influence of liquid luck; the three of them perform a kind of awkward funeral service, after which Hagrid and Slughorn get roaring drunk, and the teacher tearily, drunkenly confesses his darkest shame to Harry.

This couplet of scenes that alchemises something priceless out of the material and the actors, capturing the qualities that make Rowling’s creation so beloved—the rich sense of the English traditions of droll black humour and wonderment in the banal, attachment to both the fantastic and the familiar, the emotional, and the just plain weird. But what’s really intrigued me about Rowling’s creation is its basis in a peculiarly British sensibility, and not just the cutesy one that’s on the surface. The evocation of the WWII era in UK speculative fiction is a cliché, from John Wyndham’s Blitz atmosphere in novels like The Day of the Triffids through to the single greatest Doctor Who episode, “Genesis of the Daleks” (1975), with its outer space SS and eugenicist supervillain.

Although Voldemort, in his bleak background, genocidal intent, and general megalomania, is undoubtedly Hitleresque, Rowling’s atmosphere is rather more Cold War, constantly evoking another buried shadow in the British psyche—the betrayal of its esteemed institutions by the Soviet moles Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, and Donald MacLean, who sprang out of precisely the sort of close-knit public school atmosphere Rowling’s series celebrates, and gouged a hole deep in both left- and right-wing psyches. Thus, the Death Eaters all share a radical commitment that’s built around an assumption of their own superiority. Tellingly, both Harry and Voldemort are defined by a sense of lost lineage that places them each ill at ease in either the patrician or plebeian schemes; Muggle-born Hermione desperately attempts to overachieve to find her place in the scheme of things.

Barry Levinson’s Young Sherlock Holmes (1986), written by Chris Columbus, was probably the reason for Columbus being the initial choice to helm the series. That film is startlingly similar to Rowling’s creation, rather more so than the commonly cited Star Wars series, with two-boys-one-girl trio of heroes in a boarding school unearthing a conspiracy involving their own teachers, one of whom, Anthony Higgins’ Professor Rath, destined to reinvent himself as lifelong nemesis Moriarty. Columbus, however, was not as good a director as Spielberg or Levinson, and his opening pair of films were all gee-whiz mugging. Still, I was intrigued enough to take up the books. I soon realised Rowling, for all her limitations as a writer, had two great gifts: real emotional intricacy and a genius for plotting, gifts that kept me going through the acres of not very amazing this-adolescent-life satire.

This is perhaps why Cuaron’s much-admired entry irritated me as much as it impressed. For all Cuaron’s lovely visual embellishments, he buggered up the fundamental thrill of the moment when Rowling’s clockwork plot and manipulated perspective clicked into alignment. Rowling’s commitment to watching the world through Harry’s eyes became a liability that badly hurt the last two books (the terminus for Snape’s subplot in The Deathly Hallows was criminally clumsy), a problem that Yates and Kloves solve with dexterity here, boding well for the thunderous conclusion to come. The finale is sublimely handled with a sense not just of spectacle, but also of threat and mystery, as Dumbledore and Harry risk life and limb to rescue an object that proves to be a fake. The sequence is realised with startling visual invention and a fit sense of minimalism by Yates, from black waters teeming with grotesque skeletal wraiths to the blinding swirls of Dumbledore’s roaring fire-magic imbued with a genuine sense of evil and wonderment. Hail the uniquely sadomasochistic moment in which Harry fulfils Dumbledore’s promise of making him pour litres of potion down his throat that fill his paternal teacher with screaming self-loathing, and a confrontation between Harry and Snape that’s been pared down from giddy free-for-all to a singularly dark nonbattle.

It’s a conclusion that outlines how comfortable Yates is here in turning good literature into intelligent cinema, a shot in the arm desperately needed to stop ambling its way to a conclusion as a glorified advertising hoarding. Yates’ debut feature, a fine piece of bittersweet Victoriana, The Tichborne Claimant (1998), was a tale that treated an unremitting account of social revenge on presumptive social climbers with the lightest dust of magic realism. Likewise, The Half-Blood Prince has the same keen sense of how to weave the corporeal and the ethereal, the social and the fantastic in terms of Rowling’s crucial conception of the two being confoundingly complex, requiring young folk to become map-makers of their own existence. Yates is also unafraid to embrace horror-movie chic as his stylistic avatar for the series’ intended maturity, quoting J-horror, George Romero, and Hammer horror, sporting a sequence in which Harry and crush Ginny Weasely (Bonnie Wright) combat Bellatrix and werewolf henchman Fenrir Greyback (Dave Legeno) in a swamp that’s straight out of Terence Fisher. Carter seems to be channelling Sweeney Todd costar Johnny Depp in her eccentric lurches of manner and diction, and she’s a gas whenever on screen, which, alas, isn’t enough.

The Harry Potter franchise demands attention, not just for the scale of its appeal and success, or even for just being expansive, easygoing fun in an increasingly jarring, bullying era of event movies, but because after six instalments and nine years, the series is something that’s never really been done before in Hollywood. Even some close cousins I came up with—the Weissmuller/O’Sullivan Tarzan films, the Connery-Bond films of the 60s, the Japanese Lone Wolf and Cub series—don’t quite compare because they didn’t sport as sophisticated a running story as the Potter episodes, nor the same unity of production elements maintained over such a length of time, including a steadily aging core cast whose actions and reactions have become as familiar as old friends, working with defined stories whilst also existing in a state of flux and volatility dictated by the way time affects both cast and audience.

Thus The Half-Blood Prince takes advantage of the expansion of the acting talents of its three principal stars. Daniel Radcliffe, who’s played stoic heroism with increasing obviousness, has his best moments when his consumption of distilled luck remakes him momentarily as almost drunkenly chirpy, allowing him to give his character an assertive eccentricity it otherwise lacks. Emma Watson as the girl-nerd Hermione who doesn’t realise what a babe she’s grown into, broken up by her growing, unrequited ardour for Ron Weasley, has a newly light touch; and Rupert Grint has undeniable potential, stretched here in moments such as when Ron is temporarily befuddled by a love potion that reduces him to a grinning git that leads to a priceless piece of wordless acting when he’s brought around and his love-sick smile faces into mere sickness. Beyond that trio, the series stalwarts, from Maggie Smith’s perpetual recasting as Miss Jean Brodie to Rickman’s perfect Snape, are in top form. Broadbent’s fusty, fogged Slughorn is so perfect it’s a damned shame he’s never been in the series before, and Evanna Lynch’s lovable dingbat Luna Lovegood steals every scene she’s in.