1960s, Drama, Famous Firsts, Foreign, French cinema

Paris Belongs to Us (1960)

Paris nous appartient

Director: Jacques Rivette

By Roderick Heath

“Just because you’re paranoid,” goes the saying, “doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.” The debut film of Jacques Rivette, the most wilfully eccentric of the early Nouvelle Vague directors, could well be described as an exegesis on that theme. Rivette, a filmmaker never in a hurry to get anywhere (his 1971 film Out 1 runs 13 hours), only occasionally indulges the look-at-me editing and referencing that spiced up the other eruptive early films of the movement in Paris Belongs to Us, begun in 1957, but released in 1960. Rivette is deceptively becalmed, even gentle, whilst being coolly, almost cruelly implacable. Anne Goupil (Betty Schneider) is an unshaped ingénue studying English literature whose cramming is interrupted one day by the sound of sobbing from a neighbouring flat in her student boarding house. Investigating, Anne finds a distraught woman who knows Anne’s brother Pierre (François Maistre), and, in her grief, talks about the murder of a man named Juan. She seems to think the murder has been committed by some cabal and predicts that all of them, including Anne and Pierre, will fall victim. Anne tries to calm the woman and dashes to get her a glass of water, but returns to find her composed, smiling, and pushing Anne politely out of her room. Invited by the shifty, alienated Pierre to a party of his lefty bohemian friends, Anne soon finds that a man named Juan really is dead. A guitarist of a level of talent that no one can agree on, Juan’s thought to have committed suicide. Present at the party is a boozy, angry, American writer, Philip Kaufman (Daniel Crohem), who had to flee the States because of the blacklist, his ex-wife Terry Yordan (Françoise Prévost), and her current boyfriend, aspiring theatre director Gérard Lenz (Giani Esposito).

Later, when Anne encounters Philip, a mysterious hit-and-run death disturbs him sufficiently to make him drag Anne along in fleeing through the streets. He speaks of a plot that will inevitably cause Gérard’s death, an event that perhaps only Anne can forestall. Anne, inclined to take this stuff seriously after two such similar and yet obscure encounters, tries to alert Gérard to his apparently grim situation. The young, ardent director laughs it off. When his lack of finance means difficulties in keeping the cast of his dream production of Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre together, he drafts Anne to play the role of Marina. As Anne digs deeper, she uncovers sure evidence that something is going on, but what? Is the rootless, knowing Terry a kind of spiritual succubus, bringing death or ruin to every man she comes near? Or are they all pawns in some monumental game? What has the economist De Georges (Jean-Marie Robain), for whom Pierre does “some odd jobs,” to do with it? Why is Juan’s sister, a former radical, now living in De Georges’ apartment as his infantile mistress? Is Gérard’s sudden success in getting Pericles staged by a major theatre really a big break, or a cunning ploy to destroy him? And why is Juan’s legendary last recording, an improvisation that Gérard was desperate to have for the play, so hard to find and so seemingly close to the heart of the mystery?

Rivette’s dark thesis perceives the alt-culture of its era as assailed, self-deluding, and terminally self-destructive, trapped between blocks of power and making the situation worse with its own hysteria. Philip, the film’s prophet of hellish entrapment, lounges in his one-room apartment surrounded by his own artwork, dozens of modernist squiggles that resemble evil, gnawing, gnomic heads; he gives one to Anne, who soon enough sits peering at it in her own room, his demons infesting in her mind, too. Easy to see then why this film never stirred the same orgasmic odes to coolness as Breathless (1960). And yet it’s both the most awkward and possibly the most artistically and intellectually advanced of all the early Nouvelle Vague films. Paris Belongs to Us is as deeply, even apocalyptically, political a film as Godard’s The Little Soldier (1963) or Week-End (1967), perhaps even more so, but in a dissembling, allusive fashion, exploring the dire state of things through parable and paranoia. It takes no refuge in the hip and the righteous. The film’s references—McCarthyism, Franco, Hitler, the Resistance—invoke an age of insidious ills and underground struggle, with the borders between creeds and causes becoming porous and disturbingly homogenised.

In another sense, it’s not political at all, but a statement about art and the lot of artists in the modern world. The artists, from the passive and impotent, like Philip, to the most seemingly energetic and idealistic, like Gérard, are tortured, pushed by forces beyond their control, torn by conflicting desires both to commit (that great godhead that Sartre urged in his On Literature) and to create, consuming them in the process. Even the most superficial glance at Rivette’s oeuvre reveals that the motif of the band of players putting on a play, usually a work of the classical canon, that will never be performed is one of his recurring gambits; artistic endeavour being both eternally new and ancient, evergreen, and ever endangered. Here, Pericles, is critiqued early on by Anne and an actor friend as a rambling collage of great words, which is precisely what Gérard loves in it. Pericles’ connection on a spiritual level is an observation that shines a light on the ideals of Paris Belongs to Us, too, as its peripatetic characters roam the world and yet can’t escape each other. Juan’s elusive recording becomes both something of a holy grail and another wild goose, an emblem of the beauty of creation that becomes lost in the tangles of design. And yet, in a provisional fashion, the film also makes the case for creativity and the power of the intellect, of perspective, to define the world over all other influences—for good and ill. The title’s allusion is opaque: who the “us” is could be the theoretical conspiracy, or the energetic young artists and students, or the people in general. Either way it’s contradicted, and yet also solidified, by the quote from Charles Peguy at the start, “Paris belongs to nobody.” It’s not just the city, either, but the marketplace of ideas and aesthetics that it’s always represented, as well as the crucial crossroads of political and philosophical movements. Everyone and no one owns life.

And yet the narrative’s labyrinthine descent revolves around Philip’s conviction—a conviction that Terry shares—that a grand conspiracy is in place by a hidden society to turn the world into “one big, jolly, concentration camp.” The idea eventually proves to be something of an intellectual luxury that Philip has conjured and temporarily infects others with that offers the strange reassurance well familiar to us—the conspiracy theory, the notion that the truth is explicable but in a great, hidden whole. hat things really are going on—De Georges really is trying to wipe out people more talented than him, and Juan really was killed by Falangist agents—at first seems to substantiate, but finally corrodes such a notion, revealing a world teeming with threat and intrigue and, often, hopeless and irreducible confusion and shapelessness. “It’s easy to justify everything with a single idea, including his (Philip’s) inaction and cowardice. The nightmares were just alibis,” Terry offers in a final summary. That the alibi is powerful enough to stir Terry to commit murder reveals the danger in such solipsism. It’s a vital and powerful indictment of the retreat of the modern mind into the fringes of conspiracy theory and fragmented blocks rather than deal with problems at hand; people become implicated in destroying themselves and others. Gérard is both victim of plots and also of character—he’s tried to kill himself once before—and a situation, as Anne, who sets out to save him, finally rejects that role and precipitates crisis. All actions feed into every other action.

Although Rivette’s camera roams all over Paris, the city becomes more defined by the breathless little boxes most of the characters live in and streets at dawn that are deserted, zombie-movie-ready. The few expansive moments come thanks to Gérard, as when he and Anne converse within sight of Notre Dame, and later, when he triumphantly walks the theatre roof as he regards the city. Late in the film, when Anne receives a note from Gérard threatening suicide by midnight if she doesn’t call him and it’s already nearly 1 a.m., Anne settles in weary confusion by a window as the sound of the clashing TVs and radios in the apartment building congeals into a strange electronic menagerie. Along the way, there’s a scene incorporating the Tower of Babel sequence from Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis (many of Lang’s silent films, with their quivering air of sinister influence, are a definite touchstone for this movie), with all its allusive evocations of both grotesque capitalist-industrial presumption (and that film’s dictatorial elite) and its fear of apocalypse and disintegration as the punishment for its hubris. “The Wormwood star approaches,” warns one of Juan’s associates in one of the recurring moments of terrible pronouncement. But it’s not to be taken so seriously. “I love a femme fatale!” Gerard jests when Anne suggests Terry could get him killed, a moment that feels like a poke in the ribs to the whole enterprise.

As an aesthetic and conceptual statement, Paris Belongs to Us is strong, even triumphant. Its prognosticative wits are remarkable, all the more so for predicting and possibly influencing the subsequent concerns of directors like Antonioni (mysteries that go nowhere, a la L’Avventura, 1960, and the tortures of discerning truth from impression in a politicised context in Blowup, 1966), De Palma (the same hothouse paranoia infests Greetings, 1968, and much of his subsequent work), David Lynch (for whose career of rabbit-hole descents this could almost be draft thesis), and indeed a vast sector of the modern canon. As a dramatic work, it doesn’t quite work as a well. Rivette’s style is both more intimate and classical than the other New Wavers, with a carefully gliding camera that moves like an attentive listener; yet Rivette’s also less assured in eliciting performances and maintaining pace, and he slaps on a dissonantly corny score. His private mood seems detached from the efforts to conjure urgent, Lang-and-Hitchcock dread, finding more immediacy in watching birds skate across a dawn pond in the affecting final image, as if, like Gérard, he seeks something more humane, a way out of this cold scenario. Schneider is no Anna Karina, with little facility for illustrating her movement from blasé innocent to crumpled adult, and so her engagement with the other characters, especially Gérard, isn’t as crucial as it needs to be. For buffs, there’s a funny cameo by Godard as a café lecher.

Troubling, unsteady, and strange, Paris Belongs to Us is nonetheless a vital movie.


Please Not Now (1961)

La Bride sur le cou

Directors: Roger Vadim, Jean Aurel, Jack Dunn Trop

By Roderick Heath

The flaxen-haired stack of Gallic loveliness known as Bridget Bardot can today tend to be remembered better as occasional back-up singer for Serge Gainsbourg and a latter-day xenophobic pest than as an actress. Watching her in action in Please Not Now, the kind of saucy comedy that was her stock in trade, she’s like some impossibly gorgeous sprite imbued with the wits of a fair to average comedienne. Please Not Now is spun out of the very concept of Bardot clutching a rifle with intent to kill as utterly and irredeemably, lovably absurd. At least, it was lovably absurd 40 years prior to her being convicted five times for hate speech.

The plot, if it’s at all worth recounting, presents for our consideration one Sophie, a variety of screen specimen long familiar to moviegoers and now ennobled by The A.V. Club’s Nathan Rabin with the tag “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”—that variety of gorgeous movie female whose antics would be considered signs of mental illness in a less gorgeous non-movie female. Sophie’s excuse is that she’s Corsican—in the film’s terms, a hick—and relatively new to the big city of Paris, through which she drives in her crummy car in a credit sequence that suggests Jacques Tati on speed, set to a jaunty Flamenco version of “La Bamba” that recurs constantly throughout the film. Sophie is a model, natch, whose boyfriend, Philippe (Jacques Riberolles), is an advertising photographer. When she’s late for a shoot after hunting high and low for an apartment for them to share, eager to push along their floundering relationship, he berates her for having cost him a lucrative American contract. When he is called away, Sophie follows him out and sees him kissing a woman in a parked car.

This woman is Barbara Wilbury (Joséphine James), heir to half the abattoirs in Chicago (“She look like someone who enjoys killing animals!” Sophie fumes). Sophie follows Philippe to the lovers’ rendezvous in a café, and, watched by two skylarking lads with nothing better to do than sit and ogle, Alain (Michel Subor) and Claude (Claude Brasseur), presents Philippe with the goodbye present of a cake in the face. Alain and Claude immediately see a chance to get with the stunning blonde, but Alain, the shyer of the pair, sends Claude to talk to her. He convinces her to further her revenge on Philippe by hanging out with them.

To decide which of them will have the pleasure of being her date for the evening, the two men challenge each other to trial by go-kart. Sophie joins the race, and wins. Asking her rival beaux what they do, they inform her they’re surgeons (“The crap one hears!” murmurs an eavesdropper). Unable to shake the pair, who drop her off at her apartment, Sophie asks them if they want to see her in a bikini. When they answer in the affirmative, Sophie tries to point out a bill poster on a nearby wall emblazoned with that image, but it’s been covered by another poster. When Claude climbs up to try to tear the offending, concealing poster off, he’s arrested. Alain manages to manoeuvre himself into Sophie’s room, but Sophie’s sufficiently charmed by him to deny him the chance of sleeping with her: she’d feel like she was cheating rather than getting revenge on Philippe. No, she decides, the only way out of her predicament is to imitate the example of her Corsican grandmother, Carlotta—murder the other woman. Alain’s so depressed the next day over the idea he’ll have to wait 20 years for Sophie to get out of prison before their next date, he prepares the wrong leg of his patient (yes, he and Claude really are surgeons), and then decides to warn Philippe of Sophie’s intentions. Philippe laughs this off until he realises she’s taken a working rifle that was being used as a prop from the studio, and she’s sitting in her car waiting for Barbara to show up.

Philippe and Barbara sneak out, and Alain convinces Sophie a better course of action will be to use him as a prop to spark jealousy in Philippe. They follow the runaway lovebirds to Villars de Lans, where they can’t afford to stay any longer than a few days, and get themselves installed in room 12A, a storeroom through which hotel employees waltz all day. Alain tries to talk Philippe into acting perturbed to satisfy Sophie’s ego, but Sophie escapes them on a bobsled, intending to ambush Barbara, setting a new course record in the process. What you’ve read so far will confirm that this is hardly a hard, dangerous noir film designed to elucidate the darker corners of human nature and the agonies of existence; all this film really wants to do is elucidate the contours of Bardot’s body and send its audience home happy. Keeping that in mind, it ought to be possible to keep this film’s fair wit and slick, stylish, occasionally disjointed charms in perspective. If ever polyester was translated into the cinematic medium, it was in the directorial technique of Vadim; sleek, modern, and bogus (as for the other two credited directors, Aurel was a writer just beginning a long directorial career, and Tropp never had another directing credit).

Although scholars of the Nouvelle Vague don’t like to admit it, Vadim was the first of the young directors of that movement to prove commercial viability, with Et Dieu…crea la femme (1956), which made Bardot the full-cream French answer to Marilyn Monroe. And yet, in this film, it’s hard to see why Bardot was often characterised as the the raciest creature on the block at the time, because for all her willing disrobings, her sexuality is here free of threat or mystery.
Vadim worked more like a fashion photographer or high-end retail salesman that a filmmaker. His employment of New Wavey techniques, like the sped-up opening or the witty split-screen effect that contrasts two arguing couples, have more the flavour of something used to sell rather than perturb, which perhaps is why Please Not Now possesses the perfect, distanced allure of retro advertising. What Vadim is selling is Bardot, banking on her adorability of a face smudged by soot, wearing a crash helmet or pith helmet or snow-bunny fur cap. His work here indicates the level of influence Vadim may have had, quite distinct from that of his more feted French fellows, on the comedies that flourished over the next decade, including the likes of The Pink Panther (1963) and What’s New, Pussycat? (1966), with their funny, zippy cars and fashion plate heroines.

A great asset of technical distinction displayed by Please Not Now is the utterly gorgeous widescreen cinematography of Robert Lefebvre. Like most halfway decent romantic comedies, the narrative is made tense by a strong dash of social anxiety, which here manifests in the initially realistic mise-en-scène of the Paris scenes, and some wry and likeably down-to-earth observations on being young, go-get-em, and yet rather poor in the modern world: Sophie and Alain must resort to stealing food from the dumb waiter, Sophie accuses Philippe of only wanting Barbara’s money, and Sophie and Alain find perfection in dancing in their storeroom space to the strains of a band in another room playing, yes, “La Bamba.” It’s a pity then that the film throws in anything, from a lovable St. Bernard to a hypnotist who can levitate people, to keep things bouncy. Sophie’s a ludicrous, but entertaining character; when Alain asks her offhandedly if she was the same as a child, she answers laughingly, “No, back then I was wild and unpredictable! How much we change!”

Vadim later served up the famous stab at pop scifi, Barbarella (1967). That film’s opening tease of Jane Fonda stripping in zero gravity is predicted here by the sequence that came sufficiently early in the 1960s to set tongues wagging, in which Alain, watching a cabaret dancer, zones out and imagines Sophie emerging from a bath and gyrating in her birthday suit behind some artfully employed frosted glass screens, as an accompanying mob of musicians become more and more excited. As inane as it is, one has to admire Vadim’s artful contrivance, as Alain’s distraction is signaled by the smoke of his cigarette beginning to billow in a voodoo cloud, and the musicians’ increasingly lustful excitement at Bardot’s flashing staged like a kitsch-fest mating of I Walked with a Zombie and Hugh Hefner in a shower commercial.

Alhough it surely sports some dated male-female relations, Please Not Now indicates the plot arcs of a thousand rom coms in subsequent decades. It’s hard to imagine one of the grotesque monstrosities that pass for the genre today that would let its straying male or interloping rich bitch off so easily, and indeed, understandingly. Philippe proves to be a fairly decent guy, as he and Alain, spurned by both Sophie and Barbara, get drunk and determine to persuade their women of their ardor in more forceful terms, with Alain taming Sophie using her own shotgun. Perhaps because Vadim and Bardot’s marriage had ended four years earlier, Please Not Now just wants everyone to get along and find their perfect match—even if it takes force of arms to accomplish it.

1960s, Foreign, Japanese cinema, Thriller

Branded to Kill (1967)


Koroshi no rakuin

Director: Suzuki Seijun

By Roderick Heath

Seijun Suzuki, who kept making films into his 80s, helmed a mind-numbing 39 movies between 1956 and 1967 as a stable director of Nikkatsu Studios. During that stint, the independent-minded director became fed up with formula films and began expanding, perverting, and subverting the gangland drama, a personal crusade that reached its apogee in Branded to Kill. That film drifted so far away from the script and the requirements of the studio, Suzuki was sacked and could not get work outside of television for a decade afterwards. Branded to Kill is utterly original and utterly strange – and as we all know, there’s no strange quite like Japanese strange. Suzuki’s film is a crossbreed of genre yarn with Kafka, Orson Welles, Euro-art cinema, and the Japanese underground aesthetic. The arty existential assassin flick has been done to death over the past half-century, with entries from Jean-Pierre Melville and John Boorman to Beat Takeshi and Jim Jarmusch. Branded to Kill is particularly reminiscent of Boorman’s own 1967 picture Point Blank, but it’s more ferocious, more stylish, more sexy, more insane, more…more, than any rivals. Other aspects recall the Patrick McGoohan series The Prisoner, also from 1967.

Branded to Kill is, amongst other things, a perfect exemplar of 1960s Japanese cool, with omnipresent stovepipe suits, dark sunglasses, crisp black-and-white in a widest-of-wide frame, a blearily expressionist jazz score by Naozumi Yamamoto, and the sheer never-in-Hollywood boldness of it. It’s a blinding genre trash job that drags the gangster film into a surreal and cruel netherworld punctuated by startling sexuality and violence, as well as presenting a no-holds-barred savaging of the corporate-ladder existence at the high point of its near-religious grip on postwar Japanese society, leaving even Kurosawa’s cynical The Bad Sleep Well (1961) in its wake. Penetrating Suzuki’s plot is initially a tall order, as the film’s visual narrative is sliced into cubist hunks. A shadowy organisation of assassins ranks its members according to prowess.

The current No. 3, Goro Hanada (Jo Shishido), arrives back in Tokyo with his wife Mami (Mariko Ogawa) and is driven from the airport by Kasuga (Hiroshi Minami), another assassin who’s slipped far down the totem pole and is trying to get back in the game. He invites Hanada in on a job he’s been given by crime boss Yabuhara (Isao Tanagawa) to pick up a man who’s sneaking into the country and shuttle him to Nagano. On the way, they’re tracked by other top assassins hired to keep Hanada and Kasuga from getting their charge to his destination. In a battle within the grounds of a deserted building, Kasuga’s drunkenness sees him make a fool of himself, much to Hanada’s disgust, so Kasuga hysterically charges at No. 4, Koh, and the two men kill each other. Hanada then has to fight through another ambush on his own, this time taking out the No. 2 man before finally, and in underwhelming anticlimax, dropping his man at his rendezvous in a motel car park.

Returning to Tokyo, Hanada’s car breaks down, and he gets a lift with a young woman, Misako (Anne Mari), who claims to hate men. Holing up in his bleakly modern apartment, Hanada indulges in bestial relations with Mami and his own fetish for the smell of cooking rice, but continues to think about Misako. He’s hired by Yabuhara to kill several more men, and then Misako asks him to kill a western agent (Franz Gruber). But a butterfly landing in front of his rifle scope causes him to miss and kill an innocent woman instead, a foul-up that will spell his doom in the assassin’s ranks. But it’s at home that Hanada is shot by an apparently jealous Mami and left to die in their burning apartment. But he’s not fatally wounded, and he stumbles bleeding to Misako’s place.

Hanada and Misako ensnare each other in erotically charged but aggressive, inchoate trysts. When he has recovered from his wounds, Hanada locates Mami at Yabuhara’s place. She’s been having an affair with Yabuhara and was ordered to kill her husband. Mami spills the beans before Hanada shoots her: both the assassinations Yabuhara had him commit and the one Misako hired him for are linked in an effort to stem the damage that’s been done to a diamond smuggling scheme by rogue operators. Yabuhara is shot by another killer before Hanada can take care of him, and Misako is snatched; a film left playing on a projector in the apartment shows footage of Misako being tortured for not killing Hanada. A voice on the film challenges Hanada to come and do battle with some other assassins. Hanada ventures into battle and defeats all five enemies, only to be confronted by his real enemy, No. 1 (Koji Nambara), the man he took to Nagano, who plans to grind down and destroy his last rival just for the hell of it.

Summarizing the plot can only partly communicate how all this unfolds in Suzuki’s fractured, oblique, intensely fetishist sequences. The Byzantine world of intrigue and insensible relations of power and lust is reflected in the style, all acute dividing angles shot in deep focus with mysterious nooks of the frame. Branded to Kill is fundamentally the drama of a man who assumes himself to be a man of power and certainty and discovers he’s anything but. The story follows the ritualised structure of so much Asian genre cinema that has the hero confronting an escalating series of professional and physical challenges from his opponents, and yet Suzuki’s film also eats away at the cliché of the arch-professional lone warrior. Unlike, for instance, Itto Ogami of the Lone Wolf and Cub series or, indeed, Melville’s Le Samourai or Walker of Point Blank, Hanada is not ennobled by an awesome ascetic stoicism. He begins the film icy cool, sneering in disdain at Kasuga’s incompetence, and is steadily reduced to a shambling, despairing wreck. The causes of his steady disintegration are laid out by Kasuga, whose degeneration he blames on loneliness, leading to women and drink, the two great pitfalls of the profession: soon Hanada gives in to one and then the other.

The narrative is suspended by Hanada’s three fraught, intimate relationships with Mami, Misako, and No. 1. Mami’s animalistic sexual encounters with her husband seem to reflect her inner certainty that “we’re all beasts,” a theory the film bears out. When Hanada shoots her through the head, her blood swirls in the flushing toilet over which her head hangs; later, the same image returns in a moment of pure madness in a restaurant washroom when Hanada’s equilibrium has been almost completely destroyed by No. 1. The narrative sustains a series of reversals. Mami’s veneer of chic conceals raw, masochistic carnality. The ethereal, misanthropic, almost ghostly Misako surrounded by images of gothic fetidness (dead birds, butterflies, soil, leaves, and most constantly, water) becomes an icon of selfless love, tortured almost to death without losing her faintly satisfied smile. And Hanada’s uber masculinity is so deeply undermined that he’s reduced to walking around in one of Misako’s midriff-baring tops and strolling arm-in-arm with No. 1 (the only way they can be sure the other can’t get away or get hold of a weapon).

Misako, the ultimate femme fatale, seems as much an angel of death as the Snow Witch in Kwaidan and is the butterfly that blinds Hanada’s perfect aim. But she’s also associated with the decayed remnants of a natural world that has otherwise been entirely exiled from the world of apartment buildings and ruined institutional monstrosities. When he’s in a particularly dire place, Hanada showers dead humus on his head, weeping for Misako, desperate for some return to that natural world. When Hanada meets Misako, she’s driving in the rain with her convertible open to the elements, utterly soaked. When she comes to his apartment, Mami becomes upset, so Hanada throws the naked Mami out into the rain where she claws despairingly at the window, as electric an image as any in the cinema of illogical emotion. The tables are turned as Hanada’s increasingly hysterical, unwound machismo grapples with the impossibility of penetrating Misako’s psyche.

As a pervert and a thug, Hanada is hardly a figure fit for heroic identification. And yet his situation compels in the urgency of his attempts to avoid being consumed. Hitman films usually are commentaries on the relationship between the individual and conformity. Branded to Kill makes the observation that to be a perfect killer is to essentially lose individuality and become a force of total nihilism: the compromise of the human existence, and the pleasures of that existence, is to accept weakness. The relentless striving to reach the top, to triumph in this rattiest of rat races, is skewered. The actual point to the business—the diamond-smuggling concern—is far less important than the mutual use and abuse of human beings.

Hanada is at the mercy of a hierarchical designation that seems almost deistically ordained. His struggle is with pure fate as much as it is with a concrete opponent. Fate ruins Hanada when the butterfly ruins his shot, and No 1 will unquestionably kill Hanada and destroy him mentally before doing it physically. Or at least that’s what No 1 thinks: Hanada eventually resolves to try and outwit No .1 and claim that post for himself. That he succeeds, but destroys himself and Misako at the same time, confirms that Hanada is good, but not quite good enough: to become No. 1 is to become a force of pure nihilism. This is a philosophical statement, but also a vicious joke on the desire to climb that corporate ladder, leading to the ultimate version of the cliché that it’s lonely at the top. Although Hanada finally beats No. 1, he’s still reduced to dancing around as bullets whiz about him, just like Kasuga, and the competition finally lays everything waste.

Parsing the substance of Branded to Kill is secondary nonetheless to simply absorbing its delirious visuals. Suzuki stages some excellent, uniquely terse action sequences, especially in Hanada’s battle on the breakwater pier, where he uses a pulley to drag his car over him as a shield that allows him to get close enough to take out his enemies. Other, more humdrum sequences are just as inventive. When Hanada and Kasuga believe they’re being followed, they pull over suddenly, and the pursuing car passes them by. Suzuki cuts to close-ups of clapping hands and laughing mouths accompanied by blaring music to indicate it’s just a car full of rowdy teens in a fusion of unique visual technique and aural cues. Another is the scene where Mami scratches on the glass in the rain, her fingernails squeaking excruciatingly to her face is a mask of pure woe. The only real clanger in the film is an overwrought moment where Hanada drifts in a delirium while being assaulted by animated butterflies. Suzuki’s direction is aided immeasurably by Kazue Nagatsuka’s startling, deep-focus cinematography by which even the smallest aspect in a frame can become a point of necessary attention. The film’s sound effects deserve accolades, too, and the way Suzuki uses imposing edifices and ruins to emphasise labyrinthine mystery in a genuinely dreamlike realm.

Branded to Kill is one of the best films of the ’60s.


I’ve Loved You So Long (2008)

Il y a longtemps que je t’aime

Director: Philippe Claudel

By Roderick Heath

Jean Renoir regarded the most vital instrument in the filmmaker’s arsenal to be the human face, and Philippe Claudel’s use of Kristin Scott Thomas is new proof that he was right. The haute couture beauty Thomas had when she debuted in 1986’s dreaded Prince vehicle Under the Cherry Moon has weathered into something far more interesting. In her first shot in I’ve Loved You So Long, her hooded eyes, glazed upper lip, and pinched mouth communicate a moral and physical fatigue that’s been mostly turned inwards, working a slow, acidic cruelty that only partly shows on the exterior of a woman so plainly once a thoroughbred champion. During Scott Thomas’ spell in the 1990s as a prominent actress, she could never shake off her well-bred typecasting and retained a certain dispassion even as a romantic lead. Her best parts and performances came as a violently repressed spinster in Angels and Insects (1995) and as a drug-addled, chicly masochistic Lady Anne in Richard III (1995). I’ve Loved You So Long extends that ill-used suggestion of unfathomed depths and hidden reefs, the high-class clothes horse of The English Patient and Random Hearts long forgotten. It’s hardly a one-woman show—the whole cast is admirable—but the dramatic integrity of the film grows from her ever-so-slightly worn visage.

Scott Thomas plays Juliette Fontaine, a half-English, half-French former doctor who’s just been released from prison after 15 years. The hows and whys of her imprisonment are the onion that is slowly peeled as the film progresses. Juliette is immediately taken in by her sister Lea (Elsa Zylberstein), who has not seen Juliette since her imprisonment, when Lea was still a teenager. Lea is a successful professor of literature married to Luc (Serge Hazanavicius), another academic, and has two adopted Vietnamese children (she describes hers as a “real Benetton family”). But Lea has a backbone and a sense of family responsibility that’s not at all fragile, and she’s determined to aid her sister’s reintegration. Luc is edgy about his sister-in-law’s presence for reasons that soon become clear—Juliette’s incarceration was for the murder of her 6-year-old son. She first admits this fact in a coldly challenging fashion to a pushy, grumpy boss of a business where she applies for secretarial work; he promptly throws her out. However, apart from such stark admissions, Juliette generally maintains the silent, boding poise of a sphinx.

The focus of I’ve Loved You So Long is on the processes and catalysts that make Juliette a functioning person after leaving behind the static balance she had achieved in jail. With the outside world initially working nails on a blackboard for her, Juliette occasionally lets slip her otherwise tightly held frustration and irritation, snapping at P’tit Lys (Lise Ségur), Lea’s humorously garrulous elder daughter, or attacking her sister for constantly using the tiptoe euphemism “inside” for prison. Mostly, she maintains her determined silence, assuming a rueful half-smile as she expects and receives the snubs, wounds, and petty agonies of her experience as inevitable and part of the contract she’s made with life. Throughout the film, she is perpetually sucking on cigarettes with a wince as if recovering from a battering where the bruises are invisible but all too tender. When she’s shepherded by Lea and Luc to a weekend gathering of academics, artists, and their families, the pushy, tipsy host presses her for an explanation for her mysterious reappearance. When Juliette states the truth, the gathering cracks up in hysterical laughter, convinced she’s delivered the perfect retort.

The exception is Michel (Laurent Grévill), a coworker of Lea’s who, having spent a time teaching prisoners, recognises Juliette’s bewildered, pained view of the world. A bit of sad-sack and job slacker, Michel has his own ghosts. He forms a tentative relationship with Juliette, bonding over their regard for the tragic artwork of Emile Friant. Another friendship is with police captain Fauré (Frédéric Pierrot), a talkative, distracted, similarly damaged man who’s recovering from a hurtful divorce and knows everything there is to know about the Orinoco River, which he’s never visited. Juliette is increasingly drawn into the day-to-day lives of Lea’s family, with Luc eventually trusting her with the care of their children and his stroke-addled, constantly reading, mute father Papa Paul (Jean-Claude Arnaud).

Juliette is likable in a counterintuitive fashion, precisely because she maintains a stringent veneer and refuses to play the hopeless victim. She’s an intelligent, impassive woman who earns enmity from coworkers, when she finally gets a job, for being eternally uncommunicative. She proceeds with an antiseptic honesty in the rare moments when she does speak out, for example, in a droll moment when she’s propositioned by a leather-jacket-clad stud, accepts, and later cuts his ego down in one brute slash (“Was it good?” “Not really, but it doesn’t matter.”) or when seeing off her intrusive social worker. What is made vitally clear is that she accepts no lies, no short cuts, and no easy solutions, intuitively suggesting what proves to be of great consequence.

Claudel is a philosophy professor, and like Michel, worked with prisoners. Therefore, the film has the fixed intensity of something deeply felt and considered, and makes a serious engagement with various matters of human conscience and social mechanism, especially the schism between private justice—guilt—and public. It’s also a little too apparent in the film’s moments of expositional intellectualism, such as when Lea loses control with a student and delivers an explosive monologue on the distance between the “hypotheses” of art and nature of real, individual crimes and criminals that is a footnote away from being an essay. The story and emotional framework of the film isn’t so far from a classic women’s picture—the travails of a flawed but essentially noble heroine who pulls through thanks to sisterly love—and would be corny if Claudel did not present it with a careful, dispassionate French realism. Claudel does tell his story with the layers and patience of a good novel, with an unerring feel for performance and pace.

The film, like Lea and the others who get close to Juliette must do, circles matters warily, before penetrating with gentle concision, neatly capturing the intricacies of day-to-day life in Lea’s household, and how much the peaceful islands Juliette finds—the familial warmth of the country chateau getaway or the classical music that pervades Papa Paul’s study where Juliette falls asleep— mean to her. Around the main drama is a detailed world that evokes cultural and political arguments (Luc and Lea’s best friends are an Iraqi doctor and his wife; the academics constantly engage in fraught arguments over art and contemporary culture) as intricate decorations for the main problem—how the world responds to criminals, especially a female criminal who seems to have ruptured one of our few remaining sacred notions. It is, in short, a film that wants to be engaged.

Juliette evokes a classic feminine martyr like Hester Prynne in her acceptance of public castigation as part and parcel of a deeper, truer, private culpability. Her parents had declared her dead when she was convicted and tried to erase her from Lea’s mind, a program of “brainwashing” that Lea eventually proves through the diaries and letters did not succeed. Instead, it’s their mother (Claire Johnston) who has been “brainwashed,” as an Alzheimer’s sufferer. When Lea coaxes Juliette to visit her in the nursing home, their mother thinks Lea is an intrusive nurse, but recognises and desperately clings to Juliette, thinking, in her addled state, she’s still the bright, young girl she raised. Juliette stands in a tragicomic confusion about whether to hug her before the old woman forgets who she is again and shoves her away.

A great deal of the film’s weight comes from the indistinctness of Juliette’s act, and therefore her deepest nature. Up until the end, empathy is tempered by doubt. Although the crucial revelation is long delayed, it’s not too hard to guess, and learning the nature of her guilt when it’s finally, agonizingly, coaxed out of her proves to be the film’s emotional climax. Lea discovers entirely inadvertently that Juliette’s murder was a mercy killing of her terminally ill son. When confronted, Juliette distraughtly rejects Lea’s faintly outraged statement of the obvious fact that this could have made all the difference in terms of the way people treated her. Instead, she declares that losing a son dwarfed all other considerations and that letting herself be imprisoned was as much a willful retreat from a pointless life, as it was an imposed punishment.

In terms of how one responds to this as an ethically questioning artwork, it’s a problematic revelation, and not just because it offers some troubling plot holes, but because it lets everyone off the hook: Juliette, whose act is rendered sympathetic; the justice system, whose draconian moralism is not confronted because Juliette hid her motivation; and Juliette’s supporters (and the audience), for caring for Juliette, whatever she did. But as a situational study of the nature of guilt and character (and not mere victimised innocence, a la The Shawshank Redemption), it still holds weight because Juliette holds herself powerfully, almost masochistically, accountable. It becomes clear that a great deal of the damage done to her as signaled by that initial look of an exhausted inner struggle is largely self-imposed. To this extent, then, expectations of conventional artistic morality and personal morality are inverted. Although the film doesn’t reach its potential, it’s still a substantial, intense experience.


Nuovomondo (2006)

aka The Golden Door

Director: Emanuele Crialese

By Roderick Heath

In a primal setting, a primal rite: Salvatore Mancuso (Vincenzo Amato) and his elder son Angelo (Francesco Casisa) struggle up a rocky mountainside bare-footed, with stones clenched between their teeth. They fight their way up to a crucifix mounted on a hilltop. They spit out the saliva- and blood-smeared stones and beg for divine guidance—should they remain in their exhausted, inhospitable land, or flee? Simultaneously, two young women, Rita (Federica De Cola) and Rosa (Isabella Ragonese), are pursued by Salvatore’s other son, Pietro (Filippo Pucillo), who everyone assumes to be a deaf-mute because he never speaks. He tries to delight or repel them, or both, by decorating his hair with snails. But they’re too fretful to be long distracted. As they’re soon confessing to their terse, old mystic of a grandmother, Fortunata (Aurora Quattrocchi), Rita is tormented by a feeling like she has “a snake in her stomach” and has so ever since they were approached by local merchant Don Ercole (Filippo Luna) to be mail-order brides for established men in America. He sent them a set of novelty photos showing money growing on trees and gigantic chickens—the squirming of the snake in Rita’s belly is restless discontent and anxiety.

Fortunata performs a piece of folk magic, affecting to tug the offensive animal out of her stomach. But Fortuanta’s attempts to tame the beast of discontent are failing, as Pietro races to presents the amazing photographs, which she ordered him to burn, to his father and brother as they pray on the hilltop, providing exactly the sign they were seeking. Salvatore sells their animals to finance emigration. Don Ercole sells them clothes belonging to a dead man—a baron, no less—and tells them not to bother putting on their shoes until they get to a city. Salvatore, given to occasional, surreal fantasies, imagines a field where gigantic carrots and other vegetables are being dug out of the ground, energizing him to take the two girls and his grandmother as well. Fortunata dissents, not wanting to leave the spirits of their relatives. In protest, Salvatore digs a hole in the ground and almost completely buries himself, demanding to know what’s so damned great about this arid, poverty-stricken, backward place they live in. He lies covered in dirt all night, dreaming of silver coins raining from the sky. In the morning, Fortunata resurrects him, emerging from the hut to tug his hand from the earth, and soon the whole rag-tag clan is making their way towards a seaport.

Nuovomondo is a film with a feel and respect for mystery: third-time feature director Crialese’s conception drags us from the edge of history through to the dawn of the very modern era. Fortunata, Salvatore, and their family live in a peasant world with a preternatural instinct for magic and mysticism; eventually they will be confronted by a different, no less awesome magic in the skyscrapers of Manhattan. But they also refuse to leave behind their own magic, a refusal that will present difficulties in breaching the “golden door” of its English-language title. Nuovomondo, like its characters, straddles Old World and New, its style blending the sparse, hushed intensity of European masters with a distinct impetus, a refusal to retreat into hopeless circularity or narrative impasse, as befits a film about determination and hope. The final passages are toned by the effervescence and attitude of Nina Simone. The inscrutable poise of the opening segues into a linking series of enigmas through the narrative: cinematographer Agnes Godard’s camera, Crialese’s direction of it, and his script maintain a strict measure of control over what the viewer is absorbing. The Mancusos are innocent, but they’re also tough and shrewd and refuse to act like victims, even if it hurts. Characters and incidents enter the frame unannounced and threaten to leave again, a tactic which emphasizes the nature of dislocation and the intense nervousness, the perceived lack of control, a note of threat and anxiety that contradicts any clichés of reflexive nostalgia and propaganda.

When the Mancusos and their charges reach their city of embarkation, it’s a bustling, filthy dive full of cheats and criminals, as well as decent and helpful folk. One man tries to force them to buy useless medicine; others warn them about the scam and of the troubles they can expect at Ellis Island. When they’re being processed at the outgoing emigration post, a new character enters the tale. First casually observed leaning against a pillar and then creeping into the corners of the frame is the comely, red-headed form of Lucy Reed (Charlotte Gainsbourg), an inexplicably stranded Englishwoman without any apparent friends or support. She attaches herself to the Mancusos, only to be caught out as they move to get on the boat, pretending to speak no Italian for a pushy, sleazy official. She’s as intent, and desperate, on getting to America as any of the peasants around her, and she’s told in no uncertain terms that to get through customs she needs to be attached to a man. Lucy proves a tantalizing and potentially valuable passenger on the migrant ship.

Don Luigi (Vincent Schiavelli, in his last role), a marriage broker of a higher class than Don Ercole, promises her a convenient union in New York. Lucy is the object of endless, mostly derogatory, speculation by others passengers, but she keeps tight-lipped, forming tenuous friendships with Rita and Rosa, stirring the prickly Fortunata’s wrath when she objects to the matriarch’s constant negative mumbling, and being a convenient lust-object for Pietro and Angelo, the latter sneaking about the cabin at night, breathing in the odor welling off her. For Salvatore, she’s something more—a perfect fantasy partner for a new fantasy world where he imagines floating with her in a river of milk that rumor has it flows in California. Salvatore shaves off his moustache and looks 20 years younger. Rather than accept one of Luigi’s sheikhs, Lucy will ask Salvatore to marry her at Ellis Island to help her get through. He agrees with all the courtly civility of a cavalier, for though both deny any chance of love in their union, Salvatore cuts away a lock of her hair, “so that we won’t lose each other.” “I don’t believe in magic,” Lucy replies. “With time, I’ll teach you about it,” he promises.

Describing the story of Nuovomondo inevitably falls short for a film that is as successful a piece of magic-realism as recent cinema has produced, and has traits much like its characters, alive to fleeting textures and cagey about declarations. There is an extraordinary texture to almost offhand sequences, like when Fortunata “exorcises” Rita, tugging what looks awfully like a joke-shop serpent from inside her; when the passengers on the ship are flung about by a storm like laundry in a washing machine; when they stumble out battered upon deck the next day, a young woman lurching blearily with her dead baby, dropping it overboard before collapsing like a dishrag; when Lucy walks the deck, exchanging quizzical, teasing glances with Salvatore who reverently stalks her, her red hair shimmering in the sun and time slowed every so slightly; Salvatore’s humorous fantasy visions; the immigrants frantically brushing out their hair and trying to assemble a veneer of cleanliness for their arrival; a furiously exuberantly ceilidh; and a fog-laden arrival in New York Harbor with all but the highest panes in the immigrant station frosted, forcing the men to climb up them to get a first view of the city.

The gilded cliché of the “immigrant experience” has of course been portrayed before, exploited by the varying agendas of films like The Godfather Part II (giving cred to gangsters) and Titanic (providing picturesque drinking buddies). Nuovomondo strikes far harder and echoes far deeper not least for being intricately modest. It evokes, in spirit if not execution, Charlie Chaplin’s infamous boot in the pants to the immigration official in The Immigrant (1917) in its ground-level humanism. There’s a total rejection of the grandiose in its sensibility, even the ambling epicism of Tarkovsky and Angelopolous, whose influence can be detected in the style, along with dashes of Fellini’s quirk: the context is instead utterly personal, with an close-quarters feel for moral and physical consequence. The film doesn’t romanticize what the Mancusos are leaving, whilst acknowledging it will always dominate their psyches; nor will what they find fulfill their dreams, even though it can hardly be worse.

Ellis Island, once reached, is an Escher-sketch tangle of halls, departments, degradations, and bureaucratic hoops, moments of stripping and being paraded and prodded. Candidates are expected to arrange blocks of wood into shapes as a test of intelligence despite the fact few of them have any concept of abstract puzzle—Salvatore immediately arranges them into a model of his farm. Fortunata, bewildered by a new world that values geometry, not magic, asks the officials if they are God to decided who enters the new world. Crialese’s layered direction recognizes that small gestures can lay the world waste and open up vast futures: the most crucial moment in the film, and also the most showy, is when Crialese halts every motion in the frame, with Lucy and Fortunata only moving slightly, absorbing the import of Fortunata’s slight nod to Lucy—her acceptance of her as a member of her family.

The film builds to an excruciatingly tense climax in which the women of the party are arrayed, in their forlorn attempts to look like brides with veils and good dresses, to be sold off to their matches, and Lucy sits stoically, but with increasing anxiety waiting for Salvatore to get through his processing, with Luigi and his prospective beaus waiting to snatch her up when she gets desperate enough. There’s already been the spectacle of Rita submissively and glumly acknowledging her pudgy, middle-aged beau, and Rosa berating hers for not matching his description of himself, but likewise submits. Meanwhile, Fortunata and Pietro are threatened with deportation, leading Fortunata to demand Pietro do what he least wants to. Crialese is aided by a superlatively understated cast and Godard’s astounding camerawork. It’s specifically by resisting the tendency to spell things out in blazing neon letters, its firm control on what it wants to reveal and say and not trying to tug tears, that gives Nuovomondo the impact it finally possesses. It builds to a final moment that ranks with that of Terence Malick’s own vision of The New World (2005) and Emir Kusturica’s cap of Underground (1995) among the most transcendent moments in recent cinema.

1960s, Famous Firsts, Foreign, Horror/Eerie, Italian cinema

La Maschera del Demonio (1960)

aka Black Sunday ; The Mask of Satan ; House of Fright ; Revenge of the Vampire

Director: Mario Bava

By Roderick Heath

Mario Bava, ace cinematographer, had filled in as director on his mentor Riccardo Freda’s I Vampiri (1956), the film many horror genre scholars see as the first of a nascent explosion in the genre’s popularity that barely receded until the mid 1980s. Bava was the son of a sculptor and film effects pioneer Eugenio Bava, and had wanted to be a painter himself. But he, too, moved into movies and became a respected director of photography, working for the likes of Rossellini and De Sica. He had also made some short documentaries in the ’40s. The low budgets and strict shooting schedules of Italian genre film often overwhelmed directors and crews, and Bava had proven himself able at picking up the pieces. He had done so on I Vampiri, when Freda, frustrated, had walked off the set, forcing Bava to finish the film in two days. Bava had also contributed to several films as second-unit or fill-in director. In 1960, he finally made his first lone, credited foray into directing at the age of 46, La Maschera del Demonio.

Some horror critics feel La Maschera del Demonio is Bava’s best film. It certainly exemplified a richness of style nigh untouched at the time by other genre filmmakers, pulsing with inventive cinema and making an immediate impact. In what was becoming common practice, foreign actors were imported to sell Italian genre films overseas. For horror films whose makers were attempting to pass them off as Hammer product, British actors, rather than Americans like Steve Reeves, were hired. For his debut, Bava picked up John Richardson, whose greatest claim to fame would be to act alongside Raquel Welch in One Million B.C. (1967), and a young actress whose appearances thus far had been restricted to four rather small roles in her native land—Barbara Steele. The story is loosely based on a Nokolai Gogol short story, “The Vij,” (later filmed more faithfully in 1967 in the Soviet Union) and Gogol’s work itself was adapted distantly from folk tales collected by early Christian scholar Saint John Cassian.

The startling opening is worth noting for confronting violence. Around this time, horror films were becoming vehicles for a fresh, increasingly manifest social and historical cynicism, and were exploiting looser censorship with newly charged depictions of gore that anticipated the interests of the 1960s, when more revolutionary fantasies were taking grip. There is quite a gulf between the relatively distant fantasies of German Expressionism and Universal horror and that more direct impulses toward attacking social order in horror at the time. Terence Fisher had begun actively eviscerating historical iniquity in his Hammer films, Alfred Hitchcock tried to capture the shocking texture of sudden violence and incipient madness in Psycho (1960), Michael Powell had meditated on the relationship between voyeurism and brutality with Peeping Tom (1960), and Georges Franju had made his explicitly antipatriarchal parable Eyes Without a Face (1959).

To this Bava now added a direct approach to historical misogyny and warped religious concepts of femininity and virtue, subjects rarely tackled before except by Carl Dreyer, one of intelligent horror’s strongest influences, in films like The Passion of Joan of Arc (1927) and Day of Wrath (1943). Bava begins at his most provocative, with a spectacle of Inquisition in old Moldavia. An accused witch, Princess Asa Vajda (Steele), and her brother (a detail obscured in the English-dubbed version), lover, and consort in evil, Javutich (Arturo Dominici), having been captured and condemned by soldiers and priests, are subjected to gruesome punishment. Javutich is already dead. Their other brother, Gryabi, acts as Grand Inquisitor, bringing this relentless annihilation upon them. Asa begs for Satan’s aid to return from the grave and punish her tormenters, which include her own father. She is, in short order, branded, and has a “devil’s mask”—a grotesquely spiked object designed to eternally identify her as a Satanic being— pounded onto her face with a sledgehammer.

The sickening force of the blow and the blood that flows from her face is gross enough, but Bava makes sure we hear her moans that tell us she survives this torture. Following this, she is to burn at the stake, but a furious wind and rainstorm prevent it. Instead, she is interred in her family crypt under a repressing cross, and Javutich is buried. Two centuries later, figures of modern, masculine rationality, embodied by Doctor Choma Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and his young assistant, Andrei Gorobek (Richardson), travel the region. Their carriage throws a wheel, and whilst their jittery driver fixes it, they venture into a nearby ruin of a church.

Vaguely aware of Asa’s legend, the two scientists discover her sarcophagus and can’t resist opening it, tugging off the devil’s mask to reveal her face, riddled with holes and with the eyes rotten away but still surprisingly intact. Kruvajan cuts himself, of course, and blood spills on Asa’s corpse. As they leave the church, they are startled to happen upon a young woman with a mastiff blocking their exit, the very image of the witch. But this is her descendent Katia Vaida (Steele again), who makes eye contact with the handsome and young Richardson, and bids them go in peace. But peace is short-lived—Asa has been revived by the blood. She summons Javutich from his grave, which he digs his way out of, and he sets about aiding Asa’s vengeance on her family, including Katia; her father, Prince Vajda (Ivo Garrani); and her brother Constantine (Enrico Olivieri).

La Maschera was a prestige effort for Galatea Studios, which gave Bava an uncommonly long six weeks to make the film. Bava used the time well, setting up some impressively complex and innovative camerawork. Despite this, it has a number of the regulation cheesy moments of horror films of the time, notably a bat the size of Rodan that attacks Kruvajin. AIP bought the film and hacked it about considerably, dubbing a lousy Les Baxter score over it and changing the title to Black Sunday. Nonetheless, they were paid off with a big hit. The film became an immediate template to steal from, so that works like Freda’s L’Orribile Segreto del Dr. Hichcock, Corman’s Pit and the Pendulum (1961), John Moxey’s City of the Dead, and others filched its plot and imagery to the point where it looks clichéd now.

The shoot was beset with script difficulties that Bava doesn’t entirely paper over. But like Hitchcock, Buñuel, and Lang before him, and Argento and De Palma after him, Bava was the kind of cinematic shaman whose belief in the power of images subverted dramatic standards. Scenes in La Maschera dazzle the eye and imagination; Katia, framed by the shattered doorway of the church, holding two dogs on leashes; Javutich slowly breaking his way out of his tomb and lumbering out into the night; the nocturnal progress of the Vajdas’ coach, appropriated by Javutich, making its ghostly passage through the night fog; the gently gliding camera that observes the Vajda family in their castle, a Byzantine environment of great carvings and paintings; Asa, partly revived, calling for Kruvajin to become her lover and the middle-aged intellectual instantly enslaved; Prince Vajda discovered gnarled and masticated; Asa sucking out Katia’s lifeforce to rejuvenate herself.

It’s wonderful to watch Bava save the genre from the mercenary insipidness that had, apart from rare exceptions, afflicted the style of horror films for two decades after the dizzying stylistic heights of films like Nosferatu (1922), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and Vampyr (1932). Bava enters the gothic realm wholeheartedly, employing some newer, sophisticated camera techniques, like slow motion, which had barely, if ever, been used before by genre directors. He also employs some devilishly clever, exceedingly simple special effects, like the slowing regrowing eyes that fill Asa’s sockets, and the infrared make-up effect used when Asa leeches off Katia. Maschera also leapt wholeheartedly into another, perhaps ultimately less salutary, trend, towards strong violence and raw corporeal effect. Asa’s branding and masking, Vajda’s masticated corpse, and Kruvajin’s scorched face all represent the new frontier for gore in the genre. Much of this had to be edited out of the AIP cut, and the film was refused a certificate altogether in Britain, where it was not released uncut until 1992.

With his tales of rampant killers driven beyond all reason to wipe out everyone who taunts their illusory desires, like Sei Donne per l’Assassino (1964) and Ecologia del Delitto (1973), Bava probably did more than any other horror director other than Hitchcock to invent a modern genre; La Maschera, with its Gothic style and themes, might seem backwards-looking by comparison to some of his later work. Bava also had gifts that invited a larger stage than he ever achieved. But Bava was born to make horror films, not merely because of his talent at creating pitch-perfect mise en scène, but because of his insistent interest in the notion of repressed feelings, passions, and ideas rudely returning to enfold and ensnare the present.

Such a notion is, indeed, fundamental to the genre. But perhaps no other filmmaker maintained such a relentless interest in expressing the idea, especially through incestuous families, fuelling the narratives of this film, Operazione Paura (1966), Lisa i en Diavoli (1972), and Shock! (1977). Sexual passion, particularly, keeps resurging in warped ways; condemned in an act of patriarchal repression; Asa is a raw, seething body of sexuality that refuses to die, determined to ensnare all who approach her, and to steal the flesh of the virginal Katia. The image of Asa, lying on her bier, face pocked with unholy holes, writhing like a lustful leech, her fingers clawing and flexing with rapacious need, seducing Kruvajin, isn’t quickly forgotten.

Steele is an incalculable asset. Her perverse beauty, with her ability to project gradations in intensely weird emotions, from virginal insensibility to insatiable cruelty to rampant madness, instantly became emblematic of the genre—and made her verboten for mainstream cinema. Even Fellini could only manage to cast her as a kooky beatnik in (1963). Steele was a cunning actress and a hipster with a feminist bent. As such she was entirely hip to Bava’s approach, and would later express cutting opinions on the degeneration of the genre into misogynistic slasher films. She expertly presents distinct characterizations of innocent, doe-like Katia and the powerfully perverse Asa. She is the centre of the film, far more than the heroes Andrei and Constantine, who, as is often the case in Bava, are present as a requirement, but are so wooden and conventional they practically disappear. If there’s a disappointment to La Maschera, it’s that it ends too conventionally. Asa, unlike a lot of subsequent movie monsters, actually is cool and interesting enough to win.

1940s, Famous Firsts, Foreign, Japanese cinema

Sanshiro Sugata (1943)


aka Judo Story


Director/Screenwriter: Akira Kurosawa

By Roderick Heath

Before he made Sanshiro Sugata, Akira Kurosawa worked for years as an assistant director and screenwriter. He worked on several projects where, he later reported, he had been left to his own devices in getting them completed. We could consider that he essentially directed these films—including Uma (1941)—himself. Nevertheless, Sanshiro Sugata was the first completed feature film to carry the credit “Directed by Akira Kurosawa.” Sanshiro Sugata has a compact energy and sense of form that establishes a cinematic intelligence far above the ordinary. It portrays, in an immature and limited fashion, the images, ideas, and emotions that will recur in complex and nuanced ways throughout Kurosawa’s career. Released when WWII was still raging, it was edited by nearly 20 minutes after the occupation, and the excised sequences only exist in very ragged form. Based on a popular novel by Tsuneo Tomita that would have a half-dozen other adaptations in the next 50 years, Sanshiro Sugata feels like a foundation text not just for Kurosawa’s career, but also for the whole genre of Asian martial arts movies. You know the drill—impulsive student learns from stern master how to master himself, as the means by which he transcends from try-hard to great warrior. A vast swathe of genre filmmaking, from Star Wars to The Karate Kid, owes a big something to this film.


The film is set in the 1890s. Sanshiro, embodied by the appealingly average-looking Susumu Fujita, wants to become a martial arts master. He comes to the seedy Jujutsu school run by Monma, who lounges about with his indolent, aggressive students, incensed by the rumored superiority of the new fighting style of Shudokan Judo practised by Sensei Yano (Denjirô Ôkôchi). Monma leads his students to attack Yano on the street. Cornering him on the bank of the canal, the students all end up pitched into the water, and Monma finishes up pinioned and ashamed. Worshipful of a new hero, Sanshiro volunteers to wheel Yano to his school in a deserted rickshaw. Time passes, and we rediscover Sanshiro showing off his new Judo skills, beating up street toughs and Sumo wrestlers. Yano is angry at this thuggish display, Sanshiro, now shamed, throws himself into the muddy pond next to Yano’s house, angrily declaring his intention to die. “Go ahead and die, then!” Yano shouts. Sanshiro spends the rest of the night clinging to a rotten stake in the centre of the pond, where, in studying a flower, he realises the fragile nature of human existence and essence of a transcendental world-view, which gives him the self-insight to abase himself before Yano.


That’s the kind of pseudo-mystic jive we’re so familiar with in the genre and that Kurosawa portrays vividly, even though it’s cornball. Kurosawa would entirely toss out such claptrap from his later films. Kurosawa’s heroes usually have utterly corporeal talents, mixed with large dashes of guile; they generally prevail against enemies because they’re smarter. More typical of Kurosawa is the subsequent development of Sanshiro becoming a great, but reluctant warrior. When he is let back in from the cold of Yano’s displeasure, he is chosen to fight in an exhibition match between his school and Monma’s, with future employment in training police officers at stake. He throws Monma against a wall, killing him and causing Monma’s daughter to attempt to stab him later. Such prowess attracts the dour attention of the Ryoi Shinto School, in the shape of star student Gennosuke Higaki (Ryunosuke Tsukigata), a dapper, gimlet-eyed gent who, as one student says, resembles a large snake. Higaki is eager to fight Sanshiro. But Sanshiro’s next fight is to be against Higaki’s sensei, the recovering alcoholic Murai, played by an actor who would become one of Kurosawa’s fondest faces, Takashi Shimura. Standing amidst this fraught trio is Murai’s pious daughter Sayo (Yukiko Todoroki), scared of the obnoxiously attentive Higaki, protective of her dissolute father, and attracted to Sanshiro. Sanshiro is tortured by the idea that he might kill Murai.


It’s here that the film’s only note of wartime propaganda is struck, when the school’s priest (Kokuten Kodo) admonishes Sanshiro for his reluctance, reminding him that his duty to the school demands he fight Murai and that this will be a truly selfless act. This “duty, right or wrong” moment conflicts with the texture of the film and with Kurosawa’s oeuvre, but then he only made Sanshiro Sugata after having several projects knocked back by the wartime censors. Sanshiro is, however, one of Kurosawa’s familiar, conscientious, all-too-human heroes. In combat with Murai, Sanshiro is nearly brought down by the elder sensei’s skill, but finally he gains the upper hand, the valiant older man rising agonisingly to his feet repeatedly only to suffer another violent toss, before conceding.


But Murai doesn’t die. As he recovers, he gets Sayo to invite Sanshiro to their house, and Sanshiro becomes a friend. When Higaki finds him at their house, he promptly challenges Sanshiro to a duel to the death. Their confrontation is staged on a reed-clad hillside during a strong windstorm. Higaki nearly topples Sanshiro, but Sanshiro, remembering the flower (flower power!), resurges and defeats Higaki. A brief coda follows, where Yano and the priest discuss the fact that Higaki has reformed and forgiven Sanshiro, and that Sanshiro has decided to travel. On the train leaving town, Sanshiro promises Sayo that he will return.


Although the story of Sanshiro Sugata is generic and familiar, it’s a vivid experience—swift and entertaining. Many debut films suffer from imbalance as budding directorial talents test out their ideas without much thought for the overall texture of the film, but Kurosawa barely puts a foot wrong. As in his later work, his close-ups are carefully thought out and sparingly employed. Perhaps the most memorable shot in the film is of Munmo’s daughter, having just seen her father die, staring implacably at the camera, her grief and madness registering as the tiniest muscular twitches. Kurosawa’s background as a landscape painter is always apparent in the way he frames his actors in relationship to the environment, interested not just in their faces but in the behaviour of their whole bodies. The core action scenes are developed in a continuum of intensity. The poise of his camera makes Yano’s early victory over Munmo’s jujutsu brats look effortless; to Sanshiro’s eye, there is no indication of the draining physical and spiritual force required. Later, Sanshiro’s fight with Murai is filled with close-ups of their sweating brows as they engage in a deathly dance, each balanced on a knife-edge between defeat and loss. Finally, when Sanshiro and Higaki battle, the whole earth seems to explode into fractious elements.


Kurosawa’s intense, almost pantheistic relationship to nature as a reflector and counterbalance to humanity is strikingly nascent. As he would do so often later, atmospheric touches overtly or subtly set the tone of scenes—from the insects incessantly chirping in the background when Yano castigates Sanshiro, to the breeze that underscores the hollow-hearted, alien Higaki’s entry into Murai’s house, and finally, to the epic winds and racing clouds of the final elemental clash of the two men—not between good and evil, exactly, but between the humbled, humane, and responsible, and the dictatorial, arrogant, and grasping. Kurosawa would later rarely offer hissable villains like Higaki. His villains tend to be either foolish, or so collectively ill-defined as to be nearly abstract symbols of tribulation, or shaded reflections of the heroes. Higaki is the man in himself Sanshiro has defeated.


Higaki’s introduction is so utterly splendid—his umbrella handle enters the film before him, tapping Sanshiro’s shoulder—that his eventual unmasking as a cardboard-thin opponent emphasises the limitations of straight genre for Kurosawa’s strength of style. It’s another possible indicator of when it was made that Higaki dresses like an English gentleman, complete with bowler hat, where Sanshiro wears traditional dress. In many regards the later film that best displays Kurosawa’s growth from this point is Sanjuro (1965), one his few straight genre films of later years, a funnier, but also angrier film than Sanshiro Sugata. Toshiro Mifune’s title character and Tatsuya Nakadai’s villain represent a similar conflict, virtually separate to the rest of the plot—that of men who see too much of themselves in each other. Mifune’s victory releases not joy, but a sickening welter of blood and the ronin’s self-disgust and disavowal of a violent path. Such dark duality is also a consistent motif, particularly in female characters, clearly present here in the mirror of Munmo’s burning-eyed daughter and Sayo, and Sanshiro’s fear that he will turn one into the other if he kills her father, too.


Kurosawa’s distrust of violence—concurrent with his fascination with it—and love of humanity is ultimately confirmed by the sentiment of Sanshiro and Murai’s friendship and Higaki’s late alteration. Sanshiro is defined as much as the Seven Samurai by his learned determination to use his gifts to fight for a value, and for other people, rather than for self-aggrandisement. And it work for Sanshiro, as he apparently converts Higaki. Although naïve, it’s still a fascinating message for a Japanese film of 1943. All of that said, there isn’t much more of the dramatic and character richness of Kurosawa’s later work. Sayo is a regulation, radiantly submissive female far from the pithy heroines of The Hidden Fortress and Sanjuro, although it might be fair to say she anticipates the cosmically forgiving Lady Sué of Ran. Yano is a stock, wise Yoda figure. Higaki a bad guy for barely any more reason than the fact that he acts creepy.


More superficially, familiar stylistic flourishes are present. When Sanshiro is showing off on the streets, Kurosawa likewise shows off, with a series of mirroring crane shots descending down to the street level, showing crowds back away from the attacking Sanshiro as he races forward and picks out men to beat up. This kind of physical-force camera work would later have a profound effect on directors like Godard and Scorsese; likewise, his small dash of slow motion—when Munmo dies, a panel falls like a gentle petal from the wall onto the dead man’s back. Like the device’s similar use in the early stages of The Seven Samurai, it emphasises a sudden, sad realisation of the nature of death in what has been, up until now, a game. Sanshiro Sugata is a truly enlightening sketch of so much that was to come.

1960s, Foreign

The Little Soldier (1960)

Le Petit Soldat

Director: Jean-Luc Godard

By Roderick Heath

After his debut with the vivid gangster film Breathless (À Bout de Souffle, 1959), Jean-Luc Godard, the once and future champion of avant-garde cinema, got himself in trouble. Again. Wanting to make a film about the still-raging French-Algerian war, he decided to make a work centering on the nest of espionage in his native city of Geneva, and where he figured he could make a film even more cheaply than his Parisian debut. He advertised in the newspaper for a “lead actress and girlfriend”—the man’s cheek knew no bounds. One girl who answered was a 17-year-old Dane named Anna Karina, soon to be Godard’s wife and muse. The Little Soldier, his second film, was not seen as his second. It was banned by the French authorities for three years, by which time he had come along in his directorial development. If The Little Soldier was something of a lost and rudely treated film, it bears attention as a thematic precursor to his genuinely anarchic Week-End (1967).

The Little Soldier tells of the impossible position of Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor), a young Frenchman who deserted from the army to hole up in neutral Switzerland, making his living as a photographer. Judging by his various conversations and confessions throughout the movie, his background is left wing, but he has fallen into the hands of the right-wing OSA, the reactionary paramilitary group who later attempt to assassinate DeGaulle for making peace with the Algerians. The reason for Bruno’s involvement remains shadowy—possibly lingering patriotism and guilt. His chief, Jacques (Henri-Jacques Huet), orders him to assassinate Palivoda, whose radio program “A Neutral Speaks” appears to be funded by pro-Algerian Marxists. Meanwhile, he is introduced by Paul (Paul Beauvais), a fellow OAS operative to Veronica Dreyer (Karina), an acquaintance. The friend bets Bruno 50 francs he will fall in love with her. Bruno pays the 50 francs at the end of their first meeting.

Bruno, like Belmondo in Breathless, is a man in love with his own image (“I am a secret agent after all,” he states mysteriously to Veronica), except that his ardour is toned with a dark personal irony that’s not too inappropriate considering the backyard spy games he’s gotten himself into. He and Jacques are responsible for a previous assassination, and the lingering bitter taste, plus a personal aversion to feeling “defeated,” causes him to refuse Jacques’ assignment to kill Palivoda. Jacques promises to pressure Bruno by getting him into trouble with the Swiss authorities, which might then mean his deportation to France and imprisonment there. Bruno’s attitude is, essentially, bring it on. He’s much too smitten with Veronica to care.

Hired by Veronica to take some photos, Bruno comes to her apartment, and they flirt shamelessly. As often with Godard, he presents explicitly long takes that are of a pretty girl being asked questions and offering her teasing answers, encouraging the viewer to drink up coquettish beauty exactly like a smitten, probing boyfriend. This is Godard at his most becalmed, wanting us to be sensitive to the slightest flash of her eye and curl of hair. It’s his sense of cinema boiled down to the fixated image. The sequence—Veronica cavorting playfully before Bruno’s camera, with still shots of Karina’s beaming features interspersed—became something of a handbook for how to shoot romantic lyricism in the 1960s.

Like all of Godard’s films, there is lying at its core an infuriating conflict—the conflict between intellectual discourse and cinematic sensuality. For example, Bruno luxuriates in verbal artefact when he engages in a long, fumbling, pseudointellectual rave about his inability to commit to any side because of his lingering, sometimes banal, attachment to various national products (“I like America because I like American cars”). Yet, Godard also turns to the visual image, the powerful conduit of feeling, like those long lingering close-ups of Karina. It’s more than a mere conflict between commitment and aesthetic—they intermingle in rich ways, as Godard’s sense of cinema is inextricable with his sense of politics. But how? Why? How, for instance, can he be a filmmaker so adoring of Hollywood’s mastery over the strength of cinema, whilst being so theoretically opposed to such industrialised art?

Godard’s answer was to fragment the cinematic space, to appreciate the shot over the tale, because the shot is individual and dialectic—a communication device that lays out detail in opposition to narrative, which pulls the viewer to a preordained moral and intellectual conclusion. His lightning-in-a-bottle sense of cinema, full of flash edits, artfully haphazard cityscapes, and disorientating pans, revivifies the senses as much as he assaults them (with Raoul Coutard’s customarily extraordinary photography) with a vision that owes far more to the crisp energy of action photographers like Cartier-Bresson and Capa than to Hollywood. His attempts to overcome the limitations of traditional cinema in constructing the kind of art he desires were always determined but fumbling, much like Bruno’s speechifying, prefigured with a poet’s sense that everything is connected (as T.S. Eliot formulised the poet’s sensibility) and to place all things on an equal footing: intellectual explication, aesthetic experiment, sensual pleasure, and even other art forms all try to claim centre-stage in the film.

But Godard holds them all at bay, forcing them into a dialectic. Hence, Bruno’s narration is as subdivided as Godard’s herky-jerky visuals, a reading list of young intellectual talking points and obsessions, swinging from fatalistic contemplations of his immediate fate as an agent to meditations on poets and cinema. Godard’s aesthetic battle between discourse and narrative, dialectic and dogma, would be the keynote of his career, a conflict he would take to various levels of climax—the traffic jam sequence in Week-End and its scene of the revolutionary garbagemen represent polar opposite solutions, pure cinema and pure didacticism.

No one would ever mistake Godard for a feminist. His films are filled with duplicitous and untrustworthy ladies, many of whom end up branded as such and degraded, if not dead. Veronica, proves to be in cahoots with the enemy, a choice she’s made because they have ideals, not mere reactionary emotions. Yet, in a way, she embodies the core of Godard’s sympathy for those with ideals rather than prejudices, confirming the ambiguity of his attitude towards Bruno. Bruno’s conflicted situation, his higher level of self-awareness, and the more mysterious nature of Veronica means the film has a darker, more urgent sensibility than Breathless. Godard embraces melodramatic narrative sufficiently to make for a film that works rather more as a thriller than anything else he made.

Nonetheless, his emphases are entirely different to any like film prior to its making, with the long romantic scenes where nothing overtly romantic happens: the move from edgy flirtation to Veronica lolling in Bruno’s bed is skipped over. In the film’s centrepiece sequence, Bruno, on the outs with the OAS who label him coward and traitor after his attempts to kill Palivoda end farcically, is captured by their enemies and is subjected to burns, suffocation, and electrocution in their attempts to pry Jacques’ phone number out of him. Bruno has no loyalty to Jacques or his tinpot agents, but keeps his mouth shut, once again, to avoid defeat, his personal need. His escape, rather than a nail biter, is amusingly simple—he leaps through a window, taking the chance that their room is on the first floor. The camera cuts away to a shot of a high building, seeming to communicate the worst, but then his voiceover informs us that, indeed, the room was on the first floor.

That’s the closest Godard ever comes to Truffaut’s style of genre mockery (e.g., Shoot the Piano Player). But Godard uses the offhand nature of this narrative device as a double-edged blade—the finale’s tragic revelations are once again imparted only in voiceover, with ironic distance, as we watch Bruno, pressured at last into killing Palivoda to save Veronica, shoot the man in the back and make his escape, only to learn he disappears into anonymity and that Veronica dies from OAS torture anyway. In his attempts to avoid defeat without taking a stand, Bruno defeats himself utterly. Nonetheless, as he states, “One thing I learnt is not to be bitter. I am just glad to have so much time ahead of me.” It seems a bleak statement—a long future without Veronica—but it also contains an affirmation. Bruno has escaped into the future, and what he decides to do there will be entirely his own choice.

Godard’s attention to the new nature of warfare seems now positively prescient. The Algerian insurrection invented much of the current landscape of violence—terrorist bombings of civilian targets and methods of torture that are today chillingly familiar, and so does his understanding of the schisms in the conscientious mind such times can create. If Godard’s take on the event is naively student-Marxist, it doesn’t lessen his electric sense of where the modern world was heading, atomising into cells of belief and allegiance. The lovers’ trysts, torture sessions, and terrorist cells hiding out in blandly boxlike modern apartments portrays a world becoming quickly devoid of true reference, and Bruno’s urgent attempts to synthesise his beliefs, his artistic and human fancies, is the behaviour of someone trying to knit himself a reference before he concludes in a long rave that silence might be the only worthwhile sound. Forty-eight years on, the energy welling out of this film is still startling and unsettling. l

1970s, Foreign, Horror/Eerie, Italian cinema

Suspiria (1977)


Director: Dario Argento

By Roderick Heath

Dario Argento’s terror masterpiece is a strange work even for that stylistic champion. Like Brian De Palma, his contemporary (and probable acolyte), Argento’s cinematic gamesmanship and love of macabre subjects is, above all, a meditation on the movie screen as tectonic space—a canvas, yes, but also a silk screen, a puzzle box, a set of sliding doors that can be used to reveal anything. Also like De Palma, he drew on the disparate legacies of Hitchcock and Mario Bava in inventing a new kind of thriller where the act of watching is taken advantage of and the importance of narrative is spurned in favour of looking, both soothing and shocking the eye at once. In Argento’s brilliant debut, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), the killer’s identity is steadily revealed by a constant series of reference to a vital earlier scene in which an assault within an art gallery itself becomes a work of art. Its great glass windows become, in effect, both a painting frame and a movie screen whose meaning constantly taunt and alter.

Suspiria also involves art as it central motif, except here it’s two disparate arts—dance, the art of pure motion, and architecture, the art of stark immobility. These opposites dovetail in the Freiburg Dance Academy, where the film is set, an art nouveau hellhole. Suspiria is also, might I add, a thunderous horror film. The plot can be written on a matchbook. Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) arrives in Germany’s Black Forest to attend the academy and perfect her style. She discovers it’s the home of a witch’s coven, and anyone who discovers this usually ends up dead. Messily dead. On the night of her arrival, no one will let her in. An hysterical young student, Pat (Eva Axén), runs out into the night after screaming some thunder-muffled message. Whilst Suzy heads to a hotel, the panicked Pat goes to the apartment of a friend. Whilst her friend is out of the room, Pat feels a presence. She sees a pair of glowing eyes outside the window just before a hairy arm smashes through it, jams her face into the glass, and hauls her onto the balcony.

Pat is stabbed repeatedly to the point of baring her still-beating heart before being hung with a wire noose and dropped through a skylight. The broken glass from the skylight impales her friend as she frantically screams for help. This setpiece is an impressive scene, though Argento’s gore is always so cartoonishly overdone—a virtual apogee of horror cinema in itself—it’s hard to take seriously. Suzy finally gains admittance to the academy the next day. She is greeted by the mistresses of the school, Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) and the formidable dominatrix Miss Tanner (Alida Valli), whom she irritates by deciding to live in town. The Directress of the Academy is never around—the excuse is always that she’s travelling abroad.

Shortly after arriving, Suzy seems to be hypnotically affected by one of the staff members and becomes ill during a training session. The camera flows back and forth as Harper buckles in pain as the sadistic Valli puts them through their paces. Suzy soon finds herself placed on a special diet, and her temporary infirmity used as an excuse to move her belongings to the academy. One night, all of the girls are driven screaming from their rooms by a shower of maggots that seem to have come from tainted food stored upstairs. Waiting for the fumigators, the students are forced to bunk down on mattresses in a dance hall, divided by screens from the staff. As they lay trying to sleep, Suzy and her new friend Sara (Stefania Casini) hear a strange, wheezy breathing from the ugly shape that has just settled beyond the curtain. Sara recognises this from a past incident as the breathing of the supposedly absent Directress. Gasp! Could the Directress really be Helena Marcos, the fabled Greek witch who founded the Academy at least two centuries ago? Is Suzy a prospective sacrifice? Yeah, something like that. Argento’s basic notion, inspired by an element of Thomas De Quincey’s Suspiria de Profundis describing the Three Fates, was to construct a trilogy around the three different Mothers De Quincey mentioned.

Argento made the second film, Inferno (1980), a more baroque, nasty, and uneven work than Suspiria. In 2007, the third part The Mother of Tears finally appeared. Argento began as a screenwriter, and had a notable early contact with two greats of the Italian cinema, Sergio Leone and Bernardo Bertolucci, with whom he developed the story for Once Upon a Time in the West (1969). Like Leone, Argento became fundamentally concerned with exploring cinema as a series of rhythmic scene structures; like Bertolucci, he had a sensual fascination with the use of décor and beautiful women. Unlike either, he became an unconscionable goremeister (the respect Leone received, and still receives, over Argento and Bava before him, is largely due to the less outré genres he worked in, and the commensurately higher budgets).

Argento took to an extreme a kind of cinematic fetishism logical in the horror genre—the plush, but untouchable beauty of what is on screen can only provide sensual satisfaction by being destroyed. In The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Argento confronted the erotic danger of his brand of cinema, leaping off from the dualism rife in Mario Bava’s films, by contrasting the face of female fear (Eva Renzi’s and Suzie Kendall’s) with one of female madness (Renzi’s again) as victim becomes villain. Argento often took the edge off the misogynistic air of his films by having female heroes and villains. Bird’s narrative circles around an obsession with a naïf painting. Suspiria, on the other hand, is a naïf painting that places it ingénue heroines against backgrounds of primary colours. Argento surely influenced not just De Palma but also Kubrick (e.g., The Shining), in emphasising environment as a kind of high-décor trap of space and time.

In addition, there are none of the bluffs and games of Argento’s earlier films. Instead, Suspiria patterns itself after a fairy tale, down to aping the setting of many a children’s book about adventurous scamps, and stranding its heroines amidst a terrifying mystery. In the screenplay, the characters were originally supposed to be no more old than 12 years old, an element that was changed shortly before shooting to avoid the controversy the film’s violence might stir. Yet, Harper and her fellows are still babes in a very strange wood. Like a Harry Potter story, Suspiria manipulates the cosy/frightening duality of the boarding school mythos in a supernatural world. When the girls venture out of the security of their domiciles, they inevitably discover something horrifying and die horribly, like Sara, who tries with youthful ingenuity to work out where the teachers go every night by counting out their footsteps, only to end up being pursued by the hairy-armed demon with a straight razor.

Argento’s progressive rock band Goblins provides the film’s relentlessly eerie score, which underscores even supposedly innocuous scenes, for example, when Sara and Suzy swim whilst discussing witches, as the camera evokes the same hovering menace that has already claimed Daniel (Flavio Bucci) the blind school pianist. (His seeing-eye dog bit Madame Blanc’s creepy nephew Albert [Jacopo Mariani]. Daniel is booted out, but his final threat [“I’m blind, not deaf!”] precipitates his death—the strange fluttering presence swooping over his head in an empty square, causing his dog to leap on him and tear his throat out. Argento’s vicious humour is at its most stinging in such scenes.)

But Suspiria is barely about its gore. It’s more about a mood of relentless unease. Like so many Italian horror films, the narrative imperative demands the heroine explore the increasingly mysterious bowels of the building at the centre of the narrative— a the labyrinth of the mind where psychology and sexuality become entrapped and septic, perhaps—and penetrate the heart of a deathless mystery. The heroes either escape or die trying. As Suzy follows the clues, she explores a shadowy realm of absurd beauty and menace and finally penetrates the inner sanctum of the witches just as they’re endeavouring to bring about her end by a hex. She retreats into a bedroom and hears that signature hoarse breathing of Helena Marcos, who mocks her (Daria Nicolodi, who cowrote the screenplay with Argento) before summoning Sara’s reanimated, knife-wielding corpse to take care of her. Yet in a moment of reflexive conciseness, Suzy stabs Markos in the neck (with the crystal plumage from a bird statuette, no less).

Susie’s desperate gesture pays off, Markos’ death causing the rest of the coven to fall about in bleeding agony, and the Academy to begin crashing down around their ears in a final expulsion of utter malevolence. Argento’s careful use of colour, sound, and décor make him one of the few horror directors who has ever been able to evoke a truly powerful sense of atmosphere in an indisputably modern version of the genre—Suzy’s arrival in an airport with its drenching blues and reds and muted sound effects to her first journey through the Black Forest where plays of lightning briefly highlight the shape of something upon a tree trunk, and her final penetration of the Academy’s heart. Mood constantly trumps both plot and horror. Suspiria is a strange, beautiful, ugly dream.


An Old Mistress (2007)

Une Vieille Mâitresse ; aka The Last Mistress

Director: Catherine Breillat

By Roderick Heath

Catherine Breillat is one of the self-appointed firebrands of modern cinema, a volcanic talent with more ideas than places to put them in her films, which means some of them, like the controversial Romance (1999), fall apart from lack of sinew to hold the meat together. Her first encounter with the film world was as an extra in Last Tango in Paris. You might think some demon infesting Bertolucci’s body took up a new home in Breillat’s, except that where Bertolucci can’t shoot someone reading a phone book without making it an erotic act, Breillat can film an orgy and reduce it to a macrobiological meditation. Her Fat Girl (À ma soeur, 2001) was one of the prickliest triumphs of recent times, an utterly unsentimental look at teenage sexuality and family life.

Breillat’s aesthetic contains shreds of Godard, Varda, Kubrick, Eustache, Cronenberg, Buñuel—even Wes Craven and Russ Meyer are bouncing around in that brain somewhere. Breillat’s gall is eternal, unforgiving, and far too restless to settle into mediocrity. Et voilà—An Old Mistress, an adaptation of a Jules-Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly novel set in the 1830s that’s as bold and original a period film as has ever been made. D’Aurevilly was pinioned by the guardians of his era for the immorality of the novel, and Breillat may well have gravitated to that less well-known contemporary of Dumas fils, Stendhal, and Balzac, sharing with him the status of lawless provocateur.

Monsieur Ryno de Marigny (Fu’ad Ait Aattou) is a 30-year-old, penniless aristocrat, who’s just given up Vellini (Asia Argento), his mistress of the past 10 years, to marry Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida), a rich young lady, with the consent of Hermangarde’s aged grandmother, the Marquise de Flers (Claude Serrault). The marquise is a grande dame of Parisian society who pines for the good old licentious days of the eighteenth century, so she’s all too willing to facilitate the marriage, as long as Marigny is utterly honest with her about his past and his connection with Vellini. Utterly respectful of sexual experience herself, but suspicious of lingering emotional attachments, the marquise works on the theory that a well-tempered rake who’s satisfied and educated himself sensually beforehand is better for her daughter’s future happiness than a rich dullard.

De Flers is prodded to investigate by two friends, the Vicomte de Prony (Michael Lonsdale) and the Comtesse d’Artelles (Yolande Moreau), who themselves are having an affair purely through consuming rich food together; de Prony, one of Vellini’s gentleman callers, has seen Marigny visiting Vellini. De Flers makes Marigny tell her the whole sordid story. Marigny and Vellini’s tale, recounted in the central third of the film, is one of enraged romance, bloodlust, and tragedy. Vellini, the illegitimate daughter of an Italian countess and a Spanish bullfighter, married and was enriched by an elderly Englishman, Sir Reginald (Nicholas Hawtrey).

Ryno first saw her in the company of a male friend who was already set on becoming her lover, and casually insulted her appearance. She heard, and professed a powerful antipathy for him, even as he rapidly swung from such dismissal to obsessed ardour. Encountering her one day whilst riding in the Bois du Boulogne, he forces a kiss on her, is interrupted by her husband, and gives him a swat with his riding whip. A duel ensues. Ryno fires in to the air, but gets a ball in his chest in return. Vellini, tending to his wound, sucks the blood leaking from it. And away we go!

Their passion drives far into the realm of amour fou and then drifts inevitably back to the shore of compromised existence. Breillat’s style maintains a consistent tension between the messy, illogical force of passion—usually sexual passion—of the characters and her own clinical, stringently naturalist shooting style. An Old Mistress is an utterly unadorned piece of filmmaking, taking no solace either in period plush or erotic revelry. The lighting is flat, the compositions stark, the editing unhurried, and there is no music. Nature sounds are integral, from the insects swarming the air in the Bois du Boulogne to the waves of the ocean. Breillat starts pointedly with de Prony and d’Artelles eating, de Prony wryly calling gluttony the last sin of which he is capable. For Breillat, it’s all an overwhelming question of nature and appetites.

Vellini and Marigny burn each other’s flesh to the bone and replace it with something else; everything that comes after is both too painful to enjoy and too great to forget. The real climax comes halfway through, when Vellini abandons her drunkard, elderly husband, left a weeping mess on the floor, and departs with Ryno to live with him in an Algerian hut. She has a daughter by him, but loses her to a scorpion bite, of all things. For days she weeps with the corpse in her arms, until they decide to burn it, leading to a hallucinatory moment where Vellini howls to the heavens in agony, whilst copulating with Ryno by the blazing pyre, amidst the desert sands.

Breillat’s constant theme is of the inescapable nature of human desire, but also of the difficulty in stripping away the layers of lies, distortion, falsity, and power that often enfold it. Romance confronted its heroine with an ultimate truth of sex—procreation; red, red blood of birth is the capstone on that journey. Red blood of miscarriage caps that of An Old Mistress—the failure of renewal and the blind alley of amour fou. Breillat, with an alchemist’s fascination with sexuality has always been tinged with a bold feminist distrust of its manipulation, taking shots constantly at male-centred sexual mores. Her sex-riddled films have been, ironically, extremely unsexy. An Old Mistress, for all the vividness of it couplings, isn’t exactly likely to cause arousal either, but it pulses with a heady sense of its gravitational force.

The glaze of alienation caused by their tragedy finally split Vellini and Ryno. Vellini, reduced soon to being a kept woman at the leisure of twerps like de Prony, Ryno recounts indulging in an affair with a sex-hating woman, where the pleasure is entirely in getting her to surrender to him, until he’s rescued from this ennui by the prospect of marrying Hermangarde. De Flery hopes that Hermangarde will cure Ryno of sexual guilt, and that he will ease her into the world of adult sensual experience. Their marriage proves blissfully happy, indeed, for a short time, until Vellini follows them to their seaside castle abode.

Vellini’s a classical femme fatale, cousin to Carmen, Nana, Hedda Gabler, and any lesbian vampire Ingrid Pitt ever played, studded with wild, ambisexual capacities—she’s also sleeping with her chambermaid, cuts her lover with a knife, drinks blood, becomes a banshee of grief, dresses as a man to watch Ryno die or triumph in his duel, and finishes as a cigar-smoking fisherman. She’s a force of nature that Ryno cannot, finally, break from, even with his comely, wealthy wife properly bedded and impregnated. Breillat is aided in all this by Argento’s ferocious efforts in a performance her Madame du Barry presence in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette promised, but never delivered, giving Breillat the shaman of female identity she’s been looking for. No other actress to hit the big screen since Barbara Steele has possessed such a map of the darker side of female sexuality as Argento.

Roxanne Melquiades, as Hermangarde, serves as she did in À ma soeur as the blonde, conventionally beautiful foil to a more complex brunette protagonist. Aattou, in his film debut, could be the prettiest male movie actor since Alain Delon, certainly enough to make it clear why all these women in the film go dotty over him. More importantly, he can make his character work—it’s harder than it seems at first glance, to embody a character often callow and self-seeking, but without endowing him with sleaze or self-satisfaction. But he can’t provide a strong enough template of masculine identity to counterbalance Argento.

Tragedy does finally ensue in An Old Mistress, but it’s what you expect—a quiet, almost offhand event that nonetheless spells the end of a kind of hope and the repetition of behaviour and history. Ryno finally abandons his wife upon realising she will maintain a stoic bourgeois affect over a loss, rather than the incantatory rage of Vellini, underlining finally why he can’t forget his “Malaguena;” she may be a monster, but she’s a very, very human monster. The film leaves these characters without, essentially, anything resolved, but with a future firmly established, as de Prony summarizes at the end, only the odd tragedy of inevitability invoked.