Six films, four countries… and they’re all countries from which I’ve seen many films before. Some favourite directors – including one who’s becoming more of a favourite, and one whose works I don’t like as much as I used to…
Diving into the Unknown, Juan Reina (2016, Finland). I stumbled across this true story last year on the BBC website, but had forgotten a film was being made of it. So I was chuffed when I came across Diving into the Unknown, and immediately added it to my rental list. It’s intended to be a fly-on-the-wall film of a difficult cave dive. But the dive turned into tragedy, and the documentary crew continued to film those involved as they tried to come to terms with the tragedy, and what it meant to them in their pursuit of their sport. A team of Finnish technical cave divers planned to swim through a cave system in Plurdalen, Norway, which stretched some two to three kilometres but reached a depth of 130 metres, with many tight and narrow passages. At the deepest part of the dive, two of the team drowned – despite being experienced divers, and as a consequence of events not entirely explained in the film. An attempt by the authorities – aided by a team of British divers – to retrieve the bodies failed, and further entry to the caves was prohibited. So the Finns decided to illegally re-enter the caves and fetch their colleagues’ bodies. Which they did. With the original documentary crew following their every move. Their “rescue” mission was successful, and the Norwegian authorities chose not to prosecute them. The film is a combination of talking heads – the divers discussing their sport, the dive, and the tragedy – and footage from both the tragic dive and the rescue dive, with some fly-on-the-wall footage of the group preparing for each of the dives. The divers are completely normal people – mostly men, but there are some women – and not the sort of egotistical assholes you usually find in extreme sports (although, on reflection, all the documentaries I’ve seen about divers has shown them to be disconcertingly ordinary). Diving into the Unknown is the sort of story Hollywood would have a field day with (who know, there may be a fictionalisation in the works already), but the matter-of-fact presentation of the documentary I find much more effective. Definitely worth watching.
Finally, Sunday, François Truffaut (1983, France). The more Truffaut I watch, the more I like Truffaut. I’d seen Jules et Jim and Les Quatre Cent Coups many years ago, and not been all that taken with them, although I did, and still do, love Fahrenheit 451. But the Truffaut films I’ve watched since, I’ve liked a great deal, including Tirez dur le pianiste, which may actually be one of my favourite New Wave films. Finally, Sunday, or Vivement dimanche!, was Truffaut’s last film and, as I tweeted while watching it, probably “the Truffautest film Truffaut ever Truffauted”. For a start, it’s shot in black and white, which immediately suggests Truffaut’s New Wave movies, and it is, in fact, very New Wave, in look and tone and construction. A rich man is shot while hunting, and a business associate, an estate agent, is the prime suspect. The estate agent’s secretary, played by Fanny Ardant, sets out to prove her boss’s innocence. So you have that noir link, a New Wave favourite, right there in the plot. It’s also very Hitchcockian, of course, as Truffaut was an expert on Hitch, and was instrumental in rehabilitating the director and his oeuvre. I too am a big fan of Hitchcock and own pretty much all of his movies on either DVD or Blu-ray (and I’ve also seen Truffaut’s interview with Hitchcock, Hitchcock/Truffaut, although I’ve not read the book). In places, it’s hard to tell what in Finally, Sunday is homage and what is pastiche, but then the lines between those two are often blurred in the New Wave (although perhaps more so in Godard’s films). I am becoming a bit of a fan of Truffaut, despite being initially cool to his films. I think Truffaut is the better director, but Godard is the better film-maker, if that makes sense. Happily, most of Truffaut’s oeuvre is available in the UK – including a pair of reasonably-priced Blu-ray collections – which is not the case for Godard.
Il Divo, Paolo Sorrentino (2008, Italy). The first Sorrentino film I saw was The Consequences of Love and I thought it great – the aesthetics of a European car commercial married to a, somewhat langorous, thriller plot. And so beautifully shot. And I liked The Great Beauty too, even if it felt like Fellini on prozac – because the cinematography was once again exquisite – although to be fair, the languid pace did suit the story (or rather, it suited the character of the film’s protagonist). But Youth was a disappointment, a trite story of the over-privileged at a Swiss sanatorium, albeit still with lovely photography. But my appreciation of Sorrentino’s work was definitely on the wane. And so, Il Divo… This is an earlier work than those mentioned previously, and is a lightly fictionalised account of the career, and fall from grace, of the Italian politician Giulio Andreotti, prime minster from 1972 to 1973, 1976 to 1979 and 1989 to 1992. He was accused of corruption and ties to the Mafia, but was aquitted in court due to a lack of evidence. The film is as stylish, and as stylised, as Sorrentino’s later works, with beautifully-lit and -shot interiors, but Toni Servillo, who also played the lead in The Great Beauty, plays Andreotti with a weird lack of affect that seemed to make the man more of a caricature than a character. It was a bit like watching a political cartoon wandering through Rome’s many historical buildings. It all felt like it wasn’t taking Andreotti’s transgression expecially seriously – not an attempt to rehabilitate, but more of a trivialisation of his crimes. An odd film.
Gone to Earth, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger (1950, UK). The Archers must surely be in the top ten of British directors, if not the top five, although many of their films these days are so much of their time the sheer technical brilliance involved in their making is often overlooked. My favourite of their movies remains Black Narcissus, which is such a beautifully-made piece of cinema it’s mind-blowing it was done entirely in a studio. But the Archers, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, are best known for three other films – The Red Shoes, A Matter of Life and Death and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp – all of which are excellent… but it does mean the rest of their oeuvre tends to get overlooked. Including this mid-career piece set in Cornwall. Although, to be fair, Gone to Earth is a bit hokey, and while there’s lots of good Archer-ish things about it, the story is somewhat over-melodramatic and perhaps even a bit bodice-ripper-ish. Jennifer Jones plays the flighty nature-loving and nubile daughter of a coffin-maker and harpist in 1890s Shropshire. She also has a pet fox. But then the local squire takes a shine to her… but she marries the new vicar instead. And then runs away to be with the squire. But the vicar wins her back, although by this point her name is mud in the community. It all comes to a head with a tragedy that was carefully telegraphed in the first act. This is not a great Archers film, although the fact it was made by them means it’s better-made than most of its contemporaries. It seems a bit chrulish to complain about the story, since most of the Archers’ films are overloaded melodramas, and part of their formula was making such melodramas play like plain dramas. Gone to Earth doesn’t manage the charisma of the aforementioned films, perhaps because it feels like a cut-price Austen story, or because the characters are just a tad too archetypal… A film worth seeing, but not a great film.
The Duke of Burgundy, Peter Strickland (2014, UK). I stumbled across this on Amazon Prime, and a quick google persuaded me it might be worth watching. Which it was. It’s very slow, which I like; but I’m not sure on it being inspired by the films of Jess Franco. But then, I don’t think I’ve actually seen any films by Franco (isn’t he a bit like Tinto Brass? Deeply sexist exploitation films from the 1970s?). A young woman turns up at the house of a slightly older woman – I’m not sure where this was filmed, the cast speak English but it doesn’t look like the UK (and the two leads are Italian and Swedish, anyway) – where she is apparently taken on as a maid/housekeeper… although the mistress of the house appears very demanding, if not over-demanding. It transpires the maid is a student of the older woman, who is a lepidoptery expert. And the two are lovers. The film charts their exploration of a BDSM relationship, in which it is soon revealed that the submissive is actually controlling the mistress. It’s all filmed totally like an art film, and not at all like the soft porn its story suggests. In fact, in places it closer resembles video art than it does narrative cinema. Clearly, Strickland is a man with a singular vision, and the wherewithal to get projects with such, on the surface, salacious plots green-lit. The film certainly makes the viewer feel like they’re peeping on a private affair, which is clearly the effect Strickland was striving for (there are shots taken through keyholes, for example). It makes for an uncomfortable experience, that razor-edge between titillation and invasion of privacy the film manages to straddle quite successfully. Not everything in it works, but enough does to make it an interesting movie.
La Commune (Paris, 1871), Peter Watkins (2000, France). This, to be honest, was a bit of a slog. I’m fully in tune with Watkins’s objectives and sensibilities, but 345 minutes (5¾ hours!) is a lot of time to spend watching a pretty obvious story unfold. There’s a lot of good things in this – it’s a Watkins, so that’s a given – such as the insistence on historical verisimilitude but the presence of modern media. But it’s also a blow-by-blow account of the founding of the titular government, which ruled Paris for just over a month in 1871. The film is presented as re-enactments of events, using a very large and mostly non-professional cast, some documentary footage about the making of the film, fake news broadcasts by a contemporary (ie, 1871) television station (yes, really), and a series of historical notes given as lengthy intertitles. It comes across as a comprehensive documentary, or Open University film, about its subject, but with added commentary and, on top of that, meta-commentary about the media and the role of media in the sort of events which both created and led to the destruction of the Paris Commune. The film makes a large number of interesting, and important, points, but watching all 345 minutes of it is a real test of endurance. It’s going to take me several goes to digest it all, so I’m glad I have my own copy (albeit from a France-released box set – why is there no UK box set of Watkins’s films?).
1001 Movies To See Before You Die count: 869