I’m trying to get up to date with these. Despite spending a couple of weeks watching mostly television series – including Agent Carter, Star Trek: Discovery, The Expanse and, er, Silent Witness – I still seem to have built up a backlog.
Diary of a Chambermaid, Luis Buñuel (1964, France). This film saw a change in pace for Buñuel, and a change in fortunes. It was his most realistic film to date, and based on a popular 1900 novel of the same title by Octave Mirbeau, which had been adapted in Hollywood in 1946 by, of all people, Jean Renoir, and before that in Russia in 1916. The Mexican star of Buñuel’s Viridiana, Silvia Pinal, was originally intended for the title role, and even learnt French to play it, but the part went to Jeanne Moreau. Who plays a young woman who is hired as a maid at a country house in the 1930s that seems to be populated by oddballs and eccentrics. Her name is Célestine but they all call her Marie. The groom is an anti-semitic right-winger, the husband chases anything in skirts and takes out his frustrations on small game, the father-in-law is a shoe fetishist with a cabinet full of women’s shoes, and the next-door neighbour is fond of throwing rubbish over the fence. But then the father is found dead in bed, and a young girl who visited the house is found raped and murdered. The chambermaid suspects the groom, and promises to marry him in an effort to make him confess… The film plays like a farce set in an upper-class home, with a mix of belowstairs and abovestairs scenes and characters from several classes. For Buñuel, it’s also played straight. Moreau is precisely what her character seems to be, a chambermaid, although as the focus of the film she displays more character than the rest of the cast. Having said that, this is closer to La Règle du jeu than it is Downton Abbey (hack spit), and not just because of the language. There’s a slightly mocking tone to it all and, watching it, it’s easy to see how Buñuel, and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, began re-introducing surreal elements into “straight” dramas, as in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Phantom of Liberty. I will admit to preferring the latter films, but this is still excellent stuff. A box set worth owning.
Die Finanzen des Großherzogs, FW Murnau (1924, Germany). I still think David Tallerman is being unfair in his characterisation of Murnau as an uninteresting director, although to be honest I’ve yet to get a handle on what makes a good director of silent films. True, Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is really quite astonishing, but I don’t see much difference between the silent films of Murnau, Lubitsch or Lang, since all three were working in the same country around the same time. And yet… Murnau’s Die Finanzen des Großherzogs – The Finances of the Grand Duke – was mostly filmed on location in Montenegro and Croatia – whch is not typical of German silent films. And it’s a gentle comedy too, where other silent comedies from Germany I’ve seen have tended to be broad – although certainly not like slapstick like Hollywood silent comedies. Die Finanzen des Großherzogs is set in an invented Mediterranean duchy, whose finances have pretty much given up the ghost. A US industrialist offers a large payment to mine the island’s sulphur deposits, but the grand duke turns it down as he rightly thinks it will affect the quality of life of his subjects… And that’s pretty much the plot: impoverished grand duke in danger of losing duchy to predatory capitalist interests because of lack of cash, but is saved at last minute through unlikely series of events. These events are in the person of a loaded Russian princess whom the grand duke doesn’t want to marry, but she ends up pretending to be the wife of a travelling salesman, or something, and gets to meet the grand duke in that guise, and they fall in love, and everyone lives happily ever after. The end. There’s a few other bits and pieces going on in there, like the finance minister aiming to seize the duchy for himself. It’s all very, well, Ruritanian. Fun.
Le Pont du Nord, Jacques Rivette (1981, France). I’m not quite sure what to make of Rivette, as he tells fantastical stories in real-life settings, but the fantasy is all in the minds of the characters – with the occasional bit of help from the director. In other words, he finds games and conspiracies and quests in the ordinary, in such a way that the games and conspiracies and quests seems perfectly real without in any way upsetting the ordinary. And so too in Le Pont du Nord, in which two two young women meet up and follow a quest involving several different men called Max, which leads to a dragon, which is actually a playground slide, which one of them then defeats by loudly challenging it. Everything happens in and around Paris, in the quotidian world, and some of it you suspect was guerilla-filmed, even though the two women plainly don’t entirely occupy it, and there is enough strangeness in the events which befall them to suggest something other than the ordinary world. And yet the bulk of the strangeness is supplied by the two main characters, who seem to be operating in a world that doesn’t entirely exist on screen. Rivette has form in this: Merry-Go-Round is a conspiracy story with no real conspiracy in sight; Noroît is a fantasy presented with such a light touch, it might as well be mainstream. I’m not entirely sure what to make of it all, and the lack of reviews seems to suggest others feel the same way. At 129 minutes, it’s short for a Rivette film. (And no, I still have not tackled Out 1, all 760 minutes of it, despite owning a copy for two years.) I came to Rivette through La belle noiseuse, which is on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before you Die list (2013 edition), and that inspired me to seek out more of his work. At which point I found myself watching films that were not like the one that had inspired me to seek out that director’s films… And yet, I find myself drawn to Rivette’s films, that are unlike La belle noiseuse, and more inclined to put in the time to watch the really long ones… Which I really must do, one of these days.
The Neon Demon, Nicolas Winding Refn (2016, France). Refn is lauded as a talent in Hollywood, although apparently not so much after all, since he needed French money to make this film. His movies certainly look very pretty, and this one is no exception. But the stories he tells really aren’t very nice. In this one, an ingenue moves to LA, is picked up by an agency, and becomes a a successful model. Which does not go down with the two models she spends her time with. One has had a number of cosmetic surgeries to improve her looks and career, but is castigated for it. For all that it’s about a beautiful woman, this is not a film that treats women well. They are pretty much all victims. Even the young model who is the central character – she has zero agency, and her only act is to walk away from it all at the end. The other models are driven by their obsession to be admired by men, even though the men in the film are just as much ciphers as the women are. The Neon Demon is a film that’s all about how it looks, which seems apposite given it’s about the modelling industry… but it also seems to be based on misconceptions and clichés about modelling. It has its central cast of three models, including the ingenue, and it uses them to tell a story of excess, and the cannibalistic nature of the industry, making the latter real rather than metaphorical, to no good end. A film best avoided.
Cemetery of Splendour, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (2015, Thailand). I have no idea what these films are about, but I really like them. They’re sort of slow cinema, in as much as very little happens in them. But they also exhibit little in the way of plot – and nothing in the way of a three-act structure (hack spit) – and yet… things happen. Weerasethakul also has a tendency to use the same stable of actors, so the more of these you watch the more faces you recognise. And there are other commonalities: the military seems to always play a major part, as do hospitals or clinics; some of the cast are disabled; there’s always mention of Isan province, usually self-deprecratingly; and there’s always an element of the strange, or supernatural. Weerasethaskul has a shtick. Which does not detract from his films, I hasten to add. There is an oddness to his movies that I don’t think any other director quite manages, a sort of New Weird sensibility I’m not sure any other director is currently using. In Cemetery of Splendour, a sickness is causing soldiers to suddenly fall asleep, and there is a clinic with a ward full of sleeping soldiers, all lying in beds under weird blue lights. But then one soldier wakes, but can remember nothing of the time he was asleep. There’s also the cemetery of the title, which is a wood in which people have left mythic objects… It’s one of those films that, when it’s finished, you’re not entirely sure what you’ve watched. I’ve now seen five of Weerasethakul’s and I’m no closer to understanding them. He’s a singular talent and his movies, for all their glacial pace and enigmatic stories, are fascinating. If someone released a Weerasethakul box set, I’d buy it like a shot. I only own a copy of his first film, Mysterious Object at Noon, but all of them bear, if not demand, rewatching.
The Milky Way, Luis Buñuel (1969, France). And speaking of shtick, I sort of feel like I have a handle on Buñuel’s, except… have I really? I mean, he was making films way back in the 1930s, all the way through to the 1970s, in a number of countries, and in a variety of styles. That’s one hell of a career. But The Milky Way feels like a Buñuel film. Even based on my limited exposure to his oeuvre. The title refers to the route taken by pilgrims from France to the Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the Wat of St James. Two travellers follow the route and, en route, witness events which map onto the history of Christianity, especially its so-called heresies. It is very much the product of a Catholic mind, and I say that inasmuch as Catholicism is much more embedded in its followers’ lives that Protestantism, which is what I was nominally brought up as, but I’m completely atheist, and neither hold a candle to the integration of Islam in daily life… All of which means that not only do I not have a dog in this fight but I have a dog-free worldview (which pleases me, as a cat owner), and I suspect Buñuel, for all his mockery, was considerably more religious than I am, as it takes a certain degree of familiarity with the material to mock as much as is the case in The Milky Way. But for all that, religion is, to me, a soft target. I don’t believe a single bit of it. It’s also a completely pointless target. We l;ive in a world in which truth and facts and experts are routinely attacked because they don’t match the narrative of the authorities. There is no such thing as “fake news”. There is propaganda, which is unsupported by facts; and there is news, which is supported by facts. And the least trustworthy sources are those who are quickest to label something as “fake news”. Religion, and all the fucking tragedy it’s caused over the centuries, feels lightweight in comparison. Although, to be fair, The Milky Way does a good job in pointing out how shortsighted that view is. It’s not the best film in the box set, but, like Diary of a Chambermaid (see above), its presence is welcome. The box set doesn’t include some of Buñuel’s best films, but what it does include is bloody good. Worth getting.
1001 Movies you Must See Before you Die count: 895