No Anglophone movies in this bunch, which is unusual – there’s typically at least one. An odd bunch as well, mostly rental DVDs or Amazon Prime. There’s some good stuff on the latter, but it’s not easy to find. I think I may have said this before…
Casque d’or, Jacques Becker (1952, France). To be honest, I had thought I’d seen more films by Becker. He’s one of those French cinema figures from the 1940s and 1950s whose films I thought I’d watched. Apparently not. It seems Casque d’or is my first Becker. And for all that, it felt like half a dozen directors of the period could have made it. I admit I’m not so knowledgeable on film techniques that I can comment technically on the films I watch. My interest lies in narrative, and my experience is mostly in science fiction; so that’s what interests me. But I also appreciate good visuals, or innovative visuals, and I usually comment on such. But effective, or excellent, use of existing techniques I’m unlikely to notice. And it seems that’s what this film is chiefly known for. I couldn’t even tell you what the story was as it seemed that generic. The title refers to a woman, played by Simone Signoret, who is a celebrated beauty. But she falls for the wrong man, a carpenter, instead of her gangster pimp. And so it goes. The carpenter accidentally kills the pimp and has to flee. The woman goes with him. But the carpenter returns to face justice when he learns a friend has been framed for the murder of the pimp. The final scene of the film, in which Signoret watches her lover’s execution, has been much remarked upon, but I thought there was little there deserving such commentary. It’s done well, and it may well have been seminal in its time, but nowadays the film is very much an historical document. And I freely admit that French cinema from the mid-twentieth century is not a genre that especially appeals to me. Even Godard’s work – it’s the films he made from around 1970s onward I find mostly appealing. Meh.
The Class, Laurent Cantet (2008, France). The title pretty much tells you what the film is about. It’s a faux-documentary set in a Parisian school, based on the director’s own experience teaching at such a school. It’s a school that has a lot of second-generation immigrant children – ie, they were born in France, but their parents weren’t, and they’re a product of two cultures, although perhaps closer to that of their parents. Much, for example, is made of the male pupils’ support of African football and the national teams of the countries from which their parents originate. The same thing is used in this country by racists to browbeat Anglo-Indian or Anglo-Pakistani people because they’d sooner support India or Pakistan at cricket than England. But, seriously, when people show you that you’re not welcome in the country of your birth, why the fuck would you support their cricket team? Racists should shut the fuck up. They’re an embarrassment to the rest of us. But, The Class. It’s not just that the film shows how multiculturalism can fail in small ways as often as it succeeds, it’s not even how it shows the teacher losing his temper because some pupils refuse to behave… It’s that The Class shows that a French school runs on consensus decision-making, with pupils involved, and that the system works so much better than the UK one of top-down management. British education has always been about producing sons of empire or the bare minimum required for working in factories. But “sons of empire” are a breed long past their sell-by date, and a “stiff upper lip” in front of uppity natives was never good for anything other than a justification for punitive action. The British Empire was built on the relationships created by experts, but run by those who knew nothing about the cultures they ruled. And it is the latter the UK always celebrates: Winston Churchill gets a state funeral but no one knows who Gertrude Bell was. Typical. Fuck the British. But The Class is worth seeing.
Presence of Mind, Antoni Aloy (1999, Spain). I’m not sure where the title came from but this Spanish-American film is an adaptation of Henry James ‘The Turn of the Screw’. Shameful admission time: I have never read any Henry James. Some people consider him the greatest writer the US has produced, and certainly he occupies a high place in their canon of literary greats (the one composed of Dead White Males, that is; though I suspect he would also feature in a more diverse canon). Anyway, I didn’t know the story of ‘The Turn of the Screw’ when I sat down to watch this film. And after watching it, I can’t say I’m all that wiser. Sadie Frost is hired, by Harvey Keitel, as governess for two children whose parents have died. The kids are a bit weird, and Frost starts seeing ghosts. And it’s hard to give a shit because none of it really ties together. I can’t imagine James’s story is this bad, and reading up on it, it sounds like an exercise in gaslighting as much as it is a ghost story. Presence of Mind is not that. It’s a director out of his depth with material he can’t handle and a cast he doesn’t know how to direct. Neither Frost nor Keitel are good actors but they’re especially bad in this. It all feels like a private project by someone who fancied himself as a director. This is Aloy’s only feature film. Figures.
Devil’s Three, Bobby A Suarez (1979, Philippines). There’s some right crap hiding away on Amazon Prime, but one of the good things about the platform is that it’s not all Hollywood crap. There are other countries with prolific and well-established film industries and some of their output is available – if you look for it – on Amazon Prime. Like Nollywood. But the two from there I saw really were fucking awful. But also Russia (or rather, the USSR) – see later – and India – see later… And the Philippines. Bobby Suarez is perhaps best known outside the Philippines for his three Cleopatra Wong films, a character designed to appeal to fans of Cleopatra Jones and Hong Kong martial arts films. Devil’s Three (AKA Pay or Die, Devil’s Angels, Mean Business) is the second of three Cleopatra Wong films. If there’s a plot to Devil’s Three, I couldn’t tell you what it is. There was something about a gangster whose daughter is kidnapped, so he hires Cleopatra Wong to recover her. And Wong’s team comprises an overweight woman and a transvestite, and they go up against a gang run by a white man – American? Australian? I don’t remember – and there are lots of clumsily-staged fight scenes. Marrie Lee is fine in the lead role, but this is low-budget film-making and having a lead to act is not enough. I don’t know if the other two Cleopatra Qong films are available on Amazon Prime – I’ve not been able to find them, but finding films on Amazon Prime is next to fucking impossible – but perhaps the earlier two, or at least the one that kicked off the series, is worth seeing.
War and Peace, Part 1: Andrei Bolkonsky, Sergei Bondarchuk (1966, Russia). Back in 1985, I retook my A Levels at a Nottingham CFE. I was living in Mansfield at the time, so this required a 45-minute bus ride to and from college. On arriving in Nottingham, I’d meet up with a friend and fellow pupil at a cafe on Maid Marion Way, a couple of hundred metres from People’s College, for a milky coffee. I remember one day sitting there one morning when a man pulled out a guitar and began to play and sing. It was a bit strange. Anyway, during that 45-minute bus journey, I got lots of reading done. Including Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Which, I seem to remember, took a couple of months. Thirty-three years later and I don’t recall much of the book, other than a few character’s names and a general feeling of having enjoyed it. There have been plenty of adaptations, the most recent of which was by the BBC in 2016. But, well, I never watched any of them. Bondarchuk’s four-film series is considered the best adaptation of the novel, and happily it is currently available for free on Amazon Prime. War and Peace, Part 1: Andrei Bolkonsky covers the (sub-)title character’s career from the moment he joins the Imperial Russian Army, in the war against Napoleon, to the death of his wife and his introduction to Natasha Rostova. This was a high-profile, high-prestige Soviet film project, so it has a cast of thousands. The battle scenes have to be seen to be believed. It also introduced a raft of techniques not used before in Soviet cinema, from handheld cameras to helicopter shots to a six-channel audio track. The end result is… epic. Unfortunately, the copy on Amazon Prime has a somewhat eccentric approach to dubbing – some of the Russian is dubbed into English, some of it isn’t. There are subtitles for the Russian and English… but not for the French. I have fond memories of the book – its enormous cast, its detail, its scope – and although I know this century it’s all about the feels and bringing it down to the personal, I do much prefer stories that tackle the big picture (no pun intended). I’m looking forward to watching parts 2 to 4.
Goynar Baksho, Aparna Sen (2013, India). This is not a Bollywood film but a Bengali one, although it’s so polished it might well be mistaken for one by someone who didn’t realise it was not in Hindi. An eleven year old girl is married and widowed at twelve. Her only wealth is the contents of a jewellery box, 5000 gm of gold. She grows up to become the embittered matriarch of a family sharing a large mansion with another family who claim ownership of it. Then she dies. Her ghost persuades the niece – from a poor family and not a good match – to hide the jewellery box so the rest of the family can’t sell it to enrich themselves. The ghost continues to appear to the niece, telling her not to use the jewellery, but eventually the niece does so in order to set her husband up in business selling saris. And then, when the business hits a cash-flow crisis, the grandmother relents and allows them to pawn more of the gold. This is a film in which the men are uniformly useless – when a cousin manages a shop while the nice’s husband is away in on business, he hikes all the prices and so drives away customers and gives the shop a reputation as a rip-off. The niece has to step in and take over. The ghost is initially depicted as selfish and evil, but as the film progresses she mellows, to the extent she begins helping the niece succeed. I really liked Goynar Baksho. It was funny and the ghost was well-handled (and the sfx were seamlessly done). I see it’s no longer free to watch on Amazon Prime, which is a shame; but it’s definitely worth seeing.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 932