Monday, 26 September 2011
Friday, 23 September 2011
Sunday, 18 September 2011
Johan is a 1921 film directed by Mauritz Stiller that is as well made and sophisticated as many Hollywood silents from later in the decade. It is a technical tour de force featuring some stunning filming of the Swedish woodlands, daring shots of boats bumping through white water and some subtle, powerful and realistic acting from the cast.
As such it is emblematic of the Swedish cinema of the time, underlying, along with Stiller’s earlier works such as the below-mentioned Thomas Graal, why the Scandinavians’ sophistication made them world leaders as cinema entered it’s third full decade.
The story is based on Juhani Aho’s novel, Juha (1911), and is set, in the film at least, in the unforgiving landscapes of the Swedish Lapland. This was a hash environment in which families had to fight hard: hunting, logging and fishing constantly risking their safety to eak out their living.
Johan, played with steadfast innocence by Mathias Tauber is one of the leading men and lives with his domineering mother (Hildegard Harring) in a basic log cabin they share with a teenage girl they rescued from the snow, Marit, played by Jenny Hasselqvist.
Into this close and closed community comes a group of strangers, hired to help them lower the depth of the lake. One of their number, played by the baby-faced but bullying, Urho Somersalmi, becomes attracted to Marit and she is torn between her loyalty to the man who brought her up and the newcomer.
Johan is already married to the shy Marit but she is young and craves excitement. Finally she allows herself to be lured away by the stranger and they make their escape riding the rapids of the river.
Marit is pursued by Johan and he finds her after, having second thoughts, she leaves a message with an elderly neighbour. Johan arrives and confronts the stranger, knocking him savagely to the ground with a log. Then it is Johan’s turn to have the wind taken from him as he realises that Marit has left of her own accord.
And yet…she has learned a lesson and wants to return. Johan accepts this and the two head off back up the river to find a new accommodation…their marriage revived by her brief infidelity?
Johan is an atmospheric film with a great consistency of tone and is a visual delight, sepia-tinted throughout to highlight the glorious, rugged rural beauty. The film makes great use of this natural backdrop and this appears to be one of Stiller’s groundbreaking gifts. "Johan is an ode to light, which is based on the composition of the sun and the splendour of the water..." the Finish film historian Antti Alanen has commented.
More than this, Stiller threw his actors and crew into the heart of the scenery, especially on the water. His camera crew lashed to an occasionally visible, raft, he follows Merit and the stranger’s journey in close quarters. These shots are really quite extraordinary. The fragile boat is tossed around by the white water and Hasselqvist and Somersalmi clearly risked their necks for the drama. That they hold their poise is amazing and yet both are clearly in character (maybe not when Somersalmi falls in for a few brief moments!).
Of the actors, Jenny Hasselqvist is the stand out with a range of subtle expression that kept reminding me of Isabelle Huppert. There is one scene when making up her mind which man to follow; she must have subtly transitioned through half a dozen emotions in just a few seconds… entirely natural and entirely convincing. She carries her self with the poise of the prima ballerina (she was a world-class ballerina too!) and is always fascinating to simply watch move.
Hasselqvist gets a lot of screen-time in this film and she carries it superbly. For me she is incontestably one of the greatest actresses of silent film and deserves to be ranked alongside Brooks, Boardman, Helm, Nielsen and Garbo. Not a “classic” beauty she was, never-the-less, beautiful. She always seemed to be in control of her emotions and had the ability to make the most of her strong, haunting and almost inscrutable face. She had deep expressive eyes and a perfect, subtle smile and she knew how to use them!
In Johan her performance matches those she gives in Sumurun and Gosta Berling referenced earlier in this blog. She is the kind of surprise that makes watching silent movies so worthwhile: someone who’s skill level enables you to re-connect with and to re-contextualise these wonderful films!
It’s not too late to start a fan club!
And Stiller is the kind of director you discover as well; working so skilfully with the “new” medium and telling a story in an original, brave and, ultimately, highly-entertaining way.
Johan was long considered lost and was only recovered in the 1960’s. This DVD was released by ZDF/ARTE in 2001 and features a clear transfer that highlights the performance and the location. The modern soundtrack, composed by the Russian composer Alexander Popov, also ably supports the action albeit with the occasional over frenetic moment!
Tuesday, 13 September 2011
Otley is a British comedy from 1967/8 that could so easily have been a lazy James Bond/Harry Palmer cash in. It could also have succumbed to the light-headed infantilism of films such as The Best House in London (winner of my Biggest Waste of David Hemmings Award for the following year!). But it doesn’t and Otley is surely one of the half-forgotten gems of late 60’s comedy.
A large part of the reason for this is the script from the Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais – two giants of British comedy writing who went on to create The Likely Lads, Porridge and many other substantial and funny shows. Otley is of its period and does have whimsical elements but is tightly written and anchored in the everyday. It could happen to anyone. The everyday improbabilities of the story help place it higher than the duo's later spy spoof, Catch Me a Spy (a pretty good effort none-the-less, starring Kirk Douglas and the sublime Marlene Jobert).
The film is well directed by Dick Clement and shows contemporary London in an excellent light. The city is the secondary star of the film and it’s fascinating to see Portobello Road and central London as it was so recently and, in the case of Notting Hill, largely still remains…the atmosphere that the mix of rediscovered Victoriana and Swinging London seems to have lysergically suspended in aspic for evermore...
That said, the real star of this film is the brilliant Tom Courtney. He is completely believable as the hapless part-time antique dealer/part-time thief who falls into a series of unlikely situations and yet who manages to emerge unscathed against all odds. Courtney’s comic timing is every bit as acute as in Billy Liar and he delivers a wordy script well. His northern sensibilities help anchor Otley in reality, the actual 1967 and not the Carnaby Street version, and thereby renders the character eminently likeable. He could be so annoying but he only wants to survive in his disorganised way and to grab that lucky break (and, if he’s really lucky, a night with his best mate’s wife!). His motives are clear and straightforward whilst pretty much all around him are mired in corrupt duplicity.
It’s skilfully done and doesn’t lapse into slapstick or slapdash, maintaining a decent pace and uncertain tension about the good and bad guys right up till the end.
The narrative is played out using an outstanding array of British supporting actors many of whom went on to great things. Leonard Rossitter is superbly funny as the casual-but-deadly, professional hitman whilst Freddie Jones excels as a camp spy, all feminine disdain and there’s James Bolam (a true god-like genius!) as Otley’s best mate Albert.
The seeds of classic 70’s comedy are all in this film along with some of the key players!
Then there is also the exquisite Romy Schneider as Imogen, a spy who may or may not be on “our side”. Ms Schneider lights up any scene and is watchable as always, aloof and inscrutable: just what every 60’s spy movie needed, a beauty with uncertain motives. Otley wants to stay in touch after the twists and turns are over but she drops him down gently: “don’t be silly Otley”. Instead he ends up with Albert’s similarly charming other half, played by the likable Fiona Lewis, whilst her hubby is off up North…life will carry on in its haphazardly harmless way for Otley.
Otley is slight but stylish and purely entertaining. It would fit very well as a BFI Flipside release but I asked the BFI who haven’t any plans as yet although their spokesman said “we’re big fans of Otley too”.
So, a minor classic undeserved of its near obscurity and hopefully one that’ll get a re-release and recognition at some point soon.
Seek it out though for a smile and a low-level dose of nostalgia!
Monday, 12 September 2011
Silent film never ceases to astound and, having watched a clip on Mark Cousins’ – perfectly pitched and precisely passionate - Story of Film, I was genuinely knocked out (and thoroughly entertained!) when watching After Death.
After Death (Posle Smerti) was produced in 1915 by the Russian director Yevgeni Bauer. It is nominally a romance and is concerned with the morbid fascination its central character has for the dead woman he loves.
So far so gothic but…the story’s just the framework for a series of genuinely astonishing cinematic set pieces that were, at the very least, on a par with DW Griffith and certainly way ahead of the vast majority of contemporary cinema.
The film begins in Andrei’s study which is lit in gloriously tinted yellow. This is a real room full of detail and solid furniture, not the flimsy and sparse sets of Griffith’s epics but a believable somewhere.
The next surprise comes at the party when Andrei meets Zoya. The camera pulls back from Andrei and his friend in a smooth dolly shot that slowly reveals the social gathering then, astonishingly, it begins to pan from one social situation to another. All this is one long continuous take that Robert Altman would have been proud of. And yet, here it is, in Russia in 1915!The surprises keep on coming at Zoya’s performance, with Bauer intercuting long-shots of the theatre with close-ups of both Zoya and Andrei, including a huge close-up of the former’s face filling the entire screen (and no doubt his heart).
Such technical skill is reinforced by the quality of this print (much cleaner than parts of Birth of a Nation for example) and it is also underpinned by an excellent and haunting new score written by Nicholas Brown and performed by an ensemble called Triptych.
Not for nothing did LA film critic Kenneth Turan descibe Yevgeni Bauer, as “the greatest director you’ve never heard of.” It's one of the most affecting and absorbing films I've seen from this period and seems ahead of its time.
The most excellent BFI have this film on DVD (plus Twilight of a Woman's Soul (1913) & The Dying Swan (1916) ). Great value for a genuine classic and the chance to properly evaluate Bauer's place as a progressive film maker.
Saturday, 10 September 2011
Fantastic Françoise Dorléac... Cul-de-Sac (1966), L'Homme de Rio (1964) et Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967)
Yesterday was a bit of a Françoise Dorléac-fest. I wanted to watch Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967) to remind me of the holiday in the south of France we've just had and, having been knocked out by the elder Dorléac sister, that led me to watching Cul-de-Sac to see how she performed in a darker role.
Short answer is that she seemed capable of absolutely anything.
In Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (The Young Girls of Rochefort) Francoise sings, dances and acts with almost equal expertise. She's not only up against her younger sibling (Catherine Deneuve) but also has to dance with Gene Kelly who, though he may have been 55 at the time was still a model of grace and power.
It's a slight tale of how the girls find love and in the case of their mother re-finds it, following the visit to Rochefort of a travelling fair. The girls are music and dance teachers and have ambitions to go to Paris to find their fortunes. As things turn out their romantic and career fortunes come to meet them in their home town... albeit on the way out in Catherine D's case.
It could be corny (would be if it had been British!) but it all works remarkably well with the energetic direction of Jacques Demy who ensures a consistency of tone and pace throughout and who uses the amazing light of the southern French Atlantic coast to superb affect. A musical in traditional style made in 1966 shouldn't have worked this well but Michel Legrand's music is strong, inventive and lush and is very well performed.
It's enough to cheer even the grumpiest of cynics up and is a riot of positive colours from start to finish. The Dorléac sisters also have a highly positive impact on the endorphins and rip through the film with elegant energy. No objective winner between them but I'm a fan of the red hair (as my wife, with her own splash of gold can attest!).
Cul-de-Sac is the film Françoise made immediately before Rochefort. It was directed by Roman Polanski and could hardly provide a greater contrast, filmed in plain black and white on the Northumbrian coast (North Sea no match for the Atlantic coast's sun power).
Françoise plays Teresa, a young French woman married to an older man George, played with an unstable intensity by Donald Pleasence. They live in a renovated castle on a tidal island that is only intermittently accessible from the mainland.
Into their world of upper middle class comfort come a couple of criminals on the run from a botched robbery. Lionel Stander plays Richard (Dickie) and Jack MacGowran is the mortally wounded Albie. Stander is superb as the intelligent and menacing Dickie and his gravelly tones are almost a comedic overstatement of the hard-bitten accent acquired during his Bronx upbringing.
He over-powers the couple and Richard is helpless to match him. Teresa has far more fight and is Richard's match throughout even if she is cowed by his physical threat. There's an uncomfortable atmosphere throughout the film as Polanski expertly draws his audience into this strange encounter: what would we do if our homes were so invaded?
Teresa toughens up and looks for her chance manipulating the men as far as she is able. George begins to fall apart (and Donald Pleasance was simply brilliant at doing this!) but it is not a straightforward trajectory. When a work colleague arrives, he is able to re-assume his more natural authority...a self-made man, a successful and forceful business man. Yet he cannot exert the same force against the physically and mentally implacable "Dickie".
Dorléac's performance is on a par and is nuanced and unpredictable as she looks for a way out. Playing up to Dickie, getting him drunk, forcing the situation on towards the bloody conclusion. It's not at all clear that Dickie would have killed the couple in the end and, as he staggers towards them fatally wounded he appears to pull back from shooting them: "you idiots..." he cries as if they had miss-read everything in their fear.
As she was always likely to do (even in the early scenes she is fooling around with a young male neighbour) Teresa leaves with another man, the suave Cecil played by William Franklyn (who once gave way to me whilst we were both driving on the South Circular in Putney; nice man!). She still tries to get George to come with them but stops when she realises that he's "gone". How short a time it took to break the man.
Cul-de-Sac is unsettling because none of us really know how we would cope when our lives are threatened. Polanski brilliantly sets the characters (and actors) against each other and we're unsure of their direction and their motives until the very end.
Françoise Dorléac acts superbly and shows a much darker edge than you would expect from Rochefort. An extraordinary actress who would have gone on to be every inch the global star as her sister. A car crash when she was just 25 ended her life all too soon… the epitome of tragic.
I’d also mention her performance in the excellent Jean Paul Belmondo spy-spoof, L'Homme de Rio (1964). I love this film and it's one of the very first French films I saw. I watched it again recently and it stands up for Belmondo's none-stop energy and screen presence. Françoise Dorléac matches him in terms of the comedy and glamour...a star already at 21.
This one is finally available on English subs DVD but a better quality rendering is still much needed!
A truly fantastic talent. It goes without saying that she was amazingly beautiful as well.