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The Other Love (1947)
Wondrously Soppy Romantic Melodrama!
A truly irresistible piece of high-fashion schmaltz, The Other Love stars Barbara Stanwyck in the sort of 'genteel weepy' role more commonly associated with Norma Shearer or Joan Fontaine. A lady pianist dying of some unspecified lung disease. Whatever her illness may be, it only makes her grow more glamorous the closer she edges towards death.
Of course, dying in so decorous a fashion would take a bite out of anybody's schedule. So our Babs cuts short her international concert tour, and checks into a plush clinic with a panoramic view of the Swiss Alps. There she meets David Niven, a handsome doctor who takes a more-than-professional interest in her case. Frankly, I found his fascination with Babs and her illness to be downright ghoulish - and couldn't help wondering if he was a closet necrophiliac.
Realising, perhaps, that Niven is far too lightweight to make a convincing leading man (at one point, I felt they should switch roles!) La Stanwyck runs away to Monte Carlo. There she starts living the high life with a tough, sexy racing driver (Richard Conte). Given the fact that she has only a few weeks left to live, I thought this was eminently sensible behaviour on her part. Ah, but her heart is calling her back to Niven and his Alpine clinic...
The Other Love is spectacularly well-made by unsung director Andre de Toth, and boasts a luscious Tchaikovsky-esquire score by Miklos Rozsa. But it's success is down to Barbara Stanwyck, who lends a much-needed note of toughness and reality to what would otherwise be a pure camp melodrama. Played by anyone else, our heroine would most likely drown in syrup long before succumbing to a weakness of the lungs.
3 hommes à abattre (1980)
Euro Trash? Or Just Plain Trash?
"It isn't bad luck," hisses the lead villain. "It's incompetence!" In truth, what more can you say for a French film that sets out to emulate the very worst of Hollywood drivel and fails even at that? This atrociously-plotted thriller makes you appreciate the narrative finesse of Death Wish and Dirty Harry, while aging pretty boy Alain Delon (who also produced and co-wrote) is a sadly inadequate stand-in for Charles Bronson or Clint Eastwood.
Delon plays a laconic gambler who rescues a dying man from a wrecked car. This turns out to be an assassination, not an accident - and Delon, as "the man who knew too much," becomes the killers' next target. This is frankly nonsensical, as Delon knows nothing about the conspiracy, and has never set eyes on the two assassins. Elsewhere, the same duo murder another man but leave his wife alive - even though she's an eye witness to the whole crime. And we're meant to believe they're afraid of getting caught?!
Still, it makes an excuse for two gay hit men with appalling 70s haircuts to chase Delon all over Paris. Given his fondness for such ghastly fashion no-no's as white socks with black trousers and black shoes, I could sympathies all too readily with their murderous intent! It all climaxes in the most ludicrous, ineptly-staged car chase you're ever likely to see - but at least Italian sex-bomb Dalila di Lazzaro adds a much-needed touch of glamour as Delon's girlfriend.
If this dreadful movie is of any use at all, it's for correcting the old stereotype that European Cinema Equals Art while Hollywood Cinema Equals Trash. True, the Americans may make more trash than the French...but at least they do it properly!
Feu Mathias Pascal (1926)
The White Russian exile Ivan Mosjoukine was arguably the greatest male star of the silent screen. Imagine an actor who combined the matinée idol looks of John Barrymore with the smoldering sexual magnetism of Valentino, the deft physical comedy of Chaplin with the dark Gothic creepiness of Lon Chaney. It sounds impossible, of course - unless you've seen Mosjoukine in action. One glance from those hypnotic, liquid eyes holds more power than all the others combined.
Indeed, there's a strong case for Mosjoukine as the greatest actor in screen history. His stylised High Romantic playing has dated far less in 80 years than the Actor's Studio tricks of Brando and de Niro have dated in half that time. To see him in his great roles - and Matthias Pascal is one of those - is to feel time itself dissolve through the camera's lens. Mosjoukine, like Garbo, is one of a handful of screen stars whose work on celluloid has the immediacy of live performance.
As a vehicle for Mosjoukine and his brilliance, The Late Matthias Pascal is one of the all-time greats. He starts off as an adolescent dreamer, last survivor of a ruined of a ruined aristocratic dynasty (much like Mosjoukine's own family in post-Revolutionary Russia). Blundering his way into marriage, he becomes a harassed and penniless family man, weighed down by wife, baby and the original Mother-In-Law From Hell. Only the awfulness of his home life allows him to tolerate his job - catching rats at the local library, whose mouldering piles of books resemble the last scene of Citizen Kane!
Tragedy strikes, and Matthias runs away. Instantly, his luck changes. Winning a fortune at the Casino in Monte Carlo, he moves on to Rome - where he appears as a young gentleman of fashion. Soon enough, he falls in love with a young girl played by Lois Moran. An infatuation of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the model for Rosemanry in Tender Is the Night, Moran is similarly idealised in this film. Naturally, Matthias longs to do the decent thing and marry her. Yet he faces the same dilemma as most of Pirandello's heroes. If he isn't himself, who on Earth is he?
As a work of cinema, The Late Matthias Pascal is not as spectacularly dotty as L'Herbier's 1924 masterpiece L'Inhumaine. It is also perhaps a shade too long. Yet its bravura sequences - the library, the casino, the dream sequences where Matthias is haunted by his 'dead' double - show L'Herbier as an unjustly neglected genius, worthy of a place next to Lang and von Stroheim in Film Studies 101. His spectacular use of real-life locations is unusual for the 20s. But Mosjoukine is the most spectacular sight of all!
Merchant-Ivory's Best - And Most Atypical?
Was it de Tocqueville who wrote that America passed from barbarism to decadence with no civilization in between? If so, then he (or whoever else) deserves at least partial screen credit for Savages. A bizarre and blackly comic fable, this is Merchant-Ivory's most atypical film. It was also, probably, their biggest flop. Yet fans of the duo will find much recognise and admire. Non-fans may enjoy it even more!
Savages opens in dazzling sepia-toned black-and-white. A tribe of primitive forest-dwellers called the 'Mud People' find a mystical round orb that's fallen from an alien world. (In other words, a croquet ball.) They trace its path to an elegantly dilapidated Colonial-style mansion. As they explore the house, the prehistoric intruders start to play dress-up. Soon enough, the screen shifts into colour. The 'savages' transform into the denizens of a grandly decadent 1920s house party...
Chief among them are a formidable Auntie Mame-style hostess (Anne Francine), a toothy and spirited debutante (Susan Blakely), an elegantly faded 'fallen woman' (Salome Jens) and an exotic, eyelash-fluttering vamp (legendary Andy Warhol icon Ultra Violet). As usual in a Merchant-Ivory film, the women's roles are stronger than the men's. But a young Sam Waterston is on hand, rehearsing his 'detached and disenchanted observer' role for The Great Gatsby.
While that later film is little more than a parade of gorgeous costumes and opulent sets, Savages is considerably more. Ivory's eye for social nuance and period detail is as sharp here as in later masterworks like Quartet, Heat and Dust and A Room with a View. Yes, it may perhaps be possible to dismiss Ivory as a bland director - but only if you dismiss Jean Rhys, E.M. Forster or Henry James as bland authors. Or is it a crime to be a discreet and faithful adaptor of other people's work?
Savages is one of the rare films based on Ivory's own imagination. And what a perverse and mordant imagination it turns out to be! What little 'civilisation' the 'savages' acquire in the guise of Jazz Age socialites is, of course, a flimsy and feeble veneer. We can't be surprised when they revert to full-fledged barbarism. In fact, the honesty of that primal state comes as something of a relief.
Savages is impeccably acted, smoothly directed, wittily written, richly designed - and photographed with jaw-dropping splendor by Walter Lassally! It may be something of an aberration in the Merchant-Ivory canon. It is also, possibly, their best film.
An Incomparable Film Masterpiece!
A plot that's strung together out of bits of Lady of the Camellias! A director so obscure he doesn't even feature in film dictionaries! A leading lady who's best known for playing a robot! Would you believe me if I told you this was one of the all-time great films? More poignant and visually dazzling than Ophuls, more erotic and atmospheric than Sternberg. A camera more sinuously alive than Murnau or Lang.
Incredibly, the Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna is all that and more. The tear-stained story of a glamorous St. Petersburg courtesan (Brigitte Helm) who ditches her high-ranking officer lover (Warwick Ward) for a lowly sub-lieutenant (Francis Lederer) it's the best-known film of Hanns Schwarz - a sort of silent-era Douglas Sirk who made lush (and potentially soppy) women's melodramas but transformed them into something like High Art.
The opening sequence alone is enough to establish Schwarz as one of the all-time great directors. As an absurdly ornate rococo clock chimes the hour, the camera tracks through the boudoir of Nina Petrovna, elegant lady of the White Russian night. She rises from her lace-smothered bed, wafts her way out onto her snow-covered balcony. Every frame glows, as if spun out of polished silver. A troop of soldiers trudges down the street. One handsome youth gazes upwards. Their eyes meet...
From that moment on, tragedy is inevitable - as surely as in any play by Aeschylus or Euripides. Not that Schwarz isn't a master at teasing his audience...in their first intimate encounter, Nina and her young suitor play games of sexual cat-and-mouse but - explicitly - they do NOT make love. This whole sequence is blindingly erotic, provocative in a way no hard-core sex scene could ever be.
Apart from the forgotten genius of Hanns Schwarz, the great revelation in this film is Brigitte Helm. Best remembered for her dual role as a robot/revolutionary in Fritz Lang's 1926 sci-fi epic Metropolis, Helm was in fact a movie icon to rival Garbo or Dietrich. Indeed, Nina Petrovna reveals her as a full-fledged goddess - at a time when Dietrich was still a chubby starlet, posing astride a beer-barrel in The Blue Angel.
As the Nazis rose to power, Helm defied the regime by marrying a Jew. She retired from films, moved to Switzerland and settled into the life of a wealthy recluse. A tragedy, perhaps. Or perhaps not? On the strength of Nina Petrovna, Helm had already soared as high in Movie Heaven as a star could go. Did she simply have nothing left to prove?
Such a Marvelous Surprise!
Having tried and failed to sit through Carousel (a lumbering musical remake of the same story) I was wholly unprepared for the delight that is Liliom. A fantasy love story set half on Earth, half in Heaven, it's not at all the type of film you expect from Fritz Lang. It's closer in tone to Michael Powell or Jean Cocteau - and may be a 'hidden influence' on both A Matter of Life and Death and Orphee.
Not least among his achievements...Lang pulls off the well-nigh impossible feat of making Charles Boyer interesting! Sorry, but I'd always found this actor deeply resistible. A suburban housewife's stereotype of a suave Continental lover. But in this movie, Boyer plays a role that (even five years later) would have been reserved exclusively for Jean Gabin. A tough carnival barker and petty crook. A sexy 'bad boy' in a striped, clinging T-shirt and skin-tight jeans.
Boyer as Liliom is a Gallic cousin of Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. I could well understand why Julie (Madeleine Ozeray) fell head over heels for him, because I did too. He treats her appallingly, of course. Boozing, whoring, gambling...even a (very non-PC) touch of wife-beating. For all its fantasy elements, this love story is as warped and sadomasochistic as any in later Lang movies, like Secret Beyond the Door or The Big Heat. (Hot coffee, anyone?)
Eventually, two angels show up and haul Boyer off to the hereafter - where he must atone for his sins! The term 'angels' is one I use loosely. Dark-suited, pale-skinned and shaven-headed, these two guys look like denizens of an X-rated Berlin nightclub. Kinkier still is Boyer's personal 'spirit guide' - a mad-eyed knife-grinder played by Antonin Artaud, the twisted genius who invented the Theatre of Cruelty.
Liliom is a rare treat for old-movie buffs. Lyrical and fantastic, yes. Soppy and sentimental, never. It stands comparison with Lang's best work from Berlin or Hollywood. I can only regret he did not spend more time in France.
La criatura (1977)
Years before Almodovar patented his own brand of 'shock' cinema, the Basque director Eloy de la Iglesia was busy smashing every taboo of the Spanish screen. As outrageous as any film he ever made, La Criatura tells the tender and erotic love story of a respectable bourgeois housewife (Ana Belen) and a large black Alsatian dog.
Unlike Almodovar - who tends to be radical on the surface, but conservative at heart - de la Iglesia tells his lurid tale with astonishing restraint. Dark paw prints on our heroine's white wedding gown, a playful tug-of-war with a towel as she emerges from a bath, a savage attack on her husband when he tries to make love to her himself...the sexual liaison between woman and dog is made amply clear, without ever once descending into a sub-porn ghetto.
Most important, the razor-sharp psychology of this film makes it easy to empathise with Belen and her life choices. Her brutish husband (Juan Diego) is a staunch supporter of the far-right Alianza Nacional Espanol, the ideological heirs of General Franco. He hosts a TV variety show of truly toe-curling awfulness, and spends most of his time with a flashy mistress (Claudia Gravi).
When Belen refuses to have sex with her husband, he gets drunk and rapes her. (The film's one truly shocking and nasty scene!) The rape is promptly condoned by her family priest...in the name of marriage, God, the family and the sanctity of Catholic Spain. Small wonder that Belen compares Spanish society to a hall of distorting mirrors. "I am surrounded by monsters. All I can do is become more monstrous than they are!"
La Criatura lacks both the dreamy eroticism of Borowczyk's La Bete and the sly social comedy of Oshima's Max, Mon Amour. It is a full-frontal assault on post-Franco Spain, and the Fascist-era values that continue to breed and flourish. Shocking, yes - but not because its heroine finds love and sex with a beast. Shocking because, in this world, all the real beasts are human!
Callas Forever (2002)
Not The Disaster That Rumour Has It...
Beautifully acted, intelligently written and criminally neglected by critics and distributors (it wasn't even released in the UK or USA) Callas Forever is a haunting and poignant study of the sacrifices an artist makes for her art. The director Franco Zeffirelli based much of it on his own 25-year friendship with the lady herself. Still, this is anything but a straightforward biopic. In a fictional story set during the last few months of the diva's life, Zeffirelli plays a tantalising game of "What if..?"
It's the spring of 1977, and Maria Callas - the world's most famous opera star - is now a recluse in Paris. A tragic cross between Garbo and Norma Desmond, she spends her life popping pills, fighting off bad dreams and listening to recordings of her voice at its glorious peak. Fanny Ardant does a stunning impersonation of the Callas voice and mannerisms. She even looks uncannily like her (apart from the odd awkward shot where she looks like Nana Mouskouri!) But her private hell is disrupted by the arrival of an old friend...
Larry Kelly (Jeremy Irons) is a flamboyant gay impresario, complete with pony-tail! He's just had the brainwave of matching recordings of Callas in her prime with movie versions of her greatest opera hits. First up is Carmen, and this film-within-a-film (a riot of dancing gypsies, dashing matadors and floating lace mantillas) is easily the highlight of the show. We also get not one but two tragic love stories - Maria's unrequited passion for a hunky young tenor (Gabriel Garko) and Larry's doomed affair with a cute young painter (Jay Rodan).
At the end, Larry and Maria sit on a park bench and muse on how they have Sacrificed Their Lives For Their Art. Was it worth it? When the final result is as touching and lyrical as Callas Forever...well, most definitely, yes. Provided, of course, the public gets a chance to see it!
Not Bolognini at His Best
Mauro Bolognini's most critically acclaimed film is far from his best. A tale of a 'working class hero' in turn-of-the-century Florence, it seems fundamentally unsuited to this director's world view. Most of Bolognini's films take place in an aesthetic and rather camp universe ruled by powerful and glamorous women (Claudia Cardinale in La Viaccia, Gina Lollobrigida in Un Bellissimo Novembre, Dominique Sanda in The Inheritance) who hold effortless sway over effete and malleable men.
Yet this film of Vasco Pratolini's novel was Bolognini's pet project for nearly a decade. If he had managed to cast Albert Finney (as he hoped to do in 1963) the character and his story might have a shade more conviction. But pretty-boy pop star Massimo Ranieri barely seems capable of reading his lines off a cue card, never mind digesting huge chunks of Das Kapital. Faced with the inadequacy of his male lead, Bolognini does what he has always done - and lets the women rule the film.
The least interesting woman, by far, is Metello's saintly wife Ersilia (Ottavia Piccolo). A salt-of-the-earth proletarian Madonna figure, she keeps her husband in line largely by boring him (and the audience) into a state of submission. Piccolo is an actress of minimal charisma, and her Best Actress award from the 1970 Cannes Film Festival has to be one of life's great mysteries. Far more amusing is Tina Aumont as Idina - the couple's frivolous and flirtatious neighbour. We wait for the inevitable to happen, and of course...
Early on in the film, Metello has a fling with Viola - a sensual middle-aged school teacher played by Lucia Bose. As usual, Bose is stunning but has far too little to do. One of the screen's great wasted natural resources, Bose has the magnetism of a Garbo - but she also has a maddening tendency to retire for decades at a time. Given roles as limited as this one, who can really blame her?
As always in a Bolognini film, the visuals in Metello are flawless. The camerawork by Ennio Guarnieri evokes old photographs of the period. The sets and costumes (supervised by Piero Tosi) are almost eerie in their perfection. Midway through, the cast enjoy a night out at a music hall and the film springs to life - as Bolognini finally gets a chance for a bit of flamboyance, which is what he does best.
Sorry, but I can't get excited about Metello. Its appeal, I suspect, is largely to those who do not enjoy Bolognini's other and better work. Still, it's one of his easier films to come by. Fans of arty Italian cinema must take our pleasure where we can get it!
Anima nera (1962)
Right Script, Wrong Director!
Written for the stage by camp aesthete Giuseppe Patroni Griffi, but directed for the screen by dour Marxist Roberto Rossellini, this film is a fascinating disaster. It's the wreckage left by two creative talents in head-on collision.
Vittorio Gassman plays the 'black soul' of the title, an upwardly mobile Italian who was once a bisexual rent boy. Now cosily married into the upper bourgeoisie, he and his unsuspecting wife (Annette Stroyberg) are hoping to move into a sumptuous villa he has inherited from a former male lover. Ah, but this is a movie, so sinners must be punished - however photogenic and well-dressed they may be!
Enter his dead lover's sister (Eleonora Rossi Drago) - one of those outrageously glamorous lesbians who live mainly in French and Italian films. She demands that Gassman renounce all claim to the villa, or risk exposure and public scandal. Stroyberg walks out in disgust. Our hero takes refuge with an old 'comrade in arms' - a hooker (Nadja Tiller) who's about to marry a rich American. He tells her how he survived World War II by seducing an SS officer.
Given a sympathetic director - Visconti or Bolognini or Patroni Griffi himself - Anima Nera could be powerful stuff. Rossellini is simply the wrong man for the job. He does make a half-hearted stab at high-style decadence in the obligatory 60s nightclub scene. But his one moment of inspired film-making comes right at the end...
The hero's problems solved (temporarily, at least) his bride starts lecturing him on how to be a proper husband. He presses his face to a window - as if gasping for air - a prisoner of the bourgeois world he has always aspired to.
La casa de las palomas (1972)
The House of Bird Droppings?
Fans of Claudio Guerin Hill's sublimely weird horror classic The Bell of Hell would do well to realise that this, his first feature film, is nothing like it. The House of Doves is a soppy romantic melodrama, drowning in soft-focus photography and syrupy music. It also boasts continuity so atrocious that Lucia Bose seems to wear three separate outfits in the course of one conversation.
The lovely Lucia plays a glamorous widow, living with her nymphet daughter (Ornella Muti) in a remote corner of southern Spain. When an old flame (Glen Lee) drops by in his jazzy red sports car, the couple resume their affair - until she finds out he's been the paid gigolo of a much older woman (Caterina Boratto). Understandably miffed, Lucia shows him the door. He gets revenge by seducing the daughter...
The film does improve remarkably at this point. The randy rotter lures the innocent girl to the mysterious 'House of Doves' - a place of assignation done up like a plush 19th century brothel! All over the house, doves flutter about and flap their wings in slow-motion - a 'poetic' way to illustrate Muti's first orgasm. Bose, we start to suspect, is no stranger to this house. It all gets progressively more twisted, as pseudo-Romantic slop gives way to Surrealist psychodrama.
Lucia Bose, fortunately, is an actress we watch no matter what - like Greta Garbo or Charlotte Rampling - and her magnetism does help us overlook the script's absurdity. (Why, for example, is the 'House of Doves' not encrusted with droppings?) The best I can say for Muti is that she seems to have begun her career very much as she meant to go on. No acting, but lots of energetically faked rumpy-pumpy. At least both ladies look gorgeous, thanks to lyrical camerawork by Fernando Arribas.
An arty but half-baked effort, The House of Doves is no threat to Lolita or Pretty Baby in the 'sexy schoolgirl' stakes. Very few people will enjoy this film. Fewer still, I suspect, will admit it.
"Do I LOOK Like I'm Joking?"
If you've ever longed to see Marcello Mastroianni being flogged in a tiger skin, What? is the film for you. He plays Alex, a smarmy ex-pimp who lives in one of those terminally fabulous villas that only seem to exist in Italian movies. He gets his other kicks by dressing up as Napoleon or crushing ping-pong balls with his feet.
Among the villa's other denizens are an arthritic pianist, a clutch of sex maniacs, an American husband and wife who bicker endlessly about time zones, a stone-faced German nurse who reads Nietzsche, a pair of sun-bronzed lesbians and a dying millionaire who expires with a blissful smile on his face - after getting a glimpse of the heroine's private parts. Sounds like a normal weekend round at my house...
Into this dislocated universe steps a wide-eyed, Henry James-ian innocent abroad. Sydne Rome plays a backpacking American hippie chick who escapes from an attempted gang rape on the Italian autostrada. (In their impatience to get at her, the would-be rapists get confused and start raping each other by mistake.) She hitches a ride to the villa in a giant metal cage, only to become the sexual plaything of all and sundry.
What? is one of those few movies to play on the obvious notion that 99% of all pornography is just plain silly - hence unwatchable to any viewer with even an elementary sense of the ridiculous. Its 'parody porn' screenplay reads like an LSD-fueled collaboration between Escher, Borges and Lewis Carroll. Not only is it far and away Roman Polanski's funniest film. It is also, quite possibly, his most stylish.
A well-timed revival of What? might do wonders to rescue Polanski from the Oscar-winning solemnity in which he has lately become mired.
Gli ultimi giorni di Pompeii (1926)
Mount Vesuvius, Mon Amour!
The last of the great silent Italian epics, The Last Days of Pompeii is as lavish as anything produced by Hollywood at that time - only much, much raunchier. During an orgy in the house of the evil priest Arbaces, naked slave girls are served up (literally!) on platters decked with flowers. A nubile mummy rises out of her sarcophagus to do a striptease and bare-breasted sphinx statues come to life as her chorus line. In the gladiators' tavern, wildly effeminate men (kohl-dark eyelids and lipstick as thick as clotted blood) drool and bat their eyes over so much naked, muscular flesh. All in all, the most satisfyingly decadent Ancient Rome saga until Fellini Satyricon in 1968!
In between the orgies and the rampant homoeroticism, directors Amleto Palermi and Carmine Gallone stick close to the Victorian melodramatics of Bulwer-Lytton's novel. The blind flower girl Nydia (Maria Korda) loves the dumb but good-hearted hunk Glaucus (Victor Varconi) who prefers the demure and aristocratic Ione (Rina de Liguoro). Ione, alas, is lusted after by the villainous Arbaces (Bernhard Goetzke) who also has a close...er...friendship with her brother Apicedes. A gorgeous young ephebe who resembles an Aubrey Beardsley angel, Apicedes can find nothing better to do than convert to Christianity. The best way, apparently, to 'wash himself clean of sin.'
You can always spot the Christians in these movies. They're the un-photogenic ones - the ones with glum faces and no jewels. But piety is no guarantee of salvation once Mount Vesuvius finally blows its top. The Grand Finale incorporates newsreel footage of an real volcanic eruption - so we're treated to the anachronistic but wholly delightful sight of two cameramen in modern dress, scurrying down the slopes to escape the burning lava! We watch, well-pleased, as the opulent sets crumble into still-more-opulent ruins. No, they really don't make 'em like that anymore! Not that anybody these days would have the nerve.
Kravgi gynaikon (1978)
Early on in A Dream of Passion, the embattled Greek diva played by Melina Mercouri is accused of "reducing the tragedy of Medea to the level of Ms. Magazine!" Blindly oblivious to his own warning, writer/director Jules Dassin goes on to do precisely that for the next hour-and-a-half. The result is one of those irresistibly awful films that contrive, somehow, to be more compelling than most good ones.
Returning to her native Greece to shoot a film of Euripides' tragedy, Mercouri's jet-setting grande dame meets and becomes obsessed with a dowdy, Bible-spouting American housewife (Ellen Burstyn) who committed the crime of Medea in real life. In other words, she murdered her three children as a way to punish her unfaithful husband. As the two women meet, merge and swap identities, Dassin tries hard to navigate the tortuously trendy Life-Or-Art labyrinth so beloved of Ingmar Bergman and Carlos Saura.
Unfortunately, Dassin is far too lumpish and literal-minded a director for such high-falutin head games. Mercouri flings herself headlong into her role as a glamorous tragedienne. It is, truly, a piece of Acting in the Grand Manner. Burstyn, predictably, is much more subtle - or about as subtle as a deranged fundamentalist child-murderer can possibly be. Alas, the acting styles of the two ladies are so diametrically opposed, it's impossible to picture them in the same universe, never mind the same film.
No matter. A Dream of Passion did hold me riveted throughout. If only for the mind-blowing, jaw-dropping pretentiousness on display!
La cena delle beffe (1942)
Bloodcurdling On-Screen - And Off!
As an evocation of the Italian Renaissance, this is a film so visually sumptuous that its only rival is Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet. Its drama, though, is less in the poetic vein of Shakespeare and more in the trashy blood-and-thunder style of the Jacobean playwrights. A dizzying brew of lust, sadism and obsessive (no, more like psychotic) revenge, La Cena delle Beffe was a predictable shock to the straight-laced censors in Mussolini's Italy.
Most of their horror was reserved for the graphic near-rape of the lading lady, Clara Calamai, cast convincingly enough as an amoral courtesan in 16th century Florence. Glimpse the first shot of naked breasts in the Italian sound cinema, as the lusty but none-too-bright Neri (Amedeo Nazzari) seizes her by force from the brainy but reptilian Giannetto (Osvaldo Valenti). The loser, of course, wreaks a brutal revenge. He has Neri declared mad, bound up and tortured by a parade of cast-off mistresses and cuckolded husbands.
This tale becomes all the more chilling once we realise that Valenti - whose performance here makes Laurence Olivier as Richard III look like a Boy Scout - was allegedly a notorious Fascist in his off-screen life. He and his wife Luisa Ferida, who plays a small role as one of the ex-mistresses, were among the lunatic fringe accused of collaborating with Il Duce for his last blood-soaked stand in the Republic of Salo. Come the Liberation, the couple were gunned down by left-wing Partisans.
Never mind. La Cena delle Beffe is just a movie... Or is it?
La note bleue (1991)
The Definitive Film of the Romantic Age!
Exquisitely portraying the last days of 19th century Europe's most infamous 'celebrity romance,' the Franco-Polish director Andrzej Zulawski has made a film that defines an era. Just as the Middle Ages (for us cinephiles) will always be Bergman's The Seventh Seal, or the Belle Epoque will always be Visconti's Death in Venice, so the Romantic Age will always be (for the lucky few who've had a chance to see it) Zulawski's La Note Bleue.
The fact that the Bergman and Visconti films are world-famous, while Zulawski's has barely been heard of outside his small circle of diehard fans, should be enough to convince you (if you're not convinced already) that distribution of world cinema really has hit rock-bottom in the Age of Miramax. Trust me, La Note Bleue is an unqualified masterpiece! Having seen it once, I would happily sell my soul for a chance to see it again.
The story itself is a familiar one. The exiled Polish composer Chopin (played by Janusz Olejniak, a real-life Polish pianist with no prior acting experience) is living with his mistress, the romantic novelist George Sand (Marie-France Pisier) in her idyllic country retreat at Nohant. After years of tempestuous on-and-off passion, Chopin still loves his lady, but his eye is turning more and more towards her provocative and nubile daughter (Sophie Marceau).
How is their 'conflict' resolved? Well, it isn't, really - for the simple reason that nothing in life ever truly is. The turbulent trio entertain a houseful of illustrious guests. Among them are the writer Alexandre Dumas, fils (mourning the death of his real-life Lady of the Camellias) and the opera diva Pauline Viardot (trilling some sublime Bellini arias on the soundtrack). Sand's handsome but sinister son models puppet look-alikes of all the guests. Acrobats from a travelling circus float among the trees, like diaphanous orange phantoms.
Each one of the performances is flawless. As George Sand, Marie-France Pisier is every inch the seductive but maddening 'monstre sacre' of so much literary myth. Sophie Marceau is irresistible as her daughter - half-Lolita, half-Lady Macbeth - the first stage of her evolution from Gallic teenage sexpot to mature actress. As for Olejniak, I can only believe he was an acting neophyte because Zulawski said so himself.
In every word and gesture, every sublimely beautiful image of this film, you see the Romantic Era come to life. You sit in awe, nod your head dumbly, and think "Yes, it was really like this!" If it wasn't, History got it wrong.
A Gorgeous Gothic Opera
The opening of this film treats us to Klaus Kinski in twice his usual state of delirium - thrashing about in a shadowy, cobweb-laden crypt. He's playing Edgar Allan Poe, and he looks the very embodiment of an absinthe-soaked poete maudit. His role, alas, turns out to be little more than a glorified cameo! Still, he sets the tone admirably for the next 90 minutes of flickering candelabra, ethereal vampire beauties and white muslin curtains billowing softly by moonlight.
It would be easy to dismiss this movie as a compendium of Gothic horror cliches. Easy but unfair, I feel. Like any other highly stylised art form (Romantic ballet, bel canto opera...) a Gothic tale rests on a set of unreal and perhaps arbitrary conventions. Much of a fan's pleasure depends on how faithfully, how stylishly, these conventions are played out. In truest Gothic horror tradition, Nella Stretta Morsa del Ragno does very little that's new - but does it in grand style!
In a nutshell, the fiendishly deranged Poe inveigles a young journalist (Anthony Franciosa) into spending a night in a creepy old mansion. The family who inhabit this mansion seem to spend all their time dying and coming back to life. The rest of the 'plot' is predictable enough, but Michele Mercier (as the most glamorous ghoul) looks stunning whether dead or undead. Her romantic agonies are offset by Ottavio Scotti's splendid Gothic art direction. If the editing and camerawork look a little choppy at times, I blame the ghastly pan-and-scan job on my video copy.
A Post-Modern Pirates of the Caribbean!
How wondrously weird a concoction this is! A swashbuckling, all-woman pirate melodrama in 70s Jacobean drag. (OK, we see a few men round the edges, but their role is purely decorative - like Olivia de Havilland in an old Errol Flynn movie.) It's been adapted very freely from Cyril Tourneur's play The Revenger's Tragedy, so the soundtrack shifts from French into English for the more lyrical bits of verse. Music is provided by an on-screen chamber orchestra, fiddling away in a corner of a dank Breton castle.
"No," you decide every five minutes or so. "It cannot possibly get any more bizarre than this!" Lo and behold, it promptly does. Bernadette Laffont makes a splendidly wicked Pirate Queen, in the cross-dressing tradition of Joan Crawford in Johhny Guitar or Barbara Stanwyck in Forty Guns. The normally fragile and tremulous Geraldine Chaplin makes a suprisingly ruthless, full-blooded avenger. She must have the most wonderfully long, sinuous hands of any screen performer since Max Schreck in Nosferatu.
An unmissable treat for anyone who has a weak spot for truly deranged cinema, Noroit is widely unavailable these days. Like its companion piece Duelle, it's part of a four-part series that director Jacques Rivette was never able to complete. A great shame! I find both these films utterly compulsive and hypnotic, while much of Rivette's later work is tediously dry and academic. Even in the most dismal of worn-out video copies, taped off some obscure German cable channel at 4 AM, Noroit and Duelle are worth seeking out.
La morte non ha sesso (1968)
'Gilda' Goes Giallo!
So few Euro directors have done more to exile themselves from the arthouse pantheon than Massimo Dallamano. His work is slick, trashy and stylish in the manner of a fashion supplement in one of the cheaper Sunday newspapers. Yet at least three of his films are compelling studies in morbid sexuality and erotic obsession. A Black Veil for Lisa is nowhere near as famous as Venus in Furs or Dorian Gray, but it's still an intriguing brew. Imagine a giallo version of Proust's La Prisonniere with sex, drugs and serial killings thrown into the mix.
Like the other two films, it has a protagonist whose physical beauty and sexual magnetism leave her immune to the qualms of everyday good behaviour. Lisa is played by Luciana Paluzzi - a voluptuous, flame-haired tigress who's best remembered as the bad girl in Thunderball. Like almost every Bond girl since Ursula Andress, she somehow failed to become a great star. Bitterly unjust, as Paluzzi in this film is a femme fatale to rival Rita Hayworth in Gilda. We can well understand the anxieties of her drab and dreary husband (John Mills) who obsessively polices her every move.
The mystery, of course, is why Lisa married this old dolt in the first place. Suspecting his wife of sleeping around, Mills commits a grave breach of professional ethics (he's a police inspector, no less) and blackmails a hunky hitman (Robert Hoffmann) to kill her. Naturally, Lisa and said hitman fall in love...and there are plenty more twists where that came from. A Black Veil for Lisa could never be mistaken for Art. Still, it's a potent reminder that Trash is often more fun!
D'amore si muore (1972)
...If The Costumes Don't Kill You First!
Spoilers? Few Surprises Here to Spoil!
No fan of 70s fashion at its most lurid should miss D'Amore Si Muore. The clothes in this film are so wondrously over-the-top, they throw its morbid romanticism into comic relief. "I don't love you, I adore you," sighs Lino Capolicchio over the telephone. "I'll only be happy when you are dead." He plays a hypersensitive film student, obsessively in love with a free-spirited older woman (Silvana Mangano). Unable to cope with his chronic emotional neediness (who can blame her?) Mangano dumps him and he commits suicide. The bulk of his story is told in flashback.
This youth's other great obsession is Maria Callas, whose posters adorn his room, and whose voice warbles Il Trovatore on the soundtrack. A clue - as if we needed one - that D'Amore Si Muore (like most other films written or directed by Giuseppe Patroni Griffi) is really a gay love story in heterosexual drag. That may explain the presence of Milva, a campy pop diva who was Italy's answer to Barbra Streisand and Dusty Springfield. She acquits herself surprisingly well in an acting role, as a slutty 'other woman.'
As for la Mangano, she manages to look as effortlessly lovely in white trouser suits and gold batik jackets as she did in her sumptuous Belle Epoque gowns in Death in Venice. Her role gives her nothing to do but look gorgeous and be idolised by young men, but I must say she fills it to perfection. The real star, however - and the main object of the camera's interest - is darkly handsome Luc Merenda. As a would-be actor who stars in arty underground porn flicks, he spends his time lounging about shirtless in skin-tight jeans.
Le jeu avec le feu (1975)
Art or Porn...Or Does It Matter?
A series of elegantly kinky erotic tableaux, strung together by a mock-thriller plot, this may be Alain Robbe-Grillet's most linear and accessible film. Mind you, an 'accessible' Robbe-Grillet is like a 'good' Ben Affleck movie. Strictly a relative term, and allowances have to be made.
The plot (as far as I can discern one) has Philippe Noiret as a corrupt tycoon teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Desperate to raise a few francs, he decides to fake the kidnapping of his own daughter (Anicee Alvina) and pocket the ransom. He locks the girl up for safe-keeping in a deluxe Art Nouveau brothel, where he himself is a regular client.
In real life, this 'brothel' is the interior of the Palais Garnier - for years the theatre of the Paris Opera. This may be symbolic in some highly obscure way; offscreen voices keep warbling snatches of Il Trovatore. The randy Robbe-Grillet, meanwhile, indulges in all his usual fetishes: torture, lesbianism, necrophilia... One young lady has a 'close personal friendship' with a mastiff hound.
Participating in the fun and games are a young and exceptionally lovely Sylvia Kristel and French soft-porno legend Joelle Coeur. The images are so glacially beautiful, they look like a Helmut Newton photo album sprung to life. Yet are we to take this as a serious avant-garde experiment in the style of Alain Resnais? Or is it just a slice of arty smut? Robbe-Grillet himself seems not to know the answer. Or if he does, he's keeping it well-hidden.
The Dreamers (2003)
How To Ruin A Brilliant Novel, or Tragedy of a Sadly Repressed Man...
A claustrophobic study of sexual and cinematic obsession, Gilbert Adair's novel The Holy Innocents seems tailor-made for a film by Bernardo Bertolucci. I mean, it has everything - androgyny, incest, bisexuality, Maoist revolution and old movies. It even has a bit of anal sex, which was so memorably brought to the screen by Bertolucci in Last Tango in Paris.
So we go in expecting a classic Bertolucci film - no, not prettified schmaltz like Stealing Beauty or Little Buddha, but the real thing! What do we get? A bland and vacuous teen romance with just a hint of polymorphous perversity round the edges. As if, some time back in the 80s, Brat Pack auteur John Hughes had said to Andrew McCarthy and Molly Ringwald - "Hey, kids! Let's go to Paris and make a REAL DIRTY movie! Neat, huh?"
Working hand in hand with author Adair, Bertolucci has systematically stripped his story of everything that made it dark, dangerous and compelling in the first place. Gone is the incest between French nymphet Isabelle (Eva Green) and her brother Theo (Louis Garrel). Ditto the homosexual love between Theo and the naive American hero (Michael Pitt) Psychologically, The Dreamers is a study of a bisexual menage a trois. Physically, it shows almost nothing that couldn't happen at a Mormon church summer camp.
As for the clips from old movies (Blonde Venus, Queen Christina, Top Hat) that punctuate the trio's cine-sexual games, their brilliance serves only to remind us just how mediocre a film-maker Bertolucci has become. Almost uniquely among his oeuvre, The Dreamers doesn't even LOOK gorgeous! Back in the 70s, Bertolucci used to buoy up his fragile talent with cameraman Vittorio Storaro, designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti. They're both gone now, and it's not a pretty sight.
Similarly, he used to populate his films with gorgeous otherworldly beings like Dominique Sanda, Pierre Clementi, Stefania Sandrelli. As for the pretty young leads in The Dreamers, they have almost enough talent and charisma for a VERY short role in a sequel to some teen slasher movie. I KNOW WHAT YOU DID IN PARIS LAST SUMMER!! But frankly, I just don't care.
Siamo donne (1953)
Four Great Ladies, Four So-So Ideas
A real curio, this one. Four famous actresses play themselves in four sketches, each one based (allegedly) on an incident from her own life. Mind you, only a saint or a masochist would have the patience to sit through the first part, directed by producer Alfredo Guarini - where two unknown girls go for screen test at Cinecitta Studios in Rome. Don't worry, this is family entertainment, so no unseemly fumbling about on casting couches for these two.
It does pick up considerably once the divas appear. Alida Valli goes to an engagement party for her humble masseuse, and is taken aback when the other guests treat her 'like a star' - and she herself feels a forbidden attraction to the girl's future husband. Ingrid Bergman engages in a war of nerves with a recalcitrant chicken. (No, I'm not joking!) Isa Miranda drives an injured boy to hospital, and regrets having no children of her own. Anna Magnani rages at a taxi driver who dares charge extra for her toy dog. At the end, she goes onstage and sings. Divinely.
Like any film made up of sketches, Siamo Donne is wildly uneven. The Bergman and Miranda episodes are wafer-thin, and seem overlong even at 15 to 20 minutes. Valli's is beautifully observed, and directed with great sensitivity by Gianni Franciolini. The Magnani sketch may be a one-woman show, but director Luchino Visconti still contrives to show lots of pretty young men posing about in uniform. Good to know some things never change.
Hold On To Your Hats!
In the 30s and 40s - while recuperating from the horrors of Civil War - the cinema in Franco's Spain came up with its very own answer to Garbo and Dietrich. Her name was Conchita Montenegro, and her forte was wearing extravagant hats. Well, not only hats... Her shoes and her gowns are quite absorbing too, and her numerous wardrobe changes kept me spellbound all through the 82 minutes of Idolos. Thank God, say I. This lush romantic melodrama has nothing in the way of a plot.
Conchita is cast as a glamorous Parisian film star. That's just as well, for I seriously doubt she could play anyone else. La Montenegro doesn't just look like a star. She walks like a star, talks like a star. When she gazes soulfully into the camera, or performs a Belle Epoque song-and-dance routine, she does it as only a star could ever do. For all I know, this lady even breathes and sleeps and goes to the bathroom like a star. How I long to lay hands on more of Conchita's films, so I can revel in her phenomenal range!
So much for her 'character' - now for the 'plot.' Said Parisian film star tours all over Spain to prepare for her next role. She meets a handsome matador. They fall in love. (Well, you don't go to Spain to fall in love with a plumber, now do you?) Back in Paris, a sleazy producer gets jealous and ruins her career. Our heroine is reduced (shock! horror!) to modelling dresses in a shop. That, you see, is the only other job that will allow Conchita to wear more clothes.
The very camp director of the fashion house eyes up the matador, as he charges in to save his lady love from this Fate Worse Than Death. Speaking of which, director Florian Rey once made decent films (in the long-gone days of the Republic) but don't let his fate depress you unduly. Just keep your eye on those hats!
A 'Spaghetti' Carmen!
Scores of films have been inspired by Georges Bizet's opera Carmen, but here is one with a difference. The director Luigi Bazzoni (working with Italy's most illustrious script-writer, Suso Cecchi d'Amico) chose to ditch the opera, go back to Prosper Merimee's original novella - and shoot it in the style of a Spaghetti Western!
Bazzoni's camerawork is more frenetic than inventive, and his film never quite works. Still, it does boast a wondrous cast. Franco Nero, blue eyes blazing in his dark-bronzed face, is the naive young soldier Jose. Klaus Kinski, teeth gnashing and lips curling in his usual manner, is the sadistic bandit Garcia. And lovely Tina Aumont enjoys a rare leading role as Carmen - the amoral and seductive gypsy who drags both men to their doom.
Aumont may not be the world's greatest actress. (In fact, she can barely act at all!) But like her mother, Maria 'Cobra Woman' Montez, she seems to have the words FEMME FATALE emblazoned in bright scarlet letters across her forehead. Her enormous dark eyes are wells of untold depravity. Her pouting, voluptuous mouth would lure any man to his ruin. If you remember anything in this film, it will be her.