17.4.15

Suspiria

"In fact if you want to give a deeper reading of the film, it can be seen as a vaguely lesbian story; where lesbianism has a certain importance. Or, more precisely, where the relationships between women are sometimes of a lesbian nature and are characterised by power struggles. But because society at the time was more prudish than today, I couldn't fully express the lesbian theme and I really regret this."

That's Dario Argento rebutting the argument that he is a misogynist. And it's true that the film's male characters are largely ineffectual. The people that carry the story (such as it is) forwards are all women – the children lost in the dark woods of Germany, and the wicked witches to be found within. One of the (female) critics on the DVD denied that the nubile girls under threat are objectified by the camera, but personally I think that's a difficult argument to make with all the swimsuits, tight jumpers and loose bathrobes in the film.

The quote above seems to elide the power struggle and the desire between the older and younger women. Perhaps the former arises out of the latter, but in any case it's hardly a healthy portrayal of lesbianism. The motives of the witches are unexplained, but the simplest reading might be that the superpowered crone at the head of the coven resents the youth and beauty of the children at her ballet school. This drives her to murder those who try to escape her clutches, or uncover her embarrassingly depleted self.

But I'm over-analysing, because the film doesn't operate by the standards of plot-driven giallo. Empiricism is chucked out of the window by the professor who insists that magic is all around us. Maybe not in the real world, but the magic of cinema is certainly omnipresent in the film. Lighting, framing and music invade and overshadow the narrative completely. The story is just the scaffolding Argento uses to conduct a series of experiments with his band and his cinematographer in building tension and release.

And it has dated horribly – the direction and soundtrack is so in your face that you are never allowed to sink into the situation and genuinely experience the terror inherent in it. Instead the film feels ridiculous, nowhere more so than when one of the victims foolishly jumps into a mass of razorwire in fleeing her assailant. In fact, the film's structure is rather repetitive – being a series of discreet sequences that lead to an improbably bloody murder. Describing it as pornographic is not actually that wide off the mark, in that it's flat, predictable, and a little bit dull.

13.4.15

Tristana

Quite a sprawling and indulgent picture, unlike the last two Buñuel films I've seen and blogged. It's shot in Toledo and set in the 1930s, a place and time that has personal significance for the director, and may have encouraged digressions and superfluities. The strengths of the film lie in the two leads. Fernando Rey plays a bourgeois anarchist, with all the hypocrisy that entails. Buñuel sees not a little of himself in Rey, so the mockery is moderated. While the character pontificates about freedom, at home he behaves like a tyrant. Worse, he seduces his ward and then gets dreadfully jealous when she earns to escape his clammy grasp. But Buñuel allows some tenderness to seep in, particularly after his pseudo daughter becomes disabled. Deneuve reprises her role of chaste maiden learning about her own desires. But in the second half of the film she becomes darker, a sexual exhibitionist and would-be murderer.

The best moments in the film are where the quirks and about-turns of the two characters shine through – Deneuve's pleasure in choosing (even when the choices are near identical), Rey's insistence that all work that isn't pleasurable is base, Deneuve revealing her breasts to her deaf childhood playmate, Rey drinking chocolate with the priests. The one note of surrealism is a recurring dream Deneuve has of Rey's severed and bloody head as the clapper of a bell – a symbol of her sexual desire, her violent urges, and of her rebellion against the church.

12.4.15

Hiroshima Mon Amour

I thought the first words of the film – "you saw nothing in Hiroshima" – may be intended to console rather than accuse, since it plays into the theme of forgetting in order to continue living. But it's also a confession from the scriptwriter that she wasn't able to address the event directly in the script. Should we forgive her?

Resnais does a good job of editing together selections of a Japanese documentary on the effects of the bomb to convey a sense of what it must have been like, and also to suggest the feelings an uninvolved observer would have.

But there is still something off-putting about setting a film about a woman's experience of occupied France in Hiroshima. Her painful memories are dredged up by a Japanese man she has an affair with. As we don't have access to his memories, he remains little more than a device. In the end, so too is the Japanese setting, and even the documentary images at the beginning. It quickly becomes apparent that the film is all about the French woman, not the Japanese man and the city he lives in.

And perhaps we shouldn't expect a French director and writer to do anything else. But what makes me less willing to accept that is the strange flatness of the main character. Her forgotten romance feels pat, the scenarios cliché, the language pretentious. This is acknowledged by the narrator (and thus the filmmakers), but the effect is to distance you from the film, rather than lead you to think about the film's purpose – exploring the nature of memory and the way we narrate our pasts.

The effect of smashing together a love story and a war documentary is there in the title. And the suggestion that we need forgetfulness and fiction to be capable of continuing to live our lives is an obvious theme that arises from that. But with characters this wooden and opaque, it's difficult to really warm to what the film is trying to say.

10.4.15

Q1 2015 favourite tracks

My picks from soundcloud over the past three months, which have otherwise largely been spent catching up to things I've missed from 2014 (Tinashe, K Michelle, Miranda Lambert and those Keysound and Audio Rehab compilations).

1. Redlight x Tinashe - Pretend
2. Stormzy - Know Me From
3. Sam Binga feat. Redders - Lef Dem (Enei Remix)
4. Jammz - Hit Then Run
5. Kero Kero Bonito - Picture This
6. Darq E Freaker feat. Dai Burger - Choppin Necks
7. Jubei & DRS - The Puppeteer
8. Pearson Sound - Glass Eye
9. Murlo feat. Gemma Dunleavy - Jasmine
10. TC4 feat. Arlissa - Something About You
11. Toyboy & Robin feat. Camden Cox - 300 Degrees
12. Flava D & Miss Fire - Closer

Soundcloud playlist is here, and is certainly going to grow as the year progresses.

30.3.15

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

A very long adaptation of a Japanese fairytale from Studio Ghibli. The court vs country dichotomy it sets up – whereby the titular heroine wants nothing more than to frolic with the peasant children while her father does his best to marry her off to the wealthy and powerful – is laboured. And the finale, in which a mean silent Buddha kidnaps the Princess so she can live with her own people on the moon, is more than a little ridiculous. But behind these conflicts is the more simple and devastating story of two parents trying to make their child happy and getting it disastrously wrong. Perhaps I'm in a sentimental mood, but it's the second time I've been teary at watching a film this weekend.

24.3.15

Belle De Jour

The shot that encapsulates the whole film might be the one establishing the final scene, in which Séverine's house is overlayed with the forest from her fantasies – the two worlds of reality and the imagination reunited. Séverine is a bourgeois housewife whose husband is completely devoted to her. Her masochistic sexuality is suppressed, and she cannot be intimate with him. Buñuel and his screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière apparently talked to prostitutes, madams, psychiatrists and psychologists in order to compile real material for the film and try to portray female desire accurately.* Carrière stresses that they (being male filmmakers) were amateurs in the field, but it's nonetheless interesting that there's very little that smacks of the male gaze in the final film. Deneuve wasn't happy with the shots of the black see-through veil, but on the whole nudity is sparse and the camera cuts as soon as the sex starts. Buñuel seems more interested in exploring the weirdest sexual kinks he can find, all with the intention to make us let go of our hang-ups and accept the crazy people we are. The violent but beautiful criminal youth is little more that a plot device. The spirit of the film is probably best embodied by the louche Michel Piccoli, a rich libertine who is entirely at ease with humanity's perversions, and whose interventions help Séverine come to terms with her sexuality, and finally reunite her with her husband.


*Séverine's masochism grew out of the need to fit the character into the plot (supplied by a novel Buñuel didn't much care for), so only a particular facet of female desire is explored in the film.

22.3.15

The Diary of a Chambermaid

"In Buñuel's films, all men are facets of the libido, all women resemblances of love" says David Thomson, my trusted guide to the history of cinema. Much as I disapprove of this reflex to assign genders to character traits, it's difficult not to warm to Jeanne Moreau – who seems to have wandered out of heaven and into a depraved and dangerous 1930s French countryside. Surrealism and symbol are a muted presence. We meet Little Red Riding Hood and the huntsman at the beginning, but the latter is a useless clown, and the former is unable to defend herself from the wolf in the forest. She is raped and killed, and the chambermaid takes it upon herself to avenge her death. In an early scene she hands the little girl an apple – perhaps suggesting that what men see as temptation is only ever supposed to be kindness. The villain is an intriguing creation, swearing loyalty to army, religion and nation, a believer in order in every particular. But he corners Moreau, and accuses her of having the same soul as he does. Is this true? Thomson's reading makes me doubt it. Moreau is a worldly Parisienne. Everyone in the countryside assumes she used to be a whore – but she's there to reflect what others want to see in her. She's the vehicle for Buñuel's critiques, and an angel caught up in the obscene affairs of human beings. She's not a real person.

18.3.15

'The same poverty then extends over human life as extends over the countryside if the weather is overcast. Overcast weather, when the sun is filtered by the clouds and the play of light goes dim, appears to "reduce things to what they are". The error is obvious: What is before me is never anything less than the universe; the universe is not a thing and I am not at all mistaken when I see its brilliance in the sun. But if the sun is hidden I more clearly see the barn, the field, the hedgerow. I no longer see the splendor of the light that played over the barn; rather I see this barn or this hedgerow like a screen between the universe and me.' - Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share

15.3.15

Céline and Julie Go Boating

Hard for me not to read things in a feminist direction, and with this film I won't try. It's funny to me that most of the discussion around its themes centre on memory and storytelling. I think Rivette is only interested in the former as a function of the latter – how stories interact with our own memories and experience. But all of that ignores the central movement of the film: that of two women claiming agency of their lives and the stories they tell.

And they do this through each other. Céline impersonates Julie and disarms her childhood sweetheart, the conventions of romantic love and the pathologies of male desire. Julie returns the favour by impersonating Céline, calling out her exploitative employers at the cabaret and the pathological male desire it services. Both run away from the restrictive worlds of love and work, which they find boring and patronising.

And they are sucked into the drama of the haunted house, where two sisters pine for an unreachable widower (who rather than wiving one of them appears more interested in the housekeeper). These ghostly ladies revolve around the uncertain affections of a dour Byronic hero, and their mania will lead to the death of his young daughter. Céline and Julie, having saved each other, conspire to save the child from the restrictive story she is trapped in. They invade the narrative, making the ghostly ladies dull and ridiculous by comparison. And they end up escaping from it all, with the young girl joining their troupe.

Arguably, Rivette's focus on running away into the imagination is not a serious response to objectification, which eventually requires engagement with the worlds of love and work in order to end it. But the portrayal of Céline and Julie's solidarity – with each other and with all young girls caught up in other people's stories – mitigates that. Their irreverent example is practical up to a point. You need the space to reject the dominant narrative before you advance and change it. And 40 years on, this film definitely feels like part of that advance.