Wrapped Around Her Finger: Elena and Her Men (1956)

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To view Elena and Her Men click here.

In its time Elena and Her Men (1956) was something of a disaster for Jean Renoir, a succession of problems (contested rights, fevers, bad accents) for which he struggled to find solutions. It was a box office and critical dud, and ended any hope of Renoir returning to Hollywood. To read its production history in Pascal Merigeau’s Jean Renoir: A Biography is akin to attending a wake. And yet the film itself is an effervescent thing, an improbable farce about a coup d’etat that positively shimmers with invention. For years Renoir had tried to find a project for Ingrid Bergman, and attracted her with a chance to do light comedy, not something she’d had many opportunities to perform. But due to the stresses of filming both French and English versions of the film (in the U.S. it was titled Paris Does Strange Things), Renoir was miserable during its production and considered its box office failure the final word, dismissing it in interviews. But I would tend to agree with Jean-Luc Godard, one of the film’s only contemporaneous defenders (along with André Bazin), who wrote that Elena and Her Men is the “French film par excellence.”

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India Song: The River (1951)

The River (1951) Directed by Jean Renoir Shown: Adrienne Corri (right)

To view The River click here.

“In The River the screen no longer exists; there is nothing but reality.” - André Bazin

I have long been tantalized by this Bazin quote, which Dave Kehr included in his capsule review of The River for the Chicago Reader. It seems absurd on the face of it, as Renoir’s 1951 feature is blatantly artificial, shot in blazing Technicolor on a mix of studio sets and a refurbished Indian home. Bazin does not mean to say the film is documentary in any way, but that it captures the reality of the artifice, or to put it yet another way like Picasso, it is a lie to get to the truth. Renoir took a coming-of-age memoir and peeled back so much incident and plot that what remains is more reverie than narrative, leaving time to linger on faces and landscapes and the ever flowing Ganges. The emblematic images for me are a montage of naps which Renoir zooms in on with swaying drowsiness, aping the drift into unconsciousness. The film as a whole has the same kind of lulling effect, and if you lock into its tempo the screen will drop away as it did for Bazin, revealing eternal verities. If not, you’ll see an uneventful travelogue with pretty cinematography, which still isn’t too shabby.

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On A Short Film About Killing (1988)

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To view A Short Film About Killing click here.

I used to work in the DVD division of Facets Multi-Media, a Chicago arts organization devoted to showing, distributing and preserving foreign, avant-garde and documentary films. Facets was the first to own the North American distribution rights to The Decalogue, Krysztof Kieslowski’s ten-part series inspired by the Ten Commandments that he made for Polish television. My role in the release of the series on this side of the Atlantic involved everything from checking the authored discs to editing the subtitles to producing the booklet inserted in each package. In the process, I viewed each hour-long episode at least half a dozen times, and to say they hold up on repeated viewings is an understatement. Episodes V and VI were expanded by Kieslowski to feature-length films and released to theaters. A Short Film About Killing (1988) and A Short Film About Love (1988) are both available on FilmStruck.

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Sifting through Ashes and Diamonds (1958)

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To view Ashes and Diamonds click here.

Is it possible for a film to be revered as a world classic and influence an entire generation of its country’s filmmakers yet still be underrated? In the case of Ashes and Diamonds (1958), the best-known film from the great Andrzej Wajda (whom we lost last year), the answer could very well be yes. The film was a major salvo in the onslaught of Polish masterpieces made in the wake of Stalinist control in the country, and it made a world cinema superstar out of Wajda, regularly turning up in film retrospectives and popping up on best-of lists for decades. More recently it was inaugurated into the Criterion Collection and was included in Martin Scorsese’s internationally traveling film series Masterpieces of Polish Cinema a few years ago, which went all over Europe as well as New York and Los Angeles. [...MORE]

The Song Remains the Same: Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance (1974)

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To view Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance click here.

Last week we left our intrepid Lady Snowblood wounded and desperate, crawling towards an uncertain future. In Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance (1974), she is all healed up and hacking away at the gangrenous Japanese government. In the first Lady Snowblood (1973) she successfully tracked down and dispatched the four tormentors of her late mother, so all of her personal scores have been settled. In the more diffuse sequel, she is a katana-for-hire, a paid assassin pretty high up on the police’s most wanted list. Departing from the original manga, screenwriter Norio Osada throws Ms. Snowblood into the battle between a group of anarchists and the sociopathic head of the military’s secret police. It is less a commentary on the Meiji period in which it is set than the then-contemporary struggle of the United Red Army against the Japanese government. In this sequel, Lady Snowblood puts her loyalties squarely with the revolutionaries.

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Set Your Clock for Hour of the Wolf (1968)

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To view Hour of the Wolf click here.

It’s still a bit of a kept secret that almost every great world director from the 1960s and 1970s made a horror film at some point. Fellini and Malle did it. So did Kubrick. And, yes, Ingmar Bergman has one, too, even if you don’t count the supernatural eeriness of Fanny and Alexander (1984) or the harrowing revenge tale The Virgin Spring (1960). I’m talking about Hour of the Wolf (1968), an often overlooked tangent in between his bigger and more traditionally dramatic arthouse hits, Persona (1966) and Shame (1968), which stars two of his most reliable and powerful repertory members, Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullmann. This was one of seven features the stars made together, though only three were for Bergman.

Hour of the Wolf, or Vargtimmen in Swedish, also happens to be one of the granddaddies of the “isolated artist/writer loses his mind” subgenre of horror film, a now-storied tradition that includes The House that Dripped Blood (1971), Seizure (1974), The Shining (1980) and Secret Window (2004). Here Von Sydow has the honors as Johan, who lives on a remote island with pregnant wife Alma (Ullmann). We know from the start that something terrible has happened since Johan has gone missing with only his diaries and his wife’s memories delivered to the camera as evidence he lived there, and we soon come to learn that he was perpetually haunted by nightmarish visions during the title hour – the darkest, deepest time of night when, according to Bergman, the highest number of people are born and die. (More poetically, “It is the hour when most people die, when sleep is deepest, when nightmares are more real.”) Johan draws the various apparitions that plague him, who look like people except for unnerving habits like removing their faces and eyeballs. He’s also accosted by an aggressive art critic and seems drawn to an enigmatic baron on the other side of the island, where strange denizens like to congregate. [...MORE]

Vengeance is Hers: Lady Snowblood (1973)

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To view Lady Snowblood click here.

Lady Snowblood (1973) is an aria of arterial spray, gushing in myriad patterns against a variety of white fabrics. It takes Jean-Luc Godard’s tossed off comment that the blood in Pierrot Le Fou (1965) is “Not blood” but “red” to its logical conclusion, a festival of artfully composed throat-slittings and torso hackings. Blood spits out of human bodies like when Mentos are dropped into a bottle of Diet Coke. It frames killing as pure artifice, executed with impassive grace by the beautiful Meiko Kaji, seeking revenge for the mother she never knew. The story is faithfully adapted from the original comic book, of a child marked from birth to be a vengeance machine, to hunt down her mother’s tormentors regardless of the sacrifices to her own life. One of the greatest comic-book adaptations, it serves as the template for all subsequent female one-man-army films, from Ms. 45 (1981) to Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003) all the way up to the upcoming Atomic Blonde (2017).

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The Mad King: The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

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To view The Private Life of Henry VIII click here.

Henry VIII rose to the throne in 1509  after his father, Henry VII died. His father was the last man to ascend the throne through battle, Richard III being slain on the field in The Battle of Bosworth. But son Henry VIII never earned his throne through battle and was born with a sense of monstrous entitlement that would carry over into adulthood, and make its impact on the entire empire. In fact, his time on the throne would see the power of the monarch expand beyond anything previously imagined. Four hundred years later, in 1933, Alexander Korda would bring Henry’s personal life to the screen with The Private Life of Henry VIII, starring Charles Laughton in the title role. It became a box office hit and, to this day, Laughton’s portrayal of Henry is what most people think of when they think of Henry VIII, even if they’ve never seen the movie or heard of Charles Laughton. It’s like Robert Newton’s portrayal of Long John Silver in Disney’s Treasure Island (1950). It doesn’t matter if you’ve never seen it or heard of Newton (though, if not, shame on you), your idea of a pirate probably comes from him. But Laughton’s performance, as good as it is, stands in service to a film that has only 97 precious minutes to tell a tale that could easily fill three hours and then some.

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Mifune: The Last Samurai (2015)

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To view the work of Toshirô Mifune on FIlmStruck, click here.

A quick search of Filmstruck brought up an impressive 24 films featuring the late great Toshirô Mifune including Drunken Angel (1948), Stray Dog (1949), Rashomon (1950), Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957), The Bad Sleep Well (1960), Yojimbo (1961), Red Beard (1965) and Samurai Rebellion (1967). Mifune was a giant in the world of Japanese cinema and although I’ve written a little bit about his background in the past in pieces such as Toshiro Mifune, Japan’s John Wayne and in my review of his first film, Snow Trail (1947), I wanted to know more about the man who had appeared in so many of my favorite Japanese films. My curiosity led me to recently watch Mifune: The Last Samurai (2015). This 80-minute-long feature directed by Steven Okazki and narrated by Keanu Reeves is the first documentary to offer a careful examination of Mifune’s life and work. It is not available on FilmStruck at the moment but Mifune: The Last Samurai is a nice companion piece to their current programming and should be of interest to anyone who wants to know more about the rich history of Japanese cinema.

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Shore Leave: Querelle (1982)

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To view Querelle click here.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder passed away on the morning of June 10, 1982, three weeks into the editing of his final feature Querelle. The New York Times reported that, “a video-cassette machine that he had been using was still running at 5 A.M., Munich time, when Miss Lorenz [Julie Lorenz, his roommate and editor] discovered his body.” He died of an overdose of sleeping pills and cocaine – he had long been pushing his body to extremes while shooting some 45 features in 15 years. Querelle is not a summation or a final statement, as Fassbinder was constantly shifting, poking and exploring his stylistic palette. New paths emerged within every film, and Querelle is just another fork in the road before his heart gave out, but it is a feverishly beautiful one. Querelle is a free adaptation of Jean Genet’s 1947 novel Querelle of Brest, about a dope-dealing seaman involved in a murder while on shore leave, while grappling with his repressed and newly emerging homosexual desires. Frankly erotic and garishly artificial, shot on horizonless soundstages and bathed in orange and blue filtered light, it is both ridiculous and sublime.

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