Somewhere (Sofia Coppola, USA, 2010)

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somewhere poster

This is about a Hollywood film star, Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), kind of lost, marriage failed, all his wishes are met but they’re not really desires because all he’s got to do is look and he gets offered it. He doesn’t even need to ask. Girls flash their tits at him everywhere he turns and, tired though he is, he’s eager to please and be pleased, though sometimes he’s so tired he falls asleep doing it. Once in a while he returns home with his daughter to find random women in his bed and has to shoo them away, but always with a wistful regret that charms and seduces even at the moment of rejection. He’s so agreeable he can’t understand why they keep getting pissed off at him when he can’t give them more. He’s professional in his job and nice to everyone but detached.

The film begins with a beautiful sequence, a long take of a black Ferrari racing around an empty road in the desert. The Ferrari races in and out of the frame whilst the camera maintains its ground gazing emptily at the beautiful but parched scenery until the Ferrari once again drives into frame. A person we will later find out is Johnny gets out of the car. We’re allowed to see the emptiness of the landscape and the car becomes a metaphor for the film and the person: sleek, desirable, celebrated…but driving aimlessly and in a desert. The Ferrari and the Chateau Marmont, the shabby chic hotel where all the cool celebrities in LA stay, are recurring tropes in the film, evoking the luxury and comfort made available by celebrity. The Chateau is contrasted later with the chic, elegant and formal hotel in Italy. Coppola depicts luxury next to, sometimes even as, anomie — the plenitude and glitz of things but always on the verge of the void.

The film, and Johnny, sparks to life when his daughter Cleo (Ellie Fanning) arrives.  I can’t think of a better representation of a father-daughter relationship ever depicted on film: sweet, complex, reciprocal, full of feeling but always constrained by external forces partly of their making and partly outside their control. Johnny and Cleo communicate simply, through looks, clearly love each other, each want to spend more time with the other. I love how at the end of the beautiful scene extracted above she tells him about the book she’s reading. clearly referring to Twilight, and how he listens; the film and he both making room for and basking in the girlyness.

 

She makes him eggs benedict; he loves her eggs benedict. She seems to know all his faults, questions him glancingly on them, sometimes implying ‘really?’ as she sees the next girl he’s bringing over for breakfast. But though she seems to question his actions, she accepts him for who he is and never judges him as a person. He’s clearly crazy about her. She’s what really brings joy to his life and makes it meaningful. When they part, the anomie and the desert kind of re-engulfs him without quite extinguishing him. He gets back on an expensive car and back into an emotional desert. She goes to her mother; he returns to the walking dead. It’s a beautiful and rare relationship on film and it’s a beautiful and rare film.

 

PS

 

In a thoughtful piece on Somewhere and how it currently circulates called Searching for Somewhere ‘ (Film Quarterly, vol 64, No. 4), J. M. Tyree writes, ‘Somewhere is a remarkably divisive film that provokes genuine arguments amongst friends — plus it’s actively despised by some reviewers, denizens of the Twitterverse, and members of various online user communities…Searching through Twitter for references to Somewhere reveals a buzzing cloud of haters (not all of them clearly male)’. But I bet most are; and in any case screw ’em: they’re missing out on something rare and beautiful.

‘José Arroyo

Robocop (José Padilha, USA, 2014)

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robocop

The Robocop remake is a mixed bag. I think Joel Kinnaman is a brand new star. In the original, Paul Weller seemed a little robotic and inhuman even before he became a cyborg. Here, Kinneman runs the whole gamut from romantic longing to mechanical catatonia but lets the audience into every aspect of it. The rest of the cast is a treat too. I’ve not seen Michael Keaton better since Beetlejuice. He’s lithe, charismatic and oozes the kind of menacing and sleazy charm that can bribe politicians with one hand and pick your pocket with the other. He’s like a Mafia Don of robocops but one who’ll bring out the jazz hands if needed to seal the sale. His scenes with Gary Oldman — as a scientist emollient to the point of weakness and ambitious past the point of ethics — have a real snap.

Samuel L. Jackson, hair high, almost but not quite straightened  and set with enough hairspray to stop any onslaught is a delight as a manipulative Fox-style news presenter: reasonable in a speaking-from-the-pulpit kind of way when setting out a case, impatient when he’s not, and bombastic when speaking directly to the audience. It was lovely to see Jennifer Ehle as well wearing clothes as dark as her morals and with elegant features arranged into a poker face until called to action. I also liked Abbie Cornish as Murphy’s wife though the spectre of Nancy Allen – curvy, saucy, crisp and acid – like biting into a tart apple —  is bound to haunt anything ever connected with her.

The film is set in 2028; in a Detroit that seems prosperously reconstructed but still crime-ridden and corrupt;  thus is license afforded to critique present-day America. But Robocop doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know: corporations rule above governments unimpeded by checks and balances; we live in a surveillance culture that surveys and manipulates the weak and powerless; the media is brutally manipulative and mendacious; life is cheap. The original told us all of that and with a lot more wit, in a setting that seemed more spectacular, and with dialogue that was spare but with enough cutting lines to pack a punch: they relied on irony, conveyed satire, and earned belly-laughs from the audience – who can forget ‘you’re fired!’?

This Robocop doesn’t really overcome the failings that plague cinema in the digital age: the image still seems too thin to me, Padilha hasn’t learned how to make action exciting, lots of people get killed but there’s nothing at stake in their death – or indeed in Alex Murphy/Robocop avoiding his own — and the narrative still hasn’t figured out how to make use of all of story-telling possibilities new technology both diegetically and extra-diegetically make possible. I think what’s really missing is thought on how the new possibilities of dealing with time and the new challenges posed by changing standards of what is believable can result in different ways of communicating meanings and conveying pleasures.

If one could stop thinking about the original however, the film is very enjoyable and worth seeing for the actors alone.

José Arroyo

Modigliani vs Gérard Phillippe in Montparnasse 19

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Modigliani by Brabander
Modigliani by Brabander

Browsing through the Estorick Collection in London I came across this portrait of Amadeo Modigliani by François Brabander and my first thought was ‘No! That’s not Modigliani!’ I saw Montparnasse 19 as a child on television and Modigliani is forever etched in my mind as the face of Gérard Phillippe. I have not seen Montparnasse 19 since then but I’ve never forgotten how beautiful Anouk Aimée is in that film nor Phillippe’s sadness at loving her but finding it all impossible because art was his life and his art wasn’t going well and he was so hungry; the film seemed full of shots of them walking around Montparnasse, loving but not wanting to love, both looking impossibly beautiful whilst sad and starving.  I also remember Lilli Palmer at her most vivid and charming, tempting and taunting Phillippe with her body and her money.

montparnasse 19

This person in the Brabander photograph is suitably sad but that short moustache, the too long neck, the double chin! No! My reaction to the Brabander portrait is ridiculous even to myself. Phillipe was not only Modigliani to me, he was also the face of Stendhal’s heroes having played both Julien Sorel and Fabrice del Dongo in the movies; he was also the great Fanfan la Tulipe and, even though it is Marcello Mastroianni who played Arthur Merseault in the movies (for Visconti in The Stranger in 1967), it is Phillippe’s beautiful and sad face that is to me also the face of French post-war Existentialism. Thus whilst Modigliani to me has until now always been Gérard Phillippe, Gérard Phillippe has been Modigliani and more.

I nonetheless find it interesting that Phillippe was my first reference point, that the filmic representation of Modigliani took precedence over the historical portrait. In my mind, the Brabander portrait was being measured against, and found lacking in relation to, the image of Phillipe. Is this type of response typical? I suppose it doesn’t apply to historical figures who are already iconic to us before we encounter them at the movies – the Hitlers or Henry VII’s or Napoleons– but those who become famous to us through the movies —  Paul Muni as Louis Pasteur, Anna Neagle as Edith Cavell, Cagney as George M. Cohan , perhaps this will even come true of Leonardo Di Caprio and Howard Hughes – it’s as if the figure of the actor becomes the root image against which all others — even historical paragraphs — get compared to, at least initially.

Image Capture of Phillipe as Modigliani from traier.
Image Capture of Phillipe as Modigliani from traier.

I’m sure this is often true and that people have been disappointed in the past to find that Madame Curie might not look very much like Greer Garson. Certainly I was disappointed to see that the real Modigliani only vaguely resembled the dreamy, trembly and poetic Gérard Phillippe even as my reason told me how silly it was to even think that it should. The movies offered dreams and fantasies, ideals and nightmares: reason there is really the least of it. And perhaps that’s why I’m afraid to re-visit Montparnasse 19 even though I now know the film was started by Ophuls and finished by Jacques Becker —  information that would have meant nothing to me as a child — and even though I now see that Lino Ventura and Lila Kedrova are also in it: how could I forget that?

What could one hope to achieve by re-visiting Montparnasse 19 that is worth risking the beautiful and fragile memory embedded so powerfully so long ago? Yet seeing the Brabander portrait confirmed how Phillippe has always meant so much more to me than Modigliani, and indeed so has Ophuls and Jaques Becker and Lilli Palmer and even Lino Ventura. Ad perhaps a new encounter with them need not result in the ruin of an old one.

José Arroyo

A Story Lately Told by Anjelica Huston

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A Story Lately Told

Anjelica Huston’s A Story Lately Told (London: Simon & Schuster, 2013) is her memoir of growing up in an unconventional, bohemian and artistic household; first in Ireland, then London, and later, by the book’s end, in New York, where she starts her first serious love affair with fashion photographer Robert Richardson. She is of course the daughter of the legendary film director John Huston, the maker of classics such as The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Fat City, The Man Who Would be King, and many others. Her mother too was famous, ‘the youngest member to join the best dance company in the nation, Ballet Theatre,’ (p.13), gracing the June 9, 1947 cover of Life as ‘Young ballerina, Ricky Soma’ and under contract to David Selznick when she met John Huston.

John and Anjelica making A Walk with Love and Death, 1968
John and Anjelica making A Walk with Love and Death, 1968

The story is told with great generosity of spirit, a flair for conveying the drama of incident and a sharp eye for a telling detail that readers appreciate knowing, like her father’s wearing Guerlain’s lime cologne or his middle name being Marcellus – who knew? Huston evokes through naming flowers, animals, the different kinds of colours one finds in Ireland, the obstacles to a hunt. She’s got the vocabulary to convey a range of places things and experiences — and she writes vividly and well.

Anjelica's Mother
Anjelica’s Mother

Anjelica Huston is not only an iconic 1970s model, Academy Award-winning actress (for Prizzi’s Honour in 1985, directed by her father), and a director (Agnes Brown); she’s  an American aristocrat. She likes to tell us that she’s descended from Civil War generals and the State Attorney of Ohio on her father’s side; a yogi and owner of the famed showbiz speakeasy Tony’s Wife on her mother’s; that she was born whilst her father was making The African Queen and that Katharine Hepburn was the first person to ask whether her father had had a boy or a girl.

John and Anjelica at the premiere of Prizzi's Honor with Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner
John and Anjelica at the premiere of Prizzi’s Honor with Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner

Any film buff will know about her father, or that her paternal grandfather was Dodsworth in the movies and introduced Kurt Weill’s beautiful ‘September Song’ on stage; or that she herself is the third generation of Oscar winners in her family. But like all Twentieth Century aristocrats, though they might derive their power from a particular genealogy grounded in the history of a specific country, they themselves are not rooted to a particular place. The world is their arena of action and the great capitals and fashionable vacation destinations their playground. The ‘jet set’ was the term developed for the late twentieth-century variant of the rich and /or famous to which Anjelica Huston and her family belonged.

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In the acknowledgment section of  A Story Lately Told, Huston thanks her ‘darling sister Allegra, whose own memoir was an inspiration’ (p.253). And one can understand how that would be the case: Allegra Huston’s book, Love Child: A Memoir of Family Lost and Found (London: Bloomsbury, 2009) is also a coming of age story that deals with many of the same places and people. But it is a truism that each child has a different upbringing even when raised in the same family by the same set of biological parents; parents become more experienced, they change, or circumstances change, or each child may bring out a different aspect of the parents’ personality.

Plus, Allegra Huston had a more dramatic story to tell: growing up thinking that she shared the same set of parents as Anjelica she later discovers that her real father was Viscount Norwich, son of Great Britain’s postwar Ambassador to Paris — Duff Cooper – and Lady Diana Manners, daughter of the Duke of Rutland, one of the great beauties of the 20s, and under her married name of Diana Cooper, a sensation on stage in The Miracle for Max Reindhart. There are enough books by or about the Norwich’s to fill a small bookshelf. Their names also appear in the memoirs and letters of Evelyn Waugh, Noel Coward, Cecil Beaton and other luminaries of the era. Norwich himself appears as a fictional character guiding tourists through the great sights of Europe in Nancy Mitford’s Don’t Tell Alfred; it was whilst undertaking such tours that Norwich met Allegra’s mother and thus the ‘Love Child’ in the title of Allegra’s book.

Lady_Diana_Cooper_on_TIME_Magazine,_February_15,_1926

It is an indictment of Norwich, and a compliment to Huston, that in spite of her three other siblings having slightly different parentage, she remembers that ‘We were brothers and sisters, and Dad was our father. I never felt I was second best to him. I was as much his child as any of us (p. 218). This couldn’t be said for the Norwich’s; and in her own book Anjelica remembers that, ‘Mum told me that when she was pregnant with Allegra, John Julius’s mother, Lady Diana Cooper, had come by the house with a bunch of violets. Mum was ambivalent about the gesture, feeling that there was something condescending about it, particularly in Diana’s choice of flowers, like a bouquet a grand person might present to a poor relation she said (p.150)..

Part of the great pleasure one experiences when reading A Story Lately Told is the account of the places and people that form the context of a kind of upbringing that might have seemed exceptional in the middle of the last century but might no longer seem so: people travel a lot more and families made up of different baby-daddies and indeed different baby-mommies would, if one believed daytime television, be the norm rather than the exception today.

St. Clerans in 1821
St. Clerans in 1821

The first part of the book deals with Ireland as Anjelica’s first memories are of growing up there, or more precisely at St. Clerans, a 110-acre estate in Craughwell, Co. Galway. Jean-Paul Sartre who went there to write a script for John Huston’s film of Freud wrote Simone de Beauvoir[1], ‘Through this immensity of identical rooms, a great Romantic, melancholic and lonely, aimlessly roams. Our friend Huston is absent, aged, and literally unable to speak to his guests…his emptiness is purer than death.’ But that’s not how Anjelica remembers the house and that’s not how she remembers her father. For her, the house is full of the music of Montand, Sinatra, Holiday, Piaf and Moloudji; it’s full of art books and Penguin Classics. It’s a house where the rugs are Aubusson, the posters are by Toulouse Lautrec, the crystal is Waterford, the silver is Georgian, the couture is by Dior and Balenciaga, and there are Greek marbles, Venetian glass, Imperial jade, Etruscan gold, Louis XIV furniture. Anjelica knows both the price and value of such things. Her father, who gambled for and won a Monet, taught her. But the people she grew up with are the servants, the nannies, the Creaghs who were cook and butler; and she remembers them not only with fondness but with enough feeling to have kept up with them and revel in their successes: the Creagh’s daughter, Karen would later be ‘and All Ireland Champion céili dancer’ Anjelica recounts with warmth and pride (p. 54).

If the chapters on Ireland sketch out a childhood, the chapters in London sketch out her teenage years. It’s Hyde Park and Carnaby Street, crushes on the Beatles, shoplifting at Biba. Part of the pleasure of reading this book is the anecdotes about the famous; Carson McCuller’s visit to St. Clerans where she was taken around the house the first day and then didn’t leave her room for the rest of her stay; Anjelica’s first sighting of Mick Jagger when she was understudying Marianne Faithfull in a play; feeling slightly used by James Fox.

Huston By David Bailey for Vogue 1973
Huston By David Bailey for Vogue 1973

Huston has a storyteller’s gift. I love her evocations of place. But I also love how she dramatises her anecdotes: the story of the Irish lady she met at one of the country hunts who won a paternity suit against the husband she had not lived with for seven years because she claimed they were once guests at the same country house and accidentally ‘shared a sponge’. There are many more like that. The chapter in New York, where she finds herself in fashion, meeting Diana Vreeland, being photographed by Avedon and Bailey, modeling for Halston and Zandra Rhodes. It’s a rich life that Anjelica Huston shares.

A Story Lately Told is a beautifully told tale, one that honours both her mother and her father as well as the three countries in which she grew up. It’s the story of an artist as a confused but interested young woman; and it’s proof that Anjelica Huston is an artist in more than one medium.

Jose Arroyo

Corolianus, NT Live Transmission

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coriolanus

Seeing the live National Theatre broadcast of Coriolanus last Thursday brought home once again how we’re all glued to screens now: our eyes rarely far from and seemingly hypnotized by the lure of the light emanating from our phones, tablets, computers and TV’s. But the screen that has always meant most to me – a big one with a movie projected onto it– is decreasing in significance, at least socially. Arguably, movies are better than ever. But we watch them through many outlets other than the cinema – computers, TV, DVD — and when we go to the pictures it’s not always movies we go to watch.

What ‘cinema’ is, where we see it and how we see it is all in flux. Theatre, ballet, opera — even boxing — are only some of the events we can now see as live transmissions onto big screens at cinemas. The picture-houses themselves are evolving to meet the different functions they’re required to fulfill in order to survive. The Electric in Birmingham is now the type of trendy venue where people pay premium prices for the privilege of sinking into big leather sofas to drink in their art with their cocktails. I tried to get tickets for Coriolanus there but they were sold out.

I was luckier at Cineworld because Corolianus was showing on two different screens. Of course, I could have waited to see it on DVD later but it would have lost the dimension of ‘liveness’, the size of the screen would have shrunk, and it would have meant wresting control of ‘time’ from the show’s makers: on DVD, I could pause at any time, make myself a cup of coffee and possibly wreck all the filmmakers’ carefully considered attempts to realise effects that rely on suspense, timing, rhythm.

But what are we watching when we see Corolianus at the ‘pictures’? It’s for sure we’re not watching a movie. There was no evidence of the care with choice of camera angle, camera movement, design, décor and editing that would have gone into conceptualising Corolianus as a movie, evidence clearly visible in, say, Ralph Fiennes 2011 film version. During the live transmission there seemed to be no rhyme or reason for camera set-ups or movement except following the actors. Even the focus on some of the close-ups was poor; and for cinema, that’s as basic as it gets.

It was also clear that the actors had not designed their performances for a big screen. The pitch of their voices and the size of their gestures were aimed at the audience in the Donmar Warehouse, which however cozy in relation to other theatres, is not as intimate as a close-up. The actors’ movements seemed too outsized and their speaking seemed oddly stylized on a big screen. Though I loved some of the performances (Hiddleston’s Coriolanus and Deborah Findley’s Voumnia were particularly memorable), they weren’t designed for the big screen.

If the Coriolanus I saw was not a movie it was also not live theatre. The staging seemed marvelously inventive for theatre but pretty ‘blah’ for the movies, or at least so I deduced from what I could see. For example, one can imagine how the fight sequence must have been thrilling on stage but here it just seemed like a phony, rather well-choreographed little tumble. Tom Hiddleston’s shower and his being hung up near the end must have seemed equally dazzling theatrical moments at the Donmar but didn’t quite thrill through a lens. One could imagine the effects but one didn’t feel them. Moreover, in the cinema even a ‘live’ transmission does not convey presence and one also loses the ability one has in the theatre of letting the eye wonder, of picking and choosing where to lay the focus of one’s attention.

One of the reasons for these live transmissions is to see the great actors of the day perform in great plays old and new. That was the rationale for the old BBC ‘Play of the Month’,  which ran from 1965-1983 (Janet Suzman and John Gielgud in George Bernard’s Shaw’s St. Joan from 1968 is but one example), or the series of filmed plays to be sold and screened at cinemas that Ely Landau produced from the  1960s onwards, two of them starring Katharine Hepburn: Eugene O’Neill’s Long Days Journey into Night (Sidney Lumet, 1962)and Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance (Tony Richardson, 1973).

What these live transmissions offer that is new and valuable is the combination of a large screen, a communal and social viewing experience, and the sense of occasion that attends to the ‘liveness’ of the transmission; although these events are recorded and sometimes shown in cinemas later, whenever there seems to be a demand for it (the NT’s production of Frankenstein with Johnny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch played in cinemas long after it ceased its run at the National).

Though I find nothing as boring as seeing ballet on television, I love seeing live broadcasts of ballet on a big screen. Size really does reveal the athleticism and control of the dancers in a way that is impossible on TV or sometimes even on stage. Seeing Sergei Polunin in a live transmission of the Royal Ballet’s production of Sleeping Beauty was for me an unforgettable experience, one I’d not had in a theatre for a long time. But I’ve still to experience anything remotely close to that when watching a play broadcast at the cinema.

I enjoyed Coriolanus. The language is glorious. It felt it a privilege to be able to see Tom Hiddleston so close up, to see how Mark Gatiss’ Melenius compares to his Mycroft, to evaluate how Brigitte Hjort Sørensen, the lovely Danish reporter from Borgen, spoke Shakespeare. The live transmission is not a replacement for theatre and it’s not a replacement for cinema as we knew it. It is however an addition to an audio-visual ecosystem that is helping to transform and redefine the visual culture that we live in.

José Arroyo

Seen Thursday, 30th January at Cineworld Cinemas, Birmingham

A Shorter version of this was published in The Conversation at https://theconversation.com/screening-shakespeare-coriolanus-doesnt-captivate-at-the-multiplex-22682

Sullivan’s Travels (Preston Sturges, USA, 1941)

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sullivan's travels

Joel McCrea is John Lloyd Sullivan, the very successful director of Hey, Hey in the Hayloft and Ants in Your Pants of 1939 who has decided that he cannot continue making frivolous, light films in a world where Europe’s at war and where there’s so much unemployment and misery in America, not when he’s got the greatest educational tool ever invented by man at his disposal: movies!

He convinces his studio bosses to let him make ‘O Brother, Where Art Though?’, a film about the plight of the common people; realistic, pedagogical, depressing. ‘I want this picture to be a document! I want to hold a mirror up to life! I want this to be a picture of dignity! A true canvas of the suffering of humanity!’ Nothing could terrify the movie moguls more, but Sullivan is so successful that they have no choice but to agree to let him make it, though he in turn concedes to put ‘a little sex in it’.

When the studio bosses point out that the reason he makes such light, optimistic and successful films is that he’s had a privileged life –what does he know about misery? — Sullivan decides to dress as a tramp, go on the road, and find out. At first everything conspires to bring him back to Hollywood, but then, just as he feels he’s done enough research and he’s out handing out dollar bills to those less fortunate than he who helped him on his quest, events conspire to send him to jail, put him in a prison chain-gang and teach him what real misery is really like. As he learns that, he also learns the value of the light, the frivolous – what joy, laughter and entertainment can bring to a world full of misery — i.e. he learns the value of his own work.

In many ways Sullivan’s Travels is a self-serving and self-affirming film, with Sturges and Hollywood patting themselves on the back for doing exactly what they’ve always done. But it’s also a marvelously entertaining film that shoots the audience with such a quick, smart, and witty spray of jokes that you might miss out if you’re not quick on the uptake. It’s great to see a film that assumes each individual member of the audience is the smartest and brightest person in any room.

Sullivan’s Travels successfully satirises Hollywood and the audience’s own trivial sentimentalising of the poor whilst offering quite a critique of: Hollywood’s pretensions; the issue of class in America; the inadequate system of poor relief, with prayer often being the price – non-negotiable – of a floor to sleep in and a bite to eat; and the brutality of prison chain-gangs. It might even have tried to critique race, certainly the NAACP commended it in 1942; though what the film does on this score now sits a bit uncomfortably.

David Thomson has written that ‘Sullivan’s Travels falls flat when it tries to move from comedy to pathos.’[1]I’m not sure I agree with him. Firstly, I don’t think the film sets out for pathos. It tries to reveal poverty and injustice, to make the audience aware of it, but not to induce pathos, or at least not until Sullivan himself is imprisoned and seems to have no way out. Until then, we see the misery from the outside; from Sullivan’s eyes, but the eyes of an outsider whose experiences are purely optional; and the jokes, the winks, the acknowledgment that even your brothers in the soup-kitchen can steal the very shoes from your feet unless you have eyes in the back of your head and can see whilst sleeping, all take priority over the arousal of emotion.

Pathos has no bigger enemy than laughter. But it’s Sturges choice not his lack. Personally, I rejoice in that choice. When McCrea, feverish and trembly from illness, reiterates his convictions as if a spirit of daffy do-gooding giddiness has taken hold of him in Church —  ‘nothing is going to stop me. I’m going to find out how it feels to be in trouble. Without friends, without credit, without checkbook, without name. Alone’ — he’s irresistible; as close to reaching the endearingly irrational heights of the great  screwball dames (Colbert, Hepburn, Lombard) as any male actor except for Cary Grant.

Andrew Sarris indirectly touches on this and attributes it not only to McCrea but also to Sturges. In fact he sees it as a characteristic of Sturges’ work: ‘It is as if his characters were capable of being lit from within by the cartoonist’s device of the instantly ignited light-bulb in the hero’s skull. Joel McCrea’s movie director in Sullivan’s Travels experiences and expresses such a flash of practical creativity at the stirring moment in the film when he proclaims himself to be his own murderer’.[2] Although I don’t quite agree with Thomson that the film falls flat when it moves from comedy to pathos, the film’s various changes in tone and register, seem to catch the audience by surprise.

There are those who delight in the surprise. Steven J. Schneider in his appreciation of the film in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die has written that the script is a tour de force and ‘brings together a remarkable range of genres, including slapstick, action, melodrama, social documentary, romance, musical and prison movie.’[3] But there are also others who have found in these shifts, a loose and shambly shapelessness. Manny Farber called Sullivan’s Travels ‘immature in its philosophy, formless and without a single discernible characterization; but it had an astonishing display of film technique.[4]

We can agree on the philosophy and on the astonishing technique; but as to the rest, I’ve already mentioned McCrea and his performance as Sullivan and I find the film formally clever too, beginning at the end of an ‘entertainment’ with a fight scene on a train that’s still thrilling, and later, near the end, signaling clearly to the audience that the film is at a turning point and that it needs to unravel the tangle of plot its gotten itself into before the closing credits. The montage with which it does so is a marvel of narrative economy that can still thrill those who are interested in visual story-telling.

Veronica Lake is ‘The Girl’. She’s given no name. And this might have been part of why Farber accuses the film of ‘lacking characterization’. However, ‘The Girl’ is a function rather than a character and thus needs no name and no characterization, though Veronica Lake is a very memorable look and presence in it. Moreover, she matches up with McCrea beautifully, the disparity in their height alone creating an element of comedy that doesn’t intrude on the romance needed to put ‘a little sex in it’. It’s also joy to see all the Sturges stalwarts: William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, Eric Blore and other wonderful comic actors who would have been just as famous to audiences of the period as the stars.

There are scenes that still linger in the mind: the opening sequence, the sex-starved sister locking McCrea in his room, the first real experience of a Hooverville, the black parishioners singing ‘Let My People Go’, the pettiness of the bureaucrat in the train station, the injustice of the court, the brutality of the chief of the chaing-gang.

Sturges achieves what the film says on one level isn’t possible; a film that both documents and critique its time — brimming with social relevance — that teaches us a lesson on the social conditions of the Depression, the filmmaking practices of the Hollywood of the period and on how brilliant and bright American comedy once was – directed by one of its greatest practitioners — but with some feeling, thrills, chills, lots of laughs ‘and a little sex in it’.

José Arroyo

*** Film buffs might be interested in knowing that, according to Pauline Kael, ‘Sturges himself can be glimpsed behind Veronica Lake on a set inside the movie studio’.[5]


[1] David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, London: Little and Brown, 2002, p. 846.
[2] Andrew Sarris, “You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet”: The American Talking Film, History and Memory, 1927-1949, Oxord: Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 323
[3] Steven J. Schneider, ‘Sullivan’s Travels’ Steven Jay Schneider, General Editor, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, London: A Quintet Book, 2004, p. 180.
[4] Manny Farber, Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber, edited by Robert Polito, A Special Publication of the Library of America, 2009, p. 40.
[5] Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982, p. 568.

A Thought on a Moment in Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli, USA, 1944)

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In a lovely note on his memories of seeing Meet Me in St. Louis as a four year old in 1951, critic David Ehrenstein writes, ‘I didn’t understand what was going on in the Halloween sequence. But then neither did (Margaret) O’Brien’s character, ‘Tootie’. She’d elected to ‘kill the Brokoffs (neighbors who lived down the street on the beautifully detailed set) by throwing flour at them as demanded by the other children. Walking away from the bonfire, wind and shadows whipping around her, she’s clearly terrified.’ But she succeeds, runs away from the Brokoff house and to her gang, the community she is now a part of, and is accorded the ultimate accolade of being the most horrible. ‘And indeed she is,’ remembers Ehrenstein,  ‘But that was in 1945. And that was in 1951. And now it’s 1998. And I’m dreaming of MGM’[i] It is now 2014 and MGM musicals in general, Meet Me in St. Louis in particular, and the Halloween sequence most precisely, are still the stuff that dreams are made of.

fig A
fig A

Amongst the many pleasures of watching the very greatest films over and over again is that the remembered pleasures are anticipated but also re-experienced as if for the first time. I remember sitting behind a gaggle of girls at a screening of Titanic and when Kate Winslett and Leonardo Di Caprio are holding onto the ice-flow one of the girls said, ‘Shh, this is the moment were we cry’; and then Di Caprio died and they did, loudly. But one of the joys of re-viewing great films is that whilst re-experiencing remembered pleasures one also discovers new things about the film, new reasons as to why those pleasures occur in the first place. Sometimes, it can just be that you’re at a different point in your life and the films mean something different to you; other times that you see things you’ve not quite registered before (it took a few times for me to delight in the frozen bloomers in Meet Me); other times still, that you notice elements that enhance your understanding of why the film in questions achieves its particular effects. After all, it’s not magic or alchemy; someone arranged, orchestrated, chose.

fig b - Mr. Brokaff by the window as if from Tootie's point-of-view.
fig b – Mr. Brokaff by the window as if from Tootie’s point-of-view.

Seeing Meet Me in St. Louis for the upteempth time earlier this week I had one of those moment of – revelation might be too strong a term – let’s say insight into why the Halloween sequence, a sequence without a ‘number’ in a musical, remains so memorable. Minnelli claimed that that sequence was the principal reason he did the film[ii]. And it’s a sequence justly famous for its formal elegance — the crane shot at the beginning, the long slow travelling shot as Tootie heads towards the Brokaffs, the much more quick rhyming shot heading back to her gang once she’s succeeded in killing Mr. Brokaff – its technical complexity – the orchestration of all of those elements, often within a shot, and which focuses on a child – the achievement of such varied effects –fear, humour, relief, excitement, creepiness, tension – all the while tying in to the theme of a child excluded from her community, sent on a dangerous quest, overcoming her fear, accomplishing her mission, and returning in triumph to be admitted into the group and garlanded as one of its heroes that but foreshadows the threat to the whole Smith family that Mr. Smith will announce at the end of the ‘Autumn’ sequence to the film, just after the Halloween sequence and before its triumphs have been fully savoured, as a ‘move to New York’.

Tootie enters the shot from screen righ
Tootie enters the shot from screen right

The moment I want to point to is but a simple cut; or rather how the elements surrounding that cut are orchestrated. It takes place immediately after the long shot where Tootie is slowly and fearfully heading towards the Brokoff house (see clip above for a view of part of the sequence). Her friends and  the fire they are feeding have completely receded into the background. She’s already passed that horse that has scared her so and has made us laugh. The shot ends with Tootie looking fearfully at the house (see fig. a), we’re then shown the house as if from Tootie’s point of view (see fig. b) but then we’re shown that it couldn’t be Tootie’s point-of-view as we see her enter the shot (fig c).

Now, what’s gained by this? Minnelli could have shown us the house, then returned to Tootie and then showed us Tootie heading towards the house; Or we could have seen Tootie gazing at the house and then cut directly to Tootie heading toward the house. What’s gained by showing us the house first as if from Tootie’s point of view and then having Tootie enter the shot (i.e. it becomes a false point-of-view shot). Watching the film this week I posed myself these questions for the first time;  and of course, the answer is simple: it’s to achieve particular effects, it’s why we feel what we feel when watching that moment.

Tootie’s scared, she looks at the house with fear; we then see what she sees: a massive house shown from a low angle and with a wide lens to make it as imposing as possible. The choice to have Tootie enter that scary image has the effect of showing us that Tootie’s scared, she’s not wrong to be scared but, aware of the dangers, she confronts them and enters into the realm of action. That’s why Tootie is the ‘most horrible’ why it doesn’t matter that she’s a girl or that she’s smaller. That minute difference of where, how and on what to cut makes a huge difference in how we see and evaluate what Tootie does. It makes her seem conscious, aware, courageous. She knows that it’s an arena of danger, chooses and acts in spite of her fears. It’s marvellous. And it’s one of a whole array of minute but decisive choices that makes Meet Me in St. Louis such a great film.

José Arroyo


[i] David Ehrenstein, ‘David Ehrenstein; writer, critic’, Film Quarterly, Vol. 52, No. 1. (Autumn, 1998), pp. 59-60.

[ii] Gerald Kaufman, Meet Me in St. Louis, London: BBI, 1994, p. 53.

Love theme from Les parapluies de Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, France, 1964)

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I’m a sap. I know. But this gets to me every time. The music is by Michel Legrand. Catherine Deneuve is the young girl in love. The almost as beautiful Nino Castelnueovo is the young man who loves her back but is conscripted into two years of military service. You might note the influence of the MGM musical: –the streets were painted so that the colour scheme could become one of those largely unnoticed but crucial elements that create meaning and feeling in movies — perhaps excessively so: see how in the bar the drink on the table matches the background yellow. Vincente Minnelli was a particular influence on director Jacques Demy and you can detect it in the use of background, décor, costumes and particularly in the flowing camera movements. Everything is consciously put in the frame, everything signifies — that’s why we feel it so deeply. The end, when the couple seems to be floating on air, is particularly lovely — and significant — as the rest of the film is about how all those young dreams are crushed. For many years that type of shot with the camera maintaining equal distance from the characters whilst they seemed to move seamlessly, as if standing still on an a moving sidewalk, was often to be found in Spike Lee’s films but with lesser impact and effect. Seeing it on its first release and far away from home, Kurt Vonnegut wrote his wife, ‘I saw Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which I took very hard. To an unmoored, middle-aged man like myself, it was heartbreaking. That’s all right. I like to have my heart broken[1].’ One of the great musical numbers of all time and a very wonderful film.

José Arroyo


[1] Kurt Vonnegut, Letters, Edited and with an introduction by Dan Wakefield, London: Vintage Books, 2013; p. 107.

Ava Gardner, The Secret Conversations (Peter Evans and Ava Gardner, London: Simon and Schuster, 2013)

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Ava Gardner The secret Conversations

Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations reads  the way a gulp of smoke must feel like to a nicotine addict: a sensuous rush of sheer delight. Gardner sashays out of the pages of the book and into our consciousness like the Ava of our dreams: as cool and ravishing as her Kitty Collins in The Killers, a ‘sister under the mink’ to Gloria Grahame’s Debby Marsh in The Big Heat; but with the weary sadness, good conscience, conflicted morality and dashed dreams usually attributed to the male heroes of noir. Peter Evans’ achievement is to give us the impression that we are hearing her at night — with a drink in one hand and a cig in the other — just before bed or in bed when she couldn’t sleep; as unguarded as she ever was to the closest of her friends who didn’t quite make the inner circle with whom she shared her heart: her sister and her maid.

The book tells two stories: Evans’ attempt to get a book out of Ava; and Ava’s own struggle to tell her story honestly but without revealing much or compromising anybody. As she tells Evans, ‘I’m broke baby. I either write the book or sell the jewels. And I’m kinda sentimental about the jewels’ (p.20). .

Part of the joy of the book is in hearing forties lingo from one of its savviest practitioners. “I’m a gal who likes to buy her own drinks’, she says, evoking a lost world of smoke and nightclubs with live bands, dashing millionaires and glamorous b-girls hovering by to hoover in some of that cash whilst underlining that she wasn’t one of them (p.12).  Sinatra doesn’t drink, he ‘kisses the bottle’ (p.224). Ava doesn’t offer refreshments, she offers ‘Tea – or something else? I’m a something else kind of woman myself ’ (p.21). She makes it clear she’s only doing the book because she’s had a stroke, can no longer act, and, ‘if our book don’t replenish the larder, honey, dying’s going to be my only hope’ (p.22).

We get the bare outlines of her biography. She sums up her upbringing in the Depression with, ‘If you’re going to be poor, be poor on a farm, that’s what I say’ with the last clause summoning up all those smart career girls of ‘30s films who were at the bottom of the economic ladder but knew their views were as informed and accurate as anybody’s: a sharp cookie with a hard past, a democrat’s outlook, and a moralist’s code of honour, however particular.  They had a right to their say. And so does Ava, even if she doesn’t say as much as we want to hear.

Her career, making the cover of Time when it really meant something, all are lightly touched on, maybe because she saw herself as someone who had nothing to offer movies but her looks. In a way, it’s a pity that the book overvalues who she knew and who she slept with over what she did as any cinephile will appreciate how much her presence in movies meant for so long. But that’s been covered in other books and can be covered better still by future scholars. This is another kind of book.

What the conversations recounted here focus on is a particular definition of life: ‘Lana Turner says that life is what happens to you while the crow’s-feet are fucking up your looks. Lana has a name and a story for every goddamn wrinkle in her face’ (p. 9). Luckily, Ava’s not afraid of telling us how she got at least some of her wrinkles; and most of the people she talks about come out looking better than they usually do in this type of book.

Of Mickey Rooney, her first husband, she remembers his energy, his sunny disposition and his ability to bounce back: ‘He always believed he had a sure thing for tomorrow… His relationship with his bookies was built on eternal optimism. He had a kind of cartoon resilience (p.160)’. She liked him enough to keep having sex with him even after they separated, ‘After all, we were still married and the sex was legal – and still pretty good, thank God’ (p.169). But ‘it’s a lonely business fucking someone you no longer love. Especially a husband,’ (p. 160). Nonetheless, after their divorce, she told him ‘You were the perfect first husband, Mick Rooney’ (p.245).

She then had an affair with Howard Hughes, one which lasted off and on for about twenty years. ‘It was a strange relationship. I don’t think he ever put his arms around me out of affection, or to comfort me. He’d only take me in his arms if he wanted sex – or to stop me from hitting him’ (p.252). She almost killed him once, ‘I hit him with an ashtray. I think it was onyx. Anyway, it was heavy. I practically had him laid out on a slab. We fought all the time but I nearly put a lily in his hand that night.’ (p. 235).

Her second husband was Artie Shaw, one of the most successful bandleaders of his day, a lefty who fought for Billy Holiday to sing with his band and a musician extraordinaire. He was also a bit of a bully. ‘He was always putting me down…(but) I owe Artie plenty. He made me get an education. We must say that in the book. Give the guy credit where credit’s due’ (p. 203). She was crazy about him; his intelligence, his success and most of all his music. ‘Artie played the clarinet the way Frank sang. They both knew how to bend a note, stretch a phrase. The could do that stuff better than anyone alive’ (p. 208). He was the only one of her husbands who left her: ‘He didn’t waste any time doing it either – that marriage had lasted just about a year when he called the cab on me’ (p. 245). The marriages to Mickey and Artie were easy come, easy go. ‘I called them my ‘starter husbands’! You only had to sneeze and you’d have missed both of them’  (p.31).

She didn’t sleep with everyone she had a crush on. Of John Huston, she remembers, ‘‘I fell for him at once…But he made a pass at me first. I was twenty-four, I had divorced Mickey Rooney after only a year, I’d had an affair with Howard Hughes, and I was in a mad marriage to Artie Shaw. I couldn’t blame him for thinking I’d be a pushover. He chased me around the bushes. I was as stewed as he was but I didn’t sleep with him …I don’t think many women said no to Johnny. He was a spoiled son of a bitch’ (p. 55).

But Huston is remembered with fondness, as is Robert Mitchum: ‘I was crazy about him. I know he was pretty gone on me, too. But the truth was – it still is—he was committed to his wife, Dorothy. She was a saint. She was devoted to him. I once proposed to him, kind of kidding on the square. He said, “It’s okay with me, baby. But you’ll have to clear it with Dorothy first”’ (226).

She’s got a soft spot for pirates, rascals, outsiders – those who get it on, get high and give authority the finger. She remembers Onassis as ‘a primitive with a yacht…For some ladies that’s an irresistible combination’ (p. 12) but ‘If he hadn’t had a dollar he could have snapped a lady’s garter anytime he liked’. She has affection even for ‘Mr. Limp Dick Brando’ (p.20), who got her mad for lying about sleeping with her. “I told him that if he really believed I’d ever jumped into the feathers with him, his brain had gone soft. He apologized. He said that his brain wasn’t the only part of his anatomy that had gone soft lately. He said, ‘Ithn’t that punithment enouth baby?’ she lisped, mocking Brando’s speech impediment. ‘That’s a funny line, isn’t it? How can you stay pissed with a guy who comes up with a line like that?’

Not everyone comes off well in the book. On George Raft ‘I had to slap him down a few times to keep him in line’ (p. 207). On Peter Lawford, President Kennedy’s brother-in-law, ‘There was a lot of Iago in Peter,’ (p. 168). As to George C. Scott,  ‘When GCS was loaded, he was terrifying – he’d beat the shit out of me and have no idea next morning what he’d done. I’d be lying next to him, black-and-blue and bleeding, and he couldn’t remember a thing,’ (p. 202).

The book comes to an end when she starts to speak about Sinatra. She remembers her first meeting with him, ‘‘I was with Mickey in the studio commissary. We had just gotten married. Frank came over to our table – Jesus, he was like a god in those days, if gods can be sexy. A cocky god, he reeked of sex’ (p. 223). But even though she can’t act any more because she’s had a stroke, and even though the book is needed to make up the income she can no longer get from her acting, she can’t bring herself to say much more about Sinatra. And thus the book starts its end; thus why it was never published during the lifetimes of Gardner, Sinatra or indeed Peter Evans.She’d promised. ‘Bad’ girls sometimes have the best principles.

There’s a wonderful anecdote near the beginning where Ava asks Evans, who’d previously written a book on Aristotle Onassis, ‘‘Did Ari ever tell you his views on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata – about the morality of broads who bargain with their pussies? He might have said ‘cunts’ I don’t remember. He probably said ‘cunts’,” (p.9). Ava was never one to go in for that kind of bargaining. She took what she wanted and paid the price: ‘‘The fucking you get for the fucking you got’ (p. 145).

In the end, and in her own words: ‘You can sum up my life in a sentence, honey: She made movies, she made out, and she made a fucking mess of her life. But she never made jam’ (p.2).

A slim volume but one that packs in more phrases you’ll like to remember than much weightier tomes. A quick read but an essential one for all those interested in Ava, in noir films, in Classic Hollywood, in movies. Best experienced when listening to Sinatra’s Only the Lonely LP.

José Arroyo

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (David Lowery, USA, 2013)

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ain't 2

I love the sound of Casey Affleck’s voice; a high-pitched bass sound, roundly toned, softly uttered, as distinctive as any in the current cinema; and capable of expressing so much; here the strangled murmur of the intensely wished about to be extinguished. It’s got Rooney Mara, very good in it as well; and it’s lovely to see Keith Carradine onscreen at any time. But I didn’t think much of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints; and there were moments where Bradford Young’s cinematography was so dark I felt I wasn’t seeing it either.  I suppose I found it sub-Badlands; however, I do understand why others rate the film more highly. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints conveys an acute but flowing sadness that remains in the memory and is difficult to shake off: a sigh for that which is treasured but can no longer be. It feels not only the story of a doomed couple but also a kind of mourning for America.

José Arroyo

Nebraska (Alexander Payne, USA, 2013)

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Nebraska poster

Nebraska is very funny, bleakly beautiful, and sad in all the right ways. An elderly man (Bruce Dern) ravaged by a lifetime of drink and with incipient Alzheimer’s is convinced he’s won a million in a sweepstake which everyone else knows is a way of conning elderly people to take out magazine subscriptions. David (Will Forte), the youngest of his two sons, decides to humour his father and drive him to Nebraska as a way of spending time with him, a way of getting closer whilst there’s still time. What the son discovers is what all children no matter how old are shocked to learn about their parents; that they are not defined simply by their relationship to their children; that they are automous beings who have dreams, desires, hopes, histories, and wishes which may predate and extend beyond their offspring; which sometime does not even include them. Nebraska is like a ‘30s Depression movie in its bleak view of America and in some of the wisecracks the mother (June Squibb) gets to utter. It differs in that the wisecracks are sometimes mean-spirited and in that the characters are as bleak, blank and miserable as the conditions of their existence.  It also rather shames itself by having no one on screen as smart as the man behind the camera — the film is spiritually hemmed-in and diminished by a whiff of smugness and self-satisfied superiority towards its subjects . A Cagney, a Davis, a Blondell, any working class prole in front of the camera in the 30s would have punched the highlights right out of Alexander Payne’s hair. But Dern no can do, which is perhaps why, in spite of concerted efforts since the late 60, and no matter how good he is, he’s never become a star. That said, it’s a great performance in an almost great film.

José Arroyo

The Butler (Lee Daniels, USA, 2013)

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A history lesson à la Classics Illustrated – the Scooby-Doo version – on the civil rights of black people in America told through an imaginative depiction of the life of Cecil Gains (Forest Whittaker), a White House butler who worked for eight different presidents, The Butler  is nonetheless at times very moving. Moreover,  the melodramatic story is wittily leavened  by a humor that seems agreeably camp; camp that is enlivening, affirming and all the more pleasurable to see for being unusual in a story that focuses on an African-American family. Whittaker is better at conveying the emotion underneath the mask of blankness when with the presidents than the on-the surface human emotionality when with his family. Oprah Winfrey gets the down-low and sexy dimension of the wife just right, a considerable achievement given who she is and what she represents. There is a pleasure in seeing an all-star cast play these historical characters: when icons impersonate icons does the iconicity  of each combine to jive or jar? I’ll leave it up to you to pick your favorites though I can’t resist mentioning that I was shocked at how Jane Fonda was made up to look, even if she was playing Nancy Reagan. A movie that has nothing to do with the art of cinema but a lot to do with the fulfillment of film’s role as ‘America’s National Theatre’; the way such films make Americans feel they’re taking part in a collective conversation; and the audience’s pleasure in seeing how wigs and costumes are used as a shortcut to period and how an array of actors, many treasured since childhood, are now doing, ‘being’ and enacting.

José Arroyo

Two Days in Paris (Julie Delpy, France, 2007)

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2 Days in Paris

A charming tale of a couple’s visit to Paris: he’s an American interior decorator; she’s a French photographer; they’ve already been together for two years; but not in her culture, not in her hometown, not with her parents, not in Paris. The film has genuinely funny moments of culture clash, and it’s definitely an intelligent woman’s take on romance. I found it an enjoyable film to see even though it’s not quite good. Adam Goldberg is totally charmless and very badly cast. Daniel Brühl appears as an eco-terrorist who might be gay. I suspect the woman in the audience will laugh out loud and all the men who don’t find Delpy adorable will feel unable to utter the ‘ouch!’-es they’ll so acutely feel. The film doesn’t know how to end, so a contrived voice-over is meant to wrap up what should have been left open and painful. Too bad….but a very promising directing debut from Delpy nonetheless.

José Arroyo

The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, USA, 2012)

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I didn’t think much of this when I first saw it and seeing it again  on DVD leaves an even worse impression. The only thing that’s still fresh and interesting is Jennifer Lawrence. The rest is very clunky and already rather cheap-looking. Even having District 12 look like a photo of the Great Depression and having the place where all the rich people live look like Berlin circa 1936, à la Leni Riefenstahl, is too obvious, too uninteresting; and the Marie Antoniette haircuts and so on — I understand the rationale but it’s over-emphatic and inelegant: does even the makeup have to be slathered on to make these people ugly? The film doesn’t have the same kind of sympathy for these characters that the novel had and that the film will have to earn in the sequels. Nobody and nothing is really good or sharp. I particularly disliked Stanley Tucci, who keeps playing fey cultural deviants in one smug note, one that would kiss itself with glee were it able to pop in from another dimension … and yet, the film was one of the most popular of its year. But was it loved? I doubt it.

José Arroyo

The Woman in Black (James Watkins, UK, 2012)

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The Woman in Black

*Major Spoiler*

Daniel Radcliffe is surprisingly good as Arthur Kipps, the young solicitor whose life is unraveling due to the death of his wife in childbirth. He goes up North and into a haunted house. Every time ‘The Woman in Black’ is seen, a child dies. Radcliffe finds the reasons for this and hopes to put an end to it by reuniting ‘The Woman in Black’ with the child that was taken away from her (her revenge for her child being taken away from her is to take other people’s children). However, it doesn’t work and at the end Radcliff dies with his child. There is some very good direction by James Watkins. I particularly like the device that Radcliffe’s p.o.v doesn’t see exactly what we do until the end. Those initial moments where we see what he doesn’t are what begin the suspense and scariness in a film that barely throws a chill during the first half. The cinematography by Tim Maurice Jones is lovely, particularly the helicopter shots where you see them kind of imprisoned in this desolately beautiful landscape.  Screenplay is credited to Jane Goldman and is based on Susan Hill’s famous novel. I liked it but not as much as my friends did.

José Arroyo

Zodiac (David Fincher, USA, 2007)

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zodiac

Based on the famed ‘Zodiac Killer’ who operated in San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s and whose murders remain unresolved, David Fincher’s film has fantastic set design, marvelous mise-en-scène and complex story-telling. Gyllenhall is adequate as Robert Graysmith, the cartoonist who begins to detect a pattern to the killings. Where the film really breaks down is with Robert Downey Jr. as Paul Avery, the crime reporter who Graysmith enlists in his quest to solve the murders. Downey Jr. is becoming the ‘Greer Garson Of Our Day’: everything he does is meant to incite a round of applause, he can’t seem to get over the cuteness of each of his actions, and there’s an implicit gracious bow to each part of his performance, like a toreador after each pass of the cape; all  extraordinarily grande-dame-ish and irritating. In spite of Mark Ruffalo, fascinating as always, the casting rather sinks what is otherwise a fantastic movie: gorgeous to look at, marvelously plotted, rather dankly elegant, and with a searing visual intelligence. A film that sadly and ultimately remains unsatisfying but which every film buff should see.

José Arroyo

La veuve Couderc (Pierre Granier-Deferre, France, 1971)

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1934. A handsome man walking though the countryside in France sees a middle-aged widow get off the bus. She’s carrying a heavy package containing an incubator for chickens. He offers to help her bring it inside and lands himself a job in the farm and a bed with the widow, though that’s not strictly part of the bargain. The vagrant on the road is Alain Delon; the widow is Simone Signoret.

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In the first few shots director Pierre Granier-Deferre lays out a location — a farm separated by a bridge over a canal that has to be raised for boats and lowered for pedestrians; a social setting — France in the grip of the economic and political incertitude that followed the Stavisky affair; and dramatises a whole series of antagonistic personal relationships: The widow lives with her father-in-law on one side of the bridge; her in-laws live on the other; the in-laws want to take possession of the old man in order to kick her out and take-over the farm; the widow sees the farm as her right and makes sure she keeps her father-in-law happy to ensure it. On the other side of the canal, her in-laws have a nympho daughter, already with a bastard child, who’s got her eye on the vagrant. Meanwhile the widow Courdec has her weary eye firmly on everyone who wants to take what she sees as hers.

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La veuve Courdec is well-made film, an adaptation of a George Simenon novel, where the pettiness of people, their self-interestedness, their plotting for personal advantage, is couched in ideals not quite able to contain and mask the nastiness bubbling underneath them. They’re grasping, base; it’s what’s hardened the widow. She wants Delon, thinks money will keep him, but he’s his own man, goes after the younger tramp, her niece. He tells her quite clearly he fancies her niece because she’s younger. She gets jealous, kicks him out, finds out he’s a killer who has a gun. Nonetheless, she’s drawn to him and takes him back. There’s a scene where they sleep together and in the morning he reaches out for her in bed, and his whole body tenses as his hand wonders around the bed. She, looking down on all of this, on him, sees his body relax with relief as he finds her hand and she is moved. She knows his want for her is real. The look that Signoret gives Delon, it’s as if he’s the first person who’s ever showed her any affection.

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There’s a great scene after, where we see the widow washing her man’s trousers and lording it over the other women’s disapproving faces. Those women have always disapproved but now they’re disapproving at her flaunting of her pleasure — she flaunts her man’s washing with pride cause she’s still clearly getting some and they’re not – and their displeasure is a further source of pleasure to her.

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It’s a very deft  film, cleverly directed by Granie-Deferre, and easy to under-estimate. On first glance we might think it akin to a made-for-TV movie but with a bigger budget. And yet, it’s a work that deepens and gets richer upon reflection.  In a few shots you have a period, a political background, a rural setting with working people scraping by, each with a motive to hate each other, a killer on the run, a hardened widow too accustomed to petty cruelties, and a cross-set of desires heading in various directions. Granier-Deferre sets out the symbolism of the drawbridge, where people on boats loll pleasantly by but the hatred between the family is entrenched so firmly that lowering the drawbridge is only an opportunity for further hurts. There’s also the incubator, the promise of a richer way of life from giving life, but one that all of society is intent on destroying.

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The setting is rural, the look is green, there are the sounds of birds, all Delon wants is some sun, all Signoret wants is a little love. But it’s a world full of hatred that won’t let them have the little they seek. Even the music, a romantic score by Phillipe Sarde, one with elegiac overtones but with a forward movement, evokes that which is dreamed of but will forever be impossible. Speaking of the real feeling between them, between a middle-age woman running to fat and a handsome man in the prime of his life, Signoret tells Delon, ‘Nobody would understand’. ‘Nobody ever understands’ he replies. However, at the end of the film, when we get a little coda informing us that the name of the character Delon plays is Jean Lavigne and that he’d shot two people because he’d simply had enough, we do indeed understand.

Simone Signoret being great

        La veuve Courdec has sweeping camera movement, an eye for the image, a feel for period and for people but its core strength lies in its stars, two of the biggest in the history of French Cinema: Delon very effective and Signoret just absolutely great. There’s a scene near the beginning of the film where she tells Delon her story (see clip above)in front of her deaf father in law, and she raises her voices so her father-in-law can hear her, whilst her mind is still on setting out breakfast, that measures out a life-time of rage, and cuts through the well-crafted, middle-classness of the film into that which hurts, which is real, complex, human, trapped but in revolt. This is the realm of art which the film itself can never hope to aspire to but which the film is the setting and context for. There’s a reason Granier-Deferre attracted all the big stars. He not only helps them shine as stars but provides a platform where they can reach moments of greatness as artists which are not quite within the director’s own grasp.

José Arroyo

Jude Law in Henry V

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The production feels like Shakespeare for tourists: — too bare a design, too sparse a company – as if all the money had gone into the West End venue or Jude Law’s pocket, leaving but short change for all else. What with Scottish separatism, Welsh nationalism, migration into the UK and the role of Britain in Europe all currently hot topics, it’s in some ways a timely production, though what Shakespeare’s most rousing take on English nationalism, however inclusive, can contribute to the current debate is  still up for grabs, even after seeing the play.

This Henry V has been chopped up and shortened; probably in an attempt to render it palatable to an audience who really couldn’t care less what the play was about, the reasons for staging it now, or even the fact that it is Shakespeare. They’d just come to see Jude Law. And they don’t leave disappointed: He’s magnificent.

Seeing Jude Law recently in films such as Side Effects (Steven Soderbergh, USA, 2013) and Anna Karenina (Joe Wright, UK, 2013), highlighted how, as he was beginning to lose his looks, to grown into a baldy, baggy-eyed middle-age, he seemed to be gaining in stature as an actor. On film, he’s simply never been better. He’s no longer pretty in Side Effects  but who cares about pretty when he can play human and swayed and slightly weak but pushed to fight back and sometimes all of these things simultaneously and transparently? In Anna Karenina, as Anna’s cuckolded husband, Karenin, he seem to finally allows the audience to discover him as a great actor. Of the protagonists, he’s really the only one who conveys a recognizable person and a way of life. It’s interesting because the role is historically a dud (few actors win kudos for playing middle-aged, dull, and respectable). Yet, Law makes us believe him in the part, quite an achievement when one considers his career and persona.

There seems an inverse correlation between his looks and, if not his acting per se, then perhaps our appreciation of it. But onstage, our first image of him as Henry V, crowned, robed and bathed in amber light  — a sight that incites  a collective intake of breath — is  one that has more to do with how we first saw him in the movie all those years ago than on our experience of seeing him in the movies now. At that initial moment, Henry’s introduction to the audience, he’s as beautiful and golden as he was in The Talented Mr. Ripley (Anthony Minghella, USA, 1999), looking divine in both the literal and slangy senses of the word.

Later, when he comes on-stage to receive the Dauphin’s tennis balls and begins to talk of the balls he’ll hang in Paris, he seems sexier than he ever has, manly, powerful. He’s dressed in a leather sleeveless jacket that is not quite a waistocat, tightly buttoned to accentuate broad shoulders and very slim waist, the jacket flaring slightly  just above the hip and overhanging a too large cod-piece. He wears green hipster trousers over boots of the same colour to lengthen the leg. The ensemble allows his body a full range of movement, and he’s an actor who can command his body to expressive purposes dramatically and with grace.  The contrast between how he looks and what he conveys on stage in Henry V and how he looks and what he conveys in the trailer for the forthcoming Dom Hemingway (Richard Shephard, UK, 2013is in itself a coup de théâtre

The Agincourt battle scenes give him a chance to heave, run, rant and eulogise, which he does effortlessly.  His ‘Saint Crispin’s Day’ speech is very fine though it doesn’t quite make you forget that this is the way ideology works, getting people to give up their lives for an idea at great risk and no material benefit to themselves, an idea underlined later by the troops he talks to when he disguises himself as an ordinary man and walks incognito through the encampment. Maybe we’re too cynical now to buy into it in the same way we imagine wartime audiences for Olivier’s film of Henry V  (1944, UK) did, or perhaps Law doesn’t quite pull it off. I any case one can imagine it being rousing without quite succumbing and allowing it to be moving. However, later on, Law pulls off the masculine mateyness required of him with the same élan that he did the regal, the imperious, and the lordly near the beginning when condemning the traitors to death.

IMG_7890Law’s obviously very good in the action sequences and he speaks the verse fluidly and well. He makes the stage crackle by his presence; proceedings seem to pick up pace and energy, though his voice lacks the power of Olivier and his speaking of the verse does not seem as varied as Branagh’s  (1989, UK) in the two film versions of the play that I have seen. However, as the play proceeds other actors rise to Law’s challenge and the play picks up pace. Ron Cook as Pistol and Matt Ryan as Fluellen in particular also got a round of applause from the audience for their comic playing, both excellent with the verse; the latter perhaps because of his youth, also bringing energy and physicality to his comedy playing. He gets his laughs without clowning but with verve. Ashley Zanghazha is also excellent as the one-man chorus who set the scene and dramatises the play’s self-reflexivity.

There’s a comic interlude in the play, an English lesson where Lady Alice (Noma Dumezweni) teaches Princess Katherine (Jessie Buckley) English, and probably inserted merely to allow the boys a costume change,  that nonetheless is very well thought through and directed and is funny and graceful whilst narratively setting up the final wooing of Princess Katherine by Henry.

That final wooing scene is the crowning glory of Law’s performance. He’s been charismatic, graceful, dynamic and moving throughout the course of the play. But nothing surprised as much as the comedy in his wooing: he gets laughs by letting the audience in the joke, the speech least likely to have been written about Law himself:

‘therefore was I created with a

stubborn outside, with an aspect of iron, that, when

I come to woo ladies, I fright them. But, in faith,

Kate, the elder I wax, the better I shall appear

But in his performance there is also the way he positions his leg, and the speed at which he gets up. The speech also allows him range. He’s simulatenously moving, embarrassed, flirty, arrogant and kingly; then a man wooing a woman and on the verge of doing wrong and almost apprehended by his beloved’s father as the French King walks in to the ratify the treaty.

He’s truly great. It’s hard to think anyone of his generation offering a better Henry V. And he gives the audience what they came for; not only the chance to see a movie star, but the thrill of seeing a movie star act live; a thrill in some cases charged with a more personal frisson (my friend, a fan, measured the distance from our seats to the stage and said, ‘I’ll probably never be this close to him again in my life’). When at the end one has seen a movie star give a great performance on stage  in one of the most challenging roles in the repertoire, then the joy is complete. Too bad Michael Grandage’s production doesn’t rise to the level of its star.

José Arroyo

Seen at the Noel Coward Theatre, London, 18th December, directed by Michael Grandage

Sidney Sheldon’s Bloodline (Terence Young, USA/West Germany, 1979)

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The credits insist it is Sidney Sheldon’s Bloodline so perhaps that is reason enough to blame him for this mess. Sheldon achieved great renown in Hollywood first as a very successful screenwriter (The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer, Easter Parade), then as the creator of hit television shows (I Dream of Jeannie, Hart to Hart) but became a household name as a best-selling author. The L.A. Times called him ‘The King of the Potboilers’. In the 70s, tweens of my generation used to read him in conjunction with Harold Robbins (79 Park Avenue) and Irwin Shaw (Rich Man, Poor Man) for their melodramatic mix of characters of low origins clawing their way into high living, corporate criminality and purple-y passages of kinky sex. Interestingly many of these bestsellers were turned into highly rated miniseries where the author’s name was usually attached (e.g. Harold Robbins’ 79 Park Avenue). The works of Jacqueline Susann, Jackie Collins and Danielle Steele, at least as popular, are female equivalents, though these have a greater tendency to use showbiz or fashion as background setting.

Sidney Sheldon’s Bloodline is directed by Terence Young and the screenplay is credited to Laird Koenig so some of the blame for this failure must go to them. The film feels like a television miniseries of the period but with a very big budget. The locations, the décor, the costumes, not to speak of that extraordinary all-star cast headed by Audrey Hepburn are all top. But the film is a mess right from the beginning.

Romy Schneider's star entrance.
Romy Schneider’s star entrance.

You know a film is in trouble when a secondary character( Romy Schneider) gets a better star entrance than the star, Audrey Hepburn; Romy gets to whizz around a track in a sportscar, win the race, take off her helmet, reveal yet another covering — a beige balaclava — before whipping THAT off and finally bringing into view the wonder that it is ROMY SCHNEIDER guzzling a bottle of  vichy water as if it was overflowing champagne; in contrast, we first see Audrey in a long shot in a museum brushing away at the skeleton of some prehistoric dinosaur looking like an aristocrat playing at housepainter – it’s very Greer Garson-ish grand and a tad embarrassing.

Our first sight glimpse of Audrey.
Our first sight glimpse of Audrey.

You’re convinced the film is heading down the toilet a few minutes later, when it gets  its star and  protagonist to perform the boring but necessary bits of telling the audience what it needs to know about her character. The director doesn’t even bother to get the reaction shots from the person Audrey is telling it to, Ben Gazzara. A better director would have given that exposition to Gazzara, nay a maid or an assistant, and let Hepburn ’emote’ in reaction. Bit players tell, stars do and feel. You can bet Cary Grant wouldn’t have put up with the kind of  treatment Audrey gets here.

I’ve made a point of using the stars’ names rather than the characters’ because the latter remain unknowable to us even after the film ends, and this is only one of the film’s many faults. Sidney Sheldon’s Bloodline has a screenplay that tells rather than dramatises. On the one hand, music and direction underline everything for you in case you’re too stupid to get the obvious: on the other, however, smart you are, the film simply doesn’t make sense.

The story is about a super-rich industrialist who gets killed. His daughter (Audrey) inherits a share in the business with her cousins (the characters played by Romy Schneider and Irene Papas; we also know that James Mason is a relation but unsure of what kind). They’re all after money; they’re all suspects in the initial murder; they’re all capable of killing Audrey.

The film plays as a whodunnit, with Gert Fröbe as Inspector Max Hornung, a Poirot-type detective who uses a massive computer instead of his little gray cells to solve crimes. The crime solving takes us  through luxurious locations (Stately Home England, the Paris of Maxim’s and the George V, villas in Sardinia) with a detour via flashback to the Jewish ghetto in  Cracow (where the family business started) and another into the lurid world of pornographic snuff films. It’s all unbelievably trashy but meant to be glamorous and jet-set decadent.

This is a film where most of those involved seem to be at their worst. Terence Young’s direction is a klang of over-statement; the editing has to be amongst the worst in any big-budget production (Bud Molin is credited); the great Freddie Young does no more than make the stars and locations look good (which is not nothing; it’s just not enough); and even Enio Morricone’s contribution is an embarrassing one – a slushy score that a disco beat occasionally pulses into life (as in the drug manufacturing sequence). Also, the movie has that distancing, empty-sounding quality one gets from bad dubbing and the whole film is so poorly put together that Irene Papas, Romy Schneider and Audrey all play cousins but speak in their own accents without any explanation as to why they all sound so different.

Audrey dresses daringly for Ben at Maxim's
Audrey dresses daringly for Ben at Maxim’s

Still even a film as trashy as this has its compensations. Audrey Hepburn looks her age but still beautiful and ever chic, wearing those enormous glasses fashionable in the 70s that in America continue to be associated with Jackie O.

Romy Schneider doesn’t get to do much as the cousin married to a man who likes to stab beetles with pins and watch them slowly die (Maurice Ronet) but she looks stunning, is given a great entrance, and has the most interesting character to play. And of course, there are also James Mason, Irene Paps, Omar Shariff, even Ben Gazzara (though his part calls for a star rather than a very good dynamic actor). This is the type of production where one would expect the likes of Michelle Phillips, who is well cast here. The question is why did the others get involved? I suppose if Sir Laurence Olivier wasn’t too grand to star in Harold Robbins trash like The Betsy (Daniel Petrie, USA, 1978), only the year before this….

Bloodline really is as bad as everyone says and is only for fans of Audrey Hepburn, Romy Schneider or James Mason who, like I, are compulsed to be completists.

José Arroyo

Le Combat dans l’île/ Fire and Ice (Alain Cavalier, France, 1962)

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Screen Shot 2013-12-12 at 13.30.52Jean-Louis Trintignant and Romy Schneider dazzle in Le Combat dans l’île, their first film together. It’s a political allegory played out through a melodramatic love story and visualised as a noir. Jean-Louis Trintignant plays Clément, the son of a rich industrialist who’s involved with a crypto-fascist revolutionary group that plans to assassinate a left-wing politician. Schneider is Anne, his wife, a foreigner and formerly an actress, ignorant of her husband’s doings until the maid finds a package in the closet that turns out to be a bazooka.

Clement doesn't like Anne talking to old pals, particularly when they're black and in showbiz.
Clement doesn’t like Anne talking to old pals, particularly when they’re black and in showbiz.

The film reminded me of Ascenseur pur l’échefaud/ Lift to the Scaffold (Louis Malle, France, 1958) in its spare compositions, low-angle shots on people, wonderings through Paris, acute evocation of mood; and also in the close-ups on faces, the use of silence, and even the way the score is used (though here its mostly Mozart instead of Miles Davis). Both films convey a loneliness, a desperation in love and a quest for meaning that can be characterized as existential; and both convey a textured intensity of feeling that nonetheless seems overhung with ennui. I wasn’t surprised to see Louis Malle listed as producer in the credits.

Screen Shot 2013-12-12 at 13.31.29Romy Schneider is at her most beautiful and touching in Le Combat dans l’île; but then, I seem to feel that each time I see her. She’s exquisite here, still with a trace of baby fat but already seeming simultaneously transparent and mysterious; and capable of expressing a great range of emotion with delicacy and feeling. Le Combat dans l’île was her first film in France where she was to make her home and do her greatest work. Her Anne is extraordinary in that she’s able to convey the extrovert’s life one associates with an actress, her knowledge that her husband is shutting that life down, making it smaller, her love for her husband, and, when he beats her, her fear, hurt. and yes, arousal. Schneider not only succeeds in getting an audience to understand her Anne, but also, whilst invoking admiration for her beauty and skill as an actress, simultaneously incites a feeling of protectiveness towards her character. We understand and are with Schneider’s Anne.

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Trintignant matches Schneider and is to me the revelation of Le Combat dans l’îsle . He looks very young here and very attractive. There are moments when he comes out of the darkness and into the frame where the lighting highlights long eye-lashes and a full lower lip. He’s short but wiry and gives the impression of being quietly coiled but primed for violence. His political fervor is rendered as an arousal brought on by a feeling of mastery that also helps to explain his relationship to his wife.

The first time we see Clement hitting Anne before sex
The first time we see Clement hitting Anne before sex

There’s a scene mid-way through the film, when Anne and Clément are in the woods, which beautifully illustrates this sudden burst into the unexpected: Like most scenes between Clément and Anne, it is  characterized by a hint of violence that is also a hint of sex, and by a mutual affection that nonetheless victimizes her. It’s like they both find that danger sexy, and maybe for the same reason — the clarity of his dominance;. However,  she’s also very much a bird with clipped wings and revolts at the same time as she sumbits.

In the woods, he tells her he’s going to kill the former colleague who’s since betrayed him, and she, aghast at the thought but also at what that might do to them, to her, tells him ‘I wanted to live and you’re killing me. You’re destroying me bit by bit. You’ll end up by killing me too.’ As she says this, he gives a kind of gleeful smile, not at the thought of doing so, but because he finds such power exciting; it makes him feel alive. Trintignant then chases after her  nuzzling her neck affectionately without letting go of her hold on him, almost as if he loves her so much and is so insecure of his hold on her that he’s got to force it.

These are fascinating and original acting choices on the part of Trintignant and they’re thrilling to watch. I loved the moment where he stares at himself on a knife at breakfast or when he goes to kiss Anne in his final attempt to win her back and tenderly places a fist on either side of her neck before trying to kiss her. One can’t quite decide whether it’s adolescent confusion or underplayed psychosis that Trintignant is intending but these choices vividly convey why Anne continues to fancy him and why she stays whilst also showing how clearly he is capable of killing someone. It’s a great performance, one that makes of Clément a vivid contrasts to Paul (Henri Serre), the other man in what eventually turns into a triangle.

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Clément and Paul are blood-brothers from childhood. The film uses them as structural opposites in the narrative; Clément is short, Paul tall; one lives in the city, the other in an old mill in the country; one is married, one is widowed; one is right-wing, the other at least a democrat. One loses Anne; the other wins her; one forbids her to act, the other provides the platform in which she can shine. It’s too bad that the bad guy is a much better actor. Henri Serre then on a career high due to playing Jim in François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, looks the part beautifully but diminishes his contributions to the film each time he opens his mouth. It’s very easy to understand why in spite of his initial celbritiy he never quite became a star.

The film gets its title from the final combat between Clément and Paul on the island. The battle is for Anne of course but it’s also for a politic, a way of life, and a particular kind of future. I’m not well versed enough in French history  to know what the film is allegorizing though it doesn’t take too great a knowledge of history to note that it’s related to then recent Algerian war,. However, such knowledge is not necessary to appreciate this moody, beautiful film which seems to shape a whole way of life and a set of moral attitudes out of shadows and light; and the way that that light hits fog, fire and ice, in the country and in the city.

Le Combat dans l’îsle is a film of the nouvelle vague by one of its lesser lights (I’d never heard of Alain Cavalier before this). It references Godard and À bout de souffle/ Breathless directly when Clément goes to find his wife at the ‘hôtel de Suède’ room no. 12. It also references Truffaut through the casting of Serre. Pierre Lhomme, who’s work here is so great also worked with Jean-Pierre Melville on L’Armée de ombre/ Army of Shadows (which would have been such a great title for this film had it not already been taken). But these are peripheral reasons to see the film.

Le Combat dans l’îsle deserves to be seen for  the beauty of its images, the intensity of the mood it creates, the economy with which the two assassinations are depicted (a lesson to any young filmmaker in how to do very powerful scenes on the cheap), the extraordinary performances of Schneider and Trintingant and the complex and exciting depiction of sexual attraction.

Aside from some of the voice-over narration, so typical of noir, my only complaint with Le Combat dans l’îsle is the knowledge that if Clément’s politics had been left instead of right, it would have been Trintignant rather than Serre, in the final clinch with Romy; and who wouldn’t have wanted that? Yet, if that is so, what does it say about the representation of politics in cinema?

José Arroyo