Monday, December 11, 2017

Puffball (2007)

Depressing as it is, it should come as no surprise that certain visionary filmmakers have been forced to take extended absences in-between projects given various cultural changes which in turn lead to changes in the film industry. Nicolas Roeg is one such visionary filmmaker who’s experienced this side effect of his chosen profession first hand. While speaking to The Guardian in 2008, Roeg spoke openly about this challenge, singling out marketing departments in particular, stating “Hopefully to people that love film the climate is receptive to the work I do, but there is a sense of control from people within the industry that I have to constantly grapple with. Marketing is such a key issue; in fact the marketing department is often involved in the approval of scripts now. They really don't know how to market the films I make…” Following Two Deaths (1995), Roeg took a 12 year sabbatical from theatrical features although he managed to stay busy working on various projects for television including “Hotel Paradise”, a 1995 episode of the anthology series Erotic Tales, the experimental short film The Sound of Claudia Schiffer (2000) as well as two feature-length made-for-TV films, Full Body Massage (1995) and Samson and Delilah (1996). Finally, in 2007 Roeg made a long overdue return to both theaters and the horror genre with Puffball, an extraordinary work that, unsurprisingly, was misunderstood by many from the get-go.

Liffey (Kelly Reilly), a young architect arrives in a small north Ireland village along with her boyfriend Richard to renovate an old cottage. Not long after arriving, Liffey discovers, much to her shock, that she is pregnant. As it turns out, Liffey’s closest neighbor Mabs (Miranda Richardson) has been trying unsuccessfully to have another child. Upon hearing of Liffey’s pregnancy, the superstitious Mabs along with her sister Carol and witchcraft practicing mother Molly (Rita Tushingham) begin to believe that Liffey has stolen the baby Mabs has been trying so desperately to have, leading Molly to place a hex on Liffey and her unborn child.

Occasionally subtitled “The Devil’s Eyeball” on some releases, Puffball is an unusual, deeply unsettling film that, much like other Roeg films such as Don’t Look Now (1973), Eureka (1983) and Cold Heaven (1991) questions where mere superstition ends and the supernatural begins. Ripe with Pagan mysticism, witchcraft and several references to the Norse god Odin, otherworldly forces are plentiful throughout Puffball which Roeg plays around with masterfully, particularly as it relates to the psychological aspects of the film. Funnily enough, one of Roeg’s favorite subjects regarding the supernatural, telepathy and psychic ability, is mysteriously missing from this witches brew, however the bad magic utilized in the film certainly has a mental component to it. Roeg even manages to squeeze in some slight hints of reincarnation as well. Right from the opening credits Roeg establishes a mood of uneasiness which permeates the entire film thanks in no small part to the northern Irish locations. Naturally gorgeous, the area also possesses an undeniable mystic quality making it equally ominous as it is beautiful and Roeg wasting none of its potential. Roeg also sustains a sense of dread throughout through various technical techniques, namely sound design which at times is almost Lynchian with its disquieting drones, taking any seemingly “normal” scenario and making it oddly threatening. Some interesting editing and use of slow motion also make an already off-center and eerie feeling film downright terrifying in parts and the frightening presence of Rita Tushingham as the witchy Molly takes the film into nightmarish territory at times.

The film was based on the novel of the same name by Fay Weldon with a script penned by son Dan. Of course, it wasn’t an easy project to get off the ground. Even getting the script to Roeg proved to be a challenge. In the same Guardian piece mentioned above, Roeg recounted the slightly humorous story of never actually getting the script that was sent to him by Weldon, stating "I'd been sent the script by Dan Weldon (Fay's son) but for some reason or other I never actually received it. About six months went by and then Dan phoned to ask whether the project was something that interested me and of course I had to tell him that I never got it.” Roeg also stated the film  encountered a number of other road blocks along the way as well, funding issues especially, eventually becoming a three-way co-production between the UK, Ireland and Canada. To use Roeg’s description, the film was critically “mauled” upon release and frustratingly has yet to actually see a home video release in North America. Its true, Puffball epitomizes the term “acquired taste” and will not appeal to those content with being spoon-fed Hollywood horror reliant on nothing but cheap jump scares. For adventurous viewers however, Puffball is a singular type of horror that only Roeg and a select few other artists are capable of conjuring up.



Monday, November 27, 2017

Two Deaths (1995)

Its interesting looking at the careers of Nicolas Roeg and Ken Russell, the two bad boys of British cinema, as the similarities between the career trajectories of both are quite remarkable when put under a microscope. Both Roeg and Russell caused quite a stir amongst audiences, critics and distributors with films like Roeg’s co-directorial debut with Donald Cammell, Performance (1970), The Devils (1971), Lisztomania (1975) and Bad Timing (1980) just to name a few, films which, unsurprisingly, also ran afoul of many a censor board. Both filmmakers also showed a predilection for casting musicians with Mick Jagger co-headlining Performance, David Bowie taking the lead in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Art Garfunkel’s turn in Bad Timing and on Russell’s end the plethora of rock stars appearing in Russell’s unforgettable treatment of The Who’s rock opera Tommy (1975) as well as Roger Daltery retuning for the starring role in Lisztomania. What’s also notable about Roeg and Russell is that both began to turn to TV in the 90’s with Russell almost exclusively working in TV following Whore (1991), helming a slew of made-for-TV movies amongst several shorts. While Roeg also found steady work in TV in the 90’s, he also managed to still sneak in a theatrical feature like 1995’s Two Deaths, one of his most neglected films and one that would begin a 12 year absence from theatrical features from Roeg.

Three friends arrive at the home of Dr. Daniel Pavenic for an annual reunion dinner party, although the festivities this time around are different on account of a violent political uprising taking place outside. Upon arriving, the three men are immediately taken by a photo of a beautiful young woman and begin speculating upon her identity. Daniel readily admits that the photo is of Anna, his housekeeper, which further piques his friends interest. Daniel proceeds to tell his friends the story of how his all-consuming obsession with Anna led the two to make an agreement which made Anna his sex slave, much to the astonishment of his company. With revolution stirring in the streets, Daniel’s blunt honestly and shamelessness leads to his guests making some cathartic admissions of their own.

One of Roeg’s most twisted films in terms of ideas, its inevitable that Two Deaths be compared in some ways to Bad Timing given both films themes of sexual obsession masquerading as “love” (albeit far more one sided then the toxic co-dependency explored in Bad Timing), not to mention the prominent use of flashbacks to flesh out the development of Daniel and Anna’s current situation. Unlike Bad Timing however, save for the flashbacks, Two Deaths is confined to Daniel’s home for the majority of the film with Roeg’s camera leaving the house for brief intervals to check in with the political uprising happening outside the home. The sense of confinement was crucial in that Roeg essentially makes the audience feel as trapped in Daniel’s world as Anna has been. What’s especially interesting is that despite Roeg having Daniel lay everything out in the open regarding the nature of his and Anna’s relationship, Anna herself remains somewhat enigmatic, making her the most fascinating character in the film. What little dialogue she has brings an entirely new dynamic to Daniel’s tale and raises some questions about how truthful everything he’s saying is. The confessions made by Daniel and subsequently the others works in tandem with the political subplot, ie, the political revolution happening on the outside is reflected inside by the personal revolutions (and revelations) of Daniel and his guests. Its a fine line to walk which Roeg does masterfully, never once does the film become heavy-handed in its mirroring of the political and personal.

The film was based off the 1988 novel The Two Deaths of Senora Puccini by Stephen Dobyns. One major change between the book and the film is the setting with the book taking place in Latin America while the film was transported to Romania, with the political backdrop being the Romanian revolution of 1989 (one of several European revolutions to happen around the same time), more specifically the riots that broke out in the city of Timișoara in December of that year as a result of an eviction by the Romanian government of László Tőkés, a pastor of the reformed Hungarian church who had spoken out against an urban planning program to the media, although the seeds of political unrest had been planted in Romania years before the Timișoara riots. Eventually, the then communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu was ousted and soon executed by firing squad along with his wife Elena after a roughly hour long trial, signifying an end to 42 years of Communist rule in Romania. Leave it to Roeg to use such events to craft a drama centering on sexual obsession and humiliation. Again, Two Deaths may be one of Roeg’s more low-key efforts, however it should be of interest to Roeg fans who’ve yet to see it and its combining of political history along with its central story of deviant obsession make it, like most of Roeg’s work, completely original.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Cold Heaven (1991)

Along with his penchant for complex, often fragmented narratives and innovative montage editing techniques, one of the things that makes Nicolas Roeg such a fascinating filmmaker is his approach to the supernatural. Roeg’s interest in strange phenomena can be traced all the way back to Performance (1970), which saw Roeg and co-director Donald Cammell present a sort of symbolic form of reincarnation or “rebirth” via the fusing of the characters played by James Fox and Mick Jagger. With Don’t Look Now (1973), Roeg established what was clearly his favorite area of the mystical and unexplained, that being the concept of psychic ability, second sight and warnings from beyond. Telepathy would also come into play in Eureka (1983) with hints of a psychic connection between Gene Hackman and Theresa Russell and said film is also ripe with various other supernatural components be it fortune telling, Hackman’s superstition of his soul being threatened and perhaps most unforgettably, voodoo. Then there’s of course The Witches (1990), Roeg’s memorable adaptation of the Roald Dahl book and Puffball (2007), where Roeg again turned to witchcraft and superstition along with Pagan mythology and references to the Norse god Odin. Following The Witches, Roeg continued on a supernatural path, albeit in a more adult fashion with Cold Heaven, yet another neglected later Roeg title and one of his most peculiar supernaturally themed films due to its religious (specifically catholic) preoccupations.

While vacationing in Mexico, Dr. Alex Davenport (Mark Harmon) is accidentally killed after being struck by a boat. Prior to the accident, his wife Marie (Theresa Russell) had planned on leaving Alex after admitting to him her affair with another doctor, Daniel Corvin (James Russo). A few days after Alex’s death, Marie is given the unexpected news that Alex’s body has inexplicably disappeared and she gets an even bigger shock days later when Alex appears to her in a motel room where she had planed to meet Daniel. Soon after Alex’s reappearance, Marie, a lapsed catholic, is compelled to tell a local priest of a vision she had years prior of whom she assumed to be the Virgin Mary, a vision which mirrors the nightly dream of a fanatically devout nun, all of which force Marie into an existential crisis of loyalty and fate.

Cold Heaven is the type of film that epitomizes the term “open to interpretation”. More specifically, it’s the kind of film that, while watching, its easy to take everything at face value, once its over however a plethora of questions arise about what Roeg intended to be taken at face value or what was intended as metaphor. This is especially true in regards to the films metaphysical content. The biggest question hovering over the entire film is whether or not the reappearing Alex is actually a ghost. Certainly that would be the obvious guess but Roeg offers up a bevy of other possibilities as well in that Alex could be stuck in some sort of purgatory state, or could even be a figment of Marie’s guilt-ridden imagination, although this is highly unlikely given later developments in the film but its an interesting suggestion. At one point Roeg even hints at a possible demonic possession. The films religious aspects are particularly curious as to how Marie’s supposed vision of the Virgin Mary are linked to the dreams of the nun which leads to the films most astounding visual moment which again, leads to further mystery rather than any concrete answers considering that what takes place could either be an act of nature or something of unknown origin. There’s also the issue of Marie’s lapsed faith, which Roeg utilizes in a manner not unlike Abel Ferrara, and the idea of “sanctuary”, a word which is used quite often in the film and given multiple meanings.

Cold Heaven was Theresa Russell’s fifth film with her then husband Roeg following Bad Timing (1980), Eureka, Insignificance (1985) and Track 29 (1988). It would be their last feature film together, their final project being “Hotel Paradise”, an episode of the anthology television series Erotic Tales. While being interviewed by a British TV station during a behind the scenes look at Cold Heaven, Russell described her working relationship with Roeg (rather appropriately) as “telepathic” stating “I guess because I know him so well I need less direction when I do a film with him because I know how his mind works, we have like a short hand or if I’m having trouble in a scene or something he’ll say two words to me and I’ll go “Oh yeah, yeah I get it, I get it” you know, I mean so its kind of almost a telepathic affair really in a way.” A brilliant and fearless actress, Russell’s performances for Roeg, particularly in Bad Timing and Track 29, display a boldness most actresses would shy away from and the same could be said for Russell’s performance Ken Russell’s (no relation) notorious Whore (1991) which she did prior to Cold Heaven. Cold Heaven was yet another heavy role in a very unique film. It’s a film that may confound many but its ability to remain just as interesting after viewing makes it a rewarding watch.



Monday, October 30, 2017

Track 29 (1988)

In a lot of ways, cinema is all about timing. Nicolas Roeg once contrasted his films with the films of Stephen Speilberg, claiming that Speilberg’s films seem to get released at the perfect time when audiences are clamoring for such materiel whereas Roeg’s films are the complete opposite. Roeg even joked that the title of Don’t Look Now (1973) was an invitation to critics to do just as the title asked, and the title of Bad Timing (1980) was itself a bad omen. While Roeg had a point with his theory, his early films were nonetheless released during a time when such innovative and at times daring films like Roeg’s received wide releases and were subject to plenty of coverage, both positive and negative. Following his instantly legendary co-directorial debut with Donald Cammell, Performance (1970), Roeg would go on to deliver five undisputable masterpieces with Walkabout (1971), Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Bad Timing and Eureka (1983), the later of which also seemed to be a victim of bad timing, barley getting a release and later shelved by its own studio. Save for perhaps The Witches (1990), Roeg’s post-Eureka career isn’t nearly as regarded as his 70’s/early 80’s output with certain films being virtually ignored, one of which is 1988’s Track 29, an utterly mental film that’s both psychologically fascinating and riotously entertaining due to its sheer insanity.

Linda Henry (Theresa Russell), a terminally bored housewife stuck in a dead-end marriage to an indifferent, unfaithful and train-obsessed husband, Dr. Henry Henry (Christopher Lloyd), spends her days lounging around the house, turning to the bottle for escape. Linda is soon thrown for a loop when a mysterious Englishman named Martin (Gary Oldman) enters her life, claiming to be her estranged son who was forcefully taken from her shortly after his birth. Having been tormented with grief ever since loosing her son, Linda accepts Martin as her son and attempts to make up for lost time, turning her already volatile situation all the more combustible.  

Track 29 can be a tough nut to crack in that it’s a film of two very opposite moods yet each somehow manages to work in tandem with the other so ultimately the two extremes make sense. On one hand, the film is a heavy psychological profile of a disturbed mind when focusing on Linda’s desperation with her home life and the need for nurturing as well as her constant despairing for a child. Roeg’s trademark flashbacks reveal the traumatic event that led to her child’s conception which make Linda all the more tragic a character, yet Roeg also leaves the exact reason why the child was taken away from Linda somewhat of a mystery which makes for some interesting questions. Roeg also makes a crucial storytelling decision midway through the film which could have been easily fumbled in lesser hands, however Roeg uses the occasion to make Linda’s situation all more fascinating and troubling as well with some none-too-subtle incestuous overtones. Now on the complete opposite end of the spectrum is the films outright zaniness, going off the rails (pun very much intended) with its warped sense of humor, Dr. Henry’s extramarital activities being particularly hysterical, and outrageous performances from all, particularly Oldman who’s demented man-child Martin throws many a histrionic temper-tantrum. Russell proves once again that nobody does “damaged” better than her and Lloyd, in perhaps the films most memorable moment delivers a speech about trains so impassioned its as if a seismic shift is happening within his own personal cosmos.

An interesting thing regarding the film is that it was produced by HandMade Films, the production company founded by ex-Beatle George Harrison who’s given an executive producer credit. Fascinatingly, HandMade also acted as a UK distributor for the slasher classic The Burning (1981) of all films! Given the Beatles connection its no wonder that John Lennon’s “Mother” is heard during the opening credits of the film. In the US the film only pulled $429,028 in ticket sales which might seem strange seeing as it featured someone like Lloyd who was already a household name but at that point was a massive star thanks to the success of Back to the Future (1985) but again, it would appear that timing was not on Roeg’s side given the preferences of mainstream movie going audiences at the time. The film got some curious reviews, most notability from Roger Ebert who, despite giving the film a fairly positive review, claimed the film was “unlikable” and “bad-tempered, kinky and misogynistic” like many of Roeg’s films (in Ebert’s words). Seems to be another case of “misogynistic” being thrown around far to freely as the film could hardly be described as such but it is however a totally unhinged and unforgettable film with go-for-broke performances and a balanced mix of seriousness and frivolity. One of Roeg’s most criminally underrated films and a film with “cult” appeal written all over it.



Monday, October 16, 2017

Doctor Glas (1968)

Its almost a guarantee that the work of an artist who’s ahead of their time won’t receive the attention and respect its due until years after. This is especially true as it relates to the work of Swedish actress turned director Mai Zetterling. Zetterling’s homeland of Sweden was at the forefront of cinema that transgressed and pushed censorship limits in terms of on screen sexuality, but before Vilgot Sjöman caused an uproar with his I am Curious films, Yellow (1967) and Blue (1968), and before the release of the sensational sex education films Language of Love (1969) and Love Play: That's How We Do It (1972) and the Christina Lindberg vehicles Exposed (1971), Anita: Swedish Nymphet (1973) and Wide Open (1974) just to name a few, Zetterling was already breaking taboos left and right, first with Loving Couples (1964) then with Night Games (1966), which sent many a moralist, most famously Shirley Temple, into a frenzy. It wasn’t until the 70’s when festivals dedicated to female directors began popping up did Zetterling’s films finally get their due, however it seems the recognition was short lived as Zetterling’s name still seems to be fairly low-key. Doctor Glas, Zetterling’s follow-up to Night Games and another unfortunately under the radar title, saw Zetterling take her fascination with sexually based neurosis to an even darker place resulting in one of Zetterling’s most challenging and perhaps greatest film.

Repulsed by her husband, Helga Gregorius, the wife of a reverend, makes a desperate plea to her physician Dr. Glas to lie about an illness to her husband in the hopes of it preventing him from taking advantage of, as Helga refers to it, his “marital rights”. Glas, who has long been harboring an obsession with Helga agrees, although the plan fails as Helga is back in his office soon after begging him to talk to her husband again. As Glas’ obsession with Helga intensifies, his grip on reality begins to slip as he becomes more desperate to aid Helga in the hopes of the two becoming lovers, eventually coming to the conclusion that the only way to help Helga is by murdering her husband.

Described by Zetterling as a story about “one man’s battle with himself”, Doctor Glas is a distressing and unusual psychological profile of a sexually frustrated sociopath. Although far from being a fast paced film, Zetterling nonetheless offers little to no breathing room in the sense that right from the opening credits Zetterling transports the audience into the fractured headspace of the titular character and stays there for the remainder of the film. Through voiceovers, Zetterling lets Glas’ disturbed thought process unfold and despite the character being completely unsympathetic, the film is always engrossing in the way Zetterling lets the evolution of Glas’ God complex unfold. The film is also one of Zetterling’s most visually accomplished and inventive with Zetterling crossing over into surreal territory several times via the use of deliberately out of focus imagery and morbid hallucinations representing just how rapid Glas’ grasp on the real world is slipping. Quite often these scenes employ quick cutting techniques and resemble the type of cut-aways Alain Robbe-Grillet would later utilize. Although short, the imagery in these scenes are rather unnerving and at times religious in nature which is another component of the film. Zetterling is none too subtle in her attacks on religious and moral hypocrisy. The most obvious example would be the character of the reverend but more interesting is Glas’ own hypocrisy in his deciding that he must kill the reverend while simultaneously refusing to perform abortions on several of his patients with his reasoning being his profession’s dedication to preserving life.

The film was based on a 1905 novel by Hjalmar Söderberg. In her autobiography All Those Tomorrows, Zetterling writes about immediately being attracted to the material with one passage from the book winning her over, “Why does one hate another human being? People who hate each other usually believe there are such big differences between them. But this isn’t so at all. Rather the opposite - they are so very much alike, always wanting the same thing. A bull hates another bull. He never hates a cockerel.” The film was scheduled to compete in the 1968 Cannes Film Festival however the festival was cancelled as a result of the student riots taking place so how the film would have been received remains a mystery. The film did make it to theaters in the States although it seemed to disappear almost as a fast as it was released. Doctor Glas was also released the same year as Zetterling’s take on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, The Girls (1968). While The Girls has gone on to become one of Zetterling’s most celebrated titles amongst those who know her films, Doctor Glas remains one of Zetterling’s more elusive films, even with some kind words written about it from longtime Zetterling admirer John Waters. Doctor Glas is an essential film for those interested in Zetterling’s work and especially for those who prefer to traverse the darker realms of human psychosexuality.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Night Games (1966)

History has a funny way of determining what films that were controversial upon their initial release retain their notoriety while others are left to linger in obscurity. The case of Mai Zetterling’s Night Games, easily one of the most controversial films of its day, is particularly perplexing. Zetterling was no stranger to causing a stir, with an early documentary for the BBC on her homeland of Sweden had some of her fellow Swedes branding her a traitor and her first narrative feature Loving Couples (1964) ran into some issues at Cannes, but the furor Zetterling caused with Night Games, the second feature for the actress turned director, trumped her past issues. Based on a novel written by Zetterling and her then husband David Hughes, the films troubles began at the Venice International Film Festival where the police closed the theatre where the film was to be screened to the public. When the film made it overseas to the San Francisco Film Festival, it so outraged Shirley Temple she quit her position on the festivals board of directors when her fellow board members refused the ban the film. For a film with such a checkered history, Night Games seems to have been tucked away in the footnotes which is a travesty as it’s a film that proves Zetterling with a force to be reckoned with when it came to material that challenged and transgressed.

Shortly before his wedding, Jan and his fiancée Mariana return to the mansion where Jan spent his childhood. Almost immediately after returning, Jan is overcome with memories of his troubled past involving his distant mother Irene (Ingrid Thulin), memories which have stunted him emotionally as well as intimately with Mariana which threaten their future together. With Mariana’s help, Jan begins to confront his past head on in an attempt to finally free him from the hold his memories of his mother and the house have on him.

Zetterling and Huges' novel on which
the film is based.
Clearly subtlety wasn’t in the cards for Zetterling when filming Night Games (Nattlek). Cutting back and forth between the past and present, Zetterling presents a somber, at times funny and quite often bizarre study of negative nostalgia. Zetterling’s approach to Jan’s neurosis is interesting in that she essentially plays devil’s advocate by characterizing the older Jan as somewhat stunted who desperately needs to let go of the past for his own good, yet Zetterling also understands the powerful grip the past can hold on some and given Jan’s upbringing, his current mindset is also understandable. It becomes obvious from the get go that the main source of Jan’s torments was and still is his mother Irene, who’s relationship with Jan ran the gamut from smothering (which culminates in a scene that’s still liable to stun even the most jaded viewers into uncomfortable silence) to cold and distant. Zetterling wisely leaves Irene a bit of a mystery, although its clear that her lifestyle is a means of masking her own insecurities. The Bergman comparisons are inevitable considering Zetterling’s psychological approach but the film is also comparable to the likes of Fellini and even pre dates Ken Russell’s sense of grotesque flamboyance with Irene’s wild sex parties featuring such scenes as Thulin giving birth to a stillborn child to a group of onlookers that includes a full band, with one member who’s instrument is his nose and a couple projecting their own homemade sex film in front of a cheering audience. Again, not exactly subtle.

In her autobiography All Those Tomorrows, Zetterling recalls the furor over film, claiming she became the center of attention in Venice for all the wrong reasons. Zetterling even admitted to asking herself if she had gone to far and intentionally set out to make a sensational film. Even a blurb in the Venice Festival program stating her intentions with the film did little to quell the oncoming media storm. She wasn’t without her sense of humor though. When asked at the Venice press conference about only allowing festival judges and the press to see the film, Zetterling remarked “I’m still not sure whether this means that the press are incorruptible or that they are already totally corrupted.” Again, given the films reputation its strange that it has more or less disappeared although one high profile fan has championed the film over the years. In his 1986 book Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters, the legendary filmmaker stated that for the longest time Night Games was his favorite film. Waters even programmed a screening of the film as part of his “Films I’d Wish I’d Made” series. Ever with Waters’ support, Night Games, and most of Zetterling’s directorial output still seem to fly under the radar when the film is more than deserving to be restored to its rightful place as an essential title from one of European cinema’s greatest and more undervalued troublemakers.

Monday, September 18, 2017

The Blue Villa (1995)

AKA Un bruit qui rend fou (The Noise That Drives One Mad)

One of the most interesting things regarding both the literary and cinematic careers of Alain Robbe-Grillet is the timeline of said careers. Prior to becoming the face of the nouvelle roman or “new novel” movement, Robbe-Grillet already had a number of prior occupations behind him, perhaps most fascinatingly working as an agronomist specializing in the diseases of tropical fruit trees of all things. Its important to note that Robbe-Grillet’s first novel The Erasers wasn’t published until Robbe-Grillet was 31 and he was 41 by the time he directed his first film L’Immortelle (1963). From 1963 to 2006, Robbe-Grillet directed only 9 features and for the most part his time behind the camera could be labeled sporadic given the extended gaps in-between films, with his most productive time as a director being the 60’s to the early 70’s. Following Eden and After (1970), Robbe-Grillet took a four year absence from film before returning with Successive Slidings of Pleasure (1974) and the next year with Playing With Fire (1975) before taking another lengthy sabbatical. After the publication of 4 novels over the span of 8 years, Robbe-Grillet retuned to film with La belle captive (1983) before taking his longest cinematic vacation yet, returning to the screen 12 years later in 1995 with The Blue Villa, one of his most elusive films and one that perfectly captures Robbe-Grillet transporting his nouvelle vague writing style to film.

A mysterious sailor known only as Frank (Fred Ward) drops anchor on a small Mediterranean island. According to local legend, Frank is the spirit of a murderer who was killed as sea during a storm while fleeing the island after killing his fiancée and has returned to the scene of his crime on its anniversary. Frank’s supposed victim was Santa, the step-daughter of Edouard Nordmann, a resident of the island who was known to hate his step-daughter. When the island’s chief police inspector learns of Frank’s “return”, he re-opens the case and informs Nordmann, although unbeknownst to Nordmann, Santa is very much alive, held up in a local brothel known as The Blue Villa. With talk and sightings of Frank everywhere, Nordmann becomes increasingly paranoid as he finds himself relentlessly perused by vengeful phantoms, phantoms that may or may not be of his own creation.

Although refereeing to a Robbe-Grillet film as open to interpretation is beyond redundant, The Blue Villa is nonetheless an intricate puzzle, one who’s pieces don’t quite fit where they should and whose resolution manages to be even more mystifying then the unraveling of clues throughout the film. Despite the films cryptically beautiful final image making little sense from a logical standpoint, it matters very little as the film is a classic case of journey rather than destination and ultimately makes perfect sense to those who view the film with the same mindset Robbe-Grillet and co-director Dimitri de Clercq crafted the film with. This is a film made up of questions that lead to more questions. Chief among them being the issue of whether or not Frank is actually a ghost. The same could be asked of Santa, who despite appearing to be alive and well in the titular bordello could also be seen as a sort of specter once Nordmann’s paranoia begins increasing. This leads to yet more questions, like was there ever a murder in the first place and just what does the mysterious Madame of the Blue Villa have to do with anything? In typical Robbe-Grillet fashion, the questions are posed in a playful manner and the film could be compared to Trans-Europ-Express (1967) and Playing With Fire in that its suggested that everything is being made up on the spot, with several characters breaking the fourth wall and addressing the camera, each adding their own little details to the story.

Along with its plotline, one of the most mysterious aspects regarding The Blue Villa is its release history with the film essentially disappearing after its showing at the Berlin International Film Festival and a broadcast on European television which was thankfully recorded and seems to be the source of most available copies of the film. The film was missing from the BFI’s six film Robbe-Grillet box set featuring L’Immortelle, Trans-Europ-Express, The Man Who Lies (1968), Eden and After along with its alternate edit N. Takes the Dice and Successive Slidings of Pleasure as well as Kino/Redemption’s line of Robbe-Grillet remasters featuring the same films. Along with Playing With Fire, The Blue Villa is the only other Robbe-Grillet film that’s yet to see an official, English friendly release. Following The Blue Villa, Robbe-Grillet would take his longest sabbatical from film yet, returning 11 years later with what would become his final film Gradiva (2006). In-between The Blue Villa and Gradiva however, Robbe-Grillet made another comeback of sorts in 2001 with the publication of Repetition, his fist novel since 1981’s Djinn. 2001 also saw the publication of Le voyageur, essais et entretiens, a collection of essays. Although The Blue Villa may prove somewhat tricky for some to track down, Robbe-Grillet enthusiasts who’ve yet to see will find plenty to love as the film’s multifaceted, hall of mirrors narrative is quintessential Robbe-Grillet in construction and execution.



Monday, September 4, 2017

Playing With Fire (1975)

An endless source of fascination relating to cinema is how changes in the cultural zeitgeist over the years have determined how certain films and filmmakers are looked upon. This is especially true as it relates to terms such as “exploitation”, “arthouse”, “grindhouse”, “cult film” and so on and so fourth, with films that in decades past would have been considered somewhat mainstream and commercial are now seen as niche. Case in point, the films of Alain Robbe-Grillet. While Robbe-Grillet’s films were always going to be somewhat of an acquired taste, Robbe-Grillet, along with the likes of Jess Franco, Walerian Borowczyk, Jean Rollin, José Ramón Larraz and José Bénazéraf nonetheless belonged to an era where films that fall under the umbrella term “Euro cult” could not just turn a decent profit but also shatter the lines between many of the aforementioned terms, alienating a fraction of audiences looking for one thing or another. Divisive as they may be, Robbe-Grillet’s films sold tickets, not to mention earned their share of notoriety, namely the scandalous S&M of Trans-Europ-Express (1967) and the condemnation of Successive Slidings of Pleasure (1974) by the Vatican. The mid-70’s proved to be one of Robbe-Grillet’s most commercially viable periods and he would follow up Successive Slidings of Pleasure with Playing With Fire, another film with the potential to reach a wide audience as well as divide a significant portion of said audience.

Wealthy banker Georges de Saxe receives a letter informing him that his daughter Carolina (Anicée Alvina) has been kidnapped along with instructions to deliver a large payment in exchange for Carolina's safe return. The problem is Carolina hasn’t been kidnapped, she’s safe at home. Fearing that the letter might be a trial run for an actual kidnapping, Georges demands Carolina go into hiding just as a precautionary measure. With the help of Franz (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a detective of sorts, Carolina is placed in a brothel where wealthy clients indulge in sadomasochistic fantasies while Georges, despite knowing full-well that Carolina is safe, agrees to go forward with delivering the ransom to a shady network of human traffickers, making an already strange scenario all the more bizarre.

Fusing the narrative deconstruction techniques of Trans-Europ-Express with the sadosurrealistic fantasy worlds of Eden and After (1970) and Successive Slidings of Pleasure, Playing with Fire (Le jeu avec le feu), as the title suggests, finds Robbe-Grillet at his most playful, with a good portion of the film feeling like Robbe-Grillet is playing a deliberate joke on both his characters and the audience. While not as explicit as Trans-Europ-Express in terms of having the film play out on the spot with characters writing out the film as it progresses, that idea is certainly hinted at throughout Playing With Fire, with multiple instances of characters breaking the fourth wall and addressing the camera as well as numerous references to a “script”. At one point Robbe-Grillet even pokes a little fun at himself by having Trintignant quip “I didn’t understand the script all, but that’s that.” Its an understandable mindset as very little makes sense in Robbe-Grillet’s perverse playground, be it a kidnapping that never happened or perhaps may happen in the future, characters shifting allegiances or a house of pleasure where the waking and dream world collide, yet the strength of the film lies in its playfulness, where its fun to both try and put the pieces of the puzzle together while simultaneously getting lost in the absurdity of it all. Of course its difficult to not get lost in the dream world Robbe-Grillet creates on the inside of Carolina’s safe house, who’s various rooms of pleasure feature some of Robbe-Grillet’s most striking sadoerotic tableaux.

Playing Wire Fire was the second Robbe-Grillet film to feature Anicée Alvina following Alvina’s now iconic starring role in Successive Slidings of Pleasure. Robbe-Grillet always had nothing but praise for Alvina, stating how well she took direction, specifically singling out the scene in Successive Slidings of Pleasure where Alvina recreates a Yves Klein Anthropométries, a scene which for timing reasons had to be done in one single take which was achieved with ease thanks to Alvina. Robbe-Grillet even attributed the success of Successive Slidings of Pleasure to her. A fascinating character herself, Robbe-Grillet remarked that Alvina would only read comic books and humorously recalled an instance where her mother hoped that the film wouldn’t offend her modesty, or what little she had. Alvina also had a career as a singer and for a time fronted the quirky French New Wave/post-punk band Ici Paris. Alvina sadly died in 2006 of lung cancer, however her daughter Azadée now fronts Ici Paris. While the role of Carolina is considerably less mysterious than that of Alvina’s unnamed sorceress in Successive Slidings of Pleasure, Alvina still brings a doe-eyed innocence to Carolina which goes well with Alvina’s inhibited mischievousness. In terms of writing as well as visually speaking, Playing With Fire is classic Robbe-Grillet and a must see and as inaccessible at it may seem from a distance, wouldn’t be a bad place to start for the uninitiated.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Jealousy (1999)

One of the attributes of a true auteur is the ability to continually explore similar subject matter with each new film looking at it from a different angle and never having one film come across as a rehash of another. Vicente Aranda was one such auteur who fit that description. Although Aranda already had a number of favorite topics, most notably those of a sociopolitical nature, one of the most interesting things regarding Aranda’s career is his discovering of perhaps his favorite, and certainly most successful from a strictly economic standpoint, muse 27 years into his directorial career. Despite the sometimes dubious nature of Wikipedia, Aranda’s entry sums it up in a nutshell with “Love as uncontrollable passion, eroticism and cruelty are constant themes in his filmography. The frank examination of sexuality is one of the trademarks of his work, as seen in his most internationally successful film Amantes (1991).” Amantes was the start of a string of erotically charged psychodramas and thrillers which included the likes of Intruso (1993), The Turkish Passion (1994) and The Naked Eye (1998), all of which put under a microscope just how fragile humans truly are when it comes to sex, romantic relationships (specifically relationships that develop into love triangles) and especially jealously, the last of which gave Aranda’s 1999 film its name, yet another variation, and perhaps the most intense one yet, of Aranda’s favorite themes.

One month before his wedding, trucker Antonio discovers an old photograph of his fiancée Carmen with another mans arm wrapped around her shoulder which instantly triggers Antonio’s jealousy. When asked about the man in the photo, Carmen simply brushes it off, claiming he was an old friend and it was taken a long time ago. Antonio however isn’t satisfied and begins asking around, eventually discovering the name of the man, José. After the marriage, Carmen’s hopes of Antonio’s insistent pestering her about the photo are dashed when his obsession with José becomes not simply worse but all consuming. With Antonio’s envy at a fever pitch, Carmen is forced to admit the truth and confront a painful past she’d had hoped stayed buried with potentially fatal consequences.

In a way Jealousy (Celos) could be seen as the third film in a trilogy of sorts with Amantes and Intruso given that a third individual interrupts the (for all intensive purposes) happy lives of two, however the film plays out more like a spiritual sequel to The Turkish Passion, which dealt with female jealousy and the irrational behavior that can arise as a result. With Jealousy, Aranda reverses the sexes and the results are nothing short of mental. Like Aranda’s other films that follow a similar trajectory, Jealousy works on a variety of levels, be it a psychological drama or an erotic psych thriller. Out of all of Aranda’s similarly themed films, its Jealousy that takes the thriller route the most with the obvious reason being the increasingly irrational behavior of Antonio, but the film is far from one note in that regard with the film gradually turning into a mystery as the more Antonio asks around about José, the more questions arise about Carmen’s tainted past and the mystery of just who is José and what was the nature of he and Carmen’s relationship. Aranda slowly puts the pieces of Carmen’s past together and when more is revealed the film also becomes somewhat of a crime story, another element which places it alongside the likes of Amantes and The Turkish Passion. Aranda brilliantly brings everything to a boiling point leading up to an absolutely jaw-dropping, rain soaked finale that is almost Takashi Ishii-esque in its visceral, unexpected impact and visual design.

When Jealousy played the festival circuit some not very bright critics labeled the film misogynist with one particularly idiotic review from Time Out claiming the film portrayed women as “sex-obsessed primitivists”. Clearly whoever wrote that must have only been paying attention during the scenes where the two main women characters discuss sex as “primitive” is the last word that springs to mind when discussing the character of Carmen thanks to Aitana Sánchez-Gijón who gives an incredibly nuanced performance of a woman clearly eaten up with her own conflicted views of the combustible situation she suddenly finds herself in. As far as the cries of misogyny go, the last thing Aranda portrays the men in the film as is sympathetic, with Antonio’s behavior being downright psychotic and his fellow trucker friend Louis having jealousy issues of his own, stating at one point in the film how he’d like to lock Carmen’s friend Cinta away in a room so no other man would touch her. Aranda also wisely avoids any cliché “battle of the sexes” type of scenarios as well with Antonio clearly going far beyond the point of unreasonable and Carmen’s lack of honesty not helping matters. In Aranda’s view, nobody wins. Although it may have been hyper dramatized for the sake of film, the general idea that Aranda puts forth is far from unrealistic, ultimately making Jealousy one of his most frightening films.



Monday, August 7, 2017

The Turkish Passion (1994)

John Carpenter was once quoted as saying “In France, I’m an auteur. In Germany, I’m a film-maker. In the UK, I’m a horror-director. In the US, I’m a bum.” Sadly its something that could have been said by a number of filmmakers. Its always interesting seeing how the work of certain directors is received internationally when compared to their home country and especially the US. Vicente Aranda is a particularly interesting case. One of the biggest names in Spanish cinema, Aranda stands out in that he was able to make films that were commercially successful, even winning several awards, while never compromising his personal artistry. The most famous example, Amantes (1991), which gave Aranda worldwide recognition, won the Goya Award for best picture and received multiple accolades at various festivals, yet in the States the film was regulated to select showings at specialty theaters. Aranda’s 1994 film The Turkish Passion is another film that was one of the most financially successful Spanish films of its release year but hypothetically speaking, had it gotten a release in America, chances are that its lurid plot may have sold tickets but it probably wouldn’t have been taken artistically seriously considering how dense most critics are. Hypothetics aside, what’s certain about The Turkish Passion is that its one of Aranda’s most psychologically fascinating and steamiest treatments on the all-consuming obsession the idea of love can lead to.

While vacationing in Istanbul, Desideria, a married but unfulfilled woman begins an intense affair with Yaman, her Turkish tour guide. Upon returning to Spain, Desideria discovers she is pregnant and there’s no question, the baby belongs to Yaman. Much to the chagrin of her husband, Desideria goes through with the pregnancy although the baby dies soon after birth. Feeling completely lost, Desideria makes the drastic decision to leave Spain and return to Yaman in Turkey. Not long after arriving back in Turkey, Desideria tracks down Yaman and the two rekindle their fiery romance and for a time, Desideria finally feels happy, that is until she discovers Yaman’s playboy ways and shady business practices. Furious at first, Desideria’s love for Yaman is too strong and she eventually resigns herself to fulfilling all his demands, that is until her jealousy of his other lovers gets the better of her.

Aranda’s most psychologically ambitious work at the time, The Turkish Passion (La pasión turca) is the logical successor to films like Amantes and Intruso (1993), seeing Aranda expand upon ideas found in both films and taking them into new, sordid territories. While jealousy clearly factored into the love triangles found in both Amantes and Intruso, ultimately it was one piece of a much larger puzzle. With The Turkish Passion, Aranda places it front and center while eschewing the love triangle aspect of the previous films, choosing instead to focus on the jealousy of one individual. The entirety of the film finds Aranda pondering the question of just how far would one go for love. The more the film moves forward however, the question changes and becomes how far would one degrade themselves under the false pretenses of love once it becomes clear just how far down the rabbit hole of obsession Desideria has fallen. This in turn allows Aranda to showcase his ability to seamlessly cross-pollinate genres, with the film being first and foremost a psychological study that gradually becomes somewhat of a thriller near the third act, which finds Desideria potentially in physical danger to go along with her increasing mental duress, adding an entirely new and at times uncomfortable dimension to the psychology of both the film and more importantly, Desideria herself. The film also tells an equally compelling story visually with Aranda brilliantly juxtaposing the naturally radiant and exotic beauty of Turkey with the increasingly darker moods of the film.

Antonio Gala's novel.

The film was based on a highly successful 1993 novel by Spanish writer Antonio Gala, a decision Aranda admitted was made in hopes of having another Amantes-esque hit after his previous two films The Bilingual Lover (1993) and Intruso weren’t quite as successful. The casting of singing star Ana Belén didn’t hurt either. Gala and Aranda butted heads almost immediately regarding the script. Aranda recalled in a 2006 interview “When Gala read the script he said that it was like a tree without leaves. That did stick to my mind, because to think that a telegram has leaves is asking for too much, and a film script is like that.” The two also vehemently disagreed on the ending of the film which was drastically different than the book with Aranda saying “I argued that what it seemed to me indispensable, as thesis of the film, was that passion can destroy but it cannot be denied, and my solution eventually prevailed. I filmed two different endings and after several screenings, the producer decided to leave the one I had proposed.” The Turkish Passion sticks out in Aranda’s filmograpgy as again, its yet another example of Aranda’s ability to make a commercially successful film while still retaining a transgressive edge and would prove to be a stepping stone for future films like The Naked Eye (1998) and Jealousy (1999). A crucial and essential Aranda title.



Monday, July 24, 2017

Intruso (1993)

World cinema was dealt a major blow with the passing of Vicente Aranda in May of 2015. One of the biggest names in Spanish cinema and one of the founders of the Barcelona School of Film, Aranda’s name was well respected amongst fans of European horror thanks in no small part to Aranda’s legendary The Blood Splattered Bride (1972), based on Le Fanu’s Carmilla. Prior to Blood Splattered, Aranda had proven to have a knack for unusual genre based material as evidenced by The Exquisite Cadaver (1969), a film which seems like a trial run for Blood Splattered in parts, as well as the futuristic, avant-garde classic Fata Morgana (1965). Aranda’s stock continued to rise in Spain throughout the 70’s and 80’s with a variety of post-Franco regime transgressive films, one such title being the daring Sex Change (1976), which began his long and fruitful collaboration with actress Victoria Abril. Aranda hit pay dirt in the early 90’s with Amantes (1991), which found massive success in Spain and abroad at various festival worldwide, winning various awards including the Goya (Spanish Oscar) for best picture and best director. The 90’s would prove to be Aranda’s greatest period. Aranda followed Amantes with a series of fierce variations on a theme with 1993’s Intruso being one of Aranda’s finest, not to mention exceptionally grim treatments on the obsessions that would come to define Aranda's post-Amantes work.

While sitting in traffic, Louisa, a happily married mother of two, suddenly catches a glimpse of her former husband Ángel appearing sick, homeless and desperate. During their childhood, Louisa and Ángel, along with Louisa current husband Ramiro, were known collectively as “The Inseparables”, with Louisa and Ángel eventually marrying. The marriage however was short lived, and following the divorce Louisa married Ramiro and started a family. After seeing Ángel in such a sad state, Louisa is overcome with remorse and takes Ángel in to live with her and her family, reuniting “The Inseparables”. Ramiro isn’t exactly thrilled to see his old friend, and it soon becomes apparent that Ángel has been harboring years of resentment towards Ramiro. Further complicating matters are Louisa’s returning romantic feelings for Ángel and the discovery of a terminal illness eating away at Ángel, all which threaten to bring a fatal end to the “Inseparables” reunion.

Intruso (Intruder) is often considered an inferior cousin to Amantes to due both films centering around a tragic love triangle, however Intruso takes matters a bit further and into much darker territories with the inclusion of a family unit and having the lives of children affected by the central love triangle. Given the love triangle aspect, the film is naturally lurid in parts and the film works well as a thriller due in part to Ángel’s jealously and hostility towards Ramiro increasing throughout the film as his disease makes him more desperate, but Aranda is much more interested in the psychological effects of all three involved and it’s the psychological examination which eventually reveals Louisa as the films true central character. As Ángel’s illness progresses, so does Louisa’s guilt about Ángel’s current situation as she feels somewhat responsible having left him years before. While her romantic love for Ángel returns, she still has the same feelings for Ramiro and her children, ultimately making the ill-fated “Inseparables” reunion ruin her mentally as much as Ángel’s disease is killing him physically, which is represented brilliantly by Victoria Abril in the role of Louisa who’s emotional turmoil finally boils over late in the film in an explosive fit of histrionics made all the more affecting as her children are witnessing everything first hand. The kids play a major part in the film and although certain scenes featuring the two give the film some light, the film was appropriately destined to be a cold and downbeat affair.

Intruso was the ninth collaboration between Aranda and Victoria Abril who’s artistic partnership began again with Sex Change and would continue with Girl With the Golden Panties (1980), Asesinato en el Comité Central (1982), a 1985 episode of the anthology TV series La huella del crimen, Tiempo de silencio (1986), El Lute: Run For Your Life (1987), If They Tell You I Fell (1989), the mini-series Riders of the Dawn (1990), Amantes, Libertarias (1996) and The Maiden’s Conspiracy (2006). Intruso features some of Abril’s finest work and while she was nominated for best actress by Fotogramas de Plata, her performance in Intruso largely seems to stay in the shadow of her award winning performance in Amantes. Intruso was also nominated for several Goya awards however Aranda wasn’t as lucky as he was with Amantes. Its also interesting to note that much like Amantes was based on an true crime story that took place in 1950’s Spain, Intruso is also supposedly based on actual events that happened in Spain in 1916 but details on that are incredibly sparse. Perhaps due to the massive success of Amantes, it would seem almost inevitable that a similar film like Intruso would be looked upon as a lesser film when that couldn’t be further from the truth. Intruso is in fact one of Aranda’s masterworks, a deeply unsettling film that casts a haunting shadow long after its over.

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Exquisite Cadaver (1969)

AKA Las crueles (The Cruel Ones)

The 1960’s saw the birth of many new worldwide film “movements”, the effects of which changed the way films are conceived, shot and eventually analyzed. Clearly the biggest of these movements was the French New Wave or “Nouvelle Vague”, with filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette and Claude Chabrol who changed the game in the way of technique and storytelling, shooting on low budgets, often utilizing handheld camera work and featuring narratives that never spoon-fed audiences explanations. America also experienced a “new wave” of sorts with the so called “New Hollywood” years with benchmark films including Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Easy Rider (1969). Not to be left out, Spain also had a radical film movement of its own when a group of young Catalan filmmakers formed a collective known as the “Barcelona School of Film”. One of, if not the leader of the group was Vicente Aranda, who’s second film Fata Morgana (1965) is seen as calling card film for the philosophy behind the Barcelona School of Film, eloquently defined by its Wikipedia page as being “concerned with the disruption of daily life by the unexpected”. Aranda’s follow-up to Fata Morgana, The Exquisite Cadaver, certainly fits that description and would prove to be yet another defining film for the BSOF and a film that would set in motion the obsessions that Aranda would return to numerous times throughout his career.

After receiving a package containing a human hand, Carlos, a hotshot publisher quickly discards it by burying it, however when he returns home his wife (Teresa Gimpera) reads him a telegram cryptically asking if he's interested in a forearm, attributed only to "Parker". The following day, another package arrives at Carlos' office and again he discards it by leaving it in the street although it finds its way to Carlos' home, its contents including a dress once belonging to Carlos' mistress Esther who committed suicide years earlier. Carlos is soon approached by a mysterious woman (Capucine) and after accompanying her to her home, she reveals herself not only to be Parker, but also Esther's former lover and blames Carlos for her death. While wandering through Parker's house in a drug-induced haze, Carlos' discovers Esther's body in the refrigerator. Not believing his story, Carlos' wife pays Parker a visit herself and learns the tragic truth about Esther as well as the packages being sent to Carlos.  

Unquestionably concerned with the unexpected disruption of daily life, The Exquisite Cadaver is an unusual, downbeat and much more challenging film than Aranda’s more celebrated horror title The Blood Splattered Bride (1972). While not as abstract as Fata Morgana, bits of the surrealism from that film feature prominently in The Exquisite Cadaver, both visually and in the way of storytelling. Having Carlos’ first encounter with Parker happen under the influences of drugs allows Aranda to toy around with various perceptions of reality, be they Carlos’, his wife or the audience. Aranda also tells the majority of the story via flashback, from Carlos’ point of view telling his and Esther’s story to his wife and later Parker telling her tale of Esther to Carlos’s wife which finds Aranda manipulating the timeline of events somewhat which again makes the line between truth and lies difficult to decipher. Of course what’s eventually revealed to be the truth along the way only takes the film in even more fascinating and ultimately somber directions. Although the film is much more subtle than The Blood Splattered Bride in its presentation of the battle of the sexes, Aranda is definitely taking the ideas he would eventually explore in that film for a trial run here with the attitude of Parker essentially mirroring that of Mircalla Karstein in The Blood Splattered Bride. The film also sees the earliest examples of the themes of obsessive love leading to dangerous and tragic behavior which Aranda would center several films around in the 90’s.

The films title gives it another connection to surrealism with the phrase “exquisite cadaver”, more commonly refereed to as “exquisite corpse” and sometimes “rotating corpse” being a random assembly of words and or images conceived by the founding surrealists as a game, the name was born out of the phrase “The exquisite corpse shall drink the new wine” which is what resulted when game was first played. Based on a short story by Gonzalo Suárez called “Dancing For Parker” found in his book Thirteen Times Thirteen, the film was envisioned as having more commercial appeal than Aranda’s previous films and eventually received backing from American producers, however Aranda would later lose the rights to film for years following legal issues and there were at least five variations on the script before production even began. What’s more, Aranda based some of the script off the letters of Mariana Alcoforado, the famous Portuguese nun, purported to be the author of, of course, Letters of a Portuguese Nun. Given the legendary status of The Blood Splattered Bride amongst Euro horror fanatics, the lack of attention paid to The Exquisite Cadaver is a bit surprising. Readily available from Something Weird Video, the film is one of the most original in Spanish horror, not to mention featuring Teresa Gimpera at her most beautiful. Early as it may have came in Aranda’s career, The Exquisite Cadaver is nonetheless essential.



Monday, June 26, 2017

Fata Morgana (1965)

Although the surrealist movement would expand to numerous countries throughout the 1920’s, by and large France remained the epicenter of surrealism, attracting many an artist associated with the movement who would eventually come to be considered masters in the field. Several of the most well known were Spanish or of Hispanic origin and the Spanish/French crossover within the realm of surrealism can’t be overstated, especially in the world of film. Perhaps the most well known example would be Louis Buñuel with several French productions and co-productions to his name, including the highly influential Un Chien Andalou (1929) with Salvador Dalí, another Spaniard, L'Age d'Or (1930), Bell de jour (1967) and That Obscure Object of Desire (1977). Of course there was also the Panic Movement, the surrealist performance art collective founded by the Chilean born  Alejandro Jodorowsky along with Fernando Arrabal, future director of the surrealist classics Viva la muerte (1971) and I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse (1973), and Frenchman Roland Topor. In the mid 1960’s, a new film movement began in Spain known as the “Barcelona School of Film” and young filmmaker Vicenta Aranda, who would later hit Euro horror pay dirt with The Blood Splattered Bride (1972), and eventually secure many top honors for the brilliant Amantes (1991), delivered Fata Morgana, a benchmark film from the Barcelona School of Film mindset and one of the finest examples of Spanish surrealism.

In a nearly deserted Barcelona, Gim (Teresa Gimpera), a beautiful model decides to stay in the city despite mass evacuations and constant warnings from officials to leave. Despite claiming she feels “safe”, Gim soon receives an ominous warning from one of the few remaining residents that she will soon be murdered. The same warning is given by a professor during a lecture, the thesis being that murder victims are attracted to their killers. While Gim now fears for her life, a mysterious man is sent to traverse the city in a desperate bid to save Gim from her deadly fate as predicted by the professor.

Given the aforementioned connection between Spain and France when it comes to surrealism, its only fitting that despite being a Spanish film that defines a very Spanish film movement, Fata Morgana, or “Left-Handed Fate”, feels very much like a French film at times. Not so much Nouvelle Vague, more Nouvelle Roman in the vein of Alain Robbe-Grillet. While the film doesn’t contain the explicit fourth wall breaking found in Robbe-Grillet’s playful narrative deconstructions, there is a constant feeling of Aranda winking his eye at the audience, saying everything happening on screen is some sort of absurd game, the rules to which are being made up on the spot and could change in a instant. It can be a thoroughly confusing film at times considering that there’s very little set-up and the action just happens at random as if in a fever-dream yet the film begins to make sense after the fact once the meaning of the title “Left-Handed Fate” beings to sink in. The film also has somewhat of a futuristic sci-fi edge to it. While no explanation is given as to why there is a mass evacuation taking place, some sort of nuclear or chemical weapons disaster wouldn’t be a bad guess as in the films most unusual moment, a woman happens upon a man baring severe monster-esque mutations. This could also have been an anti-General Franco political statement on Aranda’s part. Turning Barcelona into a ghost town was a masterstroke on Aranda’s part with all the sparseness adding to the surreality.

Being a surrealist film there are naturally moments of absurdity and humor. Seeing Gimpera followed by an armored tank/bus type of vehicle while the unseen driver tries to chat her up via megaphone is quite the hilarious sight as is the stranger (a spy perhaps?) sent to save Gimpera meeting with the mysterious prophetic professor covered in gauze resembling the Invisible Man in an empty stadium. The film also contains one of the more unique murder weapons found in European genre cinema, a metallic fish with a retractable blade. What’s also interesting is how certain scenes seem to find Aranda, albeit perhaps not intentionally, predicting some of the imagery that would be found in his next feature, the criminally underrated The Exquisite Cadaver (1969), also starring Gimerpa. Equally fascinating is the origin of the name Fata Morgana, the Italian name of Morgan le Fey, the sister of King Arthur and ruler of Avalon who possess supernatural abilities. In the legends she was believed to have been the cause of mirages Strait of Messina. Fata Morgana is also the name of a 1971 Werner Herzog film depicting mirages in the Sahara desert. Fan’s of The Blood Splattered Bride who are unfamiliar with Aranda’s other work should make an effort to dive deeper into the world of one of Spain’s most fierce and fascinating filmmakers with Fata Morgana being an essential part of that world.



Monday, June 12, 2017

Tricked (2012)

Like most maverick auteurs, Paul Verhoeven’s name brings forth a variety of opinions from both fans and critics. Those who dismiss Verhoeven’s work often cite his predilection towards extremities, particularly in the sex and violence departments. While its true that Verhoeven is a master of excess, his films bear all the hallmarks of having their cake and eating it too. To fans, Verhoeven is one of cinema’s greatest satirists with the majority of his films featuring a biting, often sardonic sense of humor and with an anti-authoritarian political edge. Unfortunately, not everybody seems to get Verhoeven’s brand of comedy. Looking back, it seems miraculous that the satire of RoboCop (1987) was widely recognized as it seems to be the only one of Verhoeven’s films where the humor didn’t completely fly over the heads of dense critics. Despite the following that Showgirls (1995) has garnered, there still are those that can’t quite grasp the fierce satirical wit the film possesses and with Starship Troopers (1997), Verhoeven was amazingly accused of being the very thing the film was lampooning. After returning to Holland to helm Black Book (2006), Verhoven did something fascinating by turning to the public to find the material for his next project. The result of the experiment was the mini-film Tricked, which saw Verhoeven’s blackly comedic side come to the forefront for one of his most side-splitting and fun, albeit brief efforts.

During his 50th birthday party thrown by his wife, Remco, an unfaithful businessman gets quite the shock when his former mistress Nadja shows up at the party eight months pregnant. To make matters worse, Remco soon learns that his two business partners are attempting to buy him out of his shares of his company. Knowing Remco’s situation, Merel, the best friend of Remco’s daughter Lieke and also Remco’s current mistress, senses that something just isn’t right, and along with Remco’s son Tobias begins to investigate to uncover the truth about Remco’s troubles.

The elephant in the room in regards to Tricked (Steekspel) would be the fact that, again, it is technically a mini-film and with a brisk run time of only 55 minutes its inevitable that a feeling of what could have been had the film been an extra 25-30 minutes longer will arise. At the same time, for a 55 minute mini-film, Tricked is absolutely perfect and the most fun 55 minutes anyone can spend in front of a screen. While the film doesn’t feature any of the sociopolitical satire that Verhoeven is famous for, the films humor is nevertheless pure Verhoeven. The film is comparable to Showgirls in that the style of humor on display is incredibly barbed and more often than not is based on the characters behaving not so nicely to each other in the most hilarious of ways. Naturally, Remco is the butt of the majority of the films jokes, however nobody in spared and some of the films most laugh out loud moments are the jabs and insults hurled between the characters of Lieke and Tobias and Verhoeven also throws in a brilliant gross-out gag involving vomit and a floating bloody tampon which harkens back to Verhoeven’s Turkish Delight (1973) days. Along with all the laughs, Verhoeven of course makes time for somewhat of a mystery although it gets solved rather quickly which moves the film along quite nicely as part of the fun becomes wondering how certain characters will react to certain situations which leads to more hilarity.

One of the most fascinating things regarding Tricked is the way the film was crafted with the first three professionally written pages of the script posted online and the rest of the film constructed from submissions from the public, a process that Verhoeven admitted became much more complicated than originally anticipated. While speaking to the BBC, Verhoeven stated “There were some great ideas, but their main failing was that they had no idea of narrative structure. They didn’t know how to build to a crescendo, for everything to come to a head, so we could actually have an ending... Before we started this, I just imagined that I would get two or three scripts that would be outstanding, and myself and (co-writer Robert Thijm) would say, ‘okay, these are the best ideas and we’ll take this from script number two, and this from script number three’ – and half a day later we’ll be putting the finished material up online. Absolutely no way.  Not a chance. It took at least ten days each time to look at the material. It was a nightmare.” In the hands of a lesser director, taking such a chance could have ended in disaster but with a master like Verhoeven at the helm, Tricked ultimately became not just a successful experiment but a testament to Verhoeven’s drive to not become stagnant and a must watch for Verhoeven fans.



Monday, May 29, 2017

Black Book (2006)

Looking at Paul Verhoeven’s filmograpgy, its easy to separate his early Dutch period from his Hollywood era films, yet at the same time that would be doing his entire body of work a disservice. Granted it would probably seem odd to compare a film like Katie Tippel (1975) to RoboCop (1987), but the fact remains that an inspection of all of Verhoeven’s films reveals many reoccurring obsessions that bear the mark of a true auteur. For example, Verhoeven’s science fiction efforts feature strong anti-authoritarian attitudes as well as social satire, therefore it makes complete sense that the same director responsible for films like RoboCop and Starship Troopers (1997) would also be behind an over the top satire like Showgirls (1995). Despite the fact that clueless critics have labeled Verhoeven as a misogynist, strong willed female characters have been another constant in his work going all the way back to his debut feature Business is Business (1971) and would feature prominently in Katie Tippel, Basic Instinct (1992) and Showgirls. After making six films in Hollywood, Verhoeven began to feel, in his own words, “depressed with himself” following Hollow Man (2000). Seeking artistic inspiration, Verhoeven returned to Holland and relocated his muse in a big way with Black Book, a staggeringly brilliant WWII thriller that saw Verhoeven continue to expand upon his favorite motifs while still remaining fresh, resulting in one of his greatest films.

During the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), a Jewish woman in hiding is forced to flee after the home where she had been hiding is destroyed and her attempt to flee to liberated territory is ambushed by the Nazi’s. With no other option, Rachel joins the underground resistance. Given the alias Ellis de Vries, Rachel is tasked with bugging the Gestapo headquarters as well as seducing Captain Ludwig Müntze, the head of the Gestapo. Corruption amongst the Nazi’s is soon uncovered, however some miscommunication via wiretap has Rachel’s fellow resistance fighters mistake her for a traitor the same time her cover is blown by the Nazi’s. Complicating matters further, Rachel has fallen in love with Müntze for real and both find themselves with enemies from both sides.

“Gripping” is one choice adjective that tends to get plastered on the posters of many a thriller and Black Book (Zwartboek) is certainly a film that epitomizes the term. So much so that any film described as such had better be at least half as good as Black Book, an unrelenting and provocative film wrought with so much intrigue and suspense that its 2 hour and 26 minute running time flies by like nothing. Given the amount of tension and drama Verhoeven conjures up throughout the course of the film, Black Book is definitely  worthy of comparisons to some of Hitchcock’s wartime thrillers, with the twists and shifting allegiances happening right up until the films final half hour. The execution of course, is pure Verhoeven. Much like Flesh + Blood (1985), Verhoeven’s brutal medieval epic, nothing in Black Book is black and white. This is a film defined by its shades of gray, with there being no distinction between right and wrong, good or bad. This is applicable to both the Nazi’s and the resistance fighters which Verhoeven brilliantly uses to toy with the audiences sympathies. The film is also brazenly transgressive by having a Jewish woman fall in love with an SS officer, the development of their relationship making the film all the more captivating. The film is carried by the astonishing performance by Carice van Houten who, following a long line of Verhoeven female leads, is composed of cunning wit and fierce sexuality and determined to use both to her advantage.

At the time of its production, Black Book was the most expensive Dutch film ever made, a feat which Verhoeven knows something about having set the same record first with Katie Tippel and again with its follow up, Verhoeven’s first WWII themed film Solider of Orange (1977). The film would also go on to be one of the most commercially successful Dutch films, breaking box office records and in 2008 it was voted the greatest Dutch film of all time by the public, seven years after Verhoeven’s Turkish Delight (1973) was awarded that title at the 1999 Netherlands Film Festival. What’s also interesting about the film is that Verhoeven and screenwriter Gerard Soeteman, who also collaborated with Verhoeven on Turkish Delight and Solider of Orange, had been working on the script for at least 15 years before the film was green lit. Even more interesting was that the main character was originally male. Its a rare occurrence when so much praise is heaped upon a film that actually deserves it but Black Book is one such film. The response to the film is a testament to not only the Dutch public's good taste in film but also to the type of filmmaker Verhoeven is, going “back to his roots” so to speak, looking to be re-invigorated. It worked, as Black Book is a incredible film that easily stands alongside Verhoeven's earlier Dutch masterpieces.



Monday, May 15, 2017

Hollow Man (2000)

Despite the extended breaks he tends to take in between projects these days, Paul Verhoeven remains one of the most fierce and exciting directors still working today. Verhoeven has had one of the most fascinating careers imaginable, from causing a major stir in his homeland of Holland with the likes of Turkish Delight (1973), Spetters (1980) and The 4th Man (1983) to arriving in Hollywood and making even more noise with RoboCop (1987), Total Recall (1990), Basic Instinct (1992), Showgirls (1995) and Starship Troopers (1997). What’s incredible about Verhoeven’s move to America was he was able to make the transition without ever selling out, with each of his Hollywood productions having the same bite as his early Dutch films and some even causing the same amount of trouble, with Basic Instinct causing massive protests just as Spetters had done years before. Verhoeven’s American films also retained a subversive quality with the sociopolitical commentaries of RoboCop and Starship Troopers being widely recognized and the element of satire found in Showgirls managed to completely fly over the heads of critics during the films initial run. 2000’s Hollow Man is to date Verhoeven’s last American film and is very much the black sheep of the bunch. Dismissed by critics and even by Verhoeven himself after the fact, a closer look reveals Hollow Man to be a massively entertaining genre film with Verhoeven’s fingerprints all over it.

Sebastian Caine (Kevin Bacon), a brilliant and egomaniacal scientist along with his team have successfully managed to perfect a serum resulting in invisibility and reversion back to visibility. Although the experiment was a success on animals, it has yet to be tested on humans and against the wishes of his entire team, Sebastian volunteers himself to be the first human test subject. Amazingly, it works, and Sebastian is rendered completely invisible. The revision process however goes wrong and Sebastian is forced to stay out of sight. Confined to the lab, Sebastian’s newfound gift begins to affect his mentality and when his team, whom Sebastian’s resentment towards reaches a boiling point, goes to extreme lengths to keep him from leaving the lab, Sebastian snaps, trapping his colleagues in the underground lab and going on a murderous rampage.  

When compared to some of Verhoeven’s other sci-fi ventures, namely RoboCop and Starship Troopers, Hollow Man certainly sticks out on account of its lack of satire although in the films defense, it doesn’t seem that Verhoeven set out to lampoon anything with the film. While Hollow Man may lack Verhoeven’s trademark satirical wit, it more than makes up for it with its astonishing visual design and sheer visceral quality. Hollow Man is a very angry film, even mean spirited at times. Its certainty the nastiest take on an invisible man scenario. The film is essentially split into two halves with the first dealing with Sebastian becoming invisible and the toll it takes on his psyche. Critics have bemoaned that the film doesn’t go all that in-depth in asking the question of what would one do with the power in invisibility although thanks to the gleefully prickish performance from Bacon, who really sells Sebastian’s egotistical, eventually psychotic personality, there is just enough of that in the film so that the first half works as a great set up to when Sebastian finally loses it and the film really takes off and becomes a slasher. Verhoeven really shows what he’s made of behind the camera during the films third act, masterfully utilizing the confinement of the underground lab for maximum tension and knowing just when to let the jaw-dropping special effects come to the forefront, effects that still hold up wonderfully and show what’s possible with digital effects when used in a forward thinking manner.

In a classic case of an artist being their own worst critic, Verhoeven has voiced his disappointment with the film. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Verhoeven stated“I decided after Hollow Man, this is a movie, the first movie that I made that I thought I should not have made. It made money and this and that, but it really is not me anymore. I think many other people could have done that. I don't think many people could have made RoboCop that way, or either Starship Troopers. But Hollow Man, I thought there might have been 20 directors in Hollywood who could have done that.” With all due respect, not just any Hollywood hack would have approached the material the way Verhoeven did nor would just any director have given the film the edge it has or utilized the state of the art effects in the creative way Verhoeven did. The way contemporary American cinema works these days, Hollow Man feels like a product of an era long past. Its an adult minded popcorn flick with an attitude, a rare species indeed, and a film that modern Hollywood could lean a lot from in terms of how to properly use digital effects. Verhoeven may still hold ill will towards the film, however fans of the deviant Dutchman should find plenty of Verhoeven’s brand name excessiveness to enjoy in Hollow Man.